The "Kobayashi Maru" likely does not ring a bell for most people, but for the few who grew up watching the original Star Trek television series and then enjoyed seeing Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise when they jumped to the big screen the reference is clear. The introduction of the Kobayashi Maru was in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie, by the way.) The Kobayashi Maru was the name of a fictional ship (even fictional in the fictional universe of Star Trek) that was created as a training exercise for Starfleet officers. The ship was in a battle with the evil Klingons and the trainee was to guide his/her ship to the rescue and win the day. Yet, in this exercise, the Kobayashi Maru was always destroyed, regardless what the trainee did. (For those who actually care, click here for a clip of the scene.)
The 1982 film opens with Saavik in the command chair, leading her crew made up of original series stars into the battle, only to see crew members die and the Maru destroyed. It was truly a dramatic scene when first viewed in the theaters back in the 1980s. Soon after the destruction and defeat, the scene shifts and the hero, Captain Kirk walks from behind a wall and makes it clear that Saavik, not unlike others, has failed the test.
It's a short scene, but has become over time a reminder of what is known as the "no win scenario." It was repeated in J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek starring Chris Pine in 2009 as well as numerous books, reference works, and fan fiction.
(Okay, you figured it out by now, I am a Star Trek nerd. No apologies. Live long and prosper. Now read the rest.)
The No-Win Scenario
Sometimes in pastoral ministry, leading the people in the church God has called you to serve feels like a no-win scenario. That's a foreboding thought and not necessarily one that comes to mind when one surrenders to full-time ministry and is called to serve as pastor in the local church. Nevertheless, as I have discovered over the years and in talking with many other pastors, the thoughts of leading a church through cultural changes and missional engagement seems to be a no-win.
Church Members Divided
There have always been divisive issues among Christians within the church. Some are primary issues that must be addressed with no compromise. These would be issues of biblical fidelity, trinitarian teaching, doctrinal clarity, etc. There is really no debate on whether or not to stand firmly on such issues. To do otherwise is an affront to biblical Christianity and leaves the church open, if not embracing, false teachings and teachers.
There are, however, divisive issues that often rise up among church members that have nothing to do with first priority issues. They are not doctrinal. They are not biblical issues. Many have written about such divisions and articles on theological triage by Dr. Albert Mohler (here) and podcasts featuring Dr. Jason Allen and Dr. Gavin Ortlund (here) have addressed such clearly.
Today's Trending Church Divides
There will always be issues that rise up causing division among church members. Most recently, that division centers around church responses to COVID-19 and how congregations are planning to meet in person again for worship. These are not insignificant issues, but as we all know, the opinions vary greatly on how one must respond and what must be done. Whether it is the use of chemical cleaners in the church facilities, the enforcing of social distancing, the forced locations for seating in worship, or guidelines regarding wearing/not wearing masks, the opinions are there - within every church, and they differ greatly depending on whom is speaking.
I have received numerous emails and text messages from other pastors and have had a number of conversations with men in our community asking how we are addressing such. These are not isolated issues. Yet, as one pastor mentioned to me, "This is a no-win scenario." Thus...the Star Trek-Kobayashi Maru comparison.
I was in a meeting earlier this month (not a Christian ministry or church related one) with friends from the community and one man dared to share his opinion related to being required to wear masks. I watched as another jumped into the conversation and the soon-escalating discussion revealed that no resolution would be found. Opinions are very strong. Fortunately, the moderator of the meeting kindly shut down the conversation and we moved forward (and these men remain friends, so no harm, hopefully.) This revealed once more that divisiveness is natural in a sinful world. The challenge facing pastors is shepherding through what some have called a no-win scenario.
Beyond COVID-19 and other pandemic related talking points, we now face the greater, and I believe the more serious divide relating to racial unity, police actions, government responsibilities, and all that has developed since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
If you thought opinions on issues within the church related to carpet color, music style, schedule changes, pandemic response, and all were big, you now know they pale in comparison to these even more potentially divisive chasms among those who not only are brothers and sisters in Christ, but covenant members of the same fellowship.
For the pastor wondering what to do...it seems like a no-win scenario.
Changing the Conditions by Clarifying the Calling
In Star Trek lore, the only Starfleet cadet to ever beat the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru was James T. Kirk (of course.) When asked by Saavik how he did it, Kirk responded with "I reprogrammed the simulation so that it was possible to rescue the ship."
Immediately, his son David Marcus says "He cheated," to which Kirk replies "I changed the conditions of the test. Got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."
It's a gutsy move for the movie's hero, but in the church there is no "reprogramming" of the scenario. Some pastors desire to change the conditions and at times, they do. In some cases, these are incredibly positive shifts that lead to church health and biblically strong congregations. Sometimes, however, the conditions change simply because the pastor leaves. At times by his choice and God's calling. Sadly, at times due to the church's lack of desire to follow God's man's lead.
However, all pastors realize in their ministry how easy it is to be distracted by secondary and tertiary items to such a degree that the primary ones are forsaken.
I know this is overly simplified and actually doesn't address specific things to be done regarding COVID-19 issues much less the issues of racial unity among believers. I am not offering step-by-step fixes for such dynamic and serious issues. Please know I am not minimizing these either, but I do believe that pastors must first and foremost remember that the calling to lead a church is not the calling to be a CEO or Director of Activities. He is not placed by God to just tickle the ears of the congregation so that offerings will continue. The pastor is not called to be the political action committee chairman or a puppet for any group in a community or region.
The pastor is called first to God, then to his church where God has placed him to pray, study, serve, protect the flock, and proclaim the Word.
There are many sub-points for each of these responsibilities. For example, protecting the flock is a biblical mandate and covers not only protection from false teaching (primary) but also from other issues (e.g. pandemic.) Proclaiming the truth of the Word and allowing the Scripture to speak clearly is primarily for the preaching of sermons but also speaks into cultural injustices of which there are many (e.g. life, racism, abuse, inequality, health, etc.) not from worldly devised talking points, but from biblically grounded truth.
My denomination's statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), delineates our beliefs regarding the Word of God...
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
An open, read, studied, and proclaimed Bible reveals, without error, God's truth and his answers to the issues of sin and suffering in our world. The Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveals the truth of the Gospel so that we may know the Father through the Son.
Sometimes when it seems the issues we face as pastors fall under the category of the "no-win scenario" we must remember that the true win...the ultimate win...the primary win is found in Christ alone.
I know for some that sounds like a trite answer to the very real issues and sinful hardships being experienced by many today. Please understand that despite all that we are suffering through, the One who is the "Suffering Servant," the Way, the Truth, the Life has been, and must always be THE point.
To quote the great theologian James Tiberius Kirk (that's a joke) "I don't believe in the no-win scenario."
With all that we face in our world today, I rest in knowing that our sovereign God is never taken by surprise and in him is the victory, the win. Press on pastors - just keep the main thing the main thing.