Fitting Words or Fighting Words

As a kid, when faced with the cruel words and name-calling so common among children, I usually retorted:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

Did ever a less true statement pass the lips of a child? I knew then what we all know: words can hurt deeply, and the wounds can last a long time – even a lifetime.

Despite the potential for hurt, sometimes hard-to-hear words must be spoken. Jesus himself spoke explosive words – “hypocrites…blind guides…blind fools…whitewashed tombs…serpents…vipers” – when speaking to the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23:13-36). One might see these words as utterly hateful epithets, and yet, even as Jesus pronounced his “seven woes” upon these men, we find him weeping over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39) because its people would not accept him as Messiah and Savior. As harsh as they were, lurking beneath those words was a long-suffering love ready to embrace any one of those religious leaders had they humbly repented of their sinful obstinacy. Jesus perfectly incarnated Paul’s exhortation to believers that they must be seen as those “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Finding ways to speak honestly, but sensitively, can be challenging at times. But whatever we say must be truthful because  we place a high value on truth – “…having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor…” (Ephesians 4:25). Truth must always be wrapped in love.

Perhaps you have heard the story of a pastor who received a pie from a woman in the congregation. He took it home, and upon discovering how awful it tasted, promptly threw it into the trash. Seeing the pastor a few days later, the woman asked: “How did you enjoy the pie?” Cautiously he replied:

“All I can say is that a pie like that doesn’t last long in our household!”

We might question the pastor’s reply, but the story does highlight an important dimension of conversation – we must always speak truthfully even if we do not say everything we could say.

However, there are times when failure to say something difficult is the unloving approach, as the ancient wisdom writer reminds us: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love” (Proverbs 27:5). Quoting several Bible commentators, Allen Ross writes:

Direct reproof is better than unexpressed love … ‘Open rebuke’ is a frank, direct word of honest criticism or disapproval (from either a friend or foe). ‘Hidden love’ is a love that is too timid, too afraid, or not trusting enough to admit that reproof is a part of genuine love … A love that manifests no rebuke is morally useless … In fact, one might question whether or not it is sincere.

Allen Ross, “Proverbs” in Expositors Bible Commentary Vol. 5
Zondervan Publishing House, 1991, p.1095.

There is a time to encourage, and there is a time to exhort – wise Christians know the difference. For unlike the perverse, “the lips of the righteous know what is acceptable” (Pr. 10:32).

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Should I Encourage Seminary Training?

Every pastor welcomes a parishioner’s desire for a deeper understanding of God. That desire for greater knowledge can be met in several ways.  The Christian education ministries of a local church are a valuable resource, and there is always the opportunity for disciplined self-study. But an increasing number of adults are exploring the viability of formal study in seminary.

While the desire to gain deeper knowledge should always be encouraged, pastors know that seminary is not for everyone.  But how does a pastor know when to encourage seminary and when to discourage it?  I see three areas of concern:  spiritual character, motivation, and intellectual ability.

In the spiritual arena, I want to know first of all, does this person have an authentic testimony of personal conversion to Christ?  Is there evidence of genuine spiritual growth, of real hunger to know God intimately?  If there is little evidence of true spirituality, there is little value in heading off to seminary.  This is not to say that all prospective seminarians must have achieved full spiritual maturity, for this is a life-time quest, but it is critical that there be visible evidence of authentic spiritual life and growth.

Personal motivation also interests me – why does this person desire formal theological study?  If the motive for entering seminary is something other than the desire to honor God with one’s life and mind, I do not encourage seminary.  A sense of divine call to vocational ministry, a desire to be an effective servant of God in a lay ministry setting – these are worthy motivations.  Evidence of positive motivation is likely to be seen in the person’s active involvement in his or her local church.  If the longing for seminary is fuelled by a craving to simply accumulate knowledge, and not the hunger to better know and serve God, I discourage seminary.  The last thing a church needs is another spiritually-challenged, ego-driven theologue.

My third concern is the person’s ability to succeed in academic study.  Not all are equipped to undertake the rigor of seminary studies.  If a prospective seminarian is not already a student of the Word who regularly reads theological and ministry-oriented literature, it may indicate a shortage of interest and ability to persevere in seminary.  Those not already committed to sustained study on a personal level are unlikely to suddenly discover this commitment upon entering seminary.  I would steer that person toward discipling options with the church.

How can a pastor best help potential students expressing interest in formal study and exhibiting the requisite qualities needed to succeed in seminary?

First, be aware of the options. Know about available schools. Be informed about the diversity choices offered by seminaries today – resident programs, modular courses, online offerings, correspondence studies.  Schools are continually offering more avenues of education; know what they are in order to wisely counsel potential students.

