What Does the Bible Say About Ministry Success?
Worshiping Ministry Success like Gideon’s Golden Ephod
Gideon is most well known for using the moisture level of a fleece to determine if God wanted him to attack an army or not. All in all, he is typically known as one of the good guys, someone who was faithful to the Lord, who walked righteously and who delivered God’s people from oppressive armies and from idolatry (Judges 6-8). Heck he even made honorable mention in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11:32. In spite of all this, there is a subtle little scene placed at the very end of Scripture’s account Gideon’s life that is much more convicting and probably much more applicable than anything else written about him, fleece included.
Gideon has achieved massive success. He has led the Israelites faithfully. He has freed them from the physical oppression of enemy armies and most importantly, he did what was nearly impossible to do in the Old Testament, and that was get the Israelites to stop worshiping idols.
This is a ministry dream come true. (If Christian magazines existed back then, Gideon would have for sure been everyone’s cover boy)
As his ministry trophy case is on full display to the community of faith, they approach him with a tantalizing proposition: Rule over us (Judges 8:22).
Essentially they wanted to set up a royal monarchy with Gideon as their first king. Remember that at this time Israel had no king. God was their king. This was still several generations prior to King Saul becoming the first human king of Israel.
Gideon’s response is spot on. Not only does the man have a stockpile of ministry success, he seems to avoid the most seductive sin of ministry leadership, which is to desire worship and glory of self rather than worship and glory of God.
But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.”
If only Gideon would have dropped the mic here and walked off the stage. But he didn’t.
I just re-watched Return of the King (the final movie in the Lord of the Rings series) yesterday. Every time Frodo gets to the crack of Mount Doom and holds the ring over fire below, after hours and hours and hours of an agonizing and treacherous journey toward this very spot for this very purpose, I’m always internally screaming, Throw it in! Drop it! It’s not worth it! Save the world! Save yourself! Don’t fall to temptation this time! (You idiot!)
And you know what? For every time I re-watch the movie or re-read the book, he has never listened to me once.
He always puts that cursed thing on his finger like it’s the best prize in the entire universe. (When in reality he has just destroyed the universe)
Gideon gets a similar idea. He says that the Lord will rule over people. Great sermon. But there’s always a “but…” The very next verse begins with
24 And he said, “I do have one request,
Gideon, just go out on top. You have done everything. You have everything. Why do you need another request? Why do you need a cherry on top? Why can’t you be satisfied? Why wasn’t your sermon that Lord is to rule over the people rather than you not enough?
Could it be that you actually want the best of both worlds? You want to verbally proclaim that God gets the glory, while living in a way where you get the glory? You want to verbally proclaim that God will rule, while living in a way where you rule?
Sounds like a lot of pastors I know.
Sounds like me.
Chasing ministry success is by far the easiest way to hide idolatry. The guy having sex with a prostitute is a pretty easy peg as an idolator. The guy doing more and more and more ministry because he loves Jesus so much, not quite so easy. In fact, this guy is probably the last person we’d think guilty of such a thing.
Gideon gets a heap of gold earrings from the plunder and he melts them down. Gideon would never make an idolatrous golden calf like Aaron did. No way. That’s the stuff of sinners. Gideon eats lives and breathes ministry success, there’s no way he’s walking down that path.
Gideon makes the gold into an ephod.
What’s an ephod?
An ephod was sleeveless garment worn by the priest. Exodus 28 is full of instructions on how it was to be crafted and used. It was worn by the High Priest when he would enter the Holy Place in the temple. Other ephods were made (some of linen, Gideon’s was gold) throughout the Old Testament as a way of inquiring of the Lord. It essentially became something a priest would wear when he prayed, with the intent of clearly hearing back from the Lord.
Gideon must have really loved God to make such a spiritual object!
What could possibly go wrong with making a garment used in prayer and inquiring of the Lord?
27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.
Where did Gideon go wrong?
He worshiped his ministry rather than God! And what’s more, the people worshiped his ministry rather than God.
God wasn’t enough for Gideon. There had to be one more request.
