White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Whose Forgiveness?

Forwarded to me by our own Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, a recent article in American Thinker is worth passing on to others. First a little of the article, and then some comment.

I absolutely hate making mistakes. But more than this, I fear them. As a psychotherapist, I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out why.

All roads lead back to my mother: a woman who could be sweet one minute, and then, out of the blue, erupt like a volcano. I never knew what would trigger her rage.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, “If you keep doing things like that, I won’t love you anymore.”

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn’t seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

I cried and I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then, when my tears I dried up, I decided, with the logic of a small child, that I would never, ever make another mistake. Being perfect would shield me from disaster.

Not surprisingly, I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend. But it wasn’t just my mother who catapulted me into lifelong perfectionism. It was the absence of a forgiving God.

Read full article on AmericanThinker.com

The author, “Robin of Berkeley,” offers bracing insight. You can’t forgive yourself when you’re not the one you have ultimately offended and do not have the power or authority to absolve anyone—including yourself—of ultimate guilt. Liberalism encourages a form of “works-righteousness,” where the world is divided into the saved and the damned based on personal performance. “DO MORE!” is the message and, assuming the posture of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, one can congratulate oneself—maybe even thank God—that he or she isn’t like the “tax collector” (i.e., “Republicans and sinners”). The same spirit is evident enough in conservative politics, it should be added, just with a different agenda for salvation.

Yet there is something crucially missing from this article. Rod Rosenbladt points it out in his comment: “I hope someone does a little with her about who Christ was and what His cross did, so all of this hope gets grounded where God Himself grounded it. If someone doesn’t do some “cross, blood, death, atonement, sacrifice” stuff with her, the usual trajectory is (because it is still law-based) a crash! I think Robin is more in need of a Gospel-preaching pastor than she realizes—a very, very tenuous position for any human being!”

The only place where God’s judgment and grace can be safely found is in Christ—specifically, in his thirty-three years of faithful obedience to his Father’s will from the heart, his blood-shedding substitution on the cross, and his triumphant resurrection for our justification and entrance into the new creation. The author properly points out that release from guilt only comes from God and not from our striving to do better next time. However, there is no mention of Christ. Yet apart from Christ, we cannot know God as merciful and forgiving, but only as the one to whom we are accountable and whose judgment we will face at the last.

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The Strange Effectiveness of the Law

This old article from Fast Company has been sitting in my inbox for awhile now (ht Matt Perman), but its theological implications warrant a long shelf life. Consultants, authors, and brothers Dan and Chip Heath in the January 15, 2009 issue of the coolest business magazine around talk about the power of incentives for business performance. Most of us are familiar with this routine: a vacation to Palm Springs for the highest performers or lower commission percentages for the lackluster performers.  But the Heath brothers argue that inherent in that power is the chance that the incentive will backfire.

Ken O’Brien was an NFL quarterback in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in his career, he threw a lot of interceptions, so one clever team lawyer wrote a clause into O’Brien’s contract penalizing him for each one he threw. The incentive worked as intended: His interceptions plummeted. But that’s because he stopped throwing the ball.

The law in this case, the incentive, backfired and couldn’t produce the desired result.  I think many of us resonate with that experience when we consider our relationship to God. Many of us wrongly relate to God on the basis of what we do. If we accomplish our goals (the Law) we get the perk (closeness with God, a sense that God is pleased with us).  Of course, this is all an illusion since we cannot keep the Law as God requires nor does God relate to us on the basis of our Law-keeping.  Most of the Christian life for some folks is spent trying to convince themselves of this fiction.

The Law cannot empower us to throw the ball down the field. Only the love of the game and a sense of our calling/vocation can do that. And that is exactly what the Gospel does for us. It does not hold out a divine carrot for good behavior, the Gospel announces that we are accepted in Christ.

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Does Your Church Pass the IRS Test?

“Paging Balaam’s ass…”

God sometimes reveals truth in the most unlikely of places: on August 16, 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled against the “Foundation for Human Understanding” (FHU) which had appealed an IRS action revoking its nonprofit status as a church. The Court ruled that FHU was not a church and it based its finding in part on a 14 point test created by an IRS commissioner in 1979. Those 14 points were:

(1) a distinct legal existence
(2) a recognized creed and form of worship
(3) a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
(4) a formal code of doctrine and discipline
(5) a distinct religious history
(6) a membership not associated with any other church or denomination
(7) an organization of ordained ministers
(8) ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies
(9) a literature of its own
(10) established places of worship
(11) regular congregation
(12) regular religious services
(13) Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and
(14) schools for the preparation of its ministers
(emphasis added)

So, let’s make sure we understand: In order to be a church in the eyes of the federal government, you need more than a charismatic leader and willing followers. You need a liturgy, doctrine, a learned ministry, accountability among ministers, regular worship in a regular place of worship, and Sunday school!  How does your church measure up?

Why is it that the secular world can see what so many in our own circles cannot see? Too many of our own church leaders are actively downplaying each one of these elements in favor of something so bland and nondescript that soon it will be hard to distinguish the average church from neighborhood associations, MOPs groups, and fraternal organizations.

