Posted on Thursday, May 21, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Paul Helm has an interesting piece critiquing the critics of megapastordom over at his blog, Helm’s Deep.

Three things require a brief response.  First, it is clear that Paul does not understand how discipline in a Presbyterian context should work.  In actual fact, disciplinary charges need not be made public to the whole church unless the offence being charged is itself a public offence (i.e., already widely known to the congregation -- in which case, the problem of suspicion and the presumption of guilt is really a matter of fallen human nature, not the structure of the polity).   In my experience in such discipline cases involving sins known only to a few (i.e. those having the legal status of private offences), confidentiality among the elders (which connects to how Presbyterians understand 'church' in Matthew 18) has been maintained – but even if it had not, that would then be a failure caused by human nature, not a structural fault of the system itself.

Second, while I cannot speak for other critics of the Mighty Men (my preferred term is Top Men), my own concern has not been so much for the egotism etc. (though that can certainly be a problem) as it is for the manner in which such Top Men are received by their followers and the way their churches are viewed as normative aspirational models.  It may not be their intention to become normative role models (and thus to set unrealistic expectations for the ministry which today’s students anticipate) but that is what happens when they are so carefully and attractively marketed as such.   Paul does not address this issue, which is for me, as a teacher of future pastors, the central concern with the celebrity pastor problem.

Third, Paul’s comments are prefaced by his observation that the debate is not taking place because the critics are not engaging the other side.  On the contrary, the problem is that the Top Men and their followers have adamantly refused to engage the critics.  We have been dismissed, blacklisted and bullied.  When I first raised the issue, I was summoned to a phone conference with a Top Man who told me that I simply needed to shut up as his organization had no intention of acting on any of my criticisms (except, if I remember, the removal of the term 'VIP seating' at their conferences), a point which he and his assistants have since reinforced by email on a number of occasions.  Then, when we critics have been proved correct (as in the case of Mark Driscoll) we have still either been ignored or accused of being ‘smug’ simply because we then pointed out to those who were crying 'Somebody should have spoken up!’ that, well, yes, some of us did speak up and that the belatedly wise were at the forefront of dismissing our criticisms as the mean-spirited murmurings of mediocre also-rans.

Posted on Thursday, May 14, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

While Aimee was off not doing stairs and trying to become a female Bond villain, on Tuesday the rest of Team Spin was refreshing the parts ot the theological world which other, more transformational, evangelical organizations cannot reach. 

Day Two of the Yale seminar was somewhat more sedate than Day One.  It involved five discussions: Michal Beth Dinkler, professor at YDS,  spoke about her experiences as a youth leader in a megachurch; Charlie Dunn, Seth Jones, and Michael Walker spoke about life at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, which has just left the PCUSA for ECO; John Hare, professor at YDS, spoke about moral authority and the church growth movement; Steven Harris, a YDS student, former Capitol Hill Baptist intern and African American pastor, spoke on congregation, community, and growth; and Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor at Wheaton, led the final discussion of the day on ministry and academy.

Two things were particularly noteworthy.  First, Steven Harris’s adamant refusal, in the face of some pressure from the floor, to make the gospel into social activism.  He was simply (and rightly) unwilling to be the African American pastor some in the group wanted him to be.  He argued for the social work he has to do in his community as ‘an integral implication’ of the gospel and not as being the gospel itself.   That concept struck me as helpful, pointing to the necessary connection between gospel and action without collapsing the former into the latter.

Most intriguing, however, was John Hare’s paper.  He started by offering a dramatic thesis: when we no longer know how to justify the higher demands of our faith, we will subside into the lowest common denominators of our culture.’   Hare saw this in the rise of three basic secular values in the church: success, happiness, and prestige.  These are highly problematic as they lead to emphasis on size, emotionalism/entertainment, and the implicit competition of growth by redistribution (aka sheep stealing).

I need to reflect much longer on this analysis but it immediately made sense of something unexpected I noted on day one and which became apparent at various points in the week: the strange affinity between the evangelical megachurchism and liberal ecclesiology of some of those at the seminar.   Numerical size and therapeutic impact were central to both.   I had never noticed that affinity before but it was clearly there and needs explanation.  Hare’s approach seems to me at this point as plausible as any: the abandonment of scriptural authority in liberal circles and the tendency to identify what works with what is true in evangelical church methods are both vulnerable to his thesis.  Neither can justify the higher demands of the faith.  Both therefore tend to end up as replications of the wider culture in a Christian idiom.