Those who have been away from formal studies for some time could be encouraged to take one or two courses by correspondence or online.  This provides them with a seminary-level study experience while remaining in their own setting – allowing them to explore their ability and commitment to formal study before leaving jobs, moving families, or disrupting the familiar routines of life.

For some, distance education may be the only reasonable option available to them. But it is important to know if the student has the self-discipline to work alone. Not all distance education programs are created equal, so familiarize yourself with several distance education programs in order to provide good counsel.

With a myriad of educational opportunities out there, it is imperative that students understand the implications of accredited versus unaccredited theological studies programs.  If the goal is personal enrichment, or greater usefulness in their local churches, accreditation may not be critical, but if postgraduate studies, or profession teaching is a goal, accreditation is critical. A thorough search of available schools will reveal good choices in both the accredited and unaccredited arena.

Finally, be aware of the theological orientation of any school you recommend.  Many pastors and congregations have been shocked and disappointed to have a committed  member leave for seminary only to return with a doctrinal outlook and philosophy of ministry at odds with his or her local church.

In future posts I will highlight a few options for those wanting to explore avenues of theological education.



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Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans

Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans
Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter
Reformation Heritage Books, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-60178-220-5

This book is just the sort of help weary pastors need to refresh their spirits, reminding them of the great privilege they have in shepherding God’s people. Pastoral work is challenging on the best of days, and the authors highlight that by referencing several studies highlighting the growing numbers leaving ministry due to “conflict, burnout, or moral failure” (p.1).

But why would 21st century pastors look back 400 years for encouragement from Puritan pastors? Anticipating that question, Beeke & Slachter remind us that these men also faced many challenges and demands in their ministry. The very term “Puritan”

was originally a pejorative term … meant as an accusation that these Christians were too zealous for purity and too precise in their religion. It also implied they were fanatical and could never have fun (p.9).

While North America pastors today face numerous demands in our wired, social media savvy culture with expectations of 24/7 availability, Puritan pastors were not spared trials in fulfilling their responsibilities. In addition to the difficulties of life in the 17th century, with regard to their pastoral work they faced

… opposition, persecution, imprisonment, expulsion from their congregations, financial hardships, physical harm, and even death (p.11).

The authors acknowledge that the Puritans didn’t always get everything right, but do contend that these godly, biblically informed men excelled at bringing God’s Word to bear upon our lives, strengthening our minds and hearts to trust and follow God in all our circumstances. As a group, these men “had an enormous impact on the spiritual life of the English-speaking world”, and “traces of the influence of the Puritans in Britain, the Netherlands, and North America persist to this day” (p.13).

Drawing extensively from the Puritans, Beeke and Slachter explore six crucial areas of pastoral ministry, demonstrating how these men faced the challenge to remain effective in ministry.

Cultivating personal piety

Three aspects of personal piety are covered in this section: recovering and maintaining zeal in ministry; giving proper priority to daily communion with God through prayer and Scripture meditation; and, focusing on God’s promises to enable pastors to faithfully fulfill their calling.

Resting in God’s sovereignty

In a culture driven by visible success, today’s pastors can easily become discouraged. Beeke & Slachter write:

We affirm God’s sovereignty with our lips, but our roller-coaster ride on the ups and downs of church attendance may betray our hidden fears that our work is useless. Many pastors face pain and disappointments in ministry, which, at times may result in anger against God Himself (p.51).

Remembering that it is God who gives the increase in our work (See 1 Corinthians 3:5-9) enables us to properly submit to his will in our ministry settings. Again, because the Puritans were committed to a robust reformed theology, they understood the value acknowledging God’s sovereignty over every aspect of life, including the results seen in pastoral ministry.

Recovering clarity in their calling

Understanding the nature of pastoral work is vital to remaining faithful to the task.

We pastors are busy with countless worship services, classes, committees, small groups, one-on-one meetings, funerals, weddings, home visits, hospital visits, luncheons, lectures, and board meetings. In the midst of our busyness, are our books of theology gathering dust? Many men took their first steps toward ministry impelled by a passionate love for biblical truth and the desire to share it with others. They consumed theological books like well-cooked steaks. But after seminary, many of their theological works have become monuments to a bygone era of study (p.79).

