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.
Latest Office Hours! New Life in the Shadow of Death with Dr. Jones
Office Hours continues with the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Hywel R. Jones, Professor of Practical Theology, about the role of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying the believer. This episode explores the question of whether a Christian can grieve the Holy Spirit and discusses in depth the Christian's unholy alliance of enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
You can find this latest episode here.
Latest Office Hours: Justification 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 how justification relates to sanctification, the dangers of antinomianism and neonomianism, and the biblical answer of a Law-and-Gospel-driven life.
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 American, 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.
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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.
Latest Office Hours! The Definition of Sanctification
Office Hours kicks off with a new series entitled, "The Pilgrim Life: Conforming to Christ" by talking with Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, about the God who not only justifies, but also sanctifies.
You can find this latest episode here.
Bookstore back on-line!
WSC's bookstore is back on-line. This past summer we took the bookstore off-line because we made some changes so that our bookstore would be able better to serve our students and local community. Our bookstore's hours are now contiguous with our library's hours, open from 8.00am to 10.00pm at night! There are few bookstores, I believe, that can match those hours.
Additionally, the bookstore is back on-line with faculty titles available for purchase.
You can find the bookstore's pages on the WSC website here and a list of faculty books here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Sleeping in Church
In my time in the pastorate I only rebuked (gently, I believe) my congregation twice for sleeping. On two particular instances, one where we were administering the Lord’s Supper, there were an inordinate number of people dozing off. And especially in the case of the Lord’s Supper, I urged people not to take it if they had been sleeping. How can the sacrament be of benefit if you’ve slept through the preaching of the word?
There are a number of reasons why people sleep in church. Let’s set aside genuine excuses. Some people are on medication that makes them dreary—I’ve had really bad colds where my medication makes me feel like I’m in an astronaut’s helmet walking on the surface of the moon. I’ve felt downright loopy. So falling asleep in church might be excused. I also had a number of church members who were public safety personnel (fire or police). Some of them would come right off an all-night shift and arrive at church somewhat bleary-eyed, and understandably so. I always had (and do have) great respect for the public safety officer or medical personnel (works of necessity) who would still make an effort to come to church. The same can go for parents of young children. Sometimes small children can keep you up all night for various reasons, but I’ve seen parents drag themselves to church anyway. In these circumstances falling asleep in church is perfectly understandable, though undesirable.
There are those, however, who I saw sleeping in church because of a lack of what the Puritans used to call, “Sabbath preparation.” Some people look at Saturday night as a time to have fun, and understandably so. After a long workweek it’s nice to be able to rest and blow off some steam. But when fun rolls late into the night and then the wee hours of the morning, how might this impact your Sunday worship? If you can stay up late into the evening and early morning and still stay alert and awake during worship, then more power to you. Of course, I’m bypassing the important question of what you’re doing during those hours (i.e., are you filling your mind with garbage? That’s a subject for another post). But if you know that staying up late will impinge on your alertness in worship, then go to sleep!
If we truly understand what worship is, gathering in the presence of our holy triune God, and that the reading and preaching of the word, in conjunction with the sacraments, is God’s voice to his people, then we should certainly be alert and attentive. In the end, be diligent to make good preparation for Sunday. Get a good night’s rest.
Dr. Fesko’s Baptism book back in print!
Dr. Fesko's book on baptism, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism is back in print! The first printing of hardbacks dried up but the reprinted edition is now available in a modestly priced paperback edition. You can obtain a copy at our local campus bookstore (they might have a few hardbacks left) or by ordering one here or here. You can find a copy at our own bookstore here.
When not to take a call
Over the years I have watched numerous churches form search committees and seek to fill empty pulpits. The process can often be a long and drawn out one that can take up to two years or more. Hiring the church’s next pastor can be a crucial hurdle in the life of a congregation, one that can either spell the church’s continued ministry or its demise. This is one of the reasons why churches take their time to deliberate and find the right man for the job. For the ministerial candidate, on the other hand, the process can be excruciatingly long. A pastoral search committee can seemingly move at glacial speed as the months tick by on the calendar. So after a church’s pulpit search committee finally invites you out for an interview, has you preach, and they then call a congregational meeting to vote on your candidacy, it can seem like it’s all over and the call is in the bag.
Not so fast. It may seem counterintuitive, but there are times when you shouldn’t accept a call even if a church issues you one. When should you decline a call? Ultimately answering such a question calls for wisdom, as this is a circumstance that is not black and white. Nevertheless, here are two observations.
First, when a congregation issues a call, you should inquire into the percentage in favor of calling you. Some might think, “Why ask about this? A call is a call regardless of how many people are in favor of calling you, right?” Accepting a call isn’t like winning a baseball or football game. Yes, a win is a win no matter how ugly it might be, but a win becomes a thing of the past whereas a call is a future relationship that will either foster harmony in the service of Christ and his gospel or fester with animosity and hinder your ministry. Case in point, if 75% of the congregation voted in favor or your call, that means that for every four people in the church, one is opposed to your presence before you even set foot in the church building. In a congregation of 200, that means that 50 people don’t want you there. In the face of such a vote, you might not want to pursue the call. Generally speaking, I have heard other colleagues, wiser and older than me, say that a minister shouldn’t accept a call unless at least 90% of the church voted for you. You will never please everyone all the time, and you will always have critics, but seriously consider how strong the vote is when you weigh taking a call.
Second, churches are like people—they all have personalities. And the fit between a pastor and his church is like a marriage relationship. When you’re looking for a spouse you want to ensure you have a good personality fit. Yes, a person can love Christ, have a great character, and a terrific personality, but the two of you might not “click.” A church can bear all of the proper biblical marks (right preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline) but its personality can be an issue. Case in point, if you go into a church interview and observe that you like the church but that you want to change many things that you see, then seriously consider whether you should take the call. I’m not talking about reforming a church—taking a call knowing from the outset that you’ll have a fight on your hands because you’re striving to displace bad theology and worship. Rather, I’m talking about peripheral practices in a church: the choir, service times, programs, discipleship groups, music style, etc. If you go into a church thinking that you’re going to ideologically and practically remodel the whole thing, then maybe you shouldn’t take the call. Ask yourself whether you and the church have a good fit.
There are times when you shouldn’t take the call. Just because a church calls you doesn’t mean you should take it.
Preaching Christ with Application!
It seems that one of the perennial debates that swirls around Reformed circles is the question of how to preach the text of Scripture. Do you rely upon the "grammatical historical method" or the "redemptive historical method" (notice the scare quotes)? The way these two opinions are typically bandied about is: Do you believe in exegeting the text responsibly or arbitrarily forcing Christ upon it? Do you believe in preaching Christ or in preaching application? I think much of this debate forces false dichotomies upon people who genuinely want to know how rightly to interpret and preach Scripture.
First, pitting grammatical historical vs. redemptive historical is like trying to pit your heart against your lungs. Which one is more important? Pick! Choose! Uh, can I have both? You have to understand the grammar of the passage as well as its historical context, but you also have to situate the passage with regard to the rest of the Bible. Where, precisely, in the canon does the passage rest? Are we pre- or post-fall, before or after Christ's advent? Before or after the monarchy, Pentecost, etc.
Second, exegetes and preachers should want to preach Christ from every text, responsibly, not by foisting him upon it, but showing the church how Christ is organically connected to it. Edmund Clowney used to tell his students (so I'm told) to ask themeslves a simple question: "Can you preach your message at a Jewish synagogue without offense?" In other words, if you walk away from preaching a text and deliver a message that would have been positively received at a synagogue, then chances are that you have failed to preach Christ and deliver the offense of the gospel. Moreover, preaching Christ and the gospel from any text in Scripture is not merely a matter of the so-called "shingle sermon." What's a shingle sermon? It's when the preacher goes on for the entire sermon but knows that he has to mention Christ and the gospel so he tacks it on to the end of his sermon like a shingle. Christ's presence in the text, sermon, and hence preaching the gospel, should arise naturally not as an afterthought.
Third, all responsible preachers should follow the apostolic method and apply the text to his auditors, to the church. Yes, "application" (scare quotes again!) is a hotly debated subject. Not all application is created equal. To illustrate my point, consider preachers in the days of Johan Sebastian Bach. In the German churches of his day preachers were expected to be imminently practical and not dwell upon arcane doctrines. So what did they do? They would sometimes give practical tips, such as how to make your garden grow. Seriously--they gave gardening tips to be practical. Again, as with preaching Christ from every text, the preacher must seek to apply the text exegetically and responsibly. If you're preaching a text from Romans 4 where Paul discusses justification and you somehow end the sermon on the importance of good works, chances are you missed the point of the text. The application should be about believing in the gospel of Christ! On the other hand, if you are preaching from Ephesians 5:25-33, your application cannot merely be, “Contemplate with gratitude how sacrificially Christ has loved his church.” It must drive toward the specific direction with which Paul opens and closes his discussion: “Husbands love your wives…let each one of you love his wife as himself.” The text should drive the application, not the agendas, desires, or interests of the preacher or congregation. Sometimes the application will be to love your wife, worship God, give of your money to the poor, or believe in Jesus.
If you want to learn more about these things from someone who has given them very careful, prayerful, and theological thought, check out a number of resources by WSC's own Prof. Dennis Johnson.
Click here to find a series of lectures that Dr. Johnson gave on apostolic christocentric homiletics. Or for a more in-depth look at these issues, check out Dr. Johnson's book, Him We Proclaim.
Click here to find a trove of resources on preaching Christ from all of Scripture.
In the end, study the Scriptures and ask, How did the apostles connect Christ to the various Old Testament texts that they cite? How, for example, does Paul connect Christ to Psalm 8, a text clearly about the creation of man (1 Cor. 15:20-28)? Obtain good resources to study these subjects, such as Dr. Johnson's book and lectures. But whatever you do, don't rely on bumper-sticker debates about preaching.
Prof. Hart’s Book in the Wall Street Journal!