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When Absolution Isn’t

The headline over at msnbc.com is striking, “Taylor Swift absolves Kanye West at VMAs.” In case you missed it, the Video Music Awards were on last night and everyone was holding their breath, waiting for the next round of West vs Swift—a fight that started during last year’s awards when Kanye West grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift and boorishly declared that the award she won should have gone to Beyonce.

Early reports on Sunday indicated that Swift had written a song, Innocent, addressing West’s bad behavior, and after everyone from Oprah to President Obama called West out, it seemed fitting that Taylor Swift would have the last final word. What was that last final word? Um…hard to say, and this is where the headline comes in.

Absolution is the Christian doctrine that God has authorized and empowered his ministers to declare the true forgiveness of sins for those who are penitent (or “sorry”) for their sins. In most Christian liturgies, the wording is something like: “In the name of Christ, I absolve you of your sins.” The minister, standing in the place of Christ and typically reading the words of Christ, looks upon the sinner and assures him that his sins are forgiven. It is a powerful, dramatic moment in the congregations that still retain the absolution. But of course, this is why it seems so odd for someone to think that Taylor Swift had “absolved” Kanye West of his sin against her. I’m not even thinking here of the fact that Swift has no standing to absolve someone—she can certainly forgive, but absolution belongs to those ministers who were entrusted with the keys of the kingdom, with the responsibility to retain or remit sins (Matthew 16:19). Instead, I’m thinking of the song she sang in which she addressed the conflict with West. Here are the relevant lyrics of the chorus as reported by the intrepid entertainment reporters at theboot.com:

It’s alright, just wait and see
Your string of lights are still bright to me
Oh, who you are is not where you’ve been
You’re still an innocent

The problem, of course, is that Taylor Swift provides neither personal forgiveness nor declarative absolution. Instead, it’s just a mushy, feel good message about innate goodness, time to become a better person, and the need to judge yourself in light of all the wrongs everyone else has committed! That, my friends, is a confusion of law and gospel, broadcast for all to see on MTV.

True forgiveness (either personal or divine) requires a cost to be born. When you forgive someone who has wronged you, you are taking the debt they owe you upon yourself, promising to carry that cost so they don’t have to. When God absolves you for your sins, it isn’t because he thinks you’re an innocent, or that your lights are still bright (side note: what terrible lyrics!). God absolves you of your sins because he has taken the debt of sin on himself in the person of Jesus.

This overwrought moment of reality TV could have been a powerful experience of forgiveness, living up (almost) to the headlines, if Taylor Swift had understood that forgiveness doesn’t mean making someone else feel better about what they did wrong. It means relieving them of a real debt, by a real sacrifice. If anything, Swift’s inability to truly forgive points us forward to a savior who won’t be upstaged by a meat-wearing Lady Gaga, one who bears in his body even today the cost of our real absolution. May you hear his words of forgiveness wherever you worship this coming Sunday! And if you don’t, get to a place where you will hear those life-changing, life-giving words.

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Michael Horton’s Follow-Up To ‘Burning Books or Proclaiming Christ’

Book and MatchesI have to admit that many of the responses to my post have surprised me. Some of them sound eerily like the beliefs and attitudes of Muslim extremists. This may be in part because so many Christians in the United States still assume some of the errors of “Christendom.” On a cold November day in 1095, Pope Urban II roused a Christendom plagued by internal wars to take up the cause of holy war against Islam. “If you must have blood,” he exhorted, “bathe in the blood of infidels.”[1] Substituting itself for its ascended Lord, the church assimilated a civilization to that ecclesial body. “Our divinely favored emperor,” said the church father Eusebius concerning Constantine, “receiving, as it were, a transcript of the divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God himself, the administration of this world’s affairs.” With divine mandate, therefore, the emperor “subdues and chastens the open adversaries of the truth in accordance with the usages of war.”[2]

Although there were often lively debates as to whether the temporal and visible head of Christendom was the pope or the emperor, the medieval imagination was fed by this erroneous substitution of Europe for Israel of old. Monarchs fancied themselves King David redivivus, driving out the Canaanites with their holy knights. Islam actually learned a lot of its “jihadist” ways from Christendom. The glaring difference is that while the Qur’an and Hadith justify the use of violence in the struggle for worldwide submission, the Bible does not.

Unlike Islam, the biblical faith is an unfolding drama of redemption in which different covenants determine distinct policies and relationships between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this age. Under the old covenant pledged at Mount Sinai, Israel was a geo-political theocracy, commanded by God to drive out the idolatrous nations. It was a type of the Last Judgment at the end of the age. Yet Israel broke this covenant and was sent into exile; even when a remnant was allowed to return, the nation was under the oppressive reigns of successive empires. Then the Messiah arrived and in his Sermon on the Mount sharply re-defined the nature of his kingdom. Christ did not come to revive the old covenant (Sinai), but to fulfill it and to inaugurate the new covenant (Zion) with his own blood. No longer identified with a nation, his kingdom is the worldwide family that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a “new covenant,” which is “not like the covenant” that Israel swore at Sinai (Jer 31:31-34). It is a kingdom of grace and forgiveness, an era in which the outcasts are gathered for the feast instead of driven out of the land. Even in the face of persecution, it is the hour for loving and praying for enemies, not for hating them or retaliating (Mat 5:43-48). Whereas God promised Israel temporal blessing for obedience and disaster for disobedience, today is the era of common grace. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (v 45). One day, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and the holy wars that God commanded in the Old Testament will pale in comparison with the worldwide arraignment before the Son of God.