The Puritans excelled in doctrinal preaching, and there are scores of Puritan titles available to 21st century pastors hungry to grow theologically. Seven incentives are given to encourage pastors to continue growing theologically. It enables pastors to:

  • Enrich People with Our Greatest Treasure
  • Build God’s Temple with Gold, Silver, and Precious Stones
  • Defend the Church against False Teachings
  • Lay Foundations for Effective Evangelism
  • Equip Yourself for Edifying Preaching
  • Enable People to See the Big Picture
  • Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever (pp.80-90)

In light of the sheer volume of Puritan doctrinal writing available, Beeke & Slachter provide helpful suggestions on where to begin. (See pp.90-92).

It is, of course, one thing to be informed, and quite another to put that knowledge to work. Pastors acquire doctrinal and theological understanding so as to live godly lives themselves, and to lead and encourage their congregations to do the same.

The Puritans emphasized the link between doctrine and application. Most of their published works contain “edited series of sermons” (p.94). In these sermons they set out the doctrine contained in their texts, explained it, and provided detailed instruction in putting those principles to work in daily life. They drew a clear line from “the Bible to doctrine to application” (p.94).

In the chapter on “The Calling of the Shepherd”, the authors note:

One reason pastors become discouraged is the lack of clarity regarding their calling. In previous times, the vocation of a Protestant pastor was well-defined, but today the rise and growth of parachurch organizations has brought the business mindset into Christian ministry, clouding our vision of the pastoral office. The work of a Christian businessman is noble, as is the calling of a Christian soldier, magistrate, mother, student, or laborer. Yet we must not fail to recognize the distinct vocation of pastoral ministry, specifically as ministers of the Word in Christ, the anointed Servant of the Lord (p.107).

Drawing from Jonathan Edwards, William Perkins, Robert Traill, and a host of other Puritan pastors, readers find a summary of what God has called pastors to do, and what he has not called them to do.

  • God has not called you to produce converts.
  • God has not called you to comfort unrepentant sinners.
  • God has not called you to be like other ministers, but like Christ.
  • God calls you to serve Christ for His pleasure and glory.
  • God calls you to care for the spiritual needs of men.
  • God calls you to preach His Word and nothing but His Word. (pp.108-117)

Discovering means of support God provided

Recognizing God’s providence in history and his glorious power in creation were two ways that Puritans found comfort and support in ministry. For example, with regards to God’s providence in history, John Flavel recommended keeping a written record of those providences because our memories often fail us. Recalling them enables us to keep present trials in proper perspective (pp.122-123).

Pastoral ministry is lonely at times, and the book has two chapters on the value of remembering we are part of a long line of believers who have served God in every age. Puritan pastors valued meeting together for prayer, fellowship and mutual edification.

Twenty-first century pastors should avail themselves of the blessings of interacting with fellow pastors who have fought some of the same battles, experienced many of the same heartaches, faced similar challenges, and are familiar with the conditions that lead to burnout. It only makes sense to join with others for prayer and spiritual conference as often as possible, for this spiritual discipline will enrich your ministry and enable you to find strength in the Lord (p.140).

Today’s pastors can find encouragement from reading biographies of earlier saints. Puritan pastors encouraged their congregants to reach spiritual biographies (p.144). One Puritan pastor defended the practice with these words:

In the lives of holy men we see God’s image, and the beauties of holiness, not only in precept, but in reality and practice (p.145).

The first biographies I remember reading as a young child were of Adoniram Judson and David Brainerd, and I can say that these two books significantly contributed to my interest in serving Christ vocationally. We can learn much from those who traveled the road before us. We are not islands.

Recognizing the dignity of their office

Many pastors are discouraged because they measure their effectiveness by faulty standards: the size of their building, the number of people in membership, or the size of the church budget. Others are intimidated because their leadership is resisted, or their teaching is questioned. Along with these common difficulties, the Puritans frequently endured government opposition and harassment.

Along with these movements that rejected the Puritan pastor’s authority, the Puritans were scorned for their plain preaching and Reformed theology. … In the midst of those challenges and the ordinary difficulties of ministry, the Puritans dug deep into Scripture to confirm the worth and dignity of the pastoral office. This helped them defy the enactments of the king, turn deaf ears to the slander of critics, resolutely oppose the sects, and heed only the voice of the Head of the church who commissioned and commended their service to Him (p.155).

Beeke and Slachter summarize ways in which the Puritans saw pastoral work similar to the work of angels:

  • They are both heavenly.
  • They both study God’s mysteries.
  • They are both God’s servants.
  • They are both servants to the church.
  • They both are ministers of the Word, declaring God’s will to men.
  • They both comfort the downcast. (pp.167-168)

This exploration of the dignity of the pastoral office concludes with an excellent chapter on the urgently important call to preach the Word of God.

