Singing the Ballot Blues

Singing the Ballot Blues

This Sunday, I preached a sermon about voting. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to telling Christians how to vote. I didn’t tell people “vote for Donald Trump or America is toast,” nor did I say “We must vote for Joe Biden!” I took a middle road, which is really the best road. It’s an uncomfortable road, because I believe a Christian ought to feel politically “homeless” in a world to which he doesn’t belong.

The Christian faith is about hope. Hope for a better world. Hope for a better us. Hope for justice. Hope that things are meant to be better than they are.

Hope that a God exists who is good, and that His Son Jesus of Nazareth lived, died and rose again to fix this broken world, by the power of the Spirit.

The Christian faith is about hope that God will rescue some of us, so we can be with Him in the new community, as part of a new family, in the new and better world to come. Christians can live here in peace and joy because of this new relationship.

But, while we wait for all that good stuff to happen … we’re stuck here. We can’t withdraw from society and isolate in Tupperware containers. We can’t marry the Church to the culture. We’re in this uneasy middle ground, with the Church set apart from the culture but not isolated from it.

This produces questions about how the Church should interact with society[1]. The election is 03 November; what should you think about voting?

I tried to answer that, here. I provided three principles to follow when voting:

  1. God will fix everything … later.
  2. Vote to support all kingdom values, not just some.
  3. Realize God doesn’t care if you don’t like your leaders.

The uncomfortable bit is in the second principle. I’m essentially taking the approach Michael Svigel summarizes pretty well in his article The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism. He writes:

On the basis of God’s Word and in allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Christians speak and act on behalf of righteousness. Christians address political corruption, weigh in on social ills, take righteous action on behalf of truth, justice, and mercy, and do so in ways that refuse either to empower a “strongman” or take shelter in a bunker. All of this is done in a manner that reflects the fruit of the Spirit and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Conscience Christians avoid any alliances or allegiances that would surrender their ability to speak prophetically to the “Herods” of their day. And they refuse to surrender the impartiality necessary to serve as the conscience of the kingdoms of their age.

This kind of approach almost always means withdrawing membership and loyalty to political parties and political action organizations, but it never means retreating from political, social, cultural, and moral engagement. It means boldly but lovingly speaking out against unrighteousness and injustice while promoting righteousness and justice—assuming, of course, that Christians are actually living out righteousness and justice themselves! In the Conscience of the Kingdom approach, the Church neither unites with nor retreats from the State; rather, she lives as the Church in the State and speaks as the Church to the State.

So, here’s the sermon. I think it’s pretty important:


[1] For an excellent discussion, see especially John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 697-736; esp. 711-714. 

Beyond sawdust theology

Beyond sawdust theology

I’m studying for the sermon tomorrow, which is titled “Singing the Ballot Blues: What Should a Christian Think About Voting?” I’m browsing through some systematic theologies to read what they have to say about hope in the context of eschatology.

Hope in a better time. Hope in a better king. Hope in a better place. Hope in a better future. Hope in a restoration of all things. Hope in judgment, mercy and holiness.

Hope that there’s something better than this place, and the 2020 election.

I’m disappointed at what I find.

I generally find sawdust.

I find sterile treatises trying to plot the timeline of events in the last days. I see dry, scholastic discussions about eschatology. I see lots of dogma, but no heart. No soul. No excitement. I see academia at its worst, and no joy in the age to come.

Ironically, I find the most joy, the most hope, the most irrepressible, starry-eyed vision of Jesus Christ’s return in European theologians commonly considered “liberal” or otherwise “neo-orthodox” by many conservative evangelicals.

So, I shall quote Jurgen Moltmann for a taste of this joy and hope. I think you’ll enjoy it (The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997; Kindle ed.], KL 67-97):

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional.

We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s `final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

Isn’t this right? Aren’t Revelation, and Isaiah’s visions, and Micah’s prophesies about so much more than “the end?” Aren’t they, in fact, about a new and better and oh so glorious new beginning?

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic `final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ – after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

This has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve read. Revelation 22 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. I don’t know if Moltmann was deliberately channeling Winston Churchill here, but it works. And, he’s right.

That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer took leave of his fellow prisoner, Payne Best, in Flossenburg concentration camp, as he went to his execution: `This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’ That is how John on Patmos saw the Last judgment of the world – not as annihilation, a universal conflagration, or death in a cosmic winter. He saw it as the first day of the new creation of all things: `See, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).

If we perceive it in remembrance of the hope of Christ, what is called the end of history is also simply the end of temporal history and the beginning of the eternal history of life. Christ can only be called `the end of history’ in the sense that he is the pioneer and leader of the life that lives eternally. Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end.

Amen and amen. What a vision. What a taste of the future that’s so much better than the sawdust scholasticism that characterizes too many Reformed systematic theologies. We need more of this.

I will close with Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, as he discusses hope:

When God in Christ says to man: ‘I love you,’ He says to him: ‘I have loved you from eternity and will love you to eternity.’ A love that does not long to be boundless is not love at all. Every laying down of limits is a denial of love, the proof of its lack of seriousness.

The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philidelphia: Westminster, 1960), 344.

Love is the object of our existence. It’s what God created us for – community based on love with Him and one another. This is why Brunner sees the Church as the brotherhood of faith. So, our hope is a total restoration of those relationships by perfect communion with God in eternity.

Brunner continues:

Hope is the certainty that this love lasts for ever and that it will not rest until is possesses us wholly. It does not possess us wholly so long as we are imprisoned in the ‘body of death’ and determined by the ‘form of this world.’ God’s glorifying of Himself which is identical with His self-communication in love only reaches its goal by dissolving this form of the world and transforming the world into the form of glory.

Ibid.

So, the Cross is the beginning of the end, just as Moltmann says. It’s where the Son accomplished the redemption of everything, even as we wait here for it to happen. “As an expectant mother carries within her the child that is to be born, and awaits with certainty the event of its birth, so faith carries the future within it. This future the believer expects wholly and solely from the coming of Jesus Christ,” (Ibid, p. 342).

So, Brunner writes, the Cross is where the world as God meant it to be becomes visible:

In the justification of the sinner the world that has become a stumbling-block to faith for the unbelieving man is also justified. In spite of all the cruelty and senselessness of the world, faith sees it as the creation transfigured in the fulfillment of the divine purpose, restored and approaching its consummation. the Cross as the eschatological turning point is the only theodicy possible and permitted for the Christian – the hope of the Consummation which the Creator and Redeemer God will Himself accomplish.

Ibid, p. 355.

This is the kind of hope we need. Not more end-times charts. Not more arguments about the minutiae, no matter how well-intentioned. We need some good, old-fashioned common ground to celebrate and rejoice about the hope all Christians have. This is theology with heart. With soul. With love.

Again, we could all do with some more of this.

Brotherly love and the church

Brotherly love and the church

I have been reading and writing on this topic for some time. I haven’t yet published any of it. But, I will share a few tidbits now.

Emil Brunner rightly notes the church catholic is not properly an external institution or organization at all, but “a brotherhood resulting from faith in Christ.”[1] The visible church is only the shell or instrument of this brotherhood.[2] So, when we think of “the church,” we shouldn’t think,

Well, in a church you have the pastors, the deacons, and Christians who join the church. And, the whole Church is the collection of these individual churches.

That’s a corporate view; you look at God’s community as one big organizational chart with branches and sub-boxes for different denominations. This isn’t necessarily incorrect if you squint a certain way, but it’s not good enough. The Church, as Brunner says, is a brotherhood of all who have faith in Christ. It’s a far-flung family knit together by a love for one another that reflects God’s love. The immediate family is the local church. The extended family is the larger Church. You know some relatives better than others, but you’re all related. This picture of a far-flung family is better than an organizational chart.

What’s the mark of a true church? Christians have written about this for a long time, including me. But, again, these reflections often assume an organizational structure for the church. So, you have answers like, “a true church has apostolic doctrine, is holy, is one, and is catholic (that is, universal).”