By the looks of many of these responses, though, America is “Israel.” America’s “war on terror” is not only a just war, defending national interests, but is in fact a holy war: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” In this way, we become a mirror of Islam, reverting to bad “Christendom” habits that ignore the revolution that occurred in history when Jesus announced his “regime change” from the old to the new covenant, gave his life for his people, was raised for their justification, and sent his Spirit to make them witnesses to his Good News to the ends of the earth.

In this present era of history, Christ’s kingdom expands by the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Its heirs are also in the world as active citizens in the cultures and nations of this passing age, but their ultimate loyalty is to the Lord of lords. They can expect the world’s opposition. In fact, more Christians have been martyred in the last few decades than in all of the centuries combined. Yet the martyrs triumph through the word of their testimony—their witness to Christ, not through violence. This is the message of the Book of Revelation.

In my travels, I have met some of these brothers and sisters under constant threat of violence from Muslims in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. I have had the privilege of getting to know others as seminary students and wonder at the daily struggles they face—and their joy in fulfilling their ministry regardless of the cost. They are willing to suffer for their testimony to Christ, but why should an American Christian put them in harm’s way for an act of violence that testifies to anger rather than redemption?

Just today I was sent an urgent appeal for prayer from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. In response to the Florida church’s plan to burn the Qur’an on Saturday, many Christian leaders in Nigeria and the Middle East have asked for our prayers. Here are a few requests passed on by CSW:

“Things are very, very difficult here…Several Village Heads who reported on Boko Haram have …been killed and then yesterday Boko Haram attacked Bauchi prison. The situation in Maiduguri is very tense. Please be praying for us. We need prayers for God’s grace and survival…We are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of [the burning of the Qur’an]. Since we saw news of what he plans we have been weeping and mourning. Ramadan will end here either end today or tomorrow. People are already moving their families away for safety.”
—From a pastor in Maiduguri, Nigeria, scene of the 2006 cartoon riots and the worst of the 2009 Boko Haram violence

“In northern Nigeria the tension is high. We are in great panic because if this occurs it will be worse than 2006, and most of our churches will be burnt down. If you can plead with those people to stop the burnings it will help us.”
—Anglican Bishop Musa Tula of Bauchi, Nigeria

“As I write the Iraqi Army Colonel has just left. He had a clear message: “There are plans to blow you up because of what the Pastor in Florida has said about burning the Holy Koran”. There is nothing we can do to protect ourselves. The army is being sent to us in force to try and protect us, what they can do is also limited…”
—The Reverend Canon Andrew White, Anglican Chaplain to Iraq
Provided by The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

Given especially the theological confusion underlying the anger expressed in some of the responses to my post, it is my hope and prayer that we can raise our thoughts higher than the daily news, to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Whereas the blood of Abel cried out from the ground for vengeance, the blood of Christ pleads for forgiveness—and that is why we come not to Sinai, but to Zion “and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).

Burning the Qur’an is wrong for the following reasons: (1) It confuses the proclamation of Christ with violent conflict, justifying the suspicions of our secular and Muslim neighbors that Christianity is also a quasi-political movement; (2) It puts our neighbors around the world at risk, Christian and non-Christian, military and civilian; (3) It puts our brothers and sisters at greater risk, not for the gospel, but for an easy act of desperation that avoids the difficult sacrifice that fellow Christians around the world are making daily in their witness to God’s saving love in Christ.

[1] Robert Payne, The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades (New York: Stein & Day, 1985), 34
[2] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia, 115, from Orat. 1.6-2.5

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Reformation To Germany

Although the Reformation was a world-changing event, some of the religious reforms it introduced have not lasted into the modern age. Whether Luther’s Germany or Calvin’s Geneva, some of the brightest spots of the Reformation have dimmed over the succeeding generations. That’s why we’re excited to highlight works of renewal in these seedbeds of the Reformation, like Reformation to Germany.

Reformation to Germany is led by Sebastian Heck, a German national who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and whose goal is to establish a faithful Reformed and Presbyterian presence in Heidelberg and beyond. Last year we interviewed Pastor Heck on the blog. Now Reformation to Germany has produced a video to introduce supporters to their work. Please pray for them and for renewal movements among other Lutheran and Reformed friends in Europe: may the light of the gospel shine brightly there again!

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Burning Books or Proclaiming Christ

UPDATE – Go here to see Michael Horton’s update regarding this post.

To mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Rev. Terry Jones is planning an “International Burn the Qur’an Day” at his 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Yesterday Gen. David H. Petraeus warned that if a Florida church goes through with its plan to burn copies of the Qur’an this weekend, it could “endanger troops” and set back the U. S. war effort in Afghanistan. Beyond Afghanistan, it could spark protests and violence around the world (David Nakamura, Washington Post on-line, Sept 7, 2010). On Monday, 500 protesters at a Kabul mosque burned an effigy of Mr. Jones.

There is a long history of burning books when you don’t want to actually deal with the ideas that they promote. When the medieval church sponsored public bonfires of the Reformers’ writings, raw power seemed more convenient than reasoned argument. It’s an act of desperation. In other times and places, a call for Qur’an-burning would be dismissed as a crank’s irresponsible exercise of free speech, but in the present context, Jones has received more attention than perhaps even he could have imagined. To their credit, evangelical organizations—like the World Evangelical Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals—have been as vocal in opposing this incendiary event as liberal religious groups.

Especially given the timing of the event, NAE President Leith Anderson says that Terry Jones and his handful of supporters are engaging in “revenge” rather than the loving witness that Scripture teaches (citing 1 Thes 5:15). According to Mr Jones, however, “We only did it because we felt there needed to be an outcry against Islam, because Islam is presenting itself as a religion of peace” (The Christian Post on-line, July 30, 2010). Evidently, Mr. Jones believes that the best way of making the point that Islam is not a religion of peace is with a public burning of its primary text. I have not read his book released apparently for the occasion: Islam is of the Devil. Nor do I intend to do so (life is short). However, summaries point out that the author somehow sees American tolerance of Islam as the root of the nation’s social and moral evils. Another irony: on the Dove Center website, the seventh of Mr. Jones’ reasons for such book-burning is that “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights.”

In spite of the widespread Christian condemnation of the proposed action, this is not an isolated case. John Hagee leads a San Antonio, Texas, megachurch with a telecast that reaches 99 million homes around the world each week. His central message in books, sermons, and broadcasts is Christian Zionism—which includes a call for a pre-emptive strike of Iran by Israel. Although such voices are on the fringes of what used to be a more mainstream movement within evangelicalism, the basic paradigm (namely, radical dispensationalism) is held by millions of Christians in the U.S.. Besides the fact that Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was the best-seller of the 1970s and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins led the best-seller list for the 1990s, this popular end-times theology has played an influential role in foreign policy from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

I do not doubt that many Christians who hold to these radical scenarios would denounce the incendiary proposals of Terry Jones and others. However, at a moment like this it is worth reminding ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. After all, as Christians our first question is not whether Qur’an-burning will set back war efforts in Afghanistan, but whether it is consistent with Christian neighbor-love and will set back efforts to reach Muslim neighbors with the Good News.

On one end are those who react by invoking religious pluralism. At least when it comes to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we are talking about the “Abrahamic faith traditions,” after all. We are all children of Abraham and should stop killing each other. As simple as this sounds, it is a position that no Christian can hold. The prophets—all the way to John the Baptist—announced that the true children of Abraham are all who trust in the coming Messiah. Jesus Christ made himself the focal point for the inheritance of everlasting life, replacing the Temple by forgiving sins directly in his person, proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath, welcoming the outcasts, and offering himself in death and resurrection for the life of all who embrace him. Paul, who had persecuted the church, was now the Apostle to the Gentiles and argued—just as Jesus had—that all who are united to Christ by faith are children of Abraham. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is abolished in the “new creation” that is Christ with his body. Faith, not law; justification in Christ, not physical descent or obedience to Torah, is the only way to become a child of Abraham—more than that, a child of God. By the way, this means that nominal Christians are no more children of Abraham than anyone else. There is only one way into the family: faith in Jesus Christ.

This means, of course, that all rival prophets, priests, and kings are pretenders. Judaism and Islam—as well as heretical forms of Christianity—reject the central claims of the gospel. Israel may be an ally of the U.S. whom we are obligated by moral and political ties to support as citizens. However, Israel is not holy land and no longer has any eschatological significance in the history of redemption. Where the Temple Mount once stood in redemptive history, Jesus now stands, calling, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

As citizens of democratic nations, Christians may be concerned about the implications of Qur’an-burning for international peace and justice. However, as citizens of the kingdom of Christ, they have even more reason to denounce such actions. Recall James and John—the “sons of thunder”—asking Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village that rejected their message. We read that Jesus rebuked them.

This is not the era of driving out the nations from God’s holy land, for the church is the only holy land and Christ is its living Temple. This is the era of enduring persecution, not for provoking or participating in it. In the Book of Revelation we read that it was not the martyr’s protests or book-burnings, but “the word of their testimony” and their witness to the Lamb that conquered the Beast.

Along with other religious distortions and denials of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Islam belongs to that vast complex that makes up the Beast of the last days. Yet there are also “Christian” ways of looking away from Christ and attaching ourselves to the powers and principalities that array themselves against the Lord and his Messiah. Muslims need to encounter the power of faith in Christ that bears the fruit of hope and love. They need to hear the gospel and its central claims with gentleness and respect. Believers in Christ too are those who have been delivered from the power of sin and death and are not yet perfect in their understanding or actions. Christians are called to love Muslim neighbors simply because they are created in the image of God. Yet they are also called to proclaim the gospel and to explain and defend it, albeit with gentleness and respect.

