(Twentieth in a series.)
The previous article in this series concluded with a recounting of the opposition of a leading woman of our church to our elders when they called both congregations to leave the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). It seemed clear she didn’t think sodomy was any “abomination,” as God said.1 Naturally, then, she didn’t agree with our elders’ call for our departure from the PC(USA) due to the denomination’s ever-growing advocacy of sodomy.
Still, major shifts in the life of a congregation are rarely explained by a single issue. Jonathan Edwards was fired by Northampton’s leading members not simply because he came to oppose his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard’s, longtime practice of the Lord’s supper as a converting ordinance. Don’t forget that small matter of the midwife manual passed around by young men of the church. From the pulpit one Sunday morning, Edwards mixed up the names of the guilty and innocent (witnesses to the offense), and his tenure was over.
Our congregations of Rosedale and First Presbyterian churches took years of sanctification by the Holy Spirit before we had the faith to take the costly step of leaving our denomination. The departure ended up costing us dearly and this must be mentioned in connection with our county supervisor who turned her back on my private word of admonition, and supported a homosexualist for election as judge. It’s always been my judgment she opposed the elders’ call because of how closely tied it was to the Presbyterian Church’s homosexualist agenda. But were my warnings and judgment correct?
Much of the pastor’s work is based on discernment, not simply objective facts. This is no failure or sin. If pastors and elders waited until they were certain this or that sin had been committed, and were in possession of the smoking gun, they could live their lives in relative peace. But we’re not permitted this. In the fulfillment of our responsibilities to our flock, hints and tells are a proper and necessary basis for our probing, guarding, and building up our sheep.
This is a fundamental truth about preaching and pastoral care. The pastor who waits until the Apostle Peter stands up in the middle of the potluck and declares he moved from his seat at the table of the uncircumsized to the table of the circumcised because certain men had come down from Jerusalem bears no resemblance at all to the pastoral leadership of the Apostle Paul. Note carefully his judgments about sinful motives, here:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Galatians 2:11-14)
Consider how much of the prophetic and pastoral leadership we read of across the Old and New Testaments contains warnings and condemnations based on perceptions and judgments of the inner motivations of souls.
New Testament scholars teaching exegesis in seminary courses regularly field students’ questions about whether or not the method of the sermon recorded in Scripture being studied that day could properly serve as a model of rhetoric or hermeneutical process for pastors today?
Professors’ usual response is to dismiss the question with the one-liner, “You are not Jesus (or Paul).”
Of course, this is an evasion. Students don’t ask this question because they think they’re Jesus or Paul. What students are probing is whether Galatians should be taken as an instruction, not simply in the proper doctrine of justification, but also a proper method of pastoral leadership using, for instance, ad hominem arguments similar to those used by the Apostle Paul?
To respond “You aren’t Paul” gets a laugh from the other students who knew enough not to ask such a stupid question, but it sidesteps the very legitimate concern a man instructed in logical fallacies will have studying, for instance, the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizers’ motives. Note his assigning of motives, and doing so publicly:
They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out so that you will seek them. – Galatians 4:17
This past year, I was speaking about preaching and pastoral care with a newly-ordained man fresh out of one of the most conservative reformed seminaries in America, and he stopped me to ask, “How can you know that?” I’d made a statement about the likely motivation of a certain man we were working with who had committed a public sin against the church, and it made my fellow pastor very uneasy. He thought it was wrong for pastors to address people’s sinful motivations. He believed only the objective facts should be discussed. Pastors should rebuke only words and actions, leaving motivations out of it.
We spent an hour talking this through. In and out of the pulpit, it is foundational to pastoral ministry for pastors to seek to understand why the souls under their care are weak in a certain area? Why they committed that particular sin?
The pastor who wants to stick with objective observations and facts in his preaching and pastoral care will constantly fail his flock, and thus his call and duty before God. But there is a good reason why my friend and almost every other pastor with an MDiv from a seminary is petrified to make subjective judgments and exercise discernment…
Truth is, the real curriculum taught in every class, chapel service, and exchange with staff members of legacy seminaries is this simple statement: “If you ever have conflict in your church, you have failed.”
Newly ordained men enter their first call knowing the reputation of their seminary and their desire for the approval of their much-admired seminary profs hang on their name not being associated with any conflict—whether congregational or denominational. So of course pastors work hard to avoid all conflict.
What does this have to do with motivations and discernment?
Even those of us who are dense know how angry men get if a pastor addresses their sinful motivations behind their sinful actions. “You don’t know me! Don’t tell me what I’m thinking or feeling. I know myself and that’s not why I did that!”
One of the most common sins pastors face today is mothers abandoning their home for some job or profession and paying another woman to raise their child. I’m not speaking of mothers whose husbands are disabled or absent and can’t or won’t work to support their wife and children, but two-income homes in which the mother is not working out of necessity. Whether in Europe, Africa,2 Asia, or America, the majority of homes where the mother pays another woman to raise her child does so out of desire, not need.
Anglican bishop Jeremy Taylor wrote the seventeenth century bestselling devotional works, Holy Living and Holy Dying. In his pastoral care, Taylor faced this same sin of the abandonment of motherhood. It was called “wet-nursing.” Not wanting to care for the child God just blessed her with, it was common among the more wealthy mothers to pay another woman to nurse and raise their child.
