Results tagged “practical theology” from Reformation21 Blog

A Silence on Separation


Today there is a void of serious teaching about holiness in life. There is, of course, a general teaching on holiness that everyone agrees on. "Let us be holy," they say, "we need to be more holy. Why not have a holiness conference?" But when you get specific about what that means, everything boils over.

"Follow peace with all men," the writer of Hebrews tells us, "and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Does anybody believe this? A pastor says, "But I have been blamed so often for teaching 'works' religion." This goes back again to the principle of regeneration and the providence of God. If God truly converts a man, He will continue working in that man, through teaching, blessing, admonition, and discipline. He will see to it that the work He has begun will be finished. And that is why the writer says that without holiness, "no man shall see the Lord." Why? Because if there is no growth in holiness, then God is not working in your life. And if He is not working in your life, it is because you are not His child!

Look at the difference between Jacob and Esau. "Jacob have I loved...Esau have I hated" (Rom. 9:13). Yet God fulfilled all His promises to both of them. Jacob was blessed; Esau was blessed. How did God demonstrate His judgments and wrath against Esau and His love toward Jacob? First, He let them both run wild. But in Esau there was no work of discipline, no work of godly correction--nothing. This was the wrath of God on him! But God severely disciplined Jacob almost every day of his life. This was the love of God for him! It was the loving discipline, the correction of God, to bring him to holiness. And it is the same for all true believers today.

Furthermore, the Lord says through Paul,

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye trans- formed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Rom. 12:1-2)

Why does he say to "present your bodies"? I think the reason is to avoid all this "super-spirituality" of today. You say, "I have given Jesus my heart, and you can't judge a book by its cover. You can't judge my inner condition by my outer works." But, as a matter of fact, you can judge a book by its cover. Jesus never said you could not judge a man's inner condition by his outward works. He specifically said that you could: "The tree is known by his fruit" (Matt. 12:33).

If you think that you have given Christ your heart, then He will have your body too. And I will tell you why. The heart, my friend, is not some blood-pumping muscle or some figment of a poet's imagination. In the Bible, the language of "the heart" refers to the very essence or core of your being. Do not tell me that Jesus has the very essence and core of your being and that it does not affect your whole body and life. It just does not happen that way!

We need to go through Scripture not legalistically and not just drawing inferences but rather by standing on its clear commands. Commands about what? What sort of commands guide us?

I do not agree with everything the Puritans said, but I do love the Puritans. One of the reasons why I love them is because I believe they honestly made an attempt to bring everything in their lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Everything, such as their minds! They wrote eight-hundred-page books on what we should think about according to the Scriptures and what should not enter our minds according to the Scriptures. They wrote about what we should do with our eyes. They wrote about what should go in our ears and what should not go in our ears. They taught about how the tongue should be ruled. They talked about the whole direction of our lives and its details.

It might scare you, but the Bible also talks about how we should dress. I am going to be careful here, and I do not want to speculate. My wife says it this way: "If your clothing is a frame for your face from which the glory of Christ springs forth, it is of God. But if your clothing is a frame for your body, it is sensual, and God hates it." The nature of God guides our decisions in every detail of our conduct.

The aim of this little book is not to address everything to do with our holiness. We know that holiness is not just outward expression. Nevertheless, we have come to be people who use the interior work of the Spirit as an excuse to say that nothing needs ever to happen on the outside. That is simply not true! Some of you may cry out that the Spirit of God would fill you and work in you, but it takes only a half hour of television to so grieve Him that He will be miles from you. If water is 99 percent pure, and 1 percent sewage, then I am not drinking it!

At one time I was struggling, and a friend of mine reported it in a conversation with Leonard Ravenhill. When he heard about the situation from my friend, he sent a tract to me. I still have that tract. I will never, never part with it. It said, "Others can; you cannot." I may not agree with everything in that tract, but I do know this: there are places I do not go, there are situations into which I do not put myself, not because I am holier than other people but because I know what I am!

