Editors note: This is the final of a three part series the previous posts can be found here and here.
When a Puritan minister ascended to the pulpit it was heavy with intent. He was a dying man preaching to dying men from behind, “The Sacred Desk.” Preaching was no light matter, they came to their congregations with a word from the Lord. Gravity would be the operative word.
Though not grave or morose, it was understood that this was a serious job for serious men. Richard Baxter opened one particular sermon with an aside to the ignorant or careless listener/reader wherein they were entreated to engage with sober consideration what he was preaching.
Now depending on who you are the preceding two paragraphs elicited probably one of three possible reactions. 1. Excitement, “this is how it is done” you thought and started thinking fondly of your Banner of Truth account. 2. Exasperation, “here we go again” and began thinking of another uptight Calvinist who doesn’t care about peoples feelings. 3. Disinterest, “I am not a preacher, I have no interest in preaching” you would rather read something else.
To the third person, thank you for stoping by. We appreciate your being here but understand if this article is not your cup of tea. Perhaps you would enjoy another article, like this one on cigars whiskey and Calvinism. But for either of the other two, thank you for your responses you have really teed up the ball for me excellent work.
The common assumption is that a pastor can either be theologically rigorous, or pastoral. He can either preach solid (if dull) Reformed sermons or he can encourage and comfort saints. It is presumed that there is a natural dichotomy between “Preachers” and “Pastors” one who loves theology and one who loves people.
How we got here is a subject of great debate, many have taken a crack at this particular chestnut. And I am not going to presume to give the authoritative answer. Outside of sin. But sin comes in many flavors and I want to bring one of those particulars to light and suggest how to mortify it.
My goal here is not to kick any faithful pastor, or to suggest that if you, dear reader, disagree with your pastor on some issue of theology that he has no good reasons for holding his position. Rather I am attempting to be an equal opportunity exhorter. Last week I took a few cracks at the young arrogant man who possess a little knowledge, has gotten puffed up, and is looking to to kneecap the man of God who has charge over his soul. To possess knowledge should not preclude being a man of grace. A young man who has read more theology books than his elder can still be intellectually lazy as he fails to apply his learning and become Christlike.
With this consideration in place let us return to the observation leveled at men of the church by John Erskine:
“In the Middle Ages the theologians carried the art of thinking further than any other group of men… but theology of any kind is now somewhat neglected, and the Church is not primarily concerned with teaching men to think. Unless we are a lawyer or a scientist we develop our heart and neglect our mind. Our heart is considered fully developed when our emotions are so strong that intellectual processes are for us impossible.” – John Erskine (emphasis added)
Erskine is addressing himself to the common man, or in a church context, the man in the pew. Very often congregants perfectly fit his charge. They are considered mature christians when their emotions are strong but their intellectual processes are impossible. I have personally lost track of the number of times I have clashed against a fellow member of my church and the chasm between us was widened by the distance between an objective truth and a felt need. I have frequently found myself wanting to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” But doing so would not resolve the issue, as I have said the truth must be communicated with grace. This requires closeness, friendship, the person knowing that even while you disagree with them you are still for them. The process takes time, and is certainly part of Paul’s instruction to “Spur one another on.” And yet…
You will notice where Erskine, I think rightly, places the fons et origo. Pastors are to teach and I would argue that it is simply not happening in our churches today. Even in our reformed circles, the proof is in the pudding.
The Command to Teach
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, Ephesians 4:11-12
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 1 Timothy 3:2
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17
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 2:15
He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. Titus 1:9
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1
I know the last one can seem the odd man out but I included it to elevate the seriousness of teaching. What if we truly took teaching the truth of the Word of God so seriously that our seminaries prided themselves on their drop out rates instead of high enrollment. Let us consider, would it be so bad if we had less church buildings but the congregations in the ones standing were, to a man, intellectual, theological, and spiritual giants. What if we valued the knowledge of The Truth (Christ himself John 14:6) over programing? The church should be primarily concerned with teaching men to think.
And it is here that the conflict arises. Teaching men to think can seem cruel. It strike many of us wrong that a pastor should in any way condemn a person. If pushed most would say he should condemn sin. But we live in a world where people are identified by their sins, by their idolatries. For a short while it was popular to call out young men for laziness, but that has since been shut down and I can not remember the last time I heard a sermon on immodesty. To do so would be considered shaming someone. And these days shaming someone (unless it is over a politically unpopular stance in which case the gloves come off) is considered more sinful than satan himself.