But, carrying on the image of the Church as a brotherhood or family knit together by shared faith in Jesus Christ, why don’t we think of brotherly love as a defining mark of the redeemed community (1 Jn 4:19-21)? When it is missing, God is most angry (Jer 9:4-9; 1 Jn 5:1). Our brotherly love should reflect the intra-trinitarian, perichoretic love of Father, Son and Spirit (1 Jn 4:8). It is that love that binds them as One.

So, in a true “church family,” this love pushes outward, impelling the congregation to reach out to the world in love to offer them reconciliation, love and peace. It’s this love that moves us to evangelize, and it’s this same love that shows us as genuine to the lost. As Brunner has written, “[a] man is laid hold of by the life of the fellowship, moved by the love he experiences there; he ‘grows into’ the brotherhood, and only gradually learns to know Jesus Christ as the Church’s one foundation.[3]

A church that fights is not attractive to outsiders, because it doesn’t reflect God’s love. Who wants to be a part of that? Nobody.

Brunner continues:

The one thing, the message of Christ, must have the other thing, love, as its commentary. Only then can it be understood and move people’s hearts. True, the decisive thing is the Word of witness to what God has done. But this Word of witness does not aim merely to teach, but also to move the heart.[4]

A family that hates is not a functioning family. Likewise, a congregation that does not love one another is a dead church. There are other good marks of a true church. But, brotherly love must certainly be one of them.


[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 128.

[2] Ibid, p. 129. 

[3] Ibid, p. 136. 

[4] Ibid.  

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is an invitation to pastors to examine their hearts, and it is excellent. It is what Richard Baxter wished he could he done, had he not been such a self-righteous bore. Tripp has a counseling ministry and travels regularly, seeing churches and leadership teams up close and personal nearly 40 weeks per year. Before he wrote this book, Tripp often taught these same themes at pre-conference events for pastors. He explains the genesis of this book:[1]

When I finished and came off the platform, a long line of concerned and broken pastors formed in front of me. About five pastors down the line stood a man who wept his way toward me. I think I could have set up a counseling office for two weeks, full-time, and still not have ministered to all the needs that stood before me. It was at this conference that I determined that I would speak to these issues and do all that I could to minister to my fellow pastors. This book is the result of that clear moment of calling.

Tripp’s book falls neatly into three sections; (1) pastoral culture generally, (2) forgetting who God is, and (3) forgetting who you are. He explains what he wants the book to achieve:[2]

This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart- and life-exposing mirror of the Word of God—to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Throughout, Tripp offers personal anecdotes of failure and doubt to emphasize that he is not standing above the fray, sniping at busy pastors. He has been there. He has seen it. He has experienced it. He has failed. This is why his message is effective. Tripp empathizes and encourages you to be better.

This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change. It is written to make you uncomfortable, to motivate you toward change.[3]

Indeed, Tripp’s work is essentially a modern-day The Reformed Pastor, only his work is actually helpful. Baxter, on the other hand, sneers at you, grinds your face into the mud with a polished jackboot, then screams at you about Christ (see my review of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor here).

This review will focus on two particularly great chapters from Tripp, and one problem that is perhaps not his fault, but still a bit jarring.

His third chapter, titled “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease,” is outstanding. Tripp discusses people he calls “theologeeks.” These are academic pastors who have little patience to deal with real people, and prefer to revel in scholasticism. “They love the academy and would unwittingly drag the academy into the local church and preach sermons that are more theological lectures than gospel meditations.”[4]

Tripp recounts what happened during one of his practical theology courses at Westminster Theological Seminary:[5]

I was recounting my own heart struggle, when I had been asked yet again to visit a man who had already eaten up much of my pastoral time and energy, when one of my students raised his hand and blurted out, “All right, Professor Tripp, we know that we will have these projects in our churches. Tell us what to do with them so we can get back to the work of the ministry!”

There are many things to pay attention to in his statement, but notice this: he didn’t even call the struggling people, to whom we are all called to bring the gospel, “people.” To him they were projects, that is, obstructions in the way of his definition of ministry. Now, if these people are not the focus and object of ministry, then what is ministry? There was no love for people in this student’s statement, and if there was no love for people in his vision of ministry, then it is safe to conclude that there was little operational love for Christ either. He was like many other idea, technology-of-theology guys who populated so many of my classes.

This is astonishing behavior. One wonders how a young man could ever ask such a question. One immediately wonders if this man is connected to local church ministry in any meaningful way. No person who is “in the trenches” could ever dismiss real people so flippantly as “projects” who detract from “real ministry.”

Tripp goes on to lament the “systemic”[6] problem he sees in seminary training, which is an icy intellectualism. “Have we accomplished our training task if we produce generations of graduates who have big theological brains but tragically diseased hearts? Must we not hold together theological training and personal transformation?”[7]

Seminary professors used to be experienced churchmen, Tripp writes, but increasingly they are now academic specialists who beget more people just like them. “So the energy in the classroom was not cloning a new generation of pastors but cloning experts in apologetics, ethics, systematics, church history, and biblical languages. It has been a subtle but seismic change in the culture of the seminary and the kind of results it produces.”[8]

I have seen this in myself. This is actually the thing I fear most about myself; an icy intellectualism that freezes out joy. I am naturally a nerdy person, and am currently reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics at bedtime for fun. I think of sermons I preached years ago, and shudder. I look at sermon notes from those days, and recoil in horror. They are running commentaries, not sermons.

I also fear I compensate too much by going in the opposite direction, by not going deep enough in my preaching. I had a recent conversation with another pastor. The man spoke with joy about the chiastic structure in a psalm he would preach for an upcoming mid-week service and how Hebrew wordplay reminded him of something from Exodus. I thought of the people in the congregation where I serve and thought, “People are in debt. People have bad marriages. People are tired. On Wednesday evenings, they don’t need to care about chiastic structure. They just need God’s word to help them get through the week.” Am I wrong? Have I become subtly anti-intellectual?  

In his 12th chapter, “Self-Glory,” Tripp asks us to think about whether we are subtly worshipping ourselves. He presents a hypothetical pastor and writes:[9]

He was convinced that most of the strategic things that needed to be done would be best done by him. Fewer and fewer people were commissioned to do ministry tasks. No, fellow leaders were more and more tasked with support duties because the larger ministry duties were all done by him.

This was particularly hard hitting, because I tend to be a perfectionist. Am I this way because I think I am better than anyone else? Tripp asks, “Where do you attempt to control things that you don’t need to control? Where do you find it hard to delegate ministry to others?”[10] This introspection of mine demonstrates just how well Tripp succeeded in penning a diagnostic book for pastors.

The one grouse I have with Tripp is that he ministers in larger and wealthier context than most pastors will ever see. He exists in the realm of the megachurch, or at least the very large church. This makes his attempts to “relate” strained and artificial at times. For example, Tripp rightly criticizes pastors for phoning in mediocre sermons, then writes:[11]

… I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks. This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.

This is a world the ordinary pastor will never experience. Tripp has apparently never had to preach or teach several times per week, help troubleshoot problems in the soundbooth, field questions about Zoom issues and work a day job … all at the same time. Tripp clearly has time on his hands, so his anecdote here is not helpful.

In another section, he introduces a hypothetical burned out pastor. Solemnly, Tripp writes “[t]he door to his office was shut more now than it had been, and he delegated more of his duties to his executive pastor.”[12]

An executive pastor? Any shepherd of a smaller, ordinary church will surely laugh out loud. Where can I find one of these “executive pastors” to whom I can delegate work!?

These quibbles aside, Tripp’s book is excellent. It fulfills its quest to be a diagnostic tool for busy pastors. It makes you think. It makes you examine your heart. It encourages. It is refreshing. Sadly, perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that James MacDonald, Joshua Harris, and Tullian Tchividjian are among the seven pastors who penned jacket endorsements. Each crashed, burned, and left his ministry since Tripp’s work was published.  


[1] Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 32. 

[2] Ibid, p. 11. 

[3] Ibid, pp. 11-12. 

