Debunking the American Dream of Ministerial Success

We would be hard pressed to find someone more successful in ministry than the apostle Paul. His ministry continues to touch millions of lives every day and will until the end of time. It would make sense to get our idea of ministerial success from the most successful minister (other than Christ) in human history. Here’s a sampling of his formula:

"But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries" (1 Corinthians 16:8-9 ESV).

That formulation doesn’t fit well in our Americanized dream of ministerial prosperity. Our equation would rate success as a wide door with NO adversaries. But wise old Paul knew otherwise.

Our Constant Adversaries

Paul understood that this world is in opposition to the advance of the gospel. Pagan philosophies assail us on every Mars Hill corner, demanding that we rightly divide the Word to counteract their errors (2 Timothy 2:15; cf. Acts 17:16-34).

Paul expected the Enemy himself to be at every ministry assignment. He reminded us to pray without ceasing because we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against every imaginable demonic force (Ephesians 6).

Last but certainly not least, Paul was vitally aware of the constant weakness of our flesh, and the easy pull into pride, selfishness, or moral declension. He warned us to vigilantly "walk by the Spirit" so we would not "gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). His ever-present admonition to his younger disciples was to keep the faith—keep believing, keep trusting, keep depending, against every temptation to self-reliance and humanistic philosophy.


A Biblical and Historical Perspective

Ministry without struggle, pain, and opposition? Paul would laugh at such a deluded theology. Opposition as an indicator of open doors would be more suited to his hearty belief. And all those who have accomplished much for the kingdom have adopted this robust understanding as well.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), while preaching a message on this same Pauline letter and using the same chapter as his text ("Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong," 1 Corinthians 16:13), penned it well:

Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?

Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?

Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.