If you haven't yet heard, Visiting Professor of Church History at WSC, Dr. Darryl Hart, recently had his new book Calvinism: A History published earlier this summer by Yale University Press. For many years students have had to rely on John T. McNeill's The History and Character of Calvinism, but now with Hart's volume they have a freshly minted resource to study the history, development, and spread of the Reformed faith.
Interestingly, Hart's book was positively reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and appeared August 20, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition with the headline: The Eating Of Sausages. The review's author concludes his assesment of Hart's book with the following observation:
Where does Calvinism stand now? Mr. Hart, whose other writings tend toward pessimism and regret, sounds almost cheerful about Calvinism's global presence. "Reformed Protestantism has been a global faith since the 17th century," he writes, and it is equally so now. It thrives in South Korea; self-consciously Reformed churches in the U.S. aren't on life support as their "mainline" counterparts are; missionaries from Reformed denominations are spreading throughout Africa and Asia; and there are even modest signs of a Calvinist resurgence in Europe.
In the developed world, established churches have dwindled to the point of insignificance, and national loyalties (along with national borders) mean less and less. If Mr. Hart's view of Calvinism is right—that it has flourished best when freed from the encumbrances of the nation-state's power—its history is far from over.
For as much criticism as Hart receives for being unconcerned and having capitulated to the surrounding culture given his commitments to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, this observation begs the question as to how accurate the criticisms have been. Maybe questions about cultural influence and transformation deserve broader discussion and input as well as bringing old ideas to the table for reconsideration? Nevertheless, it's worth noting that Hart's book on the history of the Reformed tradition has been featured in one of our American culture's leading secular publications--another counterfactual piece of evidence against the charge that Two Kingdoms advocates are culturually disengaged.
In the end, read the review in the WSJ, or better yet, pick up Hart's latest book!
Thick skin, thin skin
In the pastorate you have to master the seemingly impossible art of having, at the same time, thick and thin skin. How can you possibly pull off such a feat? And why would such a chameleon-like skill even be desirable?
First, why do you need thick skin? In a word, as pastor you will receive your fair share of criticism. The lion’s share of criticism should be placed into the “ignore this stuff” category. People often complain about the silliest things: the time of the worship service, how frequently the church holds activities, the types of illustrations you use in your sermons, the fact that you pick the same hymn too frequently, the color of your tie, or the kind of beverage you drink (for the record, I’ve personally had all of these complaints). I have to say with great glee, that I simply smile, note the complaint, and then move on. I let the words flow off my back like water off a duck. At the same time, I have also had complaints about very serious matters, though they have been grossly unwarranted. People have complained that the children’s Sunday School was run like a concentration camp (true story), I have had people yelling at me at the top of their lungs, and I have had people complaining sobbing with tears about how insensitive I’ve been because I failed to foster their unique relationships with each member of the trinity (true story). Again, I had to let these comments roll off my back. If you let every single comment weigh you down, then you’ll quickly end up very tired, burned out, and looking for a career change. I think the inability to have thick skin is one of the reasons why men leave the pastorate in droves. So, you definitely need thick skin.
Second, why do you need thin skin? If you only have thick skin, then you will quickly become impervious to all of the criticism and complaints and think you’re bulletproof. In the midst of the noisy din of complaints there are frequently critical words that require serious reflection, consumption, and engagement. If you ignore them, you do so at your own peril and perhaps even to the detriment of the church. And sometimes, complaints come from people for whom you might have the least amount of respect. In other words, sometimes crazy people make accurate observations. I can remember in Sunday School, in front of everyone, a person that many in the church ignored told me, “You are formulating an answer in your mind before you have heard the entire question. Please listen to the whole question before you run off to answer it!” This was a thin-skin moment—one where I needed to heed the complaint. The person was absolutely right and I acknowledged this. I quieted my mind and listened to the person’s question.
All of this is to say, in the pastorate you need wisdom to know when to ignore criticism and when to take it to heart. This is one of the reasons why as the pastor, or any person for that matter, you need to be in constant prayer to ask Christ to give you boldness and confidence to ignore inane or baseless complaints on the one hand, and to have humility to accept valid criticism with grace and charity on the other. Pray therefore, that Christ would give you thick and thin skin!
Latest Office Hours with Charles Telfer
Office Hours talks with Rev. Charles Telfer, Assistant Professor of Biblical Languages at Westminster Seminary California, about his journey to a Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
You can find this latest episode here!
Latest Office Hours with Kelly Kapic
Office Hours talks with Dr. Kelly Kapic, Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, about John Owen and Christian spirituality.
You can find this latest episode here!
Don’t Go Alone
Among the regular duties that a pastor must carry out is regular in-home visits with members of the congregation. In the first year of my ministry I can remember an elder churchman in the presbytery telling me, “Always take one of your ruling elders with you when you make home visits. There are too many benefits to ignore and too many liabilities when you go alone.” Over the years I have thought back to that counsel and have noted how right this colleague was.
First, what are the benefits to taking a ruling elder with you on home visits? There are many:
• You practically teach the church that the pastor and elders form the church’s leadership, not just the pastor alone.
• You have a second set of ears and eyes on the home and conversation.
• You have accountability present with you so that no one can claim you said or did anything inappropriate.
• You practically demonstrate that the elders of the church love the congregation as much as the pastor.
• You have someone present who might be able to offer helpful life-advice, depending on the age of the elder it could be advice about career, child-rearing, marriage, etc.
• It’s a personal encouragement to you, the pastor, to know that you’re not shepherding the sheep alone.
• You have a second person with first-hand knowledge about how to pray for a family in need.
• The elders of the church get to know the members of the church in a far more intimate manner.
I suspect that there are other benefits that I could list, but these certainly touch upon the key points.
The liabilities to going alone, on the other hand, can be significant. When you visit a home alone, you can have the inverse of the benefits:
• You practically and incorrectly teach that the pastor is the sole leader of the church.
• You don’t have a second set of eyes and ears on a home and conversation.
• You have no accountability present.
• You practically demonstrate and possibly convey that the elders don’t love the congregation as much as the pastor.
• You only have your own counsel to offer.
• It can be a personal discouragement to you as the pastor knowing that your elders don’t share in the labor of home visits.
• You likely don’t have a second person with first hand knowledge of a situation for prayer.
• The elders of the church lose out on an opportunity to get to know the congregation.
There will certainly be times when your ruling elders won’t be able to come with you on home visits. But whenever possible, take your elders with you. Don’t go alone!
I Know How You Feel (Maybe you Don’t)
In counseling people in the midst of difficulties or tragedies, I think one of the most common and readily available lines that a pastor might utter is: “I know how you feel.” It’s only natural that as you see someone suffering, you want to let them know that they aren’t alone. The person whose face is drenched in tears has suffered a great loss with the death of his wife, and so naturally, you want to let this man know that you too have suffered—you suffered the loss of a loved one as well. The problem with such an approach is that you might not know exactly how this person feels.
Your experience may be similar, but emotions can be as diverse as personalities. Moreover, it can sound trite when you immediately try to ease someone’s pain by introducing your own story. Or worse yet, you inadvertently try to share an experience with a hurting soul which, in your mind, was far worse. My wife and I have a label for such people, they’re “toppers.” They always try to top your story or experience. True story—I was at a church function where some of the women were talking about a mutual friend who had to undergo a double-mastectomy, which was incredibly painful for this woman. Without missing a beat, a person immediately piped up, “Oh that’s nothing, the pain that I had from having a mole removed was far greater.” To say the least, the women who heard this comment weren’t convinced.
The point here is, we should be slow to try to connect immediately with the person we’re seeking to counsel or comfort. There may be an appropriate time to share your personal experience with the suffering person, but your first goal should be to comfort with your presence, support, and listening ear. Your second goal should be to pray for them. Offer to pray with and for the person. Your third goal should be to point them to Christ. Sometimes simply reading the cries of the psalmist are medicine for hurting hearts. And then, fourth, if appropriate, consider whether something from your own experience might be helpful. In other words, put Christ first and yourself second.
Latest Office Hours with Rev. David Strain!
Office Hours talks with Rev. David Strain, pastor of Main Street PCA in Columbus, Mississippi, about suffering for the sake of the gospel in a mainline national church, his own call to the pastorate, and his recent lectures to our students. David was born and reared in Glasgow, Scotland. He became a Christian through the faithful witness of a high school classmate and began to discern the call to proclaim the gospel early in his Christian life. He received a BA in Fine Art from the University of Dundee, after which he served for two years in student ministry with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. He earned a BD from Trinity College at Glasgow University, and a Diploma in Theology from the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, Scotland, after which he was called to be the senior pastor of the London City Presbyterian Church in downtown London, where he served for five years prior to coming to Main Street PCA in Columbus, Mississippi in August of 2008. David is married to Sheena, and they have two boys, Euan and Joel.
*Note: Since recording this episode, David is now pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson and is Minister of Teaching and Mission at Frist Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS.
You can find this latest episode here!
Interview with Dr. Fesko on Justification
Recently Dr. Fesko taught at Ligonier Academy for their Doctor of Ministry Program. He taught a course on the doctrine of justification. While he was there, he sat down the the Provost of Reformation Bible College, Dr. Michael Morales, to discuss the doctrine of justification. You can find this interview and discussion here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Silence is Golden
One of the most difficult circumstances a pastor will face is offering counsel in the wake of a death in the church. Death often comes upon a church with little to no warning. I can remember sitting in my study one Tuesday morning as I was engrossed in my sermon preparation when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and could barely discern the words on the other end of the line through the tears and sobbing, “My sister committed suicide . . .” I immediately recognized who it was and told them, “I will be right over.” I got cleaned up as quickly as I could, jumped in the car, and took off for this person’s house. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted at the door by a congregant who was obviously in emotional shock. As my mind raced through the various things that I could say, I eventually settled on silence.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, sometimes a silent presence is the most effective thing you can do as a pastor. Someone once described losing a loved one to an unnatural death like having a limb severed without the benefit of anesthesia. Death rips the person away without the benefit of time or preparation. When you encounter people who have lost friends or family to a violent death, they might not be in a state of mind to hear much of anything. They are simply at a place where they are incapable of hearing because the pain is too great.