[4] Ibid, p. 44. 

[5] Ibid.  

[6] Ibid, p. 46. 

[7] Ibid, p. 52. 

[8] Ibid, p. 53. 

[9] Ibid, p. 169. 

[10] Ibid, p. 170. 

[11] Ibid, p. 149. Emphasis mine.

[12] Ibid, p. 125. 

An example of cultic fundamentalism

An example of cultic fundamentalism

I want to share some very hurtful correspondence I received the other day from a man I thought was a friend. I have not seen he or his wife for some time. We used to be stationed together when I was on active-duty in the Navy. We were both members of an independent, fundamentalist Baptist (“IFB”) church that believed the Word of God was preserved in the 1611 King James Bible. I have moved far, far away from that. This man has not.

The IFB movement is only one flavor in the broader Christian fundamentalist camp. It’s likely the most cultic, most extreme, most legalistic flavor. Not all IFB churches are like this, but many are. I was a member of two fine IFB churches with loving pastors.

Today, Christian fundamentalism is a dying, insular movement that’s characterized by a quest for personal and church holiness. By a desire for separation from those who “compromise” in their doctrine or associations. This is its consuming passion. At the hands of its worst people, it can live up Edward Carnell’s description of “orthodoxy gone cultic.” Christian fundamentalism, in its original and proper form, is alive and well in conservative evangelicalism. I wrote about this here.

Now, back to my former friend. Here’s what happened. I posted this excerpt from a sermon on Facebook:

Here is the full sermon. Ironically, it’s about brotherly love, from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

My friend responded thus:

Tyler, I tried to listen to your preaching and it was painful, I’m telling you this because it hurts to see someone who was grounded in the word, be now so wrong, deviating from the teachings of the Bible, confusing an entire congregation with fables and lack of understanding.

I would highly recommend you to attend Bible institute at a truly fundamental Baptist Church. Do not allow your pride to get the best of you. One of the requirements for the office of the pastor is not to be a novice, and right now that is exactly what you are. I am not trying to offend you, but I would highly recommend you to consider what I have told you, not because of me, but because it may just be that God is trying to reach you through this text, pray about it and do what’s right.

In the end you will reap what you sow.

I am at a loss to understand what he found objectionable from the sermon excerpt, which is what incurred his wrath. Consider what he says:

  1. It is apparently a fable to explain and apply Paul’s admonition that love “does not envy.”
  2. My explanation was “painful.”
  3. I am “deviating from the teachings of the Bible.”
  4. I am “confusing an entire congregation.”
  5. I should get theological training at “a truly fundamental Baptist Church.” This is necessary because, you see, in cultic fundamentalism you may not be a Christian unless you are in their orbit.
  6. The man cautions me to “not allow your pride to get the best of you.”
  7. He calls me a “novice,” which is a citation from 1 Tim 3:6 (KJV, of course). This means he feels I am unqualified to be a pastor because I do not know enough.
  8. He assures me that he is not trying to offend me. I think he sincerely believes this. According to his cult, I am in grave danger of “falling away” from the truth of the IFB way, and must be rescued. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
  9. He suggests he is God’s agent, trying to reach me.
  10. He warns me “[i]n the end you will reap what you sow,” which means God will punish me if I do not heed his advice.

I did not respond to the man. I blocked him on Facebook. He was one of the last of my old IFB, King James Only friends from those old days. Now, he is gone.

My point is that here, in all its glory, is the combative spirit, the cultic mentality, the superior air. Here, in short, is everything Carnell warned about so long ago. Here is “orthodoxy gone cultic.” This is why I do not identify as a fundamentalist, and why I never will again. I have one graduate degree from a balanced fundamentalist seminary, and am a doctoral student at still another. Yet, I left behind all the baggage from the worst excesses of this movement long ago. But, one last time, it all reached out to give me one last slap.

It was a fitting coda to a closed chapter in my life!

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Baxter and “The Reformed Pastor”

Richard Baxter’s work The Reformed Pastor was first published in 1656 and is commonly considered a classic. Many seminaries recommend the book, and most pastors with graduate training are aware of it. J.I. Packer penned the introduction for the Banner of Truth edition, and after studying the work one can appreciate why Packer was forced to acknowledge the following:[1]

… Baxter was a poor performer in public life. Though always respected for his godliness and pastoral prowess, and always seeking doctrinal and ecclesiastical peace, his combative, judgmental, pedagogic way of proceeding with his peers made failure a foregone conclusion every time … his lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot.

Packer called it like a fortune-teller. Some guys know how to encourage pastors. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he was there to help.

Baxter’s text was to be delivered at a pastor’s meeting in December 1655, but he was “disabled from going thither” and fashioned his remarks into what became The Reformed Pastor.[2]His aim was to encourage pastors to be more diligent by exposing “the sins of the ministry.” Baxter, anticipating angry howls from his peers, launched a defensive salvo by proclaiming “plain dealers will always be approved in the end; and the time is at hand when you will confess that they were your best friends.”[3] It is fair to assume Baxter did not have many Facebook friends.

Baxter’s burden was to demonstrate that pastors were generally lazy and undiligent and must become diligent. In short, he wished to consider how to stir pastors up to good works. He explained the book’s outline:[4]

I wish to propose the following method:

First, To consider what it is to take heed to ourselves. Secondly, To show why we must take heed to ourselves. Thirdly, To inquire what it is to take heed to all the flock. Fourthly, To illustrate the manner in which we must take heed to all the flock. Fifthly, To state some motives why we should take heed to all the flock. Lastly, To make some application of the whole.

This list is deceptive, however, because this “application of the whole” takes up approximately 50% of the text (pp. 133-256) and is quite tedious. Like a pastor who re-preaches his sermon during the conclusion, Baxter circles the airport like a wounded 747 and never quite “lands” his plane.

Baxter says much that is good. Unfortunately, he lacked a good editor. The book is perhaps 50% too long. Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They are very helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, one begins to really dislike Baxter.

He explains Pastors must guard their own hearts:[5]

If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God – if you will not make this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers …

Baxter shows prophetic powers when he rails against hypocrisy. “What a difference was there between their pulpit speeches and their familiar discourse? They that were most impatient of barbarisms, solecisms, and paralogisms in a sermon, could easily tolerate them in their life and conversation.”[6] He could be referring to social media!

Pastors must look after every member of the flock, even if means downsizing or securing assistance and taking a pay cut. “If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and child cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less?”[7]

He warns:

We must carry on our work with patience. We must bear from many abuses and injuries from those to whom we seek to do good. When we have studied for them, and prayed for them, and exhorted them, and beseeched them with all earnestness and condescension, and given them what we are able, and tended them as if they had been our children, we must look that many of them will requite is with scorn and hatred and contempt, and account us their enemies, because we ‘tell them the truth.’

In all, the first half of Baxter’s book is ponderous but helpful. It convicts. It exhorts. It helps. Here, in this paraphrase of Baxter’s outline for “motives to the oversight of the flock,” we see a representative sample of this qualified praise:[8]

  1. Pastors are overseers of the flock
    • You must therefore take heed to the flock
    • You agreed to be a pastor, so suck it up and do your job[9]
    • You have the great honor to be an ambassador for the gospel, so go do it
    • Do not take the blessings of your pastoral position for granted
    • Be found faithful
  2. The Holy Spirit made you a pastor, so “take heed to it”
  3. How could you be unfaithful to the Church of God?
  4. Christ purchased the Church with His blood, so “shall we despise the blood of Christ?”

This cycle of (1) assertion of sin, then (2) exhortation to be faithful repeats over and over. But, by the time Baxter turns to “make some application of the whole,” the book is only halfway over. What new information does Baxter impart?

His focus is on catechizing. “I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto.”[10] However, this emphasis is of little use to Baptist pastors who believe the New Covenant is only for regenerate believers.[11] At once, the object of his exhortations have been rendered moot for Baptist ministers, who are forced to make general application only.

