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.
Latest Office Hours! Calvin and Reformed Ministry in Geneva
Office Hours talks with Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, about John Calvin and the 16th century company of pastors.
You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! Reaching a Spanish-Speaking People in North America
Office Hours talks with Rev. Chris Sandoval, a multi-cultural church planter and Alumni Relations Associate at Westminster Seminary California, about better understanding the Hispanic community, and how that affects witnessing to them in the Reformed tradition.
You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! Ministry and Mission with Rev. Eric Hausler
Office Hours talks with Rev. Eric Hausler, graduate of Westminster Seminary California and Pastor of Naples Orthodox Presbyterian Church, about Ministry and Mission.
You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Office Hours: Sanctification and the Fruit of the Spirit with Dr. Kim
Office Hours talks with Dr. Julius J. Kim, Dean of Students and Associate Professor of Practical Theology, about Sanctification and the Fruit of the Spirit.
You can find this latest episode here.
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!
Latest Faculty Publication! Fesko on the Westminster Standards
WSC's latest faculty publication comes from Dr. Fesko, and is titled, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights. There are many books out there on the Westminster Standards but very few delve into the historical context and original setting of these vital confessional documents. In this book Dr. Fesko illuminates the Standards (the Confession, Larger, and Shorter Catechisms) almost exclusively from works of the period, either by the Westminster divines themselves or works with which they were familiar. Here's what people are saying about this book:
“One of the ways of demonstrating the abiding relevance of our confessions is to understand the conversations and debates from which they emerged. John Fesko has done precisely this. Digging around each plant in the Westminster garden, Fesko exposes the rich soil that still nourishes our faith and practice. I picked up this book expecting to find a resource to be consulted, but found myself reading the whole work through with rapt attention. There is gold in these hills!”
—Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Calvin on the Christian Life
“Finally we have a solid analysis and an expert portrayal of the theology of the Westminster Standards in which the time of its writing and its direct influence are also described. John Fesko has gathered an enormous amount of information that makes this book a sourcebook par excellence. He does the church and its theology a great favor with this overview, helping us to understand the Westminster Confession and catechisms not only in their theological context, but also in their relevance for today.”
—Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University of Apeldoorn; Director, Refo500, The Netherlands
“Drawing upon a significant body of recent research, John Fesko has written an admirably clear and accessible study of the teaching of the Westminster Confession. By situating the successive chapters in their original seventeenth-century setting, he provides an informed exposition of their content and significance. This study will be immensely useful not only for theological students, but for all who require a better understanding of the most important Reformed confession in the English-speaking world.”
—David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity and Principal, New College University of Edinburgh
“Seldom has an exposition of the Westminster Standards been as useful as John Fesko’s Theology of the Westminster Standards. Dr. Fesko understands the necessity of placing these monumental documents into their proper contexts. He has uncovered a massive amount of contemporary literature and expertly explains the theological statements of the Standards in the light of these works. For everyone interested in confessionalism, this is an essential volume. It will be a standard work for decades to come.”
—James M. Renihan, Dean and Professor of Historical Theology, Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
“Fesko’s volume is an outstanding and very welcome addition to the growing field of literature on the Westminster Confession of Faith. In these pages Fesko goes straight to the primary sources, skillfully mining relevant sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts in order to explain the historical and theological developments leading up to the assembly. Moreover, he provides fresh and insightful analysis of the theology of the Confession itself. Do you want to grow in your knowledge and understanding of the Reformed faith in general, and the theology of the Westminster Confession in particular? If the answer is yes, then pick up and read this marvelous book. I heartily commend it!”
—Jon D. Payne , Presbyterian Church in America church planter, Charleston, South Carolina; Visiting Lecturer, Reformed Theological Seminary; Series Editor, Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament
Tolle et lege! Take up and read!
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.
J. V. Fesko
It's not too often that you can get a free book, but here's an opportunity to obtain one! Logos is offering a free e-copy of C. E. B. Cranfield's On Romans and Other New Testament Essays for free from today, May 28th, through July 7th when you sign up for the Logos Reformed e-mail list for news and updates on freebees and discounts on Reformed products from Logos.
You can find out more about this give-away here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! The Law and Sanctification with Dr. Godfrey
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History, about sanctification and the use of the law in the Christian life.
You can find this latest episode here.
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!
Latest Office Hours! New Life in the Shadow of Death with Dr. Baugh
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, about the Lord's Prayer and its continued use in the church and by Christians today. This is part two of a two-part episode.
You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! Interview with Dr. VanDrunen about his latest book
Office Hours talks with Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, about his latest book, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law.
You can find this latest episode here.
Latest Faculty Publication! Songs of a Suffering King by Dr. Fesko
WSC's latest faculty publication comes from Dr. Fesko, and is titled, Songs of a Suffering King: the Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014). The book's publisher offers the following description:
Our Lord has wisely given the Psalms, the songbook of the Bible, for the benefit of the church. But for many people, the Psalms’ contents are mysterious because they no longer have a place of prominence in the church’s worship. Author J. V. Fesko hopes to awaken the church to the majesty, beauty, and splendor of the Psalms through a devotional exploration of Psalms 1–8, a “grand Christ hymn,” in which David, as the suffering king, prefigures the king of kings, Jesus Christ. To encourage readers to come to a greater appreciation for the Psalms, the author includes with each chapter questions for further reflection and study and a metrical version of each psalm. He also recommends Internet resources that provide digital files of the tunes.
And here's what one of the book's endorsers has to say:
“The Psalms are beloved by Christians everywhere, yet their historical context and intended meaning are little known today. In Songs of a Suffering King, John Fesko skillfully and pastorally unpacks the original setting and theological riches of Psalms 1–8. In doing so, he insightfully explains the christocentric nature of the Psalms as well as provides practical biblical instruction to all Christian pilgrims who travel the pathway from suffering to glory.” — Jon D. Payne, organizing pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian, Charleston, South Carolina, and the series editor of the Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament
You can find out more about the book here. Tolle et lege! Take up and read!
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.
Latest Faculty Publication! VanDrunen on Natural Law
WSC is pleased to announce the publication of Dr. VanDrunen's latest book, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). The book has just been released. You can find out more about the book here. This is a thorough-going biblical-theological case for a long-time historic Reformed staple of natural law. Here's what Paul Helm has to say about the book:
"David VanDrunen here continues his sterling work of recovering and re-presenting the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms. That there is a biblical-theological account of natural law may be a surprise to those who have habitually thought of natural law in secularized terms. But such law is a divine gift, playing its part in every era. VanDrunen shows that it is a revealed truth, confirmed in experience, and that it undergirds 'the kingdoms of this world.' "
For anyone who wants to understand natural law and the broader category of covenant theology, definitely get a hold of this book. Tolle et lege! ("Take up and read!")
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!
Office Hours: The Pilgrim’s Prayer, Pt. 1
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, about the Lord's Prayer in its first century and redemptive historical context, and its continued use in the church and by Christians today. This is part one of a two-part episode.
You can find this latest episode here.
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!
Office Hours: Dr. Horton on his latest book!
Office Hours takes a brief break from our series on sanctification to talk with Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, about his most recent book entitled, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying God and Enjoying Him Forever.
You can find this latest episode here:
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.
Latest Office Hours: Prayer and Sanctification with Prof. Telfer
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Rev. Charles K. Telfer, Assistant Professor of Biblical Languages, about the necessity of prayer for sanctification in the Christian life, the pattern of prayer set out for us in the Lord's Prayer, the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer, the book of prayer given to us by God in the Bible (i.e. the Psalms), the role of Jesus Christ as our High Priestly praying intercessor, and more in this episode! You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! The Means of Grace and Sanctification Part II with Dr. Horton
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, about the means of grace and sanctification. This is part two. You can find this latest episode here.
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.
Latest Office Hours! The Means of Grace and Sanctification with Dr. Horton
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, about the means of grace and sanctification. This is part one, which you can find here.
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).
Latest Office Hours! Dr. Johnson and the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, about gospel-centered, grace-empowered growth in the Christian life, using the famous work on sanctification written by Walter Marshall, an influential English Reformed pastor and author in the 17th century, titled The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.
Who was Walter Marshall (1628-1680)?