In such circumstances, it is sometimes best to put your arm around the person and let them weep. I have on numerous occasions encouraged people to weep—not to hold back their tears. Your immediate impulse might be to start quoting Scripture or trying to patch up the situation by quoting Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. . .” As important as Scripture is and will be in a person’s recovery, they might simply be unable to hear you. And the question that you have to ask yourself is, Are you quoting the Scripture for their sake or yours? What do I mean?
In the face of death there is absolutely nothing that we can humanly do for the people affected by it. In the face of death I have felt like a fish out of water—nothing I say or do will bring the loved one back, nothing I say or do will take away the pain a person suffers when their loved one suddenly dies. Like a blow to the stomach that knocks the wind out of you, there is nothing you can do—you will be breathless for a moment or two until the air returns to your lungs. In other words, as cliché as it sounds, sometimes time needs to pass before a person is ready to listen to others in the wake of a tragedy. Once you know that a person can hear you, when the initial shock of the pain has subsided, then you have an opportunity to quote and point the person to Scripture.
So when tragedy strikes, be observant and determine whether the person you’re trying to help can hear you. Sometimes, the most effective thing you can do is hold them and, as Scripture says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
A Pastor’s Reflections: Simple Evangelism
One of the things that I like about being a pastor is that my vocation gives me an immediate and automatic opportunity to do evangelism. It doesn’t take long for conversation to drift to the question, “What do you do for a living?” I then answer, “I’m a minister,” and that question and answer has typically opened doors for me to talk about the gospel with unbelievers. Sometimes such conversations have occurred at inopportune times, like when I was getting a hair-cut. Sure, I was willing to talk about Christ, but the conversation unfolded like this: “My boyfriend’s mother is a Christian and she says we’re living in sin because we’re living together and we’re not married. Is that true?” Never mind the fact that she had scissors and my hair in her fingertips and the quality of my haircut likely depended upon the answer I gave as I started to sweat profusely from beneath the rubberized apron I was wearing. I held my breath and let loose with my answer and told her about the gospel and why her chosen lifestyle was sinful. In the end, she was receptive and my hair didn’t suffer!
But how can other members of the church easily engage in evangelism? How can you turn a short conversation into an opportunity to discuss the gospel? One of simplest ways that has proven helpful is asking a simple question: “Where do you go to church?” If the person answers that they don’t attend, then you have an open window to invite them to yours. You can easily say, “Oh, if you don’t go to church I’d be happy to host you for a visit at my church anytime you’d like.” At this point the conversation need not get too deep—you’ve simply extended a invitation. Often the conversation will not progress beyond the invitation, but if it does, terrific!
Another practical and useful tool is to equip your congregation with business cards. As pastor, you might have a personal business card, but I believe that every household should have business cards for their church. They can be very simple—on one side you can put the church’s name, address, service times, and website. On the backside of the card you can have a map that gives directions to your location. It’s very helpful to be able to invite someone to church and then hand them a business card with the relevant information.
That’s it! It’s that easy. Just ask a person where they go to church and then hand them a business card. You can make this kind of invitation in a matter of a few seconds. As a pastor, you can promote this kind of community-friendly approach so that your congregation actively seeks to invite people to church.
Latest Office Hours!
Office Hours talks with Mr. Mika Edmondson, who is writing his dissertation on Dr. King and currently serves Harvest OPC as a Church Plant intern, and Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, elder at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA, and Executive Editor of Modern Reformation, about the life, theology, and legacy of American icon, Martin Luther King Jr.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Keep Your Elders Close
When I entered the pastorate I quickly learned that there were concentric circles of relationships within the church: there is the session (or consistory), the congregation, and the regional church (the presbytery or classis), and ultimately the denomination (the general assembly or synod). In my interaction with these various levels of the church I found that one of the most important is the session, or my elders. In the life of the church I quickly discovered the importance of keeping my elders close.
You and your elders frequently deal with difficult circumstances in the church, whether doctrinal or practical. When someone has a serious counseling issue, you and your elders will definitely discuss the matter and be engaged in counseling. My elders and I would regularly make home visits with members of the congregation, where a number of these issues would arise. Of all of the people in the church, I worked most with my elders. Moreover, given that my elders and I were the ones who had the responsibility of making most of the key decisions in the church, it was vital that we had a good working relationship. To that end, there were a number of things that we regularly did to ensure that we maintained a good relationship.
First, we tried to spend time together outside of our regular meetings. Before our regular session meetings, for example, we would get together for a meal to fellowship. Since our wives were also in attendance, we wouldn’t discuss session business. We simply worked on building our friendships. Along these lines my wife and I made an effort to invite the elders on my session over for dinner on a regular basis. Friendship and camaraderie are important elements for a good working relationship, so I spent time fostering my relationship with these men.
Second, we would regularly discuss the things we were reading and spent time discussing doctrinal issues so we were abreast with the latest developments in the regional church or denomination. Some pastors I know would have their elders pick a theological book to study and discuss together. It’s important to know where your elders are theologically, where agreement and disagreement lie on a session. This can be vital when you’re navigating disagreement and conflict on a session, and most importantly, when you’re resolving conflicts.
Third, our session always spent time in prayer not only for the congregation but for one another. And I regularly prayed for the elders on my session. It’s in times of prayer that we learn to carry one another’s burdens and intercede for each other before the throne of grace.
In these efforts I made a concentrated effort to keep my session close, close to me and close to one another. Among the many ways that a church can falter and even implode is if there’s conflict on a session. If the session is seriously divided, then a church has a disease that affects its core—its leadership. Such a sickness can quickly spread throughout a congregation like a fire through a parched forest. If the only time you interact with your elders is at session meetings, or the occasional conversation on Sundays, then you’ll be significantly disadvantaged when conflicts or difficult decisions arise. One of the ways to inoculate your session against such problems is to keep your elders close so that when difficult times arise, you have a solid foundation from which to negotiate the challenges. If you’re not an elder or a pastor, definitely pray for unity and harmony among your elders. A healthy church has a healthy session.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Tides of Ministry
One of the interesting things about the pastorate is that there are seasons—there are times when things are very quiet and peaceful, and there are times when it seems like the wheels are falling off the wagon. At first, I didn’t immediately notice this pattern, but the more time I spent in the pastorate I became aware of it.
There will be times when you will feel like Chicken Little—the sky will seem like it’s falling. You will have several counseling situations that are chewing up your time. There will be difficult decisions on the session, and perhaps there will also be a significant conflict at presbytery. All of these things will be happening at once. You’ll probably lose sleep, be stressed out, and feel like you’re hanging on by the tips of your fingers. On the other side of the coin, there will be times when you don’t have any significant counseling situations and everything is peaceful in the church, session, and presbytery. These different tides change every couple of months. Just when you think that you can’t handle any more disruption and rancor, things will calm down and get peaceful. I have no idea why things unfolded in this manner. All I can say is that, this is the way it happened.
So what are you to do? Will you be tossed about during the changing tides? Like a cork bobbing in the water, will you simply move wherever the waters carry you? I hope not. Once I realized the patterns of the tide, I may not have been able to change the circumstances that providence brought to my front door but I could certainly make the most of the peaceful time that I had. During the quiet times I worked as hard as I could to make the most of the time—I studied, engaged in lecture-prep, and read as diligently as I could. While things were quiet I used the time as efficiently as I could. Why? Because I knew that at some point the tide would change and I would not have the same amount of time or peaceful conditions to get things done. In other words, make hay while the sun shines so that when it gets dark, you’re not caught short handed or ill prepared. Another thing to do is pray. While things are quiet pray that the Lord would grant you his grace so that when the tide comes in and things get difficult, you’ll be ready to handle the chaos.
It could be that your pastorate will be quiet and uneventful for the duration of your ministry. Like a beat-cop who faithfully patrols the neighborhood and never has to draw his sidearm, you may never have difficult circumstances. But chances are that since the church is filled with redeemed saints who nevertheless struggle with sin, you will have periods of peace punctuated by periods of chaos. Be prepared for those difficult times.
Latest Office Hours! Media Ecology and Ministry
Office hours talks with Rev. Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds, pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire; author of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (2001); and editor of Ordained Servant: A Journal for Church Officers, about the intersection between media ecology and ministry.
You can find this latest episode here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Life in the Bubble
One of the challenges that pastors and their families face is life in the bubble. In many other vocations a person can go to work, do his job, come home, and his home life and family stay out of view. My father worked for a tech giant for 37 years and I can count on my fingers the number of times that I interacted with my father’s co-workers. The same cannot be said about the pastor and his family.
When a church hires a pastor there is the expectation that he will bring his family to church with him. This means, like it or not, everyone in the church observes the pastor’s family on a regular basis. For better or worse, people in the church see most everything that the pastor’s family does: they take note of the clothes they wear, the books they read, the car that brings them to church, the movies they talk about, and their behavior. For example, I once rented a car to drive to presbytery and the rental agency was closed on Saturday when I returned. I decided to drive the car to church on Sunday morning and then return it first thing Monday morning. Other factors in this scenario were: I received a free upgrade because the “fancy” car was all they had in the lot; my gas and the cost of the rental were covered by my presbytery, which reimbursed ministers for the mileage they drove. So everything was above-board in this situation. Nevertheless, when I drove up to church that Sunday morning my wife overheard someone say, “Well, I guess we must be paying the pastor too much money if he’s driving a new car!” Rightly or wrongly, I gently informed this person of the situation and they seemed to be relieved.
In another scenario I was walking out of church after a Sunday morning worship service. It seemed like an ordinary Sunday—in particular, there were a number of small children and infants making their usual noises during the worship service. But whose child was singled out as making a lot of noise that morning? Yes, my one-year old son. The reality of the situation was that my son wasn’t in the worship service that morning—my wife had taken him out and placed him in the nursery. Nevertheless, my son was getting the “credit” for making noise.
The point of these two examples is that the pastor’s family is under constant scrutiny. Some people make observations involuntarily—they mean no harm by it but simply see what they see and offer comments. Others, unfortunately, have a sense of ownership—in their minds, since they tithe and contribute to the pastor’s salary, they feel as though it’s their personal responsibility to ensure that the pastor’s family conducts itself in a proper manner. Such people will make regular observations and unwanted comments and criticism.
