Ministry Trainees, Vicars, Vicars’ Wives, and the Radical Mind of Christ
It is now light at 7 a.m.. There are long days of blue skies and sunlight. The air is fragrant with blossoms and new love. Bitty carpets of bluebells cover Holland Park. Spring is here, and we’ve spent the last few months soaking in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 1:12 – 2:11)
The whole centre of Paul’s life is Christ. This means that:
- he is less concerned about the motive of rivals in preaching the gospel than he is about the good that comes from it – that Christ is proclaimed, and so he rejoices even in hypocritical preaching! His emotions are tied up not with his own reputation or the relative success of his competitors’ ministries, but with the advance of the gospel (the good news about Jesus Christ);
- every part of his existence – his life and his death, is devoted to the exaltation of Christ. He considers not himself (nor does he glory in his own self-denial) but what is best for the church, what is best for his brothers and sisters in Christ;
- the engine for such Christ-centred living is not Paul’s innate maturity but the object of his focus: the example of Christ, who himself was obedient to the Father, even to death on a cross; and
- he is confident this will please God because God exalted Christ for his obedience.
This mindset is one which all Christians should have, and must constantly be conscious to have. But church associates, ministry trainees, and vicars and their wives, are not automatically innoculated against the tendency to do otherwise.
What does it mean to live for God alone as someone in full-time paid ministry or as the wife of someone in such a job? On the back of the Rector having spoken to those of us who might find ourselves in the latter position, have been thinking through various scenarios, and The Minister’s Wife: privileges, pressures & pitfalls by Ann Benton and friends has been a useful companion.
Pride, perfectionism, people-pleasing, comparison are common pitfalls, she says. Sinfulness would be manifested by us not being driven by love of the Lord and his glory or care for his people, but by our reputation and wanting Our Ministry (or, in the case of ministry wives, their husband’s ministry) to be the most successful and acclaimed.
Some possible scenarios:
- where there is personal injustice: has gossip, slander, sabotage, misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) of your motives, or the sheer sinful one-upmanship of others, led to damage both to your reputation and your ministry? There is right indignation at the injustice of it all, of course. But perhaps we take it even more badly because our pride has been hurt – we are more concerned about how other people view us, than how the all-seeing all-knowing God sees us. So we seethe with resentment, anger, jealousy, discontentment. We want people to be well-disposed towards us, otherwise we are full of self-pity. Ruth Shaw gives good advice:
- even if they have not repented, react in a Christ-like manner – in view of God’s mercy, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, live at peace with everyone if possible (Romans 12:1);
- take time to work through these issues. There is a danger in the sort of spiritualised denial that pretends the problem doesn’t exist. Yes, it hurts and yes, relationships are broken – the grief and loss take time to come to terms with. See Psalm 55-57;
- recognise where wrong has been done and call it “wrong”. Write down the issues and what the Bible has to say about them. Then scrap the list because God tells us not to keep a record of wrongs;
- trust God with justice and mercy, as Jesus himself did when treated unjustly by others (1 Peter 2:23);
- repent of anger, bitterness, and resentment in your own heart: “in my heart unresolved anger often replays the tape of others’ wrongdoing over and over again, and it begins to cultivate seeds of resentment that can grow into bitterness, which often bears fruit in my thoughts and my actions as slander or even revenge. I just can’t keep that sense of outrage to myself, so I make others pay with their reputation, or else I avoid them and give them the silent treatment. Hebrews 12:15 challenges me to beware of the roots of bitterness that can cause so much harm.”;
- pray for those who have wronged us. Wanting vindication is natural, and life can seem harsh and unfair… until we have see it in right humility in the light of the cross.
- where there is non-personal injustice: “So-and-so is such a hypocrite: he is such a smooth-talker but secretly manipulates people for his own ends; she is all pal-ly with people at church, exaggerating the pleasure of seeing them and praising outrageously, but then bitching about them behind their back. If people knew what he/she was really like, they wouldn’t keep going on about what a wonderful godly staffworker he/she is.” See above.
- where there is not only failure to appreciate the work we are doing, but also rampant ingratitude, and constant criticism. Days and hours are spent working on the sermon or Bible study, much energy is spent ministering to the new Christian, encouraging the mature Christian, counselling the weak and weary, dealing with the admin, putting on events etc; the vicar’s wife is left on her own for hundreds of evenings every year; family holidays are disrupted because of this or that emergency. But members of the congregation don’t think the minister is doing enough. They criticise his sermon, his pastoring, his dress-sense, the way he spends his time and money… Here’s a mash-up of the wisdom of older women, Ruth Shaw and Lizzy Smallwood:
- beware that we might be proud in our opinions of ourselves in our positions of Christian leadership. We are over-sensitive and take things the wrong way. We hate people pointing out our faults. We have an entitlement attitude and believe that we are not being treated as we think we ought. We boast about our achievements, and tell little white lies to make ourselves look better before others;
- accept that criticism is an inevitable part of being a leader – politicians, managers, teachers, celebrities all face it to varying degrees, and Christian leaders are not immune. It all started in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve distrusted the authority of God and God’s people have, since then, distrusted their God-given leaders (eg. Moses, David, Elijah…sometimes for good reason!);
- learn contentment and humility – they are inseparable!;
- develop simple strategies for responding to specific criticisms – (i) stop and listen; (ii) consider the source of the comment; (iii) respond with grace; (iv) move on…
- where we feel we are falling short of the standard of a minister/minister’s wife. We aim for a tidy house and perfect food for visitors. The new pastor’s wife dashes about cooking meals, offering hospitality, visiting, preparing Sunday school, running Moms and Toddlers, and the youth work, and women’s meetings. Both parents expect children to be models of godliness, well-taught and well-brought-up. Good wisdom again, mostly from Ruth Shaw:
- guard against thinking that we have to prove ourselves to God – there is no need to justify our existence or prove that we are up to the job. The whole reason why the gospel is good news is that we have failed miserably at meeting God’s standards, yet we have been justified because of the blood of Jesus. Our identity is therefore in Christ and not in our severely limited achievements;
- conversely, beware escapism – claiming that we are not in minister’s wife mould and therefore the congregation should have no assumptions or expectations about us. We are secretly angry at imposition of church on family life, and by so doing sabotage the good work that our husbands can do amongst God’s people;
- we should not confuse pleasing people with serving people;
- hospitality is not about showing off our home or our cooking skills, but is a servant ministry that creates opportunities for encouragement;
- guard against thinking that there is no place for weakness an failure in ministry. We and our critics tend to work on a worldly value system that compares us with other people and most often judges us as below standard. This should be no surprise to us – we are weak while others give the appearance of being strong and competent; we do fail where perhaps others seem to succeed; we do make plenty of mistakes where others appear to get it right, but the reality is that God uses weak people. Our weakness, resourced by his grace, often proves to be the best frame for his glory.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)