As I look back on my vocational ministry life to this point, I can identify a lot of golden ephods. When I planted my church back in 2006, I remember telling myself and others about how big God was and how big my faith in him was. Why wouldn’t this big God want to save thousands of people through our ministry? Why would we limit him in our weak faith to small numbers?
My heart was so called and on fire to see people be saved in Jesus.
We had 18 people our second worship service and averaged around 30-35 for our first two years.
Remember the guy who was so called and on fire to see people get saved? When the first at our church accepted Christ, I didn’t even care. I mean, I was glad for them, but it didn’t fill me with joy. It didn’t even give me a sense of ministry success or ministry fruit. How could it? I had set out to save thousands, not one measly person.
It quickly became incredibly evident to me that while I thought my motives for starting a church were pure, the reality was I was insecure and looking for something to affirm me and give me value. (God certainly wasn’t enough.)
Just like the guy having sex with the prostitute. I just happened to pick a much more socially and spiritually acceptable avenue to get my fix.
As pastors, it is so easy for us to worship our ministries instead of worshiping God. It’s so easy we typically don’t even know we are doing it.
I’m in these waters again as I await to hear if I land a book deal or not. Now there’s something to worship: a book deal! And like Gideon’s golden ephod, the faith community loves to worship book deals, as they do large church plants who are “saving” thousands.
9 years after we first started our church, learning what I’ve learned, sinning where I’ve sinned, I’m really hoping I can throw Frodo’s ring into the fire of Mount Doom this time around.
Is an ephod sinful?
Is planting a church sinful?
Is wanting your church to grow sinful?
Is wanting to see thousands come to know Jesus as Savior sinful?
Is wanting people to read your blog sinful?
Is wanting to speak at conferences sinful?
Is writing a book sinful?
They are only sinful when you worship them instead of God.
So easy to say (and to preach!). So hard to live at the deepest core of your being.
Here is a practical guidepost God is using to help me avoid worshiping ministry, I hope it’s helpful to you as well:
1. Am I “amazing and big and significant and God is lucky to have me helping him” or am I a broken sinner who is small and insignificant and so limited and so messed up and so saved and redeemed and renewed by Jesus’ grace and mercy that somehow miraculously God chooses to use me, in his sovereignty, to point people to himself? In other words: Is the Miracle Worker using me to point people to Himself or do I think I am the miracle worker? And will I trust the sovereignty of the Miracle Worker in how he chooses to use me, rather than telling him how I ought to be used?
2. Would I trade in the mercy Jesus has shown me for ministry success?
Would I go to a pawn shop with Jesus’s mercy in hand and see what I can get for it?
“Yeah this mercy thing isn’t cutting it for me anymore. What can I get for it? Oh, a book contract? That’s sounds like it will hit the spot. You have a deal.”
Can you have a book deal and Jesus’s mercy? Of course. But my point is if my life is incomplete, where I am not joyful and satisfied in Jesus without a book deal, or without thousands of salvations notched on my belt, or without being the hip growing church around, then I’ve already traded in Jesus’s mercy for these things. Jesus’s mercy stands alone to satisfy us, to make us whole, to make us invaluable sons and daughters of the King. It needs nothing added to it. In fact, the entire book of Galatians is very clear if we add anything to it, we’ve soiled all of it (Galatians 5:2, 4).
I think this is what the author of Psalm 84 was getting at:
10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
I’m finding I can’t learn this from a sermon. Or from reading a blog post. I have to set aside intentional time with the Lord for him to speak his power and love and mercy and sufficiency over me. I’m in a covenant with discipleship group to do this for 30 minutes each day, with a candle lit and my journal, Bible and most importantly my ears open.
This rhythm has changed my life.
I’m tired of just hearing God loves me. I’m tired of preaching that God loves me. I am now, learning to experience that he loves me.
For more on this journey, check out these book recommendations.
- Psalm 12 Devotional – You Are Not Alone - January 15, 2021
- Psalm 11 Devotional – When Your Foundation is Destroyed - January 13, 2021
- Psalm 10 Devotional – God of the Oppressed, Part 2 - January 12, 2021