The pit of despair …

The pit of despair …

Homiletics and Hermeneutics, edited by Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim, is a great primer about, well … just what the title says! Its greatness lies not simply in its positive presentation. When I was on active-duty with the U.S. Naval Security Forces, I recall one E-6 Watch Commander who I really did not like. I learned a lot from him. I learned that if I asked myself, “What would MA1 Frank do?” and then did the exact opposite, I would probably be on the right track! So it is with this book.

The editors explain, “This book is about teasing out the theological presuppositions of approaches to preaching. That is, we want to explore the hermeneutic that lies behind one’s theology of preaching.”[1] The four views they present are:

  1. Redemptive-Historical. Bryan Chapell presents this view, and his work is familiar to many younger pastors who likely read him in seminary.
  2. Christiconic. Abraham Kuruvilla explains. Paradoxically, he has never been a pastor and it shows. His presentation is easily the most abstract of the bunch.[2] His description of sanctification is too neat, too antiseptic. One gets an impression of church members as clone droids who sit waiting for their “pericopal theology” upload of the week.
  3. Theocentric. Kenneth Langley explains.
  4. Law-Gospel. Paul Wilson spells it out.

This issue here is not about preaching methodology. It is about the presupposition behind the methodology. The authors disagree about the unifying theme behind scripture. Where is God going? What is He doing? What has He been doing?

  • Is the story of the bible about redemption and the Cross? Then Chapell is your man! He explains, “God’s revelation through biblical history is progressive, organic, and redemptive.”[3]
  • What about God? Is all scripture about Him and His glory? Then toss your hat into the ring for Kenneth Langley. “Theology proper is the preacher’s best lens for seeing and displaying the unity of the Bible. Other lenses, like covenant, law-gospel, or redemptive-historic, elucidate some texts but not all, or at least not all texts equally well.”[4]
  • Sanctification? Is that the great telos of God’s story? Then go with Kuruvilla. “Jesus Christ alone has comprehensively abided by the theology of every pericope of Scripture. Thus, each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ (a facet of Christ’s image), showing us what it means to perfectly fulfill, as he did, the particular call of that pericope. The Bible as a whole, the collection of all its pericopes, then, portrays what a perfect human looks like, exemplified by Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the perfect Man: the plenary image of Christ.”[5]
  • What about law and Gospel? Then, Wilson is the man for you. “Every text already implies both law and gospel, even if every preacher has not been taught to recognize them.”[6]

The authors agree on much, and occasionally talk past each other.[7] This book’s value is in letting the pastor see how a unifying theme may (or, may not!) act as a straitjacket on the text. I propose a simple test:

If the interpretive grid will not let Song of Solomon 4 and Genesis 38 say what the text so plainly says, then it is invalid and ought to be discarded.

I will apply this test to Song of Solomon 4. This text is the pit of despair for preaching models, because it’s difficult for any interpretive grid. What’s it about?

Well, to be blunt, the text shows us two people who are eager for their wedding night so they can ravish each other all night long.

Of course, there is something more going on here. Something for the congregation to learn. Which model handles this text responsibly? I do not have Kuruvilla (et al) on a Zoom call just now, so we will have to speculate—but here goes:

  1. Redemptive-Historical. Chapell would use his “gospel glasses”[8] to see how Song 4 reflected the Gospel message. Presumably, he would do something akin to “righteousness of marital love” + “fall” + “Jesus’ love for the Church” = redemption.
  2. Christiconic. Kuruvilla would seek the “world in front of the text”[9] to explain how this sexual marital bliss helps Christians become more Christlike.[10] I wish him luck with Song 4:16, but I must admit he has a shorter haul than poor Chapell.
  3. Law-Gospel. Wilson would look for both “trouble” and “grace,”[11] and if necessary engage in mirror reading to fill out his “four pages” scheme.[12] At the risk of sounding crass, I must insist that to the protagonists in Song 4, there is no “trouble” on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact …
  4. Theocentric. Langley would take this marital bliss and tie it to God’s design for men and women in marriage, and close with doxology to a God who cares about His people.[13]

The theocentric model does the most justice to the text as it stands, with the Christiconic framework a distant second. To be sure, each author has interesting and helpful contributions. But, the theocentric framework allows us to cast the hermeneutical straitjackets into the Goodwill donation bin and let the texts speak for themselves.[14] Langley warns us:[15]

Lay people learn hermeneutics from their pastors’ preaching. Whether we like it or not, they learn how to interpret Scripture from how we handle Scripture in the pulpit. So what do we teach listeners about hermeneutics when Jesus makes a surprise appearance in a sermon from Proverbs? When it turns out Song of Solomon is not really about God’s gift of married sex but about Christ’s love for his church? When redemption trumps creation as the theological underpinning of every sermon? When texts are not handled with integrity because every Sunday the preacher follows the counsel to “make a beeline to the cross.”

