By guest contributor Venkatesh Gopalakrishnan. Venkatesh is a church planting pastor in Bangalore, India with the Reformed Presbyterian Church.
“Do not wait for any man to approve your ministry!” thundered a young preacher from the pulpit of a church in Bangalore. He went on to declare, alluding to Galatians 1:10, “If you seek the approval of any man, you cannot please God!” The young preacher wanted his hearers to stop giving excuses and enter the ministries to which God was calling them. Sitting in the pew, I could not but help thinking that what I just heard was so contrary to what I had been taught. Concluding that the preacher’s view was rather idiosyncratic, I ignored the his advice and tried to meditate on the more edifying aspects of the sermon.
However, just a few days after this incident I heard another friend make a very similar remark, albeit in a slightly different context. This friend was arguing with me that a pastor ought not to receive salary from any church since this practice leads him to seek the approval of men. Once again, the principle was that in ministry, a pastor must preserve his independence at all costs lest he be led to seek the approval of men.
After these two experiences, I got reminded of another conversation that my wife had with another friend. Some time ago, my wife had elatedly posted on social media that I had received a license to preach from my presbytery. This other friend commented, with some deal of amazement, as to why I required such a license! Hasn’t Jesus called all of us to preach the gospel? Then why is there a need to seek a license for so obvious a task? Although that friend was sincere in asking these questions, his questions revealed to me that he had the same presuppositions as these two other friends: In ministry, we should not seek the approval of men.
Based on the above experiences I’ve had, I think I can conclude that in modern-day evangelicalism (at least in my city), the concept of seeking the approval of men (or pleasing men) especially in ministry has been cast in an entirely negative light. If one seeks the approval of others, in any respect, while entering ministry or while carrying out ministry, he is suspected of being a people-pleaser. Perhaps, this widespread attitude explains the rise of so many independent “ministries” in my city.
However, I contend that seeking the approval of other men -- godly men -- especially in ministry is not only beneficial, but also necessary. Such seeking of approval is not people-pleasing.
To be sure, the Bible does speak about a sinful kind of people-pleasing. We are not to please men when such pleasing infringes upon the liberty of Christians. In Galatians 1:10, when Paul said that he did not seek the approval of men, he was speaking in this context. Paul vehemently opposed the corruption of the gospel by the Judaizers who insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). This corruption threatened to rob Christians of the liberty that Christ had purchased for them (Gal 5:1). In this issue, Paul opposed even Peter because he, through his actions, was seeking the approval of the Judaizers rather than protecting the liberty of Christians (Gal 2:12).
Also, we are not to please men, when such pleasing leads us to sin. There were many people who believed in Jesus during his earthly ministry. But they failed to confess him publicly because they feared the Pharisees (John 9:22; 13:42). These believers feared men more than God, at least in this issue, and hence sinned. Pilate, Festus, and Herod the King were guilty of the same sin even though they were not believers (Matt. 27:24; Acts 25:9; Acts 12:1-3).
Once the above qualifications have been made, seeking the approval of other men is not only not sinful, but also necessary -- especially in ministry. For example, the same apostle Paul who opposed Peter, went to Jerusalem and sought the approval of other apostles for his (Paul’s) gospel. Not even direct revelation of the gospel from Christ prevented Paul from seeking the approval of other apostles for the gospel that he was preaching.
We can also discern the need for speaking the approval of other godly men while entering ministry from Paul’s letters. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:7, Paul said that a prospective elder must have a good testimony (NKJV) with outsiders. Well, if a prospective elder needed to have a good testimony among outsiders, how much more did he need such a testimony among insiders, especially godly men? Moreover, the character qualities that Paul mentioned for elders/pastors are best judged by other godly men. It is more appropriate for other godly men to say of the prospective elder that he is “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, and able to teach” rather than for prospective elder to say these things about himself. Perhaps in no other context than in this one is this saying of Proverbs more apt: “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; A stranger, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).
Hence, seeking the approval of other men is not in and of itself sinful. If we seek the approval of other men at the expense of God and the liberty of his people, such approval-seeking is sinful. However, if we seek the approval of other godly men, especially in the context of entering and doing ministry, such approval-seeking is necessary and holy.