A Pastor’s Reflections: Meat Eaters
I can remember sitting in my various seminary classes and some of my professors were truly inspiring. One professor in particular had an amazing mastery of historical theology—a truly voluminous knowledge. Sometimes we would ask him a flurry of questions just to see if we could stump him. He was an older gentleman and I don’t think he was any the wiser. In other words, he patiently answered our questions and never realized (I think) that we were testing his knowledge. On the other hand, there were some professors who were a disaster in the classroom. I believed they couldn’t teach their way out of a wet paper bag. On the outside, I manifested a demure modest posture of a humble innocent student. On the inside, I sat in class with a smug look of arrogance on my hidden face thinking, “I could do better than this . . .”
I don’t know who coined the phrase, but I believe the sentiment is true: “If someone makes something look easy, in actuality it’s probably very hard.” Think of a professional baseball player who steps up to the plate and seemingly, with little effort, swings at the pitch and hits the ball out of the park. It’s an apparently easy task until you take a closer look. You discover that if you can successfully hit the ball twenty-five percent of the time that you can make millions of dollars. You step up to the plate and the ball whizzes by you at nearly one hundred miles an hour. At 95 miles per hour it only takes four tenths of a second for the baseball to travel the sixty feet from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, which means that once the pitcher releases the ball you have about one tenth of a second to decide whether and where to swing. All of a sudden, something that seems easy is actually very difficult and takes many years of practice and a great deal of skill.
The same observations apply, I believe, to teaching. I think that most students look at their classroom experience from the vantage point as the student. When they think of their experience from the teacher’s vantage point, it’s in terms of evaluating his content and delivery. Students rarely, I suspect, think of teaching in terms of the many years of preparation it takes to get to the point where a professor can actually stand before the classroom and give a lecture. It’s primary education, four years of college, three to four years of seminary, and another three to four years (or more) of doctoral work. Your average professor takes roughly ten years of educational preparation in order to become qualified to teach. In addition to this, doctoral studies are challenging given the workload, amount of research, and usually two additional foreign languages you have to learn. This is to say nothing of the countless hours a professor pours into his lecture preparation.
In my own lecture preparation, I often read thousands of pages of research to prepare for every semester-hour of lecturing, which is 13 lecture hours. I will generate roughly 200 or more pages of a well-researched manuscript in order to lecture for one semester hour. And this says nothing about the actual lecture prep—in other words, professors typically spend several hours each week reviewing their material before they step into the lectern. A professor can become much more adept at lecturing the more he teaches the same material. But even then, if the professor is hard working, he will constantly read the latest literature and update his lectures to ensure they are current with the latest developments in the field.
All of this is to say, students don’t always realize how challenging it is to lecture. They don’t realize how much information there is to manage and how challenging it can be to distill it into a coherent message of 45-50 minutes, a delivery window punctuated with questions and comments. Many students (myself included in my seminary days) think they’re meat eaters—jungle lions amidst feeble lambs—they look at their professors and think, “I could do better than this.” When in reality, they might look just as feeble, or worse, were they to step into the lectern.
Remember, sometimes things aren’t as easy as they look. This isn’t to excuse poor teaching, but rather to encourage students to exercise some genuine humility. Students will soon enough become teachers and discover the challenges of teaching. Arrogance in a student can easily become arrogance in a teacher. The best teachers are the best students, and the best students are humble.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Wasting Your Gifts
I can remember sitting in the high school guidance counselor’s office when he told me that I should consider a vocational path rather than attending college. My grades weren’t spectacular—they weren’t atrocious either—but they were nevertheless lackluster. At the time I didn’t have a specific idea as to what career I would pursue, but I did believe that I wanted and should attend college. My parents were none too thrilled with the advice from the guidance counselor, as they too believed that I should pursue a college education. I can remember my parents telling me, “Don’t you believe a word that man said. By God’s grace, and with hard work, you can accomplish your goals.” I prayed about my future and determined that I would pursue a college education. Long story short, college turned into seminary, and seminary turned into graduate school. I went a lot farther than the guidance counselor probably ever thought I’d go, but it took some increased maturity, greater self-discipline, prayer, and a lot of hard work.
I have applied a lot of elbow grease in my education. Nothing has ever come very easy for me. Given this fact, it used to irk me to no end when I saw classmates in seminary wasting their God-given intellectual gifts. I tried to hang out with people who were smarter than me so that I could learn something from them, but these same people often wasted their time and talent. They would wait until the night before a paper was due, pull an all-nighter, and then stumble into class the next day with paper in hand. Meanwhile, I would be working months in advance, reading, digesting, writing, re-writing, and finally submit my own paper. What were the end results? We both got the same grades. I was livid! I wasn’t livid because my friend got the same grade as me even though he only invested a fraction of the time. Rather, I told my friends, “You have a God-given gift of brains and intellect that I just don’t have. Why aren’t you pushing, stretching, and working harder so that you continue to grow and learn? You’re wasting your gifts. You could be so much farther along, but instead, you’re coasting.” I’m not sure how my well-intentioned censure went, but I had to get it off my chest.
There are some people who have to work very hard and others are simply gifted. If you’re gifted, then use the gifts! Work hard, study, read, and submit your very best work. God didn’t give you these gifts so you could squander them or bury them in the ground. Your gifts are not ultimately for your own personal use and benefit but for the church’s edification. If God gives you great intellectual abilities, then you need to develop them to the benefit of the church. What if you’re supposed to use your God-given brains to help people understand significant biblical truths? Instead, you’re frittering away your talent by playing Xbox360.
I’m not saying that you can never blow off steam, rest, recuperate, and relax. Sure, I like to break out the corn dogs, root beer, and watch all of the Star Wars movies (yes, I am a fan of both trilogies). But my motto is, “Work hard, then play hard.” It shouldn’t be, “Play hard, and then work hard the night before the assignment.” If you’ve got brains, use them! Learn more so you can pass on the truth to others. If you believe you’re not the brightest bulb in the box, roll up your sleeves, and get ready to apply a lot of elbow grease. Regardless of your talents, use them to glorify God and edify the church—don’t waste them.
A Pastor’s Reflections: PhD Studies?
One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “Where should I go to do PhD studies?” This is a question that has two important parts even though it appears only to have one part. The obvious part is, Where should I study? The implied not-so-obvious part is, Should I get a PhD? Most people who ask this question assume that they should get a PhD. Let me address each of these questions and start with, Should I get a PhD? I will address two other questions in weeks to come, namely, Where should I get a PhD? and How should you pay for a PhD?
If you like to learn, you don’t need to get a PhD to do it. There are much cheaper and less demanding, but nevertheless rewarding, ways to do this. Designate a part of your budget towards books and start reading. Find out where you can obtain recorded lectures on your subject of choice. Find a local community college or seminary and audit courses. There are plenty of ways to learn. If you want to get a PhD because you believe it’d be a great resume builder, then grab the reins and pull tight. In my view, resume builders are something that you do in the business world—it’s not a suitable category for ministry. Ministry is about serving Christ’s church, not about padding your resume so you can climb the ecclesiastical ladder and get a bigger church or better salary. If, however, you believe that God is calling you to serve the church as a doctor, in the academy, or in a seminary setting (i.e., that you’re being called to teach), then, by all means, investigate what it takes to earn a PhD. Most institutions that hire teachers (seminaries included) usually look for candidates that have a PhD in their field of study. But there are several other factors to consider.
First, do you have the intellectual gifts to pursue a PhD? In other words, do you have good grades? Do you have good communication skills? Can you write a respectable research paper? Some students do everything they can to avoid writing research papers. PhDs are writing intensive. If you have poor writings skills, then polish them. Take every opportunity you can to write. Practice makes perfect, or at least respectable. Do you like to read? If reading is a struggle for you, then consider doing something else. If you’re interested in PhD studies, then you’ll be doing a lot of reading.
Second, have your professors taken notice of your academic work? Have they told you to consider pursuing doctoral studies? If not, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should end your quest. Rather, it might mean that you’re lost in a sea of faces and you need to get to know your professors so that they can evaluate your work, character, and intellectual gifts. Admission to many doctoral programs relies heavily upon good academic references. You might have stellar grades, but if you have poor references, you can probably forget going to grad school.
Third, if you believe that you want to teach at seminary, that’s a terrific goal! Keep mind, however, that it’s a very challenging goal to get a seminary teaching position. Each time we’ve had a faculty search we end up with a large pile of well-qualified degreed candidates all vying for one opening. For most seminaries, they look for candidates with pastoral experience. Pastoral experience is key because seminaries prepare ministers and others to serve the church. It can be difficult to prepare men for ministry if you’ve hardly ever preached a sermon or taught a Sunday School class. You might have all sorts of knowledge about the intricacies of philosophical theology but if you can’t explain complex truths to children, for example, you might not be on the short list for a seminary’s faculty search committee. Be prepared to seek a pastorate upon the completion of your PhD work and use your degree to teach God’s people. In due course, providence may provide you an opportunity to teach at a seminary.
In the end, if you’re interested in pursuing PhD studies, that’s terrific. Just prayerfully consider the question and get the counsel of your professors.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Useless Debates
In the history of church formal debates have played a role in helping the church sort out truth from falsehood. One of the most famous written debates was between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam on the nature of the will. Is it free or bound by sin? Luther wrote one of the all-time theological classics, Bondage of the Will. I myself have participated in a formal debate over different views on the millennium. Over the years, however, I have begun to doubt the benefits of formal public debates. I also believe that the so-called debates that take place in the comments sections on blogs are detrimental to the life of the church. Why have I come to these conclusions?
The more I have reflected upon the nature of debates, I have observed that the debate venue significantly shapes its nature and content. In terms of Marshall McLuhan’s famous work, Understanding Media, the medium shapes the message. In other words, the content of discourse changes from one venue to the next. When an author writes a book, he might take several hundred pages packed with footnotes to make an argument to prove his thesis. In a debate, he must take that same data and condense it to a presentation of, say, sixty minutes. What he argued in 50,000 words gets condensed to 5,000 words. Moreover, given the nature of the audience, he undoubtedly trims out some of his finer points. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the author has written an absolute airtight case and sufficiently proves his point. But this same author is not the best public speaker, makes a few verbal gaffes, and gets very nervous. The audience sees all of this and wrongly concludes that the author’s case must be weak given his weak presentation. Moreover, when his debate opponent subjects him to cross-examination, his same lack of eloquence undermines his presentation. The audience walks away thinking that the author must be wrong. When you shift the medium, from the written to the spoken word, the content changes.
Two examples of this phenomenon are worth noting. The famous presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon is a classic example. People who read the debate and heard it on the radio thought that Nixon won hands down. People who watched the debate on TV, on the other hand, thought that Kennedy won. Television added another dimension to the spoken word—sight. Nixon refused to wear make-up, so he looked pale on camera. He also started to sweat under the lights, so people thought he looked ill. Meanwhile, Kennedy wore make-up, didn’t sweat, and gave a confident impression to the audience. Many people decided the debate based upon looks and perception rather than substance.
Another example appears in one of our present debate forums, such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart interviews authors, politicians, and policy wonks on a regular basis and sometimes engages them in debate. These interviews last all of five to seven minutes and Stewart often eviscerates his guests with his sarcasm and rapier wit. An author who has invested a significant amount of time researching and writing a book to make his case gets gutted in a matter of minutes. The audience walks away from watching the show with the impression that the author is a fool or that Stewart bested him and therefore had better substantive arguments. The medium, television, changes the message and places the debate on entirely different foundations. Debates used to be about substance, but now they’re about who can get the best sound bite.
All of this is to say, I seriously question the usefulness of public debates. I would much rather pick up a book and read a reasoned, researched, and well-written case for a proposition rather than watch a debate. This is especially so on social media. Read the comments section on your typical blog and the so-called debate usually spirals out of control within a matter of a few keystrokes. These so-called debates then spill into the church pews where people take the digital vitriol and disseminate it to others.
It may sound like I’m technologically Amish—plodding down the street riding my horse-drawn carriage as the public and digital debaters whiz by in their chrome wheeled, fuel injected, speed machines. I’m ok with that. In the end, I want to make a fair evaluation of an argument, see documented evidence, and then make a decision. I don’t want to decide significant theological issues based upon how well someone presents their case, the tone of their voice, the color of their tie, or their ability to disembowel an argument with a slash from their sarcastic wit. There may be a place for carefully executed public debates, but for me, I’d rather invest my time and resources in reading written debates in books. Give me Luther’s Bondage of the Will seven days a week and twice on Sundays over Jon Stewart’s slick media arena.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Until No One Is Left
At what point do you leave a church? This is a question that many pastors face. They take up a call at a new church, have a nice honeymoon period, and then they settle in for the grind. For some, they receive significant criticism for one reason or another. They then find themselves lying awake at night wondering whether they should resign and walk away—look for another call—or whether they should stay and fight. I have heard a number of colleagues over the years ponder this very question. Some of the best advice I heard came from a seasoned colleague.
My colleague offered the following observations. If you find yourself under significant criticism with people calling for your resignation, ask why they are doing this. Are they calling for your ouster because of your performance, your familial conduct, the lack of results, or similar reasons? If so, then the Christ-like thing to do is to withdraw peaceably. Resign and look for another call. On the other hand, are people calling for your ouster because you are preaching the gospel? Keep in mind, I’m not talking about receiving criticism for preaching about hobby-horses or peripheral matters but rather the gospel of Christ. Are you preaching the free grace of Christ and meeting with resistance? In this case, you stay and fight and do so until no one is left. What’s the difference between these two scenarios?
In the former, you are the issue—there is something about your personality, work ethic, or family behavior that people, rightly or wrongly, find objectionable. You never want to be the reason for a church split or the reason why a church must close its doors. For the sake of the church and Christ’s gospel, you pursue the way of the cross and walk away. Even if you’re being wronged, this is likely the Christ-like thing to do (cf. 1 Cor. 6:7). On the other hand, if the opposition is to the gospel, then the Christ-like thing to do is to stand and fight, even if it means closing the church. If you close the doors on the church due to your faithfulness in preaching the gospel, then the church was not founded upon the gospel of Christ but rather the desires of men and what their itching ears wanted to hear (2 Tim. 4:3).
One of the biggest pitfalls in all of this, however, is misinterpreting the criticism you receive—we are quick, I suspect, in identifying our cause with the gospel and then mistakenly fighting when we should step down. How often have we identified our ideas or causes with the gospel? When we as mere mortals, apart from divine apostolic warrant, make such claims it is difficult, if not downright impossible, to oppose them. To avoid making this mistake, seek godly counsel to determine the specific nature of the controversy. If you are the source of the problem, then lay your life down for the sheep and walk away. If the gospel is the source of the problem—stand and fight.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Way of the Cross and Criticism
Criticism and the pastorate go hand in hand—it’s simply a fact of life. Spend any amount of time in the pastorate and people will express criticism about your ministry. The plain and simple fact is, you can’t please everyone all the time. The problem, however, is that far too many in the pastorate have very thin skin. It bothers them that there are people in the congregation that don’t like them, their preaching, or their personality. Hence, whenever they hear criticism of any sort they are quick to respond with a defense.
On one occasion of which I am personally aware, a colleague was going through a season of criticism. The pastor was very frustrated and annoyed, and so he sought counsel from one of his colleagues. His colleague advised him to have his wife write a letter to the congregation defending his ministry. The wife was all too happy to oblige, wrote the letter, and the pastor then distributed it to the congregation. As you can imagine, the letter was not well received.
Hiding behind your wife’s skirt is bad for a number of reasons. First, the church as a workplace is unique in the sense that few have the families in regular attendance at their workplace. Few, if any, accountants, for example, take their wife and children to work with them and have them peer over their shoulders to check their math. Nevertheless, if you were having trouble at work with your boss or co-workers, would you have your wife write a letter to them explaining your actions? I doubt it very much.
Second, part of being a pastor is being willing to take it on the chin. You have to get used to people criticizing you—this is just the cost of doing business. If you worry about criticism, then you should stay away from the pastorate. Rather than worrying about criticism, you should instead ask whether you believe you are making good decisions. Have you prayed about it? Have you sought counsel from your elders? Have you consulted with trusted members of your church? If this is the case, then make your decision and let the chips fall where they may. If you constantly try to adjust and accommodate every criticism you will end up being pushed to and fro unable to stand on any decision.
Third, in the end, it’s not simply about taking it on the chin. A certain part of me wants to tell my fellow pastors, “Man up—don’t be so weak in the knees when it comes to criticism.” But this isn’t just about being a man but ultimately about the way of the cross. When you stand on truth and preach the gospel and receive criticism, then you’re following in the footsteps of Christ—you are being persecuted (admittedly a mild form of it) for the sake of his name. If you always want to avoid the criticism and vindicate your reputation at every turn from the slightest ill-spoken word, then chances are that you’re trying to avoid the way of the cross.
Remember, Christ, Paul, and the other apostles were all subjected to withering criticism. If you’re a pastor and find yourself under the fire of criticism, then you’re in good company. Don’t look for a way out—after prayerful consideration of whether the criticism is valid—press on and follow in the footsteps of Christ. Press forward in the way of the cross.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Big and Small Things
From a very early age my parents taught me that your conduct with small things indicates your attitudes and likely performance with the big things in life. My dad would tell me, “How you treat your bicycle as a child is likely indicative how you’ll treat your car when you’re an adult.” I think, for the most part, this is true. The Bible acknowledges this very principle with the parable of the talents. The servant who was faithful over little was given more to manage (Matt. 25:23). The same principle applies regarding managing one’s household. If you can’t manage your own home (a little church), how will you be able to manage a congregation (a big church) (1 Tim. 3:4-5)? Despite the truth of these observations, many do not seem to recognize this principle in life.
Over the years I have observed a number of young men who have indicated their desire to pursue the ministry—this is a good thing. I have listened to their testimonies on the floor of presbytery as they have come under care. But I have then watched these same young men handle poorly some of the simplest tasks, such as arriving to class or church on time. Some of these young men have been chronically late to class. They come scurrying in five or more minutes after class has started, and they do the same for church. I can’t help but wonder, “Would they arrive on time if they were the pastor?” If they can’t arrive on time as a member, why would they arrive on time as the pastor? Some might respond, “As the pastor, they would recognize that they have to be on time, and the person would make the adjustment.” But why wait? Moreover, how many people will actually give a person the benefit of the doubt?
In other words, it may be true that as a person receives greater responsibility they will adjust their conduct as needed. But on the other hand, if a church pastoral search committee is interviewing three candidates, two of which arrive on time and have a reputation for arriving on time, then why would they take the risk of hiring the candidate who is chronically late?
Be faithful in the small things and you might be surprised who is watching and taking notice—they just might decide to trust you with the big things in life due to your care with the small things in life.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Always Carry a Book
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.”
-- Pink Floyd, “Time”
I suspect that most of us have found ourselves with some down time—we unexpectedly have to wait for someone or for something and sit around twiddling our thumbs. These days most can whip out their cell phones and check out Facebook or update their Twitter feed. But is there a better way to make use of your time? As a pastor, can you make better use of your time? Given your busy schedule, how can you maximize your productivity?
I have done several things to maximize my downtime. First, always carry a book. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been out running errands and lose valuable time waiting in the dentist’s office, sitting in the car when my wife runs into the store for “just a minute,” or at the car dealer waiting for my car to be serviced. I noticed this pattern and decided to make better use of my time. Any time I leave the house, I always have a book, highlighter, and pencil in hand. If I find myself with some down time, I can pick up the book and read. Focused reading beats surfing the internet every time. Sure, I might find an interesting story on the web, but I personally find such reading ultimately unfruitful.
Second, I have discovered the benefits of audio books. My wife challenged me to expand my reading horizons—to read something else other than theology books. She encouraged me to read quality classic fiction. I found making time for this was difficult, but I figured out that I had about thirty minutes each day in the car that was basically unused. Sure, I could listen to some 80’s hair metal (those were the good ole’ days) or the news, but I have made better use of my time by listening to audio books. I have downloaded a number of inexpensive classic fiction books (from .99 to $2.99) and have greatly enjoyed listening to them in the car. Audiobooks has improved my listening skills and given me conversation points when meeting new people. I recently met a literature professor and we started talking about Mark Twain. Moreover, one of the benefits of reading good literature is improving your communication skills—speaking and writing. Most theological writing is notoriously poor, so a healthy diet of excellent prose can be the perfect elixir for sagging preaching or writing. And if I do find myself without a book, I can turn on my audiobook (it’s on my smart phone) and continue reading my latest book.
Time is precious—we receive each moment from God as a gift. Don’t waste time. You can never recover lost time. Use every minute as best as you can for the glory of God.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Buy A Dictionary
One of the most challenging things I encountered when I first attended seminary was the number of new terms and words I encountered. I think terminology, whether the technical terms of theology, or the fancy fifty-cent words scholars like to use, can be intimidating. Do I really need to know what Heilsgeschicte is and really, what does obstreperous mean? As I started in on my first reading assignments I quickly realized that I needed to buy a dictionary. So I marched off to the campus bookstore and bought a small theological dictionary, one that I still own and use, and then I went to my local Wally-World and bought a small paper-back Webster’s Dictionary. (Keep in mind, I’m old—the Internet wasn’t really publically operational—I couldn’t pop over to Amazon to buy these books).
Admittedly, at first, my reading was slow going. From time to time I had to stop, look up a word, write its definition in the margin, and then continue. The first time I read through Calvin’s Institutes I kept a rather large book mark and wrote down the new words I was learning with a one-word definition or synonym next to it. As I encountered the same words again, I simply glanced at my bookmark to recall the meaning of the word I was trying to learn. When I worked in the library (I was a janitor—oh the stories I could tell), I listened to theology lectures on my Sony Walkman (Google it if you don’t know what it is—it used audio cassettes). I regularly heard words I didn’t know so I would make a pit stop by the massive Oxford English Dictionary and flip through the massive tome to look up the new word and then continue with my work.
The more I did this I discovered that I started to learn! I found that I was looking up fewer and fewer words. What would take me an hour to read was now only taking twenty minutes. All of this is to say, don’t let new words or the fact that you might not know something be an obstacle to learning. Buy a dictionary. There are a number of useful theological dictionaries out there. One of my favorites is Millard Erickson’s Concise Theological Dictionary. This book has simple, brief, one-sentence definitions for a myriad of theological terms. I think my absolute favorite is Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally From Protestant Scholastic Theology. If you want to learn classic theology, then owning this book is a must. In fact (nerd alert), I read the dictionary from cover to cover. It was a fascinating read (I know, I need serious help).
These days, looking up words is very easy—just type “Define” and then your word into Google and it’ll flash a definition in a matter of nano-seconds. There is no excuse! You can learn. You have the resources. Don’t let terminology pose an obstacle to your efforts to learn. Don’t be lazy! And don’t be unfair. Every single discipline, sub-culture, and subject has its unique terminology. Doctors have to learn the names of all of the parts in the body, computer techs have to learn what a dongle is, and surfers have to learn what where the stringer and rails are on their surfboards. Don’t hold theology and the study of the Scriptures to an unfair standard. Buy a dictionary!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Just Say No
One of the most difficult things I have faced in the pastorate is being willing to say, “No.” When I first entered the ministry I was, of course, like most, very eager to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. So no matter what came up, I would say, “Yes.” “Can you host an event at your home?” Yes. “Can you attend my son’s graduation?” Yes. “Can you write an essay for the church newsletter?” Yes. “Will you teach on a specific book of the Bible?” Yes. I think my desire was to be as giving as I could, and in general, I think I had good motives. The more time progressed, however, I realized that I needed to able to tell people, “No.”
I quickly realized that I would not be able to say yes all of the time. I am, after all, only one person with limited time, resources, and abilities. I may want to help everyone in the church, but the reality is, there are only so many hours in the day. Moreover, if I didn’t say no, then I could quickly find myself over-worked, stressed, and on my back in bed because I burned the candle at both ends for far too long. So, I started politely saying no to the many requests I received. Mind you, I wasn’t declining out of principle, but rather made choices based upon my available time, prior commitments, and abilities.
But as I did this, another quirk of mine arose. In the past, when I would decline an offer or request, I felt the need to provide an explanation. “I’m sorry, I can’t meet you for lunch because I already have three counseling appointments this week, I have to teach a class on Monday night, I have a session meeting on Thursday night, and I’m supposed to take my wife to dinner on Friday night.” As true as all of those things might be, I had to come to grips with the reality that I didn’t need to feel any guilt over declining a request or offer an explanation. All I had to say was, “I’m sorry. I can’t meet for lunch.” That’s it—plain, simple, and polite. You need not explain your schedule—just politely decline.
In the end, you have to learn to say no so you can rightly prioritize your time, ensure the right people receive your pastoral care, and protect your family’s time and resources. As nice as it would be to have infinite resources and abilities, thereby enabling you to accept every invitation and say yes to every request, the reality is, you have to learn to say no. Christ never intended for you to do everything in the church. This is why he has placed you within a body—a body that has multiple people, with many gifts, and often the time that you don’t have. If you try to say yes to everything, then you might be robbing the rest of the body of an opportunity to serve, assist, or meet a need. The people in the church might all too easily believe that you, as the pastor, have everything covered and there’s no need for them to get involved. This can be detrimental to the life of a church. So, just learn to say no!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Will Seminary Fix My Spiritual Problems?
I can remember sitting in chapel and attending new student orientation. I sat there with four hundred of my new classmates as we excitedly and eagerly soaked in the material that the Academic Dean was telling us. As he spoke he went over the various ins-and-outs of seminary life and then he made a curious statement: “If you’ve come to seminary with spiritual problems, don’t expect that they’ll get better. In fact, they will probably get worse.” At the time, I was surprised to hear this, but as I continued my education, and as I’ve reflected upon that counsel over the years since, I’ve determined that it is sound advice.
My initial impression of seminary was, it’s a place to study the Bible, I need the Bible, if I have problems, why would seminary make my situation worse? Isn’t studying the Bible a good thing? Won’t it help me with my problems? It all depends on what type of problems you have. If you’re doing ok spiritually, have no major issues, then, yes, going to seminary can be a very good thing. If, however, you’re struggling with major problems—significant moral failings—alcoholism, drug abuse, marital infidelity, dishonesty, thievery, etc.—then seminary will likely make things worse. How so?
To say the least, seminary is a pressure cooker. If you’re a full-time student then you’ll have a lot of work on your plate. You’ll have thousands of pages to read for the semester, papers to write, notes to study, classes to attend, and exams to take. In addition to this, you’ll have your other family responsibilities, and perhaps a job to boot. As difficult as this can be, if you’re life isn’t in decent order seminary can add more pressure and you will only make things worse. If you’re dishonest, then you’ll be tempted to lie even more when it comes time to take your exam or report how much of the assigned reading you’ve truly completed. If life stressed you out and drives you to take the edge off with alcohol, then seminary will only be more fuel for the fire.
Given these factors, perhaps now you know why seminaries require character references. Seminaries want to ensure that students have godly character, not only because they want their students to represent Christ and the institution well, but so they have some hope that the student won’t collapse under the pressure. Don’t’ get me wrong—thousands of people attend and graduate seminary each year. Seminary isn’t Navy SEAL training, but on the other hand, seminary can be challenging if you have big spiritual problems.
Seminaries aren’t indifferent about people’s problems—its not that they have a “stay away if you’ve got issues policy.” Rather, I suspect that most admissions personnel and faculty want to ensure that a person who has problems gets proper pastoral care, attends to the means of grace, and orders their life before coming to seminary. We recognize that these are important things, and as much as seminary can be a blessing, the seminary is not the church. People with big spiritual problems need Christ, the church, and the means of grace; they do not need 3,000 pages of reading and an assignment to write a twenty-page paper. As beneficial, therefore, as a seminary education can be, make sure that you have your priorities straight. Seek Christ and the means of grace for your spiritual ailments—only he can remedy your problems.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Swagger
At seminary I always look forward to May because it means graduation! I’m excited for the students who have worked hard for a number of years and finally reach the end of their goal—they are the proud owners of a shiny new masters degree! For most, it’s an exciting time—they smile because they’ve finished and can now turn their attention to books of their own choosing rather than those that are assigned on the syllabus. But almost invariably I also observe something else—some exhibit swagger. I can hear it in their tone of speech and in the looks on their faces—students ask questions in class or make comments and sound very confident.
From one vantage point I completely understand the attitude—“I have just spent the last three years of my life studying the Bible full time. I know Greek and Hebrew, I know philosophical, theological, epistemological, and eschatological terms! I’ve read Calvin, Bavinck, Aquinas, and Hodge, and I even know what the Enuma Elish is!” The assumption is, I have learned all there is to know. I even suspect that some students think they’ve heard and read it all—they hit a plateau and think that there’s little else. If you’ve never had any of these thoughts cross your mind, then pat yourself on the back. But if you have, even the slightest bit, be warned.
I have been studying theology full time for twenty-two years. And when I look back at my work from ten to fifteen years ago I wince. I also can recall the feelings I had when I completed that work. I felt as if I learned something. But the older I get and the more I learn I realize the more I don’t know and how little, actually, that I have learned. The older I get I realize how vast the world is, how large the theological ocean is, and in all honesty, despite my twenty-two years of full time study, I realize that I’ve only dipped my toes into the vast theological sea.
I believe, therefore, that when you finish seminary, you should be excited and proud. It’s a terrific accomplishment. But don’t think that you’ve arrived. You’ll likely spend the rest of your life learning, and such a journey is most definitely rewarding. I love learning new things and discovering how little I actually know. It’s actually quite comforting because it reminds me how great and omniscient our covenant God is. He hasn’t called me to know everything but to be faithful in learning the things that he places before me. My own ignorance is also a reminder of how much I need the body of Christ with its many people, gifts, and diverse learning. I can’t know it all, but I have the church who knows a lot more than me. I can consult the living and I can consult the dead through their theological works (don’t worry, I’m not holding any séances). I can benefit from Christ’s gifts to the church by studying great theological works.
In the end, such an exercise should produce profound humility in any sane person. It should not engender pride, arrogance, or a swagger.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Your Identity In Christ
How do you measure your self-worth? This is a question, I suspect, that we all, from time to time, think about. You go about life, but then pause, and ask, “What’s the point of my work? What am I doing? Why?” These are certainly important questions to ask. I asked them of myself about twenty-five years ago—I prayed—and I decided to pursue ordained ministry. I love my vocation—I wake up early in the morning most days eager to tackle the next book I need to read. I can’t wait to learn new things about the Scriptures. I go to work most days excited to be able to teach students about God’s word. I believe I’m one of a small class of people in this life who get paid to do something they really love. I love my calling! I get paid to study the Bible! As much as I love my job, I always do my best to hold my calling loosely in my hands.
By God’s grace, I hold my calling loosely in my hands because I don’t want my identity wrapped up in what I do, but rather, it needs to be defined by who I am. These two categories (who I am and what I do) overlap, but they are not synonymous. Let me explain. I once had surgery on my neck that could have paralyzed my vocal chords. I informed the surgeon, “I know you will, but please be careful. My voice is like a shovel for a ditch-digger. If I lose it, I can’t preach! I can't dig ditches! I can’t work!” I laid down on the operating table praying, “Lord, if you take my voice from me, please grant me the grace to accept your good, acceptable, and perfect will for my life.” Blessedly, the surgeon was skillful and I still have my voice. If I had lost my voice, I would have retired. I would have been devastated. But I kept on reminding myself, “I am not what I do. My identity is in Christ and in what he calls me to do, whatever that might be.”
This truth was forcefully impressed upon my heart by a story one of my ruling elders told me about. He told me about one of his fellow elders who served at another NAPARC church. This man was healthy, fit, married, and had a number of children, and was successful. In a freak accident the man was paralyzed from the neck down. He could never use his body again, was imprisoned in a wheel chair, and obviously was no longer able to live his life as he previously knew it. This man, however, continued to serve as a ruling elder. My friend asked this man how he was doing, to which the paralyzed man responded: “I am serving Christ and being the best head I can be.” To me, the answer was stunning. The man was not wallowing in pity. He was not in a state of depression given all that he had lost. I can easily imagine that, were I in a similar circumstance, I would be very angry and bitter at God for robbing me of my life. Yet this paralyzed man ultimately did not define himself by what he did but who he was in Christ. Given his union with Christ, his life was ultimately defined by what Christ had him do. I’m sure this man has days where he gets depressed and mourns over his circumstances, but I believe in the end he knows to whom he must look in order to find joy. In Paul’s words, whether in plenty or want, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:11-13).
So, then, how do you define your self-identity? Are you a mom? Are you a business person? Are you an athlete? What happens when your children grow up and leave home? What happens if your business fails? What happens when the crowds no longer cheer? Have you now ceased to be who you think you’re supposed to be? Or are you united to Christ, dear and precious in his sight, one for whom he laid down his life, that you might live, who also happens to be a mom, businessman, or athlete? So often people retire at the end of their lives and they have a sense of loss because they don’t know what to do. They so defined themselves by their jobs that they are lost without them. The same holds true for married couples. Once the children grow up and leave home, husband and wife don’t know how to live together because they no longer spend their days primarily as mom and dad. In the absence of what they know, they become lost, and in being lost, they give up. They get divorced.
Remember, what you do in life is not the same thing as who you are. Define who you are by your union with Christ—everything else in this life may come and go, but your identity in Christ is eternal.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Always Say Yes
One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received was from a Scottish Presbyterian minister who gave the following advice: “Always say yes.” He gave his advice in the context of a talk to future pastors and how to handle the various requests that come to the pastor. He recognized that Reformed churches had more requirements than other evangelical churches: catechism, formal church membership, accountability, and when necessary, even church discipline. Other churches have few such practices. Given these many requirements, he believed that Reformed churches had the tendency frequently to say no. He offered the following example:
“Can I have my child baptized?”
