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Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

            “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interprets who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the empirical existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all- controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and Church Polity

Matt Pinson

Recently my colleague Dr. Darrell Holley sent me a link to an article in First Things by Dale Coulter entitled “Evangelical Apocalypse.” The article is primarily about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It might be easy for our smaller, Free Will Baptist denomination to think we are immune to these concerns. But we need to pay attention.

What Hath Church Polity to Do with Sexual Abuse?

I found particularly interesting Coulter’s tie-in to church polity, or church government. This is of interest to me because of the differences between typical Baptist polity as it developed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and traditional Free Will Baptist polity. Coulter points out that “local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church.”

Now before some readers get nervous, let me affirm local church autonomy as rightly considered historically by Free Will Baptists: the ultimate right of self-governance by a local congregation. This definition of autonomy—self-government—is the way Free Will Baptists have historically used the term rather than the typical way it is used: independence.

I have discussed these issues in my pamphlet, Free Will Baptists and Church Government. Free Will Baptists have typically held that every New Testament congregation is self-governing. Thus it has the absolute right to leave the conference or association of which it is a member and affiliate with another. [1] However, we have traditionally not viewed associational affiliation as an option for the local congregation, but as a mandate.

The Free Will Baptist Difference

That approach to church government is different from the one that developed in most American Baptist groups. (However, early non-Free Will Baptist associations like the Charleston or Philadelphia associations had a polity much like Free Will Baptists.) What is especially different about traditional Free Will Baptist church polity, which is still practiced in almost all associations today, is this: The examination, ordination, and moral and theological accountability of ministers is delegated by the local congregation to the presbytery (body of ministers) of the conference or association.

Furthermore, traditionally, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were more concerned about the discipline of local churches. They cared about what went on in those churches. Yes, the congregation could disregard the conference’s counsel (which would usually result in the conference removing the church from fellowship). Yet the conference was concerned about local churches and felt free to ask questions and give counsel to local churches.

Passing Errant Ministers from Association to Association

How does all this relate to clergy sexual abuse? Coulter goes on in the article to say, “Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.” Yet Coulter states that the problem is not just in the Southern Baptist Convention, because ministers accused of sexual abuse who are “dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. . . . These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over.”

I have heard many ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church state something similar: Errant ministers often move from one conference to another within the denomination without repercussions. It is amazing to me how that, historically, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were much more vigilant about checking out ministers who applied for ministerial credentials than we are today. This is despite the fact that trains, horses, and wagons were the only transportation rather than planes and automobiles. And the Pony Express, rather than telephone, email, and Facebook, were the only means of communication.

The Means at Our Disposal

We have tremendous means at our disposal today for keeping morally and theologically errant ministers from seamlessly moving from one area to another. What’s more, we have a built-in polity that is part of our tradition—still “on the books” in our denominational documents—that can, if consistently utilized, keep us from having the problem Coulter describes.

What happened traditionally when an errant minister attempted to transfer from one Free Will Baptist association to another? The presbytery or ordaining council would carefully check out his credentials. They would be proactive about it, even if the church he was ministering in did not request it. They knew that if they waited too long, they would lose the church. What if the minister refused to submit to the authority of the conference? The conference would state publicly that it did not recognize the minister as a Free Will Baptist minister. [2]

This approach would help us today. It would help us not only to deal with ministers whose doctrine is not in keeping with that of the Free Will Baptist Church, but it would also aid us in dealing with sexual predators and other charlatans or criminals. Like all biblical church discipline, it would make a statement to the world that the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to tolerate sexual abuse or any other deviation from Scriptural norms. [3]

Helping Local Congregations

Another positive mark of a stronger associational polity is that because congregations are more involved in each other’s lives, they know what is going on in each other’s congregations. So if there is a problem in a local church that needs the help of the other churches in the conference, the other churches typically will know about it. This type of polity also provides more organic resources to help local congregations’ lay search committees. With more help and counsel, lay committees are less apt to recommend a minister who falls short of the conference’s ethical and doctrinal standards.

Our wannabeism when it comes to the Independent Baptist movement (on the right) and the non-denominational megachurch movement (on the left) is coming home to roost. [4] These movements have eroded our commitment to our historic associationalism. This erosion has left us as isolated churches without the resources we need to maintain our theological commitments and the moral leadership of our ordained clergy.

Our traditional Free Will Baptist polity will help us guard against the sort of thing that has been happening with clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, it will help us guard against morally and theologically errant ministers taking churches out of our denomination. Again, because we believe in the self-government of local congregations, nothing we do can ultimately keep a congregation from leaving if it is committed to that decision. Yet our polity will help.

