Pastoral ministry is a study in irony. On one hand, it provides the opportunity for a guy to publicly use his gifts, be it preaching or worship or evangelism or leadership, for the glory of God. Yet on the other hand, because he is in a public role, the guy can quickly assume he is a particularly “special” person. You know what I mean: a real asset to the kingdom of God. A player, the “Man”, a key cog in the Great Commission machine. Yep, pastoral ministry and proclivities toward pride go together like the Cleveland Browns and losing (Note: As someone who grew up in Pittsburgh, I’m morally obligated to make that joke). If you want to be a pastor, you must be aware of this draw toward spiritual elitism. You must live in the tension of the irony.
Thankfully, the Bible has a few things to say to pastors who think they’re special.
There’s a peculiar verse to the roguish Corinthians which reads, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” Don’t just gloss over the words. Chew on it and taste the flavor of the warning. There is a type of wisdom and discernment that God actually opposes! Paul is not crusading here against wisdom. It’s a surprising twist on wisdom that ultimately reveals its most glorious display.
The Cross Showcases God’s Impartiality
To get this verse, we must understand a bit about the Corinthian culture. The Corinthians were tempted to exalt people based on their abilities, and to give preference to folks based on human wisdom. It’s actually not much different than what we see today. Can you say LeBron “King” James anyone? You see, our culture worships abilities, whether sports, music, acting or education. People with those abilities are our cultural heroes.
The Corinthians also believed that God, like them, was partial to the popular and well-positioned, that God’s approval was attached to the most gifted. But at the cross, God reveals that he plays by a different set of rules (vs. 20, 27-28). God disrupts the entire social order by showing no partiality and making insiders out of the lowly.
In 1944, C.S. Lewis gave an address to a group of young men titled, “The Inner Ring.” Lewis used the phrase “inner ring” to refer to that particular group we so desperately want to be a part of. Most of us have some group we want to be accepted by – a group I like to call “approval-scratchers.” We want their approval to scratch our identity itch, and to make us feel like we’re really on the inside.
Maybe for you it’s an income bracket, a social group, or a certain network – people we just long to be “friended” by on Facebook. Or, if you’re in ministry, maybe it’s a particular group in your congregation, or a ministry outside of your local congregation, or some group of pastors. We’ve all played the game: there’s a hunger to be on the inside and a pang when we’re not included. Those people are your inner ring!
But in this passage, Paul announces that the cross abolishes the inner ring. God actually prefers the weak to the wise and sinners to the successful. Isn’t that good news?! Jesus loves the outcast, the hookers, the Aids victim, the shamed executive, the gang members, the tax collector … and also the arrogant, the gossips, the slothful – folks just like you and me. The gospel announces that God has grafted us into His inner ring.
This reality gives the pastor firm ground to stand on. Because the pastor is already included in the most important “inner ring” (God’s family), he doesn’t need to stake his joy on the approval of others. The joy he receives from the gospel frees the pastor to minister without fearing what others might think.
The Cross Vanquishes Human Ability
Next Paul takes the most educated class of professional experts and announces that their best efforts are rendered not just foolish, but helpless and unqualified (v. 20-21). This is huge. The Corinthian culture was stacked with scholars—Pharisees, philosophers, the educated and lawyers. Yet Paul is saying those achievements don’t matter in the kingdom of God. It’s not that God doesn’t use these things for His glory—it’s that when it comes to the cross and God’s approval, the ground is level. We’re all the same; no human wisdom or ability inflates God’s approval of you. You have all there is, right here, right now!
Pastor John Piper says, “The cross stands for the ungodliness and helplessness of man (Rom. 5:6), the undeserved grace of God (Rom. 3:24), and the unimpeachable justice of God (Rom. 3:25-26). In other words, what offends human wisdom about the cross is that it humbles man and exalts the unearnable grace of God. It makes humans look dependent and helpless—like little children—and makes God look all-sufficient and all-providing and absolutely free in giving salvation to sinners.”
The point is this: the cross is offensive and confounding because it renders human ability towards salvation nonsensical and impotent. It makes weakness (essentially, human inability) a connecting point for grace. We find grace in weakness … and the cross transforms our weakness into strength (2 Corinthians 12:9)!
The cross is a reminder that a pastor is not a special trophy encased under glass. Rather, a pastor is a man who is used by God despite his weaknesses. God doesn’t use the greatest of the great to build up his church. Rather, God uses weak, ordinary, frail, sinful pastors – people like me. Which means he can also use people like you.
The call to ministry is not a quest for the limelight but a call to the cross. It reminds us daily of the only ring that really matters. And for those of us who can crave other rings, that’s really good news.