So what’s a pastor to do? I don’t have any airtight counsel, but here are a few observations of my own. First, pray that God would grant you the grace to live sacrificially before your congregation. As a pastor, you and your family will sacrifice a lot to serve the church, and giving up portions of your privacy is one of those sacrifices. When you go into the pastorate, recognize that you will surrender a lot of your privacy that other people in the church enjoy. But you are ultimately surrendering your privacy for Christ, not for anyone else. Your salary will be public knowledge, your car, home, the clothes your children wear, their behavior, etc, will be under the scrutiny of the church for the sake of Christ and his gospel, not for “career”.
Second, make careful decisions about the things that you do recognizing that people in the church will likely take notice. Do you want to fight a battle over the clothes that your wife wears? Is it worth it to assert your Christian liberty? You may have the right to do something, but is it wise? You may have an outside source of income (savings, family money, a gift) that allows you to make a special purchase (jewelry, a new car, a very expensive tv), but will that purchase cause you more trouble than it’s worth? Will it unnecessarily hobble your ministry?
Third, do your best to give your family time away from life in the bubble. If you can, take a vacation and be discrete about it. Don’t be so quick to offer up details about where you went, where you stayed, what you did. Tell the truth, “We had a terrific and restful time,” but leave the details out. This way your family can have some privacy and not feel like they’re constantly under the scrutiny of the microscope.
If you’re not a pastor, then take special care to give him and his family the needed room to live as normally as possible. Even though you might tithe and pay a portion of your pastor’s salary, I’m aware of no passage of Scripture that grants the individual member of the congregation the right to oversee the minutiae of the pastor’s life. The pastor reports to his elders—they alone have the authority to oversee the pastor and his conduct. Recognize the difference between matters of morality and Christian liberty. And don’t always assume that the pastor’s salary pays for everything that you see. It could very well be a gift or some other form of income that has provided him and his family with a needed amenity. Assume the best, not the worst, about your pastor and his family. And do what you can to make life in the bubble more bearable for them.
Latest Office Hours! Meet James Lund
Office Hours talks with Mr. James Lund, Library Director, about his first voyage from Minnesota to California and he answers the question, "Are books obsolete?"
Listen to this episode here.
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Thanks for listening!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Disagreements
Some of the most stressful times of my pastorate were in the first two years when I attended my first meetings of presbytery. It just so happened that I was licensed and ordained during one of the most contentious periods of debate in my presbytery. I can remember sitting in the pew listening to the debate rage around me after I had been newly licensed to preach. Oddly enough, the heated debate didn’t deter me from pursuing ordination—maybe I was like a deer in the headlights? Maybe I should have run far, far away? But one of the things that amazed me about the debate was not how intensely it was fought, but how it would be punctuated by laughter. Some of the participants would do their best to bring levity to the debate to relieve some of the tension. But even more amazing than the laughter was the degree of camaraderie shared by a number of the presbyters after the debate.
Yes, the polar extremes of the debate steered clear from one another—that was to be expected. They were not rude to one another, but they did keep their distance. It was, however, the soft middle that was quite cordial. There were people on opposite sides of the issue who were genuinely convinced of one course of action but stood in conflict with other members of presbytery who were equally convinced of another course of action. I think many of these men were humble, could share their views, vote, even lose the debate, and still have good fellowship with the men who opposed them. To be honest, this turn of events initially baffled me. How could people, even the best of friends, stand on opposite sides of a heated debate and still remain friends?
The first answer to this question is humility. All too often we have the tendency to think we have an airtight solution to a problem. We know exactly and precisely how to fix something. But what do you do when someone else thinks that they have the perfect solution but it happens to be the exact opposite of your proposal? This is where humility comes in—I have to be prepared for the fact that I may be wrong or that my idea, however highly I might esteem it, might not be the best solution to a problem. Only a humble person can allow room for other ideas and admit that someone else’s idea is better.
The second answer to the question is recognizing that everyone in the room wants the same goal—to glorify God and edify the church. The all-too real temptation is to think that the person on the other side of the debate is your enemy rather than your brother in Christ. Even worse, our tendency is to think, “My enemy is Christ’s enemy.” But the reality is, just because a person disagrees with you doesn’t automatically mean he disagrees with Christ. We have to have assume the best of people and give them the benefit of the doubt until they clearly prove otherwise.
What this means is that in church life, whether at church business meetings or presbytery (or classis), we should be prepared to live with disagreements. Mind you, I don’t have blatant violations of Scripture or confession in view. I am addressing matters of disagreement where the truth may be difficult to discern. Do you, for example, ordain a man who was unbiblically divorced early in his Christian life who then remarried and for the last twenty years has been faithful to his second wife? A question like this can often create a very long and difficult debate where best friends stand on opposite sides of the issue.
When the matter is decided and the votes are cast, one side will lose and the other will win. How you handle disagreement after the debate is just as important, if not more, than the actual debate itself. Will you have the integrity to fellowship with your brothers after a difficult debate? Will you continue to hold your brothers in high regard? Will you have the humility to admit that you could be wrong? Manifesting Christian character during times of pleasant accord is easy—it’s entirely another matter when you’re in the midst of heated debate. Pray that Christ would enable you to manifest his character both during and after the disagreement.
Jesus Really Is Better!
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" is complete! Now that the series is finished, you have free access to a complete audio commentary on Hebrews! If you haven't listened in, now is the time to do so! Grab your bible and follow along with our host, Dr. R. Scott Clark, and several of our faculty at Westminster Seminary California.
Listen to all of these episodes, here:
Introduction to Hebrews with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 1 with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 1-2 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 2:1-13 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 2:14-18 with Joel E. Kim
Hebrews 3:1-6 with Joel E. Kim
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part I) with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part II) with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 4-5:10 with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 5:11-6:12 with David M. VanDrunen and Michael S. Horton
Hebrews 6:13-7:10 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 7:11-18 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 7:18-28 with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 8 with Hywel R. Jones
Hebrews 9 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 10 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 11 with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 12 with David M. VanDrunen
Hebrews 13 with S. M. Baugh
Plus, a Bonus Episode on Covenant Theology:
Covenant Theology Explored with Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele
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A Pastor’s Reflections: My Day Off
I can remember one of my seminary professors telling me, “Be sure to take your day off. If you don’t, I promise you, you will take your missed days off all in a row as you lay flat on your back.” In other words, if you don’t take some time to rest, your body will eventually crumble beneath the heavy workload and you will find yourself sick in bed, or worse, in a hospital. I know there are plenty of vocations that have intense schedules, and the pastorate is definitely one of them. When most people have time off, such as Saturdays or Sundays, the pastor works. He might be locked up in his study on Saturday preparing his sermon, and between preaching on Sunday morning, teaching Sunday school, hosting guests for lunch, meeting with a prospective church member, and then preaching the evening sermon, he is wiped out. One of my chosen forms of exercise is running—I typically stick with 3 miles, though I occasionally run 5 or 6. During my first year of ministry by Sunday evening I felt like I did after a 6-mile run—I was exhausted. In addition to this, I found myself working Sunday through Saturday, whether because of my normal work, counseling appointments, or church activities. One of my longest stretches of time was working 36 days straight without a day off. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I recalled my professor’s counsel and I began to be careful about taking my day off.
Initially, I tried to take Fridays off. That day didn’t work out too well. I found that it was a popular day for church events and for people who wanted to schedule meetings. I switched to Mondays, and this was perfect for me. Monday was a fairly quiet, uneventful day in comparison to others. I found that people were too busy trying to get settled at work and there were rarely church events on Monday. It was also a nice respite after a very busy Sunday. On my day off I did my best to get as far away from my work as possible. At the time, my wife worked outside of the home, so I had the day to myself. I would help my wife by cleaning the house, do some laundry, wash and detail the car, go to a movie, read a novel—anything that would take my mind off of my work. If you think about work then your time off might not be all that restful. And, sometimes it’s best to get away from your work and reexamine it with fresh eyes—this can be very helpful to your insight and productivity. On some days off I would go into my garage and work in my woodshop—I would build things. I found that using my hands was quite conducive to using my brain in my sermon prep. The same can be said for exercise—I would go on long runs and afterwards feel refreshed and mentally alert.
From time to time someone would want to schedule something on my day off. Unless it was urgent, I typically declined such requests and scheduled them for other days during the week. But I was always careful in how I declined such appointments and invitations. I always felt that if I told someone, “I’m sorry, it’s my day off tomorrow. I can’t meet with you,” that it would not be well received. Many people in the church do not realize how busy a pastor’s schedule can be and how important it is to take time off. All they know is that the pastor just gave them the stiff arm to take his day off! Instead, I would tell them, “I’m sorry, I’m booked tomorrow. Can we find another day of the week for our meeting?” This answer was true but unspecific. It allowed me to protect my day off without sending the message that my rest was more important than someone else’s problem. Just to be clear, if it was urgent, I always gave up my day off to help someone in dire need. But you need wisdom and discernment to decide when something is urgent. I once worked myself into a raging case of walking pneumonia. I was no good to anyone, neither my family or my church. If you burn the candle at both ends, you will eventually run out of wax!
So in the end, take your day off! It’s important for your ministry, family, and physical well-being. If you work hard, play hard. If you’re not a minister, recognize that your pastor needs time off to rest and spend with his family. A well-rested pastor will be more effective in his ministry to you and your church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Prayer or Gossip?
As a pastor I always did my best to encourage my congregation to pray. Prayer is, I believe, one of the lesser-attended subjective means of grace. I suspect that when times get tough people pray, but I often wonder that when times are good do they pray as much? Therefore, I took every opportunity to have people pray. I was really excited when the women of the church wanted to gather on a regular basis for prayer on Saturday mornings, so I certainly encouraged this activity. But I quickly found out that sometimes prayer is really a thin disguise for gossip.