There has been a play run on the church. We have pastors with their hands tied. Perhaps it is the speed of the world in that a preacher can wake up Monday morning to a full and angry inbox of people who all consider themselves experts due to their internet informed theology. And J.C. Ryle, for example, had the advantage or requiring people to meet him face to face, at his office, during the office hours, probably later in the week. Or Bunyan really only had to worry about the critics with badges and shackles. Bunyan had obvious restraints placed on him. But today’s preachers (American 2020) have allowed their own fetters by catering to acceptable society, under the guise of being loving or “all things to all people”. The occasional sermon might rock the boat a little, but as of late it usually tends to rock toward the port side. One Anglican once commented, “Wherever the Apostle Paul went there was either a riot or a revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.”
Churches must be taught, teaching a child does not mean the children are always happy. Discipline is required, lessons must be learned. The Man of God is called to teach and he must do so faithfully in season and out. A loving pastor does not lie to his congregation, he grows them a thick theological skin. He trains them to think for themselves so that when the rebuke comes from the pulpit it is considered and received.
The phrase teaching men to think can be misunderstood. It could be objected that the role of the pastor, and his congregation by extension, should seek only to preach Christ and Him crucified. Which I would agree with. I am not trying stop set one against another. I am arguing that one naturally follows the other. If Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Then what should flow from that is rigorous intellectualism. When the Word is preached men’s minds should be expanded. They should marvel at the glories of God but those glories should not terminate in the moment. It should be meditated on, reflected, considered, thought through, and applied. The ability know truth and to reason from it begins in Scripture. And from that font all understanding flows. Here Herman Bavinck is enlightening:
“All intellectual knowledge begins with sense perception. To acquire knowledge, Scripture refers man not to his own reason but to God’s revelation in all his works. Lift up your eyes, and see the one who has created all things; [lift them up] to the teaching and the testimony; otherwise they shall perish. Whoever rejects the word of the Lord cannot have wisdom. The truth of empiricism: being is a reality to which sense perception of the subject corresponds.” – Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview
God reveals Himself in Scripture and from that firm foundation we reason, we think, we learn how to rightly view all of creation. But this does not come devoid of the ability to logically and rationally follow the revelation of God. I sometimes wonder if topical sermon series are a result of the failure of pastors to teach their congregation how to think. In a sense they are teaching their people to cheat by skipping that hard work of thinking and just waiting for the pastor to get around to (or directing them to previously recorded sermons) giving the answers to current questions. If I may muse a bit further, how many pastors not having built in their people a Christian Worldview have fallen into the error of constantly having to address what seems currently pressing, or has been slap dash labeled, “A gospel issue” and what gets lost is the consistent balanced preaching of the Word.
“The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers when there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” – C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters
The Jewel Observed
No one exemplified teaching men to think, to having a Christian Worldview, like the Puritans. To a Puritan pastor every text of Scripture was akin to a precious jewel in the hands of a jeweler.* They would hold it up to the light and examine and scrutinize it, then turn it slightly to explore the next facet in the same detail. They taught their parishioners to do the same. In a typical Puritan family the father would transcribe the Sunday sermon, then discuss it with his family that day over dinner. Later in the week the sermon would be re-read aloud, rediscussed, and applied. It was understood that a sermon was to be more than considered in the moment then forgotten by the parking lot. It was to be mulled over, integrated into the lives of the hearers. Puritan pastors taught to teach and to “stir the affections.” to them a moving sermon cam from the truth of the text they were preaching and how that objective truth stirred the congregation to change their lives.
Puritan pastors sought to lead people to salvation but that meant that they could not remain ignorant once they had been introduced to The Truth.
Knowledge in a natural man’s head is like a torch in a dead man’s hand. True knowledge animates. A Godly man is like John the Baptist, a burning and a shining lamp. – Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture
True knowledge of Christ brings us from death to life. But life, especially eternal life, involves more than just existence. It is not fire insurance. It is as J.I. Packer titled it, “Knowing God” or if I can put my own spin on it, knowing truth. This requires the engagement of the brain. We must think and we must be taught to think. Here Richard Baxter is most helpful.
