Pastors and Problem People

No pastor likes to have problem people in the church. They can irritate, often become time-consuming, block progress and, among other things, stir up trouble with others. How should he relate to them? That’s always the question that a shepherd faces while tending his recalcitrant sheep. Sheep wander and get lost; they may be stubborn and obstinate. They do foolish things, and are vulnerable to animals of prey. Good shepherds feed their sheep, leading them to lush pastures. They use their staffs to pull them away from dangerous precipices, and their rods to beat off the wolf that would snatch them from the fold. Clearly, when you think of how Moses and Aaron complained again and again about the people of Israel as “obstinate” and “stiff-necked” it is easy to understand that the difficulty you experience is in no way new or unique. So, that’s the first thing: you must reckon on having problem people in your church just as a shepherd reckons with his flock. That is the nature of the ministry. It goes with the turf.

There are some ministers of the Word who lose patience with such people—they want to “get them out of the way.” The back door in their churches is always unlocked—sometimes standing wide open! They are always ready to show problem people where it is. Other pastors become discouraged; they wonder if there is something wrong with their ministry, and whether they ought rather to be selling insurance. Still others give up on their churches, anxious to move on to some place where they will find the people more “spiritual”—or, at the least, more convivial. Only to discover, of course, that such churches rarely exist. I suppose there are a dozen or more other reactions that might be mentioned, but surely these are sufficient to set the scene for what I am about to say.

And that is—difficulties with problem people is what ministry is all about! You aren’t really ministering unless you are helping such people to change. “HA!” you say. “I’d like you to see my bunch. Maybe you’d change your mind about that if you did. Change them? That’s nearly impossible.”

Well, perhaps it is. But probably it isn’t. Naturally, there are times to give up on a particular group of people. God finally did when He sent His people off into exile. But, of course, even then He worked with them for 70 years and at length brought them back to Palestine. Finally, there came a time when the cup of His patience was filled to overflowing, and there was a final end (Matthew 23:32; Luke 21:22). But that was only after God showed amazing patience and longsuffering. Very few pastors ever need come to that place with their congregations—and even if they might, how would they know when such a time has arrived. It is the place of a faithful steward of the grace of God to continue patiently working with problem people. Let the One Who holds the churches in His hand determine when to remove a lampstand. God has shown us great patience in His dealings with His people (indeed, and in his dealing with each of us as well!).

Paul has a clear word on the subject in I Thessalonians 5:11, 14:

Therefore encourage one another and continue to build each other up, as indeed you have been doing . . . We urge you, brothers, counsel the idle, encourage the timid, support the weak, be patient with everyone.

That, of course, isn’t the only passage that might be quoted. When you think of the amazing patience that Paul exhibited with the Corinthian church, you can see what patient forbearing means. But, for now, simply think about this passage alone. You will note, when Paul wrote these words to the church at Thessalonica, he wasn’t even writing to pastors in particular, but to all the members of the congregation (his words make that clear: “one another . . . brothers”). What were they (and certainly their pastors as well) to do about problem people? The answer? “Build them up.” “Counsel them.” “Encourage them.” “Support them” and “be patient with everyone.”

Now, of course, we are not speaking of schismatic persons—those who would split your church. Paul wants you to discipline them immediately before it’s too late (see Titus 3:10). After confronting them once or twice, if there is no change in their attitude and behavior, they must be subject to church discipline.

But we are talking about the run-of-the-mill problem person. The reason why God put you there is to minister to such people. There would be no work for an undertaker if no one ever died. Similarly, there would be no place for your ministry if there were no problem people for you to help. Indeed, helping such persons solve problems and grow in their faith is a major part of your work. “If you can’t stand the heat,” they say, “then get out of the kitchen.” You may have to. But better still, why not learn how to take it. Someone must do the cooking. And when you resolve to do so—to minister as fully as possible to problem people-you will soon discover that the changes that do take place are worth the effort. Soon you’ll learn to stand the heat like every good cook!

God’s servants have never had a good time of it (Read again Hebrews 11). But they served—in all sorts of situations, most of which were probably far worse than yours. And God blessed them. Sometimes it was only a few, but never as Elijah thought, none, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Often, a minister of the word was himself ejected from his place of ministry (John to Patmos, Paul to Jail). But even there God used them to continue to minister in different ways. Come on now, discouraged, disheartened pastor: the church is a hospital for the spiritually sick, and you are a physician of the soul. What good would a physician be in a hospital of well people? It is the sick and needy that Jesus helped. It is the sinner and the troublemaker that you are called to minister to. Remember what the word “minister” means—“servant.” You are called to serve God by serving His people. Ask God to forgive you for your discouragement, pick up your Bible once again, and go to work with patience and zeal!

Two Failures

There are two outstanding failures that one can detect in counseling when he has an opportunity to watch it.