A fascinating day of five excellent presentations.  One more report to follow.

Posted on Tuesday, May 12, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Todd and I are spending much of this week attending a private Church Leadership and Growth seminar at Yale Divinity School, organized by my old postgraduate friend, Bruce Gordon, the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History and co-editor with me of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Calvinism. The attendees are eclectic: Yale students, pastors from the PCUSA and ECO, and a number of YDS professors.  Plus the Spin Team, pulling for the PCA and the OPC.  Aimee was meant to be with us but the seminar room is on the second floor and her conference contract contains that notorious Mariah Carey-esque rider about ‘not doing stairs.’

Bruce was inspired to organize the seminar by an article in Christianity Today written by one of those pragmatic, number-crunchers types who passes for an expert in church planting these days.  I think the email he sent to invite us all was sent at 2-34am one morning. Suffice it to say, the article had touched one of Bruce's raw nerves.

On Monday, the YDS Dean, Gregory Sterling, led a discussion focused on the decline in church attendance in the West over recent decades, followed by Todd and myself speaking about local church ministry and the use of media.   In the process, I think I probably became the first person in many generations to speak against women’s ordination on campus.  Or at least to say such and live to return the next day.   A tense moment, for sure, but one followed by trenchant yet civil discussion.   It was encouraging to know that even in this day of highly polarized and emotional identity politics, there are still venues where those of strong opinions can still engage in argument without attacking the person.

It was interesting that Dr. Sterling’s paper assumed that decline in numbers was necessarily a bad sign for the church.   I am not sure that this is the case.   If, for example, church is ceasing to be a place where attendance enhances social prestige and where coffee times are used to broker business deals, then numbers will decline; But it is hard to argue that such a decline is in itself a bad thing.  It might actually witness to the fact the relationship between church and society is changing because of the fidelity of the church to her message and mission, not because she is failing in some catastrophic way.  

When Todd spoke of his experience as a youth pastor in a megachurch, he told of the target quotas for attendance etc. which he had to achieve and that seemed to rest upon precisely the same assumption, that size is a gauge of fidelity, or perhaps (even worse) that size is fidelity.

It struck me as interesting that, for all of their material differences, both the megachurch world and the theological left seem rooted in a similar pragmatism when it comes to church and growth: Numerical growth is necessarily good and numerical decline is necessarily bad; And that the cause is the failure of the church to adapt her message or her methods to the questions, demands, and frameworks of the world around.

This is set to be a fascinating seminar week.  More reports to follow.  Now, if only Aimee 'did stairs'....

 

 

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

At our recording session last week, la Diva was complaining in a loud, if not stentorian, voice that the Alliance doesn't promote her like other more prestigious outfits promote their famous housewife theologians, complete with snazzy photo shoots and respectful interviews.  Soooo... the Puppet Master spared no expense and arranged our own glossy professional photo session for our favourite Prima Donna -- although the final result was, errm, I believe the term is 'photobombed' by a certain Mad Woman on the run from the attic.  Thus, TMWITA's identity is finally revealed.  Or not.

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Of all the advantages of creeds and confessions, the most neglected and yet one of the most important is the element of protest.  Forgive me indulging my Bannermania once again, but The Ecclesiologist puts it this way:

‘In its office to those that are without its pale, it is the duty of the Church, as the witness and protest for truth against the error and unbelief of the world, to frame and exhibit a public confession of its faith.’ (Church of Christ, 317)

Typically, we think of confessions as internal documents, with primary reference to believers.  Yet Bannerman rightly sees them also as being matters of external consequence.  Not only do they identify the church in the public sphere, confessions also give precise and clear expression to the nature of the protest which the Church makes against the beliefs and practices of the wider world.  

This is a point we do well to internalize at this moment in time.  As Todd Pruitt indicated last week, there are those even within the Church who always seem to think the real problem is the church.  That is so often a lazy response, right-on and cool, full of sound and fury but really signifiying nothing.  Long ago, Camille Paglia pointed to the perennial tendency of Christians to read everything, especially the sexual revolution, through a comfy, middle-class lens and to fail to appreciate the radical nature of what drives the overthrow of traditional Christian moral norms.  The naivete of such approaches belies their superficial sophistication, is no respecter of whether you live in the suburbs or the city, and is as foolishly paternalistic and patronizing as ever.  But it is scarcely surprising.   The tendency to assume the basic integrity of non-Christians while selectively hammering the Christian church, has for many generations  been the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of Christian who combines a knowledge of all the answers to our problems today with an Oedipus Complex about the fathers in the faith.