He continues:[16]

People have a right to expect that a sermon will say what the Bible says. But if we import Christology (or law-gospel, or kingdom, or any other theme) into texts, do we not unintentionally communicate that texts are pretexts for talking about something else?

Amen to this.


[1] Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.), xi-xii.

[2] For example, Kuruvilla privileges exegesis so much that I fear ordinary Christians would be intimidated by his approach. I submit that a man who could write “[r]ecent studies in the fields of language philosophy and cognitive science are deepening our understanding of communication and, particularly pertinent for interpreters of Scripture, how texts are to be read” (Ibid, p. 51) and then declare “[t]he semantics of an utterance (linguistically encoded meaning, sentence meaning) is a template that must be enriched to arrive at its pragmatics (inferentially discerned meaning, utterance meaning). Such inferential operations are integral to interpretation, particularly interpretation for application, which is every preacher’s burden (more on that later),” (Ibid, p. 52) and has no pastoral experience to boot, would perhaps struggle to teach ordinary Christians to know and love the scripture. It would all appear to be too much. It discourages the principle of perspicuity.

[3] Ibid, p. 6. 

[4] Ibid, p. 89. 

[5] Ibid, p. 59. 

[6] Ibid, p. 129. 

[7] For example, Kuruvilla scolds Langley in his response: “Sermon after sermon, week after week, one is left strumming, striking, and scraping the same few strings and chords of theological themes found in Scripture. Instead, I suggest that preachers expound the concrete specificities of the pericope in question and the particulars of life change it calls for,” (Ibid, p. 111). This is a low blow by Kuruvilla.

[8] “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Ibid, p. 16).

[9] “… the interpretation of Scripture cannot cease with the elucidation of its linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements: what the author is saying (semantics). It must proceed further to discern the world in front of the text: what the author is doing (pragmatics). And this projected world forms the intermediary between text and application, enabling one to respond validly to the text,” (Ibid, p. 54).

[10] “… each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ,” (Ibid, p. 59).

[11] “Sometimes I opt for alternate terms like ‘trouble’ and ‘grace,’ although the law is not appropriately reduced simply to trouble. Still, trouble and grace can provide a simpler route to the preaching of the good news,” (Ibid, p. 121).

[12] “This mirroring function of law and gospel is a principle of inversion,” (Ibid, p. 131).

[13] “Preachers may take up a variety of texts and topics, but they should take them up (and their hearers with them) all the way into the presence of God, so that listeners are instructed by the Word of God, convinced of the value of God, captivated by the holiness, grace, kingship, wisdom, and beauty of God. Preaching is all about and all for God,” (Ibid, pp. 81-82).

[14] Langley observed, “We may appreciate, for example, the kingdom lens, but find that it works better in the Synoptic Gospels than in large swaths of Scripture where the kingdom theme is not prominent. Or we may appreciate a traditional Lutheran lens, but discover that law and gospel are not present in every text,” (Ibid, p. 89).

[15] Ibid, pp. 96-97. 

[16] Ibid, p. 97. 

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. 

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.  

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.   

Baxter and his tomahawk

Baxter and his tomahawk

This is my quick take on Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor.

Everybody says it’s great. I’m not sure how many of those people have actually read it. Baxter was a Puritan who died in 1691. He spends most of the book explaining that you’re a failure and a loser if you don’t completely dedicate yourself to pastoral ministry. That’s fine so far as it goes, but Baxter likes to make sure you get his point.

He has this gem I’ll never forget (p. 127):

Consider that it is of your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church.

Thanks, Dick. I needed that.

Guilt trips make up perhaps 80% of the book. They’re helpful for the first 20%. Then, they get annoying. Then, they make you feel worthless. Then, you begin to REALLY dislike Baxter.

The last 15% of the book are detailed instructions about how to catechize a parish of mostly unregenerate people, which is largely inapplicable in a context where you believe the New Covenant is only for actual believers.

So, what do I think about Baxter? I think he’s a depressing guy. Comes across as self-righteous, but earnest. Book was a disappointment, and I’ll never read it again. Some guys know how to encourage. Baxter knew how to take a tomahawk to your skull and tell you he’s there to help.

This is the Cliff-Notes version of the 1,500 word review I’ll be writing for my DMin class. I’m gonna keep that line about Baxter’s tomahawk …

Review of a Really Bad Book

Akin and Pace have a simple goal – to use theological categories to examine the role, requirements and responsibilities of a pastor.[1] They believe ministry will fall victim to a host of errors if it is not grounded in objective, scriptural truth.[2] To that end, they consider (1) the trinitarian foundations of ministry, (2) the doctrinal foundations, and (3) the practical considerations. They are both professors at Southern Baptist institutions, and approach their task from that perspective.

