By Rev. William M. Cwirla
Life is ordered. Life is ordered because God is a God of order. Everything and everyone has a place. The Table of Duties in the Small Catechism deals with the three “holy orders,” the orderings into which God places us where we serve our neighbor in vocation: church, society, and home. These orderings are all covered by the 4th Commandment’s “parents and other authorities.”
The church is ordered. It’s not just a mob of believers. The church is ordered into those who preach and those who hear, pastors and people. Preachers without hearers are wasting their breath. Hearers without preachers have nothing to hear. Preachers and hearers each have their duties and responsibilities to one another.
Pastors have a duty to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2-4). That doesn’t mean “perfect” or sinless. Only Christ is sinless, and we are sinless only in Christ. It means having a good reputation. The pastor’s house tends to be made of glass. Everyone watches what the pastor and his family, including his kids, are doing. And so it makes good common sense that a pastor should have his life and household in order—be faithful to his wife, a good father to his children, and not a drunkard or brawler or someone who is greedy.
A pastor also needs to be able to teach, judge doctrine and protect his people from false theology (Titus 1:9). That means training, study, and practice. Your pastor probably has a similar education and training to your doctor. Bad doctoring can only mess with your temporal life. The worst it can do is kill you. Bad pastoring can mess up your eternal life. That’s why pastors need to know the Word of God and how to apply it rightly as Law and Gospel. This is also why the church isn’t quick to ordain new converts (1 Timothy 3:6). The right application of Law and Gospel is taught by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience, according to C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Missouri Synod. That is profoundly true.
One mistake that many people make is to think that pastors are held to a higher standard than ordinary Christians. That’s not really true. Pastors are simply called to reflect how every Christian ought to live. This is especially true in view of the fact that we all are justified sinners, at the same time sinner and saint. Pastors do best when they model a real life of repentance as justified sinners rather than pretending to be flawless plaster saints.
At the same time, every pastor realizes that he holds an office that does not belong to him but to the Lord. He is reminded of that every time he absolves “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” He is a man “under orders.” Just as we expect the president of our country or the governor of our state to behave in a way that dignifies their office and honors our country, so we expect pastors to conduct their lives in a way that brings honor to Jesus Christ and His Church.
What about the hearers—the members of the congregation? What do they owe their pastors? First of all, hearers owe their pastors a living (1 Corinthians 9:14). Somehow we’ve gotten the crazy idea that it isn’t “spiritual” or “sincere” if we get paid to do something. Nonsense! “The worker deserves his wages.” Even the ox that treads the grain gets to snack on it (1 Timothy 5:17-18)! So don’t muzzle that ox of a preacher the Lord sent you. And make sure he can feed his family!
Besides providing a fair living, hearers have a duty to respect and honor their pastors because of the office. Respect is not earned. It comes with the office. Pastors represent Christ before the congregation and speak the words of Christ into your ears. “He who hears you, hears me,” Jesus said of those He had sent (Luke 10:16). For this reason alone, pastors ought to be respected. When we disrespect those who hold an office, whether in church or state or home, we dishonor God whose authority upholds the office they hold.
Obedience is part of respect and honor. “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17). That’s talking about pastors, not government leaders. Pastors must give an account to the Lord of the church for their care and oversight. That’s why pastors can be grumpy at times. Or they seem to say “no” all the time. It’s not that they want to take away all the fun, but they have a deeper concern than your happiness—your salvation. Your doctor may not always make you happy, but he has your health in mind. Your pastor may not always make you happy and tell you what you want to hear, but he has your eternal salvation in mind.
This doesn’t mean we must blindly obey pastors in everything they say, and pastors do say a lot. Certainly when they are proclaiming God’s Word, we must hear and obey it. And when they contradict God’s Word, they need to be called on it. Respectfully. But it’s good to yield to the pastor’s opinion sometimes, simply for the sake of peace and order. He is an “overseer:” one who watches over things, looks at the big picture, and sees not only the trees but the forest. Each of us tends to look at things through our own individual experiences and needs. The pastor sees things in a bigger and broader context—congregation, synod, the whole Christian church. Cut him a little slack and make his work a joy instead of a burden. It will go better for everyone.
The best way for pastors and people to keep all this straight is to keep Jesus in the middle of it all. It’s His church and it’s His ministry. And we, as Christ’s baptized believers, are on the receiving end of His gifts.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, California, and is currently President of Higher Things but will serve as a director on the board as of May 1. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.