It’s one thing to pour our souls out privately in prayer before our heavenly Father. I can be freest when it’s just me in my “prayer closet.” I can complain, celebrate, wrestle, and lay my soul bare. But the moment that I pray in public, there are certain responsibilities I have. I may think and suspect a lot of things about many people and circumstances, but that is not license for me to voice them publicly, and especially in prayer. Case in point, several of the elders’ wives reported to me that some of the prayers got out of hand at the ladies prayer meeting. One woman prayed something along these lines: “Dear Lord, please help me and especially my husband. He is so lazy. He never does any work. He just sits around and watches TV. He never wants to read the Bible and he is frequently insensitive and mean to me. He never considers my needs or desires. Please convict him of his sinful behavior. Amen.” This may be an appropriate prayer in private, but is inappropriate and even sinful in public.
All too often public prayers are not a genuine venue for offering up our desires and needs before our covenant Lord but a platform for gossip. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re praying for someone, how might your prayer change if they were sitting next to you? If you were guilty of some private sin, would you want a loved-one, apart from your consent or knowledge, sharing your sinful conduct with a large percentage of the church? Granted, this woman was obviously upset about her husband’s conduct. But a more appropriate prayer would have been, “Dear Lord, please help my husband and me to model Christ and the church (e.g., Eph 5:25ff).” In other words, there are appropriate ways to pray about our greatest concerns and needs, even those that are difficult to share publicly.
In the end, just because we are engaged in a holy activity such as prayer, doesn’t mean that we are in a sin-free zone and are incapable of transgression. Be mindful that your prayers are genuine and not a platform for gossip and malicious talk.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 13 with Dr. Baugh
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" concludes with this final episode. This episode features Dr. S.M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, who takes us through Hebrews 13.
You can find this latest episode here.
Two Kingdoms and the URC
Within the last few months the intesnity of the two kingdoms discussion within the United Reformed Churches of North America has picked up considerable heat with very little light. But one recent bright spot comes from one of WSC's alums, Matthew Tuininga and his post on these matters. Matthew is studying for his PhD on Calvin and the Two Kingdoms doctrine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He highlights two important issues: (1) when we critique another position, how accurate is our representation? And, (2) how accurate is our theological engagement of the issues? Stated simply, are we accurate, charitable, and helpful to the broader on-going discussion in the church? These characteristics are vital to any subject of discussion in the church.
You can find Matt's post here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Just Follow the Formula
There are all kinds of formulas in life—formulas for getting rich, getting thin, reaching your life-goals, advancing your career, and successfully managing your time. I think that people often lack the wherewithal to figure things out and so they want specific step-by-step instructions. This type of mentality definitely affects life in the church, but especially child-rearing. It seems like there’s more or less a ten-year cycle in the church that new parenting formulas crop up. People will start talking about the latest parenting methods, whether it’s for infants or older children. I’ve seen books, videos, and even Sunday school curriculum floating around churches all with the promise that if parents follow the simple steps and principles, they will successfully parent their children around the various pitfalls of life. Each time this cycle unfolds I find parents buying-in hook, line, and sinker. But what’s worse is not only do they buy-in to the formula, but they begin to evangelize and encourage, even demand, that others follow suit. On occasions far too numerous to recount I’ve been told, “This is the biblical way to raise a child.”
I remember a family that was very insistent upon raising their children in a certain manner: they homeschooled, because “that was what the Bible demanded,” kept their children from TV, did not allow them to listen to rock music, even of the “Christian” variety, and generally kept them close at hand. And sure, I will admit, early on both children looked like paradigms of virtue, all prim and proper. Later, however, when one of the children turned 18, it was like an exploding atomic bomb. Beneath the surface of propriety, a rebellious heart was just busting at the seams and couldn’t wait until he was legally of age to leave home. Days after he turned 18 he left home, within a matter of weeks eloped and married an older woman with a questionable profession of faith, and then within months was sitting in my living room in need of pastoral counseling. There were accusations of physical abuse, incidents where the neighbors called the police, and reports of marital infidelity. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that this marriage ended in an unbiblical divorce. These parents were convinced that if they followed the formula, they were guaranteed success, but as you can see, something definitely went awry.
The problem with the formula mentality is, the Bible has very little specific advice on child rearing. It says nothing about when to feed an infant or what type of napping schedule the child should have. It never says specifically when and how to discipline a child. When do you discipline, for example, and when do you act in mercy? When do you forgive a child to teach him about grace and when do you let him bear the full brunt of the consequences of his sin regardless of how severe they may be?
There are certainly a number of things that the Bible does say, such as, raise a child in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But in between the biblical principles of the Christian life lie a variety of ways that parents can raise a child. Bottom line, there is no one successful formula for raising a child. Parenting depends upon many different factors, such as the temperament and maturity of the child. All you have to do is speak sternly to a child and he will burst into tears, while others may require the responsible administration of corporal punishment. Other children are impervious to corporal punishment so other means of discipline have to be employed.
Yes, we have a moral responsibility to follow the Bible’s instructions on child rearing and point our children to Christ through the means of grace. But in the end, child rearing not only calls for the application of the law but of wisdom as well. Sometimes, you answer your foolish child according to his folly, and other times, you don’t answer your child according to his folly. In the end, if there is one sure formula for parenting it boils down to this: regularly expose your child to the means of grace (the reading and preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer) and then get on your knees and intercede on behalf of your child in prayer before the throne of grace. Pray that Christ would lay hold of your child’s heart and never let it go.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 12 with David VanDrunen
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, who takes us through Hebrews 12.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Counsel or Debate Over E-mail
In the digital age communication is as convenient as ever. We can make a phone call from our cars or the remotest of locations, send an e-mail, or even twitter away till our thumbs get numb. But just because we can do something doesn’t automatically mean that we should do it. As easy as communication is, avoid any serious communication with members of your church via e-mail, twitter, or Facebooks (yes, I know it’s Facebook). Why is this the case? There are three major reasons.
First, digital communication is incredibly impersonal—you lose a lot. There is no eye contact, no voice inflection, no audible form by which a person can determine whether a questionable phrase is intended as sarcasm, compassion, or anger, for example. Second, digital communication is frequently done on the fly. In days gone by people would be very careful about what they wrote because paper was expensive and writing or typing something could take a lot of time. In other words, digital communication is cheap, which means that a person might not give a whole lot of thought to the words that he’s writing before he hits “send” or “post.” This means that someone might quickly fire off some insensitive or thoughtless regrettable words. Third, if you’ve ever been involved in an e-mail discussion or debate, you know that the message thread can get very long and convoluted. In the thousands of words that get splattered onto the computer screen, a person can become lost and confused very quickly, which provides much grist for the anger mill. Bottom line, digital communication is not optimal as a venue for serious communication.
On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why counseling and debate should be handled in person. First, eye contact and body language are crucial in difficult circumstances. A seasoned pastor will be able to tell, for example, when a person is lying merely by reading body language. There are certain “tells” that can alert a person to deceit. Second, in some circumstances, physical contact is crucial. Giving a man a brotherly embrace after serious loss or significant disagreement can be vital to conveying compassion or genuine forgiveness. Third, in debate sometimes forgotten words are best left forgotten rather than “entered into the e-mail transcript” where they fester and cause people to hold on to bitterness.
Yes, digital communication is convenient, but in counseling and debate situations, it’s best to conduct these face-to-face. Sit down over a cup of coffee and counsel or engage in debate. In some circumstances, digital communication may be the only option, though I would sooner resort to a phone call. Leave logistical matters to e-mail (time, place, dates, etc) and conduct serious matters in person.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Disciple Repellant
One of the tasks pastors should regularly engage in is discipling church members and new converts to the faith. There are a number of ways a pastor can do this. He can teach a new member’s class or teach a Sunday School class on a regular basis. But from time to time the pastor will undoubtedly be called upon the disciple one-on-one. It’s in this context that there have been times where I have been extremely disappointed, even to the level that I’ve contemplated ceasing from disicpling anyone. Why, you ask? Well let’s just say that I felt like I was disciple repellant.
Case in point, I once spent the better part of nine months discipling a new Christian convert who was on fire and wanted to learn the Reformed faith. This person was eager to learn and seemed to soak up everything I threw at him. We spent many countless hours studying and discussing the Westminster Confession of Faith. With each step of the way I thought we were making good progress. Shortly after we completed studying the Confession this person, seemingly out of the blue, announced, “I think I’m more Roman Catholic than I am Reformed.” Let’s just say that my enthusiasm tore off across the room like a filled but untied balloon. I nevertheless took this declaration in stride and continued to work with this young man only to have him eventually leave the church. I seriously thought to myself, “Maybe I shouldn’t disciple anyone because it seems like the more time I spend with people, the more I drive them away from Christ.” I wasn’t trying to be funny but was trying to figure out how my efforts to disciple, nurture, and care for members of my church only seemed to turn up weeds and harden the ground I was trying to plow.
As I’ve thought about these disappointing discipleship situations (there was more than one), I have revisited my words and instruction trying to figure out what went wrong. In a number of these scenarios, I have yet to see any positive fruit, even years later. There is certainly the distinct possibility that I was the cause of apostasy, at least in this one above-related example. On the other hand, I have been comforted by the apostle Paul’s ministry. Think of the Corinthian church—what a mess—people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (of all things!), unruly women were disrupting the worship services, a man was having adulterous relations with his step-mother and the congregation did nothing about it! Think about the Galatian churches—Paul personally planted these church only to have them immediately embrace false teaching. I suspect in both of these cases the conduct of the churches grieved Paul to the very core of his soul. So, why, then does the Lord allow these things to happen?
While we cannot peer into the hidden counsel of God, we do know what he has revealed. In this regard we should not forget the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23). Our job, whether as laymen or pastors, is to sow the seed. We tell others of the gospel of Christ and the teaching of Scripture. Some of these seeds will fall along the path, others upon rocky ground, birds will come along and eat some of them, and some of it will fall upon fertile ground, grow, and yield much fruit. What Christ never addresses in the parable is: Who prepares the soil? The parable should remind us that, in the end, Christ must open the heart. Yes, we plant and water, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6).