“No, you can’t. You’re not a member of the church. So I’m sorry, you can’t have your child baptized.”
He said that such a person would likely walk away disappointed and go to another church that would give him what he wanted. He told his audience that there was another way to answer this question.
This minister said in his Scottish brogue, “You can give the same answer by saying yes!” Consider the same question:
“Can I have my child baptized?”
“Why, yes! Of course! There is the issue of your church membership, which we can take care of. We’d be happy to catechize you and have you join the church. When you join, by all means, we can baptize your child at the same time!”
The negative and positive answers both rest on the same principles: the necessity of church membership. And they both give similar answers, but one immediately turns people away whereas the other shows the person you’re interested in them joining and staying. With the positive answer you not only preserve your ecclesiological commitments, but you also encourage the person to join your church. You also open a window to disciple them.
Ever since hearing this advice I have done my best to use it, especially as a pastor. I always have said yes to these types of questions. You have the opportunity either to scare people away or make them feel wanted. You can be scary or inviting. My advice, whether in ministry or life, is always say yes.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Straight from the Source
I can remember in seminary dueling with a number of different critics regarding Reformed theology. God’s sovereignty was a regular topic of debate. For the record, I did not attend a Reformed seminary, hence truths taken for granted at Reformed institutions were not widely accepted at my school. The subjects of discussion usually would come around to the views of John Calvin, the sixteenth-century Reformer. This was an inevitable occurrence because his name is embedded in the popular term Calvinism. In the debates, people would regularly dismiss his views for one reason or another, or they attributed things to Calvin that he never said or wrote. I challenged my interrogators with the following question: “Have you read Calvin’s Institutes or any of his writings?” The usual answer was negative. They had not. I then responded, “Don’t you think, simply in the interest of fairness, that you shouldn’t so quickly dismiss what you haven’t read or fairly considered? Isn’t it prejudicial to condemn what you’ve never read?” Sometimes this question would cause the person to pause and back away from his accusations of heresy. I don’t know if these people ever changed their minds or read Calvin, but they did recognize that they probably shouldn’t condemn what they haven’t even read.
As I regularly invoked this line (“Have you read it?”), I was convicted that I was being unfair. I would regularly reject the views of others without having read them. I caught my hypocrisy and started to do my best to fix the problem. I started reading the writings of those with whom I disagreed. I read, for example, the works of Jacob Arminius. I read the documents of the Council of Trent. I also read the works of number of atheist philosophers; I found Friedrich Nietzsche to be quite entertaining and riveting. In these different works I discovered that I still disagreed with them but I now knew very specific reasons as to why. Plus, I could now legitimately say that I had considered what they had written and not dismissed it prejudicially.
All of this is to say, in any dispute you need to do your best to listen to both sides of the argument. How fair is it to prejudice one side over the other? Would you want to be slighted and have someone completely ignore your point of view and then write it off? I suspect not. This fairness principle applies not only to theological debates but to any conflict in life whether for bickering children, spouses at odds with one another, or a pastor trying to bring about reconciliation between two parties. But the principle is also especially true in theological debate. Be fair. Don’t accept what other people say about Arminius, for example. Read him for yourself and quote him directly. And in theological debates, you need to follow the advice of one of my professors—never pick the worst example of a position—pick the very best example. Anyone can reject a poor argument, one riddled with fallacies and bad exegesis. Look for the best articulation of a position—it does you no good to reject a straw man. In order to convince someone of the truth of your view, you need to demonstrate that you’ve wrestled with the very best that the other side has to offer.
Always, therefore, go straight to the source!
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Hunted or the Hunter?
Each year it usually happens around the middle to the latter half of the semester—I see students start to drag their feet, they start looking stressed out, they have large circles under their eyes, and have a look of dread. In their minds they have entered the end-of-the semester crunch—they’re madly working on papers and then preparing for the blow of final exams. They hope to emerge on the other side of this intellectual gauntlet. To me, they always look like hunted prey—winded and exhausted.
I always tell the students, “Don’t be the hunted—be the hunter!” The usual response I get is one of laughter or disbelief. But I firmly believe in this principle. Sports psychologists talk about seeing your success ahead of time before you take your shot—mentally see the golf ball go into the hole or the basketball into the hoop. They teach athletes to do this because you can psych yourself out—you can hobble your own success by having a defeatist attitude. If you think you’ll miss the shot, then you probably will, not for a lack of skill but because of a poor attitude. So, first, tell yourself you have the skill to succeed. See yourself being successful in your paper or exam.
But being the hunter isn’t just about envisioning success—you need a positive attitude and a diligent work ethic. If you wait until the last minute to write the paper or study for the exam, then yes, you will be the hunted—you are the prey. You have put yourself in the position of letting the exam or paper have the upper hand. You have come to the fight ill prepared. If, on the other hand, you prepare for your fight, then you can turn the tables. Start studying for your final exam the first day of class. Come home from class and start studying—reviewing and memorizing. If you incrementally learn, then you merely review before the final exam, not try to cram 13 weeks of material into your brain in a matter of three days. Start working on your research papers the first week of the semester. Get out your calendar, map out your reading, identify your paper topics, and start doing your research. Chances are you’ll be putting the finishing touches on your papers weeks before they’re due rather than pulling an all-nighter.
Another important dimension of being the hunter is prayer—pray that God would grant you discipline and humility. You need the discipline to accomplish the work, and you need humility so you acknowledge that you’re probably not as smart as you think you are—which means, you need to study hard!
Ask yourself whether you're a hunter or the hunted. Hunters plan ahead, are proactive rather than reactive, start early on projects, and work incrementally to complete assignments. The hunted wait until the last minute, are reactive, procrastinate, and do assignments all at once the night before they're due.
I know of a student who used to study hard, and the night before the exam he would play the theme song to Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” by Ennio Morricone—the Western music for a gunfight. Anyone who’s watched a spaghetti Western knows how those gunfights always ended. Think of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit,” “Fill your hands . . .” In other words, face your exams and papers ready for the duel and prepared to eliminate the problem. YOU will smoke the exam; the exam will not smoke you. Prepare. Study. Work. And then smile and take your exam. This applies to so many other areas in life. Be the hunter, not the hunted.
A Pastor’s Reflections: College vs. Seminary
A regular question we get here at the seminary is, How is college different than seminary? In many respects they are quite different. There are certain similarities—you go to class, do reading assignments, write papers, and take tests. But I believe that the similarities end with these broad generalities. The differences between the two are significant.
First, chances are you will find that there is a lot more reading in seminary. On average, you can expect to have 1,000 pages of reading for every two-semester hours of class. If you take 16 hours a semester, then that could be as much as 8,000 pages of reading in one semester. The reading load can vary—you might have 8,000 pages one semester, and only 4,000 the next. This reading load means you have to manage your time well. Get a calendar, plan out your reading, and then be diligent to get it done. I remember one of my professors telling our class, “I’ll be testing you on the knowledge of the assigned book. If I were you, I would read and outline it to ensure you know the material.” That was it—no clues—no hints—just read the whole book! This amount of reading might seem unreasonable and even draconian. The truth of the matter is that it’s but a drop in the bucket. In order to learn well, you need to read the primary sources—you need to read Augustine’s Confessions and Calvin’s Institutes, not just read books about them. You have to try to learn as much as you can about 2,000 years of church history, hence there’s a lot of reading in seminary.
Second, you have little handholding in seminary—you’re in graduate school. In college, chances are you had a number of tests throughout the semester to hold you accountable for your learning, or a minimum, a mid-term and a final. In seminary, you will typically have one exam for an entire class. It can seem intimidating—you attend class for 13 weeks, take notes, do thousands of pages of reading, and then your whole grade hangs on one exam. Well, you’re not in college anymore. This means you need the maturity to study diligently throughout the semester so that the exam doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks at the end of the semester. This also means that you need to be self-disciplined. No one will force you to study.
Third, sadly, many colleges have eliminated foreign language study from their curriculums. But this isn’t the case at seminary. You have to learn both Greek and Hebrew. In some seminaries the biblical languages have drifted to the side or they aren’t foundational to the curriculum. In other words, if you’re taking a Greek final in your last semester of seminary, then Greek wasn’t foundational for your education. Here at WSC Greek and Hebrew are foundational. You have to take them first before you can take upper level biblical studies and theology courses. And in several of our courses, you’re allowed to use your Bible for exams—your Greek and Hebrew Bible—no English. We don’t do this to make people miserable but to ensure that graduates really know their Bible. This means that foreign-language study is integral to your seminary education.
Fourth, chances are you will be writing more research papers in seminary than you ever did in college. In some college science curriculums, students never write a single research paper. This means they have trouble doing research and writing. Some really dislike writing papers, but they are important learning tools. Not only do you study a specific topic and learn much in the process, but you also learn how to organize your thought and communicate it in a succinct manner. Writing research papers can help you become a better communicator—a better preacher and teacher. This means you should ensure that you have the basic necessary skills for writing—grammar, rhetoric, syntax, and the like. You can pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or Turabian’s A Manual for Writers. These can be very helpful and teach you the basic elements of research and writing.
College and seminary are different, but this doesn’t mean that seminary is impossible. If you go to seminary mentally prepared and with a strategy for making the transition, then you can do well in seminary and beyond!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Time Will Tell
We live in an age when we expect instant results. Everything around us screams, “Right now!” Amazon is working on one-hour delivery—click, and poof! You get your product in an hour. It seems like the longest minute of the day is standing at the microwave waiting for your frozen burrito to cook. Yet, in church life “instant” is the last word you use for sanctification.
As a pastor I often watched people’s progress (or lack thereof) in their sanctification. I would hope and pray that certain individuals would grow—leave behind their besetting sins. But much to my frustration, I would watch them seemingly take forever. I would pray to the Lord, “Why won’t you move this person down the path faster? Why does he seem to linger?” I would also do my best to check on whether we as a church were doing everything we were supposed to be doing: preaching Christ—check; sacraments—check; holding people accountable—check; prayer—check; pastoral visits—check. So why the delays?
I don’t necessarily have a definitive answer to this question. But over time I’ve reflected upon the issue and have drawn a few observations. First, if the Christian life were simply a matter of instant results and checking off boxes, then what need would their be for the means of grace? The Christian life is a journey, one marked by twists and turns in the road, and even delays. Those twists and turns keep us continually looking to Christ for sustenance, guidance, and grace.
Second, I think people are at different places in their sanctification because we need to learn about praying for and assisting others in their daily walk. If people never struggled, then we would never intercede on their behalf in prayer. We would never come along side of them and offer assistance, counsel, and encouragement.
Third, in the end, I think that we must learn patience—to be longsuffering and wait on the Lord. Being longsuffering doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to sin but rather to recognize that God sets the timetable, not us. We may feel like God is late, but blessedly, he’s always right on time.
In the end, time will tell. We may not see instantaneous results, but with patience, prayer, and attendance to the means of grace we will see progress and growth. God willing we can look back over a series of years, perhaps decades, and recognize that, though our progress has been slow, it has nonetheless been steady. As a pastor, remember, you must wait on the Lord and his timing.
A Pastor’s Reflections: License to Learn
I can remember excitedly e-mailing one of my professors. I enthusiastically typed, “I’ve passed my dissertation defense! I’ll be graduating with my doctorate!” It had been a challenging road, one filled with hard work, a few tears, and blood (if you count paper cuts). But I will never forget my professor’s response, “Congratulations! Now you have your license to learn!” I had always looked at my Ph.D as an end-goal. In academic circles, they call it a “terminal degree.” It’s the last one, the end of the line, the carrot at the end of the stick. So why was my former professor telling me that I now had a license to learn?
Well, quite simply, he was reminding me that earning a degree doesn’t mean that you’ve somehow arrived, that you now have no need to learn. It was also a reminder to two other important truths. First, it was a reminder to be humble. Those who hold a Ph.D can sometimes be full of themselves. In this vein my father’s words regularly echo in my mind, “Ph.D means ‘piled higher and deeper,’” or I also remember my wife’s words, “Ph.D means ‘post hole digger.’” In other words, don’t take yourself too seriously just because you’ve earned a Ph.D. Be humble. The world is a big place and there are a lot of smart people out there from whom you can learn a lot.
Second, the best students make the best teachers. Even though I’ve got my Ph.D., the more I’ve studied the more I’ve realized how little I know. So even though I earned my degree, I keep on reading, studying, and learning. And in some cases, I have to re-learn what I’ve forgotten. On several occasions I’ve picked up books and started to read them, only to find out that they’ve got highlights and markings in them—my highlights and markings! How on earth I can completely forget that I’ve read and marked up a book is beyond me. But it does happen (at least it happens to me).
So regardless of your place in life, whether you have no degrees or many, never forget that you can always continue to learn. Pick up a book and learn something new.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Christ and the Third Use of the Law
Lutheran and Reformed theologians developed the teaching that there are three uses of the law: the civil – that which regulates society and government and is common to all people; the pedagogical – that function of the law that shows us our sin and our need for Christ; and the normative – that which shows us the rules and norms for the Christian life, what conduct is good and acceptable to God. The so-called third use of the law has been a common staple in Reformation theology and an important teaching for the Christian life. Blessedly, once we are in Christ, we no longer know of the curse of the law because he has born the curse for us. In the language of the Westminster Confession, we no longer look at the law as a covenant, that which requires perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience, but we now relate to the law as a rule—a guide for the Christian life (WCF XIX.vi).
At the same time, one of the troubling things that I’ve personally observed is when, in the name of the third use of the law, pastors will preach a message on love, for example, and never once mention the name of Christ. I can remember sitting in the congregation listening to the sermon, hearing the pastor urge the congregation to love one another, and the various ways that they could do so, but I kept on waiting and hoping to hear the name of Christ. He never mentioned the name. I don’t usually offer critical remarks after a sermon, but I approached the minister and asked him why he never mentioned Christ or the gospel. He replied, “I was preaching the third use of the law.” I was surprised and at the same time troubled.
To preach imperatives, commands, apart from Christ or the gospel, tears down the very foundation of the Christian life. It’s like pulling the rug out from under a person. Apart from Christ, we have no ability to live the Christian life—to love others. We must constantly hear the indicatives—who we are in Christ and what he has done on our behalf. We must hear of the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lay hold of the life-giving words of the gospel in order to live out the Christian life. If we rob our congregations of the gospel indicatives, we give them no way to live out the imperatives of the Christian life. To preach only imperatives leaves a person little choice but to seek to obey out of his own power. To preach only imperatives, even well intentioned ones in the name of the third use of the law, virtually places us back under the law and its curse.
Preachers, therefore, should never fail to herald Christ and the gospel, regardless of the purpose of the message. But this counsel also applies to us all. Parents, when you admonish or correct your children, do you merely encourage them to obey? If you do, you’re failing to point them to the source of their obedience, namely, Christ. By all means, correct and discipline your child, but never fail to remind her of the source of her obedience—of Christ and his gospel. Point them to Christ—encourage them to pray to him to seek his forgiveness for their sin and to plead with him that they would obey their parents. We need the gospel every moment of our lives. Christ never becomes superfluous.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Finances
One of the things that surfaced in my pastorate was the need to sit down and offer financial counsel to members of my congregation. In a church of any size, chances are you’ll have people who struggle, for one reason or another, with making ends meet. It might be that a person loses his job and then has difficulty paying his bills. Another scenario is that a person gets ill and her company eventually has to let her go. Sure, there’s workman’s comp, and other parachutes, but sometimes a person falls on hard times and can’t pay her bills. Another common situation is that people simply mismanage their money.
I faced all three with members of my church and I had to offer varying levels of financial counsel. In one case, I sat down with the family and helped them figure out a household budget. Some people never learn the basics about handling money and have to learn the hard way. A simple way to avoid spending more than you take in is to establish a budget: tithe, rent / mortgage, utilities, insurance, food, entertainment, vacation, clothes, etc. Knowing what you need to spend each month on necessities, and what money you have left for optional things and luxuries can mean the difference between financial security and bankruptcy.
Along the way, however, as I counseled some of the members of my church, I saw significant lapses in wisdom and judgment. In one case, I noted how the family was struggling to make ends meet, to pay the mortgage. As I approached the house, this family’s barking dog assaulted my ears and my mind. I wondered, how can a family that can’t pay the mortgage afford to keep a pet? Sure, pets are nice, but they’re expensive too. Dog food (this dog was pretty big), shots, and the like can quickly add up. It may be a Christian liberty to own a dog, but if you can’t pay the mortgage the better part of wisdom dictates that you should give up the dog. This was my counsel to the family—give up the dog so you can buy food and pay for the roof over your head—you need every penny you can find to pay for the necessities in life.
During such financial trials, one of the biggest challenges can be prioritizing giving to the church. Sadly, giving to the church often comes as one of our last considerations rather than one of our first. Ideally, we should be giving something to the church, even if we find ourselves in financial straights. I’m not saying it has to be much, but even five dollars is a good reminder that God is the one who provides for all of our needs.
Another important dimension of financial hardship is, churches need to look out for people in trouble. They need to be aware of whether people need financial assistance. The Scriptures are clear: in some cases, such as widows, the church has an obligation to assist them in every way possible (1 Tim. 5:9ff); the same applies to orphans (James 1:27). In other cases, people should first approach immediate family (1 Tim. 5:16). If there is no immediate family, or they are unable to assist, then the church should see what it can do to help. There are undoubtedly some cases where a little assistance will go a long way and enable someone to recover. In other cases, wisdom is key. Will giving a person money hurt or help them? Is there underlying sin that needs to be addressed before someone can stabilize their financial situation? Is church discipline necessary?
There are more unanswered questions, but these are just some of the things churches should consider when trying to help members in financial troubles. In the end, remember, whatever assistance you render, you do so in the name and for the sake of Christ.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Freud or Paul?
In the twentieth and twenty-first century, Christian counseling has taken off like wildfire. Seminaries that once saw preparing men to be pastors as their bread and butter now offer counseling degrees. Let me state up front, I’m not opposed to the study of counseling, psychology, physiology, or the ways in which these subjects intersect with the Bible. I’m not opposed to people pursuing counseling degrees and seeking to serve the church in the capacity as a counselor. On the other hand, I do have some reservations that give me pause.
The fact that the church has existed for thousands of years without counselors rests upon my mind like a ten-ton weight. I’m also struck by fact that Christian counseling as a separate discipline has come on the heels of the rise of psychology as a separate discipline. These facts alone should cause us to evaluate carefully how and in what ways we employ counseling in the life of the church. Throughout church history, pastors have had the responsibility to counsel their congregations. One of the most famous examples of this is when Martin Luther’s barber asked Luther about how to pray. Luther went off, wrote a brief treatise, and gave it to his barber. Pastors have had the responsibility to give moral, spiritual, and practical counsel, but now, there is another person who has entered the scene, the Christian counselor.
First off, how well trained is this counselor? Yes, seminaries offer counseling degrees but not all degrees are created equal. A Masters of Divinity degree is typically around 100 hours, or more if you count Greek and Hebrew courses. At Westminster Seminary California, you will get 26 hours of New and Old Testament courses, 24 hours of Systematic Theology, 19 hours of Practical Theology, 10 hours of Church History, and a few other courses. Our goal is to ensure that future pastors really know their Bibles. By contrast, one counseling degree I found only requires 4 hours of systematic theology and about 10 hours of biblical studies electives, but more than 40 hours of counseling courses. Let me pose a simple question: Based on the training, who will know more about the Bible? Who will be better equipped to understand, diagnose, and offer counsel regarding besetting sin? How can you adequately diagnose and prescribe a course of action based upon biblical principles if you’ve hardly studied what the Bible has to say about such things? If you want to be a counselor, fine. But don’t sacrifice your knowledge and study of the Scriptures for the sake of learning about counseling. Chances are you should get two degrees, one in theology and one in counseling.
Second, is the counselor a part of the local church? Is the counselee subject to the authority of a local session of elders, i.e., a member of the church? One of the pitfalls of the counseling model is that it mirrors the doctor-patient pattern rather than pastor-congregant. In a pure counseling model, I am free to tell my counselor about all of my problems and sins, but I can walk away any time I want. There is little accountability in such a scenario. If, on the other hand, the counselor is part of the church, and I am a church member, and I know that both of us are accountable to the elders and subject to church discipline, then such a model follows the Bible. The key to scriptural counseling is that it has accountability, namely, church discipline. If someone confesses that he’s cheating on his wife and struggling with pornography, he must ultimately repent—change his conduct. And, such a person should likely be placed under church discipline until he repents. Moreover, given the nature of his sin, he would likely have to repent publicly. Such a picture is quite different than walking in and out of the counselor’s office with only you and counselor knowing about your confessed sins.
Third, pastors! Don’t be lazy! Don’t be quick to outsource your counseling. I fear that there is a great temptation to pass off difficult counseling situations to counselors, even those within your church under the oversight of your elders. Yes, one of your primary tasks is to preach the gospel, but you have also been called to guide and counsel your sheep. When Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd didn’t outsource the task to one of his employees or to a sheep-finding service (Matt. 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). The shepherd left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. If you pass off difficult counseling cases to a counselor, in house or not, how can you say that you’re truly shepherding your sheep? If your doctor prescribed medication without ever talking with you about your problems, how effective would such treatment be? How reliable would this doctor’s prescriptions be? One of the most vital sources of wisdom and knowledge about how to preach and counsel from the pulpit comes from personal, one-on-one, counseling. There is no sin that you, as a well-trained pastor, can’t handle. To borrow a title from a famous book, you are competent to counsel.
My fear is that with the popularity of counseling, that Freud will supplant the apostle Paul, that the counselor’s couch will replace the pulpit, and that pastors will become distant from their congregations as they offer spiritual prescriptions from afar because they don’t want to enter into the messy arena of the sin-stricken lives of their sheep. The church must use any gift from God, even counseling, properly. Keep a close eye on the Scriptures, therefore, as you use the gift of counseling in your church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: You Talk Too Much About Jesus
I once had a colleague tell me that a wealthy businessman and member of his congregation privately approached him and said, “I am prepared to donate a lot of money to the church, but I have this one condition. Please stop talking about Jesus so much and just tell me what I need to do. Give me a list each week of things I can do.” The pastor was somewhat discouraged but at the same time bemused at how anyone could ask him to stop preaching about Christ. I know, the first thought that likely comes to mind is that this preacher was only talking about Jesus and never offered points of application in his sermon. This wasn’t the case. The preacher was solid—he preached Christ and applied the text. The problem wasn’t with the preacher but with the church member.
I think this man’s request, while perhaps foolish, expresses a common desire among people in the pews. We want to hear about the grace of the gospel, but we also want a checklist. We want the preacher to give us a list of things to do so we can go home, check off every item on the list, and walk away with a sense of accomplishment. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ has loved the church.” Ok, grace of the gospel, check. Love my wife, check. Wash the dishes, check. Use soap, check. Dry the dishes, check. Put them away (in the right place—this is for you, wife of my youth), check. Am I sanctified this week? Check. Check lists give us a sense that we have fulfilled the demands of the law and that we’ve grown in our sanctification. The problem with checklist spirituality is, however, that there is no list exhaustive enough to cover every demand of the law in every circumstance in life, whether in word, thought, or deed.
The law is simple—it sets forth chief ethical principles. And, yes, we find the application of the law in the various case laws set forth in Exodus, but it certainly isn’t exhaustive. When the two prostitutes, for example, came to Solomon disputing who was the mother of one child, there wasn’t a passage in the law or case law for this scenario (1 Kings 3:16-28). The whole point of the passage is that Solomon prayed for wisdom, and God answered his prayer (1 Kings 3:1-15). In fact, when Solomon issued his famous verdict in the dispute, “Divide the child!,” the people marveled at his great wisdom (1 Kings 3:28). Where do we find this wisdom? Where do we find answers to some of life’s most vexing challenges, things about which the Bible does not explicitly address? How do we live out the Christian faith and grow in our sanctification in these difficult situations? We find the answer in Christ. Paul tells us that in Christ God has hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2-3).
In other words, the pastor can preach the gospel and you can walk away knowing that you must love your wife, but how precisely you do this might greatly very from marriage to marriage. Loving your wife might mean quitting your job so you can have a vocation that has fewer responsibilities so you don’t have to travel so much. It might mean taking the children for an outing so your wife can get some much needed rest. It might mean studying your Bible more so you can do a better job at family devotions so your wife doesn’t feel like she has to lead them. It might mean you need to tell your wife that you love her more often. It could be a myriad of different things and no single checklist can tell you what you need to do.
If my colleague had taken the bribe (that’s what it essentially was) and given his church lists of things to do, his church coffers would have been fuller, but his congregation would have been spiritually impoverished. They would have failed to see that they needed Christ, above all else, and that only Christ can give us the wisdom we need to know how to pursue sanctification and how to apply the gospel to every facet of life. Spiritual lists can be helpful at times, but never think that just because you’ve checked off the boxes that you’ve somehow exhausted the depths of the demands of the law. Seek Christ in whom are hidden the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. If you’re a pastor, preach Christ and his gospel, herald the indicatives, press the imperatives, and never cease talking about Jesus. A list will never feed our hungry souls, only Christ, the manna from heaven will give us our fill and leave us satisfied.
A Pastor’s Reflections: What Should I Study in College to Get Ready for Seminary?
It always thrills my heart to see young boys and girls express an interest in going to seminary. We once had a boy who was about eight years old show up on campus and tell us he wanted to go to seminary—he wanted to learn about the Bible because he was going to be a pastor. We had to restrain him a little because he was on fire to buy his Greek and Hebrew textbooks and start studying!
It’s often the case that young men and women know from an early age that seminary is in their future, so they begin making plans, especially when they’re considering choosing a college major. There is no one correct major to choose, though some are more beneficial than others. You can study basket weaving and come to seminary and learn a lot about the Bible. But if you’re planning ahead, you might want to choose a subject that will assist you rather than show up to seminary as a blank slate.
Some subjects that lend themselves to assisting you with seminary are history, philosophy, or literature. Knowledge of world history can be immensely helpful in the study of theology. Church history, remember, occurs in the context of world history. All too often theology students know about church history but can’t tell you much beyond it. If you know the flow of and major events in world history, you’ll have an excellent foundation for knowing how church history fits in it.
Philosophy is another useful subject. Many don’t realize it, but the story of theology is intertwined with the history of philosophy. Theologians, for better or worse, have employed philosophical language and ideas in constructing their theology. In this respect, as one philosopher once said, all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato and Aristotle. Study these two giants and you’ll have useful information to assist you in your seminary studies.
Similar things can be said about the study of literature. All too often new students come to seminary and they can’t, to save their lives, string words together to build a coherent sentence, let alone write a research paper. Even though they’re college graduates, many students weave and dodge their way out of every opportunity to write papers. Studying literature, and writing about it, can assist you in becoming a better writer, communicator, and preacher. By studying literature, you can learn what constitutes powerful imagery and the craft of good story telling. By writing you learn how to communicate effectively, and effective writing can translate into cogent preaching. You might also be surprised that as you study literature, that you’ll learn a lot about theology. Literature often showcases anthropology, sin, virtue, vice, and even has a lot to say about God.
There are other fields that you can study to great benefit and profit, but history, philosophy, and literature are three choices that can be useful in the pursuit of a seminary degree.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Compounding Interest
One of life’s biggest lessons I have learned is the benefits and drawbacks of compounding interest. In financial terms, compounding interest is the idea that when you put money in the bank, say, $100, that you begin to earn more money the more interest you make. If you earn $10 interest, you’re no longer earning interest on $100, but $110, if you don’t touch the principal. The more money you save, the more you earn because the principal continues to grow. But compounding interest isn’t just about money, it’s about life too.
As I look over my life I have realized that who I am, large in part, is due to compounding interest. I have a good work ethic because my parents instilled it in me. I can remember my first summer job when I was 16 years old. I excitedly arrived at the home where the construction company was working only to have my enthusiasm crushed when my boss told me to bring the shingles up on the roof. I asked, “How many?” To which he responded with a wry smile, “All of them.” The next two days all I did was haul shingles up a flight of stairs, up a ladder, and then up the 12/12 pitched roof (45 degrees), up to the top, and then back to the bottom to repeat the process, all for $5.00 an hour. My legs ached, my shoulders were sore (each bundle of shingles weighed about 75 pounds), and my face was sunburned—it was summer. I think my parents enjoyed seeing me come home exhausted, covered in shingle dust, and ready to go to bed. They enjoyed it, not because they were sadists, but because they were instilling in me what their parents had instilled in them. I have a good work ethic because my parents taught me, and my parents’ parents taught them. My good work ethic is the result of generations of a good work ethic—compounding interest.
Sadly, compounding interest can work in the other direction. We are all personally responsible for our sins, but at the same time, we might make foolish decisions because we stand in a long line of poor choices. How many people, for example, struggle with obesity because their parents, grand parents, and great grand parents have historically made poor dietary choices? This pattern can unfold with sinful choices and the resulting compounding interest can be deadly. You may not think that your hidden stash of pornographic images is hurting anyone—they’re for your private use. But what you may not realize is that your sons have found your password-protected file and regularly look at your stash when you’re not home. What negative sinful effect will your pornography do to your ten and twelve-year old boys? Will they start their own collection? Will they struggle all the more with lust or sexual addiction? Will they treat women as sexual objects rather than human beings created in the image of God? And how will these effects impact their children, your future grandchildren? Compounding interest can be deadly and wreak spiritual havoc for generations to come.
Blessedly, we serve a God who can break the chains of the bondage of habitual sins, even those that have ravaged a family for generations. Just because your father was an alcoholic doesn’t mean that you will be one too. By God’s grace in Christ through the Spirit you can mitigate and even eliminate the effects of negative compounding interest. But on the flipside of the coin, how will you begin to invest your spiritual capital for the future? What compounding interest will you leave for your family for generations to come? A good work ethic? Integrity? Truth at all costs? These are all good and noble things. Invest broadly and especially in the gospel of Christ. Plant the seeds of the gospel, in word, thought, and deed, that will yield a bountiful harvest for generations to come. Reap the benefits of compounding interest.
A Pastor’s Reflections: How to Succeed in Class
As a professor, one of the questions that students regularly ask me, “How can I succeed in class?” My answer is usually the same. Here is my counsel:
Do your reading before you get to class. If it’s main reading, outline it, note key terms, and identify the main point, and any significant sub-points.
Attend class. Woody Allen once said that showing-up is 80% of success, and I can’t tell you how true this is. Far too many students miss class for various reasons. You can’t succeed if you’re not in class to hear the lectures.
Take good notes. This one is easy to hear but difficult to do well. I think far too many students have little idea how to take notes. They come to class ill prepared because they don’t do their reading beforehand. They’re not sure what’s important, so they write it all down. Personally, I find it annoying to hear students clicking away on their keyboards—the incessant cacophony of a thousand tic-tacs falling on a bare marble floor. If you’re transcribing the lecture, then you’re not taking good notes. If you’ve done your reading beforehand, then your notes should pick up what’s not covered in the reading. Your notes should look like an outline, not a densely packed transcription. In the interest of fairness, if the professor has done a good job outlining the course and assigning relevant reading, then your notes should likely reflect this. If the course is poorly planned, or if the reading is irrelevant, then I can understand how notes would be a lot fuller. Another related matter on note taking—use pen and paper. Don’t use a computer. I know, I know, I’ve heard all of the arguments about how much faster and efficient note taking is on a computer, “I can type much faster than I can write longhand.” Have you ever thought, however, that efficiency isn’t the main goal in note taking? How did medieval scholars memorize so much information? Because they wrote it down by hand, and they copied it. Most medieval scholars had three different notebooks—one for note taking, one for copying the same material in topical order, and another note book for copying and digesting and commenting on the information. They copied information at least three times. The process of copying helped them memorize the material. If you take notes by hand, you will likely spend more time listening rather than typing (the two are not the same thing). Then, when you get to your computer, take your hand written notes and type them—copy them. You’ll find that such an exercise will help you cement the information in your mind.
Study every day. Many students have poor time management skills. They wait until reading week and cram for finals. They stay up all hours of the night trying to cram thirteen weeks worth of knowledge into their caffeine-stoked minds, and then they rush off to the exam before that knowledge leaks out. If it leaks out, they want to ensure it drips onto the pages of the blue exam book, not the sidewalk. But how much do you truly retain long-term? I suspect very little. You might score an A on the exam, but will you remember this information in twenty years? J. Gresham Machen once wrote that 15 minutes a day in your Greek New Testament was far more effective than an hour once a week. We do best when we learn incrementally—such a method is conducive to retaining knowledge for the long haul. If you make it a point to review your lecture notes each day after class, and even return to previous week’s material, by the end of the semester you’ll find that you only need to review, not cram. I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but this is the way I studied, and I never pulled an all-nighter. My light was out and I was tucked beneath my polyester comforter before mid-night every evening. If anything, I wasn’t smart, I just liked to get a good night’s sleep.
If you follow this simple advice, which is applicable to many different settings in life, chances are you’ll do well in seminary and beyond.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Jimmy Fallon and Your Next Call
Did you ever think that late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon could offer sage advice regarding getting your next call? While Fallon didn’t use his late night platform to discuss seeking a pastoral call, an online video of Fallon interviewing Nicole Kidman certainly made a very practical point. In a nutshell, Kidman told Fallon a story about when she was single and she came over to his apartment. Fallon remembered the whole incident and recounted his side of the story. She came over, he bought some cheese, they talked a little, and then she left. End of story, right? Wrong.