Marshall was a non-conformist English Reformed pastor and author widely known for his book on the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, which John Murray (1898-1975) once claimed was the "most important book on sanctification ever written." For years, Marshall had been experiencing episodes of spiritual failure and depression in the Christian life. He sought out counsel from a contemporary, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), but became even more discouraged with his status before God as a result of Baxter's erroneous views on justification. Over time, Marshall came to understand the profound joy, steadfast hope, and earnest desire for Spirit-wrought sanctification out of love for God that flows from a deep sense of assurance created and cultivated by the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. Marshall had a newfound, profound, Spirit-given desire to obey the law not out of duty, but with delight--no longer living under guilt, but living before God with gratitude for what God has done in Christ.
To hear this latest episdoe click here!
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.
Latest Office Hours! Worship and Sanctification with President Godfrey
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary California and Professor of Church History, about public worship as a means of sanctification in the life of the Christian.
To listen to this latest episode click here.
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.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Separate Ways
One of the regular patterns I observed in my pastorate was the mismatched married couple. I’m not talking about a mismatched couple in terms of personalities or interests, but rather a theologically mismatched couple. It seems that every so often a couple would visit the church—one person was on fire for the recently discovered Reformed faith and the other person was not sure what was happening, but they were just along for the ride. One spouse was reading and devouring books, talking about imputed righteousness, the regulative principle, and supralapsarianism, and the other spouse was wondering what was wrong with their old Methodist church. To say the least, as the old Journey song goes, the two people were headed separate ways, “Here we stand, worlds apart . . .” What counsel should you give such people?
The first piece of advice I usually offered such couples is, be patient. No matter how much pleading, arguing (i.e., making a case), books, and dragging you might try to do, your spouse will not be convinced. You must hold out the Reformed faith with an open hand and live your theology more than talk about it. What good will it do you, for example, to get angry and exasperated all under the guise of “living the Reformed faith” before your unpersuaded spouse? All he’ll think is that you’ve become quite the jerk since becoming convinced of Reformed theology. Being patient doesn’t mean twiddling your thumbs. Rather, it means praying for your spouse and living out your sanctification—showing your spouse the love of Christ in word, thought, and deed.
Second, ensure that your spouse is truly ready to leave your old church for the right reasons. If she believes that you’re leaving your old church simply to please or appease you, then chance are you’re headed for problems. Both of you have to be prepared to leave your old church because you believe it’s the right thing to do, and because your new church bears the three marks: preaching the word, administering the sacraments, and administering discipline.
Third, as the pastor, don’t put the “hard sell” on couples like this. You should most certainly encourage them to join your church, but not at the expense of possibly creating dissension between a married couple. Through patience, love, and gentle instruction, you might be able to help a couple like this make the change in due course. Offer, for example, to meet with the couple and teach them about the Reformed faith. Offer to have another couple in the church who made a similar transition counsel with them. In the end, these actions are planting and watering, but God must give the increase. Only he will convince the suspicious spouse that leaving the old church for the new one is the right course of action. Pray, therefore, for married couples like this. In due course, God willing, they will eventually end up heading in the same direction—they will not be a house divided.
Latest Office Hours! The Struggle of Sanctification in the Psalms pt 2
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Bryan D. Estelle, Professor of Old Testament, about the struggle of sanctification in the Psalms. This is the second and final installment of a two-part episode.
You can find this latest episode here.
Women Are Theologians, Too
Today launches a new series on the Westminster blog that addresses many interesting questions asked of our female students by those unfamiliar with the Westminster tradition of enrolling women in the Biblical Studies, Historical Theology, and Theological Studies programs: "Are you training to be a nun?" "Did you go to seminary to find a husband?" "Do you ever have to wait in line at the women's restroom? Never?! Lucky!"
Before coming to seminary, I knew I would be in a unique position getting a graduate level, Reformed theological education as a female. In fact, I was asked every question listed above. Yet the question people asked me the most was what I would “do” with my knowledge after graduation. Often when people would inquire, they were aware of my stance regarding women’s ordination and the fact that I was not becoming a pastor. Some even saw my time at seminary as a frivolous waste since I was pouring three years of my life into a master’s degree that would not enable me to climb the next rung of the career ladder. Yet the more I studied at Westminster, the more I realized that there are many intangible ways in which being theologically trained affects every part of my life as the knowledge of God and his Scriptures provides a comprehensive framework in which to view everything from being stuck in traffic to watching a beloved grandfather die.
My conversations with fellow female students, graduates, and other women connected with the seminary confirmed for me that although not every woman can or should attend seminary, it is every Christian's call, whether male or female, to know what she believes and why she believes it. When women take the call to study God's Word seriously, He uses them in powerful ways.
I have interviewed ten women who are serving God all over the world, from Japan to Germany and from California to Pennsylvania. Their stories will appear on this blog on Wednesdays over the next several weeks. Some of them have seminary degrees, some of them don't, but every one of their stories showcases women in their various roles in the home, church, mission field and academy. They are proving through their lives that to glorify God and enjoy Him to the fullest, we must seek to know the God we serve.
Joanna Hodges graduated from WSC in 2013 with a Master of Arts degree in Biblical Studies. She now resides in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband, Ross Hodges (M.Div. '13) who is the Director of Campus Discipleship at Christ Church Presbyterian. Joanna is the assistant director at a local Christian crisis pregnancy center where she is pleased to use her degree every day as she shares the gospel with the clients she counsels.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Past Does Not Define You
One of the things I regularly encountered as I counseled people in my pastorate was a fear of the past. Sometimes a person carried around his past like chains, or as the cliché goes, like a lot of baggage. A person might be fearful, for example, of seeking to be married because in their past, they made a mess of so many relationships, whether as a Christian or non-Christian.
One of the things I regularly told people is, “Don’t be defined by your past. Christ has forgiven you, freed you from the guilt and shame of your sin, and is presently sanctifying you, conforming you to his image. This means that your past sins no longer define you, but Christ defines who you are.” If you, for example, were an unbeliever who engaged in sexual immorality or substance abuse, your past no longer defines you. You are a new creature in Christ, holy and blameless (e.g., Eph. 4:22-32). I am sure that there might be a great degree of anxiety and trepidation with the thought of disclosing your past to a potential spouse. You fear that this person might reject you because of what you did in the past. Pray about your fears and place yourself in Christ’s hands. If Christ has accepted and forgiven you, then live without fear. And if a potential spouse rejects you because of your past, chances are you are better off without them. Chances are, there is someone out there who will love you as Christ has loved you.
Do not be defined, therefore, by who you were. Pray that Christ would enable you to be defined by who you presently are in Christ—forgiven, holy, united to him, a child of the living God, and a co-heir with Christ.
A Pastor’s Reflections: College and Church
Chances are you will have high school students in your church who grow-up, graduate, and move away to go to college. When it comes time for this stage in life, there is an important thing that you should counsel these soon-to-be college students and their parents. There are some parents who believe that it is vital to send their children to a Christian college and that this course of action will benefit their child’s progress in sanctification. Regardless of where you send your child to college, there is a more fundamental move: ensure the student becomes a member of a local church of like faith and practice.
Each year many families weigh and consider colleges based upon a number of factors: cost, scholarship, academic reputation, field of study, etc. But how many ask the question, Is there a solid church near by that can feed and spiritually sustain my child during his time at college? I suspect that many parents seldom consider this question and it is likely a contributing factor as to why so many college students walk away from the faith never to return to church again.
If you’re weighing your options between two or three different schools, determine whether there is a good church in the area. Let the presence of a solid church be the most important factor in your decision. Why? No matter what, even if you’re talking about a Christian college, a school, no matter how dedicated to Christianity, is not the church. Christ has given the church the great commission, and Christ has gifted ministers to preach the word and administer the sacraments. No school is ever a replacement for the church and the means of grace. Why would you send your child off into the wilderness without food to sustain him?
Related to this is the question of whether the churches in the vicinity of your potential new college are of like faith and practice. There are many different types of churches out there, and just because it’s a building with a steeple and well-dressed people flowing in and out of it does not mean that they’re preaching the gospel. If you belong to a NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) church, then seek out a NAPARC church. As parents, seek to nurture your children in the same faith in which you have raised them. Don’t send them to a church that will try to undermine or debunk the very faith that you have spent the last seventeen or eighteen years nurturing in your child.
Wherever you go to school, ensure you’re connected to a solid church that bears the three marks: preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and the administration of discipline. What will it profit you to gain a world of academic achievement, and the job of your choice, at the expense of your spiritual well being, and maybe even your soul?
Annual Faculty Conference Live Stream!
Join us online for WSC's Annual Conference, “Transforming Grace: Our Need for Holiness” - for FREE! Watch our Live Video Stream and learn more about the doctrine of sanctification from WSC faculty! Tune in to the Live Video Stream at 7 pm PST on Friday, January 17, 2014.