In the face of wandering disciples, some of which are heartbreaking, I came to the realization that this was one of the ways God was reminding me of my role. My role in discipleship is fidelity, not success. I must teach, share, and point others to Christ. But only Christ, through his Spirit, can effectually call and write his Word upon the walls of our hearts. Moreover, yes, disciples may wander or even apostatize, but we must remember that as long as the person has breath in their lungs, there is still the hope and possibility that they will repent. Hence, even though our window to disciple may close, our window for prayer remains open much longer. In this respect, we should always continue to pray for disciples.
In the end, don’t think that you’re disciple repellant as tempting as the thought may be. And don’t give up. Remember that Christ calls you to fidelity, not success, and that he is the one who will draw disciples to himself.
Are you called to the ministry?
One of the most common questions that prospective students ask is, "How do you know whether you should be a pastor?" For some assistance with this question, you can go here for a number of on-line resources to help you answer that question. There are several videos featuring Drs. Dennis Johnson and Michael Horton. And if you complete the contact form, prospective students can obtain a free copy of Ed Clowney's Called to the Ministry.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Always Pack Heat
I don’t know why, but the phrase, “Packing heat,” is one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps in our politically correct age making such an admission might invite scorn, but I don’t have violence in mind. I just like the idea that when a person is legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon it’s described as “packing heat.” Another similar expression is, “To come in heavy.” It’s a saying from mob lingo, which means that a person is armed and ready for any circumstance.
Well, my advice to pastors and those who are seeking the ministry is, always pack heat. Always be ready to come in heavy. What do I mean by this? No, I don’t mean that pastors should be armed in the pulpit. Rather, I’m saying that as a pastor, you should always be ready to preach the Word! Why should pastors always be ready to preach the Word? Well, they should certainly be ready to preach on Sundays—this is, after all, the main focus of their calling. But there are plenty of other occasions that arise where a minister may be called upon to preach at a moment’s notice. Don’t be caught unprepared.
For example, you should always have a funeral sermon ready to go. You can certainly fill in some of the details, but be ready a moment’s notice. Sometimes you can prepare for a person’s death because of a long-term illness, but at other times death will arrive without notice and take people by surprise. If you wait until that moment to write a funeral sermon, you’ll be hard-pressed. Instead of being able to devote time to ministering to the people who have suffered loss by your personal presence, you’ll be stuck trying to write a funeral message.
If you ever go on vacation or a trip, tuck a sermon away in your briefcase (maybe even two) and be prepared. Sure, you might not be asked to preach, but I know of a number of cases where ministers on vacations have been approached on Sunday morning to preach a message because they have been identified as a minister! If you find a sermon that you feel really good about, and delivered well, then make a mental note of it and keep a spare copy, or these days, upload it to your cloud so you have easy access to it.
In a word, a good preacher will always be prepared, rain or shine, sleet or snow, day or night to bring the Word of God to bear upon his people. Therefore, always pack heat!
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 11 with Dr. Baugh
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, who takes us through Hebrews 11.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Make Assumptions
Over the years I have found that people in the church make a lot of assumptions about the people around them. I specifically have in mind the assumptions that people make about singles and married couples without children. All too often I either hear or read people making the assumption that if a married couple does not have children, then they are obviously sinfully neglecting their God-given responsibility to procreate and have children so that they can offer their contribution to fulfilling the dominion mandate. A similar assumption marks those who observe single people in the church. The immediate gut reaction is to assume that the single person must be desperately searching for a spouse and so people try to play cupid to end the single person’s suffering in a life of solitude. In both cases people make invalid assumptions that can sometimes be hurtful or insensitive.
In the case of the married couple that does not have children, we must first recognize that the church does not fulfill the dominion mandate (Gen 1:28) through procreation. After the fall, fulfilling the dominion mandate in this manner became impossible. Through Christ, the last Adam, the church fulfills the dominion mandate through evangelism. The church goes into the world and makes disciples of the nations. The Scriptures have no record, for example, that the apostle Paul had any natural (biological) children, yet he considered the many churches that he planted his children (e.g. Gal. 4:19; 1 Thess. 2:7).
When it comes to childless married couples, our first reaction should not automatically be to assume that they are sinfully avoiding having children. Like Paul’s call for some people to remain single so that they may better serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:29-34), the Lord may have some couples refrain from having children so they can better serve him. There may be some missionary contexts in certain parts of the world where it would be inadvisable or even dangerous to place children in harm’s way. In other circumstances, some couples desire children very much but for reasons only known to the Lord, they are unable to conceive. Some couples readily accept this circumstance, but for others it is a very painful and difficult providence to endure. To accuse such a couple, then, of sinfully avoiding having children is only to pour salt into a very raw wound.
The same should be said about single people in the church. True, I suspect the vast majority of people in the church will likely end up being married, but there is a small minority for whom being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:38). They are free to serve the church in a way far greater than the married person can (1 Cor. 7:32-33). Our assumption should not automatically be to pair off any single person we find.
Single people and married couples without children are two examples that should remind us not to rush to judgment about people’s motives in life. Yes, there are people who selfishly refrain from having children so they can enjoy the pleasures of life. But in all fairness, there are also married couples that have many children out of a legalistic motivation or to boast about their own perceived fidelity to Christ. In both scenarios, whether children are absent or present, sin abounds. Instead of rushing to judgment, we should look at all people in the church with charity and assume the best (1 Cor. 13:7). We should make an effort, first, to get to know people. Maybe in getting to know a single person, we will find that she is very content in her single life because she is serving Christ, and to try to set her up with a potential spouse is one more aggravation, a distraction from her God-given calling. Maybe in getting to know a childless couple, we will find that they have tried to conceive for years but the Lord has seen fit not to grant them children. In such a circumstance, your charity in judgment will enable you to uncover their painful burden and intercede on their behalf for contentment and peace with God’s Providence.
In the end, whether as a layperson or an ordained minister, patience and longsuffering rather than rushing to judgment will serve you and others in the church very well. Don’t make assumptions.
WSC Alum Brian Lee Serves as Guest Chaplain in House of Representatives
Rev. Dr. Brian Lee, the Pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington D. C., and Westminster Seminary California alumnus, served as guest chaplain in the US House of Representatives. He offered the opening prayer for the pro forma session on April 30th, 2013. He has contributed to a number of on-going discussions about the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which you can find here. And he's written other related materials, which you can find at the Daily Caller's website here. Much thanks to Matt Tuininga, WSC Alum, for drawing VFT's attention to this event, which you can find here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Write a Proposal
As a pastor one of the things you can expect is that people will regularly come up with all sorts of ideas and inform you what the church needs to do. When people approached me with numerous ideas, I always had three responses. First, I thanked them for their suggestion, no matter how crazy or sound it was. At a certain level I was grateful that people were thinking about ways to make the church better. Second, I reminded them that I as the pastor could not make decisions on my own authority. I told people that while I was the pastor, I governed the church with the session, with the elders, and all church-wide decisions had to be the action of the session, not of any one individual. Too many churches have benevolent dictatorships or monarchies, and the Bible tells us that pastors and elders rule the church together (1 Tim 3; Acts 15, e.g.). When people heard this, they not only were reminded of this important biblical truth but they were also aware that the elders of the church did their best at overseeing the church. Third, I always asked people to write up a proposal. Why did I do this?
I think far too many people are full of ideas and short on action. They want other people to carry out the work. By asking a person to write a proposal forced them to give careful thought to their idea as well as think about how it might be put into practice. Another benefit of a written proposal is that the person who came up with the idea could ensure that all of the details of their proposal would be written down so nothing would be lost or forgotten. Sometimes in the shuffle of ideas from the one who makes the suggestion, to the pastor, and to the session or consistory, details get lost. There was another benefit to the request to write a proposal—it acted as a weed-out barrier. The people who were genuinely serious about doing things in the church would write up their proposals, but those who were just throwing out ideas seldom, if ever, wrote anything down. I think of all of the ideas I received a good seventy-five percent of them never wrote-up a proposal, so I never carried the idea to the session. This undoubtedly saved the session and me a lot of time and work.
You can certainly act on every idea that you receive, but prudence seems to dictate that it would be helpful to ask people to write-up their ideas in a proposal. There seem to be too many benefits to such a course of action and few drawbacks.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 10 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 10.
You can find this latest episode here.
Recommended Pastoral Reading, pt. 3
Confessional References for the Pastor’s Study
By Rev. Andrew Compton and Rev. Shane Lems
Pastors in historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches need to be well versed in the studies, theology, and language of the creeds and confessions. Of course, Scripture should be a pastor’s primary study and focus, but our confessions are like teachers that give us lessons on biblical truths. And resources that help us read and understand the confessions ultimately help us read and understand Scripture in a deeper, richer way. Here are some resources that we have found helpful in our own pastoral ministries. At the end of each paragraph you’ll find an abbreviation of the confessional reference discussed in the book (i.e. HC = Heidelberg Catechism, WCF = Westminster Confession of Faith, etc.) We also want to note that while we didn’t list them, G. I. Williamson has written helpful commentaries on several Reformed confessions.
William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008).
William Ames (d. 1633), who also wrote The Marrow of Theology, wanted to give seminary students and pastors a brief, helpful, and inexpensive commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. This book is the outcome. It is short and structured quite succinctly. For example, he typically divides the HC Q/A into a few parts, gives a few lessons from the parts, and then lists “reasons” and “uses” of each teaching (“uses” is application). This doesn’t really read like a normal commentary, but it is a helpful Reformed resource on the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Henry Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1929).
This is a standard commentary on the Belgic Confession of Faith. Or, from another angle, it is a short systematic theology since it covers the main heads of Reformed doctrine. There are also a few study questions at the end of each chapter. Though it may be tough to find a copy of this book, if you do have it you might not need another commentary on the Belgic Confession since it is so thorough. BCF
Lyle D. Bierma (ed.), An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
This collection of essays on the Heidelberg Catechism is of a more academic bent, but the historical content of the chapters is very informative. Lyle Bierma’s chapter on the sources and theological orientation of the catechism is quite good, highlighting both common ground between Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger and Melanchthon, but also describing what he calls “key silences” in the catechism. While there is, of course, historical theological debate on these topics, Bierma does an excellent service of provoking discussion of why the boundaries of the catechism were drawn where they were. My favorite part of this volume, however, is its inclusion of the full texts of Zacharias Ursinus’ Large and Small Catechisms, which are nicely formatted for easy study and reading, and are footnoted with references to parallels in the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010).