Kidman told her side of the story. She informed Fallon that she was romantically interested in him at the time. She arranged to come over to his apartment with a friend because she wanted to get to know him. Fallon set out crackers and cheese, was dressed like a slob, and was more interested in playing video games than conversing with Kidman. To say the least, Fallon was stunned! He had no clue that Kidman was interested in him and, in a sense, that they were on an informal date. Fallon was clueless that Kidman was basically interviewing him. Kidman saw that Fallon was clueless and figured out that he wasn’t for her and she moved on. There’s definitely a life lesson here.
I have tried to make this point with students. My point is, you are always on your next job interview whether you realize it or not. I counsel students always to be presentable—shower (use soap), shave, comb your hair, and dress well. You don’t have to wear a suit every day, though it probably wouldn’t hurt. Why go to all of this trouble? Why not show up like it’s beach day? Why shower, shave, and comb my hair? What’s wrong with flip flops, shorts, a wrinkled t-shirt, and a low slung sock hat barely above the rims of my ultra-hip sunglasses? The simple answer is, you never know who’s watching.
Professors regularly watch and evaluate students, in and out of class. We regularly get e-mails from churches looking for intern candidates and potential pastors. There are often local area pastors on campus looking for interns or they know of churches looking for pastors. There might be someone from a search committee who happens to be on campus. What will they see? Will they see someone and think, “Wow, this guy could be our next pastor,” or will it be, “Yikes, this guy looks like he’s got a really bad case of bedhead.”
The truth of the matter is, people judge books by their cover all the time, whether its fair or not. And, people are always making evaluations all the time of the people around them. What type of an impression will you make? In the end, your desire should be to make a good impression, not because you’re looking to promote yourself but because you’re living coram Deo, before God. Always do what you can to put your best foot forward because of whom we serve. But also recognize that, whether you realize it or not, you’re on the interview for your next job.
If you want a good laugh, you can find the Jimmy Fallon video here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Preparing for Greek and Hebrew
One of the reasons going to seminary appears to be a daunting task is because the thought of learning Greek and Hebrew strikes fear in the hearts ordinary people. They look at the Greek New Testament and recognize a few letters because they’ve heard about fraternities and sororities . . . “What’s that, a sigma chi?” And then they look at the Hebrew Old Testament and have no idea what it says, let alone that they’ve probably picked up the book backwards not realizing that you read Hebrew right to left and that the back of the book is actually the front. Naturally, those who think about coming to seminary want to know what they can do to get ready to study Greek and Hebrew. What can they do to soften the blow?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are three simple things that you can do. The first is the most fundamental and basic—learn English grammar. It seems simple, or perhaps even foolish, but it’s an absolute must and is perhaps the biggest obstacle to people learning Greek and Hebrew. People get into class and the professor starts talking in a foreign language even though he’s speaking English. What’s a noun, pronoun, adverb, participle, direct object, indirect object? I can remember sitting in class ruing the fact that I didn’t pay better attention in elementary school when I supposedly learned all of this basic English grammar. My mind drifted back to my days in the third grade when my teacher was telling us about nouns and pronouns and I was barely paying attention. The key to learning any language is that you must understand how it functions, and to do this you must know basic grammar. There are now, blessedly, plenty of resources out there that provide tools for learning grammar for Greek and Hebrew.
Second, if you feel confident that you’ve mastered grammar, then the next step is to learn the Greek and Hebrew alphabets. If you come to your first day of class, chances are the professor will go over the alphabet, send you home, and tell you that you’ll have a quiz on it the next day. Queue Billy Joel’s song, “Pressure!” If, on the other hand, you already know the alphabet then you can hit the ground running.
Third, if you get beyond English grammar and the alphabet, then you can start learning vocabulary. You can go old school and purchase paper vocabulary cards, or you can get an app for your smartphone. Either way, whatever works, learn as much vocabulary as you can. This will definitely smooth out your efforts in learning Greek and Hebrew. You can spend your time learning the specific grammatical categories and syntax rather than also trying to learn new words. You’d be surprised that if you memorize 1000 words (500 for each testament) that you’ll likely learn about 75% of the words in the Greek and Hebrew Bibles.
In the end, study English grammar, the alphabets, and vocabulary, and you will pave the way for success in learning Greek and Hebrew.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Toppers
Just because everyone does something doesn’t mean that they’re good at it. Take conversation, for example. All of us engage in conversations on a regular basis with our families, friends, business associates, and even people we encounter in the store as we’re doing our grocery shopping. Yet, I suspect that many of us have been trapped in a bad or boring conversation. All you can think is, “When will the duct tape fairy come and use her magical wand to this person’s mouth?” Yet, such an observation should cause us to ask ourselves how well we do at conversation. We may not realize it, but there is an art to making good conversation. Such artistry is not simply the goal of talk show hosts and salesmen but should be something that each one of us practices, especially those who serve as pastors.
One particular troublesome aspect of conversation comes to mind, what I call the topper. What’s a topper? A topper is someone who regularly seeks to top any story that he or she hears. If you tell a story about the time when you had a fender bender, then the topper will immediately follow your story with, “If you think that’s bad, I have a better story . . .” or something to that effect. The topper doesn’t necessarily have to recount a personal story but can also liberally use stories from friends, relatives, or even people two or three times removed. The topper’s goal is to top your story, and the better story’s source is ultimately unimportant.
Topping can be fun, but it can also be poison to your personal relationships. One particularly egregious example comes to mind. I was listening to some women converse in the church one evening where one of them shared a prayer request. She asked that her friends would pray for one of her close friends who had just undergone a very painful double-mastectomy. Without missing a beat, one of the women in the group piped up, “Oh yeah, if you think that’s painful, you should try . . . .” The woman went on for a bit about how painful her recent out-patient procedure was. The ladies eventually dispersed and I could tell from the looks on their faces, raised eyebrows and rolling eyes, that the effort to top the prayer request fell flat.
After overhearing that incident I promised myself to be vigilant about not being a topper. When I know someone is coming over for dinner, for example, my wife and I will tell each other, “Let’s remember not to be toppers. Let’s listen and let our guests do a lot of the talking.” Conversation isn’t a competition. We don’t have to tell a better story. Sometimes the better part of conversation is listening, sympathizing, and empathizing with a friend rather than trying to top a story. This is part of the art of conversation, part of being a good listener, and vital to pastoral ministry. As the pastor, if you fail to listen because you’re too busy thinking about how you’ll top a story, you might miss important facts and alienate your counselee. There are certain people that I just don’t seek to engage in much conversation because I know that they’ll only try to top whatever I say. They’re more interested in speaking to me than with me. As the book of James says, be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19). Such wisdom is part of the art of making good conversation.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Never Tell Them To Leave
One of the most tempting things in the pastorate is to tell someone they should leave the church. At first glance, such a sentiment might seem totally out of character for a pastor, but there are some factors can make it sound like reasonable counsel. What should you do when you have members of your church who begin to grow dissatisfied with your preaching? They visit the church, enjoy your preaching, like the fellowship, but then over time begin to grow disenchanted with things. Not only do they begin to dislike your preaching but they regularly talk to you about it. It can grow to the point where they can become quite hostile. I can remember one church member who would sit in church on Sunday and when he was happy, he would close his eyes, smile, and listen to the sermon. When he was dissatisfied with what he heard, he would cross his arms, close his eyes, and shake his head back and forth in a disapproving manner. I was never wondering what this person thought about my preaching. At first, it was a bit unnerving but I eventually became accustomed to the blunt feedback. But there are some people who become far more direct and agitated.
I knew of a family that became convicted that exclusive psalmody was the only allowable form of music in church. So what did they do? When they arrived in church they would look up all of the hymn tunes and find psalms that used the same tunes. When it was time to sing the hymn they would instead sing a psalm to the same tune. You can imagine how disruptive this was to the worship service. The congregation was singing a hymn while this family was singing a psalm. In such cases it can be very tempting to ask the family to leave the church. I’m not saying that the desire would be to treat them rudely, but why not say, “You know, perhaps you’d be happier at another church that aligned more closely with your beliefs and convictions?” As tempting as such a question might be, I’m not convinced that it’s the correct approach.
I firmly believe that a pastor should never ask a church member to leave. In my pastorate, therefore, as tempting as it was, I never asked anyone to leave. My rationale is twofold: (1) personal experience, and (2) its unscriptural. First, I was once asked to leave a church. At the time, I had been a member of a church for nearly twelve years. But a new pastor was called to the church and his theology didn’t line up with mine. I didn’t try to make it an issue—I didn’t want to be a thorn in the pastor’s side. I did, however, tell the pastor that I thought he should preach from the Scriptures rather than give the congregation an exegesis of current events. The pastor didn’t care for my criticism and told me, “You know, I’m not going to let you teach or preach here, and that seems to be where your gifts lie. So, I’d leave if I were you.” I eventually did leave and remember that I felt as though the pastor had run me off. Second, I think such counsel is unscriptural. Why? I can’t find any passages of Scripture where pastors are told to chase the sheep away. The Bible talks about laying one’s life down for the sheep, loving sacrificially, and going off to find the lost sheep, not chasing them away. Personally, I never want to stand before Christ and say, “Yes, I ran off some of your sheep, those for whom you shed your blood and laid down your life.”
So, then, how do you handle difficult people in the church? In a word, you love them. It very well may be that Christ has sent you difficult people because you need to learn how to love them. Over time, through love and patience, you can build a solid pastoral relationship with the difficult person. Another route that you should consider is pastoral admonishment. In the case of the family who was singing psalms in worship, the pastor counseled with them and told them that they were being disruptive. He explained that he understood their convictions but that they could not disrupt the worship service. They should instead remain silent if they didn’t feel they could sing the hymns. In that case, I also believe it would be warranted to warn of church discipline. That is, if someone was regularly disrupting the church service, then as the pastor I would warn him of church discipline. In other words, there are many pastoral avenues you can pursue, but chasing off Christ’s sheep isn’t one of them.
As the pastor, remember, you have been called to love Christ’s sheep. Moreover, it just might be that Christ will send you some difficult sheep. Don’t run them off—love them. Never tell them to leave.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Benefits of Membership
Are some people more special than others? As the pastor, to whom do you owe your time? These are important questions because you will have people pulling on your calendar and schedule and you’ll have to decide to whom, among the many people you encounter, you should give your time. Let me illustrate this point. At any given time you will have people in your church who need consistent and regular counseling. You might set up a weekly time to get together with a person in your church who is struggling with a besetting sin. You might meet with him for prayer, Bible study, and counsel. But what should you do when you have a visitor to your church, a person who needs counseling and a large investment of your time? To whom do you give priority? To the member or to the visitor?
For me, this was always (and still is) an easy question to answer. I always gave priority to members of the church. You see, there are benefits of church membership. A church member has made a commitment to join the congregation, serve the other members of the body, and even contribute in various ways to the life of the church. The visitor, on the other hand, has made no such commitment. I have found over the years that many visitors would do their best to take up a lot of my time, use a lot of church resources, and then leave after a while. Like someone using a free trial membership, once the time came to make a commitment they would flee and move on to the next church to do the same. Too many people treat the church like a gym—once the church no longer suits their needs, they dispose of it.
As the pastor, you have an obligation to place the needs of your sheep first. Visitors are important—you should look out for their needs—seek to show them the love of Christ. But you must set some boundaries. I would meet with visitors, try to help them with their problems, but then I always ended the conversation with something like this: “I’m more than willing to help you, but you have to understand that apart from becoming a church member, I’m rather limited in what I can do. I have to take care of my sheep. They have, after all, made a commitment and joined the church. Moreover, they have brought themselves under the accountability of the elders of the church. Apart from church discipline, counseling lacks the needed teeth of accountability. If you are willing to join the church, then I can offer more assistance and counseling, but apart from membership, there is only so much we can do.”
Far too many are willing to shack-up with a church—they want to attend, they want to listen to the sermons, they want to receive financial assistance, they want the option to stay home on some Sundays—they want all of the benefits but none of the commitment or responsibility. These types of people can take you away from the sheep in your congregation, those who deserve your pastoral care because they have made a commitment to Christ and the church. Recognize that there are benefits to church membership, and you as the pastor must guard against neglecting your sheep.
A Pastor’s Reflections: A Church Library or Bookclub
Everyone in the church should study the word of God. They should attend to the means of grace, sit under the preaching of the word, attend Sunday School, and benefit from the church’s teaching. There are many in the church, however, who want to go beyond the preaching and instruction the church offers but they don’t have the financial resources to invest in a good basic theological library. The pastor and elders of the church should be mindful of the needs of people in their church, especially if they want to study the word of God. One of the ways to help people in the church is to start a church library—a collection of excellent theological literature that people in the church can borrow, read, and return for others to read.
Churches should seriously consider purchasing key theological works so members of the church can be exposed to great theological resources. Books like Calvin’s Institutes, Turretin’s Institutes, Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, introductions to the Old and New Testaments, sets of commentaries and the like should line the shelves. Yes, there are many Internet resources available for free, but if a church is really committed to equipping the saints to know and study the word of God, then they should make these types of resources available. The elders should encourage people to read and study them as well as read and study them for their own edification.
If you want to go a step beyond the church library, offer to study a book of the Bible or theological doctrine through a Sunday School class or book club. But offer to purchase a copy of the book for anyone who is willing to commit to reading it. This is a great way to encourage members of the church to read great books. Start a book club and read through Augustine’s City of God, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Or see what book your pastor has recently read and ask him to lead a reading group. Reading the same books can be a terrific way of fostering fellowship and learning more about the Bible. Though as the pastor, you should only pick a book for a group after you have read it. You don’t want to set a troublesome book before your congregation without having vetted its content.
Whether as the pastor, an elder, or a member of the church, do what you can to foster study of the Scriptures. Do what you can to expose people to great books. The only way we theological hobbits can catch a better glimpse of the glory of Christ and his gospel is by standing on the shoulders of theological giants. Make sure you have access to these giants, whether through the church library or a church-sponsored book study.
A Pastor’s Reflections: How Do I Know If I’m Called?
One of the regular questions I receive is, “How do I know whether I’m called to the pastorate?” It would be one thing if God sent telegrams from heaven with your name on it—discerning a call would be a whole lot easier. Did you get the telegram or not? But since this doesn’t happen, how can you answer this question? Historically, the church has distinguished a person’s call into internal and external categories.
The internal call is the personal sense that one has. Speaking from my own experience, I can remember having a sense, motivation, and desire, to serve as a pastor. It was difficult to explain other than to say, I had a desire to serve as a pastor, to preach, and teach the word of God. This is an important aspect of the call to ministry. If you have no internal desire to serve in the pastorate, then don’t pursue it.
The external call is the encouragement, counsel, and confirmation from others in the church that you should pursue the pastorate. Have others told you that you should consider pursuing the ministry? Have others recognized that you appear to have the necessary gifts to serve in the pastorate? When you have shared your desire to serve in the pastorate, have others encouraged or discouraged you to pursue the ministry?
These are two very important aspects of the call. Often people have a internal call but no external call. They have a sense they should serve in the pastorate but others don’t recognize the person’s qualifications. On the other hand, people might see that a man appears to have the gifts for the pastorate, encourage him to pursue it, but the man doesn’t have an internal sense that he’s called to the pastorate. You want and need both the external and internal call before you pursue the pastorate.
How does this work in real life? Again, drawing upon my own experience, I never set out or made a plan to pursue the pastorate. I simply sought to serve the church. When I was in college I volunteered to teach Jr. High Sunday School. I did this because I sensed an internal call to do so. No one asked me to volunteer. My service was welcomed. When I was a college graduate I volunteered to teach the college Sunday School class for the same reasons—I sensed a call to do so. Later, when I sensed a call into the pastorate, people in my church confirmed my internal call—they saw my service in the church, that I served as a Sunday School teacher, and that I was already informally exercising the gifts for ministry. They not only confirmed my internal call but my church made provisions to pay for my seminary education. All of this is to say, you want both an internal and external call before you pursue the pastorate.
What if you’re unsure about your internal call? What if the external call is present but you’re just not sure whether to pursue the ministry? I received counsel from a colleague that has great wisdom. His own advice to prospective ministers is, “Can you see yourself doing any other vocation? Can you really see yourself being a plumber, accountant, police officer, or computer specialist? On the other hand, if you simply can’t envision yourself doing anything else—if you’ve got a burning desire, a fire in your belly, to preach the word of God—then this is a likely indicator that you should be in the pastorate. If you can see yourself doing anything else—don’t pursue the pastorate. Chances are you aren’t called. But if you can’t imagine doing anything else, then you are likely being called to serve.”
You therefore need both an internal call, a personal sense that you need to serve as a pastor, as well as the external call, the confirmation and encouragement from the church that you genuinely possess the gifts to pursue the pastorate. Pray that the Lord would give you guidance discerning his call to serve as a pastor in Christ’s church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: What Should I Read to Prepare for Seminary?
Among the many questions I’ve heard over the years, a slew of them deal with preparing to go to seminary. One of the most common is, “What should I read to prepare for seminary studies?” There are certainly a lot of theological works that a person can read to get ready to go to seminary, but here are some of the most fundamental.
First, know your English Bible. There are many people in the church these days who have been Christians for years but have never read their Bible from cover to cover. It’s a sad but true fact. Moreover, many people are unfamiliar with the chief features, people, stories, and doctrines. If you want to become an expert in the Bible, then you need to have a basic familiarity with it. Read your Bible daily. I remember a professor of mine once told me that he and his wife read through the Bible every year. There are a number of different ways to do this: Bible reading plans, special editions of the Bible that divide it into daily readings, or just sitting down and reading the Bible like any other book. Basic Bible knowledge has become quite weak among incoming seminarians. About a decade ago we at WSC had to institute a basic Bible exam. If you fail the exam then you have to take English Bible Survey. We’ve had many students rave about this class, but it does reveal that basic Bible knowledge, even among life-long Christians, isn’t what it used to be.
So, read your Bible. Outline your Bible so you know its basic divisions. Outline books of the Bible so you know the basic structure of the major sections. Learn when the various books of the Bible were written and by whom. Most study Bibles have done this legwork for you. Read your Bible!
Second, learn the basic categories of Christian doctrine. This doesn’t require significant in-depth study. Rather, reading and even memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism can give you an excellent foundation. These short documents will give you the basic categories, doctrines, and classic terminology that you need. They are also a wonderful devotional resource—study while you pray, and pray while you study. Your devotional life never has to be divorced from your study of the Scriptures.
Third, once you’ve covered these basic categories, if you still want more, then you can read through a number of classic works, such as Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, or Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, or his shorter editions such as his Manual of Christian Doctrine. As you read these works, make a list of terms, study them, learn and memorize them. These classic works can give you more of the basic framework for the materials that you’ll be studying in greater depth once you arrive at seminary.
The most important book, I believe, you should study is the Bible. Read it, memorize portions of it, meditate upon it, and learn it. It may seem cliché, but the most important book you can read to get ready for attending seminary is your Bible.
Kindle the Fire in Your Soul through the Word
By Fletcher Mantandika, MDiv, 2008 WSC Alumnus
An Inventory for the Soul
Every good businessman will, from time to time, close his business for inventory. This is considered standard practice for any business to succeed. Closing a business for inventory on a regular basis, allows the business owner to think carefully about his business and assess it so that he can then decide how to best to run it. While the experience might be challenging (especially when things are bad), it is a good practice in the long run; while it might be painful, it is profitable; while it halts the business for a while, it is healthy for the business in the long term. Every good businessman understands this. The principle extends and applies to everything in our lives. It applies to our cars (we have to get them serviced every so often so that we can keep using them). Our bodies have to be checked by the doctors so that we can maintain our good health. Our dishes have to be cleaned on a daily basis so that we can keep using them. Our clothes have to be washed from time to time so that we can keep wearing them, on and on it goes. It just makes sense. It is so natural to do these things.
A Slow Fade
And yet, when it comes to our spiritual lives, it's not so natural. People can go on and on for days, weeks, months and even years without stopping to take stock of their spiritual lives - to check their spiritual temperature and figure out whether it's hot, cold, or lukewarm. As a result, many plunge their souls into ruin because they did not take the time to stop and do an honest assessment about their spiritual condition. They wake up one day only to discover that they have drifted ashore - so far away from the Harbor - so far away from God, who alone provides shelter for the human soul and protects it from the troubled waters of this world. This discovery usually happens in a crisis - physical or spiritual or both. That is the wrong time to make that discovery. Most people who fall into grave sin will admit that their failure did not happen in the "moment" - but much earlier. "People never crumble in a day. It's a slow fade" (Casting Crowns). There was an area of their lives that they had neglected for a long time and one day, it all blew up. They fell flat on their faces in sin - the slow leak (the neglected area in their lives) deflated their spiritual tires so much so that there was no more air left to keep it in motion. And the inevitable result was a crash - grave sin, adultery, a divorce, or shipwrecking the faith altogether.
It Doesn't Have to Happen to Any of Us
The good news is that, this slow fade doesn't have to happen to any of us. God has given us ways to stoke our spiritual fires so that we are constantly burning hot in our souls—hot in our love for Him and in our love for neighbour—hot in our devotion and service to Him—hot in our faith and obedience to Him. Each week when we gather with His people in church, we are stoking our spiritual fires. When we partake of the Lord's Supper, when we are on our knees in prayer, when we take time to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him as He teaches us from His Word, we are stoking our spiritual fires and fortifying ourselves against the attacks of the enemy.
The Word of God - A Sure Way of Gauging the Spiritual Temperature of Your Soul
The end of each year provides us a natural opportunity for a spiritual inventory. One of the most important ways we can do this is by assessing our intake of the Word of God. How much of the Bible have you taken in this past year? And how much of it do you plan to take-in in the year ahead? What plan have you put in place for that? These are just some of the questions that we should ask ourselves and answer honestly on a regular basis but especially at the end of each year and the dawn of the New Year. We have to be intentional about this. A deliberate, disciplined and study intake of the Word of God is what we need to keep the spiritual fires burning hot in our souls. Donald Whitney writes in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life:
No Spiritual discipline is more important than the intake of God's Word. Nothing can substitute for it. There is simply no healthy Christian life apart from a diet of the milk and meat of Scripture. The reasons for this are obvious. In the Bible God tells us about Himself, and especially about Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God. The Bible unfolds the Law of God to us and shows us how we've broken it. There we learn how Christ died as a sinless, willing Substitute for breakers of God's Law and how we must repent and believe in Him to be right with God. In the Bible we learn the ways and will of the Lord. We find in Scripture how to live in a way that is pleasing to God as well as best and most fulfilling for ourselves. None of this eternally essential information can be found anywhere else except the Bible. Therefore if we would know God and be Godly, we must know the Word of God - intimately (p. 28).
I hope that you will make it your aim in the year ahead to study the Word of God and let it check your spiritual temperature. As you read the Bible, you will find that the Bible is reading you. Make it your aim this coming year to stock the fires of your soul by letting the Word of God dwell in you richly. That can only happen with a commitment to study, meditate and practice the Word of God day by day. Spiritual growth doesn't happen by accident. It must be deliberate. God has given us the tools we need to ensure our spiritual growth - and the Word is the most important of them all. I pray that you will make the Word of God your daily companion in the year ahead.
"...Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deuteronomy 8:3b)
Fletcher Mantandika is a 2008 MDiv graduate from WSC and is Founder and President of Joy the World Ministries, and he is also Pastor of New Westminster Chapel.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Failure
Failures in life can be very discouraging. You prepare and work for years and then fail at the very task for which you’ve been preparing. I think, for example, of the numerous seminary students whom I’ve seen fail at their licensure or ordination exams. They work for years in college, study very hard in seminary for three or more years, and then stand before the presbytery or classis to take their exams. I can tell that they’re nervous—they stutter, stammer, halt and lurch in their speech in the effort to answer the questions thrown at them. Sometimes to the candidate it must seem like he’s standing at home plate as he watches the pitcher hurl a wicked curve ball—he swings with all his might but doesn’t make contact. In such cases I’ve seen the presbytery fail the man, which as you can imagine is a crushing blow. But how you handle the failure reveals a lot about your character.
There are some who don’t handle the failure well. They take great offense that the presbytery didn’t pass them, so they pack up their things, make excuses, blame others for their unfairness, and walk away in a huff never to return. Others pack up their things and treat the failure as a permanently closed door. “Well,” they think, “I guess that bunch doesn’t want me around them, so I think I’ll find somewhere else to go.” The man ends up affiliating with another denomination. These type of responses are common, but they’re not the only ones that I’ve seen. I’ve personally witnessed a number of men over the years who respond in an entirely different manner.
Some men undoubtedly walk away with a sense of discouragement, but they don’t give up. For some, it’s a matter of poor performance. It would be irresponsible for the presbytery to hand the man the keys to a church. He doesn’t exhibit the necessary knowledge or gifts to pastor a church. In this scenario, the man goes away, seeks counsel, studies very hard to address his areas of weakness, and then returns. In these cases I’ve seen the man pass on the second attempt. Others over the years have been the recipients of a theological beating. Sadly, ministerial candidates bear the brunt of a presbytery’s debate over various issues. All the candidate has to do is align with the perceived wrong side of the debate and there’s blood in the water and the sharks begin to circle. I’ve seen a candidate or two in my day get battered and bruised. This shouldn’t happen. An exam is supposed to be an opportunity for a presbytery to assess a man’s knowledge and gifts, not to debate him or try to persuade him of his errors. In some cases those who have been battered never return, but others have stuck it out.
There are two men who come to mind—they were definitely given the run around (keep in mind, at least in my context, in order for a man to sustain his exam at least 75% of the men present must vote for him—if he gets 74.9% he fails—hence a minority of men can hold up a man’s exam). These men could have easily given up, but in my opinion, they modeled the suffering of Christ. In one case in particular, this man was ready to be called as the pastor and his church was undoubtedly watching, and was unquestionably disappointed at the outcome. But he set an excellent example of cruciform discipleship. Despite his apparent failure, he returned, and successfully passed at the next meeting. He didn’t complain, make excuses, belittle others, or respond in anger. His conduct was exemplary. Such circumstances revealed this man’s character to those all around him.
How you respond to failures in life is sometimes more important than how you handle success. It’s easy to be cheerful when things are going your way but a lot tougher, I suspect, when things aren’t going your way. It could just be that Providence has ordained a few stops before the cross as part of your sanctification. In the economy of Providence and our hopes and plans for the future, there are no true failures, only opportunities for further conformity to Christ.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Basics
In my years as a pastor I would regularly make home visits with the families in my church. I did my best to get into every household at least once per year. This sounds like a very infrequent visiting schedule, but when a church has thirty or more households and you’re dealing with people in their busy lives, it takes some doing to visit everyone in the church. By visiting everyone in the church, you get the chance to talk with those who struggle in their church attendance.
In almost every case, I found a general rule to be true. Namely, church members who were struggling with their sanctification were failing to do the basics. I encountered those who felt as though they were disconnected from the church and from Christ, struggled with besetting sin, were dealing with problems of anger or impatience with family and friends, or were having marital problems. In every one of these cases, I asked a series of basic questions and invariably received the same response:
- “Are you consistently attending morning and evening worship?”
- “Are you consistently spending time in the Word of God reading it daily?”
- “Are you regularly spending time in prayer?”
The answer to these three questions was always the same, “No.”
How can we feel close to Christ if we fail to meet him in worship where the Father feeds us with the manna from heaven, with Christ, through the reading, preaching, and sacramental word? How can we make progress in our sanctification if we fail to bathe ourselves daily in the Word and draw nigh unto Christ through prayer? Imagine an athlete who wonders why his performance on the field is lagging and why he gets greatly fatigued in competition. The coach then asks him, “Are you eating a healthy diet? Are you getting proper rest? Are you reading and studying the playbook?” to which the athlete answers, “No.” How can you expect to perform well as an athlete if you fail to do the basics? Similarly, how can you expect to grow in grace and holiness if you fail to avail yourself of the means of grace, if you fail to draw nigh to Christ through his appointed means?
Now keep in mind, just because you use the means of grace does not mean that all of your problems will evaporate. But know this, apart from them you will always struggle. Remember the words, of James, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (4:8). Draw near to him through word, sacrament, and prayer. Do the basics and you’ll find that you have strength, wisdom, and courage to face the challenges of your day to day life because you lay hold of God’s grace in Christ in the power of the Spirit.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Reading Ahead
How much time and effort do you put into getting ready for church? Many families I know take time out on Saturday night to ensure that everything is ready for Sunday—they lay out their clothes, put out the kids’ clothes, set the table for lunch, get the crock pot out, ensure the food is thawed, etc. They do this so that come Sunday morning, it’s not a mad rush. How much effort do you expend in doing the same for your soul? I think few people prepare their souls for worship. How can you prepare?
Prayer, I believe, is a good way to prepare for Sunday worship. How often do you ask God, for example, to bless the preaching of the word, anoint the pastor, open your ears, and make your heart receptive to his word? Do you meditate and think back upon your past week in the effort to uncover your sins, whether those of omission (things you’ve failed to do) or commission (things that you shouldn’t have done).
Along these lines another way that you can prepare is by reading ahead. What do I mean? Many pastors preach lectio continua, that is, they preach systematically through books of the Bible. They start with John 1:1 and go chapter by chapter, and sometimes verse by verse, until they complete the book. You can take advantage of this by reading ahead of your pastor the night before you arrive at church. If your pastor is preaching in John chapter 1, read this chapter before you get to church—pray over it, meditate upon it, try to anticipate what things your pastor might say about it.
In my church one of the things I did was have simple commentaries available for sale on our book table that covered the books through which I was preaching or teaching. If I was preaching on John’s gospel, then we had several available copies of the Tyndale Commentary on the New Testament on this gospel. People could not only read head but they could also study ahead and dig down into the meat of the passage. So often pastors are not able to bring out all of the treasures in a particular passage of Scripture. By studying the passage on your own, you can mine the riches of each passage and benefit all the more from your pastor’s preaching. This pattern is much like the advice that I regularly give my students but they typically fail to follow—do your reading assignments before you get to class. If you don’t do the reading you might find yourself quickly lost or unable to participate fully in the class discussion. A similar pattern holds true for listening to sermons. Sure, you can (or should) always be able to glean something from the sermon, but if you want more, read and even study ahead!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Keep Your Close Friends Far Away
In many churches one of the most popular people is the pastor and his family. I think people are naturally drawn to the person who stands before them each week and heralds the gospel. I think people are attracted to their pastor for a number of reasons. Some think, for example, that the pastor is godly and someone to emulate, or that he really knows his Bible and can therefore answer a number of perplexing questions. These, generally speaking, are good things.
One of the things, therefore, you as a pastor should do is guard the way you conduct your friendships in the congregation. You will undoubtedly find that you naturally gravitate towards certain people in your church, whether because of similar interests, hobbies, children of the same age, common background, or shared experiences. You will inevitably end up spending more time with them than other people in the church. Generally speaking, I think this is fine. Even Jesus, for example, had his inner circle of disciples. We don’t know the specific reasons why, but we find that he spent more time with Peter, James, and John (e.g., Matt. 17:1ff).
On the other hand, you have to be careful regarding how you spend your time with your closer friends in the church. If you regularly talk with your close friends, sit with them at church functions, talk about how much time you spent with them, post pictures of them on Facebook, or even take trips together, it won’t take long for people to notice. Once they notice, I promise you that they will begin to think and wonder, “Why doesn’t the pastor spend as much time with me? Is there something wrong with me? Why doesn’t my pastor invite me?” Such questions can spread and create a cloud of bad morale around the church, one that can erode unity very quickly. So what are you to do?
I think it’s fine to have close friends, but you should be careful how you go about your friendship. My wife and I had several close friends at church: we regularly went to their home for fellowship and food, and even went on vacation with them. But at church, we didn’t spend too much time talking to them (we told them ahead of time that we would do this). We specifically would go out of our way to sit with others at church functions, and when we went on vacations together, we kept the details of our trip low key. We didn’t advertise that we were vacationing together.
It’s important that as the pastor that you do your best to befriend everyone in the church. Yes, you won’t be everyone’s BFF, but you need not give off the unnecessary impression that you’ve created a new clique in the church and others need not apply. Everyone in the church needs to feel that you are their pastor too, not just the pastor and friend of a few chosen few.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Beating the Divorce Odds
One of the commonplace facts I hear mentioned from time to time is that the divorce rate in our country is at fifty percent—one out of two marriages fails for one reason or another. I have also heard that the divorce rate within the church isn’t much better, though I have never seen any hard statistics on this claim. Yes, it’s true, Christians struggle in their marriages as much as anyone else. In the little church that I pastored I was unsuccessful in persuading a relatively newly married couple from divorcing.
On the other hand, a recent story on factors that mitigate the possibility of divorce grabbed my attention. Among the various and sundry facts this study argues is that, if you regularly go to church you are less likely to get divorced. In fact, couples who never attend church are two times more likely to divorce than those who regularly attend. Now this study doesn’t indicate any theological content to churches that these people attend, but it does reveal an important point.
Namely, for those couples that place Christ at the center of their marriage, divorce is usually off the table. In my own marriage, my wife and I made a promise to each other that we would never mention the word. Regardless of how difficult an argument or circumstance might get, we decided that we would never utter the word. To speak of the idea is to flirt with surrender. If a couple recognizes that they are sinful, are utterly dependent upon Christ, then they will likely be willing to forgive one another for suffered wrongs. Moreover, they recognize that a marriage takes work—they have moments of joy and excitement but also have times of difficulty and challenge.
