Sages of the Talmud

The Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is a multi-volume work recording the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on many subjects. It covers Halakha (law), ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and a multitude of other subjects, forming the basis for virtually all decisions related to living a Jewish life.

Sages of the Talmud: The Lives, Sayings and Stories of 400 Rabbinic Masters
Mordechai Judovits
Urim Publications, 2009
ISBN: 978-965-524-035-1

The Talmud is organized around the Mishnah – a compilation of legal opinions and debates about how to understand and apply Torah – the law of God. The Mishnah itself was recorded by Tannaim – teachers of oral law who did their work between 10-220 C.E. Organized topically, the Mishnah provides the framework for the entire Talmud. Its six orders are Zeraim (Seeds), Moed (Festival), Nashim (Women), Nezikin (Damages), Kodashim (Holies), and Tohorot (Purities).

Under each Order are several tractates (treatises) discussing, debating, and expressing opinions as to the meaning of the corresponding Mishnah. The Amoraim, expounders of the Mishnah (220-500 C.E.), are the compilers of the 63 tractates making up the Talmud.

Now, if all of this sounds confusing, you are not alone. The Talmud is an intimidating body of literature, and particularly so for one not raised within Rabbinic Judaism.  Not only is its sheer size challenging, its structure can also be very confusing – and then there are the Sages – those men whose opinions and rulings are recorded in the Talmud. Who were they? Where did they live? When did they live? What were the conditions under which they labored?

Mordechai Judovits, a Holocaust survivor, retired businessman, and long-time student of Talmud, comes from a family of distinguished rabbis and Talmudic learners. His life-long love of Talmud led to his quest to know something of the life and times of the sages. That quest led to this reader-friendly recounting of stories, anecdotes, vignettes and fascinating history of 400 Talmudic masters.

Judovits says he did not intend to provide a “complicated Talmudic pilpul” (intense textual analysis), but rather a “simple recording of stories, anecdotes and sayings of the sages as recorded in Talmud.” He hopes to provide Talmudic students a window into the world of the tannaim and amoraim – the social and political climate of their times. By opening this window, Judovits hopes to draw greater numbers into a two-thousand year journey of questioning and learning at the feet of some of Rabbinic Judaism’s greatest rabbis.

The book opens with a brief outline of how the Talmud is organized. Along with a brief historical overview of the years during which the Talmud was compiled, Judovits provides pointers for determining how one might identify the various contributors to the discussions at hand. What could easily descend into a dry recounting of names and places, finds life through the historical vignettes and anecdotes liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The body of the book is an alphabetical listing of 400 sages mentioned in the pages of Talmud. Virtually everything Judovits tells us about individual sages can be found within the Talmud itself – he has carefully noted the sources for all he has written. Serious students of Talmud will appreciate this as it will immediately provide them with the context of all Judovits has written about each Talmudic contributor.

While many will find this a rich resource for helping to understand Talmud itself, others will simply enjoy reading the anecdotes and sayings of the sages for their own reading enjoyment.

As is true of today, so it was true in ancient times – we are influenced by our cultural surroundings. Judovits understands this and provides a valuable overview of both world and Jewish history during the Talmudic period. Beginning with the first Babylonian exile (600-550 B.C.E), and extending through 550 C.E.

My only disappointment with this historical overview is that the author chose to exclude any mention of Jesus of Nazareth or of the New Testament community of believers in Jesus. Indeed, the designations of B.C.E. and C.E (Before the Common Era and the Common Era) only exist because of the historical person, Jesus. I would argue that the push to codify Jewish Oral Torah in the multi-volume Talmud was encouraged by three things: the ongoing dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), and the growth of the Christian community which at the outset was entirely Jewish.

Sages of the Talmud as a useful introduction to the world of Talmud, and I recommend it to my Christian colleagues in ministry.

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I am glad God forgets some things

The memory of my mother reading bedtime stories to my siblings and me still brings an inward smile as I “hear” one of us inevitably implore,

  • “Just one more page, Mommy. Please?”

This, along with a myriad of other life events, provides a rich storehouse of happy memories. Of course, there are other memories I’d rather forget – a collage of disappointed hopes and dreams – but on the whole, I’m grateful for the ability to remember.

Memory is a precious part of being human – so precious that we dread its inevitable erosion as we grow older. The thought of losing our memory is feared as much as any human malady these days. Memory loss is one of those infirmities connected with our humanness.

How is it then, that the Scripture describes God as “losing his memory” about us? “The Bible says that?” you ask. In at least four places, the Scriptures reveal God forgetting something .