Latest Office Hours: The Struggle for Sanctification in the Psalms with Dr. Estelle
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Bryan D. Estelle, Professor of Old Testament, about the struggle of sanctification in the Psalms. This episode walks through Psalm 1, Psalm 32, and Psalm 73, and shows how each relates to the Christian's struggle with sanctity. This is the first installment of a two-part episode.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Theological Outlets
One of the more important things you need to tend to in your ministry is ensuring that you have some theological outlets. What do I mean? Well, chances are you will be one of the most theologically educated people in your congregation. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you given that you’ve spent 3-4 years in seminary and regularly spend a large portion of your workweek studying the Scriptures. In some cases, there are churches where there are other equally trained and informed people. As you study and learn, there will likely be few others in your church who can engage in technical and in-depth discussion about the theological issues you’re reading about. Some in the church may take offense to what I’ve just written, but it’s true.
Who can you talk to in your church about the significance of the latest book on discourse analysis, or the medieval influences of Duns Scotus upon later post-Reformation views on contingency, or the latest dictionary of the Septuagint that was just published? I have a colleague, for example, who was really excited because he just received a published doctoral dissertation on donkeys (no joke) in the Old Testament. He was also reading another book about (no joke) spit in the Bible, i.e., saliva, and its relationship to Old Testament purity laws. It’s this type of full-frontal nerdity in which few in the church take interest. (Of course, some of you might be thinking that maybe I’m just a nerd and have too many nerd friends. I am a nerd and am proud of it. I have a great deal of street-cred in the nerd community, in fact. But that’s beside the point).
You need to make sure that you have colleagues and friends with whom you can discuss your latest theological subject of inquiry. It’s good to have fellowship. We belong to the body of Christ and, therefore, we’re not supposed to study the word in isolation. One of the benefits of this is that you can benefit from others who have similar interests. Having another friend to discuss such matters can also keep you stable. Sometimes you can suffer from the tyranny of the last book, a problem when the last book you read so dominates your thought that you go off into the weeds. Think of it like trying to forget an advertising jingle but it keeps on going on and on in your mind, but it’s a theological idea that can end up distorting your view on things. Moreover, it’s nice to be able to have a discussion with someone without having to translate or explain what you’re studying. Don’t ask my wife, for example, to tell you all about seventeenth-century hypothetical universalism. As much as I like reading about such things, she’d rather not be pestered with it.
What can you do to find a theological outlet? First, don’t resort to the Internet. Boo hiss. You need flesh and blood, real world, human interaction. If you are in a city with other ministers, schedule a time to get together once a month for lunch where you can discuss a book, for example. Pick up a phone and call a colleague for a scheduled discussion. Or, if you don’t have too many colleagues near by, investigate membership in a theological society, join it, and request that your session (or consistory) pay for you to attend their yearly meetings. Browsing books and listening to academic papers at a societal conference can be very enriching (yes, sometimes boring as dirt, but beneficial in most cases). Or schedule time at your next meeting of classis or presbytery so that you can engage your colleagues in informal discussion about a specific theological topic.
The whole point is to continue to study and learn, and to feed that thirst and hunger to the benefit of your ministry—to the benefit of your congregation. If you never have a theological outlet to foster your continuing education, then your ministry is likely to suffer. Learn to benefit from conversations and fellowship with your ministerial colleagues.
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You can find this latest episode here.
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You can find this latest episode here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Do The Right Thing
I served on a session with two godly elders for whom I was and am very grateful. We had a great degree of harmony among us, and when we disagreed about some things, God was kind to enable us to figure out a solution. On a number of occasions we faced very difficult circumstances. As we thought about the different options and ways we might tackle an issue, one of my elders always offered very simple but nevertheless profound advice. He would remind us, “No matter how difficult it might be, we need to do the right thing.”
For example, we had a situation where someone all of a sudden stopped coming to church. This person didn’t respond to e-mails and it was quite difficult to get in touch with him or her by phone. When I finally talked with the person to determine what was going on, I uncovered a number of questionable moral issues. Our session faced several tough decisions. Do we place the person under discipline? Do we simply let them go? (The person indicated that he or she no longer wanted to attend church.) How long to we let this situation go on? Long story short, my elder piped up with his simple counsel: “The situation is difficult but it looks like church discipline is what we have to do. It may be the tough thing, but it’s the right thing. So let’s do the right thing, and let’s pray that God will bless this course of action.” This wasn’t the only time that he said something like this, and I was grateful for it.
In the pastorate you will undoubtedly face many challenging circumstances and decisions—choices that will cause you great grief, stress, and anxiety. But if there is a clear but nevertheless difficult path, do the right thing. At the time, you may regret it, but looking back many years later, you will be thankful that you didn’t shirk your responsibility or take the easy way out.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Do The Next Thing
“What do I do next?,” is one of the frequent questions I receive when I’m counseling someone through difficult circumstances or in the wake of a great tragedy. When a husband loses his spouse of sixty years, there is unquestionably a great sense of loss, and a loss of a sense of direction and purpose. What was established and settled is now gone. In the wake of the loss of a child, for example, I’ve had a father ask me, “What can I do? I don’t even know what to say or think or how to help my family through this difficult time.” I think in such circumstances, both of which were real counseling situations, these people thought they knew what Providence would bring them so they had things planned out. This wasn’t in any way sinful, but simply natural human inclination. When you go to bed in the evening, you fully expect to wake up to the sunrise. If the sun didn’t rise, you would naturally be at a loss regarding what you should do.
In these challenging circumstances the best advice I have heard, and therefore it is the advice that I have given others is, “Do the next thing.” Rather than trying to figure out the future, which is basically impossible to do, and rather than try to plan out the next week, month, year, and decade, simply do the next thing. What do I mean? Well, if it’s time to eat, feed yourself. If it’s time to go to bed, go to bed. If it’s time to go to work, go to work. Do the next thing. People naturally want to figure out the future in the face of uncertainty and disruption—they want stability. But only God knows the future and the only thing we have is the moment. We don’t have the past, we don’t have the future, but we do have the present. So that means, for the time being, just do the next thing, whatever that might be. This is, I believe, good advice for several reasons.
First, while we do not know what the future holds, God does. And he will continue to care for us as we travel through life. Second, we can become so worried about the future that we fail to care for the present and those who are around us. I once counseled a mother who lost a child, “Don’t be afraid to mourn. It’s ok to cry, and it’s perfectly ok to lay yourself bare before Christ in prayer to let him know how hurt you are. But don’t forget about the two beautiful children you have right now. Do the next thing. It’s almost time for dinner—ensure that you feed them, and feed yourself. Then do the next thing. Get them ready for bed. Before long you will realize the bigger picture and the Lord will direct your steps through the healing process.” And, third, as we do the next thing we can begin, hopefully, to recognize that God is presently sustaining us through our trial or tragedy.
So, when tragedy strikes, resist the temptation to have everything immediately figured out. Rest in Christ and take things slowly, one step at a time. Do the next thing.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Joys of the Pastorate
There are certainly many challenges and trials in the pastorate, but on the other hand, there are also many joys, things that bring great encouragement and happiness. One of the tremendous blessings of being a pastor is the privilege to study the Scriptures full-time. What others have to squeeze into their busy schedules, you get to do on a regular basis . . . and get paid to do it! When I sit down, open my Bible, place a pile of commentaries in front of me, and begin reflecting upon the intricacies of the text, I try to remind myself how much of a privilege it is. I get to read scads and scads of brilliant (and some lack-luster) theological works. I remember talking with a pastor who was still preaching in his 90’s. I asked him over a cup of tea at a post-worship service fellowship what he enjoyed doing. As tears began to well up in his eyes and voice quivered, he told me, “I find great joy in studying the word of God and preparing my weekly sermons.”
Another great joy is getting to see the “lights go on” and watch people grow in their sanctification. I can remember leading a retreat on the doctrine of sanctification and talking about the importance of the means of grace. A few months later one of my colleagues told me that the wife of one of the men on the retreat told him, “Ever since that retreat my husband is a changed man. He’s constantly reading his Bible.” To hear such a report brought great joy to my heart. It’s encouraging to see people struggle with sin and then watch the Lord deliver them from it, and to play a role in bringing it about. Like a midwife helping someone give birth, or to use a biblical analogy, you plant and water, but God gives the increase. But even then, it’s exciting and a blessing to see the plant grow! It’s also quite humbling to know that God is using you to help others.
