Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That (VI)
The late John Leith has written a book that should be placed in the hands of every seminary president, professor; every pastor; and every man and women in the proverbial pew. We’ve been discussing his work Crisis in the Church in five of our previous installments. In this one we want to go a step farther and listen to Leith as he directs our attention to what he calls the “Loss of the Ability of Seminaries to Educate Graduates Who are Effective Pastors.” To some, this might not appear to be a crisis at all since we have become quite accustomed to a sharp division between what takes place in academia and in the pulpit.
Carl Trueman provides an interesting and revealing scenario in his article, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” (As usual, it sounds like Trueman is writing another edifying article! Actually, despite the reality that Trueman should probably be in psychotherapy, he does make some excellent points.) He asks us to take a close look at our own aspirations and then comments that in many chats with theological students (and Trueman teaches at a conservative seminary) where he asks them what they intend to do once they complete their seminary degree, he writes this: “Many say they think they will enjoy teaching RE (Religious Education—RG), some say that they are looking forward to doing research. Very few say, in the first instance, they want to serve the church.”
That last sentence is worthy of a lot of reflection. Isn’t it more than just a little ironic that modern seminary students have such an attitude? What has occurred at both the seminary and congregational levels that has created such an attitude among some young men? I suppose that in one sense the culture could be blamed for this type of attitude, but are our seminaries and local churches so ineffective that they cannot combat such an unbiblical, pernicious attitude among its ministerial candidates? If service to the church is not a top priority what is?
Trueman muses: “…is it not significant that their first reaction is not to express themselves in terms of service but in terms of personal satisfaction?” Yes it is. Where does this begin? In the home? Probably. Where is this attitude perpetuated? In the local church? In many cases, yes. Do a large number of seminaries or church planting organizations aid or correct this attitude? Arguably, they aid it. Trueman is convinced that “It is faithfulness, not happiness or worldly reputation, which is the criterion of Christian success.” For a man who needs therapy he is right on the money. And yet that is precisely what seems to be lacking—severely—in the prevalent attitudes at some of our prestigious seminaries and churches.
What is needed, in my estimation, are successful pastors, but then I define “successful” as those who week-in and week-out faithfully exposit Scripture, teach classes and feed their flocks by building them up in the true faith, visit the “chronics” and the “acutes” in the hospital, visit the elderly and shut-ins, and administer the meetings in their local congregation. Doesn’t that sound exciting and appealing? Actually, it does to someone who actually is convinced that God has called him into the pastoral ministry. The Greek word that we translate “pastor” (poiménas) refers to a shepherd.
The shepherd shepherds his flock, keeps the sheep in order, directs them where to go and where to feed, brings them back to the fold, looks after their safety and guards them against enemies that want to attack them. In short, a pastor has little to do with being a professional, a CEO, a charismatic speaker or personality. A pastor is a man who is given charge of souls (Heb. 13:17). He is the God-ordained guardian, custodian, protector, organizers, director, and ruler of the flock of God along with his fellow-Elders.
This could very well mean that the Lord God Almighty will place such a shepherd in a remote area of the country to pastor the body of Christ there. And it might furthermore mean that God will leave that pastor there for “the duration.” That’s right. The pastor may think of the call as a “temporary” thing or a “springboard” to a lucrative salary at a church where his gifts and talents will lend themselves to a meteoric rise to being a “Christian celebrity,” but God might have some very different plans and some very different spiritual lessons for that pastor to learn.
Allow me a couple of examples that I believe the “near-psychopath” Trueman is talking about. A couple of vivid examples stand out in my mind. About eight years ago a man and his wife approached my congregation asking if they could come, teach a Sunday School class, and discuss with our Session the possibility of financial support for mission work. We said yes. They came and in the course of the Sunday School class the man kept reiterating that what their “mission work” would consist of—primarily—was “ministering” to the affluent in Acapulco. To that end, they had both been taking serious tennis lessons in order to witness on the courts and in the villas. Before they could embark on this self-sacrificing work they needed to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 (which is more than I make a month!) to carry them through three years of ministry. (For those who have attended public schools, that is more than $100K per year.)
