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Principles Are the Bottom Line

Warren Wiersbe shares insights that have guided his ministry for over a quarter of a century.
Principles Are the Bottom Line
Image: Dan Reynolds Photography / Moment / Getty

We took Warren Wiersbe to lunch one day, knowing there were many possible Leadership articles in his head. As we kicked around concepts several interesting ideas surfaced. But a comment Warren made arrested our attention and we kept coming back to it. Two years ago when his son accepted his first pastorate, Warren shared with him the principles that have guided his own ministry over the years.

What would a pastor/father tell a young man entering the ministry? We were intrigued by this question and asked Warren to develop an article based on what he had shared with his son. We believe Warren's advice represents something pretty basic upon which a pastor could build a long-term ministry.

About the only thing I remember from one of my courses at seminary is a bit of doggerel that the weary professor dropped into a boring lecture:

Methods are many,
Principles are few.
Methods always change,
Principles never do.

As soon as I returned to my dormitory room I looked up principle in my dictionary and found it meant “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption.” I read further and discovered that the word comes from the Latin principium, which means “beginning.” I learned something from that definition that has helped to deepen and direct my ministry for many years: if I go back to beginnings and build on principles, I will always be up-to-date and in step with what God is doing.

That conviction led me into a lifelong search for principles, the foundational truths that never change and yet always have a fresh meaning and application for each new situation. I learned never to adopt a method until I understood the principle behind it. I learned to evaluate men and ministries on the basis of the principles that motivated them, as well as on the basis of the fruit they produced.

Living by this philosophy simplified my life. My mind was not cluttered with the excess baggage of every fad that the winds of doctrine blew into the evangelical world. My bookshelves were not cluttered with popular how-to-do-it manuals that were bestsellers one month and has-beens the next. (My wife thought we were saving money because I was not buying all these books. Actually I was spending the money on other books that, though they were not as popular, have lasted longer and taught me more.)

So when our oldest son accepted his first pastorate, I felt obligated as a dutiful father to share with him some of the principles that have guided my ministry. I felt somewhat like Phillips Brooks, who opened his Yale lectures on preaching by admitting that the lectures had forced him “to ponder much upon the principles by which I have only half consciously been living and working for many years.”

Over successive weeks, I thought about these principles, changed them, refined them, and tried to make them truly comprehensive and fundamental. Whether you agree with these principles or not may not be important; they may at least assist you in drawing up your own.

God makes a worker, then he uses that worker to make a work. Phillips Brooks was right when he defined preparation for the ministry as “nothing less than the making of a man” (or the making of a woman—Brooks would agree with that). No matter what kind of ministry God gives to us—preaching, teaching, counseling, supervising, encouraging—we can never give to others what we do not have ourselves. To ignore character is to abandon the foundation of ministry.

This explains why God spends so much time with his servants. He took thirteen years to prepare Joseph to become second-in-command in Egypt. He invested eighty years in his preparation of Moses. Even the learned Saul of Tarsus had to spend three years in post-graduate work in Arabia before God thrust him out as Paul the Apostle. The biographies and autobiographies of great Christian men and women reveal that God first builds Christian character in his servants, and then through them builds a ministry.

Apart from character, ministry is only religious activity or, even worse, religious business. The Pharisees called what they did ministry, but Jesus called it hypocrisy. He knew that the Pharisees were more concerned about reputation than character, that the praises of men interested them more than the approval of God.

“Let me be taught,” wrote Henry Martyn, “that the first great business on earth is the sanctification of my own soul.” Amen and amen. Someone asked financier J. P. Morgan, what the best collateral was a customer could give him. Morgan replied, “Character.” That reminds me of another Morgan. G. Campbell Morgan was riding with D. L. Moody at Northfield when suddenly Moody asked, “What is character anyway?” Morgan knew that the evangelist wanted to answer his own question, so he waited. “Character,” said Moody, “is what a man is in the dark.” When Spurgeon was told that someone wanted to write a book about his life, he replied, “You may write my life in the skies—I have nothing to hide!”

Perhaps the key word is integrity. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters, and James agreed when he wrote, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (1:8). The opposite of integrity is duplicity. “The hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.” No one can minister and masquerade successfully at the same time-at least not for very long. No amount of reputation can substitute for character. A. T. Robertson was right when he wrote in The Glory of the Ministry, “Many men with great names are novices in grace.”