Kevin DeYoung has a very readable writing style and has written this popular book with lay people in mind, winsomely presenting the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism and showing its relevance to today. Among his intended audience are those who feel that catechisms and confessions are dry, dusty and irrelevant to the Christian life in the 21st century. In his characteristic way, DeYoung shows just how practical and well stated are the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. In my own teaching and preaching, I have especially utilized DeYoung’s vivid illustrations and application. The lessons are short – almost too short – but teach the catechism in a wonderful and fresh way. HC
Peter Y. DeJong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Comemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).
This is another collection of historical essays, but serves as an excellent backdrop to the text of the Canons of Dort itself. What is more, the writers intentionally highlight how this history continues to be relevant to contemporary issues the Reformed Churches are facing, covering topics such as Bible translation, preaching, pastoral work, and even recent criticism of the Canons from within the Reformed Camp (e.g., G. C. Berkouwer, A.D. R. Polman, H.R. Boer, etc.). The appendices are a veritable treasure trove of historical data concerning the Synod. Originally published in 1968, the reprint of this classic volume is an excellent resource for one’s shelves. CoD
Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008)
Hyde’s exposition/commentary of the Belgic Confession is a readable contemporary resource. Though aimed at lay people, I have found it to be a good reference in my own teaching. Hyde weaves the text of the confession together with historical theological observations and biblical exposition, enabling readers to get a nice sense of the biblical, historical and theological character of the Belgic Confession of Faith. Study questions at the end of each chapter make this volume a good text for use in small group study. This is a nice companion to P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Belgic Confession, The Church’s Witness to the World. BCF
Henry Petersen, The Canons of Dort: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
Henry Petersen’s study guide is a unique resource. Written simply and accessible to even high school age students, I found his writing style to be very readable and his organization of the Canons of Dort to be intuitive and helpful. He intertwines exegesis and theology in a nice way, and draws in the insights of numerous Reformed theologians throughout. Though almost 50 years old and difficult to come by (I see only 2 copies on Amazon marketplace!), it is a fine resource that I consult regularly in my own teaching of the Canons. CoD
Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2008).
This is an excellent 19th century commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is solid, full of biblical citations, and clearly written. This commentary is also relatively brief; Shaw himself said he wanted to write with “the utmost possible brevity.” When I study the Westminster Confession, this is one of the first resources I take down from the shelf. Those interested might also want to look at A. A. Hodge and R. C. Sproul’s commentaries on the Westminster Confession. WCF
Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: P&R, n.d.).
Ursinus, one of the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote this commentary to go along with the catechism. I assume many readers of this VFT blog are familiar with Ursinus’ commentary so I won’t to go into details. Suffice it to say that if you are a preacher or teacher who wants a solid and detailed commentary on the HC, this is probably the first one you’ll want to own and use. HC
Johannes VanderKemp, The Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage books, 1997).
This is a two-volume set of VanderKemp’s (d. 1718) sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. I appreciate this resource because it is the best of old-school Dutch Reformed theology. It isn’t always easy to read since it is photolithographed from an old edition, since the language is a bit archaic, and since it is quite long, but it is a solid and detailed resource for Heidelberg Catechism studies and preaching. HC
Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004).
Thomas Vincent wrote this very short commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1674. John Owen, Thomas Watson, and other such theologians spoke very highly of this commentary. I appreciate it because it is to the point and full of Scripture references. Vincent first gives the Q/A from the WSC and then breaks it down into further questions and answers in which he lists numerous Bible verses to prove the doctrine. Vincent was also very much concerned with the practical side of doctrine, so he often explains how the truths of the Christian faith are comforting to God’s people. (Those interested in a resource on the Westminster Larger Catechism will want to consider J. G. Vos’ commentary.) WSC
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008).
This well-known work of Puritan Thomas Watson (d. 1680) has stood the test of time. It is basically a detailed exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in extended outline form. But it is more than a basic commentary – it is also in many ways a brief systematic theology that is full of Scripture, illustration, and application. For example, after discussing sanctification, Watson explains how to grow in sanctification. I really cannot recommend this book enough. To be honest, it is probably one of my favorite theology books overall. WSC
A Pastor’s Reflections: Your Ministry and Social Media
In last week’s post I addressed the subject of, “Your church and social media.” As a pastor, you should be aware that the digital age is upon you and social media is a venue for observing the conduct of your church. You shouldn’t ignore Facebook and Twitter. But there is another dimension to social media, and this pertains to your own personal life and especially your ministry. Social media is a strange phenomenon, one that elicits Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde patterns. I have met some of the most quiet, shy, and reserved ministers and elders only to discover that they are a Facebook or Twitter beast. You’d never know it that on the world-wide-web this shy and demure person has an entirely different persona—he is “Mr. Extrovert” on social media and e-mail. My own personal theory is that it’s easy to be an extrovert when you don’t have to look someone in the eye, when the only thing you look at it is a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Regardless of the reasons, I’ve found that ministers can be just as unwise about social media and e-mail as anyone else, which can be a significant problem for your ministry.
When a minister, for example, decides to go on a Facebook rant about everything that is wrong with the most recent decision at Presbytery, he opens himself up to a number of problems. Why is he willing to call out people on Facebook but not on the floor of presbytery? When a person decides to blog about scattered thoughts, some of which are less than theologically orthodox, how much wisdom is there in such conduct? Sure, most ministers wonder about heterodoxy, but to do so in the public eye on Facebook or on a blog lacks wisdom. Now some people might object and say, “Who cares? Lighten up! I mean, really. What’s wrong with venting? What’s wrong with wondering ‘out loud’ about theology?” From one vantage point, there’s nothing wrong with venting or wondering, so long as you’re careful to mind the context.
I have several close colleagues whom I trust completely—I know they are vaults when it comes to their discretion and confidentiality. I know I can vent to them or bounce theological ideas off of them when I’m trying to figure something out. I would never have such conversations in a public venue. More importantly, I would never write these things down. My parents taught me an important life-rule: Never write anything down that you don’t want someone else to read. This is especially true regarding the world-wide-web.
Churches looking for pastors now do Google searches on prospective pastoral candidates, and if they don’t, they’d be foolish not to do so. If a person or church Googled your name, what would they find? I know of several situations where a candidate for a church was taken out of consideration because of things that he wrote on his Facebook page. In other words, all of us say things in the spur of the moment, things that after further consideration we recognize were unwise or even sinful. It’s one thing to say things like this and entirely another to write them down for the world to see. Even if you write things and then later delete them, search engines can still have traces of what you wrote in their databases.
Some people might object and say, “Why can’t I be free to express myself and offer my thoughts and opinions?” And this type of objection is correct—you are free to express yourself, you are free to exercise your Christian liberty. However, churches are equally free to exercise their rights by not hiring you because of things you have written. Moreover there is the whole question of wisdom. Should you as a minister reveal your innermost thoughts on a host of subjects? Silence is often the better part of discretion. Why open yourself to criticism, judgment, or even rejection when the wiser path is to keep your questionable thoughts to yourself. Why hobble your ministry by posting questionable content on social media? I know of one pastor who took a vacation with several other families from his church and he posted pictures of his trip. There were pictures of his wife in her swimsuit, pictures of people drinking beer, and general vacation-like activity. A number of people in the church complained about the swimsuit, the beer, and even asked the question, “Why hasn’t the pastor asked me to go on vacation with his family?” A few posted pictures created a lot of questions and discontent in the church that was unnecessary, and in my judgment, unwise.
I have heard a number of experienced and even tech-savvy ministers offer other ministers and candidates for the ministry the following advice: stay off of social media.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Social Media and your Congregation
I feel like a dinosaur because I can remember when the internet was really lame and when e-mail was a novelty. When I was a child I actually used 8-track tapes. If you don’t know what that is, Google it! Anyway, one of the things that has come about with the internet is social media, things like Twitter and the Facebooks (yes, I know that it’s really called Facebook). It used to be that people talked with their friends on the phone and kept their deepest darkest thoughts in their journal in their nightstand. Now, people Tweet and post all sorts of things to Facebook. Personally, I have no interest in such things. Why would anyone care whether I just hit Starbucks and had a half-calf-decaf-mocah-choca-ya-ya? But just because I personally don’t care about or have interest in social media doesn’t mean that I’m totally ignorant about social media or that it has no use for the pastorate.
For reasons that still bewilder me, some people don’t seem to realize that the interweb is called the world wide web for a good reason—anyone can read what you post or tweet, unless you keep things password protected or private through your settings, though Facebook can take your pictures and use them if they want (don’t get me started on that one). People post all sorts of things on-line that, to be frank, makes me question their wisdom. How does all of this bear upon the pastor and his congregation, you ask?
I would regularly, and still do, lurk about social media websites from time to time and peer into people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. Even though I don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook page, I still have my ways of seeing these things! Honestly, my “lurking” was usually pretty innocent. I was looking for people in my church to see what they were up to, and from time to time, when I discovered what they were doing, I became concerned. For example, when you find pictures of one of your church members in her itsy-bitsy-tiny-weenie yellow polka-dot bikini, holding a cocktail with a bevy of other similarly clad women, and she has judged that this is a perfectly normal thing to put on the world-wide-web, to borrow a line from Jeff Foxworthy, “You just might have spiritual problems.” Or when you find pictures of one of your church members and his recent trip to Vegas with his friends and there are more bottles of alcohol in the picture than people, “You just might have spiritual problems.” In the former situation, there were significant marital problems, as the scantily clad woman was married, and the latter problem ended up in adultery and divorce, surprise, surprise. In one instance, one person decided to document his adultery and extra-marital affair on Facebook with words and pictures. To say the least, there were definitely spiritual and moral problems in this instance, not to speak of his own wife and children and their embarrassment and suffering.