My own denomination sponsors “select” church planters who pass our “assessment center” and the scenario is much like the one above in terms of dollar amounts. The situation is further negatively complicated by the fact that these young pastors have no Elder to help them make the wide variety of decisions that church planting and church leadership demand. They are “the show.” Don’t get me wrong: I am not opposed to church planting (my home church is helping plant three churches currently) nor am I opposed to planting churches in large, metropolitan cities like Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, San Fran, LA, Hollywood, or New York. There is a need to witness in those cities too, but not at the expense of rural out-of-the-way settings. The point here is that before our candidates for the pastoral ministry arrive at seminary they must be fully catechized, thoroughly familiar with English Bible content, and committed to serve Christ’s Church whether he calls them to some trendy, opulent area in Southern California or some “vanilla” place in Southern Iowa.
Stating the Obvious
It has been a while since a seminary professor—any seminary professor—has penned the words that both Leith and Trueman affirm. Apparently, no one was willing to admit that the emperor was wearing no clothes. In Leith’s denomination—the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.—things had been going south for a long time. He reminds us that church membership was on the decline, leaving the seminaries to face the question of whether or not they were “educating people with the ability to go out and build churches.” The seminaries were not all that anxious to answer that question primarily because of self-serving reasons, but the clear and unavoidable answer was a resounding, deafening No! Many of the Presbyterian seminaries with which Leith was acquainted consisted of “faculties made up almost exclusively of persons who have no distinguished record as pastors.” Do you notice a pattern developing here?
As if that statement, admission were not abrasive enough, Leith proceeds to touch on one of the “sacred cows” of modern evangelicalism: women in ministry. Ironically, some in the Presbyterian Church in America (as far as I can tell this is still a minority), my church affiliation, are also dabbling into the arena of “women’s ministry.” This is a classic case of history teaching us nothing. It is akin to the far Left in this country wanting to foist universal healthcare on us. Sure, it has been a dismal failure in all of the other countries throughout the world where it was implemented, but for us it will be different—at any rate, that is the argument. We’ll somehow do it better. With the necessary changes being made (I think our forebears used the Latin phrase mutatis mutandis. You can bet your modus agenda and modus loquendi on that.), we’re seeing something quite similar in the PCA today. In fact, at our recent General Assembly, one of our churches withdrew over the matter of ordaining women to the office of Elder. One can only wonder when and if others will follow suit.
But back to Leith: he desires to make the following disclosure about what occurred—and is still occurring in his denomination: “The significant increase in the number of women in the ministry is no adequate answer to the decline of men. Gender does affect the work of the minister. No ideological commitments can nullify the significance of gender differences in the work of a pastor of a church…. Unity in Christ does not erase the stubborn facts of class, of culture, of gender, and of age that is embedded in the very physical constitution of human beings.” What Leith clearly observed in the push for women’s ordination in the PCUSA was not scriptural evidence, but the driving force of a particular ideology. In the Preface to his book Leith wrote, “I have…become convinced that the left wing is a greater menace to the health of the Christian community than the right wing was prior to 1960. Certainly, the left wing is more, not less, ruthless in imposing its will on the church.” This statement by Leith is simply a variation on “the-iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove” (or in Rob Bell’s case “in-the-velvet-Elvis) motif.
There are parallel lines that can be drawn from the inclusion of women in positions of ecclesiastical authority and the exodus of men from the Church. He writes, “The decline of men in the ministry parallels the declining numbers of men in church membership and the decline in the number of men on every level of governing bodies and on church boards.” No one wants to admit this, but it is patently true—ideology aside.
