The Pastor as Theologian, 4: The Nature of Pastoral Ministry

Much confusion exists today regarding the proper model of pastoral leadership. Both pastors and congregations develop concepts of pastoral ministry that are both unbiblical and destructive to the church. Some see the pastor as entrepreneur, the one who is supposed to mastermind church growth purely by his personality and remarkable business acumen. Others see the pastor as visionary, a sacred prophet who “futurecasts” and is set apart to receive a word from God for the church.

Most of these visions of the pastoral office flow out of a pagan syncretism of gospel ministry and worldly lust for power, glory and money. Most of the “pastors” who adopt these models are narcissistic sociopaths who can’t see that their own ambitions for glory rival that of Lucifer’s.

Al Mohler brings us back to reality when he writes:

Every pastor is called to be a theologian. This may come as a surprise to those pastors who see theology as an academic discipline taken during seminary rather than as an ongoing and central part of the pastoral calling. Nevertheless, the health of the church depends upon its pastors functioning as faithful theologians–teaching, preaching, defending, and applying the great doctrines of the faith…

In far too many cases the pastor’s ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content, and many pastors seem to have little connection to any sense of theological vocation. All this must be reversed if the church is to remain true to God’s Word and the gospel. Unless the pastor functions as theologian, theology is left in the hands of those who, in many cases, have little or no connection or commitment to the local church.

Al Mohler, Jr. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Moody, 2008), 105-6.

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The Pastor as Theologian, 3: Without Theological Preaching, There Is No Revival

One of the clearest lessons we learn from church history is that strong biblical preaching is absolutely vital to the health and vitality of the church. From the birth of the New Testament until today, every significant phase of authentic revival, reformation, missionary expansion, or robust church growth has also been an era of biblical preaching…

It s remarkable, then, that over the past half century (or longer) evangelicals have devoted vast quantities of energy and resources to the invention of novel church-growth strategies that tend to discount biblical preaching. Such schemes sometimes even deliberately avoid any reference to the Bible altogether–especially when unbelievers are present. They aim instead at attracting people through marketing campaigns, entertainments, social activities, and other similar techniques.

Many of today’s evangelical church leaders have borrowed their management philosophies from the corporate world; they have taken their fashion from the entertainment industry; they have imitated the communications styles of secular mass media (favoring sound-bites over substance); and they have employed various bells and whistles from modern technology designed mainly to amaze and impress rather than to teach and edify. The visible church now mirrors the world to a disturbing degree.

A major portion of Christendom is spiritually starved–and sound, biblical preaching has become an extremely rare commodity.

John MacArthur, Foreword to Al Mohler, He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Moody, 2008), 11-12.

The Pastor as Theologian, 2: The Modern Division of Pastors and Theologians

The idea that depth of learning and theological concern should be relegated to the classroom while the “practical” aspects of Christianity should be reserved for the church is deadly. It was perverse when liberals espoused it in the first half of the twentieth century and it is no less diabolical when advocated–even if subtly–by conservatives.

The separation of the role of the pastor from that of the theologian is a modern development…How did the separation of this unified calling occur? One significant factor has been the church’s abdication of its theological task. The Apostle Paul declares the church to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This means that the church is the steward of truth. We must recognize, therefore, that God has give to the church the responsibility to confess, reflect upon, and apply the truth, which is simply another way of describing the work of theology.

The Christian faith is inherently (though not exclusively) doctrinal. The truth which God has revealed throughout all of redemptive history and which culminates in Christ is to be explored, understood, explained, proclaimed and defended. Thus, truth is to set the agenda for the church.

Where this understanding of the church prevails, the pastor will be seen primarily as a “truth-broker.” He will see himself responsible for doing the work of theology-studying, proclaiming and applying God’s Word.

Tom Ascol, “The Pastor as Theologian”

As Ascol implies, if a pastor abdicates this role as theologian for the church, he is acting essentially no different than the liberals of the early 20th century who minimized the centrality and authority of Scripture. It is not only possible to minimize the centrality and authority of Scripture as a conservative, it is a rather common occurrence. Sermons become the opinions of the preacher, shallow in content and without the ability to change lives.

The only corrective for this trend is for pastors to reclaim their role as theologians. This is not to imply that the pastor’s job will look like the theologian’s in the academy.

It does mean, however, that the pastor will have the same conviction of the theologian that what people need to hear is sound doctrine. Not his ruminations on the text. Not his last minute thrown-together sermon. Not his bypassing of observation and interpretation of the text just to get to the application that will please his listeners. A pastor-theologian understands that many parishioners are starving for a substantive Word from God.