As responsible citizens, we cannot help but be concerned about the political ramifications of Islam—especially since Islam is a geo-political as well as religious movement. Yet as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, we must resist the temptation to confuse U. S. interests with the goals of the City of God. Furthermore, we should recall the myriad ways in which Christianity confused these two kingdoms in its history—not only in medieval Christendom, but in the “God-and-Country” confusion that we see all around us today on the left and the right.

Muslims are our neighbors and regardless of what their religion encourages, our scriptures call us to imitate our Father who sends sunshine and rain on the just and the unjust alike. It is an era of common grace, a space in history for calling all people everywhere to repentance and faith in Christ. Our children play regularly with Muslim neighbors and sometimes the topic of religion comes up in conversation. It is interesting to overhear the interaction. On occasion, the oldest boy will ask me questions about Jesus and why we believe that he rose from the dead. I cannot imagine that the burning of the Qur’an this coming Saturday will help move that discussion along.

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Horton on Ministry Burnout 2

Yesterday I started talking about some of the problems associated with pastoral burnout. Today I want to conclude with some of the causes and a solution to the problem.

The Church and Burnout
We can suffer enormous stress and even burnout for all sorts of reasons—even with the best theology. Nevertheless, there are several widespread errors in our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) that contribute to stress and burnout.

The Apostle Complex
It may not be a fully-developed messiah complex, but many pastors have an apostle complex. Movements like the Church of Christ (Disciples), Calvary Chapel, and a host of other non-denominational denominations began as a radical announcement that formal structures were unbiblical and the Spirit was now unleashing every member for ministry. And within a few years, each successive “movement of the Spirit” usually becomes more hierarchical (indeed, papal) than any denomination it might have had in mind. Pastor-So-And-So becomes the final court of appeals. Questions are met with warnings like, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”

We see in the New Testament a clear line between the extraordinary ministry of apostles and the ordinary ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline that was entrusted to the officers who were ordained by the laying on of hands by the council of elders (presbytery, as Paul calls it). The apostles laid the foundation, with Christ as the cornerstone, and now ordinary ministers are building on it. The apostles were called directly by God in the flesh, as eyewitnesses to Christ, while the ministers are called indirectly through the church. This distinction lies at the heart of the church’s health, because it recognizes the difference between the constitution of the church and the growth of the church. The Spirit does not call any minister directly, privately, or immediately today; the inward call is confirmed by the external call: namely, the examination, ordination, and an actual letter of call from a local church or presbytery. We can’t make things up on the fly, as if we were apostles and were answerable only to the Holy Spirit; we have to submit to our fellow elders. Ministers cannot disqualify themselves from ministry; nor can vigilante hordes try them in the court of public opinion. Ministers are accountable to Christ through the elders and will ordinarily remain in office, transfer, or resign through the mutual admonition and wisdom of their fellow presbyters.

None of us is the founder of a church (not even its founding pastor). It is not our church or our ministry, as too much loose talk often implies. It is Christ’s church, constituted by the apostolic canon and regulated by the elders in local and broader assemblies. It sure takes the wind out of the sails of would-be apostles, but it also relieves a lot of the stress that is simply the hang-over after the exhilaration of being “the man.”

The revivalistic practice of advertising the appearance of a famous evangelist at your church or in your town crept into even Reformed and Presbyterian (as well as Anglican and Lutheran) churches in America. Soon, not just the sermon text but the name of the minister or the visiting preacher appeared on the marquis outside the building. Successful ministers were expected to draw big crowds through innovative marketing techniques and to entertain them when they arrived.

Successful pastors in America today are expected to be marketers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and therapists. The faithful ministry of the Word and sacraments week-in and week-out, visiting members in their homes regularly, the sick and elderly, and instructing the youth are far less a part of the self-image of today’s pastor than in other periods of church history.

Having been reared in evangelicalism, one of the things that struck me about more traditional Reformed churches was that while there is a high view of the office, ministers themselves are “expendable.” Ministers come and go, the ministry stays. The covenant is a succession of God’s faithfulness “to a thousand generations.”

Furthermore, men are not called directly by the Spirit to their office, but are prepared, tested, and ordained by assemblies of the church. The Spirit calls men to the ministry inwardly, to be sure, but through the outward call of the church. In American revivalism, however, the minister took precedence over the ministry itself. Having disclaimed hierarchy, a de facto system of episcopacy sets in anyway. Instead of ministers and elders being accountable to each other in local and broader assemblies, some bishops are “more equal” than others!

We see this even in the rather public ways in which famous ministers today talk about their stress and burn-out or personal sins. In a way, this still puts the man in the spotlight rather than the ministry. And why should such matters be debated on blogs and in newspapers rather than behind closed doors with those whom God has entrusted as faithful guardians? Why do pastors talk so much about themselves these days? Might it be better if we ministers were to bear the Word to the public and to bear our souls to fellow elders in private.