Theological foundations

In Chapter 2, the authors use God’s holiness as a pattern to describe pastoral requirements and calling. “Our personal holiness derives from God’s essence and his expectations.”[3] Next, they explore Christology as a “incarnational” model for pastoral identity and a philosophy of ministry. “A philosophy of ministry that lovingly engages people where they are, humbly sacrifices to meet their needs, and intentionally delivers the gospel, can be described as ‘incarnational.’”[4] In Chapter 4, the authors stress that the Holy Spirit works through pastors as they minister, primarily by compelling their service.

Doctrinal foundations

Chapter 5 surveys the doctrine of man as a foil to help pastors. “As pastors we must recognize the principal role of grace in our own lives, while also extending grace to others and encouraging them to grow in it.”[5] The next chapter discusses ecclesiology and emphasizes that God has a covenant people. However, “the New Testament provides the authoritative basis and instruction regarding God’s church.”[6] Akin and Pace then unpack the implications.

Chapter 7 discusses the great commission. “[I]t is clear that often we do not allow the Scriptures to drive our methods of evangelism, missions, discipleship, church growth, and church planting. We find ourselves speaking loudly about inerrancy, while undermining that same conviction by our practices.”[7]

Practical facilitation

Chapter 8 examines the role of a pastor through use of Christological metaphors. “Daily ministerial tasks find their basis in the doctrinal truths we have explored: the identity of our Shepherd/King, his example as our Shepherd/Keeper, the nature of his sheep, and the invitation to serve as his undershepherds.”[8] The next chapter presents a study of several texts to develop a philosophy of the preaching ministry. Chapter 10 is about the doctrines of marriage and family, to help the pastor balance his responsibilities.

Evaluation

Pace and Akin produced a book that has no heart and no passion. The prose is overly formal and ponderous. The precepts they draw from the doctrinal studies are obvious and unhelpful to any seasoned pastor, and thus unworthy of the reading time it took to reach them. The entire manuscript is alliterated in a distracting and artificial manner, from the section divisions in the table of contents down to the third level sub-headings within the chapters. In short, if another text is unavailable, this book would be an adequate doctrinal introduction for a freshman undergraduate taking a pastoral studies major at a Christian university.

Insofar as they provide doctrinal bases for pastoral ministry, Akin and Pace succeed in their goal. However, the book’s flaws are so spectacular that they manage to entomb the author’s modest accomplishments under an avalanche of stodgy execution.  

Pace and Akin offer not one unique or valuable insight for the experienced pastor. Not one. Everything they have to say has been said better and more concisely by others. 

The book’s structure is clumsy and laborious. Each chapter follows the pattern (1) introduction, (2) theological premise,[9] (3) biblical precepts, (4) pastoral principles, (5) conclusion.[10] Pace and Akin do not just state the premise; they set out to prove it. Then, they pivot to explain the precepts from the premise – most of which were obvious from the discussion of the premise.

Afterwards, Pace and Akin distill some principles from these precepts. However, because “precept” and “principle” are virtual synonyms,[11] the distinction is artificial and frustrating. Indeed, one suspects their fondness for alliteration drove the chapter structure more than common sense; an irony that only grows stronger in their discussion on grammatical-historical homiletics.

The result is that the prize at the end of the chapter is never worth the effort the reader expends to get there. For example, consider a representative selection of precepts and principles from the discussion on homiletics.

After surveying several texts, Akin and Pace produce precepts for pastors, and declare they must (note the alliteration, italicized for emphasis):

  1. Have the spiritual precedent to preach (Neh 8)
  2. Have the spiritual passion to preach (Ezra 7)
  3. Have a sincere prayer for preaching (1 Cor 2:1-5), and
  4. Enjoy the sacred privilege of preaching (2 Tim 3:16-4:5)

This is rather thin gruel for approximately eight pages of exposition.[12] However, that is not all. In perhaps the most unfortunate discussion in an already unfortunate book, Akin and Pace list the following principles to help pastors prepare a sermon:[13]

  1. A text-driven sermon reviews the selection of the text.
  2. A text-driven sermon requires the study of the text.
  3. A text-driven sermon reveals the substance of the text.
  4. A text-driven sermon relays the significance of the text.
  5. A text-driven sermon reflects the structure of the text.

These are shallow insights. Indeed, the thin gruel is now gone, and we are left with ditch water. No seasoned pastor will find anything of value in this guidance. A very specific philosophy of preaching, Akin and Pace declare, drives this approach:[14]

  1. God has given us the mandate to preach.
  2. God has given us the message to proclaim.
  3. God has given us the method to practice.

The entire text proceeds in this fashion. The alliteration is distracting and artificial, yet it saturates every column inch of the text. This contrived approach, like a dead cockroach in your mother’s chocolate-chip cookie dough, negates any helpful insights Akin and Pace may otherwise offer. Even their section headings of (1) theological foundation, (2) doctrinal formulation, and (3) practical facilitation are contrived. Trinitarian considerations aredoctrinal, and categories of systematic doctrine are also foundational, so the dichotomy in section headings is puzzling. If the goal was cute alliteration, however, then the puzzle is solved.