  1. Many counselors use too much Scripture.  They throw verse after verse at counselees, piling them up for him, presumably to take home. A person can digest only so much material in a counseling session or during the week following. He needs to drive home one or two verses, plainly explained, if he wants to see biblical results.
  2. Not any verse will do.  Not only must a verse be explained as to its meaning, but also counselors must show how it is appropriate to the counselee, and how he may apply it to his situation. These are key factors at which one must not fail!

Never Enough!

“What is it with preachers anyway? They never seem to get enough! Week after week, there they are up there in front of us prodding us to get with it in doing this, believing that, having a new attitude about . . . If you can exhort a person about anything, they’ll find a way to do it. They’re never satisfied. What a change it would be if some day they would just get up and compliment us!”

Is it right for preachers to always be urging people on to greater heights? Would it be wise for them to take a rest now and then from doing so?

Well, Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church and told them how great they were doing. So, it certainly isn’t wrong to note progress when one sees it. But to this church—doing as well as they were—he also had this to say:

Finally, brothers, we ask and urge you . . . as you learned from us how you ought to walk and please God (even as you are walking), that you continue to do more and more.
1 Thessalonians 4:1

It wasn’t enough! Paul commended them (as we should when there is something to genuinely commend), but used that very commendation to urge “more and more” of the same.

No, it wouldn’t be good for preachers to stop urging, exhorting and encouraging. People need it; it is the task of a faithful preacher to provide it for them. So, don’t complain when the preacher starts digging under your toenails—that’s his job. Yours is to listen, to profit and to do what God says. And, to do it “more and more.” Be glad that your preacher is always asking for more—he’s one with Paul in doing that!


Someone has found 684 commands in the New Testament. Accurate or not, the number must be somewhere nearly so.

And, yet, there are those who believe that any command given to another believer is merely law or works, or something equally as reprehensible to them.

It is neither wrong for God to command us (as Christ in the great commission did), nor preachers today to do so. God doesn’t wrong us by doing so; He commands His children as any good Father would—for our benefit. Why is it, then, that this strange idea is abroad today that all commands are wrong?

Is the problem, then, that we ought not need commands, and that the idea of issuing commands indicates those who need them are living at a lower level than they should?  Or is it simply that the objectors just don’t like to be told what to so?

Whatever the reason, commands there are in the Bible—and we’d better heed all of those directed to us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

You Never Know

I was talking to him about biblical matters the very last day he was conscious.  That night he had an unexpected bout with pneumonia from which he never recovered. Today, one week and two days later, I read his obituary. One week—and he was gone!

Death is certain, but its time, place and circumstance are not.  How important, then, that we take opportunities to remind others of the need and the way of salvation. I am grateful that the Lord gave me such an opportunity with Ernie.

Is there someone about whose eternal future you are not sure to whom you could  speak? Why not take advantage of that opportunity?  God may use it to bring someone to Christ.

From the Days of John

In Luke 16:16 Jesus made an interesting comment about preaching. He contrasted preaching before the coming of John the Baptist with preaching after his advent. Here are His words:

The law and the prophets were preached until John; from this time on, God’s kingdom has been preached and everybody has been pressing into it.

In other words, preaching would take on a new aspect. Jesus had risen and was ascended to the Father’s right hand. He was ruling over His new kingdom. He had given Peter the keys to the kingdom from the heavens, and he opened the door to the new church, first for the Jews (on Pentecost), and then for the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. He was preaching a new message—the kingdom had come!

The same emphasis may be found in the account of the transfiguration. There, Moses and Elijah (representing the law and the prophets) are said to discuss the coming exodus in which Jesus would lead men from death into life. And as these two Old Covenant figures receded into the background, God’s voice was heard to say to all coming generations, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him!” There was to be a change from the Old era to the new in which the commandments of Jesus would be uppermost (Matthew 28:20).

The new wine could not be poured into old wineskins; the new cloth would not do as a patch sewed on a new garment. A new era with new ways had dawned. The shadows were gone; the reality had come.

Preachers should no longer preach as they once did. Now, they must interpret every passage in the Old or New Testament with New Testament eyes. They must preach the new kingdom from the heavens!

Specifics—Aren’t They Wonderful?

Isn’t it wonderful that the Bible doesn’t just leave us with generalities to figure out their applications to specific situations? Sure, there are plenty of those issues where that is exactly what we must do; but God has also laid out plenty of specific directions as well.

“Give me a for instance, please.”

Delighted to do so. Take the issue of church discipline found in Matthew 18:15ff. There, we are told precisely how to handle the situation. If a person goes to another who has wronged him, and the other repents, he is to be forgiven and there is to be reconciliation.   If he refuses, step two is provided—take others with you. If there is still refusal, then there is a third step clearly set forth—tell it to the church. If that fails, then he is to be put out of the church. Specifics! Precisely what many in the church today decry. The Bible, they say, is a story into which you are to enter, allowing events to change you as you focus on redemption.

