What is a man, and how does that relate to being a pastor? Pop culture has supplied endless examples of what the world thinks of a man in the role of a pastor. These stereotypes demonstrate the confusion about what exactly a pastor is and does in vivid detail. Whether it’s The Simpsons and the green-sweater wearing, non-swearing, non-alcoholic, no-fun persona of Ned Flanders, or Jane Austen’s weaselly clergyman, Mr. Collins, about the last way you’d describe a pastor is as a hard man who faces his responsibilities with a holy violence.
I’m not sure the pastoral images we’ve broadcast within the church today are much better. Whether it’s an affliction tee and cliche Greek words tattooed on the forearms of an edgy public speaker; skinny jeans and a trim-fit button-up with black-rimmed glasses that scream cultural sensitivity and well-timed dramatic pauses; or the muted-tone sweater vest with the equally innocuous speech of a therapist desperate to convey niceness; somehow our notion of the manliness of the pastoral office has been badly neglected, if not misplaced altogether.
And yet for all this, a hard man is exactly what Jesus calls his shepherds to be, especially when it comes to dealing with sin. They are to be the quintessential picture within the body of Christ of what men ought to be, and how every Christian should diligently labor to destroy sin. It’s in the manly willingness to confront and deal with sin-tangled relationships when others won’t. Or, like John Wayne riding out for a showdown at high noon, disarming the emotionally manipulative hostage takers in the church.
This is, in fact, exactly where many of us are stumbling. The problem is that we think of Christian living and pastoral ministry more like helping old ladies cross the street and less like what it is—David standing before Goliath, primed and ready to cut off the head of the oppressive giant of sin reigning in our people’s lives. When we’re talking about dealing with sin, we’re talking about bloody warfare, not knitting a bonnet for cousin Jane.
Ultimately, this is a Christian problem, not just a pastoral one. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, employers and employees, we all have a tendency to play soft with sin. We excuse it in ourselves, explain it away in others, and fail to rightly hate the way it separates us from God and one another. We know next to nothing about exposing or killing it, starting with our own.
If there was one constant in my early years of ministry, it was the refrain of other Christians and church leaders to “just love people,” which I quickly learned just meant “don’t deal with sin.” I didn’t realize it then, but those voices were calling for an ungodly softness, an effeminate, weak way of dealing with others, and in particular with sin. Utterly passive, disguised as patience, in all actuality it is simply negligence.
Instead of going to a brother and addressing his sin directly, we’ve trained ourselves in the art of passive, overly spiritualized inactivity, from empty promises of prayer to the indirect recommendation of certain reading materials that might just give them the hint. Or we suppose the unadulterated and completely unapplied truth of the word preached will do the necessary work on people without us ever having to be an agent of the change we’re praying and preaching for. This is a slippery confidence to hold if ever there was one. Jesus has a way of refusing to answer the man leaning on a shovel and praying for a hole. Should we expect the sword of the Holy Spirit to cut people to the quick when we refuse to wield it, seeking instead to display it in its wondrous beauty in a glass case where it can’t touch anybody?
Compare that to Jesus’ glowing endorsement of the kind of hard man John the Baptist was in his ministry, which was largely characterized by his willingness to confront the deeply ingrained, specific sins of those he was ministering to. Even when it was the king. Even when it cost him his head.
Of all the things Jesus could have said about John the Baptist, what really sticks out about Jesus’ brief biographical sketch of the prophet is that he wasn’t soft (Matthew 11:7-19). In fact, John was a prophet par excellence, according to Jesus, because he wasn’t soft. He wasn’t effeminate, malakos, but hard, which showed up in his violent pursuit of the kingdom of God (v.12) and in the way he dealt graciously and violently with the sins of the people. Why did people go to see John? Because he wasn’t soft, and you could see it even in the way he dressed. He offered hope to his generation because he was direct and blunt about the problem, something our own age is desperately in need of.
When tax men were stealing, John confronted them directly, exhorting them to collect only what they had to (Luke 3:13). He spelled out repentance in plain, detailed ways. John did not hide in the safe space of generic redemptive-historical preaching or behind the walls of a computer screen and the protective distance of social media; he did not shift responsibility from obedient human agency to the Holy Spirit. Instead, he gave the people detailed preaching, personal application, and a call to radically alter their life.
Pastor or wife, husband or child, the chances are each of us has at least one person in our life for whom we haven’t, but desperately need to speak the truth about their sin in love. They need our manly warfare and violence against sin. True, we need to deal with our own sins first; but once we’ve done that, there’s a call to help others see their sins more clearly (Matthew 7:3-5). Sure, it’d be easier to delete their contact info from your phone, make excuses why you can’t hang out for the next six months, or fake your own death and enter the witness protection program. But trust me, God has a better plan for growing you than that.
Along with willingly addressing sins in others, we can create a habit and atmosphere of direct dealing with sin by asking our friends and loved ones where they see sin in our life. Showing a willingness to have your own sins exposed and dealt with helps open others up to the same uncomfortable process in their own lives. If we are quick to listen to others about our own sinful entanglements (James 1:19), we help create a culture of hearing one another on difficult issues.
Like John, faithfulness as pastors requires us to realize that at the front lines of our ministry, at the very heart of the battle and vital to the display of biblical masculinity, is the task of dealing with the sins of our flock—directly, biblically, and vigorously. Dealing with sin manfully is perhaps the most difficult, important, and costly work we will do in our ministries. But if we fail to do it, as Richard Baxter said, we will have hated our people:
“But the ministers of Christ must do their duty … and must not so far hate their brother, as to forbear rebuking him, or suffer sin to lie upon his soul. It must, no doubt, be done with much prudence, yet done it must be.” (Reformed Pastor, 99)