Akin and Pace, when they discuss a pastor’s calling, squander an opportunity to help ministers. They describe the calling as high, humble and holy. This is obvious and unhelpful. But, how to know if one is called to the ministry? The authors retreat to alliteration once again, and explain the calling must be authentic, must have authority, and it must be affirmed.

No faithful minister on earth would disagree with this. But, what does it mean? They explain that, in order for a pastoral call to be authentic, it “must be confirmed as God’s will for our lives through spiritual discernment within the context of our personal relationship with Christ.”[15] This is a sentence that communicates nothing.

They go on to anchor the call in a lack of fulfillment doing anything else; “if it is impossible to find true satisfaction and contentment in any other career, and the biblical criteria are met, then a pastoral call may be confirmed.”[16] This may be accurate, but it hardly helpful to anybody but a undergraduate student.

Akin and Pace’s conclusions are always commonplace and unremarkable. This does not mean they are wrong; merely that they are obvious. It is as if one read a dense tome on all the inner workings of the internal combustion engine; a work intended to help drivers operate their vehicles better. Now, pretend the book concluded with these remarks:

  1. Get into the seat.
  2. Buckle yourself securely.
  3. Insert the key into the ignition and turn clockwise slowly.
  4. Shift to “drive” safely.
  5. Check for traffic approaching your blind spot surreptitiously.
  6. Press the accelerator and ease into traffic sedately.

The reader would likely believe the effort was not worth the reward. Indeed, he did not have to read the book at all if the conclusions were as tedious as all that.

This entire book could have been a pamphlet, but its practical value for advanced students would still be meager. They simply do not have anything meaningful to say to seasoned pastors.


[1] Daniel Akin and R. Scott Pace, Pastoral Theology (Nashville: B&H, 2017; Kindle ed.), KL 480. 

[2] “When we lose sight of how theological truth forms the foundation for ministry philosophy and practice, we run the risk of several ministerial pitfalls: pragmatism, moralism, egotism, and cynicism,” (Pastoral Theology, KL 340).

[3] Pastoral Theology, KL 665.     

[4] Pastoral Theology, KL1533. 

[5] Pastoral Theology, KL 2289. 

[6] Pastoral Theology, KL 2572. 

[7] Pastoral Theology, KL 3059. 

[8] Pastoral Theology, KL 3798. 

[9] The plural of “premise” is “premises.” Akin and Pace always conclude this section with more than one premise, so this chapter sub-heading is grammatically incorrect throughout the text. 

[10] Note the alliteration in #2-4, which I will address shortly. 

[11] The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 3rd ed., compiled Christine Lindberg (New York: OUP, 2012)offers “principle” as a direct synonym for “precept,” (s.v. “precept,” 683). According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2003),precept means “a command or principle intended esp. as a general rule of action” (s.v. “precept,” n, 1), while principle means “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine or assumption,” (s.v. “principle,” n, 1a).

[12] Pastoral Theology, KL 4174 – 4283.

[13] Pastoral Theology, KL 4344 – 4384.

[14] Pastoral Theology, KL 4283 – 4384.

[15] Pastoral Theology, KL 948. 

[16] Pastoral Theology, KL 1013.

Book Review: “A Study of 7 References to Homosexuality in the Bible”

John Dwyer is a gay Episcopal priest. Dwyer’s book is a valuable survey of the revisionist interpretations of Genesis 19, Judges 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1. Dwyer makes no original contributions and produces his survey of the texts on a five-step process:

  1. The biblical authors know nothing of loving, monogamous same-sex relationships. Rather, sex was about power, lust and violence that stemmed from a society that devalued women.
  2. Sexual relationships in the 21st century are different.
  3. The biblical authors cannot have a Jewish worldview informed by the Tanakh, they are influenced by secular culture.
  4. In the passage’s context, the text is really about something else. This is typically done by only a cursory examination of the Scripture.
  5. Therefore, these passages are inapplicable for loving, monogamous same-sex relationships today.

Rather than provide a detailed look at how Dwyer handles each text, I’ll examine at how he handles Genesis 19. His behavior here is a representative sample of what he does with each text. Dwyer says the following:

  • Abraham’s hospitality to the angelic visitors is a deliberate contrast with that of Lot and especially the townspeople[1]
  • The townspeople’s goal was rape, not sex[2]
  • The townspeople’s sin was inhospitality[3]
  • The idea that the sin is homosexuality is a “minority view” in commentaries[4]
  • No references to Sodom and Gomorrah in the entire Bible have to do with homosexuality (Isa 1.9; Isa 13.19; Jer 23.14; Jer 49.18; Amos 4.11; Zeph 2.9; Ezek 16.46; Deut 29.23; Deut 32.32).[5] “These other biblical passages focus on a societal expectation that widows, orphans, strangers, the poor are cared for and treated accordingly.”[6]

Is this last statement true? Let’s examine the texts Dwyer cites:

