A Commentary by John Stott
‘It is one of the high excellences of the Epistles of Paul,’ wrote John Brown, ‘that they embody a perfect directory for the Christian minister.’ In particular we may learn from this paragraph the reciprocal relationship which should exist between the people and their pastor, between the minister and the congregation. Of course the Christian pastor is not an apostle of Jesus Christ. He has neither the authorization nor the inspiration of an apostle. He may not lay down the law like an apostle. Nor should the congregation defer to him as if he were an apostle.
Nevertheless, the Christian minister is called to teach the people the apostolic faith of the New Testament. And if the minister is true to this commission, the people’s attitude to him will reflect their attitude to the apostles of Christ, and so to Christ Jesus Himself.
a) The people’s attitude to the pastor.
How is the congregation’s attitude to their minister to be determined? To begin with, it is not to be determined by his personal appearance. He may be ugly, as tradition tells us the apostle Paul was, or good-looking. He may be physically fit, or he may be sickly like Paul when he visited Galatia. He may have a pleasing personality, or be quite unprepossessing. He may have outstanding gifts, or be just a faithful man with no unusual brilliance. But the people should not be swayed in their attitude to him by his outward appearance. They should neither flatter him because they find him attractive, nor despise and reject him because he is not. The Galatians resisted the temptation to let their attitude to Paul be influenced by his personal appearance. So should congregations today.
Next the people’s attitude to the minister should not be determined by their private theological whims. Paul became an ‘enemy’ to the Galatians simply because they did not like the home truths he was teaching. A congregation should beware of assessing their minister according to their own subjective doctrinal fancies.
Instead, a congregations attitude to their minister should be determined by his loyalty to the apostolic message. We have already seen that no minister, however exalted his rank in the visible church, is an apostle of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, if he is faithful in teaching what the apostles taught, a godly congregation will humbly receive his message and submit to it. They will neither resent nor reject it. Rather, they will welcome it, even with the deference which they would give to an angel of God, to Christ Jesus himself, because they recognize that the minister’s message is not the minister’s message, but the message of Jesus Christ.
In the church today, there is far too little deference to the apostolic word. Frequently, what interests the contemporary congregation most is the preacher’s technique, mannerisms, or voice, how long he preaches for, or whether they can hear him, understand him and agree with him. And often when the sermon is over, they love to criticize it and pull it to pieces.
Certainly, people have cause for criticism if the preacher is unfaithful to his commission, if he makes no attempt to preach biblically, or if he is not himself subject to the apostolic word. But when the minister expounds Scripture, the Word of God, the proper reaction of the congregation should be to receive the message, rather than criticize it – not on the authority of the minister, but on the authority of Christ whose message it is. Most Christian congregations today could be more alert, more humble and more hungry in listening to the exposition of God’s Word.
b). The pastor’s attitude to the people.
Calvin wrote: ‘If ministers wish to do any good, let them labour to form Christ, not to form themselves, in their hearers.’ The Christian minister should resemble Paul, not the Judaizers. He should be preoccupied with the people’s spiritual progress and care nothing for his own prestige. He should not exploit them for his advantage; he should seek to serve them for theirs. He should not use them for his own pleasure, but be willing on their behalf to endure pain. He longs for Christ to be formed in the people; and to this end he is ready to agonize, even to travail in birth. As John Brown comments, ‘when such pastors abound, the church must flourish’.
Notice finally, the references to Christ in verses 14 and 19. Verse 14: *You…received me…as Christ Jesus*. Verse 19: *I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!* What should matter to the people is not the pastor’s appearance, but whether *Christ* is speaking through him. And what should matter to the pastor is not the people’s favour, but whether *Christ* is formed in them. The church needs people who, in listening to their pastor, listen for the message of Christ, and pastors who, in labouring among the people, look for the image of Christ. Only when pastor and people thus keep their eyes on Christ will their mutual relations keep healthy, profitable and pleasing to almighty God.