Taking comfort in grace and glory to come

The Puritans readily considered the rewards of faithful ministry, and three rewards in particular are highlighted: (1) spiritual children – pastors are privileged to draw others  into the Christian faith; (2) spiritual legacies – leaving a testimony of faithfulness and revival; and (3) vindication – the “manifestation of God’s righteousness in establishing the righteousness of His faithful servants” (p.195).

A 17th century “literary tour of the glories of heaven” (p.197) rounds out this delightfully encouraging look at pastoral ministry.

Whatever discouragement you may face at present, whatever dark hole you may find yourself mired in, by the Spirit’s gracious power, lift up your heart to God in heaven and contemplate the heavenly glory of Christ, seated at the right hand of power. That will be enough to raise your spirits, renew your sense of calling, and rekindle your love for God’s Son, who first loved us (p.207).

This is a welcome resource for battle-weary servants of God. Church members will find this an excellent insight to the world of ministry, encouraging them to pray daily for their pastors.  I hope it is widely read.

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Reformed and Evangelistic

Responding to criticism of his methodology, the evangelist conducting a soul-winning seminar at my home church retorted,

“Well, I like the way I win souls better than the way you don’t.”

The questioner fell silent, and I – an impressionable teen at the time – thought the evangelist had convincingly silenced his detractor.

The evangelist did have a sharp presentation – a binder filled with colorful laminated pages of Scripture and leading questions (this was in the 1960’s). Anyone who invested the time to master the method could expect a high rate of success in getting people to decide for Christ.

However, a few weeks later I experienced my first doubts as a lady in our church shared her experience with the evangelism method taught at the seminar. She told how she had led a friend through the presentation, getting positive responses at all the appropriate places. When they came to the crucial question: “Wouldn’t it make sense to accept Jesus as your Savior?”, her friend could produce no reason why she should not pray to receive Christ. So she prayed. But as soon as she finished praying, the new convert said, “Wait a minute. You tricked me. I didn’t believe in Jesus when you came, and I don’t really believe in him now.”

Though I was troubled by that response, and consequently did not use that evangelistic method, my theology of evangelism remained fairly intact through high school, Bible School and into my first pastoral charge – a theology that sought a decision at all costs. However, I was not long in Christian ministry before I realized that one could, if clever enough, convince people to make all sorts of decisions – even the decision to receive Christ. However, over time it became apparent that many decisions were simply that – just a momentary decision with no lasting result.

God used those early experiences to draw me toward a better theology of evangelism. Through continued study of Scripture, reading reformed writers – past and present and by meeting godly, reformed believers, I was introduced to the doctrines of grace. As I embraced a reformed soteriology, I experienced a shift in my evangelistic approach. I was no longer driven to get that decision, but rather to faithfully articulate the gospel message. Though I still asked people to make a decision, I knew that a true decision would come only as the Spirit of God opened their eyes and imparted new life.

The following reasons undergird my commitment to a reformed understanding of personal salvation.

All people are lost in sin, and in need of salvation (Psalm 14:1-3; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:23; 6:23).

Because of sin, all people are spiritually dead and unable to respond to the gospel without God’s intervention (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1).

It is the Spirit of God that imparts new life – that brings a person from spiritual death to spiritual life (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5-6).

When it come to evangelism, an authentic reformed understanding of salvation acknowledges that God takes the initiative in new birth – our role is to make the message plain (Romans 10:14-15). Salvation is truly by the sovereign, electing grace of God.

I do not believe this means people make no decisions. Every true Christian decided to trust in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior. Indeed, more than once we find the evangelists in Scripture seeking a response from their listeners – asking them to make a decision for Jesus (Acts 2:38-39; 16:31; 26:27-29). Throughout the history of the church, many adherents of a reformed soteriology have not hesitated to ask for a decision from those hearing the message.

The beauty of reformed soteriology is not that we are free from the obligation to plead with sinners to get right with God. On the contrary, we are commanded to proclaim the gospel to the whole world – to every man, woman, girl and boy (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20). The beauty is that we know God will honor the clear, passionate ministry of the gospel in his own way and in his own time – the results of our evangelism are in his hands, not ours. In speaking of his own gospel ministry in the ancient city of Corinth, Paul highlighted God’s role in conversion: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV).

Too many reformed believers have wasted precious time debating the merits of a genuine free offer of the gospel. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows that we are mandated to encircle the globe with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). Not one shred of Biblical evidence can be produced, excusing Christians from seeking to share the gospel with every person on earth.