You may know the story of one of the greatest violinists in Europe playing his final concert as an old man. When he finished, a young man, also a violinist, walked up to him, and said, "Sir, I'd give my life to play like you." And the old man said, "Son, I have given my life to play like me."

You say, "I want the power of God on my life." Do you? Then something has to go. "I want to know Him," you say. Then some separation from the world has to occur! Perhaps you need to get alone in the wilderness with God, fasting for seven days on your knees and studying the book of Psalms. You need to be alone with God, belonging to Him. To be a man of God there must be times when even your wife-- who is of your own flesh, one with you--looks you in the eye and knows that she cannot go with you into that hid- den place with God into which you go.

Today in our churches there is a silence on separation from the world. The Scriptures are not silent. They demand from us an answer. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). None! What fellow- ship has light with darkness (v. 14)? None! Darkness is the opposite of God's revelation. What harmony does Christ have with devils (v. 15)? None! What has the believer in common with the unbeliever (v. 15)? Nothing!

The Lord says, "Come out from among them" (v. 17). Come out from the midst of what? Come out from the midst of lawlessness, darkness, satanic devices, and the life and worldliness of the unbeliever. Come out from it!

Paul Washer ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years, during which time he founded the HeartCry Missionary Society to support Peruvian church planters. Paul now serves as one of the laborers with the HeartCry Missionary Society ( He and his wife Charo have four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.

*This excerpt is taken from Paul Washer's newly published book, Ten Indictments Against the Modern Church

In our first installment, I highlighted six things I have learned while church planting. Here are four additional items for your consideration. They are in no particular order.

1. Music: At Crown and Joy, we classify our musical selections into several categories (e.g., contemporary, traditional black gospel, psalms, and hymns). While it is my desire to continue using a variety of music, which is a part of the ethos of our congregation, it is also my dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation. We recently added a bass guitar. Prior to that, our musicians included a pianist and drummer. We also sometimes have a cellist and guitarist.

Where do you find talented musicians if they do not reside within your congregation? I presently know of a church who is simply looking for a pianist. It does not matter, therefore, if your vision for music is to utilize multiple musicians or just one, multiple genres of music or just traditional hymns, church planters should have both a direction for the music and the people to help accomplish it prior to starting Sunday services. You may have to look outside the congregation for help. Consider asking sister churches to assist you until the Lord brings musicians into membership. You may also need to inquire into the music department at a local university. In other words, there are ways to ensure your vision for music is accomplished. It just may not be as simple as using those within your church.

2. Money: In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), church planters most often are required to raise a portion or all of their financial support for a 3-5 year budget. Whatever the total amount for fundraising, consider raising a bit more. You should take into account those who will leave either before the first service or those who may leave shortly thereafter. With the absence of people comes the absence of money. If you have raised just enough to cover your costs, and that included congregational giving, when people leave, internal giving decreases. As a result, you may end up in a financial predicament. Church planters have a lot occurring in their lives. You do not want to be concerned about money, too.

3. Movement: Church plants attract a variety of people. Some are bitter about their previous church experience. Therefore, in an attempt to make the church into their own image, they join you. Others are simply attracted to your vision and desire to join you. They are in good standing at their present church. In fact, they might even be sent by their church to join your efforts.

Knowing that church plants attract all kinds of people, church planters need to be studious about those whom are allowed into the work of a new church. One way to do this is to call the elders or pastors from the previous 2-3 churches of your potential members. Ask those church officers to share their thoughts about those who are seeking to join you. Sometimes, past performance indicates future acts. For example, if a person or family has been a part of one church for 8 or 9 years, that may indicate they will be with you for some time. On the other hand, if you discover that a family or person, who wants to join you, has moved around from church to church, that may indicate they have little commitment to the local church. And they may just as easily move on from your efforts just as they have at previous churches. To establish a strong base as your core group, you want those who are not bitter, as well as those who have a good reputation of longevity at past churches.