  • Isa 1:9; 13:19; Jer 49:18; Amos 4:11; Zeph 2:9; Deut 29:23; Mt 10:15; Lk 17:29. In these cases, Sodom is used as a watchword for utter destruction. They say nothing about homosexuality or any sin at all. That was not their purpose.
  • Jeremiah 23:14. The reference gives the sense of  “beyond the pale” or “irredeemable”
  • Ezek 16:46f. This is a reference to sexual sin. Not only did Judah copy Sodom and Samaria’s ways “according to their abominations” (the word toevah is used here), she shortly became “more corrupt,” (Ezek 16:47). This “abomination” was sexual sin. Indeed, Judah exceeded Sodom in her sin (Ezek 16:48). Sodom was full of pride; “[t]hey were haughty and did an abomination [toevah] before me. So I removed them, when I saw it,” (Ezek 16:50). Context, and the use of toevah to match the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20, indicate this was homosexual behavior.
  • Deut 32:32: a rejection of God is the vine the produced Sodom’s sin (cf. Romans 1)

Therefore Dwyer is wrong. This is typical of him; he never walks through a text in the entire book. He assumes you will believe his summaries. For example:

“In Zephaniah 2 and Ezekiel 16 the prophets warn Israel’s enemies against pride and arrogance, and their ignoring of the poor and needy, and prophesy their destruction like Sodom and Gomorrah.”[7]

This is false. In Zephaniah 2:9f there is no condemnation for ignoring the poor and needy. Rather, there is judgment on Moab because of her pride manifested by taunting God’s people and, thus, Yahweh and His character. Ezekiel 16 is directed at Judah for spiritual adultery, not for pride and arrogance!

Dwyer believes sex in the age of Abraham wasn’t about relationships; it was about power. He argues our preconditions for sex, masculinity and femininity must be modified. “The alignment of male and female, or male and male was not in the gender construction/orientation of ‘relationships,’ the alignment was about power in those relationships.”[8] He explains, “[t]hese stories are all about power, who has it, and how that power is utilized.”[9]

For support, Dwyer only cites one secular classicist[10] who wrote about Greco-Roman culture, not Ancient Near-Eastern culture![11] Dwyer not only asks us to believe Moses was controlled by a secular worldview when he wrote Genesis 19. He also asks us to believe Moses was controlled by a secular Greco-Roman worldview, too …

In sum, Dwyer says Genesis 19 (and Judges 19) teach us how God’s people ought not to act. “These passages are not about mutual sexual relations, but are about the inappropriate activity on the part of humans in the wrongful taking, rape, of another and focus on power, and the abuse of power.”[12]

Here is a summary of what this hermeneutic looks like regarding each passage

  1. Genesis 19 and Judges 19. “These stories are all about power, who has it, and how that power is utilized.”[13] They teach us how to not show love and righteousness.[14]
  2. Leviticus 18 and 20. The texts are about patriarchy and how to keep it.[15] The world is different now, so these passages do not apply.[16] Again, he cites as support a scholarly work about Greco-Roman culture and its impact on early Christianity,[17] then exports it back into Moses’ mind and demands we understand that as Moses’ worldview. The biblical author cannot define his terms; he must be defined by secular culture – even if it’s a culture over 1000 years in the future …
  3. Romans 1. The text is about how to honor God, with a rhetorical trap for the reader. It is not about loving relationships. Dwyer’s point is unclear. He both (1) claims Paul is influenced by a culture of power and patriarchy,[18] and (2) says Paul is writing against the misuse of power in one’s relationship with God.[19]
  4. 1 Corinthians 6. The passage is about litigation, not sex.[20] Loving same-sexual relationships were unknown to Paul, so the passage is inapplicable.[21]
  5. 1 Timothy 1:10. The passage is about lawbreakers; exploitative homosexuality is just an example. Loving same-sexual relationships were unknown to Paul, and the culture viewed sex as about power, lust and violence, so the passage is inapplicable.[22]

Dwyer’s value for the traditionalist perspective is that we see the fruits of a redemptive-movement hermeneutic unshackled from any fidelity to the text. Dwyer argues, “The living and breathing words of God that live in these pages argue for a radical and complete love of all people, the inclusion of all people, and a protection of those who are abused, used, utilized, taken.”[23]

In other words, Dwyer argues for a trajectory that goes beyond the text. Once you go that way, it is difficult to justify an objective place to stop. William Webb tries to place reasonable and commonsense guardrails on this movement in his redemptive-movement approach.[24] Dwyer is what happens when pragmatism and subjectivity are the guardrails.

I emailed Dwyer, quoted his statements that sex in Ancient Near-Eastern and Greco-Roman times was all about power, lust and violence, and asked:

how does Song of Solomon play into your view? Is this not a book that exalts traditional marriage based on a healthy and blessed sexual relationship? Where is the power, domination and strength? Where is the violence?  Of course, I’m not certain about your views on the Song’s authorship or its date, but regardless – is it not a book from the Tanakh that exalts a tender, loving sexual relationship? How does this book impact your views of Biblical sexual ethics, and their implications for these seven references?