It is not surprising that to such the idea of confessions is problematic, for to them the idea of protest on any terms other than those which the world sets is also problematic.  And, of course, to protest on such terms is not really to protest at all.  It is at best to position oneself above the fray, at worst to join the world in its opposition to the church.

The revival of interest in confessions over the last decade seems to have been preparing us for the times in which we now live.   Those who are not protesting will not be distinctive and will vanish into the cultural fog.  Those who have no confession robust enough to provide an ecclesiastical foundation for a protest rooted in the whole counsel of God will not stand.  Those who have not the institutional fortitude to hold fast to their confessions will be, to quote the famous words of those great American theologians, Kansas,  'dust in the wind.'

Posted on Friday, April 24, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

On Wednesday night, Banner of Truth and Westminster Bookstore finally launched the new edition of Bannerman. Patman from Banner HQ was there in the Bannermobile.  Benny was absent due to illness but the Jets turned up to man the bookstall (yes, we still 'man' things at Westminster). Even the Mad Woman in the Attic was seen lurking in the shadows and was recognized as such by at least one attendee – indicating that it is her evident madness, not her location in the attic, which is her most characteristic feature.

Three of us gave talks. Dave Garner, my WTS colleague chaired the short lectures and the subsequent panel discussion. I spoke on Bannerman on church power and confession as protest.  Jonathan Leeman, of Nine Marks Ministries, addressed the importance of the church as an institution in an anti-institutional age and suggested that polity was both a highly important and much neglected topic among evangelicals – and yet is vital to the church’s health.  Then Nathan Sasser, of Sovereign Grace Ministries, gave a very personal account of his involvement in the development of polity in that organization before launching into a passionate, funny and compelling plea for Baptists at least to adopt Presbyterian polity.   It was a polemic for the ages.  I could have said it but nobody would have listened because the reaction would have been, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies, ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ That a Credo-Baptist said it was truly magnificent. That he is a former student of mine made me glad to see that he is now not far from the kingdom of heaven.

All three of us agreed on some key fundamentals.  The church is an act of God’s grace and is thus to be governed in form and content by God's Word.  The local congregation is the place for Christian discipleship.  Well-structured polity helps prevent the church from becoming a cult while at the same time curtailing rampant individualism.  Church power is ministerial, rooted in the kingship of Christ and thus limited by his Word.   And that the Bible teaches a polity and thus polity is very important.

Benny and the Jets tell me that the video will be available at some point soon.  In the meantime, what was so clear as the evening drew to a close is that each of us sees self-conscious, well-constructed polity, connected to an elaborate doctrinal confession, as vital to Christian discipleship.  We are moving into an era in America where the gap between Christianity and the wider culture is going to be more dramatic and more hostile than previous generations might have anticipated. Identities are all the rage today; But such is the pressure on Christianity that only a self-conscious understanding of our identity reinforced and cultivated by proper church community, will (humanly speaking) enable us to survive as distinct from the world around us. And as those committed to the supreme authority of the Bible, which teaches both confession and polity, we must realize that our theology, if biblical, must profoundly shape the governance and worship of our churches.

Jonathan Leeman, a congregational Baptist, paid Bannerman the significant compliment of saying that his book is an excellent foundation and guide to the issues and the discussions of polity which need to take place.   Once again, cue Blue Mink and buy the book.

Posted on Monday, April 20, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

This weekend I spent an afternoon watching the new DVD from Media Gratiae which is being promoted by Banner of Truth, Logic on Fire.  With this, and the Bannerman volume, in the space of two weeks, the Banner is at the top of its game.

Logic on Fire consists of three DVDs dealing with the life and ministry of Dr. Lloyd-Jones.  The centerpiece is a documentary of ca. 100 minutes of the same title.  The extras consist of further material relating to the Doctor’s ministry and to the new series on discipleship, Behold your God.