“New Measures”: Perpetual Innovation
Another source of burn-out is the constant threat of obsolescence. You can’t just preach, teach, baptize, commune, visit, marry, bury, and discipline (which is exhausting enough!); you have to do a thousand things Jesus didn’t command just to keep your ministry (again, your ministry) on the cutting edge. Martin Luther and John Calvin personally taught catechism to the youth, but many pastors today say they’re too busy (and most are) for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder that younger believers find so little personal connection to the wider communion of saints when they don’t even know their pastor and have gone from nursery to children’s church to youth group to campus ministry without ever having really belonged to the visible church?

The amazing American revivalist, Charles Finney, was one of the most consistent in applying his theology to practice. Rejecting the doctrines of original sin, election, the substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural gift of the new birth, Finney taught as thorough a doctrine of salvation by works as any Pelagian in history. Consequently, regeneration is nothing more than the result of the right techniques of moral persuasion and the church is a “society of moral reformers.” In Head and Heart, historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made. This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning. This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished. The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry (emphasis added).

Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” It was a gospel suited to the “self-made” individual of frontier America, and a ministry model suited to the audience. Finney was constantly re-inventing church: “new measures,” he called them. Revivals would soon die out unless there were ever-new “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” However, it is far more fulfilling to minister in a context where you actually see people grow from baptism to profession of faith to mature discipleship than it is to be hounded by the constant demand for “new measures.”

In the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, many now are wading in the streams of the solid gospel teaching recovered in the Reformation. Yet the ocean that feeds these important streams still laps at the shore in the distance. Finney’s way of “getting saved” may be anathema, but his way of “doing church” remains dominant even among many “New Calvinists.”

From Means of Grace to Methods of Transformation
The shift from God and his gospel to us and our transforming works involved also a shift from God’s saving action through his ordained means of grace (Word and sacrament) to our methods of conversion and revival.

In the history of American Protestantism, there have been Reformed pastors and theologians who have recognized that their confession is wider and deeper than a few fundamentals. Writing against the “new measures” employed by his contemporary, Charles Finney, John Williamson Nevin pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and “the system of the catechism”:

The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.

These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” Nevin realized that Reformation theology—particularly, the Reformed theology of the covenant of grace—generates distinct ecclesiology emphases and concrete practices. Of course, the same is true of other traditions. There is a direct correlation, then, between a theology of self-salvation and the church chiefly as a center of human rather than divine activism.

One of my good friends, a pastor, committed suicide, after building stress. A big part of that stress, as he expressed it to me, was that the parishioners at the new church he had taken did not want him to spend so much of his time and energy in the ministry of the Word and in prayer. Many of the elders were CEOs of major companies and they saw him as the CEO of the church and themselves as the shareholders or company board. One day, he got a new sign on his door. The old “Pastor’s Study” sign was falling apart and the new one read, “Pastor’s Office.” That little change, he said, told it all. No doubt recalling his Lord’s repeated command, “Feed my sheep,” Peter encouraged the establishment of the office of deacons for the administration of temporal welfare so that he and other ministers could devote themselves fully “to the ministry of the Word and to prayer.”

Lone Rangers
Many studies on ministry note that victims of burnout often have few trusted confidants to whom they are mutually accountable. Yet Christ did not institute a circle of friends for this purpose, but a system of checks and balances where officers appointed to this task care for the lives of shepherds.

Even if these checks and balances keep the pastor from being a lone ranger at the local level, it matters little unless there is a broader system of accountability and appeal. Besides the congregation, local churches are connected to the broader assembly of churches in other times and places. This is expressed in the interdependence of local, regional, national, and even international representative assemblies. Here, as in Acts 15, the pastors and the elders together deliberate and interpret God’s Word on important matters that are meant to be binding on all the churches.

In reaction against the tyrannical abuses of hierarchical church governments (whether papal or bureaucratic), many evangelicals have embraced a democratic egalitarianism that is more familiar to Americans but would have been totally unrecognizable to the apostles.

Let’s face it. We live in a world that, ironically, revels in its being “connected” while the natural and spiritual connections between family members, extended families, and the family of God in its local and extended relations becomes disconnected and disembodied. How much time to we spend “connecting” or “networking” with people via phone, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter versus sitting around the dinner table at home or around the Lord’s Table at church? We are embodied souls—created for fellowship with other embodied souls. God assumed our flesh, bore our sins in his own body, rose again in the flesh, and formed a family around himself. Significantly, in the Internet Age, this church is called “the body of Christ.”

As our churches become more “wired,” more “connected,” and more “real,” they actually become more electronic, more fragmented into niche markets, and more virtual. We need desperately to recover the gospel-driven church, Christ’s ordained means of grace, and the kind of genuine connectionalism that involves actual presence. I hold no illusions that such reforms would eliminate stress and burnout. I feel enough of it to keep me on my knees and to warn me of my own temptations. However, today’s energetic and enthusiastic rising comets are likely to be tomorrow’s dying stars until we change our faith and practice.