He did not respond.


[1] “The story of Lot and Sodom is sandwiched in the middle of the Abraham story. This allows the reader to more fully understand: Abraham’s journey of faith; to highlight the manner in which Abraham treats guests; and to emphasis God’s keeping of the covenant promise made to Abraham,” (John Dwyer, Those 7 References: A Study of 7 References to Homosexuality in the Bible [CreateSpace, 2007; Kindle ed.], pg. 6).

[2] “Although by referring to the demands of the townspeople as ‘sex’ or ‘sport’ is not accurate either, as rape is not sex in the mutual connotation of the word. Rape is something far different,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 7).

[3] “Many commentators agree that the ‘sin’ of Sodom is that the townspeople were guilty of the social sin of inappropriate conduct to other human beings,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 8).

[4] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 7.

[5] Dwyer provides the list in footnote 12 (7 References, pg. 8).

[6] Dwyer, 7 References, pgs. 8-9.

[7] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 8. 

[8] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 18. 

[9] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 19. 

[10] See the biography for Dr. Craig Williams at https://classics.illinois.edu/directory/profile/cawllms.

[11] See fn. 43-44 (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 18), which cite Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, 1st ed. (New York: OUP, 1999).

[12] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 20.  

[13] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 19. 

[14] “Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are about living into God’s covenant through the lens of a negative storyline: of living into righteousness and justice. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are focused on examples of humans not living into God’s covenant but who instead are degrading others,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 20).

[15] “The prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not about sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century. These prohibitions had to do with keeping a rigid and male-dominated society distinct from that which surrounded it: to clearly delineate roles and societal rules,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pgs. 39-40). 

[16] “Much of sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century are different from what was experienced and understood when Leviticus was written. Much of the sexual conduct was about taking, power, and what we would consider, in most instances today, rape. To utilize these verses as weapons of condemnation against people who have been made in God’s image is a disservice to the text, a misuse of the Torah and an insult to God’s word as it is made known to us. God’s word is not meant to be frozen in time, but heard anew today and looked at with fresh perspective and understanding based on the world that is hearing these words anew,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 40).

[17] See fn. 110 (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 38). He cites Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). This is a curious resource to cite to help us understand Moses’ mindset in an Ancient Near Eastern culture …

[18] “The kind of sexual activity that existed at the time Paul was writing was from a patriarchal, male dominated viewpoint in a society severely stratified by class and role and status. Those in the lower strata of society were treated unequally and abusively: physically, psychologically and sexually. This cultural overlay is an important lens through which understanding this text must be viewed. The loving natures of relationships that exist and underpin current understanding of relationships between people today, whether heterosexual or homosexual, were not unknown to Paul, but there existed a mindset that tolerated a taking of another individual, of what we would consider rape and abusive misuse of others,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 57). Emphases added.

[19] “By taking this rhetorical device of Paul’s, the only direct reference in Romans to what we think of as same sex sexual relations, but to Paul was something different, and utilizing this literary device as a categorical and divine denunciation of homosexuality, we fall into the same rhetorical trap Paul set for the initial reader. Paul’s particular selection of the word chresis (‘to use,’ ‘utilization’) proves the point that Paul is making a rhetorical stab at the heart of the community: they must worship God appropriately, not “use” each other in a sexual or other inappropriate way. Paul is not talking about mutuality or love in chapter 1 of Romans. Paul is talking about use, and misuse, of power and authority, and how that impacts one’s relationship with God. He is talking about violence and a wrongful taking, and how those impact one’s relationship with God. Paul is pointing his readers to a proper relationship with God demanding they put away false idols that can and do corrupt that relationship,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pgs. 57-58). Emphasis added.

[20] “Faithful attention to these 12 verses of chapter 6 will show that it is inappropriate to use this text to condemn one or two of the ‘sinners’ listed in Paul’s vice list, when the focus of the passage is on litigation and greed, and not sex,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 61).

[21] “There is no concept of mutuality, or love, or monogamy in what Paul is describing. It is about power and violence and the satisfaction of sexual desire in any available manner, by a person in a higher stratum of society as against a person in a lower stratum. The type and kind of same sex relationship that is mutual, loving, monogamous and entered into freely based upon mutuality, respect and love is not Paul’s focus. This passage, and the list of vices that illustrate a mindset of cruelty and abuse, cannot be utilized, in all good conscience, as against same sex relationships as they exist and are understood in the 21st Century,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 70).

[22] “This passage is not a condemnation of gay and lesbian people in the 21st Century, but rather is a further example of a condemnation of a type of behavior gay and lesbian people, as well as any civilized individual today, would condemn: violence, rape, the unwanted sexual taking of another person. These actions are not homosexuality as it is understood today. The behaviors which are included on the vice list are ones emblematic of a stratified, paternalistic society where power, and sex, and one’s station in life, were intricately intertwined. This passage has nothing to do with a mutually agreed upon, loving relationship between adults, and to use it as such is a misuse of the text that perpetuates an unneeded harm,” (Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 80).