In Part 3 we’ll look at the preaching of a pastor-theologian. To conclude, we’ll return to Tom Ascol’s article:

Recovering the pastor-theologian model is not optional for a ministry which is committed to being biblical. God’s Word requires pastors to see themselves in this light. Though this approach to ministry will require going against the stream of modern thinking, the benefits are far reaching.

 

The Pastor as Theologian, 1: The Crisis

Preaching has fallen on hard times. I don’t mean in liberal churches. I mean in conservative, Bible-believing churches. With godly pastors. Who have seminary education. Who have simply stopped studying. Because it’s easier to coast.

This trend is not destroying churches outright, at least not many of them. But it is weakening believers. Weakening their love for the Scriptures. Weakening their faith in an increasingly pluralistic world. Weakening their children who hear feeble drivel in their youth groups, Bible classes and chapels, and as a result have little desire or respect for the Word.

So the situation is serious. And it starts at the top. If the preaching pastor does not love to read, study, and proclaim theology (aka sound doctrine), chances are his sermons are without substance, replaced by fury and sound, humor and stories, psychologizing and rhetoric. in other words, they probably fit the description of the type of preaching Paul refused to do in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Without a strong commitment to being a pastor-theologian, a pastor will merely be speaking every Sunday, not preaching. As one pastor said, “The church already has speakers. They’re usually on the wall behind the pulpit. What it needs is preachers!” True preaching must be theological, and this requires the pastor to be a theologian. If more pastors don’t return to this model, I fear for the church in the next decade.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the role of the pastor-theologian in revival.

What Happens When Pastors Stop Seeing Themselves as Theologians

Inasmuch as the pastoral vocation is no longer seen as a theological vocation, pastors no longer bring a strong theological presence to their local parishes. The net effect (particularly in the evangelical tradition in which I reside) is a truncated understanding of theology and its import among the laity. Theology has largely left the local church.

Gerald Hiestand, “The Pastor as Wider Theologian, or What’s Wrong With Theology Today,” First Things, January 3, 2011

Read the article.

Is God Responsible for the Trouble in Your Life?, Part 3: He’d Better Be!

The third and final answer to the question of whether God is responsible for my troubles is one many believers don’t like to consider—that God providentially ordains trials, troubles, suffering, sickness, and even death according to his divine decrees for my life. In this scenario God brings troubles into my life because he knows the future perfectly, and he knows that troubles in the life of the believer will ultimately bring fruit:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:11)

The problem with this answer for many Christians is they wrestle with how God can be good if he ordains trouble and suffering. A God who ordains and decrees suffering does not seem to be just, loving, compassionate, merciful, good or kind. In order to preserve these attributes of God, the doubting Christian may be tempted to remove culpability from God by removing his responsibility for initiating troubles. But this would be a big mistake.

God is sovereign and whatever he does is good and just, whether we think so or not. We must remember the declarations of God’s sovereignty and our absolute submission in Scripture in the metaphor of the Potter and the clay:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Is. 64:8)

“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel (Jer. 18:6).

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:19-21)

These passages teach a truth that goes down sideways for many of us: God can do what he wants, and we can’t question him. The truth is, we don’t like to say God is responsible for trouble, not just to protect God from accusations of being unloving, but also because by doing so, we negate our right to criticize what God decides to do with our lives. We simply do not like to cede to God that much control of our lives. We are like Adam and Eve, forever believing the lie that we can be like God and decide our own destiny. And we forever suffer for our lack of submission to the trials and troubles God knows we need in our lives.

The biblical answer is that God absolutely IS responsible for the trials, suffering, and trouble in our lives, and what a comfort that is! How is that a comfort? If God were not in control of all things, directing, initiating, and providentially ordaining everything that comes to pass, life would have a certain element of chance to it. If chance played even a miniscule part in the unfolding of events in this life, it would threaten the ability of God to truly be sovereign over all. Chance could emerge and cause God to have to change his mind.

But chance is an illusion, and God is sovereign; and that is the only comfort in my trials, troubles, sickness, discouragement, and so on. That everything that happens to me is omnisciently decreed by a loving God who works all things for my glorification and his own glory means that nothing is without meaning and importance. Every trouble has a purpose, every trial has reason. No tears are wasted, no sorrow pointless. Everything is being used to make me more like Christ.

B. B. Warfield said it best:

It is because we cannot be robbed of God’s providence that we know, amid whatever encircling gloom, that all things shall work together for good to those who love him. It is because we cannot be robbed of God’s providence that we know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ—not tribulation, nor anguish, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword…Were not God’s providence over all, could trouble come without his sending, were Christians the possible prey of this or the other fiendish scheme, when perchance God was musing, or gone aside, or on a journey, or sleeping, what certainty of hope could be ours? “Does God send trouble?” Surely, surely. He and he only. To the sinner in punishment, to his children in chastisement. To suggest that it does not always come from his hands is to take away all our comfort.

