Prior to becoming a pastor, I had preached 1 Corinthians 13 many times and had seen it cross-stitched on home decor at least a thousand more. But once I began to shepherd a local flock, Paul’s words became one of the most perplexing passages to me in the entire Bible. Why? It’s not difficult to interpret, but therein lies the rub; it’s difficult because it’s easier to be orthodox than it is to be loving.
And knowledge puffs up. As one who prizes the study of theology and church history, that phrase hits close to home. It hits home because, if God gave me one wish in a prosperity-theology sort of way, I’d be tempted to choose “have all knowledge” instead of “be perfect in holiness.”
Every hour of seminary delighted my soul. It left me with much knowledge, and, as it is designed to do, equipped me to gain more for myself. But I soon realized that my command of Greek or Hebrew or the Puritans is not enough to keep me from erupting when an angry church member brings false charges against me. Those things don’t necessarily provide wise leadership decisions when a deacon tells me that the church is almost out of money.
Sure, my theological knowledge positions me to make wise decisions and enables me to feed the flock with healthy grass, but the maturity needed to be a godly under-shepherd comes only through days, weeks, months, and years of labor in the vineyard of the Lord. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am a man in the middle of his sanctification, just like the people who listen to me preach every Lord’s day.
Love Surpasses Knowledge
Soon, I realized the people under my care were not all that interested in my orthodoxy, although I could never compromise it. They really wanted to know if I loved them. Once they knew that I genuinely cared and saw them as cherished family in Christ—and not so much as subjects for evangelism or discipleship—they were much more willing to listen to my attempts at expounding orthodoxy.
There was only one means for building such a relationship: time in their presence.
I recall one particularly cranky man who just didn’t seem to like me—at first. So, taking a page from the Richard Baxter playbook, I visited his home. It was summer and we sat on his porch. We talked about the respective football teams at Auburn and my alma mater, Georgia. I listened to him talk about Dale Earnhardt. I listened to his wife talk about her family’s role in the founding of our church.
Before long, they seemed to move into my corner. On the day I left the church, he bear-hugged me and, through a river of tears, told me how his family had grown to love mine and how they would miss us. They would miss my teaching, too, he said.
Love never fails, and love surpasses knowledge.
The inspired writer warned me about this: “If I have . . . all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). If I do not love my people, they will not care how much theological talk comes from the pulpit. They will follow me only when I prove that I love them and can be trusted as a mature teacher and under-shepherd.
In his excellent book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, Paul David Tripp, a longtime pastor and seminary professor, identifies a binary syndrome that too often inflicts the inexperienced but self-assured pastor. Tripp appropriately labels this dangerous malady as “big theological brains and heart disease”:
Bad things happen when maturity is more defined by knowing than it is by being. Danger is afloat when you come to love ideas more than the God whom they represent and the people they are meant to free…I longed for [seminary students] to understand that they aren’t called just to teach theology to their people but also to do theology with their people.
The apostle, after reciting his lengthy biological, theological, and experiential pedigree, concluded much the same: “I have reason for confidence in the flesh, but whatever gain I had, I have counted loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:8). From a worldly standpoint, Paul possessed all the ingredients to serve as an omni-competent pastor, yet it was all rubbish compared with knowing Christ and exhibiting his love for people.
 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 42–43.
Content taken from 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson Sr., ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.