There is a story about a ministry intern who arrived at a local pastor’s gathering. Once they were all together and seated, the friends took turns going around the table. The first pastor spoke, “Jim Newton, 80.” All the pastors laughed. The next spoke, “Bill Walter, 125.” The group laughed again. Next came the intern. Not knowing what to say, he quipped, “Zack Buchanan, 541!” Nobody laughed. What the intern failed to realize was that he had stumbled into an inside joke whereby the pastors would habitually give their name and church size—a way to poke fun at the usual tendency of competing with each other over ministry success.
However, the pervasiveness of pastoral pride is no laughing matter; it’s a sad reality. While the human heart is prone to sin in many ways, the sin of pride is perhaps the most grievous in the eyes of God. When pastors get puffed up, there are always consequences. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a rebuke from a friend. Other times, it can be as devastating as disqualification and the loss of an entire ministry. In writing this article, I’m addressing myself first and foremost, as I’m a young pastor who is not immune to pride, arrogance, and posturing. May what I write be a gentle yet helpful corrective as I entreat fellow brothers to join me in warring against such sins.
Pastors Who Posture
There are various ways that pride can rear its ugly head in the ministry. One of the most subtle yet cancerous ways is through pastoral posturing. What do I mean by “posturing”? Merriam-Webster defines it as the act of “assum[ing] an artificial or pretended attitude.” It is an attempt to portray oneself as greater than others or to present oneself in a way so as to impress others. Posturing exists to create an exaggerated or misleading version of oneself. Pastoral posturing can seek to inflate spirituality, accomplishments, influence, or importance.
Posturing can be nuanced—something as subtle as casually mentioning your church size or a recent accomplishment in a conversation with another person. Other times, it can be as fleeting as recounting a one-liner from last week’s sermon that got a few “amens” from your congregation. Posturing can consist of virtue signaling on the internet, or glorifying the struggles of your own ministry to appear more hardworking and devoted to your people. Our sinful hearts do a masterful job at concocting ways to exalt ourselves above others. While deep down we know that what we are doing is wrong, we may not fully realize how grievous our offenses are in the eyes of God.
Pride and Humility
What is pride? To borrow Paul’s words from Romans 12:3, it is when a person “think[s] of himself more highly than he ought to think.” It is the exalting of self over others. Stuart Scott defines pride as a form of self-worship. He writes:
A person is prideful who believes that they, in and of themselves, are or should be the source of what is good, right and worthy of praise. They also believe that they, by themselves, are (or should be) the accomplisher of anything that is worthwhile to accomplish, and that they should certainly be the benefactor of all things. In essence, they are believing that all things should be from them, through them, and to them or for them.”1
Understood this way, the problem becomes more immediately obvious, as God Himself is the only true source, accomplisher, and benefactor of all good things, including worship (see Rom. 11:36). To manifest pride is to attempt to set oneself up in the place of God. This is nothing short of blasphemous and idolatrous.
Scripture is replete with verses about the dangers of pride. Of the abominable sins spelled out in Proverbs 6:16–19, “haughty eyes” are at the top of the list. The Lord calls pride and arrogance “the way of evil” (Prov. 8:13), and warns that it will surely lead to destruction (18:12) and disgrace (11:2). In speaking of the sheer sinfulness of the sin, the Bible warns, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (16:5). In fact, the Lord Jesus vows to humiliate those who exalt themselves in pride (Matt. 23:12). Make no mistake, we are to heed the warning, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
However, the Bible promises while God opposes those who are proud, He “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; cf. Ps. 138:6; Prov. 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5). Humility, then, is an emptying of self; it is a dying to self (see Luke 9:23; Gal. 2:20). Paul exhorted the Philippian church to manifest humility in their dealings with one another, saying: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). He regards humility as a lowliness of mind. Yet it’s not that God desires to grind us into the dust and never raise us up. As James tells us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). This is true for all believers, especially for those in pastoral ministry.
A Call for Pastoral Humility
The ultimate example of humility in ministry is Jesus, who labored tirelessly to point all things back to the Father (John 5:30; 12:49; 17:1–5); who declared His ministry to be that of selfless service (Mark 10:45), who even debased Himself by washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:14–15), who
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6–8)
Brothers, this is our model for pastoral ministry.
But we are fallen and sinful men. We are weak and insecure. At the heart of pastoral posturing, I believe, is a warped yet earnest desire to be validated. After all, ministry is hard, and very few people seem to understand all that it entails. However, we know that our confidence and adequacy come from Christ (2 Cor. 3:4–5). Therefore, as we labor and strive, we should not seek the praise of others. Rather, the Apostle Peter warns men to “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). As to our knee-jerk desire to posture: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2). As to our insecure and competitive bent: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:26). We are compelled to seek a posture of humility before others and before God.
George Whitefield was one of the greatest English preachers in history, and everywhere he went he was bathed with the praise and adoration of his followers. One classic story typifies Whitefield’s constant struggle with and godly response to the temptation of pride:
Mr. Whitefield, having delivered a discourse of rare beauty and eloquence in the city of Charleston, had just retired from the pulpit and was wending his way out of the church, when he met an acquaintance in the aisle, who, shaking him cordially by the hand, congratulated him on the splendid effort he had just made, saying, “Brother Whitefield, you have preached a most eloquent discourse. I was highly delighted.” Whitefield, instead of being in the least elated, replied in the most solemn and impressive manner, “Ah, brother, there is one in advance of you, for the devil told me so before I left the pulpit.”2
Dear brothers, put off pride and posturing. Humble yourselves before God. Give all glory and praise to whom it is due. For we read, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8, emphasis added).
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 8, 2019.