4. Management: Pastors in established churches have many duties. Church planters sometimes have more because we do not have the resources that established churches sometimes have (e.g., music directors, ministry leaders, associate pastors, etc.). One area that church planters should consider having managed is administration. Administrative duties, regardless of the size of one's church plant, can take between 8-15 hours per week. That time could be spent elsewhere (e.g., evangelism, community involvement, prayer and study, etc.). Consider, virtually from the beginning, hiring an administrative assistant. Train that individual to relieve you of certain duties so that you can place your efforts elsewhere.

With another year upon us, there may be a desire to make certain resolutions, or habits, to live by in the new year. Some will establish a new gym routine, others will employ a Bible reading plan, not a few will develop a financial budget replete with additional savings and a more strict spending plan, and a fraction of the population will suggest that we should not create new resolutions for 2015. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of new year's resolutions, as of late, I have been struck by something I desire to maintain in the new year, as well as in the years ahead. This idea happens to befall during this time of year--the new year. So, it is not a resolution inasmuch as it is a resurfaced revelation. It seems that it is an essential ingredient of a lasting ministry. It is basic, but I have taken it for granted. It is my health.

As I stood in the pulpit last week leading my congregation in the call to worship, confession of sin, singing, and other parts of our service, things were fine initially. When it was time to preach, however, I noticed some changes. I was sweating more than usual in an otherwise cool room. About two-thirds of the way through the sermon I began to lose my voice. "What is happening?", I thought? In response, I wiped my face with my hand as to not let the sweat be a distraction. I elevated my voice so that the people could hear me.

At the conclusion of the sermon, just moments before the sursum corda, I asked our audio/video (A/V) gentleman to turn up my microphone. I could barely be heard at my normal volume. The problem was I was sick. I had not taken care of myself enough throughout these winter months to avoid it.

After this experience, my health became more much important. As a solo pastor, there are many things I have to accomplish throughout the week. Some of those things do not require an audible conversation (e.g., sending email, other administrative duties, purchasing supplies, etc.), but many things do require my voice. I have to respond to some emergencies, which require dialogue, counseling, evangelism, family devotion, and, of course, leading worship, preaching, praying, and administering the sacraments on the Lord's Day. Being ill affects many areas of those areas, especially if the illness begins to affect one's ability to speak. 

I recall something my mother used to say while I was in the sixth grade. One cold morning, I determined that I wanted to wear a certain pair of jeans and a shirt. Those items were unsuitable for the cold weather. When I showed my mother what I was wearing, she responded, "Do you want to be cute or do you want to be warm?" I was young and nearly invincible. I was not concerned about the cold. I was more concerned about how cute I was. "Surely these clothes," I thought, "would not affect my health." It did, and years later, it seems, I may not have learned from that experience. 

I need to take care of myself. My vocation is largely dependent upon speaking. Quite frankly, other things are affected by growing ill also (e.g., intimacy with my wife, contact with my children, large group gatherings, dinner with neighbors, etc.). Interestingly, as I recall all the books on pastoral ministry I have read, few if any, mention maintaining one's health. With all the busyness of ministry, it seems like that would be one of the most important things. Or perhaps we have become practical gnostics? We are more concerned with our spiritual health than our physical health?

Something as simple as dressing appropriately throughout the year and eating healthy will help. This will not guarantee nearly perfect health, but it will be an aid. Of course physical exercise can also be a shepherd in the arena of health. Whatever my plan, I need to be more intentional in maintaining my health in 2015. How about you?
Some people are hesitant to participate in a church plant because of the amount of work it takes. Sometimes you have to arrive earlier to church than you normally would, in an established church, to ensure things are in order. At other times, you have to stay after the bell of the benediction rings to breakdown all the equipment you set up. 

Knowing this, I wanted to help alleviate as many potential stresses as I could by volunteering in most, if not all areas. That way, I could preserve the life and strength of the congregation by doing my best to help them avoid burnout. Furthermore, I do not mind helping.  It is actually a joy serving in ways that are behind-the-scenes, so to speak.