“God’s Providence Over All,” in Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, (ed. John Meeter; P&R, 2001), 1:110. (emphasis mine)

 

Is God Responsible for the Trouble in Your Life?, Part 2: What are the Options?

Once we have acknowledged and become thankful worshipers of God for every good thing we experience, we are ready to ask the question of whether God ordains trouble in our lives or not. There are only three possible answers to this question.

First, we might say, as Open Theists do, that God cannot foresee the future, and therefore any trouble that comes into our lives is as much a surprise to God as it is to us. In this scenario God is not responsible for our troubles, but neither can he help much beyond sympathize with us. Hardly a biblical or satisfying picture.

Second, we might say that Satan is responsible for our troubles. The devil is an easy target, after all. We are allowed to hate him and everything he does. In this view, God would never wish evil or trouble upon his children, so it must be the devil’s fault. God’s role in the whole mess is to stop the devil from going too far. In other words, God allows troubles, but he does not ordain or initiate them. So God is able to wiggle out of responsibility merely from the fact that he is not the direct cause of trouble.

I dare say that most Christians probably hold this position. It preserves enough of God’s control over my life that I don’t feel too out of control, but also provides a scapegoat so I don’t have to be mad at God when trouble comes. But as everyone who holds this position knows, if the trial or suffering is severe enough, God ultimately gets the blame anyway.

If these aren’t really legitimate answer to the question of whether God is responsible for the trouble in our lives, what’s left? In Part 3 we’ll examine what I believe to be the biblical answer and the only satisfying one.

Is God Responsible for the Trouble in Your Life?, Part 1: What We Deserve

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson made headlines on November 28, 2010, not for his receiving skill on the field, but for his Tweets off the field. After dropping what would have been the game winning touchdown catch against the Steelers, Johnson got on his Twitter account and typed:

“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”

Within hours Johnson was being roundly criticized for having the audacity to blame God for his own failure. People from all walks of life recognized his perceived impudence for holding God responsible for his trouble. Yet the incident revealed a common sentiment among many that God should, in fact, remove trouble from our lives.

So, is God responsible for the trouble in our lives?

This is a trick question, I know. But your answer reveals much about your view of yourself and your view of God.

The very fact that suffering, trials, sickness and pain exist reveals that there is something not right with the world. A person who believes in evolution cannot say as much. For the evolutionist, these are just a natural part of the random nature of the universe as the process of blind natural selection grinds forward. An evolutionist, therefore, believes the world is exactly as it should be. To the Christian (and yes, I do set these as contradictory), there is something inherently wrong with the world, something that can be summed up in one word: sin. The sin of Adam that plunged all humanity into condemnation also brought a curse upon the world and everything in it. We are all, every one of us, born cursed into a cursed world.

If we dare object that this state of affairs is not “fair,” we must explain why. Most people who claim that depravity, the doctrine that every person is born in rebellion to God and completely corrupted in all aspects of his nature, is not fair, either believe that they are not depraved, or at least not as bad as the Bible describes us in Eph. 2:1-3:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

But if we object to this description of our depravity, then we have to explain why we choose to sin multiple times, maybe hundreds of times, per day. The problem is that we simply don’t reckon sin the way God does. We tend to see only the big, outward, and ugly sins as truly sinful. If we haven’t committed adultery, embezzled money from our company, or murdered anyone today, then we feel that we haven’t sinned. But God sees all! Every internal thought of petty jealousy is as much a transgression of the law of God as adultery. Every thought of fear when we should trust, every critical word from our tongue, every lustful thought, every deliberation of how superior we are to another person, every indulgence of resentment toward a past hurt, every act of anger toward another; these are all sins that we wrack up by the hundreds day after day. Our sin debt before God is wracking up condemnation faster than the national debt counter in New York City.

And so the question of whether God is responsible for the trouble in our lives is a little more complex than a simple yes or no. We are responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. We deserve no good thing. We don’t deserve a happy life; don’t deserve to even live. The only thing we deserve is condemnation, the wrath of God and hell. It’s almost impossible to emphasize this enough. If we got what we deserve we would all be immediately plunged into eternal separation from God.

Ephesians 2:4-7 proceeds to tell us, however, that God did not leave us in our natural state, but reached down to us in the incarnate person of his Son who gave himself to atone for our sin by satisfying the wrath of God on our behalf so that we might be justified and forgiven:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

So is God responsible for the trouble in our lives? Before we answer that we must acknowledge that He is most definitely responsible for everything good in our lives. How ungrateful would it be for us to only ask the question about the bad without confessing loudly that every last thing in our lives that we enjoy is entirely of God’s good grace to us.

So what about the trouble in our lives? Part 2 of this essay will take up that question.