The Perilous Business of Pastoring

I am grateful to Doug Wilson for his thoughtful response to my post yesterday on the matter of binding consciences. It offered a good opportunity, I think, to move the conversation forward in clarifying the central issues at stake, both for the purposes of the present kerfluffle and any others that might arise. I agree with almost everything he has to say at the level of principle, and my only concerns lie with how one might apply these principles to particular issues of controversial preaching and teaching.

But first, let me clear up two possible confusions.

First, let the record show that my essay was not intended primarily as “a contribution to the great pink hair discussion,” so much as an attempt to clarify some principles that underlie both it and a number of other discussions ongoing at Trinity Reformed Church about preaching, good hermeneutics, conscience binding, and Christian liberty. For myself, I must confess, I am probably a 9 out of 10 on the troglodyte scale when it comes to matters such as pink hair, piercings, yoga pants, and the rest, and were I a pastor, I would no doubt have to be restrained often by my dear wife from venting my huffy opinions on such subjects. That she ought to so restrain me, more often than not, I will proceed to fortify with arguments below. Read More


On Binding Consciences: The Word of God and the Words of Man

It’s tough being a pastor. I know because I’ve never dared try, but I’ve watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised—he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture.

Nor can the pastor take refuge in saying that his task is simply to proclaim the gospel. For the good news is, as Oliver O’Donovan has said, a “demanding comfort,”[1] and the task of pastoring means knowing how to apply both demand and comfort to the concrete lives of his flock, which will necessarily take the pastor beyond Scripture—if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address modern challenges like home mortgages or legalized gay marriage as such—obviously, it does address debt and sexuality, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

Or to put it another way: one task of the pastor is to name and confront sin in the lives of his congregants, but while sin resides in the heart, all he has to go on is behavior. In a few rare cases, a behavior is so unavoidably and automatically sinful that he does not have to see the heart to name it as sin; there is no innocent way to murder or commit fornication. But even here, some knowledge of circumstances is necessary—after all, if the man with the gun is an officer pursuing a dangerous criminal, he may not be guilty of murder, and if the man making love with the woman has secretly married her, it is not fornication. As we move beyond such non-negotiable norms as murder and adultery, these qualifications proliferate, so that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends greatly on circumstances, or intentions, or both. To be sure, Jesus says that “You shall know them by their fruit,” and someone’s outward actions may strongly suggest that something is not right within, but even where we feel reasonably confident making this judgment in the case of one individual we know well, it becomes much harder to universalize it. And when a pastor preaches or writes, he must name and rebuke sins in general; he cannot pause mid-sermon and say, “Now, in your case, Jimmy, this means that you are sinning whenever you do this, but given your different circumstances, Tammi, I’m not worried about your conduct here.”

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The Benedict Mandate and the Need for Faithful Presence

41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a refreshingly honest moment on page 142 of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher quotes Leah Libresco Sargent saying,

“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, “Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve never in my life heard the word koan before, this captures my ambivalence about Rod Dreher’s blockbuster new book better than anything. With all the buzz surrounding the book, I opened my review copy with some excitement and trepidation, but the more I kept reading, the more mystified I became what all the fuss was about. Fans and foes alike seemed to been taken in by the publishing event into thinking that something earthshaking was afoot.

But when you look at the forty-seven (or forty-three) concrete proposals that make up Dreher’s blueprint for the Benedict Option, you find instead a primer on thoughtful Christian discipleship. Dreher encourages churches to pay attention to their history, relearn liturgical rhythms, work together with other local congregations, and try to live as real communities. He encourages parents to put God at the center of their families’ lives, enforce moral norms, and think about who their kids are hanging out with. He proclaims the importance of Christian education, of Christian sexual morality, and of a Christian sense of work as vocation. In light of proposals such as these, one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book. Not only are most of these proposals simply mere Christianity, but a good number are mere common sense (for instance, “Think about your kids’ peer groups”; “don’t give your kids smartphones”; “don’t use social media in worship”; “fight pornography aggressively”). Now, to be sure, just because something is common sense does not mean it is necessarily common; in a world gone mad, stating the obvious can come across as revolutionary. But I really do think we all need to settle down and realize how ordinary and obvious most of the proposals in The Benedict Option really are.

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Letter to a Christian Climate Skeptic

 

Dear Incertus,

In your last communication, you offered three main reasons for your reflexive skepticism about climate change. As each of these reasons, in my experience, reflects deep-seated suspicions and doubts among many American Christians on this issue, I wanted to take some time to address each of them at some length, before touching on a fourth point that I think is much misunderstood and should be given serious weight.

Objection 1: The Science is All Political

You said that much of what passes for science on this issue is politics, or at any rate heavily politicized. I think several things can be said in response to this.

First is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like, “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue right off the bat. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good. Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there science-wise—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politics-wise. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly. Read More


How (Not) to Have a Foot in Both Kingdoms: Protestant Models for Christian Citizenship

The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).

 

Life Between Two Loyalties

From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.

Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves.[1] Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[2]

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