[23] Dwyer, 7 References, pg. 84.  

[24] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001; Kindle ed.).  

Book Review: “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment” by Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who holds a PhD in Political Philosophy from Notre Dame. He has written an excellent book surveying the landscape on transgender issues as of 2019. He does not agree with the transgender ideology, and writes a persuasive and winsome case for pushing back against this new secular orthodoxy.

He explains that trans culture is being increasingly normalized in culture,[1] in laws and executive orders,[2] and in the medical field.[3] Advocates seek to silence all opposition, even from respected medical experts who advocate treatment for transgender individuals.[4]

Anderson’s most frightening chapter is where he surveys what activists themselves say. He makes three claims; (1) activists continually expand their demands, (2) they are closed off to contrary evidence, and (3) they incline towards coercion to enforce their creed.[5] The most significant point, as with homosexuality, is one of identity. However, the argument has now advanced one step further – people do not merely see themselves as transgender; society must acknowledge them as transgender. A subjective sense of identity has given way an objective orthodoxy. A “trans man” is a man. Period.[6]

They attempt to ground this in science and medicine,[7] a move perfectly in keeping with the worldview of “scientism.”[8] Sex is not determined by biology; rather, it is determined by one’s gender identity or “internal sense.” This ideology is being taught to young children through infographics such as the “gender unicorn.” At the State agency where I work, the “gender unicorn” was prominently displayed and promoted this past Summer. This unicorn is deliberately sexually androgynous. Indeed, even gender-neutral Barbie dolls are now available. In a news release accompanying the product launch, a Mattel representative explained,

Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms. This line allows all kids to express themselves freely which is why it resonates so strongly with them. We’re hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play.[9]

This worldview is resulting in a revolution in transgender medicine and policy.[10] Attempts to redirect children towards their biological sex are often deemed unethical. Some activist organizations recommend public schools keep a child’s transgender status from unsupportive parents, and effectively provide schools with guidance to mount a campaign of subversion against such parents.[11]  

Anderson believes sex is determined by reproductive function. He cites one such proponent saying that he cannot find any other definition for sex other than what is promoted in social policy literature.[12] The discussion of treatment for gender dysphoria is one of the most horrifying and depressing things I have read.[13]

Anderson rightly concludes that “[w]hat’s at stake in the transgender moment is the human person.”[14] He suggests a comprehensive approach involving, (1) not stigmatizing those who suffer from gender dysphoria, (2) building a network of clinicians who do not agree with transgender ideology, (3) engaging the culture winsomely, particularly with former transgender individuals, (4) and lawyer and public policy experts working together to combat this ideology.[15]

This book’s value is that is accurately captures a snapshot of our cultural moment. It is not a religious book, and Anderson offers no theological insights. Every well-read Christian who pays attention to culture knows where we are headed, but Anderson gives one an invaluable and sobering guided tour through an otherwise familiar neighborhood.


[1] Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (reprint; New York: Encounter Books, 2019; Kindle ed.), pgs. 9-11.  

[2] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 12-15.  

[3] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 15-20.  

[4] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 20-25. One wonders how Mark Yarhouse would recommend responding to the idea of a transgender “identity”!? Perhaps here.

[5] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 28.  

[6] “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person—in particular, that people are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy. It’s understandable why activists make these claims. An argument about transgender identities will be much more persuasive if it concerns who someone is, not merely how someone identifies. And so the rhetoric of the transgender moment drips with ontological assertions: people are the gender they prefer to be. That’s the claim,” (Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 29).

[7] See J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).

[8] “Transgender activists don’t admit that this is a metaphysical claim. They don’t want to have the debate on the level of philosophy, so they dress it up as a scientific and medical claim. And they’ve co-opted many professional associations for their cause,” (Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 29).

[9] Mattel Newsroom, “Mattel Launches Gender Inclusive Doll Line Inviting All Kids to Play.” 25 September 2019. Retrieved on 03 January 2020 from https://news.mattel.com/news/mattel-launches-gender-inclusive-doll-line-inviting-all-kids-to-play.

[10] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 33-42.  

[11] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 42-45.  

[12] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 77-81.  

[13] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pgs. 97-116.  

[14] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 212.  

[15] Anderson, Harry Became Sally, pg. 211.  

Book Review: “Homosexuality and the Christian” by Mark Yarhouse

Mark Yarhouse is a conservative Christian psychologist who is active and publishes regularly in his field. He takes a traditional conservative approach to the homosexual issue. Yarhouse published his book in 2010, and it is a wealth of keen insight.

