Three Ministry Warnings from the Life of Paul

Picture a person fiercely committed to doing God’s work. Let’s call him P. P was raised in a ministry home. He committed his life to serving God at a young age, attended the most rigorous Bible college, and became a talented and eager exegetist of the Scriptures. There’s no doubt P is devoted, but when you’re around him, you feel . . . uneasy. Instead of tenderheartedness, there’s a sharpness. He leads authoritatively and tends to bulldoze others. He talks a lot about God, but you don’t get the impression that He knows God. Still, it’s hard to argue with his results. P knows how to make things happen in God’s name. 

You likely already figured out that P is pre-conversion Paul. Paul didn’t go into the ministry after He surrendered His life to Christ. He had been groomed for religious service all his life. Though some of the events above have been modernized, they line up with the ways Paul described his own ministry credentials:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. (Acts 22:3 NLT, emphasis mine) 

Before encountering the risen Savior on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul was no atheist. He was a God-fearing, Scripture-studying enforcer of Old Testament law, motivated by a genuine desire to honor God. In today’s language we would call Paul a minister. We might even put him behind the pulpit. 

Leader, Be Warned

Pay attention to the second part of Paul’s resume. His good intentions produced bad fruit. 

And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. (Acts 22:4–5 NLT)

Ministry done for God yet void of the gospel can only lead to disaster. Paul famously approved the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He ravaged the early church all the while claiming (and believing) he was doing it for God. Though in many ways, Paul is a hero of our faith, he is also a cautionary tale, perhaps especially for those of us in ministry leadership. Here are three quick observations from Paul’s life:

1. Human efforts produce human results. 

Paul had an impressive personality. When he talked, people listened. And yet, his human efforts didn’t yield kingdom results. Instead, they led to chaos and confusion, grieving the heart of God (Acts 9:4). Supernatural results can only come from the Holy Spirit. There can be no lasting fruit apart from Him. 

2. Surrender trumps zeal.

Paul described his pre-conversion ministry this way to the church in Galatia, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1:14, emphasis mine). Paul was a spiritual-go-getter, willing to do whatever it took to enforce His understanding of God’s law. Yet, He lacked what is truly needed to glorify God—a humble dependence on Jesus. Yes, God wants your willingness, but he first wants your heart fully surrendered to Him.

3. Ministry without the gospel destroys instead of builds.

Paul knew a lot about God. He knew a lot about Scripture. He knew a lot about Jesus. And, until He encountered the risen Savior on the road to Demasucus, Paul missed the point of it all. There is a constant gravitational pull to build our ministries on something other than the gospel. Unintentionally, we drift toward teaching women how to be better versions of themselves. The results are disastrous. A house of ministry built on any foundation other than the gospel will not stand. Give them Jesus on Sunday morning. Give them Jesus in women’s Bible study. Give them Jesus at your next event. Give them Jesus in every coffee shop conversation. Give them Jesus over and over. Never stop giving women Jesus. 

Follow Me as I Follow Jesus

What lesson does Paul’s ministry story teach us? Among other things, it’s that true ministry is gospel-ministry, never far away from the truth that we need Jesus desperately. Paul learned this lesson on the Damascus road, then over and over again as He sought to truly glorify God through ministry. 

If you see evidence of mission drift away from the gospel in your ministry, cry out to the Lord now and ask for a course correction. If zeal has replaced surrender in your regular ministry rhythms, pull the emergency brake. God doesn’t need your go-gettedness. He wants your heart. As you teach and lead and train, adopt the heart of post-conversion Paul, ever tied to Jesus. The women in your world don’t need more of you. They need more of their Savior. Perhaps Paul said it best, “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). 

Scripture: Acts 22:3-5

About the Author

Erin Davis

Erin Davis is married to her high school sweetheart, Jason, and together they parent four energetic boys on their small farm in the midwest. She is the author of more than a dozen books and Bible studies, the content manager for Revive Our Hearts, and a host of the Grounded videocast. You can hear her teach on The Deep Well with Erin Davis podcast.