We must use all the means we can to instruct the ignorant in the matters of their salvation; by our own most plain familiar words; by giving or lending, or otherwise helping them to books that are fit for them; by persuading them to learn catechisms. – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor
If I may suggest to pastors, a college degree does not make an educated congregant. Simply because a man is learned in the disciplines of his own field does not mean he has plumbed the depths of fealty to Christ. The ignorant can have graduated summa cum laude and and still be ignorant. Confidence in a wide range of opinions does not a Christian of understanding make.
To Expound on Baxter
There are three things Baxter points to that deserve our consideration for a pastor to adopt.
1. “Instruct by our own most plain familiar words.” Plain vocabulary is not hard to come by in sermons today. Yet plain truth is. Pulled punches, death by preface, obfuscate the truth because of fear from “felt needs.” Instruction is clear, and direct. Lying to a congregation is not loving. Sin is sin if the weight of it is never felt, if the man is never broken over his own depravity he will never see the glory of Christ. Instruct the commands of Christ as commands. Preach the law so that it becomes like honey on their lips
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. – Psalm 19:7-11
A congregation that despises the law of God will despise their pastor and will despise God. Instruct men how to think. To work our their salvation.
2. “By giving or lending, or otherwise helping them to books that are fit for them” Get good books in their hands. Recommend them from the pulpit,** give books away, sell them at cost from a table after services. Give reading lists, introduce them to good theologians. Learn what your people are reading and if a bad theology (ex. Jesus Calling) begins to grow in your church correct from the pulpit and direct them to better books (ex. Morning and Evening). Typically a reading church is a strong church.
3. “Persuading them to learn catechisms.” Rote learning is the beginning of all learning. Until the foundation is laid nothing can be built. Westminster, Luther’s Small, 1689 Baptist, New City are all readily available catechisms. Dear pastor why would you not want your people to know and be conversant on the very basics of what you all claim to believe? Memorization is work, but simply because a thing is hard does not mean it is bad. If you do not catechize your people in the basics of the faith they will be catechized in the ways of the world. Set forth a question every Sunday in your liturgy with a response. Give them to new parents. Persuade your parishioners to catechize their children and to be catechized themselves.
One Last Objection
I began by highlighting the apparent opposite routes a pastor may take, being warm and pastoral or being a theologically rigorous preacher. And have leaned heavily on the Puritans to help make my points. And the objection may be raised that they were in a meaner context and men are different today. I disagree, men at all points of history are sinners, and the Gospel is the same yesterday, today, and for always. The Puritans were hated for their fidelity to the Gospel, and yet they stood firm and they also were a perfect example for todays pastors in not giving an inch intellectually but also loving their congregations with tears. They loved their people so much that many died for them. The characature of the cold hard puritan is exactly that a lie. It is because many of our pastors and theologians have failed to read our histories, and biographies, and those who have come before us (and I man read not cherry pick a sermon for quotes) that we have failed to let the “clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” and our churches that we create the binary of the loving or the intelligent pastor. If you doubt this try it. Take Baxter’s advice and read for yourself. Read Bunyan and see how he pleads with men to come and be welcomed to Jesus Christ. Read the sermons of the Great Ejection and observe how men served there people until they were forced out. And though it might be considered cheating since he was not a Puritan read Spurgeon. Read how he wielded both his sword and trowel to cut down sins in his church and built up the saints under his charge.
Teaching men to think is work, but it is necessary. The common assumption is that church members are in constant need of comforting or coddling. And sadly that may be the current situation, but I would argue it is directly a result of a years long, cross denominational misnsterail malpractice of comforting and coddling when what was really required was gospel preaching that struck them like Ardbeg straight from the cask. As Lewis highlights:
“Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going tell you… They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?” C.S. Lewis, Beyond Personality Chapter 1
Do not think your congregation full of fools. Challenge them, teach them to think. The work will be hard, but dear pastor why did you go into the ministry of word and sacramnet if you were not willing to wage war? Again Richard Baxter:
“To bring them into higher and stricter opinions, is very easy; that is, to bring them from the truth into error, on the right hands well as on the left: but to increase their knowledge and gifts is not easy” – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor
Take your people beyond the opinions and fads of the day. Teach them truth, and how to think in that truth. Cease believing the lie that you must be one or the other, letting a parishioner continue in sin for the sake of his feelings is neither loving or kind. Do not settle for an intellectually lazy congregation.
*I stole this description from either Mark Dever or J.I. Packer I can’t remember which but don’t quote me on it.
**In the future I hope to expand on this topic. Obviously.