Baxter begins the application section by spending 39 pages trying to convince pastors to repent of their sloth.[12] “What pains do we take to humble them, while we ourselves are unhumbled!”[13] In short, he beats a dying horse with gusto and drove this pastor to personal despair.

One is tempted to shout at the book, “Yes, I admit I’m not the best pastor ever! Leave me alone, Saint Baxter!” It is doubtful a sentient being has yet lived who would not melt under Baxter’s steely Puritan gaze. Again, a paraphrased outline makes the point:

  1. We have great pride (9 pages)
  2. We are lazy (4 pages):
    • “If we were duly devoted to our work, we should not be so negligent in our studies.”[14]
    • “If were heartily devoted to our work, it would be done more vigorously, and more seriously, than it is by most of us.”[15]
    • “If we are heartily devoted to the work of God, why do we not compassionate the poor unprovided congregations around us, and take care to help them find able ministers …?”[16]
  3. We are too worldly (6 pages):
    • We wed ourselves to whatever political party happens to be in power.
    • We do not speak the truth because it will harm our interests.
    • We hoard our money and are not charitable.
  4. We are sectarian (12 pages).
  5. We do not exercise church discipline (4 pages).

If this were not enough, after a brief discussion of how to catechize,[17] Baxter circles the airport once again in his 747 with 17 pages of “motives from the necessity of this work” and “applications” thereof, in which he largely repeats himself. These pages are filled with exhortations that have grown annoying (and worse) by their incessant repetition:

And if you pity them, will you not do this much for their salvation?[18]

Oh what a dreadful thing it is to answer for the neglect of such a charge! and what sin more heinous than the betraying of souls?[19]

What cause have we to bleed before the Lord this day, that we have neglected so great and good a work for so long …?[20]

And now, brethren, what have we to do for the time to come, but to deny our lazy flesh, and rouse up ourselves to the work before us.[21]

After continuing in this vein, Baxter summons a crescendo of 15 itemized “condemnation[s] that is like to befall negligent pastors.”[22] Baxter assures us that (among other things) our parents will condemn us, our training will condemn us, “all that Christ hath done and suffered for” will condemn us, all Scripture “will rise up and condemn us,” and all our sermons will condemn us.

Baxter is clearly a man with a burden. Unfortunately, his burden for catechizing is not applicable for Baptist ministers. Because he held to Presbyterian polity and came from a “State church” context, Baxter assumed the members of his “parish” were New Covenant members because they had been baptized. Baptists believe only believers are New Covenant members. Where Baxter wanted to catechize, Baptists would evangelize.

Also, his attempts at exhortation degenerate into guilt trips from overuse, and his entire work has a superior, snobby sort of air to it. It cannot be described. It must be experienced. To this bi-vocational pastor, it largely increased feelings of inadequacy that were already present. I will not read it again and would never recommend it. As the learned archeologist Dr. Henry Jones often remarked in a different context, “it belongs in a museum.”


[1] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2012), 10-11.  

[2] Ibid, 38.  

[3] Ibid, 39.  

[4] Ibid, 52.  

[5] Ibid, 62.  

[6] Ibid.  

[7] Ibid, 91-92.  

[8] Ibid, 124-132.  

[9] “Consider that it is by your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church. And doth not common honesty bind you to be true to your trust?” (Ibid, 127).  

[10] Ibid, 172.  

[11] Some dispensationalists believe the New Covenant has no application to the Church. I will not engage that position, here.

[12] Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 133-172.  

[13] Ibid, 133.  

[14] Ibid, 146.  

[15] Ibid, 147.  

[16] Ibid, 150.  

[17] Ibid, 172-194.  

[18] Ibid, 198.  

[19] Ibid, 199.  

[20] Ibid, 200.  

[21] Ibid, 202.  

[22] Ibid, 205-211.  

Pilgrims in an unholy land

Pilgrims in an unholy land

In its October 2020 issue, WORLD Magazine (a conservative Christian publication) has two interviews about the upcoming Presidential election. WORLD’s editor, Marvin Olasky, interviewed both Wayne Grudem and David French. They’re polar opposites, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.

Here, in those few pages of interviews, you have the ethical divide that splits conservative Christians. I suppose this is all really about the Church and the Christian’s responsibilities towards society. Basically, what you think about the Kingdom of God matters. I recommend the following resources for those who are interested in the Church, the Christian, and social engagement. Read in order, according to the amount of time you have available to invest:

  1. Michael Svigel’s wonderful article, “The Conscience of the Kingdom: A Third Way for Christians Caught Between Isolationism and Constantinianism.
  2. J.I. Packer’s article, “The Bible’s Guide for Christian Activism.”
  3. Charles Ryrie’s little book The Christian and Social Responsibility.
  4. Scott Aniol’s article, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship: Toward a Traditional Dispensational Philosophy of the Church and Cultural Engagement.

But, back to the point. The divide is real. So real that French and Grudem seem to inhabit different planets.

Wayne Grudem

To many evangelicals, Grudem needs little introduction. He’s the author of the best-selling text Systematic Theology. Here’s his bio the seminary where he teaches:

Dr. Grudem became Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in 2001 after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 20 years. He was named Distinguished Research Professor in 2018. He has served as the President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as President of the Evangelical Theological Society (1999), and as a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible. He also served as the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008).

Grudem is a well-known supporter of President Trump. Several years ago, Christian historian John Fea coined the phrase “court evangelical” to describe conservative Christians who seem to desperately yearn for access to the President, like so many little children lusting after candies:

The politics of fear inevitably results in a quest for power. Political influence, many evangelicals believe, is the only way to restore the nation to the moral character of its founding. How much time and money has been spent seeking political power when such resources might have been invested more effectively in pursuing a course of faithful presence!

Clergymen and religious leaders have, at least since Billy Graham, regularly visited the White House to advise the president. Like the members of the kings’ courts during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who sought influence and worldly approval by flattering the monarch rather than prophetically speaking truth to power, Trump’s court evangelicals boast about their “unprecedented access” to the White House and exalt the president for his faith-friendly policies.

John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 12.

By some people’s reckoning (like Fea’s), Grudem is a court evangelical. In his interview, he sounds less like the respected Christian theologian he is, and more like a GOP policy wonk from Fox News. Here are some excerpts:

The political left certainly has a lot to answer for, but what about the responsibility of Christian leaders? When Barack Obama made untruthful claims, he received a lot of criticism; but have we seen similar criticism regarding President Trump? I’ve publicly criticized his previous marital infidelity and his vindictiveness at times, and his brash, confrontational behavior at times. I looked at The Washington Post’s list of what it calls 16,000-some “lies” Trump has spoken and examined 20 or 30 of them. They’re what I’d call conclusions drawn by a hostile interpreter of words that a sympathetic listener would understand in a positive way. President Trump is often not careful in some of the things he says. He is given to exaggeration. Sometimes he’s made a statement after being given inaccurate information. I’m not sure he’s ever intentionally affirmed something he knows to be false, which is how I define a lie. As you know, I have written an ethics textbook. I believe it’s never right to affirm X when you believe X is false. If someone wants to point out to me some actual Trump lies that fit that definition, I’d be happy to look at them. 

Will America in 2024 be in better or worse shape if Biden is elected, or if Trump is reelected? The Trump presidency has resulted in a stronger economy, stronger national defense, positive steps toward achieving border security, standing up to China and Russia, negotiating new trade agreements, advocating educational freedom, standing with Israel, strengthening our military, and reforming our judicial system. Those are all what seem to me to be evidence of God’s blessing on the nation with President Trump. If he wins again, I expect there will be more blessing on our nation. If Biden is elected, he’ll support abortion, cripple the economy, weaken our military, largely abandon Israel, select more judges who legislate from the bench, weaken religious freedom. We’ll have more crime, a complete federal takeover of our healthcare system, and much more that looks like the withdrawal of God’s blessing.

Perhaps the strangest thing Grudem suggested (underlined, above) was that President Trump has never lied in his life. That is … an odd thing to say!