Obviously, a stronger church polity is not in itself a foolproof method for discouraging and dealing with these problems. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has an extremely strong church government, but it has not done so. However, I believe there is a powerful argument that the balanced polity we have guards against the sorts of concentrated church hierarchy that has swept clergy sexual abuse under the rug. Our biblical church polity has just the right balance. This balance allows it to avoid the problems of the power of a church hierarchy vested in a few people, on one hand, and the lack of accountability that plagues the independent-church models on the other hand.

Renewing our Church by Retrieving the Associational Principle

What we must do is to recommit ourselves to the biblical church polity that is already at our disposal. This will mean renewing our churches and conferences through retrieving our tradition of biblical Free Will Baptist church polity. It will mean not yielding to the temptation to mimic the anti-associationalism and anti-denominationalism of the Independent Baptist and non-denominational megachurch movements. Those movements seem to have numerically larger and more successful congregations, and sometimes we are sorely tempted to sell our souls for numerical success. But recovering our internal resources will help us not to give in to that temptation.

I am witnessing the growth of a generation of younger ministers who are solid, conservative Free Will Baptists. These ministers believe in our traditional associational principle and are ready to bring renewal and life and biblical accountability back to our conferences and associations.

I pray that we middle-aged and older Free Will Baptists will not discourage them from doing that. If they succeed, it will strengthen our churches and denomination and our commitment to biblical truth. It will help keep our denomination and its distinctive theological witness from dying. It will also tell the world that we are not willing to tolerate sexual abuse and other immoral conduct that displeases our holy God and brings disgrace on the church and the gospel it proclaims.

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Editorial Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Wednesday morning that was different, though only slightly, from the current version. This was done accidently by a site administrator. Our apologies to our readers. 

[1] Today, all local gatherings of Free Will Baptist churches are referred to as conferences or associations. So I am using these terms interchangeably. These have been the majority terms in our tradition for the past two hundred years. Yet historically they were used alongside other, less-used synonyms such as union meeting, connection, general assembly, general council, and district.

[2] This essay is not meant to suggest that Free Will Baptist polity is the only cure for the problems discussed herein, but an important part of a larger solution.

[3] The thrust of this paper is not to absolve lay pastoral search committees at local churches of the responsibility to check references and do proper checks on pastoral candidates’ backgrounds but rather to provide aid to local congregations without a pastor, many of whom unfortunately do not engage in extensive research on pastoral candidates.

[4] Dictionary.com defines a “wannabe” as “a person who tries to be like someone else or to fit in with a particular group of people.”

 

 

 

Teología Evangélica: A Review

Thomas Marberry

One of the books that I enjoyed during 2018 was Pablo Hoff, Teología Evangélica, Tomo 1/Tomo 2 (Miami: Editorial Vida, 2005). Hoff has ministered in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. He is a graduate of Taylor University, the Winona Lake School of Theology, and the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles which are widely used in the Spanish-speaking world. His goal in writing this book is not “to promote the distinctive doctrines of any denomination, but to present objectively the different points of view found in evangelical and conservative theology.” It contains the kind of basic information that pastors and other Christian leaders need to know.

Of particular interest is his discussion of the Trinity, which chapter 12 discusses. Hoff correctly notes that the term “trinity” does not occur in the Bible, but the idea of a triune God can be deduced from many passages. He explains that the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine; it is not found in any of the major religions of the world. He asserts that this is such an important doctrine that it is “indispensable for the understanding of great biblical truths.”

Hoff summarizes the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity. He outlines the contributions of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian to the development of this doctrine. He also describes several of the early heresies the early church had to struggle with, such as Modalistic Monarchianism.

This is a most useful book for leaders in Spanish-speaking churches. As Free Will Baptists become more involved in ministering to Spanish-speaking people, this is the kind of resource that can be of benefit to us.

 

Theology for Life and Ministry: William Jeffery on Predestination in Romans 9

Matthew Pinson

I was recently reading a book by the seventeenth-century English General Baptist preacher William Jeffery, The Whole Faith of Man. This book is a summary of Christian doctrine published in London in the 1650s that hasn’t been in print since the 1600s.

The book is not without its faults, but reading it reminded me of how industrious these forefathers of our Free Will Baptist Church were in their concern to think through, write, and publish doctrine and theology—and not see doctrine and theology somehow as being something other than, let alone at cross purposes with, the practical, zealous ministry of the Gospel.

Here were men who were mostly bi-vocational—pastors of growing churches (some large, some small) but also farmers and tailors and soapboilers and physicians. Yet somehow many of them still found the time to write full-length books on practical and theological subjects.