Being a faithful shepherd, Bishop Taylor condemned this sin:
It is a duty that women should nurse their own children. [I]t is but to be half a mother to bring forth children, and not to nourish them; and it is some kind of abortion, or an exposing of the infant, which, in the reputation of all wise nations, is infamous and uncharitable. And if the name of mother be an appellative of affection and endearments, why should the mother be willing to divide it with a stranger?
Considering it generally, it’s always volatile to discuss sinful motives in condemning sinful actions, but how could a pastor place himself in any greater danger of causing resentment and conflict than speaking of the reasons a mother pays another woman to nurse her child? The pastor of any modern reformed congregation will do well to avoid even the slightest statement concerning mothers’ duties to their infants and young children. And even more so, their duties to nurse and care for their children at home rather than, say, pumping at the office.
Yet Bishop Taylor repeatedly condemns the motives of the well-bred (“nice”) ladies of his time—here for thinking more highly of themselves than others—and specifically, thinking of themselves more highly than the poor women they paid to nurse their children:
Let no mother venture her child upon a stranger, whose heart she less knows than her own. And because few of those nicer women think better of others than themselves, (since, out of self-love, they neglect their own bowels,) it is but an act of improvidence to let my child derive imperfections from one, of whom I have not so good an opinion as of myself.
Bishop Taylor continues:
For why hath nature given to women two exuberant fontinels, which, “like two roes that are twins, feed among the lilies,” and drop milk like dew from Hermon, and hath invited that nourishment from the secret recesses, where the infant dwelt at first, up to the breast where naturally now the child is cradled in the entertainments of love and maternal embraces…? If nature intended them not for nourishment, I am sure it less intended them for pride and wantonness; they are needless excrescences and vices of nature, unless employed in nature’s work and proper intendment.
For how shall a hireling endure the inconveniences, the tediousnesses, and unhandsomenesses of a nursery, when she, whose natural affection might have made it pleasant, out of wantonness or softness hath declined the burden?
Note his judgment such mothers are motivated by “pride and wantoness”; by their desire to avoid the nursery’s unpleasant “inconveniences,” “tediousnesses, and unhandsomeness.” That these mothers “hath declined the burden” from their own “wantoness” and “softness.”
Bishop Taylor ends by rebuking mothers for drying up their milk:
Those that invite (dry breasts) to them by voluntary arts, “love not blessing, therefore shall it be far from them.” And I remember, that it was said concerning Annius Minutius the censor, that he thought it a prodigy, and extremely ominous to Rome, that a Roman lady refused to nurse her child, and yet gave suck to a puppy, that her milk might, with more safety, be dried up with artificial applications. Let none, therefore, divide the interests of her own children; for she that appeared before Solomon, and would have the child divided, was not the true mother, and was the more culpable of the two.
Soon after ordination and taking up the charge of the yoked parish in Wisconsin, I chose Titus 2 for our sermon text and called the souls of the parishes to obey Scripture’s command given there to young mothers to be devoted to their husbands and children, and to have their focus on working at home:
…encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. – Titus 2:4-5
During the sermon, naturally I appealed to mothers who worked full time to consider returning to their home and children.
The next day the conflict started with Mary Lee telling me one of the godly mothers of the church was angry at me. Respecting this woman and her husband, we went out to talk with her. She told me she wasn’t angry for herself, but for a neighbor who was in our congregation, had young children, and worked full time. My exhortation to mothers to make their home and children their first priority had hurt her neighbor, she said, and that was why she was mad at me.
Sad to hear it, I told her I would talk with the neighbor and try to assuage her neighbor’s anger.
Setting up an appointment, I met with this other member of our congregation and explained I was there because I had been told she was angry over my sermon. Could we talk about it?
She was surprised and said, “I’m not working because I want to work. I’m working because my husband forces me to work!” She wasn’t angry at me for preaching and applying God’s Word. She was angry at her husband (who, by the way, was not a part of our congregation). After a talking for some time, I left in peace, thankful that I could report to her angry neighbor that she needn’t be worried about my relationship with this working mother.
Pastors old and young are called by God to guard their flock, to preach faith and repentance. When their preaching is faithful to these tasks and moves on from teaching to preaching, from the objective truths of the text to the subjective and necessary applications of the text, this is the simple fulfillment of their call.
When the pastor fulfills his call in this way, he needs the support and encouragement of his elders and their wives. Of course he doesn’t like conflict. He knows the wives of the elders could get angry and he could lose his job. He never stops fearing this.
Still, he also knows sermons avoiding subjective judgments and incisive applications of God’s commands to the lives of his flock are sermons given in service to his own reputation and job security. He also asks himself when any of our revered fathers in the faith have had their own reputation and security as their primary concern as they cared for their flock?
Always remember that this man you have called is no mere chaplain, counselor, or teacher. He is a pastor. A shepherd.
He must never be a hireling.
No good shepherd puts off the work of guarding his flock until the flock agrees there is objective proof of danger and they think someone should say something.
(Twentieth in a series.)
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