The Greek words translated as “ministry” in the New Testament describe some kind of service. In the early church the minister was a servant, not simply an officer. This concept was a novelty to the Greeks and Romans, who considered a servant to be an unimportant nobody who did things for others who were more important. Jesus Christ elevated and dignified service when he said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

Today society evaluates a man’s worth by the number of people who work for him. Jesus reversed that: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The big question in ministry then is, “How many people do you work for?”

This does not mean that Christ’s ministers become the chore boys and girls for the lazy members of the congregation. Ministry is not catering. Paul explained the difference when he wrote “… ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Cor. 4:5). First of all, we serve the Lord; sometimes that service must run counter to the ideas and desires of men. “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?” Paul asked the critical Galatian believers. “Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). The person who does not want to work and serve others should not enter the ministry, nor should the person who wants to enjoy center stage attention with all spotlights on him.

As ministers, we must be concerned about individuals and not just congregations, crowds, or nebulous “mankind.” We must not join Linus in the “Peanuts” comic-strip and admit, “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand!”

Jesus emptied himself and became a servant. He came to minister, and the nature of ministry is service.

Ministry is too sacred to be motivated by gain and too difficult to be motivated by duty. Only love can sustain us. “You love to preach,” Andrew Bonar said to a guest minister at his church. “Yes, I do,” the man replied. “Do you love the people you preach to?” asked Bonar. I do not know what the visitor replied, and it is not important. What is important is whether or not we love the people we are ministering to.

Only love makes a servant put others first. Only love keeps a servant from exploiting and using his people for his own purposes. Only love prevents a leader from becoming a dictator. Duty becomes delight when it is saturated with love.

But this love must not be manufactured. If it is, then it is not really love; it is shallow sentiment or cheap flattery. Rather, the fruit of the Spirit is love. “God has poured out his love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:5). Paul’s own ministry was “compelled” by the love of Christ (II Cor. 5:14), and it was this compassion-compulsion that helped to keep him going when things were difficult.

Jonah ministered without love. He went to Nineveh, not because he loved God’s will or the people to whom God had sent him, but because he feared God’s chastening. The Elder Brother (Luke 15:25 ff.) labored dutifully in the field, but he had no love for either his father or his brother. Both men accomplished their work, but they missed the blessing. They ended up critical and divisive, unable to get along with God or men.

Apart from love, gifts and talents are hindrances to ministry. They become weapons, not tools. They exalt the servant; they do not edify the church. We may know little about the intricacies of communications theory (although we ought to study them), but if we love our people and serve them in love, we will somehow build bridges instead of walls, and our message will get across.

John Henry Jowett stated it perfectly: “Ministry that costs nothing, accomplishes nothing.” I might add that ministry that costs nothing is not really ministry at all. Jesus sets the standard: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “To serve … and to give.…” The connection is clear.

One of the greatest prayer warriors I have met was Jacob Stam, a brother of John Stam who was martyred in China. Jake was an attorney, and he knew how to plead his case with God. I will never forget hearing him pray one night, “Oh, God, all that most of us know about sacrifice is how to spell the word!” Sacrifice—a word in our Christian vocabulary, but not a force in our lives.

A visitor told Samuel Johnson that he regretted not becoming a clergyman because he considered that life an easy, comfortable existence. Johnson knew better. “The life of a conscientious clergyman is not easy,” he told his visitor. “I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family [his church] than he is able to maintain. No, sir! I do not envy a clergyman’s life as an easy life; nor do I envy the clergyman who makes it an easy life.”

I once heard a preacher ask a Christian bookseller for “a cheap book of sermon outlines on the deeper Christian life”; my heart immediately went out to his congregation. Here was a man unwilling to pay the price for spiritual reality!

Years ago, A. W. Tozer warned us that a new cross had come into our evangelical circles, a cross that had little to do with suffering, sacrifice, and death. “The new cross does not slay the sinner,” Tozer wrote; “it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect.” Unfortunately, some of God’s servants are carrying this new cross, and their aim in life is not to see what they can give, but what they can get.

Jesus said this: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:25–26).