It makes me scratch my head that we in evangelicalism today have more M.Divs and D.Mins than you can shake a stick at, most of whom have full-time ministry jobs, but so many have almost no interest doctrine and theology. Indeed there is a tendency to drive a wedge between theology and ministry and think that theology actually detracts from practical ministry and zealous evangelism. We desperately need to take a page from the playbook of our early forefathers, who were very zealous and had growing churches in both rural and urban areas, but saw theology and doctrine as being at the heart of a vibrant ministry—woven into its very fabric.

In addition to those thoughts sticking out in my mind, I came across a few passages from Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9 that I thought our readers would enjoy. The first one directly addresses the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9. It touches on a theme that many Arminian interpreters neglect or underemphasize—that Romans 9 is really about the conditional election of unbelievers, and that Paul is arguing against the corporate election views in Jewish theology. This is something that Jacobus Arminius and Leroy Forlines emphasize, but that is neglected in many Arminian treatments.

The second passage, which follows Jeffery’s discussion of Romans 9, is basically saying that the Calvinist doctrine espoused with regard to that text means that God hates the vast majority of his human creatures and created them for the purpose of hating them, even though that flies in the face of the ubiquitous message in Scripture of the love of God for humanity. I love the way Jeffery explains it:

For the better understanding of this point, well consider the principal thing, which Paul treats of in that chapter, Romans 9, which is, that the fleshly seed of Abraham are not the children of promise, or the Elect of God (vv. 7, 8). Wherefore (saith the Apostle) though Esau was the child of Abraham according to the flesh, and that upon Isaac’s side too, yet God hated him: therefore you Jews that stand so much upon your birth privileges, as being the seed of Abraham after the flesh, by this of Esau you may know, that it will not prove you to be the Elect of God, but you may be hated as Esau, he being as truly a child of Abraham as you, but for his wickedness (whether considered as a Person, or as a Nation) God rejected him; I say, for his wickedness as appeareth (Obad. 9.10) “For thy violence, (O Esau) against thy brother Jacob, shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off forever (Mal. 1.3, 4; Amos 1.11; Heb 12.16, 17). Esau’s wickedness therefore (whether considered a person, or a Nation) I say, with the holy Prophets, was the cause why God hated him; whose wickedness, God that foreknoweth all things, foreknew. . . . (The Whole Faith of Man, 26-27).

But if notwithstanding you shall yet turn the body of these Scriptures [Rom. 9] otherways [than the way he has explained them], then behold its face: namely, That God did (before time) hate the greatest part of the world, without respect unto foreseen wickedness as the cause thereof, and that (in time) he gives them up to hardness of heart (without grace at any time whereby to be saved) and at the day of Judgment will cast them into everlasting torments, because of their wickedness and hardness of heart; and yet declare in his Word, (which you say is a word of truth) that he is good to all, and that his “tender mercies are over all his works”; that he is “slow to anger, and of great mercy,” (Ps. 145.8, 9), “patient, long-suffering, etc. (Ex. 34.6, 7), “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3.9), swearing by himself, “that he desireth not the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11) but “would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2.4), “forty years long grieving for the iniquity of his people” (Heb. 3.17), bemoaning their undone estate (Psal. 81.13), yea, even weeping for them (Luke 19.41), saying, “What could I have done more” (for your good) “that I have not done?” (Isa. 5.4), when as he knew (according to your tenet) that [he] himself had shut them up from all possibilities of believing unto salvation, and that by his own unresistible decree, and purpose of reprobation. Judge ye, friends, in this cause, and judge righteous judgment, and with fear and trembling, weigh these things. (The Whole Faith of Man, 31-32).

These thought-provoking comments come from the heart of a preacher and pastor. He saw them, not as a tack-on to preaching and explaining the Bible for his people, but as integral to his work as a shepherd. May we be inspired by the pastoral theology of our forebears who had a seamless view of the interaction between our minds, hearts, and the way we live our lives. May we return theology to its integral place in the ministry of the Gospel.

 

What Preachers Can Learn from Tom Brady: Part 3

by W. Jackson Watts

(Part 1 and Part 2 of this article appeared earlier on our site. They can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks).

Committed to the Team (Collaboration)

Over the last year or two, news outlets have reported several times on a friction in the Patriots organization between Tom Brady and his legendary coach Bill Belichick. Some of this stemmed from Belichick’s reported interest in beginning to transition the team to an emerging young backup quarterback. Despite this story and related ones, all accounts appear to suggest that Brady and Belichick have patched up their relationship, at least enough to have another successful season.