The documentary is reminiscent in style of the work of Ken Burns.  Photographs and video footage are accompanied by thoughtful commentary from family members, colleagues and others influenced by the Doctor’s ministry.  Iain Murray is predictably the most insightful into the history of his public ministry.  Geoff Thomas is marvelous as usual, with the typical look of permanent slight pain on his face that we have come to know and love.  Lloyd-Jones’ daughters, Elizabeth and Ann, along with various grandchildren, offer moving personal anecdotes of the man in private.  Who would have thought he enjoyed playing billiards and snooker?  Though I confess when I heard he was a ruthless croquet player, I found that completely plausible. 

Various British churchmen also offer reflections on his influence on their lives.  I was a little puzzled by the presence of a number of Americans with no personal connection to the Doctor and whose contribution seemed to amount to nothing more than elaborate ways of saying ‘He was a great preacher’ – but, hey, if that means the disks are more marketable over here (which I guess was the reason for their inclusion) then that is a good thing.  Ben Bailie was a signal exception to this transatlantic rule: his comments on the impact of the Doctor’s medical training on his preaching were fascinating and left me wanting more.  If he reads this review, there is book there somewhere which would sell at least one copy – to me.

While I was a little disappointed there was not a great deal of deep analysis in the movie, three things struck me as important for Christians, especially pastors, to reflect upon.

First, Lloyd-Jones' seriousness with regard to preaching was deeply rooted in the fact that God had dealt seriously with him.  The Doctor knew the glory of salvation in Christ because he knew the depth of his own depravity.  I was convicted by this.  Too often I think I approach preaching as a technical exercise.  While I do not find the Doctor’s theology of unction and revival compelling, there is a personal component to preaching which is important.  Knowledge of one’s own sin is what helps to magnify Christ in the heart and this has to shape how one preaches.  You cannot learn that from a textbook or a class.  You learn that from sitting under the Word and being convicted yourself.

Second, upon retirement, Lloyd-Jones spent a lot of time traveling to small churches to preach and encourage the brethren.  I know too many Toppers in the US who will only speak to crowds of a certain number, lest their gifts be wasted.  One friend was told by one such that ‘Last time I spoke at your church, you only got me 800 people.  I don’t speak for that small a crowd.’  The Doctor was a delightful contrast.  But then his ministry was not about the Doctor or about the paycheque.  It was about the gospel (see the first point above) and its impact upon the saints.

Third, the most moving part of the documentary deals with the period leading up to the Doctor’s death.  At some point, he is asked whether he is upset that he will never preach again.  His response is that it was never about his preaching in the first place, it was about Christ.  He rejoiced not in the influence of his ministry but in the fact that his name was written in heaven.   There is a lesson for every single one of us there.

Iain Murray and I have clashed in the past over the interpretation of the Doctor’s role in the events of 1966-70, and his dealings with Dr. Packer.  But Iain’s biography of the Doctor, especially the first volume, remains a source of constant inspiration to me as a pastor and preacher.  And in this documentary, he and all those involved have given the church of today a real gift for which we should all be grateful.  I will be watching this documentary, alone, with my elders, and with others, many times in the years to come.  It is humbling, challenging, and inspiring. 

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Paul Levy has a penetrating review of Paul’s Tripp’s Dangerous Calling over at ref21.  He rightly sees the problems with the dangers of detachment of well-known conference speakers from everyday life, of continual self-reference (naming ministries after yourself simply proves the point that celebrity culture fuses both brand and personality), and of an evangelical industrial complex where the most banal observations on life can be marketed as if they are the most unique and sophisticated insights.

Levy might also have pressed forward on the issue of the use of the term ‘ministry.’   Rereading Bannerman, it is clear that in the context of Christianity, the word ‘ministry’ is best restricted to that pertaining to Word, sacrament and discipline. That keeps it connected to biblical qualifications, office-bearing, and accountability. The danger, of course, is that this could fuel the rise of a new priestly caste within the church, though that seems hardly the most pressing problem today.  Rather, the failure to restrict the term has led to a democratic free-for-all where anybody doing anything for the church (i.e., anybody who professes to be a Christian) has a ministry.  And when a word means everything in general, it means nothing in particular.  Thus, the linguistic stage is set for the downplaying of word and sacrament.  And when we name ‘ministries’ after ourselves, we surely point back to ourselves and not to the one in whose name we claim to minister.

Maybe we can start to address the problem by having capital M Ministry for church office and small m ministry for everything else.  And as ministry is by definition ministerial (authorized and regulated by the one in whose name we minister) maybe we can stop naming them after ourselves.  In addition to the obvious confusion that creates about who is the authority in our ‘ministry,’ it might also reflect more accurately biblical notions of appropriate modesty.

