Ambition in the Ministry

Get this picture: a conference with a couple thousand in attendance, an older but very prominent figure in southern IFB circles as the keynote speaker, the host pastor introduces the preacher.

Truth be told, a large percentage of the audience in attendance was a result of the old preacher’s ministry, either directly or indirectly. He had pastored the same church longer than many of the pastors at the conference had been alive. As the hosting pastor introduced the preacher, he waxed eloquent about having vision and attempting to do “big things” for God. He quoted Proverbs 29:18 (“Where there is no vision, the people perish:”) and maked several honorable statements about the old preacher’s vision and the resulting ministry that was built. The crowd gave a hearty “Amen” and the preacher approached the pulpit. He gave a few comments in salutation and appreciation. He then explained, “Really, in the beginning, I had no vision. I only asked God to use me as he saw fit.” Oddly, there were fewer amens.

That night, I sat amongst those in attendance. I can only speak for myself, but the litany of accomplishments that were listed prior to that statement seemed to pale in comparison to the humility with which the veteran preacher spoke. At that moment and each time I replay it in my mind, I have to ask the question: is it supposed to be any other way?

In the early decades of the twentieth century, fundamentalists gained the reputation for empire building. Men like J. Frank Norris “determined to do everything he could to build the biggest church in the world.” Norris himself became the pastor of two churches which claimed a combined average of 25,000 members.

Since then, lines have been drawn and circles have been established. But, the imperialist spirit lives on. In many cases, fundamentalist churches are known more for their pastor than for the actual ministry. People and resources are consolidated rather than dispersed, and preachers become more like fundamentalist dictators rather than shepherds. The goal of their ministries is building to the neglect of reaching. 

In Luke 14, however, we see quite the opposite. The Lord Jesus is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for the sole purpose of tricking Him into breaking the law of the Sabbath. After exposing their plan and proving their accusation a farce, the Lord observes the way those who were invited chose where they were to sit during the supper (v. 7). Seeing that “those which were bidden” desired the most prominent seat possible, the Lord Jesus strongly advises them:

When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.
(Luke 14:8-10)

Though the Lord Jesus was speaking to a different people of a different time, the exhortation needs to be heard today as much as then. We would do well to learn not to concern ourselves with high positions no matter what the setting is. We should rather be content with modest positions. A simple reason for this is because prideful ambition is appalling to anyone.

However, there is a much more fundamental reason for not seeking out as high a position as possible in whatever circumstance we face. In verse 11 the Lord states:

For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(Luke 14:11)

It is a concrete principle of the kingdom of God that if we seek to exalt ourselves, in disgust of our pride, God will bring us low crushing our ambition. On the other hand, if we are to be exalted, as only God can bring about, we must humble ourselves and allow the Lord to exalt us as He sees fit.

This is a stark contrast to our natural ambition. We prefer to live by quotes such as “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.” All the while, God’s Word implies quite a different motto – “Humble youself before God; wait to be exalted by God.” This theme is seen in Scripture time and again.

Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.
(Psalm 138:6)

A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit.
(Proverbs 29:23) 

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
(Matthew 23:12)

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:14)

But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
(James 4:6)

The fact is, what we call our vision, more often than not, is only what our pride has us convinced we are capable of. Like the old preacher, we have no vision except that which God reveals to us in His will, through His Word, and in His timing. We have only to plead with Him to deliver us from the pride that infests our good intentions. Then, and only then will he use us, because then and only then can He get the glory through us.

The thing is, by that time we won’t want to be exalted. We will declare with John the Baptist, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

With all that said, the only question I have is this: when is ambition in the ministry ever appropriate? I would suggest the answer is never.

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2 comments so far

  1. DT on

    “People and resources are consolidated rather than dispersed”

    This is the natural tendency of man, as seen at Babel and the early church. It takes a move of God, such as the persecution of the early church to get us out to do His work. Perhaps this is what we need today. The problem exists both in evangelicalism and fundamentalism, albiet for different reasons, and you did a good job pointing out the reasons from the fundamentalist perspective.

    As far as “never” being your conclusion, I get what you’re saying, but someone can easily misinterpret that and think we should never set goals. Vision is a good thing when it takes its proper place. For instance, I have a vision that God can do great things in my city some day, and I’d be happy to be used in that service. But my vision points to how great God is, not how great my ministry would be one day. Lacking vision could be just as detremental as having too much. In either case, at the end of the day, you’re absolutely correct – the best thing for us to envision is simply doing the Lord’s will.

  2. TJ on

    True. “Never” was a bit drastic. But, of course i was talking about the pride filled ambition that desires for us to be exalted, rather than allowing God to exalt us according to His will.
    Ambition is not the culprit. It is our pride that we must be delivered from. We have to find a healthy balance between a humble, submissive spirit and a bold, determined obedience.


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