Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. (Proverbs 27:17)
God has an infinite variety of tools to shape our lives into what He wants them to be. He determines our genetic makeup. He sets us in a certain time and place. He appoints a mix of experiences, great and small, and punctuates our lives with pivotal events. But for the most part, second only to our relationship with Him, it is the people He brings into our lives that have the most profound influence upon us.
The moment we are born, those relationships begin their impact. Throughout our lives those relationships may include a wise father, an attentive mother, teachers, mentors, and close friends. Whether we have a gregarious nature or not, our relationships, good and bad, mark us and change us for better or worse. When we finish our formal schooling and move out on our own, taking on heavier responsibilities, it is still our connection with others that God uses to help us continue growing and avoid shriveling up in the restrictive environment of self.
Our living union with God through Jesus Christ and the regeneration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit is by far the most significant source of our transformation. But passages like Ephesians 4 and I Corinthians 12–14 teach us that God Himself has designed our growth and maturing in grace to flow from Him through others with whom we have connection. He is at work, not just in me but also in my brothers and sisters in Christ. What He is doing in me is not solely for my benefit—it is for the profiting of the whole body. In the same way, what God is doing in other members of the body of Christ is to flow through them to me. In this way we all grow toward Christlike maturity through the mutual building up of one another in love.
The shepherds of God’s flock are not exempt from this dynamic of spiritual survival and growth. We do not do well without strong interactive relationships with others. Much like a parent, a pastor is continually drawing out of his own spiritual reservoir to meet the needs in the lives of others. But we pastors must have some way to keep the reservoir full lest we run dry and face spiritual deprivation ourselves. We need our thinking challenged by honest, loving friends we can trust. We need counsel, for we are often out of our depth. And we need to be open to the scrutiny of others. The heavy responsibilities we carry increase our accountability to God and to others.
The greater our authority, the greater our danger. Satan loves to take down a leader of God’s people. The fact that we lead people does not make us strong. Whatever we leave vulnerable in our own lives, the devil is sure to exploit to dishonor our Lord and to scatter the sheep committed to our care. We face threats relative to our role in the body: pride, discouragement, loneliness, limited perspective. Those who carry similar burdens and face similar dangers can keep us balanced, humble, honest, pure, and energized.
When I entered my first full-time pastorate as a church planter, God graciously arranged for me to be part of a group of godly men who serve as pastors. For the last fifteen years, seven or eight of us have met together every couple of months. Within the group is a variety of personalities and viewpoints. We serve in diverse locations in the state, but we all are committed to the same core truths and biblical philosophy. The open and frank discussions (and even the heated debates) about the challenges we face have sharpened us all as iron sharpens iron.
We meet in a relaxed setting that is conducive to heart-to-heart sharing. We eat together. We share our burdens and pray for one another. We select and read a substantive book each time—generally on theology, ministry, or church history. The reading not only enlarges and challenges us; it also serves as the starting point for our discussions. The focus of our interaction can range far, but it hits home. A group of about eight has been the right size for us. With larger groups it has been nearly impossible to achieve the same mutual impact, because someone ends up dropping out of the interaction.
Setting aside times together like this has become more difficult over the years. Yet whatever the sacrifice of making it to one of those “whetstone” fellowships, I have always thanked God for the inflow of refreshment and strength it provided. Subsequent to my seminary years, nearly every major development in my personal growth—spiritually, theologically, and practically—traces back to the impact of these meetings with my brothers in Christ. By bearing one another’s burdens, we have lightened each one’s assigned load.
Our congregations need this kind of networking for nurture and accountability too. Some ministry to the church body can be done in a crowd, but that cannot take the place of the close, loving care that happens one-on-one or in small groups. We cannot interact with hundreds of people at once in the nitty-gritty demands of everyday life. Learning to follow Christ requires mentors and prayer partners, veteran saints to answer the tough questions that are all new to younger believers.
No matter how our roles change over the years in the body of believers, we are still most profoundly marked by our close relationships. The health of the flock depends on those close relationships. The Scriptures call us to live this way, and we who teach the Scriptures dare not neglect doing so ourselves. We are undershepherds, yet we are still sheep—weak, vulnerable, in need of God’s strength and care. He has chosen to use other believers to provide that care for us. We would be fools to go it alone. God knows us—He knows that we need each other.
Dr. Conley is the pastor of Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.
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