Isaiah 43:25 (ESV)
I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Jeremiah 31:34 (ESV)
… I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Hebrews 8:12 (ESV)
… I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

Hebrews 10:17 (ESV)
… I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.

But wait. If forgetfulness is an infirmity, how is it that Scripture attributes forgetting to a perfect, all-knowing God? Resolving this dilemma requires understanding how the language of Scripture works. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Biblical writers employed human language – words and images with which we could identify – in conveying spiritual truth.

For example, we understand the power of memory. Someone may say or do something hurtful toward us, and though the event may be years in the past, we still brood over the wrong committed – we can’t (or won’t) let it go. Until we are able to let it go – to forget about it – through reconciliation, or offering forgiveness, it poisons our relationship with that person.

When it comes to our sins committed against God, his view of those sins – if we have repented of them and trusted Christ as Savior – is described as having been forgotten. In a sermon entitled, God’s Non-Remembrance of Sin, preached on October 22nd, 1882, Baptist pastor C.H. Spurgeon said:

“[God’s] pardon is so true and deep that it amounts to an absolute oblivion, a total forgetting of all the wrong-doing of the pardoned ones.”

This cannot mean that God has no recollection of a believer’s sin, for God knows everything. What it does mean is that the believer’s sin is not laid up in God’s mind – he is not brooding over their sin. It has been forgiven, because the shed blood of Jesus has made full atonement for it. Never again will God recall that sin, holding it against those who have come to him through faith in Jesus Christ. And that is something I am glad God forgets.

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If God is Sovereign, Am I Really Free?

Reconciling God’s sovereignty with humanity’s free will has been a perennial challenge among evangelicals. Perhaps no discussion has spilled more ink and strained more relationships in the history of Christianity. If God is sovereign, controlling every aspect of this universe, how can we believe humans are really free moral beings? Conversely, if humans are truly free, how can God be authentically sovereign?

God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in Scripture. “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”, declares the Psalmist (Ps 115:3). Solomon observed: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD” (Pr. 21:30). When Job addresses God, saying, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2), he is acknowledging God’s absolute sovereignty.

The Scriptures also present people as having ability to make free moral choices. After he led Israel into the promised land, Joshua challenged them: “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Jos 24:15). Grieved over Jerusalem’s refusal to accept his messiahship, Jesus said: “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 13:34).

It is naïve to think that this short column will resolve all difficulties inherent in maintaining divine sovereignty and human freedom, but a few biblical statements can point us in the right direction.

Joseph, responding to his brothers’ fear of retaliation for their ill-treatment of him, assured them, saying, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Ge 50:19-20). The brothers had schemed to hurt Joseph, but God sovereignly used their freely chosen evil deed to accomplish a good purpose, the preservation of Israel.

When encouraging the Philippian believers to continue growing spiritually, Paul wrote: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php. 2:14). Here Paul tells us that, along with the ability to live obediently, God also provides the motivation. He both prompts us and enables us to do what we ought to do as believers.

We must humbly acknowledge our inability to find a total resolution to this tension – by faith we must accept the clear teaching of Scripture. We are presented with a God, who by definition, rules the universe. And yet this sovereign God allows us to make choices everyday, and while we freely exercise those choices, he unfailingly accomplishes his will.

It was Moses who said: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Dt. 29:29). This verse is not intended to help us avoid hard questions, but rather it is a reminder that believers live by the clear commands of God, leaving the secret decrees of God with God.

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The Pastor as Theologian – 2

Where do we go from here?

Many of us first entered ministry because of a love for God’s truth. We loved studying and were passionate about sharing the fruits of our study with others. Our libraries likely contain theological volumes we once read and studied with great zeal, but are now, in the words of one pastor, “monuments to a bygone era of study.” If the concerns expressed by Peterson, Wells, Seel and Powlison are valid, then it appears the demands and expectations ministry have robbed us of a previous devotion to theological study and reflection. If this is true, it is time to reconsider why theology is vital to healthy pastoral ministry.

If Peterson is correct in saying the “pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God”, then it is true that pastors must be theologians. Herman Witsius (1636-1708) put it this way:

By a theologian, I mean one who, imbued with a substantial knowledge of divine things derived from the teaching of God Himself, declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole counsel of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God and thus lives entirely for His glory.

Herman Witsius, On the Character of a True Theologian,
ed. J. Ligon Duncan III, Reformed Academic Press, 1994, p.27

The apostle Paul clearly emphasizes the life-informing properties of theological truth.

1 Timothy 3:14-15 (ESV)
… I am writing these things to you so that … you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

1 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.

1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

1 Timothy 4:15-16 (ESV)
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 Timothy 6:2-3 (ESV)
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.