Ever since Satan declared himself independent of God’s authority, there have been two philosophies of life: submission or assertion. Modern best sellers exhort us to “take care of number one” and even to use intimidation to accomplish this. Among Christians who ought to know better, “Love yourself” has replaced “Deny yourself.” In the name of freedom we are preaching and practicing anarchy.

We are first servants, then rulers. No person who is not under authority has a right to exercise authority. We can never serve by asserting ourselves; it is only by submitting ourselves.

But submission is not subjugation. Subjugation turns a person into a thing, destroys individuality, and removes all liberty. Submission makes a person become more of what God wants him to be; it brings out individuality; it gives him the freedom to accomplish all that God has for his life and ministry. Subjugation is weakness; it is the refuge of those who are afraid of maturity. Submission is strength; it is the first step toward true maturity and ministry.

Discerning believers can detect the note of authority in the life of a worker who is himself under authority, and they are not afraid to follow him.

It is unfortunate that the “corporation concept” of leadership has taken over in many Christian organizations, including churches. Jesus had this to say about that concept:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them are given the title Benefactor. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the. table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–27).

If we submit to Christ, we need never fear submitting to others, for the authority of ministry is submission.

When I visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, I think of a question a tourist asked the guide. That tourist was my wife, and her question was a valid one: “Why was this building constructed?” Our guide was a bit nonplussed at first, but then she smiled and said, “Why, to the glory of God.” Glory in them to the glory of God (II Cor. 12:7–10).

All that God does is ultimately for his glory. Three times in the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul reminds us that God’s great work of salvation is “to the praise of his glory” (verses 6, 12, and 14). God does not save sinners in order to make them happy, although that is a blessed fringe benefit. He saves them that he might eternally be glorified in them.

Ministers must have that eternal perspective, The man who forgets the ultimate is going to be trapped by the immediate, and this can only lead to a busybody kind of superficial service that takes refuge in schedules and statistics. The short-sighted servant forgets God’s glory and soon begins to take shortcuts, play politics, and practice manipulation in order to “get results.” But that’s building with wood, hay, and stubble; and the result is ashes. A pastor friend often reminds me that the harvest is not the end of the meeting it is the end of the age. This is why it is dangerous to be too dogmatic in evaluating ministries today. The only motive that will survive the fiery test of that day is, “I served to the glory of God “

There is nothing God will not do for his servant who gives him the glory and who does not fret when others take the credit. The servant who lives for the glory of God has at his disposal all the authority and power of the universe. All of creation works with him to “declare the glory of God.” Praise will not elate this servant, and criticism will not deflate him. He can distribute loaves and fishes or wash dirty feet with an equal amount of joy and skill.

Difficult circumstances that he cannot understand he can accept as long as God is glorified. He can do even more than accept, for, like Paul, he can glory in them to the glory of God (II Cor. 12:710).

The first serious internal problem the early church faced was caused by neglect (Acts 6:17). Peter admitted that he and his associates were so busy serving tables that they had neglected prayer and the ministry of the Word. Other believers picked up the load, the apostles returned to their rightful ministries, and the problem was solved. More than that, the Word of God spread and multitudes trusted Christ.

The Word of God and prayer have always been God’s most important tools for ministry. Moses alternated between teaching the Word to the people and going into God’s presence to pray for the nation. Samuel told the people, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right” (I Sam. 12:23). Paul’s ministry followed a similar pattern: “Now I commit you to God [prayer] and to the word of his grace, which can build you up…” (Acts 20:32).

Both are necessary. If we study the Word and never pray, we could have a great deal of light without heat. If we pray but never study, we could become fanatics exhibiting a great deal of zeal but little knowledge. Bishop Handley Moule said he would rather try to tone down a fanatic than resurrect a corpse, but why should it be necessary to do either? If we use the Word of God and prayer, we will have a balanced, healthy ministry and will do the work of God according to the will of God.

The minister who does not know the Word of God is a failure in his calling. Paul, in his pastoral epistles, often mentions the Word of God, doctrine, and teaching. One qualification for a minister is the ability to teach (I Tim. 3:2)-this suggests the ability to learn. As Matthew Henry said in his Commentary:

Study close; especially make the Bible your study. There is no knowledge, which I am more desirous to increase in, than that. Men get wisdom by books; but wisdom toward God is to be gotten out of God’s book; and that by digging. Most men do but walk over the surface of it, and pick up here and there a flower. Few dig into it.