In this respect another interesting statistic in this study was that those who spent more than $20,000 on their wedding were 46% more likely to get divorced. How does this correlate with divorce? I suspect that people spend a lot of time, effort, and resources on planning this one day, and not nearly enough time working on the actual relationship. A wedding and reception may be the occasion for a marriage, but it’s not the substance of it. Long after the exchange of vows, after the guests have departed, the gifts have been opened and used, and the wedding album is tucked away in a closet, the reality of life sets in. You look at someone who loves you but will offend, hurt, and break your heart. When your heart gets broken, it’s not a matter of if but when, your wedding dress or the gifts that you received won’t console you, only Christ will, and only his grace will supply you and your spouse with the ability to forgive and love each other.
All of this is to say, if you want to beat the divorce odds, place Christ and the means of grace at the center of your marriage. The closer you both draw to Christ, and are conformed by his grace and Spirit to his image, the closer you will draw to one another. Christ makes for a strong marriage, therefore rest upon him and the gospel.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Meatloaf or Lobster?
One of the best feelings in the world is to deliver a sermon and get positive feedback. You spend a large part of your week preparing your message—translating the text, studying its syntax, reading commentaries, looking over background materials, and then refining and honing your message. Often it seems as though your messages go unnoticed. You preach your guts out and no one seems to care. As your congregation leaves they offer a word of greetings or a perfunctory thanks and move on. I’m not saying that the usual reception is defeating but rather that it makes the positive comments stand out.
Positive comments are encouraging on two fronts. First, pastors desire with all of their hearts to see their preaching make an impact in the lives of their congregations. They want to see their churches grow in their sanctification, to reflect the image of Christ. While it might be slightly anecdotal evidence, when someone positively responds to your message the hope is that the Spirit pressed the sermon to good effect. Second, when you work hard you want to receive some sort of feedback that you’re on the right track. You don’t want to preach week after week, month after month, only to find out that you’re boring your congregation!
But preachers beware, you can easily get addicted to positive comments to the point that seeking good feedback becomes the goal of preaching rather than fidelity to the text and to Christ. In this respect you must pray that Christ would keep your pride at bay and enable you to preach with and for all the right motives and reasons. You should preach to be faithful, to herald Christ, to bring people to salvation, to wield judgment against unbelief, to sanctify the church, but chiefly above all else, to bring glory to the triune God.
If you keep these things in mind, hopefully you can be balanced in your reception of feedback. To borrow a cooking analogy, you can’t serve a seven-course meal every time you’re in the kitchen. You can’t serve lobster every night; sometimes you will serve meatloaf or mac-n-cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should be slothful and not offer your best efforts and labor each time you preach. Rather, recognize that some sermons will be good but common while others will be excellent and uncommon. If you strive for positive feedback every week, then you put yourself on an endless treadmill that has an ever-increasing incline—you seek to top last week’s sermon because you want the good feedback. Preaching no longer is about fidelity to the word and Christ but about getting people to praise you. Seek to please Christ, not your congregation. Seek to be faithful to the word.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Secret Service
The pastorate can be an interesting vocation because you end up interacting with a lot of different types of people. In my pastorate I have met business people, former professional athletes, homemakers, fighter pilots, millionaires, scholars, politicians, and the like. I’m always intrigued and enjoy meeting people from all walks of life. On the other hand, when you get involved in the nitty-gritty details of people, especially in counseling, you can find reason to involve some of those interesting people you meet, though for official reasons.
On one occasion I found myself counseling an individual who had some significant mental health problems. Before you know it I was getting bizarre e-mails from this person at all hours of the night, e-mails that were to me and the President of the United States—they were addressed to the official White House e-mail account. As you can well imagine, I was concerned on a number of different levels. I was concerned for this person’s mental state, I was also worried about my name being invoked, as well as what type of impression my counselee was making upon White House officials. I was prepared to let these e-mails go. After all, what could I possibly do in this case? Call the White House and explain that I had nothing to do with the situation? I’m sure they receive thousands of e-mails every day.
But the situation changed once these e-mails began to take a slightly darker turn. I was now more concerned for the safety of this person and my reputation and that of my church. I didn’t want White House officials thinking that my church or I were part of a group of people that wanted to do harm to the President. At that point I consulted with my session (an important check point in any serious matter before you and your church), and we determined that we would alert the authorities. I contacted my local Secret Service office and explained the situation. The agent thanked me and asked me to print the e-mails and mail them to his office. Shortly thereafter the person's family intervened and provided medical attention for him. As far as I know, that was the end of the situation, but this experience illustrates an important point.
Sometimes you need to involve the authorities in your counseling situation, and it might be the case that you need to contact them immediately. I am not a legal or criminal law expert, but I have two common sense observations. First, ministers are not legally bound like a doctor or lawyer to doctor-patient or attorney-client privilege. If someone confesses a crime to you, you should counsel them to turn themselves in immediately, and your next move should be to contact the authorities. Second, in some cases, you should bypass the first step and go straight to the authorities. In cases involving child abuse or child pornography, for example, you need to alert the authorities straightaway. You need to protect the lives of the helpless, and in the case of child pornography, you do not want to become an implicit accomplice in aiding and abetting criminal acts. I have a colleague who became aware of on-going child abuse, and the moment that the counselee left his office he called the police to alert them of the situation.
Just because you call the authorities doesn’t mean that your ability to minister the gospel and counsel has come to an end. There are, however, circumstances that call for both the sword of the Spirit (the gospel) and the sword of the state (e.g., Rom. 13). Don’t hesitate to involve the authorities when it becomes necessary, and regardless of the circumstances, always apply gospel-soaked counseling to those in the midst of their sinful actions.
A Pastor’s Reflections: A Footnote In the Flesh
I think there are many in the church who underestimate the importance of fellowship, i.e., spending time with someone in the effort to get to know them better. A number of the colleagues that I know will go to presbytery, and then as soon as the meeting is over, they bolt off. They either go back to their hotel room or they get on the road to head home. From one vantage point I understand this type of response. Presbytery meetings can be long, drawn out, tedious affairs. After meeting from 9am to 9pm you want to get to your hotel room, relax, and get some rest. Or after two days of meetings, you want to get on the road as quickly as possible so you can get home. You still might have to finish your sermon, or perhaps you live at some distance and want to arrive home at a decent hour. There are, however, really important benefits to fellowshipping with your colleagues. One excellent example comes to mind—in this particular case we can say that a footnote became flesh and blood. Let me explain.
I know of a situation where we had concluded our business for the day and a number of us wanted to gather for post-meeting fellowship. We found an establishment and occupied a table on the patio. There were a few ministers who had recently been ordained, and they engaged in conversation with a number of us. As I sat there I overheard a number of different conversation threads, some serious, others mundane, and others peppered with hearty laughter. One particular conversation caught my ear over the noisy din of chatter, namely, one where a seasoned colleague was explaining some finer theological points to one of the newly ordained ministers. Once the evening ended, this new minister approached my colleague and said something along the following lines: “Before I met you tonight you were just a footnote in one of my seminary papers. I cited your work and engaged it critically and uncharitably. In fact, I’m somewhat embarrassed about what I wrote. After meeting you, I definitely understand your opinion better and will change my paper! I’m so glad we had the opportunity to talk. I hope we get to talk more in the future.” A footnote, if you will, became flesh and blood. Through some informal fellowship two ministers had the opportunity to talk, have an informative discussion, and even correct erroneous misperceptions. Apart from this fellowship, this young minister might have continued in his incorrect opinions.
If the only time you interact with your fellow colleagues is at meetings of presbytery or consistory as you’re debating difficult matters, you’ll find it difficult to get along with them. You need to create a broader context, one where you can relate to your colleagues about life, challenges, theology, sports, and the like. You just might find that someone you think you don’t like will become a good friend.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Five Years
I suspect one of the more exciting things for a seminary graduate is the day when he officially receives his first pastoral call. All of the years of training, studying, late nights, and hard work finally pay off—he finally gets to stand before a congregation and preach the word of God. Frankly, it still amazes me that I get to study the word of God full time and that I get paid too! It’s very rare in life that you get to do something you love to do for your vocation.
Once the excitement of being ordained and installed wears off, you begin to take a look at your church and, naturally, notice things that you would like to change. Any number of things come to mind—you don’t like the color of the walls in the sanctuary, you’re not fond of the fact that the church has music specials in the middle of the worship service, you think that the church would be better served if it spent more time in prayer, and the list goes on. I don’t think that most newly ordained ministers go into their churches with the assumption that they need to change everything. Rather, I think theoretical knowledge + too much time with books rather than people + youthful inexperience + impatience + zeal for theologically informed practice = disaster. In other words, I think new ministers have a lot of zeal and passion but lack wisdom.
Many new ministers want to rush in and change everything they perceive is wrong with the church. Fine. I understand the impulse. But on the other hand, give careful thought to your actions. How long has your church been around? Are you the first or tenth pastor? Maybe the color of the sanctuary was a special gift to the church—someone took the time to buy the paint and expended the effort and sacrifice to paint the sanctuary. What if the church has been doing things the same way for decades? What you perceive as incorrect may be deeply cherished to many in the church. If you go into the church with the deft and swift feet of a bull in a china shop, you’re liable to make a huge mess—one that could even endanger your pastorate.
I advise new ministers that when they take a new call, be patient, and wait about five years before you make any big changes to the church. Study, ask questions, observe, and determine why and how things exist in your church. Don’t automatically assume that your way of doing things is inherently superior. Once you’ve studied the situation, consult with your elders, and slowly begin to introduce changes.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that you should tolerate sinful practices. In such a case, bring the matter to the session’s attention and seek to make the correction as soon as possible. But I am saying, making changes in a church can be a lot like slaughtering sacred cows. When you slaughter a sacred cow, you have to do it carefully. There will undoubtedly be some in the church who cherish the sacred cow, and you will be taking something away from them that they dearly love.
In the end, remember, as pastor, your job is seek to conform the church to the image of Christ, not your own. Just because the church doesn’t do something to your specific liking doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or wayward. Given enough time, you just might come to the conclusion that the sacred cow that needs to be slaughtered isn’t something the church is doing but your own idea. If you patiently wait for about five years before making major changes, you’ll have the opportunity to pray and carefully consider these questions.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Practice, Practice, Practice!
I was recently at a dinner party where an esteemed and seasoned colleague was commenting about the state of preaching in the church. He sadly lamented, “I think the problem with most seminary graduates is that they think that they’ve picked up all they need to learn in seminary, and once they’ve graduated, they do little, if anything, to improve their preaching skills. Once they’ve been out of seminary for two or three years, they’ll preach the same way until they retire thirty years later.” I thought about this and as I sat there at the table, I nodded my head in agreement. I was also glad that I haven’t fallen into this rut (I hope!).
Over the years I’ve done a number of things to hone and improve my preaching skills. When I first entered my pastorate, I used a manuscript. I was very concerned about the content of my preaching. Knowing little (I was a new pastor), I didn’t want to make content errors. With a manuscript I knew I could guarantee that I wouldn’t wander off the path and say something foolish. On the other hand, I didn’t want to stand in the pulpit, bury my head, and read the sermon. I was also unsure as to how long the sermon would last. Most pastors should preach about thirty minutes. My seasoned colleague has commented, and rightly so, “Most preachers don’t have the skill to preach for 45 minutes.” In other words, a good 45-minute sermon is hard to come by—anyone can ramble for 45 minutes. So what did I do?
On Sunday morning I would wake up early and both review my sermon and then stand in my office as if I was standing in the pulpit and preach the whole message. I would swivel my head, make eye contact with certain spots on the wall, and speak in the tone and speed that I intended to use in the pulpit. This allowed me to determine how long my message was (I ran the stopwatch) as well as ensure that I would deliver the sermon properly. By the time I mounted the pulpit Sunday morning, it was the second time I preached the message. This ensured that I would have a smooth delivery. I did this same process for my evening message. As a preacher with over 1,000 messages under my belt, I no longer regularly practice my sermons beforehand unless I’m really concerned about getting things right. But this doesn’t mean that I haven’t stopped honing my preaching skills.
I will still use a manuscript (there is benefit to thinking in a disciplined way about what you want to say), but I now take my manuscript and break it down into an outline with the relevant information and quotes. This allows me to maintain maximal eye contact with the congregation, which makes for more effective communication. It also allows my delivery to be more natural and conversational. I’m no longer as concerned with content as I am with delivery. I’ve had fifteen years to focus on content and I’m fairly comfortable that I won’t say something foolish, but I want to continue to improve. And this means focusing on delivery.
Another area where I have sought to improve my preaching is by reading more broadly. I think much preaching lacks effectiveness because, quite simply, it’s boring. Ministers drone on about the text, the read the narrative in a monotone voice, and they simply report the facts as if they were reading a teleprompter. They also lack imagination, sympathy, and a connection to the congregation. Yes, the biblical text is key, and the Spirit can use weak preaching, but such things shouldn’t be a crutch or excuse for pulpit sloth. What can you do?
Read literature – this is a personal failing of mine. As soon as I pick up a book of quality literature, my mind goes to sleep—it’s as if someone has poured ether on the page. But Flannery O’Connor once observed that good fiction writers deal with the flaws in human nature, which is the effect of original sin. This means that biblical themes often permeate good fictional literature. I’ve gained good insights from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and even Melville’s Moby Dick (or at least the 400 pages of it that I read—I stalled out and jumped ship). And in interest of full disclosure, some of these I heard on books on tape or my wife, bless her heart, read them to me in the car while we were on a road trip. And for the life of me, no, my dearest wife, I can’t tell you why the baby was dressed in red in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter! Maybe that’s all the fabric that was lying around?
Read books about great leaders – I love military history, and you can gain a lot of insight into human nature by reading the biographies of great military leaders. War, like other segments of life, is a microcosm where you see intense moments of character, both good and bad, on display—virtue and vice.
Watch quality movies – this one can be tricky. Quoting a quality movie can be a good thing, but it can also be a double-edged sword. What you think is quality, other people might think of as worldly smut. So be cautious and choose wisely. I don’t think that quoting 80’s action movies, like Rambo (is there much dialog in it?) or Lionheart (c’mon, everyone has seen Jean-Claude Van Dam’s masterpiece, right?), are not what I mean by quality movies.
Read books about your culture – so often we think that the world in which we live has always been the way it is. Yes, there are some things that never change, but the world does change, and dare I say, evolve, at least culturally. The Internet, e.g., did not exist twenty-years ago as a cultural phenomenon. Are you aware of the differences between Internet 1.0 and 2.0? There is a difference and such things presently are shaping and molding our culture. Do you know that the word emotion was never used until the 19th century? Do you know that the term teenager was never used until after World War II? Yet, how often does the Internet, words like emotion (God’s emotions, our emotions), or the concept of adolescence (which was invented in the Western world in the early twentieth-century) shape the church? Knowledge of such things can help you be a better preacher. It’s important to bring the truth to bear upon what ails the culture in which we presently live, not what ailed the church fifty years ago. Yes, sin is sin, but to treat the patient for pride when he’s struggling with lust misses the point.
These are just some suggestions as to how to become a better preacher. Reading broadly can improve your preaching, use of analogies, examples, illustrations, and vocabulary—enable you better to connect to your congregation. Experts say that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at something. Are you willing to invest, continue to learn, and strive to be a better preacher? Or will you invest your 10,000 hours of sermon preparation further inculcating yourself into mediocrity and bad preaching habits? Practice, practice, practice. Show yourself a workman approved, not one that is slothful. Work your tail off and pray that God will take your hard work and bless it—apply it by the power of his Spirit to the people in your church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Preparing for Presbytery Exams
I was recently asked by a colleague to give a list of the top ten things that a ministerial candidate should do to prepare for his licensure or ordination exams. I thought that I would share it with you since a number of you that regularly read A Pastor’s Reflections series are aspiring ministers. I served on my presbytery’s credentials committee for nine years, and chaired it for three, so I’ve seen a lot in my near-decade of service in examining candidates for the ministry. So, here they are. I hope they prove to be helpful.
1. Always tell the truth - the temptation is to shade the truth and hide your view on something because you want to get ordained. Always explain clearly what you believe and let the church decide whether you’re fit for ministry.
2. Give brief answers - pretend you’re in the witness stand. Answer the question asked, and no more. If the presbytery wants more, they will ask for more. I’ve seen too many candidates get wrapped around the axel because they think they know more than they do. They pontificate, going far afield from the question, and show that they really don’t know what they think they know.
3. Know your Shorter Catechism and the Scripture proof texts that accompany the answers - you don’t have to be absolutely precise, but at least get it in the neighborhood. I once saw a candidate painfully fail at giving Scripture proofs for the TULIP (Total depravity – Unconditional election – Limited atonement – Irresistible grace – Perseverance of the saints). This gentlemen, as you can well imagine, failed his ordination exam even though he was already a ruling elder.
4. Be able to explain what the doctrine means in your own words - many can parrot the Westminster Standards but often don’t know what they mean. For example, what does the word contingency mean in WCF 3.1? Remember, in your explanation you’ll be giving answers to ruling elders as well as seminary-trained ministers. I.e., don’t shoot over their heads. If they don’t understand you, they will likely vote against you.
5. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something - a simple, “I don’t know but will look it up,” is much better than making up an answer and getting it wrong.
6. Attend meetings of presbytery before your exam and get to know: (a) the men, (b) the nature of the exams, and (c) the issues of controversy. If you go up for an exam and this is the first time that anyone meets you, you’ll have an uphill climb. They won’t be very sympathetic to you if they don’t know you. Talk with other men about what the exams are like. Watch other exams, write down the questions, look up the answers, and then have a friend give you these questions in a mock-exam. Learn what issues cause divisions in the presbytery and beware. You could end up walking into a buzz saw all because you failed to do your due-diligence. Go in prepared.
7. Don’t engage in debate - some presbyters will try to bait you into arguing with them, which if you do, is a really bad display of immaturity and lack of character. Take your licking. Answer humbly. When in doubt about a question, ask them to rephrase it to ensure you understand it. Maybe they’re not picking on you, maybe it’s just the way the question has been asked.
8. State your scruples - let the presbytery know where you disagree with the Standards. Again, be honest. Don’t hide your disagreements in the hope of getting through the exam. To do so means pouring deceit into the foundation of your ministry—such a move is poison to a calling that is supposed to be all about heralding the truth.
9. On controversial issues, be cautious about taking a stand. My grandfather used to say, “You can’t give it away if you don’t own it.” I.e., I’ve heard some men stand proudly and say that they held to a certain doctrinal view and then when asked to explain it, they failed miserably. They realized what their professor could explain very well, and their fascination with their professor’s eloquence and acumen, didn’t automatically translate into knowing the doctrine very well. If you don’t know the subject cold, then tell them you’re aware of the debate and are committed to studying the issues, but that you’re undecided on the issue. If you are proud of your own position, beware of criticizing the views of others. I remember one young man proudly condemning the view of one theologian and then not being able to explain exegetically a fundamental doctrine. You’ll look like a pompous fool if you make such a move, and presbyteries don’t usually license and ordain fools.
10. Smile - be humble - relax - and for pity’s sake, wear a good suit, tie, shirt combo. Don’t go dressed like the Unabomber with a Taliban beard. Be presentable. The presbyters will be sitting there asking themselves, “Can I see this guy being my pastor?” Don’t give them a reason to write you off for something you could have easily fixed by wearing a decent wardrobe. If you have a beard, keep it trim. If you have tattoos, cover them up. The true but sad truth of the matter is, people judge books by their covers. Let the substance of your person shine forth, not the clothes you wear or the types of personal grooming habits you choose.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Hope in the Face of Death
I can distinctly remember entering the hospice room and hearing the medical machinery around the bed whir, beep, and make barely audible noises that indicated that the old man lying before me was alive. But I was also overwhelmed by the stench of encroaching death—the elderly man was lying there as the scent of feces and urine wafted through the air. He was in a catatonic state, spittle gathered about the edges of his stubble-littered face, his hair in a tussled heap, his gnarled and wrinkled face seemed frozen, and his hands were clenched, as if he was desperately clinging to life with every ounce of strength that he had. The medical staff whisked by, back and forth in the hallway, sometimes hurriedly off to another room, and sometimes engaged in small talk or hushed laughter. To them, this knotted old man was simply another patient, one who would soon die.
As I walked into the room, I pulled a chair up to the side of the bed, opened my Bible, and began to read the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .” I then read several other passages of Scripture. I suspect to some of the medical staff, I must have seemed a bit out of place. Why was I reading my Bible out loud to a man who was at death’s door? After I finished reading my Bible, I presented the gospel, as plainly and simply as I could, “We are all sinners and we need Christ, only Christ can save us from our sins . . .” I looked for the slightest response, “Mr. Smith, can you hear me?” I saw no discernible signs of response. I then closed in a brief word of prayer asking Christ to draw Mr. Smith to himself, and that despite the fog of death that hung over him, like shadows in the darkness, I nevertheless lifted Mr. Smith up in prayer.
You see, sadly, Mr. Smith was not a Christian. He did not, as far as I knew, trust in Christ for his salvation. People must have thought I was nuts, reading my Bible, witnessing, and praying for a man in a catatonic state, but such is the power of the gospel—even in the face of imminent death, we can cry out in hope and prayer that Christ will save those we love. Mr. Smith had a Christian family who was deeply concerned for him and asked me, as the pastor, to visit Mr. Smith as often as I could.
I made several more visits to Mr. Smith before he died. I don’t know what happened to Mr. Smith. He never acknowledged my presence, or that of his family as they visited and witnessed to him. Nevertheless, what is impossible with man is possible with God (Matt. 19:26). What man in all of his scientific and medical knowledge could not do, God is capable of doing. God can bring life out of death, and even physically raise the dead to life. I was not looking for Mr. Smith to be healed—time waits for no man—he was certainly at the end of his life-long journey. But I was looking and hoping that the voice of Christ would echo in his heart as it thundered in the heart of Lazarus: “Mr. Smith! Arise!” I was hoping and praying that Christ would penetrate the dense fog of death and shine the light of the gospel into his heart so that Mr. Smith would trust in him and be saved.
Never give up hope—always prayerfully intercede on behalf of the lost, and as long as they have breath in their lungs, never cease to tell your unsaved loved ones of the gospel of Christ. My hope and prayer is that on the last day, I will see Mr. Smith again and that he will be clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness, and that his gnarled and twisted body will be healed, restored, and renewed. Even when death looks upon you with its cold dark gaze, never draw back, never retreat, but charge forward with the hope of Christ’s life-giving gospel: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
A Pastor’s Reflections: Theological Junkies
Within the Reformed community people place a high premium upon theological learning and knowledge. On the one hand, I think this is a good thing. There are far too many Christians who barely know their Bibles. I remember listening to a radio broadcast where the interviewer went around a Christian booksellers convention to ask people how many people could list the Ten Commandments. Very few could list all ten, and most people stumbled and stammered to name but one or two. It was certainly a sad state of affairs, to say the least.
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the other extreme—people who are always chasing after the latest theological book, always talking about the latest theological controversy, those who caravan to the most recent theological conference, and who are very theologically informed. The problem with these people is not the mass consumption of theological knowledge, but the fact that this information never seems to make the trip from the head to the heart. In one egregious case with which I was personally aware, there were several individuals in my congregation who regularly raided the book table for the latest publications. The problem was, they never paid for the books. They had an outstanding tab of $400-$500 in unpaid books (an aside – we placed books with envelopes in them where you were supposed to pay for the book and drop it off at the book table or mail it in). There is a serious disconnect when you’re gobbling up theology books to learn more about the Bible and then failing to pay for the very books that you’re reading. When you know the intricacies of God’s law and its prohibitions against theft and nevertheless essentially steal the books from which you gain this knowledge, there is a big problem.
The apostle Paul is quite clear – knowledge is not an end unto itself: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). We must recognize that when we study God’s word, we’re not simply acquiring knowledge—downloading data to store in our minds. Rather, our pursuit is ultimately one of wisdom—we are seeking to know better a person, not facts. We are seeking to know better the triune God as he has revealed himself in the Word. To acquire knowledge apart from wisdom, apart from the context of our relationship with Christ, would be like a husband studying and finding out everything his wife likes and dislikes and then failing to use it—failing to strengthen the relationship with his spouse.
The last thing we should be is a theological junkie—people searching for our next knowledge fix—something that we can bandy about with our friends so they see how much we know. If our knowledge fails to make the journey from our head to our hearts, then above all else, we have failed to love God and our neighbor. Our knowledge isn’t for ourselves, but first and foremost, so that we may love, praise, and worship our triune God, both for who he is and for what he has done for us in Christ. Second, our knowledge should be employed so that we are better equipped to put God’s word into action—to love our neighbor as ourselves.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Time Management
I think time management is one of the biggest challenges for pastors. Unlike some jobs, where there is a regular routine (say, a garbage man, one who drives the same route most days at the same time and through the same neighborhoods), a pastor’s schedule can vary from week to week. There are some weeks when things may be quiet and the pastor spends most of his time secluded in his study, and then there are other weeks where he’s out of his study on a series of appointments, impromptu meetings, and counseling calls. Problems in the life of the church don’t wait for a specific day of the week, and hence the pastor has to address them when they arise.
On the other hand, I also know that a lot of my colleagues like to burn the midnight oil. I’ve got a colleague or two that don’t like to start their sermon preparation until Friday afternoon. In fact, one wife commented to me that she is a “weekend widow.” Her husband disappears into his office on Friday afternoon and she really doesn’t see him (except from the pulpit) until Monday morning. I’ve asked another colleague of mine why he waits until Friday to start on his sermons and he told me that he would constantly tinker with his sermon if he started working on it earlier. He needs the pressure of a looming deadline to force him to break away from his sermon.
While each person is different I am definitely not a fan of waiting until the last minute. I was pretty disciplined about planning my week. I usually took Mondays off. It’s important to take a day off since you work on Sundays. I planned for Tuesdays to be dedicated to writing my Sunday morning sermon. I generally would never schedule appointments for Tuesdays—I was on lock-down so that I could work on my sermon. Wednesdays were dedicated to my Sunday evening sermon. I was more flexible on this day and would schedule counseling and other appointments as needed. Thursdays were for sermon cleanup and other appointments as well as other churchly adminstrative work, such as preparring the bulletin and running errands. And Friday was for Sunday school prep (I taught Sunday school for adults each Sunday morning for an hour). If I kept my schedule then I could usually devote Saturdays exclusively to my family. It’s important, I believe, to ensure that you do not neglect your family. You do so at your peril and at the expense of your wife and children. I’ve seen way too many pastor’s families who are a mess—a despondent wife and children because they are neglected.
In over a decade in the pastorate, I never once went into Saturday night unprepared for Sunday morning. I did, and still do, hate burning the midnight oil. I don’t like working under the pressure of a looming deadline so I would place artificial deadlines on myself so that I could relax on the eve of the real deadlines. All this being said, you need not follow my schedule. Schedules vary with each person, which is fine. But whatever you do, don’t procrastinate and wait until the last minute. You never want to step into the pulpit or Sunday school lectern ill prepared. Your church, and especially Christ, deserves better.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Shyness
I can remember very distinctly how as a teenager I was mortified to meet new people. I was, and still am to a certain extent, a shy person. Give me a choice – stand before one thousand people to speak for an hour or lock me in a room with two people I’ve never met before, and I’ll choose the former. As I teenager I would literally blush, get hot under the collar, and begin to sweat whenever I met anyone new. My parents encouraged me, for the sake of my Christian witness and being able to share the gospel with others, to pray about my shyness. Blessedly, Christ answered my prayers—I was able to outgrow my shyness, to a certain extent. I still struggle with trying to be outgoing and willing to meet new people. My shyness has nothing to do with the people but rather with my own sense of awkwardness and fear of rejection. But one of the things that has challenged me to continue to work on my shyness is, as a pastor, there’s little place, if any, for being shy.
As a pastor, you must be willing to meet new people, talk with them, get to know them, and if they don’t know Christ, share the gospel with them. As a pastor, I would take a deep breath, build up my resolve, walk across the room, and start shaking hands, meeting and greeting visitors to the church. One of the things that my wife reminds me is, “Make sure and smile.” A smile can be a disarming and friendly gesture to a visitor, one that can also calm your own nerves.
Now, as common sense as this advice might be, believe it or not, I’ve had pastors tell me that their interns excelled in the pulpit, were great at hitting the books, but were socially ill-equipped at interacting with people. They embodied the ministerial cliché, “Ministry is great, I just don’t like the people.” Ministry is chiefly, among other things, about the people! Hence, because of their inability to relate to people, these pastors told me that they encouraged these interns not to pursue ministry—they lacked the gifts to be a pastor.
In short, if you believe you’re called to be a pastor, you need to be a friendly person, one willing to step outside of your comfort zone and meet new people, befriend them, and make them feel welcome. While such counsel is important for prospective ministers, the same advice bodes well for people in the church. I have heard all too often that visitors will not join churches because they find the congregation cold and unfriendly.
The biggest revelation with my own struggles with shyness was when my parents told me as a teenager that my shyness was ultimately a form of pride. I was dumbfounded because I thought shyness was the polar opposite of pride. I wasn’t out promoting myself but rather keeping to myself—staying quiet. My parents nevertheless informed me that I was placing my own comfort above the need of reaching out to others to make them feel accepted. Placing my own needs above those of others was ultimately selfish and prideful. Christ calls us to place the needs of others before our own needs (Phil. 2:5-11).
So if you’re shy, I feel your pain. I know what it’s like to walk into a room full of strangers and start to sweat. But pray that Christ would help you overcome your fears of meeting new people. Step outside of your comfort zone and befriend visitors and strangers. It just might be that the people you fear so much have the same fears themselves. As a pastor, and even a Christian, show them the love of Christ and say no to your shyness.
Dr. VanDrunen’s Moral Analysis of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Dr. VanDrunen's moral analysis of Thomas Piketty's summer best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has been published in The City, a journal of Houston Baptist University. There are two things to note about this analysis. First, give it a read! From the 1,000+ reviews on Amazon, it's a very popular book. Dr. VanDrunen offers some insightful analysis and brings scriptural principles to bear upon Piketty's case for social justice. Second, small essays can often be indicators, hints, as to what areas professors are doing research in and preparing to write about in the future.
You can find the review here. It appears on pages 18-21.
Tolle et lege, "Take up and read!"
A Pastor’s Reflections: Always On
As the pastor you have a responsibility to meet, greet, and get to know the people in your church. If Christ calls and knows his sheep by name, then ministers ought to reflect Christ in their pastorates. That means from the time that you step into the church until you pull away from the church parking lot, you must be “on.” You must search out people. If you see someone in a corner by themselves, walk over and greet them. If someone asks you a question, you should do what you can to offer them a sincere answer. If someone shares a problem or concern, you should pause, listen, and do your best to offer helpful counsel. And for pity’s sake, walk around with a smile. Maybe it’s just me, but I come across pastors who walk around with scowls on their faces. They feed the caricature that Reformed people are the “frozen chosen.”
But when it’s time to take vacation, I’ve all too often seen ministers who say, “I’ll get someone to fill the pulpit but I’ll simply come to church and sit in the back.” I’ve tried to do this myself. From my own limited experience, I’ve found that taking vacation at my own church simply does not work. You still see people that need attention. People come up and ask you questions and they still come to you needing counsel. It would perhaps be effective but in the end inadvisable to hang a sign around your neck that says, “Don’t bother me. I’m on vacation.” So what’s a person to do?
My advice is to go to another church when you’re on vacation. Get out of town. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money either. If you work really hard, then it’s important that you rest so you can revitalize and recharge your batteries and be reequipped to engage vigorously your pastorate upon your return. If you attend another church while on vacation, you can rest—you have someone minister to you. You can relax and not worry about being “on.” You can be “off.” This doesn’t mean that you have to be rude to anyone, but you can revel in being anonymous. In your anonymity, you and your family can enjoy some time off, worship Christ, sit together as a family, and return to your home church refreshed. As a pastor, you are usually always on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t take some time off.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Scared of the Supper
In my years as a pastor I regularly administered the Lord’s Supper. As I would fence the table, that is, explain the nature of the Supper as well as who was allowed to take it, I usually read from 1 Corinthians 11:23-34. In this passage Paul gives some sobering counsel regarding the way we should approach the sacrament. Paul writes: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:28-30). I think when most people hear these words, they pay attention, note the warning, and then proceed to take the supper. There are some, however, that tremble at these words.
Within the church there are some who have weak consciences—they constantly doubt, worry, and fear that they may be lost, too sinful, or harboring sin. Given their doubts, when they hear Paul’s warnings, they take a step back, so to speak, and refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper. I had one dear saint in my congregation who regularly struggled with this type of angst each time the church observed the Lord’s Supper. This person was, by all accounts, godly, but when the plate was passed down the row s/he would refrain from taking the bread and the cup. This person believed that s/he was too sinful and did not want to incur God’s judgment by taking the Supper. Plain and simple, this person was scared of the Supper.
While such an attitude may be common within some churches, there are some important points that we should all recognize. First, Paul’s admonitions were against gross immorality at the celebration of the Supper—people were getting drunk off the wine served for the Supper. In addition to this, some were gluttonously engorging themselves on food while others were starving (1 Cor. 11:21). When Paul called the Corinthians, therefore, to examine themselves, he was challenging their wanton sin. He was not warning Christians to refrain from the Supper if they had doubts about their faith and salvation.
Second, we must realize that the Lord’s Supper is precisely for sinners, for those who struggle, and doubt their salvation. The Supper is the visible preaching of the gospel—what the preaching of the Word is to the ears, the Supper is to our other senses. In inextricable concert with the Word, the Supper proclaims to our eyes, senses of touch, smell, and taste, that Christ died for sinners. If you doubt you salvation, don’t flee from the feast that will strengthen your faith. If you doubt your salvation, then you need spiritual nourishment—you need the manna from heaven in word and sacrament. Spiritual starvation is not the answer.