One of the biggest perks, I think, of being a pastor is having the privilege of administering the sacrament of baptism. I have had the joy of baptizing all three of my children. While I would have been happy to have our pastor baptize them, it’s a real joy to hold your child, pray for him, pour the water upon him, unite him to the visible church in the triune name of God, and pronounce the Aaronic benediction upon him. In all honesty, it’s sometimes difficult to baptize an infant because it presents such a powerful portrait of our utter helplessness and inability to reach out to God, and God’s grace reaching out to us and marking us as his own. But as a pastor, this is especially so with your own children because they are your own flesh and blood, and your hope and prayer is that our faithful covenant Lord will be a God to you, and to your children (cf. Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). It is a joy, therefore, to be able to administer the sign and seal of the covenant of grace to your own children.
All of these things, and many others, convey to me the great joy that it is to be able to serve Christ and receive so many blessings in the process. Yes, the pastorate is a road filled with many difficult twists and turns, but it is most certainly a road littered with many tremendous blessings.
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You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: MDiv not MD
I can remember sitting around the cafeteria table at seminary where my friends and I were talking shop and someone brought up a nagging health issue. One of my friends quickly piped up that he knew what was ailing his friend and recommended a course of treatment. Flabbergasted, another one of my friends sat up and annoyingly declared, “Hey! You’re studying for an MDiv, not an MD!” He then turned to my suffering friend and said, “Stop being cheap and go see a doctor. Don’t take advice from this quack.” At the time I thought the advice was sound and the more I have reflected upon it, I’ve come to think that it is counseling gold for a number of reasons.
As learned as some minsters are, many fail to recognize the limits of their field of study. I have heard too many ministers, for example, talk derisively about psychiatry and even brag about telling people to stop taking their medication. To put it mildly, such advice is quite foolish. To contravene the medical treatment of a person without any formal medical training is very unwise. While it is true, our culture likely too frequently looks to medical prescriptions to solve moral problems, there are genuine medical issues that have nothing to do with spiritual problems.
Case in point, I began to suffer from an intense amount of stress in my pastorate, which also happened to coincide with a series of medical problems: migraine headaches, insomnia, irritability, and aching joints. At first, I thought that I was suffering from a lack of faith and trust in Christ particularly as it related to my stress at work. I prayed diligently and sought to repent of my lack of trust, but to no avail. I thought my heart had confessed my sin but my body was calling me a liar. Finally, my wife gave me some excellent advice—go see your doctor, get checked out. I did. Long story short—I had to have surgery, which literally solved every health issue. My headaches, insomnia, irritability, and aching joints vanished. I had a medical issue, not a persistent spiritual problem.
Hence, whether you’re a pastor or non-pastor type, don’t underestimate the importance of good health and the benefit of medical science. If you’re counseling someone who’s taking medically prescribed pharmaceuticals, under no circumstances should you advise them to stop. Know the limits of your knowledge. I have had people specifically ask me, “Do you think I should stop taking my medication?” And I have told them, “That’s something for you and your doctor to discuss.” From there, I would take them to the Scriptures and deal with those issues that were related to my field of specialty: Scripture, theology, and ethics (broadly speaking). That is, I sought to identify the spiritual problems a person had regardless of what medication they were taking. My hope was, and is, that if they were taking medication for the wrong reasons, that the Spirit’s work of sanctification would eventually show them their sin and lead them to repent and cease taking their medication after consulting with their physician.
If you are counseling someone and they struggle with problems that might be spiritually caused, don’t rule out medical problems. If the person hasn’t seen a doctor in a while, tell them to go get a check-up. It could very well be that they’re suffering from a genuine medical problem rather than a persistent spiritual one. Remember, therefore, you’re an MDiv, a doctor of the soul, not an MD.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Casualties of War
There are certainly many stressful vocations in the world. I remember hearing about a show that featured the most dangerous jobs in the world, which included Naval aviators, because of night carrier landings, and Alaskan fishermen, because of the harsh and deadly conditions where they work on the open sea, as two of the deadliest professions. I don’t think, however, that many people realize how stressful the pastorate can be. True, perhaps the pastorate isn’t dangerous, but I think it ranks up there for the level of stress that pastors suffer.
A recent journal article showcased a number of different reputable studies that researched the attrition rates among pastors, that is, how long a pastor survives in the ministry. The article reveals the following:
• 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% of pastors do not remain in ministry until retirement.
• In one southern state pastor attrition was as high as 90% among those who have served 20 years or more.
• In another study, evidence showed that 50% of ministers leave the pastorate within the first five years and never return to church, ever.
Other studies cited in this essay revealed other challenges for pastors:
• One study revealed that within the first 10 years, about half of the churches surveyed fired their ministers, while another 15% fired them during the last decade of their pastorates.
• Among surveyed Southern Baptist pastors, 23% of them were fired or forced to resign by small factions within the church. And 62% of surveyed churches fired their previous minister.
I doubt that few vocations have such high attrition rates, and the reality behind these statistics and studies shows that the pastorate is stressful. But as I read this article and reflected upon my own personal experience, I have personally seen these statistics in real life.
I pulled out a notecard and began tallying the different ministers that I personally knew who had left the pastorate for various reasons since I was ordained some 15 years ago, which include:
• 2 divorced their wives and resigned
• 1 resigned because of marital problems
• 1 left because of medical challenges with his family
• 3 were defrocked because of moral failings, one because of sexual misconduct and the other two because of problems with deception
• 1 was defrocked because of heterodoxy
• 1 quit because of the absence of a sense of a call to the pastorate
• 1 demitted the office because his church imploded beneath him.
So, all told, I have personally seen 10 pastors leave ordained ministry. Keep in mind how many years it takes to get into the pastorate: 4 years of undergraduate and 3-4 years of seminary education, which is then often followed by a yearlong internship. A person can spend nearly a decade preparing for the ministry only later to be disqualified or forced to resign for one reason or another. But this isn’t everything. In addition to those who resigned, I also know of others who were fired or forced to resign:
• 2 had their churches implode beneath them and had to seek other churches.
• 1 had a moral failing among his children which forced him to resign
• 1 had a falling-out with his church and had to seek another call
Again, in my relatively short ministry, I have personally known of four of my colleagues who have had significant challenges in their pastorates. The challenges were so severe, it either destroyed their churches, or they were forced to resign.
So, why on earth would anyone want to pursue the pastorate given these casualties of war? Simply stated, there’s a fire in your belly and a sense that you just have to pursue the call. A wise colleague of mine once said to a prospective seminary student who was thinking about pursuing ordained ministry, “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else as a vocation, then don’t go into the ministry. If you believe, however, that being a pastor is the only thing you can see yourself doing, then pursue it.” His point was, and is, the pastorate is too challenging and will very quickly wash out anyone who is not genuinely called.
Pray, therefore, for your pastor. Recognize that his job is very challenging and that there are pitfalls all around. There are literally dozens of angles at which he might fall and only one by which he will stand in his ministry. If you’re an accountant, for example, no one cares what you think about theological doctrines or whether your children behave properly, but such things can spell the end of a pastor’s ministry. Pray for your pastor’s health, well-being, theological soundness, fidelity to his wife, his love for his children, but most of all, for his fidelity to Christ. Pray that Christ would sustain your pastor through thick-and-thin. And if you ever meet a pastor who has faithfully served for thirty, forty, or fifty years, go up, shake his hand, give him a hug, look him in the eye, and tell him, “Thank you for your faithful service!”
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Hospital Visits
Can I be honest? I don’t like going to the hospital, whether as a patient or as a visitor. There are a host of reasons for this, but perhaps one memory I have illustrates the point. I remember going on a hospital visit with a colleague to visit a member of the church only to find out after we entered the room that he was suffering from a highly contagious skin rash. Wonderful. Oh the joy. I stuck my hands in my pocket and did not remove them for prayer. I didn’t want the creeping crud. My colleague and I then walked very briskly to the nearest restroom and started vigorously washing our hands up to our elbows. I then prayed that I wouldn’t catch the infection. Praise God, I didn’t catch it. But this is just one reason why I don’t like to go to the hospital.
But as a pastor, you don’t have a choice about making hospital visits. Whatever hang-ups or issues you might have, they just don’t matter. If a member of your congregation winds up in the hospital, you need to go, period. There is, however, an art to making a good hospital visit. You have to realize that everyone is different—they may, or may not, want you to visit. Many people end up looking and feeling their worst when they’re in the hospital and so they don’t want someone dropping in. Also, if you’ve never been a patient, you won’t know that a hospital is the last place in the world you go to get rest. People constantly shuffle in and out of the room, prodding, poking, asking questions, and taking blood samples. So someone might be too tired to receive yet another visitor.