David French

French is a well-known Christian commentator:

David French is senior editor of The Dispatch, a conservative website, and a member of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. He served in the Iraq War, was a senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and was a staff writer for National Review from 2015 to 2019.

However, if Grudem seems to be speaking more like a GOP strategist than a Christian theologian, David French seems to have no goal other than to not vote for President Trump. His basic point is the Church has consistently failed to change public policy on critical issues by supporting GOP Presidents, and it will fail here, too:

Has he helped or hurt regarding our racial division? The extraordinary racial division in the United States is not just dealt with by policy. That is dealt with through character, personality, leadership, and charisma. The core of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ critique is that Trump by pattern and practice intentionally tries to divide the United States of America. I think that critique is right. A president of good character doesn’t try intentionally to divide the United States of America. All of this stuff is super basic. You ask Christians about this in 2015, and they say, “Of course.” But Christians have joined with Trump and look for a rationalization.

French continues in the same vein, but in response to a different question:

Does this president’s control over policy trump his own incompetence and poor character? The plight of the country now says that’s not just wrong, but laughably and tragically wrong. There is nothing MAGA about where we are now. There is an enormous amount of heartbreak, misery, death, division. That Donald Trump had a better platform than Hillary Clinton did not spare us from any of that. His character made it all worse.

Then this:

So you want a narrow Democratic win? No, I want a decisive loss for Trump, because if the loss is very narrow you’re going to have extraordinarily divisive forces in the U.S. calling into question the legitimacy of the election. A decisive win is the only way Americans are going to have confidence in the legitimacy of the election, sad to say. The margin will matter a lot. My hope is that a resounding rejection of Donald Trump doesn’t carry with it a resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That’s what I’m pessimistic about. I suspect the resounding rejection of Trump will also lead to resounding rejection of Republicans who are not like Trump. That outcome is not best for the country.

Read both Wayne Grudem and David French’s interviews. It’s likely you have friends and family who exactly mirror both Grudem and French. The men inhabit different worlds. You can’t be more apart on issues. Yet, they’re both conservative Christians.

What to do in November?

I know that the Kingdom of God isn’t here, yet. It’s coming, though. The Church’s mission is to preach the Gospel, equip God’s people for faithful life and death in His service, and reach out so more people will join the family of God. The Kingdom won’t come until Christ rolls up this ruined world, throws it into the trash, and makes a new and better place for His chosen people. Then, we’ll have justice and righteousness.

Until then, Christians must speak and vote for policies that are closest to God’s. In other words, Christians must go in for kingdom values now, while we wait for that kingdom to come. Read Michael Svigel’s article.

The End of White Christian America

The End of White Christian America

I originally wrote this review in October 2019 for publication at another site, but forgot to post it here.

Robert P. Jones wrote The End of White Christian America in 2016. He’s the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, and holds a PhD in religion from Emory and an MDiv from Southwestern. He’s a clever and engaging writer, and opens with an obituary for “White Christian America” (“WCA”). In this “eulogy,” he explained that WCA had been ill for some time, but the disease became terminal after the 2004 presidential election:1

The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors—complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.

Jones writes from a progressive Christian perspective, and he sheds few tears at the death of WCA. His thesis is that a particular cultural era has ended in America; an era largely shaped and defined by WCA.2

What is WCA?

This is the million-dollar question, but (for me, at least) the biggest initial stumbling-block is that Jones decided to use a framework that generalizes Christians of various theological stripes by the color of their skin.3 It’s these white Protestants, Jones argues, who have lost their grip on the culture and are fast fading into obscurity.

After about two months of reflection, I’ve decided that Jones wasn’t trying to broad-brush Christianity by skin color. Instead, he uses WCA as an update on the old “WASP” label; it’s a shorthand for a particular expression of cultural Christianity.4

In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities. White Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.

America has long been dominated by complementary religious visions, and although these visions had different theological content, they shared a belief in American exceptionalism. It’s white Protestants who had the cultural cachet to shape and influence American society in their respective ecclesiastical orbits. But, Jones argued, that time has now passed. He observed,5

There are, to be sure, pockets of the country where the spirit of White Christian America still seems alive and well—like midwestern and southern exurbs, where lively megachurches have followed the outmigration of whites from cities, and rural communities, where churches and pastors continue to have vital social roles. But even within these reassuringly insular settings, it’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole. And that realization—both for those inside and outside WCA’s domain—marks something genuinely new in American life.

Jones builds his introductory chapter around three grand buildings that act as foils to tell his story:

  • The United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which opened in 1923 (white, mainline optimism)
  • The Interchurch Center in New York City, which opened in 1960 (white, mainline ecumenicism)
  • The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, which opened in 1980 (white evangelical protestant resurgence).

Jones explained:6

At each building’s opening ceremony, white Protestant leaders spoke in prophetic tones about the indispensable place of Christianity in upholding America’s moral and political health. Today, though, all of these buildings have a different purpose from their founders’ ambitions. Each edifice has adapted—or even been transformed—to reflect the realities of a swiftly changing country. Indeed, through the life of these buildings, we can see the decline of white Protestant dominance amid the steady diversification of the American religious landscape.

An era has ended forever. America’s religious landscape will never again be dominated by white Protestants. It isn’t so much that the color of American Christianity has changed (though it has). Rather, it’s that an America-centric civil religion has passed from the scene and it will never return.

So what?

Jones has few solutions to offer a confessional evangelical. But, his description of the problem is invaluable. America is not what it once was, and Christians cannot operate as they once did – as if Ronald Reagan were still in the White House. Jones frames the spectrum of responses to this reality by drawing parallels to one psychiatrist’s description of the five stages of grief at impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Jones argues (and I agree) that while mainline Protestants have long since adapted to the changed operating environment, white evangelicals have not.7

We see the spectrum of responses in our churches. Denial and anger are common, especially among the older demographic who remember a different America; one characterized by Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority. It was, to paraphrase George Marsden, a dime-store civil religion – but it was real.

Throughout their history, white evangelicals have developed a rich lexicon of apocalyptic anger. Evangelical sermons and hymns are infused with martial imagery, and nostalgic “re-” words like “reclaim,” “restore,” “renew,” “repent,” and “revive” are staple fare. This vocabulary originates in the evangelical theological emphasis on human sin and divine judgment, but it’s bolstered socially by evangelicals’ self-perception as an outgunned minority struggling valiantly against outside powers.8

We see this in our churches in intense suspicion about Muslims, immigrants, and the sexual revolution. Pastors thunder forth with bombast about “America turning its back on God!” In these circles, there is little more than lip-service on bringing Christianity’s substantial theological weapons to bear to win these individuals to Christ. Rather, there is a pervasive fear of “them” and visceral anger that “America is under attack.”  

Bargaining is the stage at which Christians hope to reach an accommodation; an armistice of sorts. In practical terms, it usually manifests itself as a series of desperate moves intended to showcase WCA hegemony in an attempt to force a ceasefire. Jones highlights numerous cases, all in the South, where Republican legislators have attempted to introduce bills to make the Bible the “official state book.”9 He also notes Mississippi’s decision to add “in God we trust” to the State seal.10 Jones observed,11

The need to forcefully elevate their Christian status reflects white Christian lawmakers’ fear that for an increasing number of citizens the Bible and God are no longer a guiding cultural force. These efforts amount to little more than bargaining beside the deathbed of White Christian America.