Third, yes, we are all sinful, therefore as we approach the Supper we should confess our sins. But if we think that we must somehow be free of sin before we can take the Supper, then we might be inadvertently approaching the Supper in our own pretended righteousness rather than Christ’s. We take the Supper because of Christ’s obedience and suffering, not our own. If you worry that your besetting sin might preclude your participation in the Supper, don’t make this decision alone. Talk to one of your elders and ask him or talk to your pastor—seek godly counsel. It’s one thing, for example, to suffer from doubt, confess that doubt before Christ, and then take the Supper. It’s an entirely different thing to be harboring open rebellion against Christ—adultery, for example. To come to the table with wanton and open disregard for Christ’s shed blood is to invite peril—at best fatherly discipline (for a believer) and at worst judicial wrath (for an unbeliever).
In the end, remember, don’t be scared to come to the Supper. Christ your savior has offered his life and shed his blood precisely so you can come to the table that he has prepared in the wilderness in the presence of your enemies, whether they be fear, doubt, or even the hatred and persecution of the unbelieving world. Your Savior bids you to come and to eat of his body and drink of his blood, one that overflows with his love and grace. Confess your sin and then come to the table and sup with your savior and king.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Exegetical Landmines
I can remember being in seminary and as I would learn about various books of the Bible or encounter passages of Scripture I would make a mental note that I wanted to preach and teach such things. I accumulated my wish list and mentally filed it away in my brain for future reference. On that list, however, were a number of books and passages that I knew would be challenging for a number of reasons. In a nutshell, these books and passages were filled with exegetical landmines, so to speak. Let me explain.
There are some books of the Bible that are tough to preach simply because of their sheer size. The major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) come to mind along with the book of Psalms. To engage these books will likely entail a multi-year commitment. Other books of the Bible have very knotty passages. The disputed ending of Mark, for example, presents a number of challenges. Many of our Bibles contain the phrase, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” There are other passages that come to mind, such as 1 Corinthians 14:34, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.” Another challenge comes with books such as Revelation—opinions are all over the board regarding how to interpret this portion of Scripture. If you wade into the waters of some of these books of the Bible unprepared, you could quickly find yourself out of your depth. You don’t want to get into your sermon prep on Wednesday (or Saturday night for those who like to burn the midnight oil) and realize that you’ve stepped on an exegetical landmine and you’re not quite sure how to preach the passage. In all seriousness, I’ve had a colleague who would call me on Sunday morning with exegetical questions about tough passages. I suppose the last minute is just as good as the first, but that kind of pressure would drive me batty. So what is a person to do?
First, ask a seasoned pastor what books of the Bible present the easiest entry point for preaching. What can a newly minted minister cut his teeth on? What book of Scripture does not present too many difficult challenges for a Sunday School teacher? Second, if you work hand to mouth, that is, studying the week before you teach or preach, then you definitely want to choose some level ground. I.e., select simpler books of the Bible. Third, if you want to tackle the harder material, that’s definitely desirable, but there are some books that require that you study a lot before you step into a pulpit or lectern and speak intelligently about your text.
Allow me to illustrate this counsel. When I started my pastorate, I began by preaching on the gospel of Matthew. I prepared my sermons hand to mouth. This, for me, was fairly level ground. By comparison, I knew there were many steep hills in the book of Revelation. So I first studied the whole book over a period of six months, developed my lecture notes, and then once I was convinced I had a handle on it, went public with a series of Sunday School lectures. I waited a number of years before I tackled the daunting ending of Mark.
It’s important that you carefully approach your preaching or teaching plan because you don’t want to undermine the confidence your congregation places in your ability to explain the word. You also want to afford yourself the time to study more intently upon the difficult passages—this is, of course, a tacit admission that you might not be as smart as you think you are. Moreover, especially for new ministers, you can build trust from your congregation—they can see that you carefully and wisely exegete the Scriptures so that when you come to those tough passages, they will trust your judgment. The last thing you want to do is walk into the pulpit with wet ink still on your seminary degree and announce in one of your first sermons, “You see the words in your Bible, but they’re not really Scripture, so we’re going to ignore them.”
Be wise—plan ahead. Consult with seasoned pastors and teachers. Study hard. And then, when you’re ready, get out your climbing gear and ascend some of the Bible’s spectacular peaks and lovingly and humbly take your congregation with you to see the wonders and glories of God’s word.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Common Sense
Reformed Churches place a high premium upon theological precision. This is certainly important and necessary. It is a weighty thing to stand in the pulpit each and every Lord’s Day and herald the gospel of Christ, the aroma of death for some and life for others (2 Cor. 2:15-16). As important as it is to give attention to the weighty matters of theology, I’ve all too often seen a dearth of attention given to practical concerns.
When I’ve been asked what the most effective method of getting visitors to the church is, people are surprised by my answer: a permanent church sign. We met for a number of years in a rented facility where we dragged our sign out and put it up on Sunday mornings, but by the end of the day the sign disappeared back into our storage closet only to reappear the following Sunday. If you lived in the area and drove down the road, you’d only know the church existed if you happened to drive by on Sunday morning. Even then, you’d have to be able to read well from a distance because the sign was small. When we moved to another rented facility that allowed us to post a permanent sign, we saw a large jump in attendance from visitors. Why? Because they were driving by, saw the sign, and decided to visit.
Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, God will draw the elect unto himself to build Christ’s church. And, yes, only the preaching of the gospel and the sovereign work of the Spirit makes these things happen. But God not only ordains the end (salvation) but the means, both through the means of grace and something as common sense as a church sign. How will the surrounding community know of your existence if you never tell them that your church is in the community?
So as important as it is to rely exclusively upon the means of grace to bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ, don’t forget to exercise some common sense. Use multiple means to announce the church’s presence in the community: tell your friends and invite them to church, if possible, post a permanent church sign, place door hangers on the community surrounding your church, establish a basic webpage. Be creative and let the community know where they can find the living water of the gospel each and every week.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Sleepless Nights
One of the things that drives me nuts is sleepless nights. I do my best to make the most of my day—I get up pretty early in the morning and I go to bed at a modestly late hour. I want to ensure I can use my day well. I want to be productive. But every so often Providence disrupts my schedule. I will go to bed at my regular time and then I’ll lie there and stew. My mind will race and I can’t turn it off. I do my best to lie still so I don’t disturb my wife, but even then, she’ll roll over and tell me, “Honey, please go to sleep. I can hear you thinking.” When I’m lying there, mind racing, one of my frequent thoughts is, “I’m wasting time! I should be sleeping so I can rest. This will definitely hurt my ability to work tomorrow if I’m too tired.” Why do I suffer from this type of temporary insomnia?
Sometimes I suffer from it because I make the mistake of reading theology at night. That’s a big no-no for me. I’ll read theology, my mind starts chewing on what I’m reading, I’ll put the book down, turn off the light, close my eyes, but my brain is too hopped up! I’m too excited about what I’m reading, or sometimes my mind has been turned into a mental pretzel. Or, I’ve got some theological food for thought stuck in there and the best piece of mental floss can’t get it out so I can get some rest! I’ve therefore stopped reading theology before I go to bed. I try to find mindless entertainment or read something totally disconnected from theology, such as contemporary military history.
But as a pastor, one of the reasons that I would lay awake at night was because I was worrying about the people in my church. I might get a phone call from a distraught church member, and I would lie there and worry. There are some people that can sleep regardless of what’s going on in their lives, but I’m not one of them. As I would lie there, my inability to sleep, worries about being too tired, and the different people in my church would circle my mind like a merry-go-round, on and on. After this went on for a number of years, I started to reflect upon the doctrine of Providence and my temporary insomnia.
I reminded myself of those wonderful words of the third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God ordains whatsoever comes to pass . . .” I reminded myself that, yes, I was a creature with freedom of the will (see WCF 9 in case you think I just lost my theological marbles), but at the same time Providence ordained every moment of my life, including my sleeplessness. I accepted the fact that, I might have wanted to go to sleep, but God set up a divine appointment with him through his holy Providence. I could either squander that appointment by jumping on the worry-go-round, or I could use it well. I came to the conclusion that if I was awake, and if I was worrying, that I should pray for those for whom I had great concern.
I want to offer one other piece of counsel—never make life-changing decisions in the middle of the night. I’ve found that when you get on the worry-go-round it can become a vicious cycle and you can quickly turn molehills into mountains. You begin to imagine scenarios, dialogs with other people, and your imagined responses. Before you know it, you’ve worked yourself into a frenzied state of mind. Plus, given that it’s the middle of the night, chances are you aren’t at your best, mentally or physically. You can think some pretty weird stuff in the middle of the night (or at least maybe I do). Rather than make life-changing decisions—pray! Take your worries and concerns to Christ. When you wake up in the morning, take inventory of the situation, seek godly counsel, and then when you’re convinced that you’ve given the matter prayerful consideration—make your decision.
Don’t ever think that you’re wasting your time because you find yourself sleepless in the middle of the night. Remember that Providence has a reason for everything, and it just might be that God wants you to pray to him rather than let you take another ride on the worry-go-round.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Beat the Sheep
Over the years I’ve encountered a number of situations where pastors were seemingly more intent on beating rather than feeding the sheep. I can remember the Regional Home Missionary in our presbytery talking about this problem. He would stand up during an ordination theology exam and ask the candidate, “Can you please describe what it means to be a pastor and shepherd of Christ’s flock?” He was looking for an answer that would show that the candidate was willing and desirous to lay his life down for his sheep—to love them.
Of all of the images that we find in the Scriptures, I think it’s fair to say that pastors, shepherds, are never supposed to beat the sheep. They are not there to scold or berate the church. When Christ confronted Peter with his threefold denial, his tone was direct, but nevertheless gentle. Along these lines, think of how many times the disciples deserved a good tongue lashing, yet Christ’s response and instruction was always direct but gentle. In this respect, Christ instructed Peter to feed the sheep, not to beat them (John 21:17). Just because a pastor must confront sin does not mean that his default mode is one of the stoic and stern rebuke, let alone berating the congregation. Indeed, the Scriptures tell us that Christ was so gentle that he would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matt. 12:18-21; cf. Isa. 42:1-3). I think this is a side of Jesus that far too many pastors forget. They gravitate towards Christ’s rebukes of the Pharisees and his cleansing of the temple—they want to flip tables over rather than drop beneath them to wash the feet of God’s flock.
Yes, there will be times when as the pastor, you must defend the flock and, like David killing the lion or bear, unleash invective against the unrepentant. But in most cases, such a response shouldn’t be your first but last resort. To borrow an Indian proverb, you don’t want to cut off someone’s nose and then give them a rose to smell. If you truly believe in the power of the preached word and the Spirit’s sovereign work in effectual calling and the sanctification of the saints, then step back and let the Spirit do the heavy lifting. Your impassioned rebuke may make you feel better but you’re ultimately relying upon the power of the flesh rather than the Spirit.
Don’t take a soft stance towards sin. Don’t turn a blind eye to the faults of your congregation. But don’t resort to your own power in an effort to try and change what only the Spirit of God can—your volume and tone won’t change the sinful and unrepentant heart. Hold out the manna from heaven, the gospel of Christ, with an open hand and never a clenched fist. Let the gospel of Christ be the stone of stumbling and rock of offense, not your negative tone. Feed Christ’s sheep, don’t beat them.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism: The Anointed Prophet
One of the best ways we help our children appreciate what they have is to take something away for a time only to restore it later. In a similar way, one of the best ways for us to appreciate what we have in Jesus Christ is to think about what Adam took away from us by his disobedience. He took away true knowledge of God. Now we are born blinded by sin. He took away fellowship with God. Now we are born at enmity with God. He took away delight in serving God. Now we are born unable to serve him. But Jesus Christ restores these lost aspects of our relationship with God. As a priest he removes our enmity with God, as a king he removes our inability to serve the Lord, and as a prophet he removes the blindness of sin.
It’s this prophetic office of Christ that we read about in Matthew 17:1–13. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the great prophet who “reveal[s] to the church, in all ages, by his Spirit and Word, in divers ways of administration, the whole will of God, in all things concerning their edification and salvation” (WLC, Q&A 43). This passage describes what we call the “transfiguration,” that is, Jesus’ outward change or transformation as his face and clothes were transformed into heavenly glory before the disciples. The beautiful thing about Jesus is that he also inwardly transforms us by the renewing of our minds into his image (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). What is most important for us in terms of his prophetic office is the heavenly Father’s word concerning his Son: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” In the traditional language of the Geneva Bible (1599) and King James Bible (1611), we are to “Hear him” (Matt. 17:5).
Him Whom We Are to Hear
Why is it so important to know the “him” whom we are to hear? Imagine your favorite cable news show, talk radio show, or even a group conversation you’ve been involved in recently. There were lots of voices, weren’t there? And when a host has two or three other guests at the same time, there is that phenomenon of them all speaking and sounding like a buzz of sound, with no distinguishable voice. Now, realize that this is the same thing that we have in the world. There are so many noises and voices, so many ideologies and philosophies, so many self-proclaimed gurus and prophets all vying for our attention. Jesus himself warned that this would be the case in the world (Matt. 24:23–26).
Because of this we need to be able to discern his voice so that we can hear him amid all the chatter of ideology, philosophy, and religion. We can do this by discerning his dignity. He is the Son of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). We can do this by discerning his dearness to the Father: “My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We can do this by discerning his distinctness from all other prophets. Jesus is the culmination of all that the law and the prophets spoke. On the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus were Moses—the giver of the law—and Elijah—the great prophet of Israel. And on the testimony of two or three witnesses everything was established. Here are two testimonies while the third is added for final confirmation—the voice of the Father himself.
So if Jesus is the eternally beloved Son and the culmination of the prophets, what did he say that is so urgent for us to hear? Hear him speak in his Word the truth about how sinners like you are saved from the wrath of Almighty God and brought into his everlasting kingdom. Hear him speak in his Word the truth about how you as a member of his kingdom are to be edified. Hear him.
Hearing Him Who Speaks
The Father’s words in Matthew 17:5 also teach us to hear him who speaks. Thomas Manton once illustrated this when he said there is a distinction between mere hearing of the sounds of Jesus’ words in the ear, which the animal kingdoms can do, understanding the meaning of Jesus’ words, which human beings can do, and finally assenting to what Jesus’ words mean, which is what his disciples alone do. The Father wants us to hear his Son, our great prophet, in this way as his disciples, not mere animals; as friends, not his enemies.
But where can we go to hear him when he is now at the right hand of God in heaven? We hear him in his Word written but especially in his Word preached. In Hebrews 2:1–3 the writer speaks as a second generation Christian, as one who knew the voice of our great prophet through his apostles but also that same voice through the proclamation of his words. Thus he says, “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard” through the means of ministers of the gospel. Hence Paul could say in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
We need to hear with urgency, as the imperative mood implies: “Hear him!” Recall what Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4. We know the famous line, “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), but we do not know what he goes on to say: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). In the midst of the chatter and noise in our time we need to urgently gather to ourselves not teachers to tickle our ears, but teachers to tell us the truth.
And how are we to hear our great prophet’s words? We need to hear with devotion, as Peter and the disciples did. After Jesus asked them, “Do you want to go away as well?” Peter said on their behalf, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67–68). And this devoted hearing of him must lead to obeying him: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (Jas. 1:22).
Yet our Bibles gather dust. Yet our minds are filled with the images and self-gratification of the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. Yet more time is spend in front of video games than in front of the face of the Lord. Yet our attention is so easily grabbed by the Super Bowl, by birthday parties, by weddings, by social events, by the lure of money in working on the Lord’s Day. How quickly we hear the world’s words and believe. How easily we are seduced by the devil. How weakly we put up a fight with our sin natures.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Manton, Works 1:395.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Care for Single Women
Pastoral visitation is perhaps one of the lesser-appreciated and practiced ministry responsibilities. Pastors don’t realize how important it is to visit with members of their congregations to encourage, get to know, and shepherd them. People in the church often think that such visits, if they occur, are an intrusion. “Why is the minister coming over? What wrong have we done?” In a word, pastors and elders must shepherd the flock—pastoral visits are indispensible. But one group of people that often gets overlooked is single women, even where churches practice pastoral visitation.
I recently received e-mail from a young woman who has been in Reformed churches her whole life, 28 years. Yet, she told me the following:
- Since she first heard of pastoral visits four years ago, she has never had a formal house visit from a pastor or elder, ever.
- With one small group gathering, the assigned elder for her shepherding group took all of the men into one room and left her and the rest of the women in another room. There was no interaction between the women and the elder.
- When she was a member of a Reformed church for a year, while she was in school, she had an elder assigned to her, but he never spoke to her.
- One of her friends was a member of a Reformed church for five years before she received her first home visit from an elder.
There are undoubtedly a number of factors that foster this type of pattern. Some churches probably don’t practice home visits very consistently, if at all. Others are probably concerned about the possibility of impropriety of some sort—i.e., should a lone man visit the home of a single woman? Another likely factor goes beyond church and extends into our cultural habits—men and women tend to congregate. There are likely other reasons that contribute to the pattern.
Nevertheless, regardless of the reasons, all of God’s people deserve and have right to pastoral care, especially single women. In the e-mail I received from this young woman, she offers some helpful suggestions and ways to carry out pastoral oversight to single women in the church:
- Host single women for dinner. A dinner conversation in the presence of a spouse and perhaps an elder and his spouse can afford you as the pastor an excellent opportunity to get to know and shepherd a young woman.
- Make a point to talk to the single women in your church. Ask them how their week has been. Do you know these young women by name? In other words, show genuine concern for their spiritual well being.
- If you’re worried about the appearance of impropriety when visiting a single woman, take a ruling elder or deacon along with you. I would suggest always taking an elder on a visit regardless of who you’re visiting. Or if necessary, conduct the visit in a public venue, such as a coffee shop.
- As common as it is for women to lead the women’s Bible study at church, offer to lead it for a period of time so you can get to know the women in your church.
Pastoral visits are important. Yes, preaching must and should take the chief role in the spiritual nourishment of the church. But if Jesus knows and calls us by name, then it behooves pastors, shepherds, to know and call Christ’s sheep by their names. Far too often people in the church encounter problems and deal with spiritual challenges and the pastor and elders only find out about the situation once it’s too late.
Shepherd God’s people—get to know them—all of them, including the single women in your churches.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Internet and Purity
The Internet has brought many great advances and benefits, even blessings. I marvel at the fact that as little as ten years ago, or less, when I used to travel I could only talk to my wife over the phone. But now, with advances with the Internet and related technology, I can video chat my wife and children. I can see my family on a regular basis with a good Internet connection. Similarly, as little as ten years ago it used to be that acquiring rare books was an expensive endeavor—they cost a lot of money and often required that you had to travel to rare book dealers to find them. Now, I have the blessing of being able download scads of rare books for free. At the same time, the same ease of access to other types of media has become problematic.
It seems that regardless of the website, there are often inappropriate images here and there. I know, I know, the first thing that you might think is, “What websites are you looking at?” I’m talking about news outlets—go to mainstream news outlets, such as yahoo.com and you’ll see your fair share of stories and small link-images of scantily clad men and women along with a selection of salacious “news” for consumption. I find it odd, but perhaps a sign of the times, as to what passes off as news these days. Why supposedly reputable news outlets will feature stories on celebrities, for example, that have clothing “malfunctions” is beyond me. Such “news” is trite and even lascivious. But beyond these appetizers of sexual immorality, there is a world of wickedness lurking just a few mouse clicks away.
It used to be that pornography required a bit of courage to purchase. You had to go into a public establishment, risk being seen, and then make your purchase. Now type a few words into your search engine and you have gross sexually immoral images and videos immediately at your fingertips. The same ease of access that I have to rare books is equally available for all sorts of sexual immorality. Given the ease of access, I believe that pornography is a huge problem in the church these days, but one that I suspect few realize.
I remember talking with a missionary who told me that sixty-five percent of the young men his mission organization interviewed as missionary candidates were disqualified because they admitted to problems with pornography. I sadly had the responsibility of sitting in on an ecclesiastical judicial trial where a man came as his own accuser for violating the seventh commandment. His adultery, he informed the trial judicatory, began with dalliances with Internet pornography. I had to deal with several instances in my congregation where men had thousands of pornographic images stored on their computers. My wife dealt with a situation at her office where an elder in a NAPARC church was caught with pornographic images on his work computer. He subsequently resigned in shame so he wouldn’t be fired.
All of this is to say, it used to take a lot of effort to acquire pornography. Now lust and opportunity have few obstacles to stand in their way. What is a person to do? I’ve seen a few extremes where people won’t have an Internet connection because the temptations are too great. If that’s necessary, then do it. Learn to get by without it. Another thing that you should avoid is going to great lengths to privatize your computer. It’s one thing, for example, to have password security on your computer and various accounts to prevent hacking and theft, but it’s entirely another when you won’t give your wife access to your computer. If you hide your passwords from those closest to you, ask why you are doing this. Be willing to have your wife, or a good friend, perform a search on your computer for images, search your web history, and cookies so that they can hold you accountable. Whenever I received any questionable e-mail or spam, I would either forward it to my wife or show it to her so she knew that I didn’t go looking for trouble. I can remember, for example, looking into the cost of an M-60 machine gun (don’t ask why) and I clicked on the link to discover the price and something else showed up on the screen (it was a reputable weapons dealer, I assure you). I’ve also clicked on a reputable news site only to be directed to another website (they were hacked). On those occasions I immediately hit the back-arrow and later told my wife about the incidents. Another remedy is to be very selective in the news articles and blogs you read. Yes, it may look like an innocent news story, but you won’t die if you decide not to read the story about Kim Kardashian.
But all of these efforts, as important as they are, don’t get to the heart of the matter. Lust is ultimately a lack of contentment with God’s providence, where he happens to place you in life. You can make and take all of the necessary precautions in the world to avoid Internet smut and never deal with the root of the problem—your own sinful heart. The only way to eliminate sin is to displace it. You can’t just avoid sin because you carry it with you. You could move to Antarctica and still have a problem with lust. You must fill your heart with a passion and zeal for Christ that displaces your lust. And only Christ through his Spirit and the means of grace can grant you this passion and zeal. Pray, therefore, that Christ would deliver you from your lust, as he is the only one who can sanctify you. Don’t throw away your ministry by becoming entangled in a web of sexual immorality. Pray that Christ would enable you to be faithful, even when you think no one is watching.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Normal Is Best
One of the questions I’ve received over the years is, “What type of church member do you look for as a pastor?” My answer may seem odd, but I’ve always responded, “The normal kind.” What do I mean? Over the years I’ve encountered various types of people in the church, many of whom are given to extremes. Some have been all about family uber-alles, that is, family trumps everything in life including Christ and the means of grace. “Please come to worship,” I’d say, only to hear, “Oh we can’t, we’re going camping this weekend—we need to spend time together as a family.” “Please come to Sunday School,” I’d say, only to hear, “Oh we can’t, we believe that the head of the household should only teach the children.”
Another one that I’ve encountered is the theological axe-grinder, that is, the person who is enamored and smitten by one doctrine. Everything is about this one doctrine—regardless of the issue, the person always raises questions about, say usury (lending money at exorbitant interest). This person has read all there is to read about usury, always wants to bring up the subject in Sunday School, and goes around the church telling people they shouldn’t loan money or borrow it because it violates Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.”
Another type of church member is the “ghost member.” This type of person comes to church, shows sign of interest, joins, attends somewhat regularly for a few months, and then drops of the face of the earth. Phone calls, e-mails, letters, all prove to be ineffective. I suppose I could have showed up at his home unannounced, but I questioned the wisdom of such a move. Nevertheless, this person eventually would get erased off church rolls because he simply disappeared. Keep in mind, I’ve had some very churched people do this—the son of a NAPARC minister in one case. That is, this person was well aware of the nature of church membership—he wasn’t a new Christian or unaware of Reformed church polity—he grew up with it.
Whenever I found myself encountering these various types of church members, I would pray (seriously), “Lord, please send us some normal church members. Please send us some families that attend regularly, listen to the sermons, participate in church life, and don’t have any axes to grind.” As a pastor, I never realized how much of a gem such church members could be.
Ask yourself, “What kind of church member am I?” Am I a source of unnecessary grief to my pastor and elders? Do I attend church regularly? Do I offer to help when I can? Do I unnecessarily take up too much of the pastor’s and elders’ time with being overly concerned with my hobby doctrine? Middle of the road, not given to extremes, is a wonderful thing when it comes to being a good church member.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Phoning Ahead
During my pastorate I encountered my fair share of people who did not appreciate my ministry or the church for one reason or another. That’s fine and to be expected. Whether it’s my preaching, the church’s supposed unfriendliness, or a host of other reasons, people can and do leave churches. This is to be expected. There are, however, a number of people over the years where I had great difficulty ministering to them. One scenario comes to mind that repeated itself on several occasions—a family arrived at church, joined, and seemed to roll up their sleeves, jump in, and be as helpful as possible. It seemed like they were a breath of fresh air. But as time progressed, things began to sour. The family started to reach out to other families and created a clique. Soon there were two factions—the in-crowd and everyone else. It wasn’t too long before I had people complaining to me about the clique.
I responded to the complaints by doing my best humbly to approach the family that was creating the stir and gently challenge them about what they were doing. As is often the case, cliquish people are blind to their clique-making ways, and so the family rebuffed my correction. Things became tenser as a result and the clique built their walls thicker and higher almost to the point where I felt like there was another church within the church. Long story short, the session and I humbly but firmly held our ground, admonished them for the division that they were causing within the church, but our counsel proved ineffective—they left the church in a huff. Blessedly, the clique didn’t leave with them. Yes, we lost a few families but it wasn’t a total loss. At this point some would say, “Phew! Crisis over. Now we can move on with life in the church.” Not so fast.
Shortly after this family left, our session received a request to transfer their letter of membership. Without hesitation we sent their letter to the NAPARC church that issued the request, but there was a nagging question that lingered for our session. Yes, this family consisted of members in good standing—they were not under any formal discipline, which would have prevented their transfer to another church until the discipline was resolved. On the other hand, we had a pastoral dilemma—should we phone the pastor of the other church and let him know of the significant difficulties we faced with this family?
We wrestled back and forth about this. Would such an action be prejudicial? Perhaps we (the pastor and elders) were the problem. Maybe we handled things poorly and by phoning the pastor of the other church we would needlessly and unfairly characterize this family? On the other hand, perhaps we should warn the other pastor and session because, good grief, this family caused us a lot of trouble and a few words of caution might prevent some difficulty and hardship in the other church. Decisions, decisions.
In one case the session and I determined to warn the receiving church of the possibility of problems. I had a very cordial and edifying conversation with the pastor at the receiving church. I described the situation, told him where challenges might lie, but at the same time admitted that my session and I could be mistaken. In another instance we decided to remain silent, a decision I later regretted. A number of years later I came across the pastor of the receiving church and through an initially delicate verbal dance determined that we had similar experiences with a certain family. Upon this discovery, we both recounted how this one family had caused division and strife within both of our churches. I told him I thought about calling him to warn him, but didn’t want to be prejudicial, and he told me he thought about calling me but didn’t want to seem judgmental as well. Right then and there I decided that when in doubt, I should phone ahead to the pastor of a receiving church and offer pastoral observations when necessary.
There is a fine line between gossip and vengeance and pastoral concern, a genuine love for the sheep. If your concern is to vindicate your own name and air dirty laundry, then refrain from making the call. But if you genuinely love your sheep, even those who are difficult to shepherd, if you want the next pastor to be aware of issues so he can possibly minister effectively to a family where you have been unable to do so, and if you’re concerned for the well-being of the greater church, then in consultation with your session, make the call. The question of whether to call or not is ultimately one of wisdom, sometimes you answer and other times you don’t answer the fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:4-5). Pray for wisdom but also don’t be kowtowed by political correctness or fear of confrontation when wisdom dictates that a family requires correction, rebuke, and counsel even if they leave your church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Best Fraternity
One of my all-time favorite things to do is go to my denomination’s general assembly. Before you stop reading out of incredulity, I’m not talking about the long business sessions, endless myriad of financial statistics, and administrative reports. As necessary as such things are, I’ve contemplated stabbing myself with a fork to make the meetings more interesting. Nevertheless, I’m instead talking about the fellowship and camaraderie that I find at these meetings.
Ministers are funny creatures that live something of a dual-existence. Most people in the church see their pastor as a dignified, quiet, and solemn figure—the one who prays eloquently, offers words of godly counsel, and preaches Christ from all of Scripture with great unction. On the other hand, get a group of pastors away from their churches after a long day of business meetings at a general assembly and you’ll see a completely different set of men. These solemn and dignified men laugh, tell stories, in a most undignified way! I’m not saying that they engage in anything sinful. Rather, I’m saying that they are a riot to be with. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as when I listen to the various stories I hear. Pastors will recount the good, bad, and the ugly of church life. Keep in mind, they’re not gossiping but sharing concerns, joys, and sorrows with their brothers in arms. They know that the men sitting around the circle are intimately familiar with the challenges of pastoral ministry unlike most in the church—they share the same joys and battle scars.
Such a circle of fellowship has been the best and most edifying aspect of my ministry. Cramming into a minivan with eight other pastors and heading off into the night for fellowship, food, and fun has been at times much needed medicine for my soul. When I fellowship with my brothers in arms, I am reminded that I’m not alone—that Christ has gifted his church with godly men who care about the church. I am reminded that Christ has given his church wise pastors, those whom I can seek counsel for difficult circumstances. I am reminded that I can share my woes with a trusted colleague who will be a vault and who will lift me up in prayer. And I am reminded that pastors can be some of the funniest people and that uproarious laughter can be an excellent elixir and a reminder not to take yourself too seriously.
The pastorate is filled with many challenges, doesn’t offer great wealth, and can be a crucible where providence can make you feel like you’re being crushed. But it also has some wonderful benefits, and chief among them is the fellowship with your band of brothers. My ministerial colleagues are, to me, the best fraternity in the world.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism: The Anointed One
Q & A 42
No doubt Simon Peter’s most memorable words were those of his great confession in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15) “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). That’s a Bible verse to memorize, isn’t it? What we don’t often realize, though, is what Jesus goes on to say. Do you remember? Jesus tells Peter that this confession was revealed to Peter from heaven (Matt. 16:17). The true identity of Jesus as the “Christ”—the Messiah or anointed one—is a truth that God reveals to us. And this is a vital reason why we need to understand the meaning of this title. To understand his title—Christ—is to be illuminated and enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 45 gives us background to this title and its significance as it foreshadows the coming of the Anointed One. The Psalmist praises Solomon as king in verses 1–9 and then praises his wife in verses 10–17. Note well the Psalmists’ praise of Solomon. In verse 2 he speaks of his persona, in verses 3–5 he speaks of his majesty, in verses 6–7a he speaks of his throne, in verses 7b–8a he speaks of his anointing, and in verses 8b–9 he speaks of his praise. In commenting on these verses John Calvin so masterfully showed how in praising Solomon and his wife the Psalmist speaks prophetically of Christ: “But as this excellence was displayed in Solomon so also did it shine forth more fully afterwards in Christ.”
What do we learn here about our Mediator who is called “Christ?”
Endowed with the Spirit
First, Jesus’ title “Christ” means he was endowed with the Spirit: “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Ps. 45:7). Later in the history of salvation, John the Baptist spoke of Jesus in this vein, saying, that God gives the Spirit to his Son “without measure” (John 3:34). Larger Catechism Q&A 42 picks up on this and says Jesus was “anointed with the Holy Ghost above measure.”
Jesus was endowed with the Spirit above his companions and without measure in the plan and the council of redemption in eternity, but we see it especially in his life and ministry. From his conception and birth he was endowed with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20). At his baptism he was endowed with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16). His temptation was the result of his being led and thrust out by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). His preaching was affected by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:14, 18–19). Jesus is “Christ” because he was and is the Spirit-endowed and Spirit-filled man par excellence.
Equipped by the Spirit
Second, Jesus’ endowment with the Spirit was for the purpose of equipping him to act as our mediator by the Spirit. In the typological words of this psalm, the Spirit equipped him to “gird [his] sword on [his] thigh” (Ps. 45:3), to “ride out victoriously” (Ps. 45:4), and to fire his sharp arrows into the hearts of his enemies (Ps. 45:5). And this equipment by the Spirit “so set apart” (WLC, Q&A 42) our Lord from all others who call themselves the Christ (cf. Matt. 24:24), that he also is “fully furnished with all authority and ability, to execute the offices of prophet, priest, and king of his church, in the estate both of his humiliation and exaltation” (WLC, Q&A 42).
Solomon was equipped to be Israel’s king after David by an anointing. Solomon was equipped to be Israel’s wisest man so that peoples from all over the world came to hear his 3,000 written proverbs and 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32). Yet Solomon was merely a king. He did not hold the offices of prophet, although his words speak prophetically, nor of priest. He held one office. Yet Jesus’ endowment and equipping by the Spirit enabled him to be set apart as our highest prophet, final priest, and greatest king. For example, all of Solomon’s wisdom pales in comparison to Jesus’, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). What a sufficient mediator and Savior Jesus is for sinners like you and me!
Let me conclude by answering the question of what does Jesus’ anointing mean for my Christian experience?
Because Jesus alone is the Anointed One I experience assurance and confidence that he is my Savior. As my anointed prophet he saves me from my spiritual blindness and ignorance. As my anointed priest he saves me from my sins’ guilt before Almighty God. As my anointed king he saves me from my inability to serve the Lord so that I may join him on the field of battle against the corruption of my sins (Wilhelmus à Brakel).