That being said, here are a few simple tips:
(1) Call ahead – make a phone call and tell the person that you’d like to visit them. This will give them (or family) the opportunity to tell you whether they want you to visit.
(2) Keep your visit short – I used to stay no more than ten minutes. Say a few words, ask how they are doing, and then offer a brief prayer. Tell the person that this is what you’ll do so that if they want you to stay longer, they can tell you.
(3) Put on a good poker face – I promise you will likely see, smell, and hear some strange and even disgusting things if you go on enough hospital visits. Whatever you do, don’t react. Keep a warm and sunny smile on your face regardless of what you see, smell, or hear.
(4) Don’t conduct church business – you may think that a hospital visit is a good time to talk to somebody about their recent failures to attend worship, but it’s not. Tend to the person’s needs, pray for them, and once they are better, then approach them about their failings. Follow this rule unless, of course, there are pressing matters and time is of the essence, such as if a person is on his deathbed and needs to deal with un-confessed sin.
(5) Bring your Bible – I promise you that if you make enough hospital visits you will encounter situations that will leave you speechless. I remember looking at someone who barely looked human because she had been so battered and bruised in a car accident. In such circumstances simply reading Scripture can be vital and beneficial. Make sure you identify adequate passages of Scripture for various circumstances ahead of time so you don’t stand there flipping around desperately looking for something.
(6) Be prepared to make a follow-up visit, whether at the hospital or at home.
These are some pointers on making a hospital visit. But whatever you do, don’t ignore one of your congregants if they do go to the hospital. I have seen other ministers fail to make a visit (or even the effort) and pay for it dearly. One of the quickest ways you can convey indifference is fail to make a hospital visit. And remember, there is no such thing as minor surgery. Minor surgery is what happens when other people have an operation. When you have “minor surgery,” it’s a pretty big deal. So don’t assume because something is “minor,” that it doesn’t warrant your attention.
A Pastor’s Reflections: American Flags
I believe I am a patriotic American citizen. I pay my taxes, love my country, and my family has paid a costly price to preserve the freedom we all enjoy. I have a posthumous Bronze Star with a Combat “V” and a Purple Heart that hang in my home—a small memorial to my namesake, a family member who was killed in action. That being said, a few members of my congregation over the years noticed a peculiar habit of mine. Not many in the church noticed this, but long before our worship service started, I walked up on stage (we met in a Middle School auditorium), and I moved the American flag behind the curtains out of sight. Once the service was over and we were cleaning up, I moved the American flag back into its prominent place. Over the years I had a few people ask me why I hid the flag.
I certainly didn’t hide the flag because I was unpatriotic or ashamed of my country. Rather, I didn’t want the congregation to be confused. Our church, though it met in the United States of America, wasn’t an American church. Every church of Jesus Christ belongs to him, it is his body. Hence, no one country or people group can lay claim to his people. Far too many American Christians forget this. They have American flags in their sanctuaries, they celebrate American holidays, such as Independence Day, with special worship services, or they even have a military honor guard present on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Yet, if we were to enter into the embassy of another country, we would never find the ceremonies, flags, or trappings of its host nation. Walk into a Mexican embassy and you will find all of the symbols and trappings of Mexico. The same should apply to churches.
Churches are embassies, if you will, of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. They are not the property of any one country. Even the former wall of division between Jew and Gentile has been torn down by Christ through his satisfaction and obedience. The only symbols that should be present are those that belong to Christ—word, sacrament, and prayer. I used to hide the American flag, therefore, so that my congregation knew that as a congregation we belong to Christ and no one else.
I’m sure that the idea of removing the American flag from the sanctuary might ruffle a few feathers. But think of this from another perspective. What if you were visiting a legitimate church in another country, say Russia. How would you feel to see the Russian flag unfurled in the sanctuary? How would you feel if the congregation, in celebration of a national Russian holiday, began to sing their national anthem? Would you feel out of place? As a red-blooded American, might you even feel offended? No Christian should ever feel out of place in Christ’s church. Rather than be greeted by national flags and anthems, Christians should encounter psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to our triune God, his word, and the emblems of his gospel, water, wine, and bread.
Be cautious, therefore, about what things appear in your sanctuary. Don’t be too quick to put that American flag in the sanctuary. And if you have one, be kind, gentle, and patient when you remove it. Teach your congregation why it should not appear in the sanctuary, don’t just go in an tear it down. In the end, remember that the sanctuary is ultimately Christ’s embassy of peace, not that of any other country.
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Burn’em
We live during the age of the theological celebrity. In previous generations there were undoubtedly popular preachers and theologians but things were a bit different. A theologian like Martin Luther was tied to a church not to a para-church organization, he wrote books, but they were not usually available for mass distribution like today’s trade paperbacks or internet posts, and he preached sermons but you had to be present in Wittenberg to hear them. Nowadays a celebrity preacher likely has a blog, a personal para-church ministry, website, published books, and his sermons hit the web within minutes after being preached. All of this creates a sense of urgency among newly minted minsters—they feel a sense of being left behind. As soon as they get into a church they want to start writing books, recording their sermons, writing their blog posts full of wisdom and insight, and perhaps even fire-up a para-church ministry with a matching website. Is all of this a good idea?
From one vantage point I can understand the sense of urgency. I can remember feeling like I was “behind” because I entered ordained ministry by the time I was 28, one year after Calvin had already published his first edition of the Institutes. I mean, you spend four years in undergrad, three to four years in seminary, followed by three years of graduate school, so the thought is, “I want to get off the bench and into the game!” But the more I have reflected upon what I know now, fifteen years later, and what I knew then, I’m glad that I didn’t get overly exposed too early. What do I mean?
I remember some people at my church were digging around in our storage container and stumbled upon the audiotapes for my first sermon series. They immediately bounced over to me and asked, “Do you want us to convert these to MP3s so we can post them on the website?” I responded, “What? Are you nuts? Those sermons were my very first ones—burn’em.” In other words, over the years I have been able to look back upon earlier work and I wince when I look back at it. As a minister matures, grows, and learns more, hopefully his sermons get better with time and practice. I am glad that I took possession of those tapes and they are now in a landfill somewhere. Yes, the Lord can use our paltry offerings in ways far beyond what we can imagine, but that doesn’t mean that everything we say or write is ready for broad dissemination.
All of this is to say, don’t be too eager to fire up the recorders, post your sermons on line, write books, blog posts, and start a personal para-church ministry. Rather, take time to sit quietly, study, learn, and ply your craft. Tend to your sheep and ensure you spend time caring for them—that is the primary goal of your ministry. True ministry isn’t about celebrity and notoriety, writing books and blog-posts, but about ministering the means of grace, word and sacrament, and caring for hurt and needy sheep. I think far too many ministers chase after the celebrity train and their congregations suffer as a result. The Lord may decide to use you in mighty ways, far beyond the reach of your own congregation. If he does, praise God. But don’t forget that ministry is about your sheep, your congregation. Moreover, as a new minister you still have much to learn. So it will probably be a while before you should become a greater public figure.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Public Prayers
This may come as a surprise but one of my least favorite things to do as a pastor is offer public prayer. I have, I believe, good reasons for my dislike of public prayer. I do like to pray—it is a very personal thing for me where I can lay myself bare and express my fears, concerns, joys, doubts, and many other emotions. The whole dynamic changes, however, when someone else is listening in on the conversation. If you knew, for example, that the NSA was listening to your phone conversations, how would this change what you say? When I’m praying from the pulpit, I have a whole lot of people listening in to my prayer. Such a reality makes me second-guess myself as to what, specifically, I will pray.
Given that many extra ears tune in when I pray from the pulpit, I open myself to a totally different unrequested answer to prayer—criticism. Over the years from time to time I have poured out my heart in public prayer only to have someone approach me afterwards and criticize the content of my prayer. Maybe I forgot to mention something, or I prayed too long, or I didn’t use the right words, or people have even challenged my prayers on theological grounds. Someone once criticized me for being pro-Islamic because I prayed that the gospel would go forth among Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So when I step into the pulpit, I fear being criticized when I am at my most vulnerable.
Regardless of whatever fears I might have, as a minister, you don’t have an option. You will regularly offer public prayers, whether from the pulpit, or at other church functions and occasions. So what should you do to be ready to pray in public? Well, believe it or not, unlike private prayer, you should prepare, train, and even practice to pray in public. Public prayer is an acquired skill. In private prayer, so long as you follow biblical norms, you can say and do what you want. But public prayer has different parameters because of its public and open nature. So how can you prepare for public prayer?