Moreover, as Leith describes in his book, there was/is an “agenda” at work in the PCUSA. Really? Do you think so? It is not as if discussions surrounding, say, homosexuality, female ordination, and other questions of morality simply fall from the sky. Dave Shiflett meticulously chronicles the insidious nature of how these various issues infiltrate into the Church. There is a clear, calculated plan that contains a mechanism “by which Scriptural admonitions are neutralized.” Shiflett fleshes out what he means with the following analysis:
The process is quite simple. Step one is to find a passage in the Old Testament that is startling in its brutality—cutting off limbs, executing unruly children, and stoning women are popular choices. Step two is to find the New Testament passage one wants to undermine—in this case, passages critical of homosexuality, and before that admonitions against divorce and remarriage and female ordination. Step three is to insist that if one is indeed taking one’s cues from the bible, then one must take the book all in all. Ergo: opposing homosexuality is no less extreme that stoning annoying children. The Old Testament thus neutralizes the New and leaves wide the way for the substitute virtues, such as tolerance, inclusion, and the insistence that sexual behavior traditionally considered sinful is to be considered morally co-equal with heterosexual monogamy.
One Episcopal genius, The Rev. Robert G. Hertherington delivered a sermon to his congregation where he explained that the problem with Paul and his colleagues was that they didn’t fully understand what it was they were condemning. Even writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his colleagues just couldn’t seem to get it right. It takes a Robert G. Hertherington two millennia later to set the record straight. What unmitigated arrogance!
My own denomination—for reasons I cannot even begin to comprehend—still has voices in favor of women in combat. Clearly, this is an ideological agenda since it has no support in Scripture. At our recent General Assembly as a motion was made to accept the position of the NAPARC organization against women in combat I was surprised at the voting cards raised as dissenting votes. I certainly hope that these cards were raised by men who had never served in the military or served in actual combat situations. As a good friend of mine recently told me—he’s a retired COL in the Marine Corps—the most difficult thing he had to teach his platoon in Vietnam was when one of their comrades fell in battle they were not to go back and get him right then. It’s an unnatural thing not to help, but in the heat of combat it can result is substantially more casualties. Now multiply that by a woman falling in combat. Moreover, it’s simply morally complicated in more ways than can be explained now.
The upshot of Leith’s warning is this: modern Christians seem impervious because of ideological reasons to the undermining of Scripture. In their apathy, they have become almost more credulous than their medieval counterparts. Touching on the sad state in modern evangelicalism, Carl Trueman again writes, “Think truncated thoughts about God and you’ll get a truncated God; read an expurgated Bible and you get an expurgated theology; sing mindless, superficial rubbish instead of deep, truly emotional praise and you will eventually become what you sing.” True. It’s happened before and it can still happen today. In fact, a strong case can be made that what Leith warns us about has already entered into Bible-believing churches by the front door.
It would be easy to become jaded in such an environment—very easy. The over-arching caveat is, however, that God is sovereign and that he remains in control. I believe that there is great hope for the Church of Jesus Christ to get back on track. Rather than looking for revival, I’m looking first and foremost for reformation. No real revival can honestly be expected until each local church reforms itself according to the Word of God. What we are facing now has been faced before. There is absolutely no need to be either desperate or despondent. But there is a crying need for reformation at both the seminary and congregational levels.
Seminaries must make an effort to offer courses that will educate graduates to become—humanly speaking—effective pastors, first and foremost. Local congregations must remain in close contact with seminaries and provide them with feedback about how well trained and equipped the seminary graduates are to be effective pastors of God’s flock. Candidates for the pastoral ministry must regain a desire to serve Christ’s Church and not themselves or their advancement. We must learn the lesson over and over again that it is not about us, our little kingdoms, and our empires, but about him. And it is certainly within the purview of local congregations to begin to prepare young men for leadership in the Church, either as Ruling Elders and Deacons or as Teaching Elders (pastors). This must include a thorough knowledge of the catechism (Westminster Shorter Catechism or Heidelberg Catechism), comprehensive English Bible content, and true biblical piety.
 John Leith, Crisis in the Church, The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
 Ibid., 21.
 Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin, Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism, (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), p. 161. Emphasis mine.
 Leith, CC, 22.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., x. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 23.
 Dave Shiflett, Exodus, Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity, (NY: Sentinel, 2005), p. 12.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 13.
 Trueman, TWS, 168.