1 Timothy 1:13-14 (ESV)
Follow the pattern of sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Ongoing biblical, theological study is the duty of every pastor.

2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

One day we will stand before God and give an account for how we fulfilled our ministry calling. We do not want to be ashamed because we failed to accurately teach God’s truth. We surely hope that our work will be seen as “gold, silver, precious stones” and not as “wood, hay, straw” (1 Corinthians 3:12).

We have been called to preach, teach and model truth. Our God-given mandate is:

Ephesians 4:12-14 (ESV)
… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

With the technological advances we enjoy today (e.g. Bible study software, podcasts, blogs, social media, etc.), people can misinterpret Scripture and embrace bad teaching at speeds before unthinkable. Paul encouraged the Ephesian elders to be properly prepared to guard their flocks against false teaching.

Acts 20:28-32 (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. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

To fight for the truth; to contend for the faith; is a primary responsibility for a pastor (2 Timothy 4:1-5). Our times urgently call for men of God who have a firm grasp on biblical truth – on sound theology – and are unafraid to boldly proclaim it in their pastoral work.

If a doctor must continually study medicine, how much more should a physician of souls study the eternal truths of God’s Word, bearing in mind that Satan never ceases to spread his spiritual diseases?

Joel R. Beeke and Terry D. Slachter,
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans,
Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, p.84.

Theologically astute pastors lay the proper groundwork for evangelism.  Beeke and Slachter say:

Too much evangelism today operates on the assumption of common beliefs. It offers a truncated gospel. It tries to graft biblical concepts such as ‘God loves you’ onto a pagan and worldly mindset, resulting in syncretism and hypocrisy. Easy believism also encourages counterfeit faith. While the Spirit is free to work as He pleases (John 3:8), it is best to lay a solid foundation of truth in the mind of unbelievers so that they can rightly respond by the Spirit’s grace to our appeals to come to Christ.

Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.84

Theologically astute pastors are equipped to provide wise counsel for believers as they withstand Satan’s attacks. Ignorance and error are two main pillars in Satan’s attack on the church of Jesus Christ. Christians with a solid understanding and application of biblical truth find amazing victory over sin and temptation. Satan cannot withstand the truth of God. Though neglected by the vast majority of Protestants today, former pastors often visited their parishoners with a catechism in one hand and a Bible in the other. Catechism are designed to provide a stable framework for the gospel doctrines will believe and teach.

Theologically astute pastors are able to present solid biblical preaching that nourishes God’s people. Edifying preaching rests upon a firm theological foundation. If the anecdotal evidence I’ve received over a number of years is accurate, a discouraging amount of preaching consists of motivational speeches injected with a few Scripture texts to legitimize it as Bible preaching. Pastors committed to solid theological truth will recognize the need to give their people a diet of biblical theological truth that covers the whole counsel of God. That can only be done by pastors committed to disciplined study of the whole corpus of Scripture.

Studying and teaching a systematic approach to doctrine also bears subjective fruits. The big picture fits our lives and questions into the meta-narrative or epic story of God’s eternal plan and redemptive activity in history, thereby giving us an encouraging sense of meaning and direction. It helps us to answer questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why is my existence so painful?’ ‘What is the solution to my problems?’ ‘Where is all this headed?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life?’

Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.89.

The ultimate aim of our lives is to glorify our God.

1 Corinthians 6:20 (ESV)
… for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

How it is possible to glorify God without having great thoughts of God? And how is it possible to have great thoughts of God except that we ransack the pages of holy Scripture where we find God revealing himself to those who hunger to know him. We cannot revel in the wonders of our God without studying him and his works – the very fodder of theology.

Theology is the discipline of thinking glorious thoughts of God. … When pastors study theology with both mind and heart, they learn how to live a God-centered life.

Beeke and Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors, p.90.

As to the importance of theology in the life of a pastor, Michael Lawrence says it as clearly as anyone:

… the most practical thing we can do, the important tool we need in ministry, is biblical theology. … Learning how to do biblical theology is no mere academic exercise. No, it’s vital to your work as a pastor or church leader. It shapes your preaching, your counseling, your evangelizing, your ability to engage wisely with culture, and more. You will not be a very good theologian, which means you will not be a very good pastor, if you do not learn how to do biblical theology.

Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p.11

When we leave this Association meeting this afternoon, it is not likely we will rush back to the office to read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology. We are not likely to pull out a volume of John Owen, Jonathan Edwards or Calvin’s Institutes.

We are likely headed back to one of those incessant committee meetings, perhaps dinner with a new member who wants to get involved in the church, or maybe an appointment with board member who’s concerned about some changes you recently made.

