It was John Lydgate (followed by Abraham Lincoln and Bob Marley) who said something that all ministers must understand and take to heart: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Ministers are called to say and do hard things that will most certainly offend some of the people in the congregation among which they are called to minister. There are, however, two ditches that pastors must ever avoid in light of the truth of Lydgate’s statement. On the one hand, we can view this truth as a license to be unnecessarily offensive to congregants, or, on the other hand, we can use it to seek to sinfully please as many as possible. Ministers are not called to do either. Rather, ministers of the Gospel are called to be faithful to the One who entrusted a stewardship to them for the spiritual well-being of His people. There are three things that we need to keep in mind as we seek to be faithful in saying an doing hard things in ministry:

1. We Must Leave the Outcome of Ministry to the Lord. Most of us are prone to minister out of fear and so seek to please those in the congregation in order to keep the peace. When we do so, we are merely seeking to control the outcome of our ministry. This can be a form of self-preservation that has no place in Gospel ministry. The outcome is determined by the Lord. So often we are seeking to say things or do things that will make the congregation happy so that we will be happy rather than being happy in doing what is pleasing to the Lord. The Apostles modeled this in that they were willing to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel outside of the church, as well as being willing to be rejected by the very churches that they planted (2 Cor. 12:15).

We also witness this principle in the lives of the Old Testament saints. The writer to the Hebrews makes this plain when he notes that those who walked by faith (Heb. 11) experienced different outcomes of their lives of faith. Some “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens…received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured…had trial of mockings and scourgings…of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented…They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:33-38). 

2. We Must Hold Fast to Biblical Convictions. This is part and parcel of our desire to please the Lord rather than seeking to please men. While there are some decisions that ministers/elders must make that are pragmatic in nature, Gospel ministry is to be thoroughly shaped by Scripture. Again, the Apostles set the example of what this looks like in action. The preservation of the Gospel among the churches in Galatia was dependent on Paul embodying this principle. As he battled for the preservation of the truth of the grace of God in the Gospel, the Apostle explained, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). J. Gresham Machen once explained that the greatness of the Apostle Paul is seen in the fact that he was “a man who could say ‘no.’” Machen wrote:

“There is one word which every true Christian must learn to use. It is the word “not” or the word “no.” A Christian must certainly learn to say “no” in the field of conduct; there are some things that the world does, which he cannot do. But he must also learn to say “no” in the field of conviction. The world regards as foolishness the gospel upon which the Christian life is based, and the Christian who does not speak out against the denial of the gospel is certainly not faithful to his Lord. That is true with respect to the denials in the world at large, but it is even more obviously true of the denials within the visible church. There the obligation of bearing testimony, negatively as well as positively, is particularly strong…”1

3. We Must Seek Out Wisdom. It is possible for us to do the right thing in the wrong way. It is possible to do the right thing at the wrong time. We need wisdom to know when to say and do the hard things that we know and believe to be the right thing to say or do in ministry. The book of Proverbs teaches us the principles that we need to glean in order to become discerning about when and how to speak and act. It is not sufficient to say that we must not minister out of fear and that we must hold fast to biblical conviction. We need to go to the Lord and cry out for the wisdom that we lack in and of ourselves when we are facing various trials and challenges in ministry. We need to seek out the counsel of those who are older and wiser than us. We need to search the Scriptures diligently to learn what God will reveal to us about the way in which He worked in the lives of the godly and ungodly. We need to learn to discern the specific situation and people involved.

Ministry is often most difficult in the day in and day out interactions in the church. On account of the variety of challenges with which pastors and elders are met, great courage, conviction and wisdom is needed. There is a constant battle in which ministers are engaged in fighting against pastoring out of the fear of man or the fear of an outcome. When we lead out of fear, we will inevitably compromise our convictions and act in foolish self-preservation. As we trust the Lord for the outcome, seek to hold fast to biblical principles and seek the wisdom that we so often lack, we learn what it is to be faithful in saying and doing the hard things in ministry.

This post first appeared at Nick’s blog and is posted here with permission.

1. J. Gresham Machen Notes on Galatians (Birmingham, Al: Solid Ground Books, 2006) pp. 6-8