Because Jesus alone is the Anointed One and I am united to him by faith I share in his anointing with the Holy Spirit. He is anointed above his companions; I am one of his companions; therefore I am endowed with and equipped by the same Holy Spirit. I am Spirit-filled!
Because Jesus alone is the Anointed One and I share in him, I too am called to be a prophet to speak of the Lord in the midst of the world; I too am called to be a priest to pray to the Lord for the world; I too am called to be a king to fight against the world, my sin, and Satan.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Know it. Thank him for it. Live empowered because of it.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Calvin, Psalms, 2:176
à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:518
A Pastor’s Reflections: Never Speak Ill of Your Children
When I first contemplated entering the pastorate, I never realized that sometimes the church can be an ugly place. In fact, St. Augustine is reported as saying, “The church is a whore, but I must love her anyway because she is my mother.” The church can be filled with anger, gossip, and backbiting, which can chip away at the unity and peace of the church. I often encountered some of this ugliness as I would talk to various people in the church. People would complain about others and be critical for various reasons: that person “sings too loudly and out of tune,” “is rude and thoughtless,” “won’t fellowship with me,” “asks too many questions in Sunday School,” “is mentally not all there,” etc., etc. In the course of fielding complaints and comments, I very quickly decided that I would never speak ill of any of my children. What do I mean?
I find that most parents will not speak ill of their children with others. Yes, their children might have faults, and there might be legitimate complaints against them, but a parent won’t allow his child to be publicly embarrassed. A good parent will take up the complaint or issue in private. I adopted a similar policy towards my congregation. As I heard various complaints, I would listen carefully and then offer the person counsel. I might tell them that they were being too hard on someone, or that they shouldn’t gossip. But on other occasions I knew that someone was raising a legitimate complaint. The knee-jerk reaction might be to agree. Maybe you’ve noticed the problematic behavior yourself. On the other hand, maybe you’ve only heard one side of the story and you need to wait until you gather all of the evidence to render a verdict. The point is, resist the temptation to talk ill of someone else in the church, especially if they’re not present to defend themselves. Do your due diligence, gather your evidence, talk with a number of people and don’t rush off to judgment. Recall the counsel of Scripture: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
When someone complains, you can offer the following response: “You’ve got a legitimate concern. Let me look into the matter and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” Whatever you do, refrain from saying, “You’re right! So and so is a jerk and deserves a rebuke!” Regardless of who they are, everyone in the church deserves your love, protection, and fair handling of accusations. Don’t be quick to rush to judgment because you might make the situation worse because you entertain a false or erroneous perception of a situation.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Run Your Own Race
In my pre-parent life, I used to have time to run a few triathlons—sprints, mainly. One of the things that I found personally discouraging was the fact that the race event staff would write your age on your calf muscle with a large waterproof marker. At first, it didn’t bother me—I would be cycling or running and I’d see 56, 72, 40, and a host of other numbers higher than my own as I passed them by. As I would progress in the race, however, I quickly realized that for as many numbers higher than my own that I was passing, there were probably more numbers higher than mine passing me by! I saw one woman with 68 on her calf sail by me like I was standing still. It was a bit humbling to have someone double my age smoke me.
I felt a similar sentiment when I was in seminary and later graduate school. There I sat at my desk as my 27th birthday passed me by and I felt like I was standing still. I was still in school, hadn’t done anything significant in my life, and was feeling like many others were passing me. I was sitting in my windowless basement office, single, no girlfriend, in a foreign country eating dry cereal for lunch because I couldn’t afford much more. It didn’t help that I knew that John Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes by the time he was 27. Here I was, seemingly in neutral, while the world passed me by.
It took some time to figure out that, from one vantage point, I had to ignore what everyone else was doing and run my own race. Sometimes you have to compare yourselves to others, but the most important benchmark is to ask whether you are being faithful to the tasks that the Lord has set before you. Are you running your race well? I regret the fact that I never picked up a theology book until my early twenties, but in the scope of God’s providence, that’s where God placed me. Once he opened my heart and passions to study theology, I didn’t want to squander that opportunity. I can’t change the past but I can decide to make good use of the moment and make wise plans for the future.
I guarantee there will be times in your ministry where you will feel as though everyone is passing you by. Your colleague will publish a book, add ten new families to his church in a year, witness to and disciple five new converts, or be appointed to a new important position or church. You might be filled with envy, guilt, remorse, or depression because you don’t see the same results in your own ministry despite your diligent efforts. You look at a stack of rejection letters from a host of publishers, you’ve lost ten families this year, you’ve only seemingly offended unbelievers with your attempts to evangelize them, and you’re feeling like the church wants to run you out on a rail! Run your own race. Pray and seek contentment where the Lord has placed you in his holy providence. Put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, and leave the results up to him. Whether in plenty or in want, seek to praise Christ in all situations and don’t compare yourself to others. Pray that you’re faithful to what Christ has called you to do. Run your own race.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Liar, liar, pants on fire!
One of the strangest tendencies I’ve found in ministry is that people will meet you for the first time and tell whoppers—huge lies. I’m not sure why they do this, but they do. I suspect they don’t tell these lies out of malice but out of a desire to have people like them. Perhaps it’s a nervous reaction, or something of the sort. What types of lies do they tell? Let me provide three examples.
First, as a pastor of a mission work my congregation met in a rented public school facility. I always hoped and prayed for something more permanent, but real estate prices being what they are, I knew that it would likely take as much as a million dollars or more to buy five acres of land (the minimum amount of property for a church in my local municipality) and build a basic structure suitable for worship and Sunday School. From time to time visitors would come, enjoy worship, and talk to me after the service. Not once, but at least on several different occasions I had people tell me, “Oh? That’s all you need? I think I can help you get that.” The first time I heard this I became excited at the prospects of getting financial help for the church but had my hopes quickly extinguished when nothing ever materialized. The second and third times I heard this promise, I guarded my expectations with a healthy dose of skepticism and saved myself heartache when nothing later materialized. Why would you say something like this if you had no intention on following through with it?
Second, from time to time we would have first time visitors and I made a point of greeting them, as did a number of people in the church. We were always encouraged but especially excited when people indicated that they wanted to join. On several occasions I had some of these first time visitors tell me, “We’ve been searching for a new church home for a long time and we think this is it! We love your church and want to join.” I was surprised but nonetheless excited. Sure, it was a little precipitous, but why not. Once again my hopes were dashed upon the rocks of reality when these families never showed up again. I tried calling, writing, e-mailing, and the like. Nothing but chirping crickets and a big ball of tumbleweed blowing by. Why would you say something like this if you had no intention of joining the church to begin with?
Third, after church I would make an effort to talk with as many people as I could. In the course of these post-worship discussions I frequently heard the following: “Oh we’d love to have you over some time. Perhaps dinner? We’ll be in touch.” What happened afterwards? Nothing. I sat by my phone like a geek with a pocket protector waiting for someone to call me to go out. Why would you say something like this if you had no intention of making good on your invitation?
In each of these scenarios it seems like the old movie theater rule is best: silence is golden. There is no need to impress people with the amount of money you might be able to give to the church. There is no need to tell people that you will join the church, especially if it’s your first Sunday. And there is no need to tell people you will invite them over if you’re not truly serious about it. Quietly investigate whether you can help the church and then write the check! Don’t tell the pastor you want to join unless you’re truly ready to pull the trigger. And don’t tell people you’ll invite them over unless you’re ready to pull out your calendar and set a date right then and there. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. Or, in biblical terms, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (James 5:12).
As a pastor, be aware that people will do these things to you, but also be mindful that you don’t do them to others. As a church member, don’t do these things either!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Juggling
Life is busy. When you stop to think about it, there are so many things that an average family has to do: school, sports activities for the kids, church, church activities, work, maintaining work relationships, exercise, witnessing to your friends and family, taking care of your own household, and the like. How on earth are you supposed to manage it all? How am I supposed to do my job, take care of the kids, get them to school, sports, doctor, mow the yard, go to church, attend the men’s Bible study, and also be a witness to my neighbor? It sounds like life has me by the throat and I’m ready to toss in the towel.
I think the first thing to keep in mind is that you should not over commit. Always give careful consideration to the things that you sign-up to do. Second, you need to set priorities. Christ must come first – prioritize worship and the means of grace. You would no sooner cut yourself off from food because you are too busy, so don’t do this with word, sacrament, and prayer. Third, ensure that the needs of your family come next. You may not be able to participate in every church event, and perhaps you shouldn’t have your kids participate in Little League if it means missing church on Sunday or taking too much time away from your family. Fourth, look around at your other relationships, such as extended family, co-workers, and neighbors. You can’t be all things to all people, and neither can you help everyone all the time. But you should do your best to keep an eye on these different areas so you can offer assistance, prayer, and witness when needed.
One of the things my wife and I did, for example, is we made a goal to get to know our neighbors around us in a one-house radius—the neighbors to our left and right and in front of us. We invited them over for dinner here and there, and even invited them to church. My wife started her “pool ministry” where she would invite neighbors and unbelieving friends over to the community pool so she would get to know them, witness, and invite them to church. We weren’t worried about the tempo of these invitations, but we did want to ensure that we made an effort. And we prioritized the means of grace and family first, and then looked around to how we could serve and reach out to others.
Another factor of which we are aware is that life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. In other words, you will have seasons in your life when you won’t be able to participate in church as much as you like or reach out to your neighbors. The parents of small children, for example, typically have their hands full. It’s all they can do to get the family in the car to go to church let alone helping others or inviting neighbors over. If you have older children, or are empty nesters, you might have much more time and ability to help the church and reach out to neighbors. Since life is a marathon, don’t worry if you have to slow down or take a break. Just remember to reengage in neighborly hospitality and witness and service at the church once you’re able. Don’t allow other commitments to crowd out these important elements of life. That is, you get so swept away with your son’s traveling baseball team that you stop your involvement at church, never reach out to your neighbors, and don’t even use the opportunity to witness to your son’s baseball team.
The biggest point to remember is—you don’t have to take care of family, church, and neighbors all at once at the same time. You can afford to juggle things and move from one thing to the next while at the same time prioritizing the most important things.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Do You Really Know?
I can remember sitting at a Bible study that was being led by a seminarian who recently returned from his first year of studies. He was really excited to have the opportunity to teach—it was evident in his passion. But as I sat there and listened to his lecture, even though I was a seminary graduate myself, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what in the world this person was talking about. This young man had a lot of passion and excitement, and he used a lot of fifty-cent words like eschatological, already but not yet, inaugurated eschatology, biblical-theological, and the like. But as I looked around the room I could tell that no one really understood what he was talking about. This lack of comprehension became evident when it was time for questions and answers. As the attendees asked their questions, the student offered complex and torturous answers that only poured more densely packed fog onto everyone’s mind. What I concluded is that this seminarian, as excited as he was, did not really understand his material that well.
It’s not fool-proof, but a good rule of thumb is, Do you know your subject well enough that you could explain it to a child? If you can take a complex subject, break it down, and explain it in simple terms so that a ten year old can grasp the concepts, then you truly understand your subject. If, on the other hand, you can’t do this, then perhaps you need to study some more. A good example of how complex issues are broken down appears in the Westminster Standards. The Confession of Faith takes complex doctrinal issues and presents them in a clear and concise manner. This doesn’t mean that the subjects aren’t complex. But the presentation is clear. The theologians who wrote the Confession specifically avoided technical terminology and subjects because they were writing a Confession of Faith for the church, not for the academy. The theology of the Standards is further distilled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was written for the catechetical instruction of children.
Compare the Confession and Shorter Catechism to see how it presents the same subject. Try to emulate this type of simplification in your own teaching and preaching. When you’re preparing a lecture or sermon, anticipate where you might receive questions and prepare answers, even write short definitions. Sometimes, you will get caught off guard. I was once asked to teach Sunday School for seven year-old children. They were told they could ask the pastor anything they wanted. I had one precocious young girl ask me, “What does it mean when my Bible says, ‘Some of the oldest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20’?” I was surprised, but I gave a brief, and hopefully simple, explanation of how the Bible was made. I never invoked the term textual criticism. Rather, I explained the ideas behind this term. I think the little girl was satisfied with my answer.
In the end, remember that when you study, your own comprehension is not the end goal. Rather, you’re studying to learn and share your acquired knowledge with others. This means you need to be prepared to feed your congregation. Practice your craft, anticipate questions, work at making complex things more easily grasped. In the end, your congregation and family will benefit from it.
A Pastor’s Reflections: I Don’t Know
Ideally as the pastor you should be one of the better-educated people in your church. You have likely gone to college and then studied for three or four years to earn your MDiv. During that time you’ve probably read thousands upon thousands of pages of theological literature. For your sermon preparation you ideally read a great deal each week, and that’s not counting your leisure reading. For these and other reasons I suspect that people regularly come to you with their questions, and I suspect that you regularly dispense answers. This is a good thing. But never be afraid to use three words, “I don’t know.”
I think there is a tendency among some pastors that they begin to think they’re really smart people. They use fancy words like “worldview,” “presuppositions,” “exegesis,” and “supralapsarianism.” And most people in the church are in awe as you drop these poly-syllabic verbal bombs. But a wise pastor will never hesitate to acknowledge when he doesn’t know the answer to a question. Just because you read a book on science and theology doesn’t make you a scientist. And just because you read a book on financial stewardship doesn’t make you a CPA.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen ministerial candidates standing for theological examination get asked a question, and rather than admit they don’t know, they give an intelligent-sounding but nonetheless ignorant response. I have seen some candidates fail an exam because they tried to answer questions about which they clearly had no clue.
My first piece of advice is, don’t believe your own press—don’t take too much of your counsel. I just assume I’m an idiot and that I don’t know much. This helps me keep quiet. If I really think I do know the answer to a question, I’ll offer it. But if there’s doubt, then I usually say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but let me do some research and I’ll try to get back to with an answer as soon as I can.” I was once asked a question as I was teaching through the book of Hebrews. I didn’t know the answer to a question, offered my “I don’t know” response, and then returned the next week and took the Sunday School hour to answer the question. I, of course, went home, studied and did a lot of reading, created lecture notes, and then offered my answer when I had an informed opinion.
I think I know why many pastors fear saying “I don’t know.” They don’t want people to think, “What? You’ve gone to seminary, studied all sorts of books and subjects, and you don’t know the answer to my question?!” People may think this very thing, but even so, it’s not worth you trying to answer questions when you really don’t what you’re talking about. Personally, I don’t care if people don’t think I’m smart. Fine. I’m not striving to be smart, I’m striving to be faithful, faithful to God’s word. The Bible is a very big book, which means that I will naturally have to admit regularly that I don’t know answers to questions. That’s ok. Moreover, admitting that you don’t know something has two positive outcomes: (1) it becomes an opportunity for you to learn! (2) you show your congregation that you don’t know everything but that you’re willing to learn. The latter, I believe, sets an important example for your church, or even your children. The best teachers are usually the best students. Therefore, never be afraid to say, “I don’t know”!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Smokescreens
In my labors as a pastor one of the things I learned about people is that they often take great pains to create camouflage for themselves. Like lizards changing the color of their skin so they can hide from predators, people in the church will create camouflage so that others in the church, especially elders and pastors, don’t see the problem areas in their lives. Two examples can hopefully illustrate this point.
The first involved a family that made great vocal claims to being very Reformed. They knew Calvin, the confessions, and were big on letting the session and me know this. They also made a big deal about ensuring that everything that we did was uber-Reformed. They didn’t want to engage in anything that the broader Evangelical church might do. One such thing that they avoided like the plague was Sunday School. Sunday School, I was informed, was an Arminian practice and they therefore did not want to participate. I was somewhat perplexed and told them that I doubted their assertion, but more to the point, I as the pastor taught the adult Sunday School class, usually either covering the Westminster Standards or a book of the Bible, and our children’s Sunday School classes were taught by godly church members with a catechetical-based curriculum. These details didn’t matter. Sunday School wasn’t Reformed enough.
The second example comes from someone who made similar claims to being uber-Reformed. I was repeatedly informed about how long his family had been in Reformed churches—for generations, even back to the “old country.” This family called me and wanted to meet. I agreed to a meeting and brought one of my elders with me. What was the purpose of the meeting? They wanted to complain about my preaching—there were a number of problematic elements such as mentioning the fact that liberal scholars believed that Jesus didn’t create a miracle when he fed the 5,000 but that he stood in front of a cave opening with his large flowing robe and had his disciples toss previously hidden loaves of bread out from behind him all in the effort to convince the doltish masses that they were witnessing a miracle. I mentioned this to show the extreme and silly lengths that unbelievers sometimes go rather than accept the witness and authority of Scripture. Needless to say, my use of such an element in my sermon was “not Reformed.”
Just to be clear, I’m fine with people disagreeing with certain practices in the church. I’m also ok with people criticizing my preaching. As a pastor, you have to accept these things very quickly—disagreement and criticism. But in both of these cases the families were hiding things—in the first there was gross immorality and in the second there were massive marital problems. Both families left the church and within months, both families imploded—both marriages ended in divorce. In the case of the latter, as Reformed as they claimed to be, they ended up attending a non-Reformed church. In both cases, I believe that the families put up smokescreens. They tried to prove to others around them how Reformed they were so that people wouldn’t notice their big problems.
The Pharisees had a similar M.O. They made a big issue of tithing their “mint and dill and cumin” but “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They stood on street corners and prayed very publicly so they would be seen (Matt. 6:1-2). They did many of these things for show so they could hide their sinfulness.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every person who makes a big deal about a particular doctrine or conviction is blowing smoke. But I am saying that many who do so are creating a smokescreen to hide their sin. Whether you’re a pastor or not, keep this in mind. Be observant. Don’t be fooled by the smoke. Know when you’re watching a big-budget movie with lots of special effects but no plot or decent dialog. And don’t be fooled into thinking that you can pull this off yourself. Yes, you may fool people for a time, but sin is like sewage. There is only so much that your life can handle before the drains get clogged and the sewage spews into the streets for all to see. Moreover, in the end, our all-knowing and all-seeing triune Lord knows and sees all who we are, whether before men or hidden in our closets. Live life, therefore, in the knowledge that you do so coram Deo—in the presence of God. Do not change your conduct and appearance for the sake of men. To do so is not only deception but implicitly means that you consider men more important than God, the one who always sees you. Live life consistently—in the pursuit of righteousness and holiness both before God and men.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Sunday Fights
I have a confession to make: I have to admit that even though I’m a pastor, my family and I have occasionally gotten into fights on Sunday morning. Perhaps with this admission those of you reading this post have let out a collective gasp in shock and disbelief. What? The pastor has had fights with his family on Sunday morning? Yes. That’s the truth of it. Believe it or not, pastors are people too, and sinful people at that. This means that, as undesirable as it is, I have, on a rare occasion, had strongly worded disagreements with my wife in the waning hours and minutes before we’ve headed off to church. That’s reality. Maybe I’m the only one? Maybe my family is the only one that likes to mix it up on Sunday mornings? If so, then consider this an irrelevant confession. But something tells me I’m not alone. So if you do find yourself in the midst of a verbal melee right before you’re getting ready to go to church, what should you do?
First, let me say that by “fight,” I’m not talking about physical altercations. I’m talking about verbal altercations. I.e., “What’s the matter with you? Why did you ruin my blouse by putting it in the dryer with red socks?! You turned it pink!!!” (Whether such words have ever been uttered in my house, I leave to your active imaginations). Needless to say, you should do what you can to avoid verbal fights. Getting angry before worship is sinful. And this is especially problematic for the pastor. It’s hardly beneficial to raise your voice at your wife right before you’re going to preach the word. This means that if a disagreement or problem arises, be very slow to respond in anger. There are a number of things you can do to ensure that your family doesn’t have a volcanic eruption right before you pile in the minivan.
• If conflict arises see what you can do to resolve it immediately (e.g., Matt. 5:23-24). If you’ve done something wrong, don’t be defensive. Admit it. Seek the offended person’s forgiveness. Do what you can to make things right.
• Be slow to speak. Sometimes fights get started because one person responds intemperately or insensitively. While you should always be cautious about what you say, this is especially the case on Sunday morning.
• Ensure that you’re ready for church by preparing the night before. Is your sermon ready? Have you and your family been in prayer asking God to prepare your hearts? Is the car gassed up, clothes laid out, breakfast ready to go, and Sunday lunch planned? Conflicts often arise because a lack of spiritual and logistical preparation.
• If things get out of control—do what you can to regain control. Stop talking about it—hit the pause button, go to church, and pray that the means of grace will work and when you resume discussing the matter that it will be tempered by God’s grace.
• Under no circumstances should you carry the fight on in the car or especially at church. If you fight in the car, you’re almost guaranteed to make things worse. Never argue at church. This can undermine your ministry.
• In a worst-case scenario, you as the pastor should go to church alone and have your family stay home. This is a last-ditch situation and is quite undesirable, to say the least. In such cases you should give serious thought about not preaching. Moreover, in this case, whatever you do, don’t lie! Don’t tell people, “Oh, my wife wasn’t feeling well this morning.” That’s a bald face lie. And don’t try to pass it off as, “My wife wasn’t feeling well this morning,” which really means, “we had a barn-burner of a fight and she’s angry as a hornet right now.” Be honest and tell people, “My wife and I had a disagreement this morning, and it’s become an impediment to our worship. Please pray that we can resolve this as soon as possible.” It’s better to be honest but at the same time vague (you need not divulge every detail) rather than to lie to people at church. Because not only is such conduct unbefitting of a Christian, let alone a minister, it can set you up for significant failure in the future. One small lie to cover an argument starts to multiply like rabbits and before you know it your marriage could be in trouble but no one would ever know it because you’ve been covering it up with lies. If you get to the point where this type of scenario unfolds with any degree of regularity, then you definitely need to talk with your elders and contemplate some time off, perhaps a sabbatical, so you can tend to your marriage and family. In some cases, this may be a signal that you need to resign from the pastorate because you aren’t qualified to serve as a minister. As difficult as this may sound, there are one of two things wrong—you are either unqualified to serve because you can’t control your temper, or your family is out of control. Either way, both are reasons to be disqualified from the pastorate (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:7).
These are just a few suggestions, but the important principle to remember is, how can we go to worship Christ, the one who has forgiven us of so much, when we harbor bitterness and anger towards others in our family? Seek Christ in prayer and ask him to protect you from anger and foolish talk, but especially so on Sundays, the day when you have to minister to God’s sheep. If you’re not a minister, pray for your pastor! Pray that the Lord would protect him and his family and give them a peaceful home, especially on Sundays so he is free to serve the church by administering the means of grace.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Preach to Yourself
When I was regularly preparing my weekly sermons I often wondered whether I would make any type of impact upon my church. After all, a pastor will pour anywhere between 10-20 hours of preparation to preach for 30 minutes, give or take. Naturally, you want to know whether the people in the church are benefiting from your labors. Imagine a doctor who dispenses medication to patients but they never report any improvement with their ailments. But believe it or not, one of the most important people you need to preach to is yourself. Yes, you, the pastor.
Far too often I think some pastors believe they prepare their messages for the congregation, but at some level, they are beyond the need of the sermon. Perhaps they think they have few spiritual problems? Perhaps since they have spent so much time preparing the message, they don’t have much need for hearing it preached? Perhaps preachers don’t stop to give it much thought because they think that the idea of preaching to themselves sounds a bit, well, self-centered? Regardless of the reasons, you need to preach to yourself. Why?
I think pastors need to realize that they are just as much in need of the means of grace as anyone else. They aren’t beyond or above the need for God’s grace. Moreover, the pastor is always working (preaching) on Sunday, so it’s not like he’ll be able to go worship somewhere on Sunday and hear the preaching of the word. This means that when you preach, you need to pay attention to things that you are saying. Sometimes I think that pastors can go on autopilot. Perhaps you’ve done this before—when you’re singing a hymn you are reading and singing the words on the page, but for all intents and purposes, you’re not paying attention. Your mind wanders and if someone were to ask you to tell them what you just sang, you’d be at a loss for words. I think this can happen to preachers, whether you use notes, a manuscript, or preach from memory.
It’s important both to preach and to listen to the words that you’re saying, not only to ensure that you’re preaching a coherent message, but so that you too listen to the word preached. I know periodically that I have reflected upon a text as I’ve been preaching it, have been convicted (in the middle of the sermon), and have gone home to make amends with my family. How can I, for example, preach about the fruit of the Spirit (e.g., patience), and then lose my temper with my children? And as important and vital as sermon preparation is, and is itself a means of grace because you are reading the word of God, sermon preparation isn’t preaching.
So, pay attention when you preach. Don’t be so concerned with whether your congregation is listening that you forget to listen yourself. And this is something that is vital to all sorts of people in the church, not just pastors. Do you carefully listen to the sermon? When you teach your children the word of God, for example, are you listening to what you’re saying, or are you merely going through the motions? As you dispense, therefore, the living water of the gospel in your ministry, don’t forget to drink what you’re serving!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Ministry and Authority
I can remember that when I was first contemplating entering into the pastorate, I thought that I might be interested in pursuing youth ministry. I can’t tell you why, precisely, this was my first thought. I know that I had a number of excellent youth workers over the years make a significant impact upon my life, so perhaps their influence was factor. But as I’ve now been in the ministry for almost sixteen years, I’ve been surprised by the number of times that I encounter young men who have the same interest but subsequently they end up going into the pastorate. I have thought about this anecdotal trend and have wondered why youth ministry is a gateway, so to speak, into the pastorate.
Let me state up front that if you sense a call to youth ministry, then pursue it with a passion and zeal. God knows that we need dedicated pastors to serve, educate, and preach the gospel to the covenant youth in our churches. But on the other hand, as I have thought about my own transition and witnessed others take a similar path, I think that I’ve discovered one of the reasons why young men change their minds.
For myself, I think when I first gave thought to preaching, I had a hard time envisioning myself standing before a congregation and heralding the gospel. Within a congregation you typically have young people, but also their parents, who are often quite accomplished, as well as many others who are older, wiser, and more experienced in life. I think I naturally drifted towards the idea of youth work because it didn’t seem as daunting to interact with people who were close to being my peers. In other words, there wasn’t a cultural or life-experience gap. And in most cases, the youth to whom I may minister would likely be less experienced, wise, and knowledgeable than me. So naturally, I wouldn’t have a degree of perceived inferiority as I stood before them. I know that some would never look at youth ministry like this and would instead be filled with terror because so many of today’s youth are on the cutting edge of “cool” and as an out-of-step doofus adult, you might come across as really lame—like a mother trying to dress like her daughter, something that only elicits sighs, protestations, eye rolls, and the daughter walking at great distance from her mother. I wasn’t concerned with that dynamic.
The more I began to study in seminary and immerse myself in the word, I became convinced of two important facts. First, after studying the call of the prophets, I became convinced that I needed to be willing to serve wherever God called me and herald the gospel to whomever he placed before me. Could we ever imagine Isaiah responding with silence or conditions to Yahweh’s call, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us” (Isa. 6:8)? Can we imagine the prophet saying, “Umm . . . yeah . . . to whom shall I preach? Them? Uh, I’d rather preach to someone else.” Obviously, such things are absurd. Given this point, I settled in my mind to be open to go wherever God would call. Second, I realized that God’s message never rests in the authority and power of the messenger but solely in him. Yes, his messengers require a degree of sanctity, gifts, and calling (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-7), but the authority of the message rests upon the triune God. Think of the disciples—they were simple fishermen and yet they were called to be heralds of Christ’s gospel. If the message rested solely in their cultural and social standing, then the gospel would have likely failed. The cultural and intellectual elite of Israel would have looked down their long noses and sneered at the red-necked fishermen. Many first century Jews did in fact respond in this manner, but many did not. Many received the message but not because of the personal stature of the messenger but because of the authority and power that originated with the triune God, specifically the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit.
I was convicted that my initial thoughts about ministry were misguided. I was willing to minister to youth, not because I discerned a specific calling but because I was comfortable with the idea. I could confidently stand before someone who I thought I was above or socially superior. I realized that such confidence was misplaced and even sinful. It was a formula for disaster. I repented of the attitude and concluded that I would preach to whomever God called me to preach, and rather than rely upon my own social standing, I would instead rely upon the power of the Word and Spirit to make my preaching effective.
While this theological point is crucial for ministers, it’s also vital for anyone who desires to share the gospel. Never be fearful of the people you encounter. Never worry about your social standing or cultural inferiority, but instead rely upon the power and authority of God’s Word applied by the Holy Spirit to make your witnessing or preaching effective. In a word, rely upon Christ and not yourself.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Tyranny of the Last Book
One of my favorite times of the year is November, not because of Thanksgiving (I prefer cow to bird, personally—Turkey is the vanilla ice cream of the food world—bland, bland, bland, unless, of course, you dress it up with bacon and stuffing, then it’s ok). I love November because its theological book season! November is the month when publishers release a good percentage of their latest books because it’s when there are a glut of theological and scholarly conferences. I look forward to receiving the latest book catalog, peruse, mark, and then add them to my Amazon wish list just in time for Christmas. I look forward to books on the latest hot-topic, or topics of my own personal interest. As sick as it sounds, I really enjoy reading published doctoral dissertations (yes, I know, my wife says I need to seek help).
But one of the potential pitfalls with reading the latest and greatest theory or hypothesis is that your mind can become held captive to the idea. Sometimes, a book can be so fascinating that, literally, it keeps me up at night. I think about the ideas and then start to connect them with other doctrines or texts within the Scriptures. I remember, for example, reading a book that had an essay about the garden of Eden being the first earthly temple and was swept away by the idea. Such experiences can be excellent catalysts for theological reflection, meditation, preaching, and teaching. On the other hand, books can sometimes be so captivating that they hold your mind hostage in a bad way. You can take a half-baked idea and run with it. For example, I once read a book that claimed that Calvin did not believe that the serpent in the garden of Eden was a literal serpent but that it was a metaphorical symbol employed by the text. The idea sounded interesting but unlikely. Had I believed it and ran with it, I might have incorporated the idea in my teaching or preaching and seriously misled my congregation. Blessedly, by God’s grace, I exercised some caution, patiently researched the claim over a number of weeks, and concluded that the book’s claim was incorrect.
The point is, even though a book might captivate your mind, be cautious regarding how much you allow it to influence your ministry. Take the time to evaluate, weigh, carefully consider, and determine to what degree the idea is correct and beneficial. Sometimes the better part of wisdom is patience. Yes, he who hesitates is lost, and the early bird gets the worm. But you should also look before you leap and consider that the early worm gets eaten! Such patience and wisdom is valuable not only for pastors but for life. Don’t be carried away by the latest idea. Exercise wisdom with the ideas you choose to promote, teach, and preach.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Talk
As a pastor of a small church I had a number of young people who made the chronological transition from being children to becoming adults. I characterize this transition as chronological because that’s the way the greater portion of our culture defines it. People assume that because a young person is no longer a teenager, that he must be an adult. After all, there are a number of rites of passage that conveys the idea that a young person is no longer a child. At fifteen years old you can get your learner’s permit, at sixteen you can get your driver’s license, at eighteen you can serve and even die for your country and vote, and at twenty-one you can consume alcohol. What more beyond these milestones do you have to pass before you’re considered an adult? Well, I used to tell the young people in my church, especially those who were about to head off to college, that a number on a calendar and an age on a driver’s license did not make them adults. There are plenty of “adults” who have never grown up. If we shouldn’t define an adult merely by age, then what qualifies a person to be an adult?
As a minister, I naturally turned to the Scriptures to encourage young people to define their identity in terms of Christ, the true man, rather than according to our cultural mores. Christ, in contrast to Adam, defines the nature of humanity. Christ, the uncreated image of God, became a man and his life was marked by obedience and fidelity. The first Adam, though he was created in the image of God, was disobedient and unfaithful. If Christ, therefore, defines true humanity, then this means he defines what should characterize a mature, grown, adult, whether male or female.
I told the young people in the church that it didn’t matter whether they had money, a driver’s license, independence from their parents, a spouse, children, a house, etc. All of these things do not define what it means to be a man or woman of God, a mature adult who reflects the image of Christ. Rather, an adult should be marked by obedience to God’s revealed law. You should look at God’s law and ask whether you are seeking to be faithful to that which God has revealed. Are you pursuing the means of grace? Are you sitting under the regular preaching of the word? Are you pursuing greater conformity to Christ, repenting of your sin and seeking to manifest Christ’s holiness in word, thought, and deed? Are you pursuing this greater holiness through your union with Christ and the means of grace, or are you trying to do this under your own spiritual steam? Are you obedient?
Are you faithful? Yes, fidelity should mark our general disposition towards God’s law, taking into account, of course, our failings and repentance. In other words, I never told the young people they needed to be sinless. Rather, they needed to seek immediate remedy and take responsibility for their sin when they discovered it. But when I talked to them about fidelity, I had in mind the basic principle of keeping your word. Are you a person who stands by your commitments? Does your “yes” mean yes, and does your “no” mean no? Are you on time to events? Are you trustworthy? Can people count on you to do what you say you will do? Do you keep your commitments even at great personal cost? In other words, is your word binding even if it means that you’ll suffer financial burdens or great loss of time?
The more I have reflected upon what it means to be a mature adult, I have come to the conclusion that two of the chief defining characteristics of biblical adulthood are obedience and fidelity. Everything else, in my opinion, will fall into place if these two core characteristics are present. I know plenty of “adults” who don’t think very much of obedience and are untrustworthy. The irony is, as I would tell these young people, “You can be a much more mature adult than many people much older than you.” Adulthood, being a man or woman of God, is not defined by your age or the types of cultural activities in which you partake. Your adulthood is defined by Christ—never forget it!