Jones showcases two theologians who epitomize the depression and acceptance stages in WCA. The first is Stanley Hauerwas, whose 1989 book Resident Aliens was a clarion call to a mainline constituency to forsake civil religion and embrace its status as a colony of outsiders in a hostile world. This is one of the most profound books on ecclesiology I have ever read. Hauerwas wrote:

[W]e believe that things have changed for the church residing in America and that faithfulness to Christ demands that we either change or else go the way of all compromised forms of the Christian faith12 … A tired old world has ended, an exciting new one is awaiting recognition. This book is about a renewed sense of what it means to be Christian, more precisely, of what it means to be pastors who care for Christians, in a distinctly changed world.13

The other book is Onward, published by Russell Moore in 2015, who is at his best when critiquing the civil religion of the American South. “The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”14

It’s in his last chapter where Jones’ analysis mercilessly rips the security blanket off our evangelical consciences and forces us to realize that America has changed. This chapter has some of Jones’ best writing and his most apt illustrations:

Today, White Christian America’s faded cultural map is increasingly inaccurate. Like retirees setting out on a trip with their 1950s AAA road atlas, the graying descendants of WCA find themselves frequently pulling off the road in disbelief and frustration as they encounter new routes and cities that are not on their map. The slow death of WCA has left many with a haunting sense of dislocation.15

What a picture! What pastor has not experienced this whirlwind sense of dislocation, as if he were a latter-day Rip Van Winkle and had awoken in another era? What Christian over age 65 has not felt the same – and said so at prayer meetings?

Today, confronted with a range of shifts—from changing neighborhoods to gay marriage attitudes—the descendants of White Christian America are confronted with a diversity-and-youth-driven country that seems alien to their sense of what it means to be American.16

“Christian America” was a reality for so long, but it isn’t a reality any longer. To be “American” is not to be a Christian – certainly not a Republican.

Confronted with the psychic discomfort that results from a lack of cultural confidence and security, the greatest threat to White Christian America’s descendants is the siren song of nostalgia. Faced with an unfamiliar cultural landscape, today’s white mainline Protestants may find it easier to skip excursions altogether, preferring instead to huddle in their homes and churches around yellowing photo albums of journeys past.17

Who has not sat back, trying to recapture a little of the glory of those days from long ago? But, as the song goes, time slips away and leaves you with nothing but boring stories …

Jones sees a bright future, but a different one. His progressive theology allows him to see hope in LGBTQ inclusion and a particular expression of racial reconciliation. “The death of White Christian America marks the end of an era in the nation’s life. For many, it is a cause for considerable grief; for others, relief or even celebration. But this much is clear: in the soil fertilized by White Christian America’s remains, new life is taking root.”18

For evangelicals, Jones’ book is a sober warning. It forces us to confront a rapidly changing America. Those of us who minister in secular contexts already understand this. What will we do? How should we re-calibrate our perspective, emphasis and expectations to exegete our culture as it is, not as it was during the Carter administration? Jones has few relevant answers to offer, but he sure pinpoints the problem. Along the way, he points us to two men who do have some answers – Hauerwas and Moore. Hauerwas noted:19

A few may still believe that by electing a few “Christian” senators, passing a few new laws, and tinkering with the federal budget we can form a “Christian” culture, or at least one that is a bit more just. But most people know this view to be touchingly anachronistic. All sorts of Christians are waking up and realizing that it is no longer “our world”—if it ever was.

Indeed. What will we do about it?

Notes

1 Jones, White Christian America, 1.

2 Jones spends considerable time discussing politics, family and race in WCA as a means to prove that WCA is, indeed, dead and gone. I chose to not discuss that in this review and restricted myself to his main thesis – WCA is dead and Christians are facing a new world.

3 Ibid, 31. “Throughout the book, I use the term White Christian America to describe the domain of white Protestants in America. In the twentieth century, White Christian America developed along two main branches: a more liberal mainline Protestant America headquartered in New England and the upper Midwest/Great Lakes region and a more conservative evangelical Protestant America anchored in the South and lower Midwest/Ozark Mountains region.”

4 Ibid, 38-39.

5 Ibid, 39-40.

6 Ibid, 7-8.

7 Ibid, 198.

8 Ibid, 203.

9 Ibid, 208-209.

10 Ibid, 209.

11 Ibid, 212.

12 Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 15.

13 Ibid, 14.

14 Russell Moore, Onward (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 7.

15 Jones, White Christian America, 229.

16 Ibid, 229-230.

17 Ibid, 230.

18 Ibid, 240.

19 Resident Aliens, 16-17.

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

Effective Pastors for a New Century?

I was assigned this 27-year old text for a DMin class for two reasons; because it’s a good book, and because it was written long enough ago so that I can appreciate that some challenges are perennial. It was written by James Means, a long-time faculty member at Denver Seminary. Here’s the back cover, which explains what the book is all about:

This is a good book. Means rigorously organizes all his chapters with detailed headings and sub-headings. Indeed, one gets the impression the book began life as a series of bullet-pointed lecture notes tucked into a battered portfolio. The advantage is superior organization. The downside is a relentless series of hammer blows that smite the poor pastor with his own inadequacies. Each sub-heading brings a fresh swing of a nail-studded 2×4 to the head.

At the end, the pastor might be inspired. But, he may be demoralized and staggering from the cumulative blows of Means’ sub-headings. Some pastors would finish the book ready to quit. What sentient being is equal to the principles herein? Has such a man ever existed?

To be clear, Means wrote an excellent book. Its downfall is that the cumulative weight of “an effective pastor MUST DO THIS” over several chapters is crushing. This is a good book that is best considered a reference work. Or, perhaps the pastor should ration his chapter readings.

However, because I am a bi-vocational pastor with insufficient time to do all I must do in ministry, perhaps I am just grumpy. I generally do not like “how to be a better pastor” books.

Rather than cover each chapter, I will highlight some areas which I think are particularly important.

Pastoral competence

In his first chapter, “What’s It Going To Take?” Means tackles leadership competence. This, Means argues, is the key to effective ministry.[1] He organizes his discussion around an effective pastor’s character imperatives, then his requisite skills. Here are his character imperatives:

  1. Personal integrity.
  2. Spiritual vitality. “Few things are more tragic than pastors who hang onto their credentials and pulpits, but who have long since lost spiritual legitimacy. Such burned-out relics have nothing to offer the people …”[2]
  3. Common sense. “Clergy who lack common sense rarely succeed at anything worthwhile.”[3]
  4. Passion for ministry.

Here are the character skills:

  1. Scriptural expertise. “Pastoral ministry consists chiefly in the diagnosis of spiritual disease and the prescription of biblical directives for cure.”[4]
  2. Cultural sensitivity. “We must figure out the cultural characteristics of our ministry locale, draft a strategy for the penetration of the community with the gospel, muster resources, and lead churches toward effective ministry in their communities – whatever cultural traits and peculiarities we encounter.”[5]
  3. Relational aptitude. “The tragic three-years-or-less cycle of pastoral turnover indicates interpersonal bumbling, among other things. Botched relationships about many a promising ministry.”[6]
  4. Communication skills.
  5. Leadership ability. “Pastoral leadership includes organizational skills, critical thinking, analysis of problems, strategic envisioning, galvanizing a constituency, and enabling groups to achieve worthwhile objectives.”[7]

Means’ advice is timeless and relevant. His point about cultural sensitivity, which he later terms “culturally informed exegesis,”[8] is especially prescient. I believe this is the most critical part of pastoral leadership; the ability to adapt to the community where you are. The capacity to discard or re-image models to fit your ministry reality; to best connect with the people to whom you are ministering. “The basic categories assumed in the Christian story are no longer taken for granted,”[9] and pastors must understand the culture so they can lead a congregation to reach it effectively.

Do you have a plan to make a plan?

Perhaps the most practical thing a pastor can do is to make a plan; to figure out (1) what Jesus wants a local church to do, (2) what your congregational resources are,[10] (3) what your community is like, and thus (4) how you plan to do what Jesus wants with what you have.

I never saw a pastor model this for me. I did see pastors preach faithfully and love their people. But, I did not see a deliberate plan to do what Jesus wants. Means’ fifth chapter, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” lays out a plan to do just that. He presents principles for both (1) pastoral philosophy, (2) church philosophy, then (3) presents some models.