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Michael Horton on Ministry Burnout

In recent months, several highly respected pastors have put their ministry on hold or pushed the “eject” button entirely (see video conversation with Francis Chan and article at Christianity Today).  In fact, a number of books have appeared in recent years drawing attention to the growing epidemic of ministry fatigue—and even burnout.  According to several different studies, 1000 to 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month in America, due to moral failure, burnout, or internal strife.

The Gospel and Burnout
I know I’m going to step on some toes in saying this, but it’s “tough love.”  If I am wrong or overstating things, take it with a grain of salt.  I believe that many pastors in the West today focus inordinately on self-improvement.  In many cases, they burn out because they are victims of their own preaching and ministry priorities.

In the 2009 Willow Creek Community Church study, Reveal, the ministerial staff was shocked to learn that the most actively involved members were the most burned out and felt like they were stalling or losing ground in the Christian life.  They even said that they probably need deeper teaching and worship than they were getting through the church’s public ministry.  However, the pastors concluded from all of this that as people mature in their personal relationship with Jesus, they need the church less.  It’s the church’s job to make them “self-feeders.”  In fact, the analogy was offered of an exercise coach at the gym who helps people design a personalized workout plan.  In this way, though, the church becomes a platform for the service of members before it is a platform for God’s service to sinners through the very means that Christ instituted in the Great Commission: Word and Sacrament.  The church becomes “Martha,” scolding her sister Mary for lollygagging at Jesus’ feet to be taught while she is busy doing all of the chores for people.  Yet Jesus told Martha that her sister had actually “chosen the better part.”  That is because we are not self-feeders and we need to hear God tell us who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do, before we can be swept along into his wake.

What I’m saying is that I think that eventually pastors will burn out themselves, just as their most dedicated and active parishioners do, when they fall victim to their own over-realized eschatologies, theologies of glory, and works-righteousness.  Pastors need the gospel, too.  No less than their sheep can shepherds assume the gospel or take it for granted.  Only when they are served with God’s good gifts can they serve others.  Sanctification is not a sprint, but a marathon, and we are never “100% for Jesus.”  But even in our weakness we point away from ourselves to Christ and move forward.  Scripture does indeed hold officers to a higher standard of public character, but if Romans 7 describes the Apostle Paul (as I am convinced it does), then ministers too are “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

As ironic as it may seem, a lot of counsel I’ve seen out there—in print and on-line—is to do more.  First, there is typically a warning that people (mostly in the local congregation) have placed too many expectations on the minister.  He is expected to be a CEO, best friend, godly hero, quarterback, entertainer, therapist—oh, and to deliver inspiring talks, pray, make home and hospital visits, marry, bury, and counsel.  So first, pastors must have the courage to push back a little on the expectations.  But this counsel is often followed by a catalogue of new expectations.  Included is good, practical advice that holds true for any stressful vocation: a balanced diet and exercise, good sleep, good communication and intimacy in marriage and the family, and so forth.  Yet a lot of Christian resources offer a list that brims with imperatives to manage their stress better: pray more, read their Bible more, go on retreats, join a small prayer group, and read more counseling/professional literature on time management, relationships, and stress.

But pastors give the same advice to their parishioners, piling on the imperatives without indicatives each week and then become anxious or even resentful when they are expected to be and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with their commission as instituted by Christ.  If you preach—and really believe—that you are an extension of Christ’s incarnation, completing his redeeming and reconciling work in the world, consummating his kingdom, then you may eventually be one of the casualties.  Take your place with your parishioners under the Word, both the law and the gospel, and you will find what you need each week for yourself as well as for your flock.

In the pulpit, the temptation is great to browbeat your congregation with exhortations to become the kind of church that can usher in the kingdom of God.  The agenda may be different, but this broad tendency seems as evident in conservative evangelical as in mainline Protestantism.  The pastors may be concerned that the church needs to be more dutiful in personal spiritual disciplines or more zealous in social engagement—or both, but after a month of Sundays a parishioner might have to struggle to recall any new insight into the character and work of the Triune God in history.  When it’s all about “What You Can Do for God,” and a dearth of “What God Has Done for Us,” congregational burnout is inevitable.

The gospel is not, “Pull yourself together.”  According to Hebrews 12:28, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” not building it—even as church officers.  Along with those we serve, we are always first and foremost recipients of God’s gifts and only then can we be active distributors to others through our witness, service, and our many different callings in the world.

There may be guiding wisdom, but there is no saving power in principles for better living, managing stress, building a church, and becoming a more committed disciple.  The gospel is enough even to save pastors.  In my book Christless Christianity, I appealed to sociological studies to substantiate my argument that a lot of what we hear today—across the spectrum, from conservative to liberal—are different versions of what Christian Smith labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  This is killing pastors as much as their congregations today.

In The Stress Solution, psychologists Lyle H. Miller and Alma Dell Smith identify several phases in professional life: (1) The Honeymoon; (2) The Awakening (realizing unrealistic expectations); (3) Brownout (growing fatigue and irritability, often blaming others and becoming cynical); (4) Full Scale Burnout (a devastating sense of failure and depression).  This downward spiral is often followed by (5) The Phoenix Phenomenon, as one arises from the ashes over time to regain a sense of purpose and life goals.  When pastors take us along their journey through this personal odyssey, they are not being vulnerable and transparent; they are subjecting the church to their own ups and downs.  The point is not to hide their wounds, but to keep the public ministry about Christ and to trust the godly leadership that Christ has appointed for their care as well as that of others.