But, thankfully—there are even specifics about how the recalcitrant, disciplined, brother is to be received if he repents: you receive him in the status of a full brother: check out korizo, you must help, assist, comfort him (parakaleo), and you are to forgive him ( 2 Corinthians 2:8-11).  Now, that’s laying out a program—what many would decry as “cookbook theology.” Call it what you will, Scripture often gives us general principles from which we must reason to specific conclusions and map our courses of action, on the basis of those and other biblical principles that are brought together in a fruitful way.  But not always so—as some would have you think. There are concrete directions a-plenty as well.

“Can you give me another for instance?”

Consider matters concerning divorce, for instance, that are laid out in the Gospels for God’s covenant people, and in I Corinthians 7 for those believers who are married to those who are not (presumably when one has become a Christian after marriage, and the other has not).

“Thanks. I guess you’re right.”

So, don’t get caught up in those schemes of biblical interpretation that limit your options where the Bible doesn’t. God’s Word is a big book—it has much to say, and many ways to say it. Don’t shrink it to some insular volume that to which the  method of interpretation that a narrow school of thought does. God addresses us just as we address one another—in lots of different ways. Paul could have commanded Philemon to release Onesimus . . . right?”

“He says he has the right to do so.”

“Sure; but, in wisdom that would lead to the former’s spiritual growth, he allows him to make the decision. (Not without a lot of hints along the way!)”

There are confining systems imposed upon Bible interpretation today that hinder true understanding, that send one searching for what was never supposed to be found, that find what never was lost, and that frustrate the simple believer to whom most of the Scriptures were written. Be careful not to be caught up in any of them.

Providential Living

3I can say that it is only because of God’s providential working that today I look back on my ministry as primarily a pastoral and teaching ministry. If you were to ask my wife, at the time she married me, what she thought we’d be doing for the next 60 years, she’d probably tell you, as she has told me, that she thought I’d become a missionary or a traveling evangelist. Instead, I have, at various times, been a Youth For Christ Director, a pastor, a professor, and an author. I suspect that at the time when I graduated from seminary in 1948, I would have also thought along similar lines as my wife. But at that time, only one of these objectives was in view—the pastoral ministry.

How, then, did things change? Not by any deliberate about face. Rather, it was a multitude of little providential happenings that moved me out of one ministry orientation into another. Looking back, I can say that, if what has occurred in my life is typical, God surely rules over each one of us in ways that, at the time, we don’t quite understand, to bring about His will.

How did things turn out as they did? It was in that first pastorate that some of my writing began. And teaching, from the start found its way into my life. Because of my concern about the liberalism in the community I wrote a tract exposing error and contrasting it with biblical truth. The tract clearly indicted the apostate Presbyterian USA denomination, a congregation of which was in the community adjacent to our church. That caused something of a furor as the pastor protested to my presbytery—which backed me, but urged me to be careful about how I presented myself in such matters. Then, writing also became of an increasing interest as I did an exegetical study for Wednesday evening prayer meetings in the Book of Revelation. Some people got wind of this, and wanted me to explain my views. Others also wished the same. Soon, I found I would be doing little else, if I didn’t write it out and distribute it instead. That, my first book, which was published in 1958 was the beginning of a writing ministry that I would have laughed at you for suggesting it at that time.

Interest in teaching also began in that pastorate in Eighty Four (the home of 84 Lumber) Pennsylvania. Two other pastor friends and I began a Bible school in nearby Canonsburg. There I began preparing syllabi, and learned something about teaching in a formal academic manner.

Things went on from there to the present, in unexpected and largely unplanned ways, until I found myself inextricably bound to the type of ministry that had been carved out for me long before I knew anything about it. Even the publication of Competent to Counsel, the book that made me more widely known, was not planned. I had no notion of publishing it. It was intended to be a text for my students at Westminster Seminary. But, since it was produced in smeary mimeograph of the day, I asked a printer friend to make a stiffer cover and bind it for me. He was doing printing for P&R Publishers at the time, showed it to them, and they asked if they could publish it. This, perhaps the most significant event in turning my ministry toward counseling, was likewise unplanned, as you can see.

Many, many other matters have happened this way. God’s providential work in my life has been noteworthy. I could never have charted such a course as I have taken–including a ministry of blogging in my old age! He alone could have fitted so many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together so as to make some sense out of it! No wonder I think providence to be a significant doctrine to proclaim.

The Despicable List

Are you on this Despicable List?

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, there is a list of the sort of people who will not “inherit God’s kingdom.” Here, the word “kingdom” refers, obviously, to its eternal phase, heaven.