Having said all this, there is one question that remains. Why is it that ministries built upon a reformed understanding of salvation – ministries reveling in the power of a sovereign God to save lost sinners – are so often the small, struggling evangelical works in town? It is a question addressed some years ago by Joseph A. Pipa, President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (South Carolina). After listing several valid reasons, Pipa writes:

“…one of the primary reasons for the relatively small success in our Reformed congregations is lack of prayer”

“A Missing Ingredient”, The Banner of Truth, August/September, 2005, p.1.

Developing this thought, Pipa reminds readers that lack of faith does not weaken God’s ability to work, but rather that as a divine principle, “God does not normally operate in a context of unbelief.” Prayerlessness is an expression of unbelief.

Let us do more than give an intellectual nod to the power of sovereign grace. Let us go further than simply writing and preaching about this wonderful truth. Let us take this grace-filled message into the public spaces of our world, boldly and compassionately proclaiming Jesus as the only hope for a lost world. And as we preach, let us simultaneously storm the courts of Heaven, pleading with God to pour out his blessing in revival and new birth. Those who do this are truly reformed and evangelistic.

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Gifted & skilled, but is he a Pastor?

When asked what counsel he would leave with today’s Christian preachers, Haddon W. Robinson said:

Preach the Bible. If you don’t preach the Bible, you have nothing to preach. But don’t just preach the Bible. Preach the Bible to people. Understand your audience. Who are they? Pastors have a great advantage when they interact with their congregation. You know their hurts, problems, and questions. I think it is vitally important that the people in your congregation know that you love them. You want God’s best for them. When you do that, you capture something in your preaching that is vital and solid.

“Life-changing preaching: An Interview with
Haddon W. Robinson”, Ministry, July, 2014

When I first read that interview, a bit over three years ago, I had just read two engaging blog posts from a well-known American evangelical pastor and consultant. In addition to his responsibilities as Lead Pastor of a growing congregation, at the time he held an executive position with a major publisher, was a contributing editor for a leading Christian publication, was a columnist for another magazine, while overseeing a major publishing project, and serving as a visiting professor at two leading seminaries. Further, he has authored numerous books and articles and is in demand as a consultant throughout the evangelical world.

The juxtaposition of Robinson’s interview, which did not intend to address the full spectrum of pastoral ministry, with the responsibilities of that publisher-columnist-professor-author-consultant pastor left me thinking about what constitutes effective pastoral ministry.

That was three years ago, and now, as I am nearing 48 years in pastoral work, and in the final weeks of an Interim Lead Pastor assignment, I find myself thinking about the heart of pastoral work again.

I cannot help wondering how this pastor described above fulfills his pastoral role. What meaningful interaction does he have with the congregation he leads? What does he really know about his people – their burdens, hurts, questions, and fears? Is he really a shepherd of his flock?

I do not mean to be overly critical of this individual who demonstrates a clear passion for the cause of Christ. He works hard, and all the things he does are important. There are many like him. My question relates to the pastoral call – to the solemn responsibility as an overseer of God’s people gathered in a local church. It’s time we reflect again on how the Scriptures describe pastoral ministry. I have highlighted phrases worthy of careful thought.

Acts 6:2–4 (ESV)
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

Acts 20:28 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

1 Timothy 4:13–16 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Peter 5:1–3 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

I know how easy it is to become distracted from the daily weight of pastoral work – of keeping the flock attentive to God. Our world is filled with opportunities to do good things, and sometimes we are drawn to activities and ministries outside the congregation we’ve been called to shepherd. It is not that these outside responsibilities are wrong, but they pull us away from our primary calling to shepherd the flock of God which we’ve been commissioned to lead. It is all too easy to busy ourselves with many good things while neglecting to be vitally involved in the lives of those God gave us to shepherd.

In previous times, the vocation of a Protestant pastor was well-defined, but today the rise and growth of parachurch organizations has brought the business mindset into Christian ministry, clouding our vision of the pastoral office. The work of a Christian businessman is noble, as is the calling of a Christian soldier, magistrate, mother, student, or laborer. Yet we must not fail to recognize the distinct vocation of pastoral ministry, specifically as ministers of the Word in Christ, the anointed Servant of the Lord.

Every Christian has a gift to use in service to others for their mutual edification (Eph. 4:7,16), but the ascended Lord specifically charges ministers of the Word to build up the whole body in the knowledge of Christ and in likeness to Him (Eph. 4:11-14). Pastoral ministry is a special office and a special calling that requires special qualifications of character, ability, and experience (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

Joel R. Beeke & Terry D. Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors:
Help from the Puritans, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pp.107-8.

I believe we need to regain a fresh understanding of what it means to pastor a local congregation. And while some are clearly able to handle wider responsibilities than others, we must not lose sight of the priority laid out by the apostles when faced with increasing ministry challenges: “… we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

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