The desire to serve, however, and the need to delegate can sometimes collide. At our first service, our setup team, which includes me, did not finish until 14 minutes before the service started. That gave me just enough time to change, take my seat, and prepare my heart for worship. It was a close call. I did not feel as if I had adequate time to prepare my own heart to participate in such a marvelous event as the Lord's Day service. Nevertheless, I continued. Of course I had to. I felt a bit affected, having transitioned immediately from setup to service, but it was nothing that I could not overcome.

Yesterday, our setup team did not finish until about 9 minutes before the service started. That provided less time to change and prepare my heart to encounter the risen Lord. Unfortunately, that affected me much more than the first week. From the beginning of the service, I felt like my heart was not in it. If you will allow me to be so liberal with my language, it was as if I was having an out of body experience. I knew I was there, but my head was somewhere else.

Thankfully, I was able to share these details with several men in the congregation. I expressed that, while I do not mind setting up in the afternoon, I need about 30-minutes of downtime before service starts. That will help me align my thoughts and heart to prepare to lead the service, preach, pray, sing, and administer the sacraments. Since sharing my thoughts, many of the men are willing to arrange afternoon setup differently, which will provide me with the 30-minute buffer that I requested.

Despite such hearts of service from these men, I am still concerned about creating a venue for burnout for my people. I desire that they attend our Sunday Divine Service expectantly awaiting to hear the voice of their Lord. If they are tired, it may present a barrier to them patiently listening and eagerly expecting the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Yes, I know the Spirit's work is not dependent upon the attentiveness of the listener, yet I believe my concerns are still valid. I want to ensure my people are prepared, both in mind and heart, to enter the presence of their God.

It seems to me the mistake I made was taking on too much in attempt to relieve any burden on the church. That means I did not delegate appropriately in the initial stages of our church plant's development. If I am ever given the opportunity to plant another church or coach someone through planting, at least in this case, I will instruct the church planting pastor to, "Do as I say, not as I did." 

A setup team is essential, and if at all possible, that team should not include the pastor. As one of my congregants reminded me, "It is not right that [you] should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty" (Acts 6:2-3). He was not suggesting that I should not help, rather he was emphasizing that he wants to ensure that I have the time needed to prepare for our service.

I am thankful for men who are willing to step up and help where required. Although I believe I made a mistake in taking on too much, the Lord provided a congregation to help me where I fail. To the church planting pastor I say, please learn from me and do not take on more than you are able. To the church plant congregation I say to you, help your pastor and do what you can to ensure he has the appropriate time needed to align his heart on Sunday in order to prepare for the service. 

Sharing the Gospel Simply

How many non-Christians do you converse with face-to-face on a regular basis outside of normal working hours? With how many of them do you share the gospel? In my experience it seems that many within Presbyterian and Reformed circles do not have very many acquaintances outside of the Church. Unfortunately, this negatively affects the way one shares the gospel. Before I go any further, however, you may be wondering how I know that many Christians within our circles do not have numerous unbelieving acquaintances and/or friends with whom they converse and with whom they spend time on a regular basis. While I am not implying this universally, I know this because I have asked people how and with whom they spend their time. Overwhelmingly, outside of normal day-to-day activities (e.g., employment and family time), the Christians to whom I spoke are otherwise at church activities or spending time with other Christians. In other words, they do not spend very much time with unbelievers.

I, for one, am extremely thankful that brothers and sisters in Christ spend time together. I repeatedly emphasize to the saints at our church that they need to open their homes to each other and spend time together. It presents great opportunities to get to know each other, break bread, and talk about our Triune God. If, however, the only ones with whom you spend time and to whom you talk about God are Christians, it can negatively affect your ability to share the gospel simply.

Several years ago, I took students from Westminster Seminary California (my alma mater) to the local university on a regular basis. The point was to share the gospel, invite college students to church and/or into our homes, and get to know them. On several occasions, the seminary students were shocked at just how willing the university students would converse with them about Christianity. That was the good news. The bad news was that some of the seminary students did not know how to talk about Jesus without using words like justification, imputed righteousness, consummation, the kingdom of God, or Christian cliches like, covered in the blood. In fact, some of the students admitted that they could not share the gospel simply because they had been immersed in using seminary/biblical/theological language or categories.