We can pick up wood, hay, and stubble on the surface of the ground, and that without too much effort. If we want gold, silver, and precious stones, we must dig for them.

We must also pray. “Prayer, meditation, and temptation, make a minister,” said Luther; note that he put prayer first. “The Christian ministry is a work of faith,” wrote Charles Bridges in his classic The Christian Ministry. “And, that it may be a work of faith, it must be a work of prayer. Prayer obtains faith, while faith in its reaction quickens to increasing earnestness of prayer.”

It is dangerous to minister without prayer. “In whatever man does without God,” wrote George MacDonald, “he must fail miserably-or succeed more miserably!” Our Lord depended on prayer when he ministered on the earth. Paul prayed without ceasing. The giants of the faith conquered their enemies because they prayed. We honor their memories and build their tombs, but we fail to imitate their faith.

Some pastors pray for each of their members by name during the course of a week or a month, or where the congregation is large, several months. Certainly a pastor can make time to pray for the officers and leaders of the church during one week. It is a privilege to share God’s Word with people; but it is even a greater privilege to nurture that Word with our prayers.

The minister who is too busy to study the Word of God and pray is simply too busy. He may be successful in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his peers; but he is a failure in God’s eyes-and one day everybody will know it. God has not promised to bless methods, but he has promised to bless his Word and to answer prayer.

I am not an athlete or even an enthusiastic spectator, but I have come to a conclusion about sports: the best thing about winning the game is being the kind of person who can win. The applause will fade, the trophy will decay, but the blessing of a strong body, good coordination, and the determination to win will enrich a person for years to come.

Perhaps this is one reason why the Apostle Paul used so many athletic illustrations in his letters. The athlete grows by doing his best. “Be diligent in these matters,” Paul admonished young Timothy; “give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (I Tim. 4:15). People often ask, “Is the church growing?” Perhaps they ought to ask, “Is the minister growing?”

But be warned—the reward for faithful ministry is—more ministry! “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Matt. 25:21). This illustrates my point: faithfulness in ministry increases one’s capacity. The privilege of ministry is growth.

This also explains why faithful ministry is the way to greatness. Mere religious activity tears a person down; but true ministry builds him up, enlarges his abilities, and enriches his character. Salome wanted to get thrones for her two sons the easy way, but Jesus refused to grant her request. Thrones in God’s kingdom are prepared for those who prepare themselves. The faithful servant will one day hear his Lord say, “Friend, move up to a better place” (Luke 14:10).

We have been reminded many times by many preachers that, if God took the Holy Spirit out of this world, much of what the church is doing would go right on, and nobody would know the difference. God is not going to remove His Spirit from His people, but there is a danger: we may become so accustomed to working without his power that, when he does start to work, we will resist him. There are so many counterfeit spirits in our world that even the elect are sometimes deceived.

It was not enough for our Lord Jesus to possess a holy nature; he also needed the Holy Spirit. He knew the Holy Scriptures; he still needed the Holy Spirit. In his first sermon he proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…” (Luke 4:18). Would that every minister of Jesus Christ could make that affirmation!

We tend to depend too much on training, talents, and experience. These are good, and wretched is the servant who lacks them, but apart from the Spirit’s power, they are of little use for the accomplishing of God’s work. The Congregational theologian R. W. Dale once said to D. L. Moody after hearing him preach, “This work has to be of God, for I can see absolutely no connection between you and what is happening here.” I am sure Moody said a hearty “Amen!” Moody was filled with the Spirit, and God was at work through his life.

The Holy Spirit is not a luxury; he is a necessity. In his parable, Jesus connected the Spirit with fish and eggs, not lobster and caviar (Luke 11:11-12). The minister who knows he needs the Spirit and admits this has taken the first step toward spiritual power and holy character. The next step is to realize that the experience of the Spirit’s fullness must not be stereotyped, for “The wind blows wherever it pleases…” (John 3:8). I may not have the same experience as did Finney or Moody, but I can have the same power. “The Spirit-filled life is not a special, deluxe edition of Christianity,” wrote A. W. Tozer in How To Be Filled with the Holy Spirit. “It is part and parcel of the total plan of God for his people.”

