I wonder what is the worst thing you could possibly do in your job? I don’t just mean the biggest mistake. I mean the worst thing you could decide to do on purpose. I ask because in the news last week were at least two examples.
The lesser of the two concerned a British Museum curator who was sacked after a series of artefacts appear to have been stolen. It is unclear, at this stage, whether the curator himself was involved or whether he has simply been sacked because of a lax approach to security that allowed it to happen. The police have made no arrests as yet.
But as a museum curator, that would be about the worst thing you could do in that job. You are employed to care for antiquities and help the public engage with them. To steal them and sell them would be the very antithesis of what you are there to do.
The far bigger and more heinous story – which has been bubbling away for many months but reached its denouement last week – concerns the nurse, Lucy Letby. Letby worked in a Chester hospital and was charged with caring for mothers and babies on the neonatal ward. Instead, she began murdering the babies in her care. Letby has been found guilty of murdering seven babies and the attempted murder of a further six. The prosecution are also pushing for a retrial on some further cases in which the jury could not reach a verdict and it seems there are now plans to comb through all manner of suspicious activities on various wards on which Letby worked.
This is about as bad as it gets. A nurse who is supposed to care for the most vulnerable people in society, who cannot care for themselves, turned into their killer. You can hardly get your head around it. Could there possibly be a more heinous thing to do? Could there be any job in which the good it is designed to do can be inverted to become any more heinous? Sadly, I think there is. The job in question is the pastorate.
You may wonder how on earth an unassuming pastor could be worse than a killer nurse. But listen to what Jesus has to say in Matthew 18:6:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.
Pastors exist to point people to Jesus and to help them keep walking with him by faithfully teaching his word. To cause somebody to stop believing in him, or to actively point people away from him, Jesus says it would be better if we were killed before doing that. The consequences of our doing that far exceed the heinous sin of murder because we are actively helping people towards a lost eternity in Hell. We are effecting them, not just for life, but for eternity!
This is why James, the brother of Jesus, had this to say:
Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment.James 3:1
Why will we have a stricter judgement? The context of James 3 is about the damage that loose talk can do. It is speaking about the judgement of the ordinary person who cannot control their tongue. Teachers, James says, will receive a stricter judgement still. Why? Because of what Jesus has said above. Teachers, who set themselves up as authorities to be heard, who have the words of eternal life and are pointing you to where you can find it, will be judged more strictly because their words have eternity on the line.
Jesus again made this point in stark terms:
Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:28
In this instance, Jesus is talking about the fear of God rather than fear of man. What is the worst a person can do to you? Kill you. But that ultimately harms your body and no more. But God can cast you into Hell for eternity or let you enter into glory forever. Jesus says being on the right side of God’s grace and mercy is far more important, far more serious with much greater consequences.
Thankfully, God’s word tells us how we might ensure these things. But those who are teachers, pastors and elders are called to point people to these things. If we fail to do it, if we lead people away from Christ, we do far worse than merely take their life here and now. We ensure they will face a lost eternity outside of God’s good presence and under the conscious torment of his wrath for all eternity. What a heinous thing to do to a person!
The worrying thing in Lucy Letby’s case is that for months and months people refused to believe she would be capable of murdering children. She seemed so mild mannered, so plausible, so trustworthy and caring. And yet, here was a woman intent on inflicting harm and causing death.
The sad thing is that church pastors and leaders may seem the same. They may be softly spoken, kindly, seemingly very plausible. They may open the Bible and point to some of its words and even use the word ‘gospel’ here and there. It may be hard to believe such people are also out to destroy. Some may even deceive themselves, while others may know exactly what they’re doing. But even those who seem very plausible – who nobody could imagine being agents of Satan – may be leading people away from Christ and are the very people whom Jesus says it would be better if they had millstones hung around their necks and thrown in the sea.
Just as the secular cases above, a lot has to do with checks and balances. Jesus has not left us alone. He has put his Spirit within the heart of every genuine believer to help us discern the truth. He has given us his Word that we can understand ourselves – maybe not all of it in every part but the overall message is understandable – and we can judge what we hear according to it. We are also surrounded by other believers who can affirm along with us what they hear is legit or not, it is in part what the church is for. We can see the fruit of those teaching these things. Are their lives bearing the fruit of godliness, do they seem to be keen to do the commands of Christ and lead people towards Jesus, or do they shy away from his commands, encouraging licentiousness or legalism, and seem to have little concern for genuine holiness? There are means of judging these things rightly.
But Jesus has much to say to those who would be teachers and leaders. As heinous as it might be to steal museum artefacts, and as grim as it is to be a multiple child-killer, even these things are not as bad as leading people away from Jesus and causing them to spend eternity under God’s wrath. Don’t let a kindly smile and a soft voice fool you. Don’t let your ears be tickled because someone says what you want to hear rather than what the Word of God clearly says. Do not be that teacher or leader who points people away from Jesus. Christ himself, meek and mild Jesus, says you would genuinely be better off dead before doing that. That is the seriousness with which Jesus takes these things. Let us heed that warning: we can do great damage if we do other than point people to Christ. Let’s make sure if we have been called to it, we don’t do other.