Whatever it is that awaits your return, it will require decisions and practical proposals. And this is where your theology kicks in and proves its value. Theology isn’t about a program or new methodology which will draw people away from another church to your church. It isn’t a strategy to position the right people on your ministry team.

Good theology provides you with the big picture of God’s story – indeed, it places you within that story. It will birth within you a vision from God for what he is doing and yet plans to do, both in the world and in your local ministry.

A solid theology provides the structure for ministry to the hurting, bewildered, or wandering people you inevitably encounter in your pastoral work. Michael Lawrence says: “Ministry is theology in action.” It looks something like this:

  • You have taught the church about God’s goodness and sovereignty, so that when a child is diagnosed with cancer, the parents will be grief-stricken but not completely undone.
  • You have equipped the eighteen-year-olds heading off to college with the necessary tools for facing the radical relativism of their professors.
  • You know how to help the man in your church who is struggling with whether or not God knows the future because his brother-in-law from another church gave him a bad book.
  • You have helped a young wife and mother who struggles with perfectionism and people-pleasing to find her justification and worth in the gospel.
  • You have prepared the engaged couple for the challenges of marriage through premarital counseling that focuses on God’s plan for our holiness and not just instantaneous happiness.
Michael Lawrence,
Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, pp.15-16.

Our people rightly look to us for wise, godly leadership. In the end, they won’t care so much about the cleverly-designed programs and amazing properties we assembled. They will, however, forever appreciate the wise, loving and God-saturated counsel we provide to help them navigate a crazy world.

Let’s strive to emulate the first leaders of the Jerusalem church: “… we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 ESV).

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The Pastor as Theologian – 1

Recently, I presented a short paper on The Pastor as Theologian to the pastors of the York Simcoe Association, a group of churches affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada.
Though written primarily for colleagues in ministry, I felt the subject was important for anyone with a concern for the spiritual well-being of evangelical churches generally, and Christians personally.
This is an edited version of that paper.

We are all theologians

Theology is the study of God and of his relationship to this world. Because of this, theology must never be seen as merely

… an interest or hobby that we can add to our list of favorite activities and diversions. It pertains to the whole of our lives, and must shape and inform our thoughts and activities in every sphere of existence. Without the knowledge of God, the knowledge of our selves becomes distorted and futile, and any meaning and ultimate satisfaction becomes utterly impossible.
(Accessed on December 19, 2018)

It is vitally important to recognize the role theology plays in our ministries since we are continually confronted by questions with profound, life-altering implications. These are some of the questions I have faced during my pastoral ministry. You would have a similar list.

  • What career path should I pursue?
  • If God chose us to salvation before the foundation of the world, why do I need to evangelize?
  • My husband never shows any love for me. Why do I have to go through life unhappy?
  • Should we pull the plug on Dad’s life support?
  • What happens when I die?
  • My mother and father, who were murdered by the Nazis, lived a righteous life. How can you believe they are in hell just because they didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah?
  • Why can’t I leave my marriage? I don’t love her anymore.
  • Why did God let her die of cancer, leaving me with three young children?
  • I know what I’m going to do is wrong, but God will forgive me when I confess it. Right?
  • I am getting a divorce. I hope God will forgive me.
  • I want to be a lukewarm Christian.

Our response reflects our theology – our understanding of God and of his ways. It is not a matter of debate as to whether or not pastors (or Christians in general) are to be theologians. We are all theologians of a sort. According to writers at, whenever we wrestle with the questions of life, we are doing theology.

Everything is affected by your theology. For example, if your theology denies the existence of God, then your morality is going to be affected since its basis is not a personal and timeless being. With a theology of atheism (i.e. belief that there is no God) morals become relative to the time and situation. In this case, what is true for one generation may not be true for another. If your theology denies the sinfulness of man, then a bloody sacrificial death to atone for sin becomes repulsive, since, according to your theology, men don’t need to have their sin atoned for. If your theology is polytheistic (i.e. belief in many gods), then you will constantly be trying to figure out which god or gods you should encounter, pray to, and/or appease in order to make their situation “right.” The implications are endless.

In short, theology is a set of intellectual and emotional commitments, justified or not, about God and man which dictate one’s beliefs and actions. (emphasis authors’)
(Accessed on January 9, 2018)

So, what kind of theologians are we? One way to answer this question is to look at our pastoral practice – at the model of ministry we follow.

We have a problem

While I am disappointed in recent revelations concerning some of his ethical positions, I believe Eugene Peterson identifies a systemic problem in contemporary pastoral ministry in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Though written 31 years ago to an American audience, I believe Peterson’s observations ring true today in both the USA and Canada.

American Pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling (emphasis author’s). They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. …

… there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God (emphasis mine). It is this responsibility that is being abandoned …

       Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape
of Pastoral Integrity, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987, pp.1-2.

Peterson is blunt, but is he fair? Are pastors abandoning their calling? Peterson comes from a mainline perspective, and perhaps his words reflect that context more than an evangelical one, however evangelical leaders were raising similar concerns in the early 1990’s. For example, David Wells, currently the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, wrote in 1993:

The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world – in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture ….

David Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened
to Evangelical Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993, p.95.

In 1992, John Seel surveyed twenty-five prominent evangelical leaders, seeking their views on the then-current health of the evangelical movement. Their response appears to echo the concerns of Peterson and Wells. Richard L. Mayhue summarizes eight dominating themes arising from Seel’s research:

  1. Uncertain identity – a widespread confusion over what defines an evangelical.
  2. Institutional disenchantment – a perceived ministry ineffectiveness and irrelevance.
  3. Lack of leadership – a lament over the paucity of leadership in the church.
  4. Pessimistic about the future – a belief that the future of evangelicalism hangs in the balance.
  5. Growth up, impact down – a confusing paradox without immediate, clear explanations.
  6. Cultural isolation – the post-Christian era has fully arrived.
  7. Political and methodological response provides the solution – unbiblical approaches to ministry are emerging.
  8. Shift from truth-orientation to market-response ministry – a redirection from preoccupation with the eternal to concern for the temporal in an effort to be viewed as relevant.
John MacArthur, Jr. and The Masters Seminary Faculty,
Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry: Shaping Contemporary Ministry
with Biblical Mandates
, Word Publishing, 1995, p.4. (emphasis mine)

The tsunamic cultural shifts underway in our culture (e.g. think how quickly we went from Pride celebrations to same-sex marriage to transgender rights) pose major challenges to evangelical Christianity. In many places, the response has been to adjust the content and methodology of ministry with little regard for its theological implications.

For example, David Powlison believes the 21st century church is plagued with a therapeutic gospel focusing on “instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class” people: the craving to be loved for who we are; to experience personal significance and success; to gain self-esteem; to be entertained; to live with a sense of adventure – to have a thrilling and moving life. Powlison says:

In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me [sic] who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.

The therapeutic outlook is not a bad thing in its proper place. By definition, a medical-therapeutic gaze holds in view problems of physical suffering and breakdown. In literal medical intervention, a therapy treats an illness, trauma, or deficiency. You don’t call someone to repentance for their colon cancer, broken leg … You seek to heal. So far, so good.

But in today’s therapeutic gospel the medical way of looking at the world is metaphorically extended to these psychological desires. These are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word “Jesus,” but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.
(Accessed February 6, 2018)

In some ways, the therapeutic gospel mirrors Eugene Peterson’s contention that pastors have become religious shopkeepers. We expend enormous energy and resources attracting people to our properties and programs. As long as the seats are full, or filling, and the bills are paid, and our people satisfied with the church, we feel good about what we are doing. Yes, we desire professions of faith, baptisms, and gaining new members. But are we as passionate for the long-term, time-consuming and often messy work of making disciples – of accompanying our people on the journey to spiritual maturity?

Some years ago, I had a young mother visit me seeking counsel in dealing with relatives who were creating major problems in her marriage. The complicating factor was that these relatives were actively involved members of the church she attended. One of the relatives was an elder there. After several sessions, during which she said she had tried unsuccessfully to get help from her pastor, she agreed to letting me contact her pastor.

When I met with him, he acknowledged that the problems were rooted in the meddling of the young woman’s relatives. As to why he had not addressed those issues with the parties involved, he said he couldn’t deal with it because it would split the church. The relatives had lots of influence in the congregation. My response, probably not entirely Spirit-filled, was to remind him that church was more than a rocking worship band playing the latest contemporary songs, followed by a cleverly prepared, entertaining sermon. It also included the dirty work of confronting sin and leading people to reconciliation and a better future. It wasn’t the best pastor-to-pastor conversation I’ve had.

Let’s face it; the challenges faced in working with troubled individuals, and the often-unachievable expectations confronting pastors, are enormous. We can never do all that needs to be done. We are busy with preaching, teaching, counseling, committee and board meetings, hospital visits, funerals, weddings, and perhaps home visits. I once answered a business man who asked me how my “business” was doing: “I’m in a growth industry. I deal with sin, and every time another person is born, there is more sin to deal with. I will never be out of work.”

[To be continued …]


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