Educators keep telling us that role models are important; some lessons are just better “caught” than “taught.” This is why Jesus recruited disciples. These men lived with Jesus, watched him, listened to him, and learned from him.

Anyone who has invested a few years in Christian ministry knows the subtle temptation to model himself after some “great Christian.” It is often possible to identify a preacher’s alma mater by seeing how he is dressed, listening to him preach, and (above all else) watching him give an invitation at the close of a service Students have a tendency to imitate, and some of them never grow out of this weakness.

Not that it is wrong to imitate. But we must imitate the essentials and not the accidentals, not the man but what Christ is doing in the man. We must so yield to the Spirit that he is able to work in us in a way suited to our personalities and gifts.

The best textbooks on ministry are the four Gospels. In them, we find Jesus’ example of what it means to minister. He came as a servant; he was obedient to the Father’s will; his obedience even took him to the cross. He did not function as a corporation president; he did not flatter the great or disdain the lowly. He accepted a gift from a forgiven harlot, and he enjoyed the hospitality of a converted publican. He ate with people that the Pharisees rejected and heard himself called a glutton and a drunk.

If the foundation of ministry is character, then Jesus Christ stands head and shoulders above all. He was “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners” (Heb. 7:26)—and yet the friend of sinners.

If the nature of ministry is service, there is no better model than Jesus. He was born a servant; he lived and died a servant. He ministered to famous leaders like Nicodemus as well as to anonymous sufferers like the ten lepers he healed. He arose early to pray and to preach, and he remained at Peter’s front door until late at night, healing those who were afflicted. Even while he was dying on the cross, his concern was to minister to others.

Is the motive of ministry love? Then see it in Jesus Christ. The more sinners hated him, the more he loved them. His love reached its climax at Calvary where he died for the sins of the world. If the measure of ministry is sacrifice, then the cross must forever be the divine standard for measuring our ministry.

In every way, Jesus Christ is the model for our ministry. His authority came from submission. His only purpose was to please the Father and glorify him. He ministered in the power of the Spirit, using the Word of God and prayer. And, strange as it may seem, our Lord benefited from his ministry, for “he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8) and was equipped to perform his heavenly ministry as our Advocate and High Priest.

When we model ourselves after other servants, we stifle our growth and limit our potential. But when we imitate Jesus Christ, we encourage our growth and unlock our potential. Carbon-copy ministries are usually superficial, no matter how popular they may be. But original ministries are the result of men and women patterning themselves after the Son of God. The more we follow Jesus Christ and model ourselves after him, the more we become out true selves for his glory.

And the more Christlike we are, the more Christlike our people will be. We reproduce after our kind. It is not easy to follow Christ as our only example; we are surrounded by many distractions. Like Peter walking on the water, we can look at the circumstances (Matt. 14:30). Or, like Peter walking on the land, we look at other believers (John 21:20–21). “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” is easy to read in Hebrews 12:2, but difficult to practice in the midst of the storm.

* *

These principles are not exhaustive or definitive, but they have helped me during a quarter of a century of ministry. Perhaps they will help you and perhaps your experience will help to improve and expand what I have written here.

Ministry must never be static. God has made us, and God continues to make us. The grace of God that saved us continues to work in us and through us to enable us to be “ministers of a new covenant” (II Cor. 3:6). I agree with Phillips Brooks: “Let us rejoice with one another that in a world where there are a great many good and happy things for men to do, God has given us the best and happiest, and made us preachers of his truth.” But do not limit the excitement and joy to the preaching of the Word only, for every true ministry is born of God and can enjoy God’s blessing.

“He is the greatest Master I have ever known,” wrote David Livingstone near the close of his life. “If there is anyone greater, I do not know him. Jesus Christ is the only Master supremely worth serving. He is the only ideal that never loses its inspiration. He is the only friend whose friendship meets every demand. He is the only Saviour who can save us to the uttermost. We go forth in His name, in His power, and in His Spirit, to serve Him.”

Former pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, Warren W. Wiersbe is now devoting his time to writing and lecturing.

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