I am sure words like justification and consummation seem easy enough to avoid, but what about other parts of our vocabulary that we so easily use and, perhaps take for granted, that those words need to be explained? Words like God, judgment, sin, gospel, and righteousness also require explanation. What is sin? Who determines its definition? Sin against whom? God? Which god? Perchance there was a time in the United States when many of those words did not require a definition and maybe an illustration, but they do now. Walking up to someone, therefore, on a college campus or anywhere else (e.g., during a conversation with your neighbor) and saying, "Have you heard the gospel?" or any derivative thereof is not the most effective way to enter a conversation about the Lord. What is the gospel? Many, maybe most, unbelievers do not use that language, and unless they have had a religious upbringing, the word gospel means nothing to them.

If you have shared the gospel with unbelievers for any length of time, you have likely found yourself in this position (i.e., having to explain everything in relation to the gospel). Our culture, at least in my experience, demands that. If you are not, at least partly immersed in the culture, particularly as it relates to non-Christian friends, you will use the language of the Bible, without explanation, to share the gospel and you may miss your target. 

The biblical and theological language that we utilize with our Christian friends is good, but please consider altering your language and explaining what you say while sharing the gospel with unbelievers. If not, you may as well be speaking in tongues to them (1 Cor. 14:20-23).
The question is sometimes asked, "What would you do if you knew you were going to die today?" I often hear people respond to the question by sharing a series of things they wish they had accomplished or enjoyed in life. "If I were to die today," some say, "I would eat at __________ restaurant. I heard the food is amazing." "If I were to die today," others suggest, "I would travel to __________. I have heard wonderful things about that city." Others remark, "I would ensure my family knows I love them." Still yet, some, particularly Christians, have said, "I would share the gospel more fervently," or "I would attempt to make all wrongs right." 

What would you do?

As I was walking my Great Dane the other day, the sentiment behind the question crossed my mind. Instead of immediately wondering what I would do if today was my last day on this earth, I approached the question from a different angle (although the result is the same) and began to wonder why I live like tomorrow is promised. When I tell people, "See you later," I really mean it. It does not cross my mind that I could actually die today. I fully expect to see my wife when she returns from work. I have already planned my children's fifth and sixth birthday parties (neither child is two). About this time next year I plan to have certain goals met for our church plant.

I am sure this is normal. It is wise to plan and fun to dream about the future; notwithstanding, I was struck afresh by the words of holy scripture. "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit' -- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'" (Jas. 4:13-15). My life is a vapor. I may not be here tomorrow. Why, then, do I live like tomorrow is promised?

Instead of thinking of all the grand things I would like to do if I knew I was going to die today, I began to think about my wife. Will she be okay? Does she have the login and password information for important websites (e.g., banking and insurance)? Will she have enough money to ensure our family will be taken care of? Will she be okay spiritually, particularly in terms of having a firm grasp of what we believe (which is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith) and can she defend it if challenged? Do we have a will, which will reduce any complications for finances and our home being given to her. These are the types of things about which I thought.

Despite having such stark thoughts about my death, I still wonder if I fully believe the words of scripture. Do I truly believe my life is a vapor that will potentially vanish tomorrow? If so, has anything changed since those thoughts crossed my mind? Have I had, whether recently or in the past, that discussion with my wife to ensure she will be taken care of both financially and spiritually if the Lord takes my life? 

Of course those are questions to which I know the answers; nevertheless, those questions, and others like it, are things that should be important to us. We need to ensure our families are taken care of if the Lord takes our life. We can no longer be in the business of taking today for granted because tomorrow is not promised. 

If you knew you were going to die today, what would you do? Perhaps stated differently, do you live like tomorrow is promised?
On Wednesday, April 3, 2014, we had our sixth church plant Bible study. Currently, I am teaching a series on community from the book (or epistle) of Philippians. At this point, we have not escaped the first 2 chapters, but we have been able to discuss some important matters nonetheless (e.g., the composition of our church ethnically, culturally, and vocationally; service toward one another; the gospel, as well as the overwhelming effects of the gospel; conflict resolution; witnessing). From what I gather, people seem to enjoy it.