Posted on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

The Banner of Truth’s retyped and reissued edition of James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ is, like so many of their books, beautifully produced.  It is also most timely.  Reading this book and putting into practice its basic theology will set your church in good stead for handling the contemporary cultural storm.  Other than the arrant nonsense about the Establishment Principle being biblical (I'm sure Nero would have loved the idea) it has to be my favourite book on ecclesiology. If evangelicals buy it and read it, I think it will strengthen us immensely for a time when knowing what the church is is going to be crucial if we are to remain faithful and distinctive.  Here's why:

Evangelicalism as a movement is ill-equipped to handle the questions which current sexual identity movements are posing, and that for several reasons to which Bannerman provides biblical answers.  And these questions, even more than, say, abortion, are going to be pressing issues for church members in every place of work they find themselves.  Christians are going to need to know what they believe on these issues and why they believe the way they do.  Yet evangelicalism is, as I say, ill equipped as a movement to do this.

First, evangelicalism’s transdenominational approach to theological testimony may well help foster broad alliances on ethical matters but there is always a danger that in doing so ethics becomes detached from an elaborate theological framework.  This may well be an unintended consequence but it will prove unfortunate.   How we understand sexuality and its implications is not an isolated theological matter but connects to our anthropology and thus to our doctrines of God and sin. Nor can ten or twelve point doctrinal statements provide such a framework.  Only the more elaborate documents -- for example, the Westminster Confession, the 1689, the Savoy, the Three Forms -- do so.

Second, evangelical love of the Bible is a good thing but love of the Bible is not enough.   On its own, it can lead to a piecemeal approach to ethical situations where the Bible is interrogated for its views on a matter upon which it does not opine directly but only be legitimate inference from its wider theological framework.  This is where the first point becomes important: churches need to have elaborate doctrinal confessions so that specific issues can be dealt with in terms of a broader theological framework.

Third, without a developed confession of faith faithfully taught and articulated by the church, a piecemeal approach to ethics leaves significant opportunities for subjective and emotive responses to specific situations.  If we are not constantly reminded of the bigger theological framework for making ethical decisions, we will be vulnerable to subjective, emotive, aesthetic responses driven by the immediate circumstances before us.  Watch for the language of emotivisim and situational ethics in current evangelical discussions of sexuality.  That language is significant for understanding a whole theological and church culture, not just attitudes to sexuality.

Fourth, influential strands of evangelicalism remain wedded to the idea that a few powerful personalities are signally important in keeping the movement strong and influential.  But the Top Men fail too.  My own experience of controversy indicates that, when it comes to the Toppers, those who really have nothing to lose, whose pension funds and bank accounts are already well-filled, are always paradoxically those who are willing to risk the least in times of conflict.  We fool ourselves if we think that the great and the good will fight for us.   As things hot up, watch for early retirements and sudden unavailability to speak to key issues among the evangelical elites.

So why is Bannerman important?  Because for him, navigating the complexities of this life in a way that is biblically sound and glorifying to God  is all tied up with a proper understanding of Christ’s body, the church.  The church is not a response to God’s grace, the creation of man.  The church is the creation of God, an act of God’s grace.   As such, she has the promises of God to guarantee her survival and ultimate success – not necessarily the survival of my congregation or of yours, but the church as a whole. And the church has officers -- ordinary, godly men who can take care of business -- and should have a thoroughgoing confession of faith which can withstand the ephemeral ethical and intellectual shifts in the wider world.   These simple things are what the Bible points to as the necessary tools for discipleship and for the ongoing health of the body.  If it worked in the time of Nero, it can certainly work in our day.

I shall offer more posts on Bannerman in the coming days.  But better to read him for yourselves.  Cue Blue Mink soundtrack.  Yes, I sure wish that I could be a Bannerman.

Postscript: Westminster Theological Seminary is hosting a discussion of Bannerman’s book next Wednesday night, when I shall be in conversation with former student Nathan Sasser and Jonathan Leeman.  And you can buy the book there for half price.

Posted on Tuesday, April 07, 2015 by Carl Trueman on Postcards from Palookaville

Scot McKnight has written a concise and clear post, arguing against the common claim that Jesus did not speak about the issue of homosexuality.  One for pastors (and indeed everyone) to keep on file as this is a point we will have to face again and again in the coming days.