This chapter was particularly interesting because the other pastor and I had just formulated our vision for the congregation before I read this book. Means explains, “Competent pastors and successful churches owe their effectiveness largely to their sense of identity: they know why they are, what they stand for, where they are going, and how to get there.”[11]

Pastoral philosophy

Here are his reflective questions to help pastors figure out the principles, beliefs, and values they bring to the ministry:

  1. Relationships. “Wise pastors decide carefully the degree of transparency and intimacy that should characterize their ministry. Sometimes it becomes necessary to struggle vigorously against the natural inclinations of one’s personality.”[12]
  2. Change. “To what degree should pastors aggressively seek change or preserve the status quo?”[13]
  3. Preaching-teaching. Means suggests pastors figure out rather quickly what kind of preaching they will do; exposition, encouragement and exhortation, verse-by-verse commentary, people’s needs, contemporary topics, or entertainment? “[C]hurches that stumble along in mediocrity usually have pastors with no discernable philosophy of preaching.”[14] This is a simplistic and shallow observation.
  4. Role definition. Play to your strengths, and know your weaknesses. Fail to do that “breeds mediocrity, disappointment, and failure.”[15]
  5. Time Management. “A worthy philosophy of ministry not only clarifies primary and long-range responsibilities, but also dictates how time is managed so that those duties ate fulfilled honorably.”[16]
  6. Leadership style. “To what degree and on what issues should pastors be autocratic, participatory, or laissez-faire?”[17]

These are good, timeless principles. They are a bit abstract and theoretical because context is a significant factor in each of these propositions. I think the “preaching-teaching” comments are off-base. A pastor must use each style in his pulpit ministry and seek to improve where he is deficient. There should be no one, single model of preaching; even the selection of text will largely determine how you frame the message.

Church philosophy

  1. Declaration of mission. Means suggests churches understand their mission as five-fold, encompassing worship, evangelism, edification, fellowship, and social concern. “Some churches may add or subtract from this list and most churches place a greater emphasis on one or two of these than on the others.”[18] Means offers no justification for the social concern category; an issue I shall address later.
  2. Adoption of goals. Once you know your mission, you can produce goals to make these missions happen.“Spiritual leaders must exercise care that these basic goals do not become either so general as to be meaningless or so numerous as to be overwhelming and self-defeating. No church can do everything well.”[19]
  3. Priorities achieved by consensus. “The determination of philosophical priorities flows from decisions about church goals – or ought to.” Means warns, “[a] church sets itself up for disaster when squeaky wheels decide priorities contrary to established church goals.”[20]
  4. Clear governmental structures. “The particular government structure does not seem to matter as much as does its clarity and functional efficiency.”[21]
  5. Unanimity of values. Means suggests this is the most difficult aspect of a church philosophy. “Church values are shared beliefs about what is important, good, useful and rewarding.”[22]
  6. Efficient methodology. This is an awkward umbrella category into which Means stuffs five other criteria, in a manner analogous to the Grinch stuffing the Christmas tree up Little Cindy Lou Who’s chimney.

Interestingly, Means never suggests churches search the scriptures to figure out what a congregation’s mission is. I will discuss that further, below. Rather, he assumes his five-fold mission criteria rather casually. Otherwise, Means lays out an enduring and ageless framework for helping churches implement a mission. The approach is logical and realistic, if again a bit abstract.

Models to consider

Means then briefly presents what this looks like in four different churches. He notes, “Each of these four church philosophies emphasizes one of the missions of the church … an exact balance probably is impossible and perhaps undesirable.”[23]

  1. Evangelism philosophy
  2. Fellowship philosophy
  3. Worship philosophy
  4. Teaching philosophy

This section is less helpful than it might be, and the labels are simplistic. If a church is not doing evangelism, is it really a church at all? If brotherly love is neglected, but a congregation boasts a stellar teaching ministry, is it still a church? Means cannot answer these questions, because he has not examined what a church is, or its mission. His caveats about the difficulties of a perfect balance are helpful, but not good enough. The models he presents are over-corrections to one mission at the expense of others. There is imbalance here, not balance.

One critique

Means understood the state of the church. But, he is disadvantaged because he did not explore the mission of the church from the scriptures at all. The closest he comes is this:

Obviously, the ideological mission (but not the methodological mission) of the church is biblically mandated, though the differing scriptural interpretations of diverse traditions results in significant variations.[24]

The great irony is that, while Means argues against pragmatism, he unwittingly abets it by not presenting a scriptural case for a church’s mission. A pastor with a deficient ecclesiology could fashion his own mission statement (derived from who knows where), then use Means’ principles[25] to design and implement an action plan to confirm him in his flawed mission statement. In short, Means’ book is more an action manual than a theological foundation. It cannot stand on its own without a robust ecclesiology.

John Hammett has observed:

… understanding the doctrine of the church is especially important to contemporary North Americans, because their pragmatic approach to church life, their concern to be relevant to their culture, and their desire to see their churches grow leave them vulnerable to the danger that their churches will be shaped more by those concerns than by the design and of the Lord and of the church. Indeed, how can churches be what God desires them to be if people do not know what he desires them to be?[26]

Means should have devoted a chapter to briefly present a case for a congregation’s core missions, then used that as a springboard to build a philosophy of ministry. This deficit is especially clear by Means’ casual assertion that “social concern” is a mission of the church. He defines this as “action in the community and world to bring about a more equitable and just society.”[27]

Is it a church’s job to accomplish this task? This is not an easy question, which is why a church must first search the scriptures to figure out what its job is. Means adopts a cultural transformation model via-a-vis the church and society, whereas dispensationalism takes what Scott Aniol calls a “sanctificationist” view.

In other words, a traditional dispensationalist philosophy of culture does not understand a church’s role towards culture to be one of cultural redemption the mission Dei, ‘work for the kingdom,’ the ‘cultural mandate,’ or any missiological or eschatological motivation. Rather, dispensationalists view the church’s exclusive mission as one of discipling Christians to live sanctified lives in whatever cultural sphere to which God has called them. This is the extent of the church’s so-called ‘responsibility’ toward culture, and anything more than this threatens to sideline the church’s central mission.[28]

Charles Ryrie agrees.[29] So does Michael Vlach, who notes this issue is really about one’s theology of the kingdom of God.[30] Others are free to adopt the cultural transformation model, of course, but they ought to do so self-consciously. The theological foundation for “mission” is the piece Means misses. And, because he otherwise focuses so much on mission and philosophy of ministry, this is a critical gap.

The great need today is for pastors to consider (1) what their job is, (2) what the church’s mission is, and (3) how to best carry out that mission and make it happen. Means’ book is an excellent guide to that last consideration.

Wrapping up

Means’ book is perceptive and well-nigh prophetic. His advice is sound and his forecasts for the future are correct; particularly his chapters titled “It’s a Small (and Scary) World After All” and “Syncretism, Pluralism, Eclecticism: What a Ride!” In short, he understood what was coming. Or, rather, Means understood the perennial dangers the Church always faces. Martin Luther, in the preface to the Small Catechism, exclaims:[31]

Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people … have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.

The dates change, but the song remains the same. Means’ foresight about the specific shape the perennial challenges would take in those two chapters was accurate, and are still relevant today.


[1] “The most compelling requisite in pastoral ministry is not new programs, bigger budgets, superior technology, state-of-the-art buildings, more talent, or better marketing, but leadership authenticity and competence,” (James Means, Effective Pastors for a New Century [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993], 18). 

[2] Ibid, p. 23. 

[3] Ibid, p. 24. 

[4] Ibid, p. 27. This is the classical description of a pastor’s job. In a more recent tome, Harold Senkbeil advocated for the same model. “I would contend that the classical approach to the care of souls is not only the best approach for our conflicted and confused era, but it’s the single best way to address the actual needs of real people in whatever location or generation pastors find themselves,” (The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart [Bellingham: Lexham, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 1213).

However, Means’ contradicts himself in a later chapter on the pastoral role, and provides a frankly intimidating list of performance expectations: “pastors must be spiritual leaders who model discipleship, oversee the spiritual health of the church, guard and communicate scriptural truth, facilitate vision, strategize locally and globally, and develop congregational synergism and joint ventures to advance Christ’s kingdom,” (Effective Pastors, p. 98).   