Women & Theology: Parenting and the Providence of God
“A girl told me today that she wanted to stab me with a pen and watch the blood come out.” My mouth dropped and my eyes filled with tears. “What?!” I exclaimed, horrified. “Yes, Mom I tried to help two girls who were arguing and one of the girls said that to me.” Our then seven- year-old son had been attending public school since kindergarten, a decision that my husband and I came to prayerfully. We simply could not afford Christian school. That decision weighed heavily on me and though the public school he attends is one of the best around, I was still burdened by our choice. Immediately my mind rushed to self-condemnation, doubt and anxiety. “It’s all my fault," I thought. If my son were in a Christian school, this would never happen.
As God’s providence would have it that night, our family devotions were on the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” From the time he was a child, Aidan evidenced faith. At dinner that night we talked about what peacemaking really looks like. We spoke together of the way Jesus made peace, by the blood of His cross. We spoke of how we can face a harsh and unloving world around us without retaliating and fighting back.
Aidan told me at bedtime, “Mom, this girl must be going through a lot to say something like that.” We prayed together that night for his heart, for her heart, and for wisdom from above. Aidan wanted to go to school to make peace with this little girl and become her friend. I was touched he loved Jesus enough to care about the girl who wronged him.
But I still questioned our decision. Had we been wrong to send him to public school? Were we to “blame?” The peace of Christ flooded my heart when I spoke to the teacher about the incident. I had been praying for weeks and months for an opportunity to witness to this teacher. As we spoke on the phone, I told her that our Bible reading that night was from the Sermon on the Mount. I explained that Aidan wanted to forgive the little girl and show God’s love to her by making peace. The teacher said she had never heard a response like that.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says this in Chapter 5 “Of Providence”:
God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy.
God rules, upholds and directs his creation. He rules over our choice of putting our son in public school. He rules over the heart of my son. He rules over the actions of the little girl. He rules over the teacher assigned to my son that year. And providentially, he ruled over the choice of the devotional that night.
Seminary taught me of God’s character more than anything else. It showed me that I worship a powerful, perfect and Holy God who ordains all for my good and His glory. I worship a God who rules over me in such a way that not a hair can all from my head without Him knowing it.
Does that excuse me from responsibility? Absolutely not! But it does and should move me away from anxious fear to godly trust. I can trust, in fact, that God allowed this sad incident to show my son that though this world is not “safe” ultimately, He is!
Myriam (Jones) Hertzog graduated from WSCAL in 2001. She now lives in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to raising 3 boys (8, 5 and 5 months), she works part-time at CCEF as their Development Coordinator.
This entry is part of our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. Check out other posts in the series here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Wisdom and Tough Choices
As I have grown older, and hopefully more mature (there are some doubts as I look at my personal collection of 45 Star Wars Lego clone figures lined up on my desk that my children may not, under any circumstance, touch), I have concluded that many young ministers see everything in black and white. On the other hand, older, mature, seasoned ministers see things in black, white, and grey. Young newly minted ministers learn about wonderful truths and amazing doctrines and they want to ensure that they and others around them unswervingly adhere to the hard line of orthodoxy. It’s personally amusing to me to watch a timid and humble lamb of a ministerial candidate who hopes and prays for leniency in his own ordination exam turn into a ferocious sharply-fanged lion of a minister who expects pinpoint accuracy as he sits in judgment over someone else’s ordination exam. As time passes, however, these same sharp-fanged predators, always on the hunt for heresy and the slightest deviation from the truth, began to age, mature, and recognize that there is another category within their arsenal of judgment—wisdom.
Without a shadow of a doubt most everyone in the church understands the categories of right and wrong. You read the law and recognize that there are certain things you should not do, and you hopefully recognize that the negative command (thou shalt not) implies the opposite (you shall). For example, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” also implies that you should love your wife! But in between right and wrong, between the law of God and the Christian life is a large grey area that calls for wisdom. Wisdom is a massive gaping hole in the corporate life of the church. People know what the law says, and many therefore want specific instructions for every circumstance in life. If you read the Mishna (the written Jewish oral law), for example, you find very specific instructions for what constitutes a violation of the Sabbath (the fourth commandment). You are not allowed to pick fleas off your coat—this is work and is therefore prohibited. If a beggar comes to the door, you may not extend your hand over the threshold to give him some money—this is work and is therefore prohibited. But! If the beggar extends his hand over the threshold, this is allowed because you have not extended your own hand over the threshold. The Mishna, as you can imagine, is massive—it’s like an old Yellow Pages phone book (google it if you don’t know what that looks like). But even as massive as the Mishna is, it can’t possibly account for every circumstance in life. This is why God has given us the category of wisdom. When do you answer a fool according to his folly? When do you refrain from answering a fool lest he be wise in his own eyes (Prov. 26:4-5)? The answer calls for wisdom. This is a grey area in life, if you will.
In life and ministry, the older you get you hopefully begin to realize that many decisions in life call for wisdom, and this is especially true when it comes to evaluating ministerial candidates or determining whether a doctrinal belief is orthodox. Of course there are some false teachings that are immediately out of bounds. If a candidate denies the deity of Christ, for example, it’s a no-brainer. You don’t vote for his ordination. But what if a candidate comes before the presbytery who was once previously married and divorced, and it’s not very clear at what precise moment he became a Christian. In other words, was he divorced before he became a Christian or after? How long has he been married to his present spouse? What were the circumstances of his first divorce? For some ministers, there is no question—divorce, regardless of the circumstances disqualifies a man from office. The details don’t matter—with the ferocity of a jungle lion they rip away at the moral dilemma and make their decision without hesitation. On the other hand, many might realize that the question is difficult and an immediate answer doesn’t present itself right away. This scenario calls for wisdom.
Where is wisdom found? Well, quite simply, in Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Col. 1:28). We must prayerfully consider the question and make a judgment call. And even then, you might make a decision and then after years return to the event in your mind’s eye and recognize you made the wrong choice. I think older ministers have lived through enough difficult decisions that they recognize that life is full of complexities and the law does not directly address every circumstance in life.
Sometimes you stand between two difficult options, like Solomon before the two women who claimed to the mother of the same child, and there is no playbook. This doesn’t mean that God has left you helpless. Rather, he has given you the wisdom of Christ. Therefore, seek Christ! Pray for wisdom. Draw near to Christ and ask that he give you wisdom to make the right decision. Also recognize that not every decision in life is black and white. Learn the lesson early and follow the lead of older and wiser ministers. Don’t be to eager to hack away at a tough decision like it’s black and white when it may call for the scalpel of wisdom and a steady prayerful hand to make a careful incision. This is good counsel both for the aspiring minister, young newly minted ministers, and anyone, really, who finds themselves impaled upon the horns of a dilemma.
Women & Theology: Book Review of Extravagant Grace
Barbara Duguid, Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013).
I have been a Christian for a long time, and I still am not a very holy person. I sin constantly. The short list of sins that I struggle with daily includes selfishness, laziness, envy, anger, hatred, self-righteousness, and pride. I am sick to death of these sins. They hurt other people, and they are embarrassing (and often in my sinful pride the latter concerns me more than the former). And even worse, there is a sense that I shouldn’t be struggling with these same sins on a regular basis. If the Holy Spirit is at work in my life, shouldn’t I be sinning less? Isn’t that what sanctification means? If so, am I even a Christian when sin is still so present in my life?
These crucial questions are dealt with in Barbara Duguid’s book, Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness. She pulls no punches, frankly acknowledging the presence of both the Holy Spirit and lots of sin in her life. Thus she concludes: “Let’s be honest: if the chief work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is to make Christians more sin-free, then he isn’t doing a very good job” (30).
But assuming that the Holy Spirit is good at what he does, if he chiefly isn’t trying to make me more sin-free, then what is he trying to do? A few paragraphs later she answers, “God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin. This makes sense out of our experience as Christians. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to make you more humble and dependent on Christ, more grateful for his sacrifice and more adoring of him as a wonderful Savior, then he might be doing a very, very good job even though you still sin every day” (30-31).
Duguid draws from the letters of John Newton (author of the song Amazing Grace), who knew a lot about amazing grace and how it applies to this sanctification business. She sums up one of his insights: “Through his ongoing struggles with indwelling sin, the maturing believer will spend many years learning that he is more sinful than he ever imagined, in order to discover that he is indeed far more loved than he ever dared hope” (61). Throughout the book Duguid shares her own struggles with indwelling sin and how they have helped her understand the grace of God in ever deeper ways. Her confessions are so honest that they are a little shocking, not because the rest of us do not struggle in those ways, but because few are brave enough to admit it in a public forum. Her honesty enables the reader to admit that he or she is just as terrible, but God’s grace in Christ extends even to the sins we hate admitting we still do. This combination of blunt honesty and solid theology results in an extremely encouraging book.
So if you are a Christian who gets frustrated with sanctification, I highly recommend this book. Duguid shows that God is using even your struggles with sin for your good and his glory, and that is an extravagant grace indeed.
Anna Smith graduated from WSC in 2013 with a Master of Arts in biblical studies. She now serves as the admissions coordinator at the seminary. She is very much looking forward to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
This post is part of our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can find Barbara Duguid's contribution to the series here, and all previous articles here. Come back next Wednesday for more!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Slow Down!
As a former church planter I was desperate to establish my congregation. In the technical speak of the Book of Church Order, I wanted to see the mission work I pastored become particularized as a congregation. The difference between a mission work and particular congregation is that the latter has a permanent duly elected pastor, not evangelist, and a duly elected session (or consistory), a group of ruling elders. In my particular denomination, our Book of Church Order recommends that you have at least two ruling elders and a pastor, which together constitutes a session and enables a mission work to become a particular congregation. I wanted to move my mission work as smartly as I could to becoming a particular congregation. But our regional home missionary, the person responsible for overseeing, directing, and starting mission works in the presbytery (who was also a retired plumber) had some very wise advice. The plumber told me: “Don’t be too quick to ordain elders. In the rush to become particularized you might ordain unqualified men. You might end up laying hands on your worst problem!”
As I thought about the plumber’s counsel, and even reflected upon it over the years, I have realized how crucial his advice is. Time and time again I have seen it happen—a new family comes into the church and they seem to exude and shine with the glimmer and glitz of wisdom, patience, and holiness. The children seem to be well-behaved, the wife seems to respect her husband, and the husband seems to have his act together. I remember talking on the phone with a prospective family that seemed to have all of their ducks in a row. My mind began to run riot and I thought this could be one of our next elders! But then the plumber’s advice came to mind and I resolved myself to be hopeful but patient—to wait and see what would happen. Blessedly, our Book of Church Order recommends that an elder candidate be a member of the church for one year before he is considered eligible for office. This year-long waiting period gives the pastor, session, and congregation a chance to evaluate and see the life, conduct, and theology of the prospective elder-candidate in action.
Well, let me tell you what a difference a year can make! I soon became aware of another piece of advice from another senior member of our congregation: “Not all that glitters is gold.” In other words, as I was able to learn more about this man and his family, I discovered that all wasn’t what it should be for him to be an elder candidate. In fact, this particular family ended up creating a faction within the church that took a number of years to fix. Needless to say, if we had ordained him, it would have been a disaster for the church and a huge headache for me as the pastor.
Don’t be too quick to lay hands on a man. Take the time to determine whether he truly meets the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-7. You don’t want to ordain your worst problem. Listen to the plumber!
Arminius Book Review by Dr. Godfrey
Dr. Godfrey, President of WSC, has just had a book review of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford: OUP, 2012) by Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall. This is one of the latest books on Arminius, and should be consulted when doing research on this famous Dutch theologian. But Dr. Godfrey notes some important short-comings in the book. You can find his review here.
Women & Theology: The Importance of Being Wrong
I have never liked being wrong. However, I have reason to be thankful for multiple experiences of being blindingly, flamboyantly, and gloriously mistaken. I was raised in a devout Christian home where we were trained to be students of God’s Word and defenders of the truth. So, when I got to college and discovered that there were Christians who believed different things, I went into attack mode. I knew they couldn’t possibly be right, and it was my job to get them to see the light. For four long, conflict-filled years, I fought valiantly for my cause, only to have to admit defeat in the end. God finally helped me to lay down the weapons and soak in the remarkable truths which I have come to know as “The Doctrines of Grace.”
I know that theology matters because for me there is a before and after. I know what it felt like to live out of incorrect doctrine, and I know what an enormous difference truth has made. Before I understood election, I was proud of the fact that I believed in Jesus and chose to follow him. I witnessed energetically to high school classmates and made many enemies. Election melted my prideful heart and showed me that my faith was a gift from God and nothing I could be proud of. I had been wrong! I began to see that I had nothing to give to God and would never have chosen him had he not chosen me. The doctrine of election made me a more gentle, loving, and humble person, still eager to speak of the gospel, but joyfully confident that only God can give life to dead souls, and that he will always have his way. What a joy it was to discover that God had not placed the intolerable burden of anyone’s eternal welfare on my young shoulders!
Waking up from my former hazy dream of belligerent certainty was an incredibly valuable experience. It showed me that I am prone to being wrong and being sure I’m right. Whether we put this under the category of total depravity or spiritual blindness, if I was wrong once, I can be wrong again. I am prone to self-deception, particularly about myself, and this particular truth must inform every conversation I engage in, everything I say, and all that I write. Our fallen human tendency to be wrong, even as Christians, is thus an important theological doctrine, one that every theologian should consider daily. Although I am a new creation, I am still a deeply flawed and sinful person who habitually twists information which I receive and transmit to my own benefit. This truth should cause me to tread lightly as I make my way through life. I can be wrong; I can crush people with my overconfidence and self-assurance; therefore, I need to navigate gently through the lives and hearts of others, knowing that I desperately need the insight and wisdom of others, even those whom I am tempted to write off as obviously “wrong.”
This is just one example of how theology informs every minute of my day in every corner of life. From parenting, to driving down the road, to grocery shopping, to writing the liturgy for our worship services and training Bible study leaders, all of my actions inevitably flow out of what I believe about God and about myself. Studying God’s Word and enjoying him therefore changes the landscape of my life and affects every relationship and every decision, as I gradually grow towards maturity through an increasingly firm grasp on the truth.
Barb Duguid is the wife of Iain Duguid who taught Old Testament at WSC for 10 years. She is the mother of 6 adult kids who pine for the days when WSC was their backyard and playground. Barb and Iain have planted their third church in Grove City, PA, where Iain teaches on the faculty of Grove City College and pastors Christ Presbyterian Church (ARP). Barb works as a counselor on staff at the church, writes the weekly liturgy for worship services, and trains women to teach Bible studies. Barb has recently published her first book, Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness, and is currently working on other writing projects.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. Come back next week for a review of Barb Duguid's book, Extravagant Grace!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Listen to Sermons
When students cross the threshold and enter the hallowed halls of seminary, those who enroll in the Master of Divinity program usually have one big goal in mind—they want to be preachers. This is a perfectly natural and understandable goal, one to which all MDiv students should aspire. Seminaries, therefore, invest a good amount of time in the curriculum training students how to exegete the Scriptures, prepare, and deliver a sermon. Preaching courses, for example, focus upon whether the student was faithful to the Scriptures, whether his sermon had a clear structure, whether his illustrations were appropriate and helpful, and whether his delivery was smooth. All students struggle with different elements of sermon delivery, and this is to be expected. While the ability to preach is a God-given gift, this doesn’t mean that the gift can’t be honed or improved.
One of the ways that students try to short-circuit the learning process is by listening to sermons by well-known preachers. I know of ministers who do this as well. On the one hand, listening to sermons isn’t a crime and can be a spiritually beneficial thing. On the other hand, if you’re listening to a sermon as a substitute for your own necessary exegetical spadework, or because you don’t want to meditate upon the text to develop your own material and illustrations, listening to a sermon can be a bad thing. I was once at a meeting of presbytery (more than a decade ago) where a fellow colleague was delivering the opening devotional. One of my colleagues sitting next to me leaned over and whispered in a concerned tone, “I heard this very same sermon several weeks ago at a Banner of Truth conference.” It seems that my colleague had “borrowed” the sermon in its entirety and didn’t alert anyone to this important detail. In other instances I have taught a preaching course where students copied the style, mannerisms, and delivery of popular preachers. Students in the class would write on their comments sheet: “This sermon was a knock-off of John Piper’s style,” or, “This sermon seemed like an homage to Kevin DeYoung.” In all honesty, I can say that I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I know of one preacher who seemed to make a regular habit of quoting Beatles lyrics in an insightful and witty way. So I tried to do the same one week—my effort feel somewhat flat. I had someone comment, “I’ve never heard of the expression of ‘keeping your face in a jar by the door.’” I thought the lyric worked well but I suppose some in my church never heard of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” I learned a valuable lesson that day. Don’t listen to sermons.
I think all too often young preachers want to make their mark, be successful, and have people walk away enthralled with the theological delicacies that they’ve feasted upon. Young preachers seek homiletical glitz and glam over fidelity to the Scriptures and the gospel. That day when my use of the Beatles failed epically, I was reminded of the importance of being myself and doing my best to preach the text. If you listen to sermons for personal edification, fine. But if you’re listening to sermons because you want to borrow someone else’s preaching mojo, then turn it off. Exegete the text, meditate upon it, read broadly to develop your own illustrations, and most importantly, be yourself. To borrow an analogy from the world of food, I would rather faithfully serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes week-in and week-out and know that people are being spiritually nourished, than try unsuccessfully to pull off steak and lobster each week. You can all too easily get into a mentality of worrying about trying to top your last sermon rather than faithfully preaching the text and relying upon the Spirit to apply it.
By no means am I advocating slothfulness in the pulpit. Work hard to prepare your sermons, but be yourself in the pulpit, and most importantly, preach the text—preach the gospel of Christ.
Women & Theology: The Joy of Being Insignificant
Is it unfavorable for a woman to be theologically trained, especially going as far as gaining a master's degree for it? I had a purpose for choosing to be trained at WSC. I wished to translate theological books into the Japanese language in order that more valuable and updated publications may be introduced to Japanese believers. When I was just about to finish my study at Westminster in 2011, I was full of hope for how God would use me back home in Japan. My church had created a position for me to work as a full-time staff member because of my skills in translation and newly gained perspective on theology. But things went nothing like I expected.
I suppose not many WSC graduates go back to a “non-Reformed” church after graduation, but that was my situation. Although my home church so generously supported me during my study and was happy to have me back, the knowledge I gained was not really welcomed. They wanted a full-time laborer, but not a “reformer.” I struggled with not having the opportunity to make even a small use of my experience at seminary and having no voice in theological disagreements. If I were a man, this might have been different. Moreover, the church was going through a rough time and there was a split among the congregation. My conviction for Reformed beliefs grew stronger after having a wonderful experience at WSC, but it brought disharmony when I went back home. At around the same time, God even closed the door for translation work also.
I was very disappointed, as my post-seminary life did not go as I imagined. However God's thoughts are indeed beyond my thoughts. He gave me new roles in which to work as a wife and a mother. I got married a month after returning to Japan, and then had a baby within a year. What a change from being a student!
Although it’s been only 2 years being married, I am experiencing the joy of being a helper to my husband. Mostly that means to serve behind him and let him shine out in the world at his best. People see him, but not me. I daily learn to be humble, and I am of course far from being a perfect wife yet, but serving becomes a pleasure if I am confident that my husband loves me. Paul teaches in Ephesians 5:33 that husbands are to love their wives and wives are to obey their husbands. I think that order is essential. When the former is done, the latter comes naturally. God initially created a woman to be a helper of a man. I suppose I used to have a desire to be significant in church, in a translation career, and any other roles I might be given. But now I am discovering to be content and joyful when I remain unseen.
Having said that, I of course wish to share the knowledge I gained at seminary, and still want to pursue a translation career if the opportunity arises. Yet until that time, God confirms to me daily the value of theological study and knowing the Lord in such depth. Teaching children the truth of the gospel is definitely one of those ways. It is wonderful if women succeed in their professions or in the academic field. But for now, in this season of my life, I believe God intends to teach me a valuable lesson to equip me for future work.
Lastly, I hope that those who read this brief post would remember Japanese churches in their thoughts and prayers. Please join me in praying that believers in Japan may have a deeper desire to seek the truth of the gospel, to glorify God and enjoy him to the fullest.
Nozomi Kusunoki graduated in 2011 with master of arts in biblical studies, and she now lives in Osaka, Japan. Here is her student profile.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. For more posts in this series go here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Sermon Illustrations
Sermon illustrations are one of the most challenging aspects of preaching, in my opinion. I haven’t done a survey of preaching professors or textbooks, but I suspect that they would all say that preachers should employ good illustrations to help the congregation grasp the point you’re making in your sermon. As important as illustrations are, there are many pitfalls related to the pursuit of the perfect illustration.
The personal story illustration. Personal stories can be effective illustrations, but they can also be counterproductive. I was seated in a congregation as I listened to the preacher open his message only to hear a member of the church sigh. I later asked this person why he did this and he told me, “I don’t like the fact that I have to sit through a ten minute story about the preacher’s personal life before I get to hear about the text of the sermon.”
The overly successful illustration. Preachers sit in their studies and meditate upon the text, and then, like a bolt of lightening, it hits them—they think of the perfect illustration. They use it that Sunday and the only problem is—it’s the only thing people remember about the sermon. They remember every detail about the illustration but fail to remember the sermon or how it relates to the sermon.
The pointless illustration. Sometimes preachers employ an illustration and, in and of itself, it seems to be fine, but in reality it doesn’t really fit the message. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The funny illustration. Humor in a sermon is best used strategically and sparingly. Humor can be useful at times to give the congregation a much-needed emotional break from an intense subject, for example. But on the other hand, if you get the congregation rolling in the aisles, you may have distracted them from the text, and it may be too difficult to reconnect them to it given their laughter.
The absent illustration. It could be that some preachers just plow through the text and never employ an illustration of any kind. We learn all about the intricacies of first-century dress and headwear but have no earthly idea how it bears upon twenty-first century life.
The illustration as the sermon. Some illustrations are so elaborate that they engulf the entire message. The preacher gives the equivalent of a parable but never explains its meaning or connection to the text.
The cheddar illustration. According to my wife, this is my chief sermon illustration crime. Some of my sermon illustrations are simply cheesy. Cheesiness, I suspect, is in the eye of the beholder, but ask yourself whether your illustration is cheesy. Is the illustration socially awkward? Does it paint you or others in an awkward light?
The family illustration. You may think it’s ok to tell your congregation about your family’s faults and foibles, or brag about their skills and accomplishments, but exercise caution. Check first with your family before you talk about them in the pulpit—maybe they’d prefer to remain unmentioned. And as proud as you are of your family, perhaps it’s best not to brag about them from the pulpit.
The friend illustration. I told my friends never to hang around pastors because sooner than later they’d end up as a sermon illustration. Just because you went mountain bike riding with someone in your church and they lost their lunch after climbing a big hill (true story), doesn’t mean that you should mention them in Sunday’s sermon.
These are but a few examples of different sermon illustration pitfalls. But just because there are pitfalls doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. By all means, illustrate your message, but do so wisely. Be cautious about telling personal stories. Does your congregation have to listen to your life’s story? Do they know more about you through your preaching than they do about Jesus? Meditate and pray over your sermon text so that the Spirit would assist you in developing effective illustrations. The best illustrations are virtually transparent—the auditor hears and understands the illustration but it fits like the glove on a hand—the hand still has mobility and function and isn’t hampered by the glove.
Illustrate your message with stories from the rest of the Scriptures. Not only does this amplify the truth of your message, it reminds or teaches people about other portions of the Bible, and you’re dealing with inspired narratives which means you’re guaranteed to highlight rather than obscure the truth if you handle the text responsibly. As I said above, read broadly. Read the news, read novels, read history, read good fiction. This will expose you to a treasury of illustration material. Keep an illustration journal if you need to—write down good illustrations for use later on. I also think some of the best illustrations are those that are connected to nature and common life. If you talk about unique experiences that few know, then you’re likely to put distance between your congregation and the text. But if you employ illustrations that most can identify with, then you’ll bring them closer to the text.
Review: Logos Bible Software and Reformed Resources
J. V. Fesko
The digital age is upon us and that means that there is a publishing revolution that is afoot. It used to be that seminary students and ministers had to make a lot of space on their bookshelves for all of the tomes they wanted to own, but with the creation of the e-book, all of a sudden things have changed. What once took up a lot of space now sits on a computer hard drive, and what once cost a lot of money, now costs a fraction of the price. The problem, however, has been if you wanted to build a library, you were on your own. This is especially so with regard to quality Reformed resources, but now Logos Bible Software has created a new series of packages that are aimed specifically at the connoisseur of Reformed theological literature.
If you’re familiar with the Logos tiered package system, the Reformed libraries they sell offer a number of different levels of resources. In the Base Package, for example, you get the Logos Bible software, which has a wealth of general resources for studying the Scriptures, as well as Outlines of Theology (A. A. Hodge), the Westminster Standards, Institutes (Calvin), Systematic Theology (Hodge), Dogmatic Theology (Shedd), the works of John Bunyan, and the works of Jonathan Edwards. If you go with the Reformed Platinum package, you not only receive the aforementioned works, but a slew of other excellent theological resources including, Herman Witsius (11 vols.), the Summa Theologia of Aquinas in English and Latin (30 vols.), Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises (8 vols.), the works of John Owen (24 vols.), which includes his 8 volume commentary on Hebrews, the works of Charles Hodge (29 vols.), a collection from B. B. Warfield (20 vols.), the select works of Geerhardus Vos (14 vols.), a collection from Louis Berkhof (15 vols.), J. H. Thornwell (10 vols.), A. A. Hodge (11 vols.), Thomas Goodwin (12 vols.), Robert Dabney (11 vols.), Abraham Kuyper (3 vols.), and many others. In fact, there are too many resources to list in this review.
The natural question, of course, is, What does this all cost?
The Reformed Starter Package costs $294.95 and the Reformed Platinum costs $2,149.95. Yes, at first glance whatever excitement you may have experienced in reading about the available resources might be doused by the seemingly weighty price for the top-tier package. There are several considerations, however, to keep in mind.
First, if you added the price of all of the resources you get in the Platinum package, it totals approximately $30,000. A similar cost difference appears for the Starter package, with an approximate value of $3,700 if you purchased them separately in print.
Second, there is the space factor. You might be able to spend a lot of money and save some by buying used books, but where might you put them all? Space might not be a great consideration for every minister, but I have had missionaries approach me before asking about what digital resources they might purchase and use. Why? Space is at a premium and it is often very cost prohibitive to ship hundreds of books overseas and hope they make it. I have often been frustrated when I travel. I have research I want to do but no ability to carry large quantities of books with me. With a digital library, I no longer have to worry about weight limits or the size of my carry-on. It’s all at my fingertips on my computer. Moreover, one of the plusses of the Logos system is that they have Android and iOS mobile apps and a web-based program that allows you to access your library from a variety of devices.
Third, while I like holding a book in my hand, as most bibliophiles do, there are certain advantages to digital books have over their paperbound ancestors. One of the best features is the ability to search vast quantities of material and get instantaneous results. You can search, for example, across Hodge, Owen, Calvin, Thornwell, Toplady, Knox, Goodwin, Witsius, Aquinas, for the occurrence of a specific term or use of a Scripture reference. One of the added benefits is that every Logos book is meta-tagged so that specific terms, such as Hebrew and Greek vocabulary, can be quickly found. Logos does not simply scan and dump books into an electronic file. To search so many works for specific data would take hours of flipping through books. True, just like the paperbound books, you have to sort through the information to determine what is relevant, but searching, marking, highlighting, and quoting is significantly assisted by the digital format.
Fourth, the most unique, and strongest feature of the Logos system, one that sets it above all other formats, is the access to new resources, such as Geerhardus Vos. Logos has started a new translation project of Vos’s Dogmatics, a five-volume work that has never before been available in English translation. In fact, obtaining a copy of the original Dutch edition is extremely hard given its rarity. But if you read Dutch, you can even purchase the original edition in digital format. I think this aspect of the Logos philosophy makes investing in the Logos system worthwhile all on its own. I have had the opportunity to read volumes 1 and 2 of Vos’s Dogmatics and have found it fascinating and insightful, and unavailable through any other medium.
These features make consideration and entry into the digital library market a useful and beneficial decision. This is true not only for the seminarian looking to build his library, but also for the seasoned scholar who wants to increase his efficiency in conducting research. Note, there is no replacement for reading texts from cover to cover, but finding key passages and gaining access to valuable but previously unavailable resources is definitely a plus. For those who have concerns about the costs, there are several options, such as purchasing the base package and building your library with specialized bundles. Another option to consider is that pastors should approach their churches and encourage them to invest in the library for their personal study. While, $2,149.95 is a large amount for a personal budget, it’s a much smaller amount for a church budget. Churches should consider, therefore, investing in this system for the benefit and edification of their pastor’s continuing education, from which they benefit on a weekly basis through the pastor’s preaching and teaching.
In my opinion, digital libraries will never replace printed books. And I for one still like to own a dead wood copy of a book if I can. But for ease of access, portability, efficiency for searching, and even access to new valuable resources, the Logos Reformed digital library offerings is the best system presently on the market. For more information, click here.
Women & Theology: Counseling
When thinking about how attending Westminster Seminary California has impacted my life, many situations came to mind. Should I talk about how I learned to bring grace into raising my children? Should I discuss how I used Reformed doctrine to write a children’s curriculum at the church where my husband is the Youth and Family Pastor? Or should I write about I deal with difficult situations in my husband’s ministry? Although all of these situations are important, I decided to write about how my education at WSC, along with my biblical counseling certification through CCEF, has impacted the young women at the church we attend.
My husband is the Youth and Family Pastor at a PCA in Houston, Texas. Because he ministers to the youth of the church on a daily basis, I have been called on to minister to the young women of the church on many occasions. One such woman came to me after she was a part of a high school women’s small group I led. She struggled with panic attacks after an injury she sustained. The panic attacks were getting worse and she didn’t know how to deal with them anymore. She was at her lowest point and didn’t know who to turn to, so she came to me, begging for some relief from her constant pain and panic. Although I had never counseled someone who dealt with panic attacks, I was able to meet with her on a weekly basis and delve into the heart of where the attacks were coming from. With the training from CCEF, I learned how to talk to her and search out the sin issues in her life.
However, my training at Westminster also provided an important aspect of my counseling with this young woman. The professors at Westminster helped me to see the whole picture of the Bible. We aren’t to look at each individual book as a separate entity, given with a separate purpose. Instead, we are to look at the Bible as one story, the story of God’s interactions with man and His redemption found in Jesus. I was able to show this young woman how her story, albeit difficult at the moment, could fit into the story of God and His redemption. Even though she was suffering, God’s children are called to suffer, with the ultimate suffering found in Jesus’ life and death. Because He suffered for us, our suffering has an end date and we will one day live a life free from the pain of this world. In the meantime, while this young woman was struggling with panic attacks day in and day out, she could look to Jesus who understood her pain, who walked with her through her pain, and who would be there with her on the other side. Her pain was refining her like gold in the fire, purging the sins of her heart and making her more like Christ. Without Westminster, I wouldn’t be able to articulate such an amazing truth to someone who was desperate in her pain.
I know many people disparaged my desire to attend Westminster, especially because, as a woman, I was not going to go into the ordained ministry. Yet I have used my education every day, both in the church and outside of the church. Not a day goes by where I do not thank God for allowing me to attend such a wonderful seminary and learn such deep truths of the Bible from an amazing faculty.
Katie (Wagenmaker) Terrell graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies in 2008. She married fellow WSC graduate John Terrell (MDiv '08) in 2010 and together they moved to Katy, Texas where John took a call as a Youth and Family Pastor at Christ Church PCA. They welcomed daughter Esther Ruth to their family in May of 2012 and just recently welcomed Josiah Daniel in September, 2013. When Katie's not busy chasing kids or changing diapers, she likes to help John in his ministry by counseling the young ladies of the church or writing children's ministry curriculum.
This is is the latest installment of our Wednesday series in Women & Theology. Click here to read the other articles!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Jaundiced Eyes
As a pastor you always hope that come Sunday morning you’ll see new faces walk through the door. You hope that the Lord will bring new families to build the church, but more importantly, that people from the community will want to visit, especially unbelievers. Evangelism is, after all, one of the key tasks of the church. But one of the things that you have to guard against is having jaundiced eyes. What do I mean? Well you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “He looks at the world through rose-colored glasses,” which means that a person always sees things in a positive light no matter what. The opposite can also be true, especially for a pastor.
One of my senior colleagues once asked his predecessor (a long-time pastor of nearly fifty years), what, in his ministry, was he grateful for. This pastor responded, “I’m grateful for the families the Lord kept away from the church.” This answer, to say the least, was quite shocking at first. But after further reflection, my colleague realized how true it is. There are many families that can be quite destructive to the life of a congregation, whether because they gossip, spread discontent, or perhaps become a thorn in the pastor’s side for various and sundry reasons. It’s one thing to be grateful that the Lord protected your congregation but entirely another when you look at visitors as potential problems.
I have to admit that after a series of drawn-out counseling problems at my church, ones that drained my energy, patience, and time, I can remember looking at visitors as liabilities rather than blessings: “Great . . . another family . . . I wonder what emotional and theological baggage they’re carrying.” Each time this thought crossed my mind, I prayed for the Lord to forgive me. After all, I had prayed that the Lord would bring new families, he answered my prayers, and now here I was complaining about his response.
