For students of the Pastors’ College, their Friday meetings with C. H. Spurgeon were often a time of joy. But on one occasion, the meeting was marked by solemn heartache. Word had reached Spurgeon that “a minister in whom he had placed great confidence, and who had gone from the college, had greatly fallen.” The students knew that Spurgeon always took matters of personal purity with terrible earnestness. Now, having heard the news, he stood to address his students.
Rolling up his coat-sleeve, and placing his bare wrist on the platform rail, he said, in tones solemn and awful, “Brethren, I would sooner have had this right hand severed from my body than that this should have happened.”
Spurgeon knew that the fall of a minister brought great shame to the church and the witness of the gospel. He would rather be maimed than to see such spiritual harm brought to God’s people. So even as he devoted himself to training pastors, Spurgeon urged his students again and again: Fight for personal holiness.
A Higher Standard of Holiness
If you’ve been in ministry for any period of time, you know that there are particular temptations that come from being in that position. Listen to Spurgeon on this:
Upon the whole, no place is so assailed with temptation as the ministry. Despite the popular idea that ours is a snug retreat from temptation, it is no less true that our dangers are more numerous and more insidious than those of ordinary Christians. Ours may be a vantage-ground for height, but that height is perilous, and to many the ministry has proved a Tarpeian rock. If you ask what these temptations are, time might fail us to particularize them; … your own observation will soon reveal to you a thousand snares, unless indeed your eyes are blinded.
In the face of temptations, whether in public or in private, pastors must fight for holiness. They have to maintain a clear conscience before God in all that they do. And yet the call here is not for ordinary holiness, which we would want for all the members of our churches. Instead, there is a higher level of holiness that all ministers should aspire to and attain. Spurgeon writes,
The highest moral character must be sedulously maintained. Many are disqualified for office in the church who are well enough as simple members… Holiness in a minister is at once his chief necessity and his goodliest ornament. Mere moral excellence is not enough, there must be the higher virtue.
To be sure, it’s a wonderful gift to be simply a member of a church in good standing. But just because you are a church member, that doesn’t mean qualify you to lead the church. Rather, pastors are to be an example to the flock, as Peter writes, and this includes your character and spiritual life. You must be an example in your holiness.
The Pastor’s Many Temptations
So what does this look like? Well, you’ll notice in the previous quote, Spurgeon didn’t want to list out all the temptations in the ministry, because there are thousands of them, I’m sure. But in one of his lectures, Spurgeon does give his students a list of things to watch out for, even seemingly “small sins.”
When we say to you, my dear brethren, take care of your life, we mean be careful of even the minutiae of your character. Avoid little debts, unpunctuality, gossipping, nicknaming, petty quarrels, and all other of those little vices which fill the ointment with flies. The self-indulgences which have lowered the repute of many must not be tolerated by us. The familiarities which have laid others under suspicion, we must chastely avoid. The roughnesses which have rendered some obnoxious, and the fopperies which have made others contemptible, we must put away. We cannot afford to run great risks through little things. Our care must be to act on the rule, “giving no offence in anything, that the ministry be not blamed.”
One of the benefits of reading history is that we get to see things from a different perspective. Here Spurgeon urges the minister to be mindful of these temptations because if he is not careful, they will damage his ministry. Each of these points gives us an opportunity to examine ourselves.
- little debts – How are your finances? Are you living within your means? Are you cultivating contentment with what you have?
- unpunctuality – Are you managing your time well? Are you finishing your work on time? Do you show up on time to meetings?
- gossiping – How are you guarding your tongue? As you hear sensitive pastoral information, are you wise and discrete with that information?
- nicknaming – Are you mindful of name-calling, of using language that offends others? Do you treat people with respect? This is not so much about political correctness, but about caring well for others.
- petty quarrels, and all other of those little vices which fill the ointment with flies – Are you quarrelsome (especially on social media)? Do you always have to have the last word? Are you impatient in your speech? Do you cultivate peace?
- The self-indulgences which have lowered the repute of many must not be tolerated by us; The familiarities which have laid others under suspicion, we must chastely avoid – What are the self-indulgences that you tolerate in your life in secret? What are the questionable shows or entertainments that you enjoy? Do you tolerate any secret addictions?
- The roughnesses which have rendered some obnoxious – Are you marked by gentleness and self-control? Or are you a bully towards others?
- The fopperies which have made others contemptible, we must put away – Are you tempted to act like a diva in ministry? Do you use the ministry to show off? Is there an element of showmanship in your ministry?
Spurgeon knew that a terrible fall does not begin with one huge temptation. No, it begins with little temptations. As pastors tolerate “little” sins, they grow hardened. Over time, they begin to tolerate other sins, and they end up on a dangerous path.
A Wondrously Attractive Holiness
Given all these points, you could get the wrong idea that the minister is constantly looking over his shoulder and worried about what people think of him. That’s not what’s going on. There is a difference between pursuing holiness and trying to keep up with the moral etiquette of the day. Spurgeon didn’t care much for the latter. London had plenty of high-class gentlemen who were offended by Spurgeon’s common manner and plain speech, and he was happy to offend them. At the same time, Spurgeon didn’t want his students to sink down into coarseness or vulgarity, as so many preachers of his day did. He writes,
By this is not intended that we are to hold ourselves bound by every whim or fashion of the society in which we move. As a general rule I hate the fashions of society, and detest conventionalities, and if I conceived it best to put my foot through a law of etiquette, I should feel gratified in having it to do. No, we are men, not slaves; and are not to relinquish our manly freedom, to be the lacqueys of those who affect gentility or boast refinement. Yet, brethren, anything that verges upon the coarseness which is akin to sin, we must shun as we would a viper. The rules of Chesterfield are ridiculous to us, but not the example of Christ; and he was never coarse, low, discourteous, or indelicate.
It’s also important that as we pursue holiness, we don’t begin to put on airs, to see ourselves as some kind of higher class of Christian, thinking that we are better than those ordinary people. Spurgeon writes,
How shall [a pastor] order his speech among his fellow-men? First and foremost, let me say, let him give himself no ministerial airs, but avoid everything which is stilted, official, fussy, and pretentious. “The Son of Man” is a noble title; it was given to Ezekiel, and to a greater than he: let not the ambassador of heaven be other than a son of man…. There is such a thing as trying to be too much a minister, and becoming too little a man.
Spurgeon’s goal for the Pastors’ College was to produce holy and yet commonplace pastors who would be equipped to speak to and associate with the masses, with the common man, with the working man, not aloof, restrained, socially awkward men, but rather men who attracted people to Christ. Because this was the proper effect of holiness in the preacher’s life – not to turn people away, but to make Christ more attractive:
The life of the preacher should be a magnet to draw men to Christ, and it is sad indeed when it keeps them from him. Sanctity in ministers is a loud call to sinners to repent, and when allied with holy cheerfulness it becomes wondrously attractive.
The holiness that Spurgeon was after is one that is humble and happy and “wondrously attractive,” just like our Savior’s. This is what he sought to model for his students and this is what we should strive for in our lives.