Last night we tried something new. During our first 5 Bible studies, the children remained with the parents as we opened our time in prayer and sang one song. Moments after we sang, the children normally went to play as we, the parents and singles, continued in our study of Philippians. Once our study was complete, the children returned, we prayed and sang once again. However, after a brief discussion with the parents about one week ago, we decided to require our children to stay during the entire study. 


Since we will not have children's church (although we will have a nursery) at our church plant, we wanted to set a precedent that as adults gather, children and youth are a part of that gathering. In other words, this is their Bible study, too. They are a part of the covenant community and as such should be present. The parents welcomed the suggestion.

While I have a long way to go in terms of learning how to more effectively incorporate the children in our Bible study, it was a great blessing to have them present. I had the children and youth read scripture; I spoke to them directly (e.g., "children/youth, this is what we mean when..."); and I asked for their prayer requests. I am sure there are other ways to get them involved. I simply need to do some research. Nevertheless, it was a blessing to see them (all 18 or so ranging from 1 to 17) sitting with their parents seemingly engaged in the study. 

Much of church planting is new to me. I am learning as I go. Thankfully, I have plenty of fathers and brothers in the faith who are instructing me. They guide me through my questions and provide practical ways to implement my ideas and teach my people (to name some: Wy Plummer, Irwyn Ince, Lance Lewis, Russ Whitfield, Randy Nabors, James Ward, Bob Becker, Gordon Duncan). I should also add that I have godly women in my life (number 1 on my list is my wife) who provide their input. Taking all the information that I receive from them into account has been, and I hope will continue to be, helpful. The people in our Bible study also provide their input, which has been beneficial. I am thankful the people feel an openness to share their ideas.

So what is next?

Once I complete this series on community from Philippians, I will teach a short series on hospitality. Quite frankly, I could skip this series because the people are already spending time together apart from any exhortation from me; nevertheless, I think it will be encouraging for my people to see the biblical basis for our hospitality toward each other. 

Prayer requests:

Please pray for me as I continue, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit, to instruct this group. Also please pray that God would provide as I continue to fundraise. We need funding. Lastly, pray for the continued growth vertically and horizontally of my people (me included) in this study.

Until next time...

The Crucifixion of Ministry

As I prepare to gather a core group (or "launch team," depending on your perspective) for a church plant in Richmond, Virginia, I am attempting to get ahead by developing a leadership training manual. Thankfully I have many resources from other churches in NAPARC member congregations. That takes a weight off my shoulders that I do not need to reinvent the wheel.

One of the most beneficial books I have read on ministry is Andrew Purves' The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ. It revealed many of my self-centered ambitions in ministry while at the same time providing hope for change in Jesus Christ. If the Lord wills that I plant this church, I definitely hope to have this book on the reading list for leadership training. 

Here are some quotations from the book.

"My goal in this book is to offer a perspective on ministry and illustrate a practice that liberates ministers from the grind of feeling that 'it's all up to me.'" (11)

"The ministry of Jesus the Lord is displacing me from the throne of 'my' ministry. In truth it was never mine. We refer to our ministries as if we own them and as if they are all about us. We deeply invest in our own success, although we wrap it up in pious language to soften its prideful aspect. We wish for professional preferment and fulfillment. We enjoy the applause and warm affirmations when they come. We are human, after all." (25)

"To ministers let me say this as strongly as I can. Preach Christ, preach Christ, preach Christ. Get out of your offices and get into your studies. Quit playing office manager and program director, quit staffing committees, and even right now recommit yourselves to what you were ordained to do, namely the ministry of Word and sacraments." (44) 

"Is ministry something we do, or is ministry something Jesus does? The answer, of course, is Yes. We have a ministry, but it is a derivative. It depends in every way upon the continuing ministry of Jesus. His ministry is in the present tense. This is the good news. He is not Lord in name only, but also in act, and not only in the past act, but in the present and future act." (52)

"Ministry is not a matter of a minister working hard, preaching relevant sermons, being a super-efficient congregational administrator, attending those who are sick, downcast, grieving and lonely, all the while growing the congregation and charming the people with a winsome and attractive ability to relate warmly. Outside of abiding in Christ, we have no ministry. It matters not how full our pastoral tool bag is and how much energy we bring to the tasks of ministry. We can do nothing apart from Christ. (119).