First, study the subject of prayer. Far too many people think that prayer, private or public, requires no study or preparation. Who needs to practice conversation? Isn’t prayer a conversation with God? Yes, prayer is akin to a conversation with God, but have you ever been to a party and been stuck in a corner with a horrible conversationalist? Good conversation is an acquired skill and art, both in delivery and reception. So study the prayers of Scripture—learn their structure, terms, rhythms, and flow. Just like a child learns how to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him, learn how to pray by repeating God’s word back to him. You will learn how to praise God, for example, when you follow the patterns of prayer and praise in the Psalms. Far too often our prayers can sound like a laundry list of requests rather than first losing ourselves in the praise of God in prayer.
Second, don’t be afraid to write out your prayers. For some unknown reason people think that scripted (or prepared) prayers are unspiritual or less vibrant than extemporaneous prayers. They’re not. You can, for example, pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is written, or scripted, yet it is the model prayer and hardly less spiritual than an extemporaneous one. On this note, get a copy of Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. It’s full of scriptural and written prayers that you can use in worship. Pick up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer or The Valley of Vision, which is a collection of puritan prayers. One way to learn how to pray well is to read the prayers of others. You can use these in the pulpit to great personal and congregational benefit. Can you pray extemporaneously? Of course! Yes. But you can also bring written prayers into the pulpit as well.
Third, in public prayers remember that as a minister, you are not praying for yourself but on behalf of your congregation. Remember, your congregation is praying with you through your prayer. Do not, therefore, use the first person pronoun. Do not say, “Please, Lord, help me to preach well.” You have just taken a corporate prayer and made it individual. You have disassociated the congregation from your prayer. You can instead pray, “Lord, help your servant preach well.” This is something that everyone in the church can pray. As the minister, you pray on behalf of the church, therefore, pray with their needs and voice in mind, not merely your own.
Over the years I have grown more comfortable with praying in public, but I still have a sense of discomfort for the above-stated reasons. This fear has given me good reason to pray that the Lord help me to set them aside. If you have similar concerns, take them to Christ in prayer so that he will assist you in your public prayers.
Latest Office Hours! D. G. Hart’s Latest book
Office Hours talks with Dr. Darryl G. Hart, Adjunct Professor of Church History, about his recent book Calvinism: A History, which covers 500 years of Reformed Protestantism in a mere 300 pages!
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Living the in the Shadow of Death
The sad and true reality is that we live in the valley of the shadow of death, and as a pastor, this is a pressing reality. While others in the church might be able to live somewhat detached from illness and death, the pastor typically has a much closer connection to it. I can recall, for example, that when I was a teenager, my pastor had to shepherd five different families through cancer and death over a two-year period. I was sad for these families, but given the size of the church, my contact with them was minimal. My pastor, on the other hand, made regular visits with these families, whether in their homes, in hospitals, or even on their death-beds as they prepared to meet Christ face-to-face.
Depending on the circumstances the pastor, therefore, can be hard-pressed to carry on his regular duties. Death does not make appointments—you can’t schedule a time to die (I’m not talking about suicide, of course). This means that the pastor is at the beck and call of Providence. Sometimes it might be difficult for him to prepare his sermons because he’s ministering to a dying congregant or preparing for a funeral and the ministry he must conduct after the burial. Other times ministers face the challenge of not knowing what to do when someone is gravely ill. I had someone in my congregation suffering and dying from cancer, but the precise moment of the person’s death was anyone’s guess. The doctors said it could be days, weeks, or even months away. What was I to do? Do I put my life on hold? Do I take my family on vacation or do I stay close to home?
Trying to decide between ministry and vacation might sound like a trite comparison, one where there is no real choice, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a real choice. When you’ve made plans before your congregant became ill, paid non-refundable deposits, are in desperate need of rest, and have relatives scheduled to be present and expecting you, that’s real life. In this particular case, my wife believed that this would be the last time she would be able to spend an extended period of time with her grandmother. Do I stay and send my wife and children? Do I go with them? Decisions, decisions, decisions. I had a few restless nights with this dilemma.
I decided that even though we live in the face of death, that we nonetheless have to live our lives—do the things that Christ calls us to do even in the face of uncertainty. I decided, consequently, to take my family on vacation only to receive word that my congregant died in my absence. I naturally immediately returned home with my wife and children and ministered to the family who had lost their loved-one. I wondered whether this turn of events was the proof that I had made the wrong decision. And in all honesty, I had to pray that the Lord help me not be frustrated with the turn of events. It may sound impious, but again, that’s the reality of the pastorate. Pastors struggle with life as much as anyone. While it’s certainly possible that I made the wrong decision and should have stayed and canceled our family vacation, I rested in the fact that as the pastor, I cannot be in every place at once. As useful as omnipresence might be, this is something reserved for God alone. It’s what theologians call an incommunicable attribute of God.
This means that as a pastor, you are human, and have human limitations. It would be one thing if you knew precisely when someone was going to die and then decided to do something else. But when you can only live life moment to moment in the face of the uncertainties of life and death, you can only do so much. You can make decisions but be prepared to roll with the punches, to be flexible. Like the proverbial horse between two bowls of oats, if you choose to do nothing, you’ll starve. Therefore, in the face of death, make decisions, live life, and don’t be held captive by uncertainty and indecision. Sometimes, you might choose to stay close to home to minister to someone who might die. Other times you might choose to travel because it seems like a reasonable course of action. Such is the nature of wisdom, which is much needed in the face of death. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly, and sometimes you don’t (Prov. 26:4-5). But do pray that when Providence does change your plans, that you have patience and love for those involved in your new plans, especially your congregation. Pray for your family that they will be willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s sheep. And if you’re not the pastor, pray that the Lord would sustain him as he makes challenging decisions—pray that the Lord would give him wisdom, love, and a sacrificial heart.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Three Important Responses
I served as an ordained minister for about five years before I was married. Among the different things I told my wife, I gave her three important responses that she should put in her church-conversation arsenal. It seems inevitable, that people talk, share problems, and sadly, even gossip. As the pastor’s wife, I knew she would hear her fair share of unsolicited information. To that end, I told her to use these three responses:
• “Hmm . . . that’s interesting . . .”
• “I’m sorry, this conversation is making me uncomfortable.”
• “This is something you should discuss with my husband.”
There might be different variants or perhaps combinations of these phrases, but they prove useful in the following ways.
First, I knew people would approach my wife and share controversial ideas with her, whether they might be political, theological, or personal. People often look for allies, for others to agree with them. In some circumstances a definitive, Yes or No, may be required, but in others, a circumspective, “Hmm . . . that’s interesting,” is quite useful. It’s non-committal, recognizes that you’re listening and engaged, but doesn’t require you to give an opinion. As impassioned as someone might be about the latest ballot measure for the city council meeting, responding with, “Hmm . . . that’s interesting,” can keep you out of the fray, and more importantly, keep you out of the middle of unnecessary debate or argument.
Second, I knew people would approach my wife with gossip, or things that were of a very personal nature. In the case of gossip, regardless of who you are, you should gently remind people that such talk is sinful (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:20). But on the other hand, there might be situations where someone wants to tell you all about their latest visit to the doctor’s office in all of the gory details. You don’t want to be rude, but neither do you want to hear about the details of an upper GI exam. A simple and kind, “I’m sorry, this conversation is making me uncomfortable,” will usually suffice. It lets the other person know you don’t want to continue the conversation.
Third, I definitely knew that people would try to approach my wife with issues that should be addressed to the session or me. Sometimes people treat the pastor’s wife as a back door to the pastor or session, and some pastor’s wives probably feel like they should carry the message. I told my wife to let people know very quickly, “This is something you should discuss with my husband.” In other words, the pastor’s wife isn’t a minister and doesn’t sit on the session or consistory. She should not have to deal with such matters.
There might be other things that you can say, but my wife has told me that over the years she has found these three phrases to be helpful to her. Perhaps they might be helpful to you as well, whether you’re a pastor’s wife or just someone in need of a few conversational extrication tools.
Latest Office Hours! New Life in the Shadow of Death with Dr. Horton
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, about the lordship controversy back in the 80s.
You can find this latest episode here.
Refreshing the Reformed Pastor
“In the Reformed tradition we have embraced the ideal of the learned pastor,” and to be “a learned pastor … requires ongoing study,” writes Dr. David VanDrunen in his Ordained Servant article, “Sabbaticals for Pastors”. VanDrunen acknowledges, however, that “it can be very difficult for pastors to find adequate time engage in the kind of reading and study that enables them to fulfill [this] pastoral ideal” - which is why churches should consider sabbaticals for their pastors.