The factors that contribute to predictable patterns like this are doubtless as applicable to ministers as to anyone else.  However, we are not without biblical insight on these matters.  For one, our theology tells us—or should tell us—that, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  He has not only created the world, but he sustains it.  He alone has redeemed it and inserted into this passing evil age the powers of the age to come by raising Jesus from the dead and giving us the Spirit as the down-payment on our glorification.  “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).  Further, our theology tells us that the kingdom that only Christ could bring into this world is among us, but awaits his return for its consummation.  For now, the kingdom is hidden under the cross and suffering, as the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth and pilgrims are fed and led to the City of God.  When Christ returns, he will make his kingdom visible to all, glorious and unshakable.  Only then will constant struggle give way to everlasting rest, eating and drinking with God and his saints forever.  So there is enough here to curb our “honeymoon” illusions before disillusionment sets in.  Finally, we are saved by grace—and so too are the sheep to whom we minister God’s grace in Christ.

Tomorrow, I’ll draw attention to some more factors that are leading to pastoral burnout and offer what I hope is an answer that will give hope to pastors and congregations on the edge.

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A. S. Byatt on facebook, the new god of our age

In a recent interview with The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins at this year’s Edinburgh international book festival, acclaimed novelist and literary critic A. S. Byatt offered some noteworthy insights into our age.  You really have to hear it in her own words (see link), but it provokes some solemn reflection.  I’ll share a few of mine.

Especially poignant is her description of the vanishing of a Christian consciousness—even vaguely conceived.  Though a professed atheist, Byatt observes that other gods have rushed in to fill the void: including psychoanalysis, the press, and social media like Facebook and Twitter.  In all of these cases, she says, we no longer have God and the biblical narrative to tell us who we are, so we are not even sure that we exist until we see ourselves in the mirror of these media.  There is a kind of anxiety in contemporary life, as we struggle to define ourselves.  She says that “religion has gone away and all we are left with is ourselves.”  But even then, we’re not sure who “we” are, because there is no narrative—or what she calls a map—for our identity.  “Christianity used to provide us with the map, now the press does.”  As “the new god,” Facebook, she thinks, operates as a mirror to reflect back to us who we think we are.  This suggests, to my mind at least, that together, the web of these alternative gods—a new Parthenon of sorts—has made us more dependent on it for piecing together some sense of why we’re here, who we are, and what our lives mean.  A final point worth observing is that these new gods keep us busy and unreflective.  It reminds me of the old man in the “Wizard of Oz,” who keeps everybody under his thumb by distracting them from the fact that he is standing behind a curtain pushing pyrotechnic buttons and pulling smoke-billowing levers. Only when the little dog Toto cunningly pulls back the curtain is the charade finally discovered.

Psalm 37 comes to mind, where God’s people are encouraged to “fret not” over “evildoers” too much. “For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”  Why?  Because God is the Lord and he never forsakes his saints.  “Trust in the LORD, and do good, dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  Of course, this is not a blank check: you follow God and he’ll give you that Porsche you’ve been after.  Rather, to delight yourself in the Lord is to direct your desires to the most solid joys and lasting treasures.  In the frenetic pace of everyday life as well as difficulty, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” “In just a little while,” it is promised, the Lord will intervene in world history—both in judgment and in grace.  “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.”  While the gods of the market tell us to stay busy, distracted from discovering their utter poverty of aid, the Lord of the earth encourages us to be still and to know that he is God.  He will set all things straight.  The world is not ours to save or judge.  God will act and our lives now are evidence of that fact.  United to Jesus Christ as the first-fruits of the new creation, we are witnessing the passing of this evil age.  The real world is not the one that is produced for us in Hollywood or New York, but the New Jerusalem that is coming down from heaven.

It is this story that has the power to kill our dead-end characters and write us into the unfolding drama that ends with the new beginning of everlasting rest from sin and death.  Only this story can stand up to the “nowhere man” of our vanishing characters and pointless plots.  It’s the drama of God becoming flesh, just when the new gods have promised us salvation from fleshly embodiment, of his victory through a bloody death and bodily resurrection in an age of “redeemers” that keep us passive and dependent, forgiveness and justification before God, when his rivals offer vain promises of therapeutic well-being, of a communion of pilgrims meeting regularly together in an era of anonymous and bodiless “Internet communities.”  It is a story that, instead of driving us deeper into ourselves in an anxious search for meaning, drives us out—“looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” and out to our neighbors in love.

In this powerful narrative, even toppled gods have their place as servants rather than lords.  Here, there is still a place for cell phones, e-mail, and perhaps even Facebook or Twitter.  Yet they are not where we go as Christians to find out who we are or to tell people who we are.  For that, we will always go back to the Word, back to our baptism, back to the Lord’s Table.  And there we behold not ourselves in a mirror, but our Savior and all of the co-heirs that he has made our brothers and sisters in him.

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