The truth of the matter is that pastors are sinful like anyone else in the church, and we have feet of clay. Hence, whether you’re in the pastorate or seeking to be, pray that the Lord would keep you from having jaundiced eyes. You don’t want to exemplify the running cliché that I’ve heard about pastoral ministry: “Ministry is great, I just can’t stand the people.” The people are your ministry! You preach to the people, you talk with the people, you counsel with the people. Remember the little child’s hand pantomime? Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and here’s all the people. When you encounter people with problems and when they eat up your time, rob you of sleep, or weigh you down with their questions, rejoice. Rejoice because it means that God is at work in your midst and he is using you as an instrument in his hands to apply the living Word of God to the lives of his saints. If no one ever had a problem, then why would they ever need to come to church? Remember Christ’s words, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Women & Theology: Discipleship in South Asia
“So… if God clothed Adam and Eve with skins, he had to kill that animal. That must have been the first sacrifice. Does that mean Jesus was the last sacrifice?”
“The story of Abraham [and Isaac] is not about Abraham’s wonderful faith. It is really about the Creator’s love and faithfulness.”
“Before the WDP [Women’s Discipleship Program], we were like dry branches. Now, we are full of leaves.”
While I was in seminary, an opportunity arose for me to serve in South Asia for a summer. My denominational missions organization was involved with training men to pastor church plants in rural villages. They quickly learned that most of the members of these small congregations are women, and because of cultural stigmas, the women were not encouraged to study, learn, and grow in their faith. The organization invited me to do some research on how we could teach and encourage these women. Coming from a South Asian background, I was thrilled about the opportunity to use my education in a country dear to my heart.
As I prepared to go overseas that summer, my professors supported and encouraged me in ways I did not expect. Many gave me opportunities to pursue further studies about the history of missions in South Asia and women on the mission field. I even had the chance to develop a discipleship curriculum for South Asian women, and I was eager to test it out. When I finally arrived and spent time with those women, however, my research revealed that my curriculum prototype was entirely unusable. The content was too heavy, it was poorly organized, and it certainly would not survive translation, among other mistakes. But seminary gave me the opportunity to make those mistakes under the guidance of extremely patient and wise pastor-scholars. I’m glad they did not let me give up so easily.
As my education continued, I learned that historically, new church member candidates began their study by learning the Apostles’ Creed. Eventually, I rearranged my inadequate materials and developed what is now known as the “Women’s Discipleship Program,” a curriculum based on the Apostles' Creed that covers the basic idea of redemptive history. The program was tested in South Asia during the summer of 2012 and is still being used to train women today. The Lord has made it tremendously successful, and I praise him for his kindness.
The quotes above are from the first group of women who attended the program. Each of them completed the program with a certificate of training. In an honor and shame culture marked by oppressive patriarchy, receiving a certificate of achievement is so much more than getting a piece of paper. That certificate symbolizes her ability to learn, qualifies her to teach, and gives her confidence to do these things. In fact, a year after the program, I returned to South Asia and learned that one young lady who attended the program now teaches over 200 women in local churches. Although she was shy and didn’t like to speak in front of people, what she learned through the WDP and the certificate she received empowered her to share the gospel and the story of Scripture with all those around her.
Actually, what the WDP did for this woman is exactly what seminary did for me. Through seminary, the Lord gave me the tools to write, the confidence to teach, and the theological education that would change my life forever. It’s more than just a degree. My professors invested in me, and the Lord used my education to influence pockets of new believers in South Asia. Together, both my training and my experiences abroad have helped me understand a truth that crosses all cultures: All Christians, including women, will benefit from the study of theology, no matter how formal. But if you do have a chance to go to seminary, do it. You won’t regret it. I know I never will.
Sherrene DeLong graduated from WSC in 2011 with a Master of Arts degree in Theological Studies. She is married to Matthew DeLong (M.Div 2010), and they are excited to begin working with international students through RUF International at Auburn University later this year. Sherrene enjoys playing with her dog, Bhindi, and brewing the perfect cup of cardamom chai.
This post is part of our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can see all previous posts here: http://wscal.edu/blog/category/women-theology-series. If you are thinking about seminary, contact us at email@example.com. We would love to talk with you!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Take It On the Chin
In today’s social media-drenched culture we find people making all sorts of personal claims and criticisms about themselves and others. To see a very public microcosm of this phenomena, watch Hollywood. The regular news cycle draws attention to various celebrities who engage in Twitter wars. One makes a comment or criticism, and then someone responds in kind. There are few who let comments and criticisms go unchecked. This type of conduct isn’t restricted to social media but likely goes back to our earliest days as children. How many of us either engaged in or heard others dish out schoolyard taunts and heard the verbally assaulted children offer their own ripostes. If someone called you a nerd, you might respond, “Takes one to know one,” or “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names never hurt me.” I think our common mentality is to hit back when stricken, or even in some cases to hit others preemptively. But is such conduct Christ-like?
This is an important question because as a minister, I promise and guarantee that you will be the subject of ridicule, criticism, slander, libel, and the like—and this conduct, sadly, can often come from other ministers, though a fair share of this can also come from other portions of the church. Try as you might to do things for all of the right reasons, there will be those who suspect you of subterfuge and ill motives. And when you hear or read the criticism, your first gut-reaction might be to respond in kind. Or perhaps you might desire to offer a thoughtful and respectful self-defense. To be clear, there are certainly those times and places where you can and should defend yourself. But more often than not, you need to give serious thought to taking it on the chin.
What do I mean? Give serious thought to how many times the idea of bearing one’s cross appears in the Scriptures. Think about Christ’s silence before his accusers. Think about the endless amount of slander that Paul suffered. Think of Paul’s instructions, for example, to the Corinthians to be willing to suffer wrongs (1 Cor. 6:7). To stand there and take criticism and remain silent and offer no response is not a sign of weakness but rather spiritual maturity.
All too often, I believe, we are simply too thin-skinned. We don’t want to tolerate the slightest hint that someone might not think as well of us as we do of ourselves. Other times I think people are all too interested in being vindicated immediately. We want everyone to know we are right and that others have wronged us. I had a number of counseling situations where people wrangled over petty matters and refused to be reconciled to others in the church all because they wanted everyone to know they were right.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t like being insulted or criticized. Who really does? But on the other hand, don’t be too quick to defend yourself. Listen to the criticism. Is there any validity to it? If not, ignore it and move on. You can’t please everyone all the time. But more importantly, remember that everything in your life has a purpose. In this case, the wrongs that you suffer are not simply blows you bear, but instances where the Father is conforming you to the image of his Son.
Women & Theology: Incarnation and the Cross
Since graduating from Westminster Seminary California and beginning a PhD program in historical theology, I have had a number of opportunities to read theological works and to talk to other people with a variety of theological perspectives. (I guess if you’re a seminary graduate and a theology student, you’re supposed to have some sort of answer to everyone’s theological questions.) Now as a student at a Roman Catholic institution, I have a number of opportunities to reflect upon a theological system very different from my own.
In my studies, it has seemed to me that Roman Catholic theology heavily emphasizes the incarnation of our Lord. What, you ask, could possibly be wrong with that? The fact that Christ came down from heaven and became man, uniting the divine and human natures in one person, is one of the central tenants of the Christian faith. True indeed; yet, an over-emphasis on the incarnation has surprising implications, for it may minimize the role of sin. If the incarnation is the central event of our salvation, then our chief problem is that we are separated from God and our salvation is that Christ came down from heaven to be with us, not to deliver us from our sins. This tendency is natural, because Christ’s humbling of himself is staggering to contemplate.
This focus, however, on God’s love and kindness does not deal adequately with the problem of sin. I know that there is no way I could ever do good works on my own. Even if I adopted the Catholic system, in which I would be required to do good works after baptism to preserve my salvation, there is no way my works would be good enough. (The gravity of sin IS acknowledged in Catholic liturgical practice, even if it doesn’t appear as strongly in modern Roman Catholic theology.)
In contrast to Roman Catholic theology, Reformed theology emphasizes the cross of the incarnate Christ. It’s more than Christ loving us; it’s Christ loving us in spite of our sin and misery. This brings the ugliness of our sins to the forefront and emphasizes our need for a Savior to deliver us from the bondage of sin and death, not one who would primarily build a bridge between frail humanity and an infinite God.
I am particularly thankful for a theological distinction that was impressed on me at seminary, and that is the active and passive obedience of Christ. When Adam fell, he not only failed to keep God’s law, but he also disobeyed God’s command. When Christ came, he kept God’s law perfectly through his perpetual active obedience, and he passively suffered the curse of sin through his death on the cross, accomplishing our salvation in a twofold manner. As the Westminster Confession states,
The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father: and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him. (WCF 8.5)
In my justification, Christ’s atoning penalty for sin and his perfect law-keeping are both imputed to me, so that I am freed from the penalty of sin and the judgment of God’s law. Now I follow God’s commands out of a deep gratitude for my salvation and a desire to please God, unlike my Roman Catholic friends, who believe they must work for their salvation from sin. But Christ has already accomplished our salvation.
We require both the incarnation and the cross in our theology. An over-emphasis on one or the other may lead us to ignore the penalty for sin or the justice of God’s law. And that, my friends, is what my Westminster education did for me: It made me more grateful for my salvation. The study of theology led me to praise of God and give thanksgiving to him—the chief end of my life here on earth and ultimately in heaven.
Amy Alexander graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2012 with an M.A. in Historical Theology and wrote her thesis on medieval theologian Thomas Bradwardine. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can read the introduction to the series here. Come back next week!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Do you have a nursery?
Reformed churches have a different culture of discipleship than the broader evangelical world. In general, and there are exceptions, committed Reformed churches promote the importance of catechizing children from the earliest of ages. If a person grows up in a Reformed church, chances are he will know his Heidelberg or Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example. This means that many Reformed churches have a group of people within the church that know what they believe, why, where to go for theological help, and why the church believes and worships the way it does. Such people can be a great asset in the church, but they can also sometimes have problems with new believers.
New believers come into the church and know little to nothing. A newly converted young woman, for example, might not see any problem with the length of her skirt. Or a newly converted family might not know that they shouldn’t go grocery shopping or to the football game on Sunday. They might not know who Cornelius Van Til is, or even care. The long-term members, those who have been bottle-fed Calvin’s Institutes from the cradle might not suffer such ignorance very long. I had one person in my church who took great offense that a new believer came to church dressed too casually.
This brings me to a significant question, “Does your church have a nursery?” I’m not talking about a nursery for infants, but I’m talking about a nursery for new believers. All churches talk about the importance of evangelism but I think many are ill equipped to deal with new believers once they walk through the door. Mature Christians expect new converts to be running when they’re barely able to crawl. This means that your church needs to have a “nursery,” a place where new converts can learn how to crawl, walk, and eventually run. It needs to be staffed by people who know the Reformed faith very well and who are very patient—those who can step into the shoes of a new convert and see things from his perspective and then simply and effectively explain things. It may seem like crawling, for example, but if your church has or expects new converts, then have a class on the Shorter Catechism. Even though it was originally written for children, such a basic exploration of the doctrines of Scripture can equip a new convert with some much needed spiritual milk and meat! And don’t be too quick to hammer the new convert when she doesn’t understand or act like a mature believer. Yes, her skirt may be too short, but don’t embarrass her publicly. Have a mature woman in the congregation gently, privately, and winsomely, take her aside and disciple her. In time, God willing, she will learn what it means to wear modest clothing.
In the end, be prepared to care for new converts—love them as Christ has—teach them with patience and love.
Women & Theology: A Pastor’s Wife
I did not go to seminary to marry a pastor. In fact, I was pretty scared of the possibility of some sincere, Bible-loving, M.Div. student sweeping me off my feet and whisking me away to some church plant in the wilds of New Hampshire. I'd seen enough of the messiness of church life to know that I just never wanted to be a pastor's wife and I never wanted to have to raise pastor's kids.
I was right to be afraid. Eleven years after graduating from WSC, I find myself here: married to a church planter (who did indeed sweep me off my feet sometime towards the end of my first year), raising our four children, hunkered down waiting for the onslaught of another New England winter and/or the next ministry crisis, whichever comes first. My life has turned out exactly as I feared.
I was also wrong to be afraid. Because while marriage and mothering both require more daily dying to self than I had the sense to expect, ministry has brought more joy and blessing and privilege into our lives than heartache, though we have had those seasons, too. Alongside my husband, I have the chance to watch a local body of Christ add hands and feet and ears where there were none before. I have opportunities to talk and pray with people as marriages come together and as marriages fall apart. Our children get the chance to see how God's love does cover over the multitude of sins that we in the church commit against each other, like a thick layer of magic shell over a fractious bowl of ice cream.
Sometimes, though, I wonder if my husband's life would be easier if I did not have formal theological training. It would certainly spare both of us the awkwardness, especially in the early years, of not knowing how much I should speak up during Bible study or Sunday school for fear of being perceived as challenging him, especially if I do happen to know more about a particular matter of interpretation. After WSC, my husband did further graduate work in church history. I did mine in Old Testament—the Psalms. Which one do you think comes up more often in a Bible study?
But more often, I am glad and we are glad to have done so much of our theological training together. Yes, I can be an occasional sounding board for him on matters of biblical interpretation or theological nuance, but more importantly, I think he trusts me because of it. He trusts me to be able to rightly divide God's word as I teach it to our children and help them apply it to their lives. And to be able to give biblical counsel to women in our church when they seek it, whether formally or informally (more often the latter). He possibly even trusts me to give biblical counsel to him, even unsolicited, which can be a pretty rare and precious commodity for a church planter.
In our circles, we like to say that in the church, there is no special office of pastor's wife. That is true and boy, am I glad. But in my pastor-husband's life, there is a special office of wife. And my seminary training helps me to fill that office in a unique way, for which I am grateful.
Elizabeth Kao Holmlund (M.A.B.S. 2002) is married to Dave Holmlund, an OPC church planter, and mother to Zechariah (7), Ezra (6), Evangeline (3), and Benjamin (1). They live in the wilds of New Hampshire.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can read the introduction to the series here, and previous posts here and here and here. Come back next week!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Hide it!
One of the touchiest subjects in the pastorate can be the question about the consumption of alcohol. For some parts of the church, this might not be a big issue, but for others it is significant, especially in the Bible belt. There are many Christians in the South, for example, who believe it is a gross sin for a true Christian to drink alcohol of any sort. I have a colleague who was surreptitiously followed through a grocery store to see whether he would purchase alcohol. When he did purchase it, this person later called him out as an unfit minister in a public setting. I have another colleague who consumed alcohol but when certain people came over to his house he would take all of the alcohol out of his refrigerator and hide it in his bedroom closet. Once they left, he would return the alcohol to his refrigerator. I know of another minister who decided to quit drinking all together to avoid any type of problem even though he knew and believed that he had the liberty to consume it. So what’s a person to do?
We must first recognize that consuming alcohol is not a sin—drunkenness is a sin (e.g., Gal. 5:21). It is perfectly biblical and legitimate for a person, even a minister, to consume alcohol. On the other hand, we live in a sin-fallen world where people abuse alcohol and therefore some have chosen to abstain from it. Some abstain from it because of past problems with drunkenness. Others abstain because they don’t want the hassle, or because they are concerned about offending the weaker brother. That is, they’re worried that if an immature Christian sees them consume alcohol, they might cause this person to stumble. But what if you don’t want to give up your evening glass of wine or Schlitz Malt Liquor? What if you drink responsibly but at the same time worry about causing a stir at your church? Should you go to great lengths to hide your Schlitz in the bedroom closet?
Some people might think it’s silly to hide your beer, but I have had people in my congregation snoop around in my refrigerator. So I understand the fear. Nevertheless, I don’t think you need to go to such great lengths. My wife and I adopted a general rule when it came to alcohol and the church. We never served alcohol for church functions and we never served it to anyone we invited over from the church unless we knew that they were ok with its consumption. Moreover, we didn’t ask people whether they drank alcohol or not. We just assumed they didn’t until we discovered otherwise (e.g., if they brought a bottle of wine as a hostess gift). And no, we didn’t try to hide the beer and wine in our refrigerator either. If someone was nosy enough to snoop around in our fridge, then too bad for them. But we weren’t going to try and hide the alcohol.
My wife and I found that our general rule worked well for several reasons. First, we were completely content with exercising our Christian liberty to consume alcohol but didn’t feel the need to exercise that liberty in an insensitive way. We were happy to drink water or some other beverage when we invited a new visitor to our home. We didn’t want alcohol to become a potential stumbling block to someone we didn’t know. Second, while we didn’t want to cause anyone to stumble, neither were we convicted that we needed to hide our beer and wine. We were not intent on flaunting our liberty but neither would we be held hostage by someone who wanted to impose their private conviction to the point where they might try to snoop around the in fridge. Third, if we discovered that a couple, for example, did consume alcohol, then we might serve it on another occasion.
In the end, use wisdom and discretion. You need not hide your Schlitz but you need not flaunt it either. Remember, the kingdom of God isn’t about eating and drinking but ultimately about the body, the church, for whom Christ died, and about peace, righteousness, and joy (Rom. 14:17).
Women & Theology: Immutability
I was on a walk the other day enjoying the vibrant colors of Fall and Portland’s last glimpses of sunshine before the rain settles in for the winter. Change. It struck me how everything around me changes – the seasons, the weather, circumstances and people. As I considered the flux and uncertainty of life, the sharp contrast of the character of the Lord came to mind. That the Lord does not change, his immutability, is not a topic I often dwell upon but one that has significant implications for the way we approach our own lives and the things we know to be true.
God does not change, he isn’t altered, he isn’t in process, he is as he has always been and always will be.* I find that even as I write that, my soul settles, there is peace in it. In the midst of a life that swells, whose river bends and turns in unexpected ways, the constancy of the Lord is something to hold onto. The image of a river grabs me, it catches the feeling of resting in the changelessness of the Lord well. In the midst of circumstances that are difficult and inexplicable, resting in the character of the Lord doesn’t always feel like you’re standing on solid ground. You’re still bumping up and down, you still have no clue what’s around the next bend, and yet the consistency is in the current. There is a certainty there, its goal never shifts. While it speeds up and slows down, when the river bends a different direction, the current relentlessly moves the river to the ocean. Think about the Lord in this light. His being is immutable, his will never changes, the direction of his actions remain constant, and yet he is active and moving within his creation. The immutability of the Lord offers us a foundation to reframe our own understandings of the circumstances of our lives. He remains constant in both our joys and our sufferings, his will remains the same. There’s comfort in that.
The immutability of the Lord is also something that points us to the otherness of God. In many respects we are like God, we bear his image, but in this aspect God is something completely other. We have no reference to immutability in our lives. Everything we see, everyone we know, every piece of our experience is changing and in process. What that means is that it’s not a natural jump to rest on something that is changeless. Your most natural inclination is going to be to think that God is like you. And if God is like you in this respect it means that he is in process, that he is learning how to love you, that in one moment he might act for your good but in another he might choose himself. It’s helpful to take note of the otherness of the Lord in this respect because it gives you the foundation to doubt those inclinations that God reflects your own changefulness.
Finally, there’s a richness and depth that considering the character of the Lord brings. Think with me back to the image of the river but this time think about a drawing of that river. A blue marker and a curvy line could communicate the idea. While you might understand what I was getting at, it lacks the real sense of what is happening in that river. Theology can feel the same way. Have you ever had the experience where you know the right truth to hang onto but it feels like it doesn’t move in your own life, it feels stagnant and unattached? For example, in the midst of suffering saying that the Lord works for my good is kind of like drawing a river with a blue marker. There’s a richness and a depth missing from it. Thinking about the character of the Lord undergirds the things we profess to be true. It’s like painting that same river but this time using different colors to catch the reflection, lights and darks that create movement. It brings it to life.
* Taken from notes from Dr. Horton’s Doctine of God class in 2009
Kristin Silva is a Biblical Counselor living and working in Portland, OR. She graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2010 with a Masters in Theological Studies.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can read the introduction to the series here, and previous posts here and here. Come back next week!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Your Work Ethic
During my days in seminary I had a number of summer internships where I learned a some invaluable lessons. One that stands out prominently in my mind was the importance of maintaining a strong work ethic. My ministerial supervisor taught me this lesson, unfortunately, by setting a bad example. The church had its mid-week services and so my boss used this as a reason for him not to come into work until after lunch—he took the morning off. The reason behind this decision was that since he had to work in the evening for the mid-week programs, he would take the morning off. In his mind, he was still putting in his eight-hour day. There was a big problem, however, with this type of decision. What about the many other people in the church who got up very early, went to work, and then after a long work day, would come to church and put in a lot of volunteer time? By my calculations, unpaid volunteers were putting in 12 hours days and my supervisor, who was paid to be present at church, was cutting his day short. The problem with my supervisor’s decision, moreover, was complicated by the fact that a number of people in the church knew that he would take the morning off and it didn’t sit well with them. Long-story short, my supervisor was eventually replaced, and it didn’t surprise me when it happened.
One of the biggest problems you’ll face is the impression that you only work one day a week. The lion’s share of your workweek is performed out of sight from the congregation, which means that some might think that you’re not working unless they see you work. Ok, fine, you work 12 hours on Sunday, but what about the rest of the workweek? If you give the impression that you’re not working, it will hamper your ministry, I promise you. So what are you to do?
You need to be mindful of the work habits and patterns of your congregation. If you live in a rural community, for example, one that has farmers that get up before dawn, you might want to consider doing the same. They will have more respect for you if they know you’re working hard too. If you meet them for breakfast, and you look and act like you just rolled out of bed, they might think you’re a slacker. But if you look alert and engaged, then they’ll know you’re working hard. If they rise early and still come to church for mid-week programs and stay late, you should do the same. Not only will you convey a strong work ethic, but you’ll gain important information. If you’ve been up since 6am you’ll know how they feel at 7pm at church, then you’ll know whether you should ask somebody to volunteer for extra work, for example, because you’ll think, “I’m tired, and if I’m tired, maybe Joe is tired too. Perhaps I should ask someone else.”
Most importantly, however, regardless of the schedule that you adopt, as the pastor, you should never have a weaker work ethic than anyone in your congregation. I encourage you always to run with the strongest pack in your church both to set a good example for them but also to remember you live coram Deo—you live and work in the presence of God, so work in such a manner.
Preaching is Not a Lecture
Michael S. Horton
"Preaching involves teaching, but it is much more than that. The sacramental aspect of the Word--that is, its role as a means of grace--underlies Reformation teaching. The preaching of the gospel not only calls people to faith in Christ; it is the means by which the Spirit creates faith in their hearts (as expressed in Q 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism). In evangelical theologies, this sacramental aspect of God's Word is often marginalized by a purely pedagogical (instructional) concept. It is therefore not surprising that when the Word is reduced to its didactic function there arises a longing of the people to encounter God here and now through other means. However, by affirming its sacramental as well as the regulative (canonical) character, we can recognize the Word of God's working and ruling, saving and teaching."
Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 754-5.
Women & Theology: Demonology 101
After a few months on "our" mission field, a post-communist, dead, atheistic region, my family and I were reeling from the shock. No, not culture-shock, though there was plenty of that. It was the shock of coming face to face with demonic forces beyond our comprehension.
Numerous strange events had transpired: liters of urine poured into our stroller, blood splattered on our apartment door, a small hole had been drilled into our front door indicating a planned break-in (the hole is used to insert a small probe camera), much sickness, poor sleep for us, and even sensing an evil presence in our room.
At first we thought we must be imagining things, but the horrid climax was the nightmares that tormented our two-year old son. For many months he’d wake up screaming bloody murder and we could not settle him back down easily. At two and a half, he was finally able to verbalize what he’d been dreaming about for the past few months. One of his most vivid dreams was about a woman with black hair and red eyes who wore only a bra and black pants and would offer him a basket of rotten fruit and force him to eat. His nightmare was x-rated, not a typical toddler-being-chased-by-a-bear dream.
Satan was not playing fair. Now the shock turned to anger. I scanned the recesses of my brain. What had seminary taught me about demonic activity? I couldn’t recall any class where we had discussed anything remotely similar to what we were experiencing nor was “Demonology 101” offered at Westminster seminary when I attended! But what seminary taught me was not to panic in the face of theological conundrums. The study of theology has a great way of putting things into their proper perspective. My seminary education gave me a reformed lens through which I was taught to see everything. God’s sovereignty became more precious and true to me as we wrestled through what was happening to us. We held fast to God’s promise that the earth belongs to God, and all that is in it. Satan and his power are real but God is sovereign over him and his minions. Satan is not allowed to play with us (though that is what it felt like at the time). He is only permitted to do what God has decreed and his doom is sure.
Because we were so overwhelmed with our situation, we called our teammates to come pray with us. While he was asleep in another room, we prayed at my son’s bedroom windows, that God would not allow any evil to enter into his room and that he would sleep peacefully. The next morning I asked him, “Did you have a nightmare last night?” His answer was flabbergasting: “Yes, but this time the woman was outside my window and she couldn’t come in.” Sometimes in reformed, highly rational circles, we fail to see when God is giving us a glimpse into the supernatural world. But this time, we saw it! God, in his sovereignty, was ministering to my little boy and comforting him in ways I could not. We were given a sneak peek into how He uses the prayers of his people to accomplish his will. How that comforted and ministered to our souls! Where the darkness is thickest, Christ’s light shines all the more brightly. One day all evil will be eradicated and His glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea!
Eowyn Jones Stoddard (MABS '97) has been serving with Mission to the World, in Berlin, Germany with her husband David (M.Div. '99) since 2001 where they have worked in church-planting and theological education. They have 5 children. Eowyn enjoys teaching the Bible, creative forms of evangelism, and writing. You can find a longer version of this story at the Gospel Coalition. Other Gospel Coalition articles by Eowyn include "When Women Lust", "The Introverted Mother", and "I Am the Silver Man". She blogs regularly at The Eowiggle.
This post continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. You can read the introduction to the series here, and last week's post here. Come back next week!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Judging a book by its cover
The old cliché tells us never to judge a book by its cover, but the truth of the matter is we do it all the time. Publishers spend a lot of money trying to convince you to pick up their book, or click on the cover of the link to their book, so that you’ll make a purchase and part company with your hard-earned money. The same goes for a person’s dress and appearance. What a lot of freshly minted ministers don’t realize is, they are being judged, rightly or wrongly, all by their appearance.
The moment a ministerial candidate steps before an ordaining body, before he opens his mouth, the elders begin to make an assessment of him by the way he is dressed. The same goes for visitors to a church. The moment they walk in the door of the church they begin to make value judgments based upon the way things look, and especially about the way the minister is dressed. If the minister is dressed like a slob, it will likely be difficult for the visitors to look past the disheveled appearance. But this scenario can also go a number of different ways—it’s not just about having an unkempt appearance. If you dress too nicely, you can send a message that you’re unapproachable. If you dress too trendily, then people might think you care too much about your appearance and fashion—that you’re more concerned with the cut of your trousers than with the intricacies of the biblical text. So with pitfalls all around you, what are you supposed to do?
I’m sure people have a number of different opinions on this. I suspect some might say, dress how you want and who cares what people think? If they’re shallow enough to judge a book by its cover, then let them go. The problem with this type of response is that it’s a bit self-centered. It addresses the question from the perspective of doing what you want rather than asking a more fundamental question, namely, “What are you trying to accomplish?” And, “To whom are you trying to minister?” As a minister of the gospel, your first and primary task is to promote the gospel of Christ—that is your mission and goal. You shouldn’t let anything get in your way, especially the clothing you wear. This fundamental commitment, therefore, should dictate several things.
First, it’s not about you—it’s about Christ and his gospel. This means that you may have a certain fashion sense that you have every right to pursue, say, for example, your penchant for wearing leather pants (yikes) or skinny jeans. You might want to wear your leather pants on Sunday morning, but they might be a distraction, so much so, that people will pay attention to your pants more than they will your preaching. As much as you may want to make a fashion statement, fashion neutrality is your goal. A simple pair of slacks, coat, and tie with a nice dress shirt may say “stiff” but chances are it won’t look out of place and won’t call too much attention. It’s transparent enough that people won’t see it, per se.
Second, dress well. Dressing well doesn’t mean you have spend a lot of money. You can dress well for a modest financial investment. If you show up looking like a sack of worms (i.e., your clothes are wrinkled, stained, or ill-fitting), people will, rightly or wrongly, treat you with less respect. Why? You will convey to people, whether you mean to or not, that you don’t care about your appearance and that you don’t care what impression you send to others. As a minister, you are an authority figure, like it or not. Dress like one. Dress responsibly. Think about it in this way—if you were pulled over by a police officer and he got out of the car wearing a swimsuit and a Hawaiian shirt, would you question his authority? If you went to see your doctor and he was wearing a tank top with spaghetti stains on it, would you begin to question what he told you?
Third, maintain proper hygiene. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen too many seminarians who seem like they’re trying to pull off their best impression of an urban outdoorsman (homeless man). I’ve seen too many with a bad case of bed-head and three-days of stubble on their face. Nothing says “slacker” and “I just woke up five minutes ago even though it’s almost noon” like failing to be groomed. Too many people in your church will likely be up early and off to work. The last thing you want to do is give the impression that you just rolled out of bed for a lunch appointment because you failed to be properly groomed.
Fourth, remember your context. Notice, thus far, I have not given a specific type of wardrobe. In some contexts, business casual may be necessary, in other cases, coat and tie, and in others, a business suit, and sometimes a superhero t-shirt, khakis, and flip-flops is the precise thing you need to wear. Know your context! For example, an elderly gentleman rebuked one of my colleagues for wearing a blue dress shirt in the pulpit. In that congregation the pulpit was a formal place and a white dress shirt was the only proper attire. Such things might seem silly, but ask yourself, are you willing to become all things to all men in order that you might win some to Christ?
In other words, there are a number of reasons why people will be critical of you—don’t give them a silly reason to ignore you. Groom and dress yourself in such a manner that you become transparent and the gospel, not your fashion (or lack thereof), stands out most. If people are going to get upset with you, make it worthwhile—make sure it’s for the gospel and not your leather pants.
Women & Theology: What Will You Do When You’re Done with Seminary?
“So, what will you do when you’re done with seminary?”
This innocent question has rendered many a female student at a complementarian seminary catatonic. It’s a reasonable query; the person asking is assuming that since we’re spending money on a graduate degree, we must have some end goal in mind. They (probably) know that we’re not pursuing a call to the pastorate, and they don’t want to insinuate that we’re husband-hunting, so they’re trying to think of a nice way to say, “What exactly are you doing there?”
Why should women study theology, particularly women who believe that the offices of the church are appointed to men? What do we need to know about the Mosaic economy, supralapsarianism, and covenant theology? If preaching isn’t an option, what are we supposed to do after we’ve finished spending all that money and reading all those books?
We read in Genesis that God created our first parents male and female, and he blessed them and named them (Gen. 5:2). Both sexes were created, carefully, thoughtfully and intentionally, with a common purpose; specific, unique gifts and particular roles. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the primary purpose for human existence is to glorify God forever, and in so doing, find our greatest and deepest joy, satisfaction, and contentment. We glorify God by fulfilling his law in Christ, and loving our neighbor. The law is the expression of God’s holiness and perfect character, and if we really want to know him—to know who he is, what he’s like, and what his will for our lives is—then we must look at who he shows himself to be in the law, and what he has done for us in the gospels. It’s in the pages of Holy Scripture that we find where we came from, who we are, and where we’re going, by having our eyes lifted upward from our sinful, tired, angry, broken hearts, and turned to our Creator, Savior, and Redeemer.
In a culture that encourages women to define themselves by their titles, social standing, and looks, it’s easy for us to become focused on temporal callings and circumstances. Because the material and relational (rightly) demand our attention, care, and resources every day, we readily believe that this earthly American life is all there is and all there ever will be.
This is why, at the beginning of every week, we turn off our cell phones, put away our computers, and go to church. It’s there, in that small, plain building, with our ordinary brothers and sisters that we remember that we are (before anything else) image-bearers, called to worship. We (men and women) show forth the likeness of our Creator, by whom and for whom we were made, and as such possess a dignity and worth that transcends any earthly calling. Whether we joyfully or grudgingly serve our families, employers, and dreams, on Sunday morning, we put all things aside in order to worship our Father, through our Savior, by the Holy Spirit—whatever our callings may be, we are, and always will be, worshippers of the Triune God. This is who we are, and what we are made for.
Ladies should study theology because in so doing, they develop, refine, and deepen their understanding of what it means to be an image-bearer created for worship. The fact that we were created (not arbitrarily, spontaneously generated) and created for someone and something (not blindly groping through life, trying to create meaning in a meaningless world) is simple to grasp, but difficult to comprehend. Sin clouds our hearts, temptation distracts our minds, and the Enemy is ever-ready to suggest that our happiness, fulfillment, and potential would be better realized if only we could find the right man, the right job, or the right mission.
My theological training showed me that my happiness, fulfillment, and potential have already been secured for me in the finished work of Christ—the image that I bear is daily being renewed in him, by the Holy Spirit, and my joy and satisfaction are secured in the worship of the Father, in communion with my fellow saints. This isn’t something I completely understand, and it’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with—I daily labor under the delusion that I’ll be better if I go ‘somewhere else’ and ‘find something new’—but I’m comforted in the knowledge that I don’t struggle alone, and that the day is surely coming when I will finally see the fulfillment of all I hope for.
Brooke Ventura is assistant editor at Modern Reformation magazine.
This piece continues our Wednesday series on Women & Theology. Read the introduction to the series here, and come back next week to see how one woman's seminary education helped her deal with demonic activity on the mission field.