This list sounds final, the way that it is worded, no hope in sight. But it isn’t. Indeed, in the very next verse we read,

These are what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were declared righteous, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

If you think you are too bad to go to heaven, then think again. Take a look at the list and see if it includes you. You see, it isn’t good people who are granted eternal life—there are none. What qualifies one for salvation is that he isn’t saved already.

Let me put it another way: if you aren’t a sinner it’s impossible for your sins to be forgiven, for you to be washed clean of them, for you to be declared righteous. Since you are a sinner, you can be cleansed.

The list was not intended to be a final word. It includes only those who remain in the unrighteous condition in which you now find yourself. If you are not saved, you will be excluded from God’s kingdom. But if you believe the Gospel, you will be transformed, placed in a different category—saved!

Now, will you continue in your present state, or will you come to Jesus Christ as Savior? If you want to be freed not only from the guilt of sin, but from its power, then repent of it (I.e., confess to God that you are a sinner, guilty of breaking His law), and believe the Gospel (that Jesus Christ died in the place of sinners like you, bearing their guilt, suffering in their stead the punishment due them).

If you will believe this message, you will be granted a place in God’s eternal kingdom on the basis of His merits. Your faith is but the way to receive the gift of eternal life.

It is a fearful thing to have your name remain on that list. Now is the time for it to be expunged. Don’t delay.

The Heart of the Matter

In Acts 1:24 God is called the “Heart-Knower.” Knowing hearts is God’s business—not ours.

There are people in counseling who think that they can read the hearts of their counselees so as to learn what “idols” they have in their hearts. That is an impossible task, and should not be pursued.

“But I’ve heard people (even some Nouthetic counselors) talk that way; are they all wrong?”

Well, judge for yourself.

First, it is absolutely clear that nowhere is searching another’s heart set forth as a counseling construct. If you don’t believe me, then search the Scriptures, fellow-Berean!

Next, consider these verses:

. . . may you hear in heaven, Your dwelling place, and may You forgive and repay the man according to all his ways, since You know his heart, for You alone know the human heart.  (2 Chronicles 6:30)

. . . may You hear in heaven, Your dwelling place, and may You forgive, act, and repay the man, according to all his ways, since You know his heart, for You alone know every human heart.  (1 Kings 8:39)

Two absolutely clear passages—both say that nobody can read hearts but God. Right?

“Well. . . “


“I guess so.”

Guess? How can you guess about an outright affirmation of the fact?

“What about Ezekiel 14:3-8, then?”

This is what the Lord God says: When anyone from the house of Israel sets up idols in his heart, puts a sinful stumbling block before his face, and then comes to the prophet, I, the Lord, will answer him appropriately. I will answer him according to his many idols, so that I may take hold of the house of Israel by their hearts, because they are all estranged from Me by their idols. “Therefore, say to the house of Israel: This is what the Lord God says: Repent and turn away from your idols; turn your faces away from all your abominations. For when anyone from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who reside in Israel separates himself from Me, setting up idols in his heart and putting a sinful stumbling block before his face, and then comes to the prophet to inquire of Me, I, the Lord, will answer him Myself. I will turn against that one and make him a sign and a proverb; I will cut him off from among My people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

OK, I’m willing to let you change the subject. First, Ezekiel 14 isn’t a counseling context. Secondly, it says nothing about idols manufactured by one’s heart. In verses 3, 4, 7 it talks about setting up idols in (or on) the heart, not producing them. The context, and much of Ezekiel, takes up the serious matter of idolatry. The people had been exiled, in large part, because of idolatry. But here they were, exiles, who were forced to leave their idols behind, longing for the idols they had left. So, instead of abandoning idolatry, they carried thoughts (and, perhaps, imaginations) of those idols in their hearts. That’s what the passage is all about. Besides, no one is ordered to find out what idols a person might have in his heart. Right?

Moreover, when people go about looking for idols in another’s heart, even though there is no command or example to do so, they act almost like those who are looking for demons of this and demons of that. That’s not a good thing to do.

1 Samuel 16:7 should clinch it for you.

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature, because I have rejected him. Man does not see what the Lord sees, for man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.”

Here, man is set over against God precisely with reference to the matter of knowing hearts—man looks on the outside of another man; God looks on the heart!

In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, Paul makes it clear that he doesn’t even judge what is in his own heart—let alone that which is in another’s.

To me it is of little consequence to be judged by you or by the judgement of any other human being; indeed, I don’t even judge myself. Now I am not conscious of anything against myself, but that doesn’t mean that I am innocent. The One Who judges me is the Lord. So don’t judge ahead of time, before the Lord comes, Who will bring to light the things that are now hidden in darkness and will make the purposes of heart to appear. At that time each one will receive his praise from God.

So—what do you think after examining those passages?

“Well . . . .”

Give it some more thought and I’m sure you’ll get it right. Man looks at actions and listens to the words of others, when he counsels. He would not presume to take over God’s task of looking into the hearts of counselees.

How about it?