Pastors and Their Critics: Pastors

With due awareness of the liabilities, I would like to venture on to the delicate ice of how pastors should receive - and congregants give - criticism. The reason I feel emboldened to do so is that I have had, in my years as a minister, some very good critics and I pray that others would benefit from their sage advice. So, over the next couple of days, I will be posting some on this topic.

To the first thing first: how should pastors receive criticism? The blog posts and articles on this subject are legion, for they are many - and, very often, helpful. However, one can get the impression that pastors, as a general rule, are insecure, defensive, and terrified of criticism. Perhaps many are. But if we believe our theology as Calvinists, these traits should not characterize the Reformed pastor. Moreover, it is not just the pastors who can be faulted; congregations often fail to criticize their pastors in ways that are even remotely Christian.

With these things in mind, the pastor should know that he will receive criticism; not if but when. Therefore, let us ministers, as the Authorized Version has it, "quit ourselves like men" and prepare for it. Here are some things to consider as we gird up our minds:

1. Recognize that, as a minister, you are a sinner, first and foremost. Say to yourself: "I have nothing to commend myself to God. I am not only likely to err, but inclined to do so apart from his amazing grace in Christ." Sing with the hymn writer: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." Beginning here will put the axe to the root of defensiveness.

2. The second follows from the first. If I am as sinful as the Bible says I am (and all of us are), then whence pride? Whence the defensive posture? Surely it's madness to think that I am really as great as I am convinced other people think I am. After all, God looks on the heart - and that is a very scary truth. So, knowing that my heart is deceitful above all else, I must receive criticism with the eyes of my heart wide open: the person bringing the complaint against me is being very charitable, no matter what he or she says. He doesn't know the half of it! In fact, my heart could supply a rap sheet that would make a Chicago cop blush. Thus, no matter the criticism, there are far worse things I have thought and entertained than what the person is bringing to my attention.

Remember the words of Samuel Rutherford when a woman praised him after a Lord's Day service: "Woman, if you knew the blackness of my heart, you would gather your children and run." That's sure to cause some coffee to go down the wrong pipe on a Sunday morning, but truer words would be hard to find.

3. Given (1) and (2), the third thing is, cliched as it sounds, to go straight to Christ. What does that mean really? Well, to borrow the title of a lecture I heard Dr. Ryken give once, it means we do pastoral ministry in union with the risen Christ. We go to no dead Savior, but a living one, who loves us and has called us to the ministry. Therefore, confess to him your pride and bask in his grace. The Holy Spirit has brought you here; your sanctification in this area is intensely personal: God the Spirit brings you here and God the Son cleanses you!

Ministers are especially good at being practical Pharisees - looking good on the outside, but inside full of all manner of wretchedness. Nevermind - God sees this and loves us anyway in Christ. He shatters any pretense to pride by reminding us that we are simply servants of Christ. 

Fix this firmly in your mind: our work as ministers will largely be forgotten when we die, save for a few family and friends and souls we have ministered to. Another will take our place. Praise God, the next one will do better than us! And so it goes until Jesus returns. This is not a depressing but liberating truth: since I am not the sum of my ministry but my life is hid with God in Christ, then I am free to labor with reckless abandon.

Criticism, offered in love and received with humility, provides ministers with tremendous opportunities to grow. It gives us the opportunity to become more effective for the advance of Christ's kingdom. And it reminds us that we really are as bad as the Bible says we are. So let us listen carefully, weigh our responses thoughtfully, and be grateful for wise critics. Tomorrow, we'll look at the duties of those who criticize.