To be clear, “Sabbaticals are not vacations with an exalted name,” but are “periods in which a person interrupts his ordinary routine in order to engage in focused study and learning, for the purpose of gaining knowledge and skill that will make him better at his labor and will benefit the people for whom he works.” VanDrunen believes sabbaticals “can be a healthy and productive means for ministers to become better students of God’s Word and thus to become better pastors.” “By permitting a pastor time for focused study and learning, sabbaticals can benefit not only the pastor himself, but more importantly the congregation that he serves and the broader church.”
Among several ideas for how a pastor can use this time away from regular ministerial work, VanDrunen suggests that “a pastor might consider using his sabbatical to take a course at a seminary,” noting that “many Reformed seminaries offer one-week or two-week courses at certain times of the year. Rather than simply doing independent reading to catch up on a certain topic or to gain general knowledge about a book of Scripture, many pastors could benefit from classroom instruction and interaction with fellow students.”
Now in its second year, the Alumni Winter Refresher at Westminster Seminary California (WSC) offers alumni a great opportunity to be spiritually, mentally, and physically refreshed during the month of January. Every January, WSC offers several short, one-week elective courses in pastoral ministry, church history, evangelism, and historical theology that are FREE to audit for any WSC alumnus. Additionally, WSC’s Annual Conference is held every January (usually the same weekend as MLK Jr. Day), and this year’s theme is “Transforming Grace: Our Need for Holiness”. Finally, WSC’s Alumni Winter Refresher allows alumni time to reconnect with faculty and to enjoy great Southern California weather!
VanDrunen concludes his article by urging congregations and sessions “to work with their pastors to secure adequate time from him to grow as a learned minister of God’s Word. When used responsibly and wisely, regular pastoral sabbaticals can be a blessing for the pastor, his congregation, and the broader church.”
For more information about WSC’s Alumni Winter Refresher, contact Chris Sandoval at (888) 480-8484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Pastor’s Reflections: First Lady?
One of the pressures that a new pastor quickly discovers is that there are a lot of unspoken expectations about how the pastor’s wife should conduct herself. In a word, many people think the pastor’s wife serves a role akin to the first lady, the president’s wife. The first lady usually has some sort of PR initiative (Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign or Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiative). Moreover, the first lady is expected to host events, make press appearances, speeches, and the like. On a similar track, many people in the church expect that the pastor’s wife should host and lead Bible studies, play the piano, take the lead for social functions, or teach children’s Sunday school, etc. As common as this might be, I have serious concerns and reservations about such expectations.
I spent a number of years as a bachelor while I was in the pastorate, which meant that I was able to prepare my wife-to-be for some of the ins-and-outs of the ministry before we were married. One of the things that I told her was, “You are not the first lady of the church. You will be another member of the congregation. Pray and consider where you might serve in the church, but follow Christ’s leading on this and not the pressures and expectations of people in the church.” I firmly believe this was and is sound counsel for at least two reasons.
First, when the church calls a pastor, they call the minister, not his wife. As common a practice as it might be to interview the pastor and his wife, I personally do not believe such a practice is valid. Yes, a search committee needs to get to know the pastor’s family, but that can be done over a meal or social gathering, not a formal interview. Moreover, the church is paying the pastor a salary, not his wife. They do not have the moral right to expect work from the pastor’s wife any more than they would any other member of the congregation.
Second, the pastor’s wife is supposed to help him first and foremost, not the church. When churches place undue pressure upon a pastor’s wife, things at home can begin to suffer. I think this type of pressure contributes to the PK phenomenon (PKs are “preacher’s kids,” and they have a reputation as being troubled, immature, and disobedient). The pastor and his wife are too busy to care for their own household and children, and as a result, the PKs suffer. It very well may be that the pastor’s wife will have little to no time to serve the church because she has to tend to her own household matters, work, or raising small children.
Now in the interest of fairness and balance, for those who are pastor’s wives, or who will play this role in the future, do be sensitive to these expectations, as unfair as they can be at times. Don’t simply ignore them, and do what you can to be an asset to your husband’s ministry to the church. I think that as a pastor’s wife a person can set an excellent example of what it means to be a good church member simply by attending church, morning and evening worship, not hiding out in the nursery, and participating, when possible, in the broader life of the church. The pastor’s wife, for example, does not have to lead a Bible study, but simply attend it. Such members are often in short supply. But in the end, follow the Lord’s leading on how and when you should serve the church—do not allow others to play the role of the Holy Spirit in trying to convict you to serve. Pray, discuss it with your husband, and serve the Lord wherever that may be.
Latest Office Hours! VanDrunen on the Bible and Law
Office Hours talks with Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, about a recent book he co-edited entitled, Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t be a bottom feeder
In seminary I discovered a life-long friend and enemy—the footnote. Sometimes when I read a book I find the footnotes to be more interesting than the main text. Authors bury fascinating comments and research in the footnotes. I love footnotes because I can follow the “bread-crumb trail” back to the original sources that authors use to create their own books. I also hate footnotes because I inevitably discover ten new books that I haven’t read and know that I now have to read but don’t have the time or resources to do so.
But when I was in seminary I quickly discovered that a number of my friends ignored the footnotes. They were content to read the text and move on. I also found that these same friends also typically read more popular theological books. Now don’t get me wrong—popular theological books are helpful and have their place in one’s theological reading diet. It’s important to see how a good theologian can take complex truths and break them down in a simplified manner. But on the other hand, if you only read popular books or only read the main text and never dig into the footnotes, you’ll inevitably cut yourself off from a wealth of knowledge and information.
As important as it is to read books about the Reformation, for example, you’ll be impoverished if you never read books by the Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Vermigli, Ursinus (the "Golden Bear"), and the like. This same pattern appears with the importance of knowing the original biblical languages—are you going to rely on others to tell you what the Bible says or will you read it for yourself?
In a word, don’t be a bottom feeder. Bird-dog the footnotes! Chase them down! Don’t rely exclusively on the work of others to familiarize you with the great theological works. Dive in, read, mark, learn, and encourage others to do the same. Start a book club where you read great theological classics, like Augustine’s Confessions or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. And if you’re a pastor, focus on reading deep. Rather than read the latest book by Tim Keller, peruse the footnotes and find out what Tim Keller is reading, pick it up, and read it!
Latest Office Hours! The Sanctification Crisis in the Reformation
Office Hours continues with the new series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Christ," by talking with Dr. J. V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology, about the sanctification crisis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Read and Re-read
In our present American culture we live in an unprecedented time where attention spans are likely the shortest they have ever been. In the digital age we are used to instantaneous results. If we want to know something we Google it and thousands of results immediately appear on our screens. We don’t even have to wait to get to a computer but can run searches on our mobile devices. Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death has documented the deleterious effects that digital media has had upon our culture. He notes that in the nineteenth-century when Abraham Lincoln ran for office that the presidential debates lasted for hours on end, whereas in our own day, they last minutes and the media then strips the debate down to one or two sound bites. I suspect that when Lloyd Benson debated Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate few people remember much about the substance of their exchange. The one ringing sound bite, however, still lingers in the minds of many. When Quayle said that he had more political experience than John F. Kennedy, in terms of the amount of time served, when Kennedy became president, Benson responded to Quayle, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This is the one statement that sticks—everything else has faded away. Instead of digging deep into books, people go to Wikipedia. As useful as the Internet can be, never before have we had access to so much information yet know so little.
Given these trends I think seminary students and ministers these days suffer from a short attention span and the inability to read long, detailed, carefully argued information. I am a digital immigrant, which means that the Internet was not around when I was a kid. To give you an idea, I used 8-track tapes and 45’s and even my dad’s reel-to-reel from time to time. But even then I still notice the negative effects of technology on my attention span. As with any problem, diagnosing and recognizing the issue is half the battle. If you know that digital media can have a negative effect on your attention span, then resist the temptation to turn on the computer, surf the internet, or watch a show. If you need to learn about something, fine, go to Wikipedia, find out what book you need, and then turn off the computer and get the book!
Also resist the urge for instantaneous gratification. The first time I read Geerhardus Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology I was bored to tears. I thought Vos was writing in Dinglish (Dutch + English = Dinglish). But I persevered and read through the whole book. I still wasn’t satisfied, however. So a few months later I picked up the book and read it again. I could tell I was benefiting from this because the first time I read the book I used a yellow highlighter and hardly marked anything. The second time I used blue, and I marked a number of more passages. But I still didn’t feel like I had figured out what Vos was saying, so a few months later I read the book for a third time. This time the lights came on and the Dinglish scales fell off my eyes! I could tell because I was painting entire pages with my pink highlighter. I couldn’t believe I had missed so much on the first two readings of the book.