So what’s the pastoral point of all of this? The point is, whatever people are willing to show others in public is sometimes but a mere fraction of what actually goes on in private. If you’re willing to show the world what you’re doing in “private” by posting it to the world-wide-web, and the pictures look morally questionable, chances are there are problems. Sure, the pictures could be misleading and there might be a good reason to show off your bikini pictures to the world because in reality, deep down inside you’ve got the heart of and morals of Mother Teresa. But as a pastor, when you encounter such things, you’d be foolish to ignore them. The same principle applies to parents, who might stumble across such things when they’re looking at the things their children say and do on the internet.
In the olden days, like 1990, if you heard of one of your church members going on a drunken bender through the “grapevine” (the old fashioned Twitter feed), you would follow-up with that person to confirm what had actually occurred. Yes, your concern would be for their reputation, but as Christians, our concern should also be for Christ’s reputation. The third commandment tells us not to take God’s name in vain (Exo. 20:7). How many Christians, people who bear the name of Christ, essentially take it in vain by their questionable conduct, which they then document and post on-line? Yes, we have our precious Christian liberty, but as Christians, we also have the responsibility to exercise it carefully. And as ministers, when we encounter members of our congregation doing questionable things, we have an obligation to follow-up and keep an eye on things.
So even if you’re not all that tech savvy, keep your digital eyes open. You just might find information on Facebook or Twitter that will alert you to big problems in the life of your church.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 9 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 9.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Business in church
One of the things I encountered in my pastorate was people engaged in pyramid marketing schemes and similar types of business ventures. It’s certainly no crime for a person to seek employment in a number of different types of vocations, whether he works for a company or is self-employed. There are some businesses, however, that have a slightly different model, one that requires you as the salesperson to contact all of your friends, invite them over to your house, and sell them your wares, whether it is Tupperware, vacuum cleaners, vitamins and supplements, house-cleaning products, cookware, etc. Initially this seems like a nice way for a person to make some extra money, but upon further examination problems quickly begin to surface, especially when this activity occurs within the walls of the church.
For example, my wife and I knew another couple who were very friendly and expressed their desire to spend some time with us to get to know us better. They initially suggested that we catch a play and then have some coffee afterwards. As the pastor, I was pleased that we would get the opportunity to spend some time with one of the couples in the church. On the day of our scheduled “date,” the couple called us to say that their plans had changed and they couldn’t go to the theater, but could they still come over to the house to hang out with us. Plan B was to watch a movie and then have some dessert. My wife and I saw no problem with this and agreed to the revised agenda. When the couple arrived, things quickly went in a very different direction. The couple unloaded several cases from their sedan and entered the house. They told us that they wanted to show us something before we watched the movie. So my wife and I politely consented. All of a sudden we were in the middle of a sales pitch for cookware. To say the least, I was bewildered and even had to withhold my laughter because of the weirdness of it all.
I began to think to myself, “Well, this is odd, but maybe we can humor them and make a small purchase.” But then this couple gave us the punch line . . . the cookware was only a mere $2,500 and they had a payment plan if we needed one. My wife and I looked at each other, tried to hold the best poker face we could, and politely said, no. Our negative response put a damper on things and the couple packed up their cases and promptly left—no movie, no coffee, no fellowship. And after this whole incident, this couple was quite cold towards my wife and me.
Hopefully this scenario illustrates the problems with this type of business. It’s one thing to go door-to-door to sell your wares and entirely another when you put people in the church in an awkward position, one where they’ll likely say no and you’ll walk away offended. I don’t want to say that people in the church should never conduct business with one another—we can and should. But we also shouldn’t use the church directory as our personal client list either. In fact, in my own church, the elders placed a disclaimer in our church directory as a result of this little fiasco: “This directory is to be used for church-related matters only and not for any other purpose.” People give their contact information to the church for the sake of fellowship and church-information, not so they can sign up to receive sales calls.
Dr. Horton at the ETS Far West Regional Meeting
Our own Dr. Horton will be the plenary speaker at the upcoming meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Far West Regional meeting, on Friday afternoon, April 19, at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. His lecture title is, "The Spirit and the People: Evangelical Perspectives."
The link below gives information about registration ($10 for students) for the meeting and/or for the banquet that evening ($15--reservations must be submitted by 4/12), as well as the various papers and presenters throughout the afternoon, after the plenary session that opens the meeting.
This promises to be a stimulating afternoon/evening--please consider attending!
Click here for more information.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Jail and Prison
There are many churches that are filled with respectable people, good, civic-minded citizens. But it may come as a shock to some, but there are some churches that also have members that, for one reason or another, wind up in jail or prison. Given that many churches in this country have nice middle-class members, the news that one of its members has been incarcerated can be a shock. I think that many people shy away from imprisoned people for a number of reasons. But as a pastor, you don’t have the right to ignore any of your church members regardless of where they might be living.
I can remember discovering that one of my church members had been placed in jail. At first, it was a big surprise because on the surface, everything seemed fine. The elders and I had conducted home visits and the family was in church fairly regularly. When they were absent, or when one of the members of the family was absent, there was usually an accompanying explanation—someone was visiting family or was at home sick in bed. So upon hearing the news that this young woman was in jail, I took the necessary steps to visit her. Jail is not as nice as they portray it on TV. As I entered the facility I had the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia—I wasn’t physically or intellectually hobbled, but I definitely felt like I was in a tight and enclosed space. I was searched and went through a metal detector, and then I went to the room with the phone on the wall and thick bulletproof glass, which was scratched and dirty.
As I talked with this young woman I felt like I was finally beginning to get some honest answers to my many questions, though I did speak with the jail officials as well. Once deception enters the picture you should always verify with outside sources. In this case, the jailers told me this young woman had a rap sheet as long as my arm. As I visited her over a number of months, I discovered that she had engaged in some very unwise, foolish, and very sinful activity. This young woman was eventually released on probation, and I made a number of home visits to encourage repentance, but to no avail. As much as she said she was changing her ways, she ended up in jail again for violating her probation. She eventually ended up doing a stint in the state prison.
Regardless of the crime or a person’s state, if he is a member of the church, you as the pastor, and elders of the church, have a responsibility to minister to them. This means regular visits as well sending literature to them when possible (some jail and prison systems are quite restrictive and have all sorts of rules governing how to send prisoners literature). You also have the responsibility to pray and intercede on behalf of such people, and if they are unrepentant, then you need to put them under church discipline. However, there is a sense in which I think that ministers and elders are expected to care for people in prison, but members of the church are a different matter. No one from my congregation took the time to visit this young woman while she was incarcerated. Part of me wonders whether it would have made a bigger impression upon her had a number of church members showed up to visit. This young woman expected me to be there, it “was my job,” after all. When Christ told his disciples, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36), I don’t think he restricted prison visitation to ministers and elders. Should you become aware of a situation where one of your fellow church members are imprisoned, certainly pray for them, but also give serious thought to visiting them.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 8 with Hywel Jones
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" is back! This episode features Dr. Hywel R. Jones, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 8.
You can find the episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Listen, Don’t Critique
One of the biggest problems in Reformed churches, I believe, is that people come to church to critique the sermon rather than listen to it. How so? In Reformed churches there are always a number of theological commandos, people who love to study the Bible, read serious theological works, and encourage and spur others on to improve their own knowledge. These are all good things, however, knowledge apart from humility and love is a dangerous thing as Paul warns us (1 Cor. 8:1). What begins as a thirst and hunger to know God becomes a case of pride and the person no longer comes to eat the meal prepared by the chef but instead comes as the food critic.
Some people will sit down and listen to the preaching of the word, but find problems with the way a text is preached, the illustrations used, the inflection of the pastor’s voice, or the application that the pastor presses. The person will then approach the pastor and raise his or her concerns regarding the “flaws” in the sermon. I can completely understand why pastors find such “counsel” annoying. It doesn’t matter how long he studied in college, seminary, how many hours he invested in exegeting the text, praying over his preparation, or how many hundreds or even thousands of sermons he’s preached over the years. All of this is for naught. In this day and age where expertise has been democratized, all you need is twenty bucks and a website and a person can anoint himself as an “expert” on any subject. I think such a trend is especially true for seminarians—they take one or two classes, have preached maybe three sermons in their whole life, and all of a sudden they’re a preaching expert.
Regardless of the amount of training and study a person might have, we are not supposed to come to church to critique the sermon. We are not food critics but rather pilgrims who need Christ, one greater than Moses, to give us heavenly manna—spiritual nourishment that he brings through the hands of his ordained ministers. Our mindset should be that when we hear the preaching of the word that we are, as the Second Helvetic Confession states, hearing the very living word of God (§ I). We should realize that we have come to listen to the word so that it would critique us, not so that we could criticize the preaching of it. Such is the difference between listening to the sermon and critiquing it—it’s humility vs. pride.
We should also realize that God has established his church in such a way that there are people whom he has assigned to critique the preaching of the word—the elders of the church. The elders have the Christ-given responsibility to guard the purity of the preaching of the word of God. They not only listen but also evaluate and when necessary, hopefully in private or within the confines of the session or consistory meeting, critique the pastor’s preaching.
If you believe, however, that there is a persistent problem with your pastor’s preaching, then there are appropriate steps to take. First, don’t automatically assume you are correct. Maybe your pastor knows more about the text and preaching than you do. Investigate the subject of concern—read, study, and prayerfully reflect. Second, after diligent and prayerful consideration, if you’re still convinced there is a problem, humbly and privately approach one of the members of the session or consistory to make your concern known. Again, be prepared to be corrected—elders of the church are chosen because of their ability to teach and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They might see a gaping hole in your assessment and correct you, and rightly and necessarily so. Third, if the problem still persists, then request to speak with the session or consistory to raise your concerns. Again, be prepared to be corrected. Fourth, if the problem still persists, you have one of several options: (a) live with the problem; (b) peaceable withdrawal; or (c) in accordance with your church order take your concerns to the next level, either presbytery or classis. Again, be prepared to be corrected.
In the end, I suspect that the norm will be that we will not be called upon by Providence to carry a theological complaint to General Assembly or Synod. Rather, our chief responsibility as we carry out the general office of believer is to listen to the preaching of the word, not critique it.