Courage and Christian Ministry

by J. Alan Branch September 20, 2015

Two of my favorite characters from church history are Athanasius (296- 373) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Athanasius was a defender of the deity of Christ at a time when the heresy of Arianism threatened the Church.  Jonathan Edwards was a unique blend of crisp intellectual thought and a passion for the lost.  Both of them are heralded as heroes of the faith. 

And because of their convictions, they were both forced to leave positions of ministry. Athanasius was deposed from his leadership position in Alexandria because of his doctrinal stand.  Jonathan Edwards was asked to leave his pastorate in Northhampton because of his convictions surrounding the necessity of a converted church membership.  These were men of spiritual steel who were willing to stand for the core truths of the Christian faith when faced with a challenge to compromise.  They maintained their convictions because they loved Jesus Christ and His church.  From Athanasius and Edwards we learn the importance of the virtue of courage in Christian ministry.

There are two types of courage: moral courage and physical courage.  Moral courage means we do the right thing in spite of opposition.  Physical courage involves overcoming imminent, physical danger. Both types of courage are required for Christian ministry. 

The virtue of courage is more clearly understood when it is compared to its opposite vice:  cowardice. Proverbs 29:25 describes the effects of cowardice and says, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  When pastors are challenged on a key point in ministry, it is frequently the case that we begin what I call “panic thinking.”  An avalanche of worst case scenarios floods our minds: “They’ll fire me.  I’ll lose my home.  I’ll lose my ability to support my family.  I’ll have to move back to my parents’ home.  I’ll be a public failure.” 

Each of these scenarios revolves around fears that arise from what other people may or may not do to us and Proverbs 29:25 says this will snare us.  If we as ministers focus on the threats of men, we may exchange the long term health of the church for a more expedient short-term course of action that takes pressure off of us.  This is essentially anthropocentric thinking verses theocentric thinking, the contrast made vivid when Proverbs 29:25 says, “Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” 

Trusting God leads to courage.  And courage leads to successful ministry.

Cowardice can lead one to become negative or cynical.  What I mean is that cowardice or inordinate fear often expresses itself in a negative attitude.  Alan Nelson articulates the particular relationship between fear and negativity when he says, “On the fear continuum low-grade fear is expressed as negativity.  As a general rule negative people are more fearful than merely pessimistic people.  They disguise their fear in cynicism, finding it socially acceptable that way.”[1]  In contrast, courage breeds hopefulness and optimism. 

I would like to offer a special word of encouragement to ministers who will be involved in plateaued or declining churches.  Some churches are dying because of current leadership.   Gentle and good people in dying churches often have been bullied by very assertive and brazen local church tyrants who shamelessly believe the church is simply another arena for them to assert themselves.  These “church bullies” have an attitude much like Diotrephes in 3 John:  They love to be first (3 John 9).  You will need an extra measure of courage to address people like this.  You must ask yourself, “Is the conversion of the lost important enough for me to address the dysfunctional leadership structure here?”  The task of a pastor or leader in such a setting is painful and courage is especially necessary. 

Stand strong: God has been faithful to other pastors and he will be faithful to you. 

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[1] Alan Nelson, Coached By Jesus (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing, 2005), 84-85.