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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That Strong and Forcible Word

In the wake of my reflections on Obamacare, ministerial authority, and Christian liberty, I have been involved in several conversations about the authority of preaching—does the minister speak the words of God from the pulpit, or the words of man about the Word of God?  This, it turns out (like almost every issue I find myself wrestling with, it seems), was one of the many matters debated between Hooker and the Elizabethan Puritans.  So highly did they exalt the Word preached, implying that the Word only became living and active in the mouth of the preacher thought Hooker, that they risked derogating from the authority of the written Scriptures and attributing divine authority to human instruments, much like the Roman Catholics.  Perhaps a fully-formed discussion of this topic will follow in due course—for now, a remarkably pithy statement on this matter from William Covell’s Just and Temperate Defence of the five books of ecclesiastical policy written by M. Richard Hooker:

Doctrines derived, exhortations deducted, interpretations agreeable are not the verie word of God, but that onely which is in the originall text, or truly translated, and yet we call those sermons, though improperly, the word of God. . . . The word that proceedeth from God (who is himself very truth and life) should be . . . lively and mighty in operation, sharper than any two edged sword. Now to make our sermons that strong and forcible word is to impart the most peculiar glory of the word of God unto that which is not his word. For touching our sermons, that which giveth them their very being is the will of man and therefore they oftentimes accordingly tast too much of that over corrupt fountaine from which they come. For even the best of our sermons (and in sermons there is an infinite difference) howsoever they oftentimes have a singular blessing and that the scripture, the pure word of God, is the text and ground of the speech, yet the rest of the discourse, which is sometimes two or three houres long (a time too long for most preachers to speake pertinently), is but the paraphrasticall inlarging of the same text, together with those fit exhortations and applications, which the learning of the preacher is able to furnish himselfe withal and his discretion shall thinke fit for that auditory to which he speaketh. And, therefore . . . to make even the best sermons equall to the scripture must be in apparant reason a great wrong to that which is immediately God’s own word, whereunto, though the best preach agreeably, yet the sermons of none, since the apostles’ time, are or ought to be esteemed of equal authority with the holy scripture.”


A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.

 

Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.

 

Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)