Welcome back to our series about the future of Christian leadership. This is an extended version of a conference talk I gave at the recent Acts29 National Conference. For this series, I am leaning on 1 Corinthians 16:13–14, which says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” I think this short passage captures several important themes that are in tension with one another. Those themes are the five verbs in the passage, four of which form two pairs of ideas that work in tension with one another.
The first tension is between the twin commands to “Be Watchful” and “Stand firm in the faith.” For a couple of weeks, we are looking at what it is we are supposed to be watching for. Last week, we talked about the need to watch for language, and not just words. This week, I want to talk about watching for needs, not desires.
Much of the modern discourse around personhood, civil rights, and equity is formed around the language of need and desire. Last week we talked about the rise of therapeutic language as the common tongue of this age. Therapeutic language has come to dominate every aspect of modern life, even things that would seem to be far removed from the therapist’s purview. Two books, The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Philip Rieff and The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman do an excellent job of explaining, both philosophically and historically, how this has come to be, so make sure to read those soon!
For our purposes, we simply need to know that over the last two hundred years or so, two philosophical movements have taken place and between them, completely redefined the way we think about and talk about ourselves. The first movement was from a worldview that assumed transcendence to one that assumed immanence. Charles Taylor used these words to describe different “frames” through which one could view the world. The emergence of the immanent frame forced people to explain the world and themselves in a way that rejected anything divine or transcendent. Ethics, meaning, beauty, and ultimately the Self all had to be understood in terms that presupposed an atheistic worldview.
Meaning and value, dignity and beauty all became subjective things because they could no longer be rooted in an eternally objective thing like God. Ultimately Selfhood itself had to be understood purely in subjective and, as Alasdair MacIntyre called it, “emotive” terms. In other words, I have a Self because I feel like a Self. And I define my Self as whatever I decide I will be. When ideas can no longer be rooted in objective realities, they become purely expressions of personal desire.
All of this has culminated in the world we live in today where the highest virtue is self-expression and the greatest evil is anything that would restrain my self-expression. This makes total sense in a purely immanent world, where nothing supernatural exists. If there is nothing eternal and unchanging, then I alone stand at the center of reality.
One of the practical impacts of this for pastoral ministry is that for the modern people we lead, every desire is as legitimate as every need. In fact, it has blurred the line between the two categories altogether. If self-expression is my greatest end, then anything I want immediately becomes a need and, in fact, a right. Specifically, if I feel like a woman, you have to grant me the total freedom to express that feeling in any way I see fit, or else you are an oppressor.
It goes one step further. If, in fact, unfettered self-expression is the highest virtue, then I am obligated to express myself to the fullest extent I can imagine. I self-oppress if I hem in my desires in any way and so we see - and will continue to see - a never-ending vicious cycle of self-expression unto nihilism.
So how does this connect to our text? One of the things we have to become skilled at as pastors and Christian leaders is differentiating between the genuine needs of our people and what is simply a felt desire - or even just self-expression compelled by the shame of surrounding culture. How do we do this? We’ll need three things: the Bible, courage, and a lot of grace.
How can we know the difference between need and desire? The Bible has to be our plum line. The Bible outlines for us, over and over, what the true needs of the human soul are. We need to be loved, we need a saving relationship with God, we need the Holy Spirit, and we need the support and correction of Christian community. The list goes on but the list is exhaustive and “unfettered self-expression” isn’t on it.
The desire to be something of your own creation is called idolatry, not virtue. We have a creator and he is also our definer. He has made us what we are and he has made us for a purpose. We are to be his image bearers and to exercise dominion over his world in a way that reflects his character and will. The Bible alone can help us to differentiate between true needs and fleeting desires.
The second thing we will need is courage. The modern world hates drawn lines and we will have to draw some if we are to stay faithful and actually help our people. Folks will leave your church when you draw lines and they will trash you on the way out. They will call you names and work to undermine your reputation with other people. You’ll be called a bigot. And that’s OK. Christians have been called worse, we’ll survive. But it will hurt and it will make you question your positions and it will tempt you to cave to the desires of people you love. Which is why it will take a lot of courage to navigate the coming years.
Lastly, it will take a lot of grace. Grace for yourself and for those you lead. You will make mistakes, you will fail and the people who you think love you will hurt you. You will need to apply grace to yourself and to your people. You can never forget that people are deeply broken by sin and have an enemy who hates them and is actively working to destroy them and you. We have lean on grace to get us through and remember that grace alone can change a person’s heart.