Now, there is the real possibility that I am a dunce and it takes me a lot of elbow grease to understand something in comparison with others (yes, mom and dad, I now understand how they make movies). On the other hand, maybe I’m like most people and I have to fight the temptation for immediate gratification—I have to read, and re-read in order to grasp carefully argued and reasoned information. In other words, don’t be misled by our culture, which tells us that we can have everything immediately and with little to no effort. You can Google or Wiki something but it doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned anything. Read and re-read and don’t be afraid to work hard to learn. Read once, twice, three times if necessary. Outline the book. Take notes. In the end, you will reap the benefits, and more importantly, so will your congregation.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Bounce Couples
One of the things a pastor and his family should regularly do is exercise hospitality. Each year my wife and I would go through our church’s directory and make a rough plan that outlined when we would invite various families over to the house. But the reality of church life is, as the pastor, you need to show kindness and hospitality to everyone in the church. You don’t have the freedom to play favorites. If you invite only certain people over to your home, you’ll inevitably create an “in crowd” that will leave the rest of the church wondering why they’re second-class citizens.
But truth be told, it’s not easy inviting everyone over to your home, and I’m not just talking about numbers, i.e., the logistics of inviting large numbers of people. I’m talking about the various reasons why it’s not fun to have certain people over. For example, some people are obnoxious and only talk about themselves, or they constantly dominate the conversation. Others are so shy, getting them to talk is like trying to mine diamonds—you constantly have to ask questions to which you only get the smallest of one-word answers followed by awkward silence. Let’s face it, there are many reasons why it’s difficult to interact with some people in your congregation. So what are you to do?
My wife and identified the challenging people (this was something that we definitely kept to ourselves) and then invited a “bounce couple” or two in addition to the tough people. What’s a bounce couple? “Bounce couple,” is the term that I used when we needed to identify a couple that was mature, good with people, and were good conversationalists. I called them “bounce couples” (you can also have a “bounce person,” for the one who’s single) because you could bounce ideas, conversation, and people off of them. When we invited the shy person over, for example, the presence of another couple would create a livelier atmosphere, provide someone else to contribute to the conversation, and help draw the person in.
All of this is to say, you need to show hospitality to everyone in your church, but you can do so with the help of others. And you need not tell your bounce couple that they are serving the “bounce” role. Simply invite them over and enjoy the fellowship. Having a number of bounce couples on your “roster” can make showing hospitality a whole lot easier and enjoyable, and it takes a lot of the pressure off you and your family. You can even ask your bounce couple to bring a salad or desert! This principle also works for non-pastor types!
Latest Office Hours! The Experience Economy
Office Hours talks with James H. Gilmore, guest lecturer of a course offered at WSCAL entitled "Understanding Commerce, Culture, and Congregations," about the importance of cultural exegesis for pastors and their congregations.
To listen to this latest episode click here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Spiritual Bulimics and Anorexics
There are spiritual bulimics. Bulimia is an eating disorder where people will binge eat and then purge, to put it politely. I ran into a number of people like this who would regularly come to church, they would buy many theological books, and even profess to read and study the word. But regardless of how much they consumed, they seemed to purge it out as soon as the left the doors of the church. Their lives were a total mess—gross sin abounded and there were massive breaches of judgment.
There are spiritual anorexics. Anorexia is an eating disorder where a person stays away from food altogether. There were a number of people in the church who claimed that they were Christians, several of whom were on the membership roll, but who seldom darkened the door of the church. On a number of pastoral visits I would encourage them to attend church—I showed them various Scripture passages and explained the importance of the means of grace for their sanctification. Unsurprisingly, not only were these people frequently absent from church, but they were also inattentive to the word and prayer in their own private devotions. In one case, after many long months and repeated entreaties, the session placed one individual under church discipline for his or her failure to attend church—there were also other factors involved. People like this frustrated me because they would complain about having all sorts of spiritual problems. Well, yes, of course you will. If you don’t eat food then of course you’ll be weak.
In the church we all have to realize that coming to the table and eating (to extend the analogy) is not enough. You not only have to consume, but you also have to digest. The spiritual bulimic suffers likely suffers from insatiable hunger, but Christ tells us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Chances are, if you’re constantly devouring theological “food,” but to no effect, then you’re probably an intellectual ideas junkie. You like the intellectual stimulation but you’re not genuinely interested in taking up your cross and following Christ. Like Paul’s description of the person who possesses all knowledge but has not love, he is like a noisy cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1-2). Growth in grace is not ultimately about the acquisition of knowledge but ultimately the pursuit of wisdom—of learning who Christ is and seeking greater conformity to his image.
Likewise, for the spiritual anorexic, if you find yourself fleeing from the “meal” that Christ offers in word and sacrament, could it be that you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness because you are already full? Have you already sat at the table of the world and taken your fill so that you have no hunger for righteousness?
In both cases, whether for the spiritual bulimic or anorexic, the only person who can move you past these sanctification disorders is Christ. Only he can give you the desire to pursue the wisdom that can only be found him (Col. 2:3). Only he can give you the desire to flee the table of the world and give you a hunger and thirst for righteousness that only word and sacrament can satiate.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Degrees Don’t Mean Much
One of the more discouraging aspects of the pastorate is the lack of respect that people show for their pastor’s education. When it’s all said and done, a well-trained pastor will spend four years in his undergraduate studies, three to four years in his seminary training, and perhaps one year in an internship, for a grand total of eight to nine years of education and practice before he steps into a pulpit full-time. That’s almost as long as it takes to become a medical doctor.
Now in all fairness, there are many people in the church who recognize the amount of training, study, and preparation that ministers must accomplish. But there are also those who care little to nothing about your training. It doesn’t matter that you’ve studied philosophy, theology, and that you’ve poured over the Greek and Hebrew text, compared it with the Septuagint, scanned the history of exegesis, and read hundreds of pages on one verse (John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, anyone? I see that hand!). To many people in the pew, if you say something they don’t like, they’ll simply disagree with you and often be unafraid publicly to tell you. A softer and gentler version of this occurs, for example, when you’re trying to teach the children in your church—they don’t know or likely understand how much training, degrees, and preparation it’s taken to bring you to stand before them and explain the Bible. So, there’s a sense in which degrees don’t mean much.
I’m definitely not saying that ministers should not train—I spent nearly a decade preparing for service in the church and don’t regret a minute of it. The point is, you cannot step into a church and expect people to bow down before the degrees that hang on your wall. Instead, here are a few observations about education, degrees, and serving the church.
First, your degree isn’t a terminus but a starting point—it’s your license to learn. It’s great that you’ve finished seminary, but you’re really just getting started. Never, ever, think that you’ve “arrived.” The more I have studied, the more I realize how little I know. This fact alone should keep you humble.
Second, you must pray for patience. When you preach and teach, as important as your study is, your knowledge is not what ultimately grabs people by their hearts and mind—only the Spirit of God can do this through the word. You merely prepare the meal—the Spirit enables people to consume and digest it. Think, for example, of Christ’s interaction with his own disciples. How often do we want to grab the disciples and box their ears because they just don’t get it? It seems like their spiritual dimwittedness would have driven anyone else batty. Think of Paul’s labors with the Galatians or Corinthians. Here is a man personally ordained and commissioned by Christ, yet it seems that Paul was never in want of disrespect or indifference.
Third, whatever you know, have learned, or will learn, is ultimately because of God’s grace. Therefore, you can’t take credit for it and take umbrage when someone doesn’t respect your office. You’re simply one beggar showing another beggar where he can find a meal. Don’t think too much of yourself. If Jesus, Paul, the apostles, and prophets suffered great disrespect, so can you.
Fourth, don’t be offended if people want to verify your teaching against the word of God. The Bereans did this to Paul (Acts 17:11)—they verified the things he was teaching. If your congregation isn’t verifying your preaching and teaching against the word, then they might be looking to you rather than Christ. I’ve always told my congregation and students, “Don’t believe it because I say it—verify it with the word and believe it because Christ says it.”
In the end, don’t stand on your education but rather your union with Christ and his word. Only he can give you the patience to love your sheep, no matter what they think of your education. And only he can give you the humility to esteem him and his church more than the degrees that may hang on your wall.