[5] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 29. 

[6] Ibid, p. 31. 

[7] Ibid, p. 33. 

[8] Ibid, pp. 164-166. 

[9] Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020; Kindle ed.), p. 1. 

[10] What Means calls “congregational identity,” (Effective Pastors, pp. 165-166). 

[11] Ibid, 100. 

[12] Ibid, 104. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, pp. 104-105. 

[15] Ibid, p. 105. 

[16] Ibid.  

[17] Ibid, p. 106. 

[18] Ibid, p. 108. 

[19] Ibid, p. 109.

[20] Ibid, p. 110. 

[21] Ibid, p. 111. 

[22] Ibid, p. 112. 

[23] Ibid, p. 119. 

[24] Ibid, p. 107. 

[25] From his ch. 5, “Ministry Minus Method Equals Madness,” (Ibid, pp. 100-121). 

[26] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 11. 

[27] Means, Effective Pastors, p. 108. 

[28] Scott Aniol, “Polishing Brass on a Sinking Ship,” in Journal of Ministry & Theology, Spring 2020 (Vol. 24, No. 1), p. 31. 

[29] “People get sidetracked when they attempt to impose kingdom ethics on the world today without the physical presence of the King. The Christian is responsible to practice church ethics, not kingdom ethics. Church ethics focus on the church; kingdom ethics focus on the world,” (Charles Ryrie, The Christian and Social Responsibility [Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982], 22.

[30] “As those who live between the two comings of Jesus the Messiah, the church should avoid two extremes concerning culture and society. The first is acting as if the church has no relationship to these areas. The second is to see the church’s mission as transforming the world before the return and kingdom of Jesus,” (Michael Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God [Silverton: Lampion, 2017], 542). 

[31] Theodore Tappert (ed. and trans.), “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 338.   

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

I’ve been reading Leonardo Boff’s work Trinity and Society. Boff is a Roman Catholic liberation theologian who may or may not be a Marxist. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking book on the Trinity I’ve yet read; right up there with Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom. Both these gentlemen are social trinitarians. They had a formative influence on Millard Erickson’s own monograph on the Trinity, which is excellent.

One interesting thing Boff does is re-conceptualize eternal generation and procession. Some readers may not know what these doctrines are. They’ve been pillars of Christian orthodoxy for centuries, but the turn towards social trinitarianism in the latter half of the 20th century has muted their impact in many evangelical churches. Some conservative theologians today downplay them.

What are eternal generation and procession?

Well, Christians believe Father, Son and Spirit are the same being. Not that they merely share the same nature (like you and I share a human nature), but they are the exact same being. But, if this be the case, then are we not collapsing all three Persons into one Jello-O mold, without distinction? How is this not modalism?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.

John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.

These distinctions are:

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism. For more on classical trinitarianism and divine Personhood, see my article, “Modalism Redux? The Concept of ‘Person’ in Classical Trinitarianism.” For an excellent, short explanation of eternal generation, see Charles Irons’ article, “The Only Begotten God: Eternal Generation in the Nicene Creed.”

Many contemporary theologians are not satisfied with this. They see it as an abstract idea that’s nearly impossible to understand. This is likely why many conservative Christians have never heard of them; because their pastors probably don’t understand these doctrines, either.

Instead, a more social, relational model of the Trinity has made significant headway in the last few decades. Classical advocates do not appreciate this social, relational model. Carl Beckwith is representative when he writes:

When we apply this modern notion of person to the Trinity, we end up with three distinct subjectivities, three authentic and self-determining persons, who freely and willingly coexist in unity. We end up with sophisticated sounding tritheism.

Carl Beckwith, The Holy Trinity (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 10098-10100.

See my article “On Divine Personhood and Three-headed Dogs” for a discussion of social trinitarianism and divine Personhood. This perspective often goes hand in hand with a rejection of eternal generation and procession. It is fair to say, then, that Leonardo Boff’s comments along this line would not be welcomed by classical trinitarians.

What Boff does with eternal generation and procession

Boff is a social trinitarian. He does not jettison the doctrines, but re-frames them so completely that he might as well have done. The classical model distinguishes the Persons by causality, but hastens to add this causality is timeless and non-physical (see above). Nonetheless, there is an order in the Trinitarian relationships.

Boff demurs, and suggests this ordering “is rather a descriptive device to indicate the differences and simultaneous reciprocity between the divine co-eternal Persons,” (140). It’s analogical language; terms of word art struggling to express the inexpressible. There is no real order in the Trinity; no real causality at all.

For Boff, ultimate reality begins with the three Persons already together; not “the solitude of One but in the co-existence and communion of Three,” (139). This union, this knot of relationships that define the Persons, is eternal; “it is not something that comes after them, but is simultaneous with them, since they are always with the others and in the others,” (138-139).

So, Boff suggests we dismiss terms that imply causation (like, say, “generation” and “procession”) and “use the biblical terminology of revelation and recognition: the three Persons reveal themselves to themselves and to each other,” (142).

This implies – and this is my basic thesis – that the three divine Persons are simultaneous in origin and co-exist eternally in communion and interpenetration. Each is distinct from the others in personal characteristics and in the communion established by that Person in everlasting relationship with the others, each revealing that Person’s self to itself and the self of the others to them

Boff, Trinity and Society, 142.

This is fairly standard for social trinitarianism, but Boff truly goes his own way by claiming the Church intended language about generation and procession to be analogical, not real:

Talk of ‘processions’ should not be understood as a genesis in God or as a theogonic process, as though God were subject to the principle of causality. the idea of different processions is used to emphasize at once the difference between the Persons and their reciprocal respectiveness or communion.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 144.

The classical model has always been careful to explain that generation and procession do not imply temporality; that Son and Spirit ever “came into being.” Yet, there has always been an insistence that they’re somehow real and causal; just in a way we can’t ever understand.

These explanations have always been more guardrails boxing the problem in rather than explaining them. Boff explodes these categories by making them entirely analogical; entirely words of art to express reciprocity in eternal relationship. Having dropped this artillery shell, he then backpedals a bit by assuring readers he will still use the classical terms, but will “do so with an appreciation of their specifically trinitarian application; they do not indicate any theogony, any result of an intra-divine production process, any causal dependence,” (146).

For, to Boff, this knit-together relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is the starting point. Not for him a solitary Father who, before time began, begat the Son in an incorporeal way, and together the Spirit proceeds from them both. Rather, it’s the eternal relationship that constitutes God as triune.

Their relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than hypostatic derivation, of correlation and communion rather than production and procession. What is produced and proceeds is intra-trinitarian and interpersonal revelation. One Person is the condition for the revelation of the others, in an infinite dynamism like a series of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of the Three.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 146.

Some thoughts

Boff is thought-provoking because the social model has a very strong pull in contemporary society, and has many implications for understanding the scriptures. For example, if the imago dei is structural (there’s something about our nature and make-up that reflects God’s nature and make-up), and the social model be true, then the “image of God” may well be substantive in that we are hardwired to long for relationship and community; “that set of qualities that is required for these relationships and this function to take place,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., 471).

This would have obvious explanatory power for God’s motives regarding salvation, the need for church membership, and the reason why God wants Christians to be holy:

  1. God saves His people because He wants relationship with them; to invite them into His family and be in communion with them. To adopt them.
  2. Church membership is about brotherly love; about a loving commitment to a particular community of brothers and sisters. Father, Son and Spirit are united to one another by love; so Christians must do the same in their faith communities … to image God Himself to the world.
  3. God wants Christians to be holy so these now-restored vertical and horizontal relationships are strengthened and refurbished ever more. We grow closer to one another in the family of God, as we grow closer to Him.

Of course, many theologians do not agree with the social model. They also don’t believe we should extrapolate out from God’s intra-trinitarian relationships to find a model for human relationships:

Boff’s re-conceptualizations of eternal generation and procession are novel and intriguing. I don’t believe they were what Christian have meant by the terms throughout the centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boff is wrong to focus on relationship, instead of an eternal causality. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.