He advances the discussion by examining the presuppositions that undergird the revisionist arguments for unrepentant, “gay” Christianity. Yarhouse organizes his book into three sections; (1) the big picture, (2) honest answers, and (3) questions for the church. His unique contributions largely come from the first section:

  • Sources of authority. Christians typically draw from four sources of authority; (1) Scripture, (2) Christian tradition, (3) reason, and (4) personal experience.[1] The latter two are increasingly where people place the greater emphasis. People elevate their sexual experiences to the level of self-identity.[2] It is this insight that so many authors seem to miss. Yarhouse pushes back against this hermeneutic of narcissism; “Although it contrasts sharply with a Western culture that focuses on felt needs and ‘self-actualization,’ Christians are called to say no to some experiences so that we can say yes to a life that is obedient to God’s revealed will.”[3]
  • Identity the key. Yarhouse follows up with a lengthy discussion on why sexual identity is the real heart of the matter.[4] He mitigates against the identity category by advocating a graduated, three-tier distinction along a spectrum of attraction, orientation and identity. He refers to individuals as “same-sex attracted,” and will not grant their homosexuality “identity” status at the outset.[5] His discussion of the “gay script,” whereby the homosexual movement offers a warm embrace and an affirmation of sexual identity, is spot on. He suggests the Church offer a competing positive script based on identity in Christ.[6] Yarhouse acknowledges homosexuality often is not sought, but people can make choices about what they do with these attractions.[7]
  • Cause and change aren’t the real issues. Yarhouse is not keen to argue these points. He concludes that the cause of homosexuality is unknown, and many factors likely play a role. Also, the record on “change” (which Yarhouse cautions can be defined many ways!) is mixed. But, he contends, causation is not the real issue nor is “conversion” to heterosexuality.[8]
  • “Our people.” Yarhouse challenges the Church to see “sincere strugglers” as “our people.” Instead, what these individuals often experience is profound shame and a sense of imminent rejection. Why cannot the Church vow to love these sincere strugglers, embrace them and help them in their struggles for holiness?[9]

Yarhouse also has a great deal of practical advice for spouses and parents dealing with sincere strugglers. But, his greatest value is in his emphasis on combatting the “identity” issue, his challenge to embrace sincere strugglers as brothers and sisters in community,[10] and his analogy of “flipping the script” by offering a better identity “in Christ” than the one the homosexual community is selling.

This is the perhaps the most helpful book on homosexuality available. It should be read with Burk and Lambert’s Transforming Homosexuality (see my review) for maximum effect.  


[1] Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Pastors, Parents and Friends (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010; Kindle ed.), pg. 18.

[2] “It is important to recognize that sexuality should be experienced as central to a person’s overall sense of identity. I think this was intended by God. We are inherently physical beings, and we are inherently sexual beings. So we don’t want to communicate that our sexuality is somehow removed from who we are. On the other hand, it is also important to recognize that when we ask what God thinks about homosexuality, we are likely to confuse the pattern of behavior with the person.

In other words, while we can acknowledge that some gay Christians say behavior and identity cannot be separated, other Christians who experience same-sex attraction do precisely that. They separate behavior and identity, seeing it as a necessary step in navigating their sexuality in light of their faith. When we instead ask what God thinks about homosexually oriented people, or what he thinks of people who experience same-sex attraction, we can answer without hesitation that God loves them,” (Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pg. 32).

[3] Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pg. 36.  

[4] Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 37-57.  

[5] Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 40-43.  

[6] Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 46-53. “What competing or alternative script can he expect from the church? When Chris looks to the church he hears very little, and what he does hear is usually an oversimplification of the causes of homosexuality, followed by the claim that it can easily be changed or healed through efforts or faith. Is this the only message the church wants to send Chris?” (Ibid, pgs. 49-50).

[7] “Same-sex attraction may be the ethnic aspect of identity, an unchosen characteristic that can contribute in some way to identity, but there are also civic aspects of identity, and people have choices to make regarding what they believe about sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual behavior. These choices will lead them to different communities that, in turn, confirm and consolidate a sense of this sexual identity into who they are,” (Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 53-54).

[8] “Let me say it plainly one more time: The traditional Christian sexual ethic does not hinge on the causes of sexual attraction or orientation. Also: The traditional Christian sexual ethic does not hinge on whether or not sexual orientation can change,” (Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 163-164).

[9] “It got me thinking about why the church doesn’t lead with the thought and attitude that Christians who struggle with homosexuality are our people. Think about that for a second: Sexual minorities in the church, by which I mean believers who experience same-sex attraction, are our people. Framing the issue this way can lead to greater compassion as the church tries to find ways to provide support and encouragement to those in our own communities who would benefit from it,” (Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pgs. 157-158).

[10] “What the Christian community can offer the Christian sexual minority is a vision for what it means to be Christlike. That vision places the Christian sexual minority squarely in the middle of the Christian community. They become us. We are all supposed to be working toward the same goal. Whether we experience same-sex attraction or not, we are all to move toward Christlikeness,” (Yarhouse, Homosexuality, pg. 165).