Many dimensions of the Patriot’s dynasty transcend Brady’s own individual excellence. He has almost always had an above-average offensive line (the players who protect him from opposing defenses). This no doubt partially explains his ability to stay healthy for nearly his entire career.[1] The Kraft family has provided stable ownership for the franchise. Pundits view Belichick as arguably the best coach of all time. Brady has had competent coordinators and assistant coaches. Though the overall talent of his teams has varied over his career, Brady has managed to succeed with all rosters. These points highlight that Brady is more than just the product of a good system and culture. However, his greatness cannot be interpreted apart from the organization he has been a part of.

Preachers also are part of a larger whole that is essential to their pulpit effectiveness. When we stand in the pulpit, we don’t do so in a vacuum. We preach to people who have perhaps heard ten different pastors in that same pulpit over their lifetime. Or perhaps they have heard only one voice for that same period of time. This can shape the way listeners hear and respond to our preaching.

The quality of the music and other service elements preceding and surrounding the sermon can shape the mind and mood of both preacher and congregation. What has transpired in the week before can impact the pastor’s confidence as he prepares to preach. Poor sound quality or mics unexpectedly squealing are highly disruptive. What of the congregation’s readiness? Have they prayerfully prepared to listen to God’s Word this day? These are just a few of the hundreds of factors shaping the presentation of and reception of the sermon.

The simple lesson is this: There are factors we can and cannot control. We can put in the necessary study time and prayer throughout the week. We can read what the great theologians and preachers of the past have said. We can discuss our passage with our wives during the week. We can ask Sunday school teachers to encourage people to enter the service with a prayerful, focused mindset. These are some of the ways we can collaborate with our congregation to make the preaching moment more impactful.

For those factors outside of our control, we’re in good company. Tom Brady cannot control the weather he works in; neither can you. The prophets and apostles couldn’t manipulate their hearers into hearing better. All they could do was their best to follow the Spirit’s leadership, and let God work. So should we.

Conclusion

Gotham Chopra, son of the famed spiritualist guru Deepak Chopra, produced Tom vs Time. Remarking on Tom’s commitment, Chopra said the following: “What’s really at the epicenter of it is this devotional love for the game. . . . It is his vocation—it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose.”[2] When we hear those words, we might recall the comment one observer made about football being Brady’s religion. As Christians we worry about those who find their meaning in a game or career, not in Christ. Yet for those of us who call Jesus Savior and Lord, who are free to serve Him because of grace, not to earn grace, how much more commitment should we have to excellence in His service?

If Brady, playing a temporal game with temporal satisfaction, has committed himself to longevity, details, and teamwork, how much more should preachers, serving an eternal God through work with eternal consequences, give their best?

You don’t have to pursue a Doctorate of Ministry in preaching to commit yourself to your calling and craft (though doing so might be useful for some). For me, the four most helpful practices have been to: (1) listen to my own sermons regularly; (2) occasionally collaborate on a preaching series with a fellow pastor; (3) read great books on preaching; and (4) read as broadly as possible.

Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students was the textbook I found most helpful in this area many years ago, and certainly it has helped previous generations. Among more modern books, Mark Galli and Craig Larson’s Preaching that Connects is another book that first stimulated my thinking about cultivating rhetoric skills. More recently Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in An Age of Skepticism has been instructive about preaching Christ from all the Scriptures and preaching in our particular historical and cultural moment.

Reading broadly offers several benefits. It introduces us to God’s common grace poured out on many scholars, experts, journalists, historians, and even humorists across many subjects. It introduces us to new language, new concepts, and a treasure-trove of sermon illustrations. Biographies, autobiographies, and novels are especially useful in our finding appropriate and timely illustrations.

Certainly every preacher must discern what habits and practices best orient him to listening well to Scripture, understanding his people, and speaking to them week after week. I have offered a secular (though not irreligious) analogy for a spiritual aim: the formation of disciples toward Christlikeness. Christ is magnified through the foolishness of preaching, but that in no way discounts the vehicle of preaching as an art and craft that preachers should steward and sharpen. Pastors committed to excellence in preaching will appreciate the depth and breadth of the Scriptures, the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, and the multi-faceted dynamics of human communication.

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[1]Brady did miss most of the 2008 season due to an ACL injury. However, it is not uncommon for even great players to miss part of a season or an entire season over their career with some kind of acute injury.

[2]Bob Smietana, “For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.” Washington Post, 4 February 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/02/for-tom-brady-football-has-become-religion-no-really/?utm_term=.5af11a5b462b; accessed 22 January 2019.