Friday, September 14, 2007

Charles Spurgeon and Ministerial Courage

I, like so many other pastors, love Charles Spurgeon. He is a hero and mentor to me. Though I am not worthy to tie his shoes, I long for his passion, his spirit, large-heartedness, jealousy for his Master's honor, evangelistic zeal and his faithfulness till death. And though I don't have his gifts, I do have his God and so I have sought to learn from him for nearly 30 years. His life has been something of a prism for me through which I have learned and am still learning some of the ways of God.

Several years ago I presented a couple of papers on Spurgeon and in the process of research was struck in a fresh way with his ministerial courage. He preached courageously and took unpopular stands courageously. He rejected well-intended counsel from friends when he believed it would result in sinful compromise or in any way detract from his Savior's honor.

The recent controversy over the seminary professor who wrote an anonymous letter expressing his concerns about denominational leadership by bringing charges against two seminar presidents grieves me. As several have pointed out in various and sometimes eloquent ways, this whole scenario is tragic for many reasons. I won't list all of them that I see. Others have identified them far better than I could.

The one, glaring concern that to me overshadows all the rest is what this controversy seems to suggest about the current level of ministerial courage in our ranks. I loathe the fact that a professor in one of our seminary's feels that he must fear for his job if he follows Jesus Christ's teachings on how to address sin in a brother's life. I loathe the fact that this same culture of fear permeates many of our churches. But what I loathe even more, and find particularly heart breaking is that a man of God--whether serving in the pulpit or behind the lectern--would judge that it is acceptable to stay silent when he should speak or stay hidden when he should step forward in order to preserve his position. Many who have commented on these events have used exactly that kind of reasoning.

I have no desire to be scornful toward any man who has ever had a failure of nerve, nor would I ever pretend to be immune to such failure. We all need mercy and grace to be the kind of ministers Christ calls us to be and must seek forgiveness daily for falling short of His glory. My concern is that, as God's people, we agree that compromising biblical principle for the sake of self-preservation is unacceptable.

Any attitude that suggests otherwise is foreign to biblical Christianity. It is unworthy of the followers of our crucified Savior. Had it prevailed in the first century the church would never have suffered and, therefore, never have spread. Had it prevailed in the sixteenth century there would have been no reformation. If it had been universal in seventeenth century England there would have been no Puritan movement (and no Pilgrim's Progress!). Had it characterized Whitefield, Wesley and Edwards in the eighteenth century there would have been no Great Awakening. If it prevails today, there will be no lasting movement of God's Spirit which we absolutely must have if our churches and communities and nations in the west are to survive.

So, yesterday and this morning I returned again to Spurgeon for encouragement. He did not disappoint. The following quotes are from his sermon, "Three Names High on the Muster-Roll." It was preached in the last year of his life, in the midst of the downgrade controversy, in which Spurgeon stood boldly, uncompromisingly and often alone. The agony of such stands, some have suggested, resulted his premature death.

The sermon is worth reading in full. Fortunately for us, Phil Johnson has put it on his Spurgeon website. Here are some extracts to whet your appetite for the whole sermon. They are full of the kind of wisdom and encouragement that we need today. The emphases are mine.
Another excuse that they might have made was, "We can do more good by living than we can by being cast into that furnace. It is true, if we are burnt alive, we bear a rapid testimony to the faith of God; but if we live, how much more we might accomplish! You see we three are Jews, and we are put in high office, and there are many poor Jews who are captives. We can help them. We have already done so. We have always seen justice done to God's people, our fellow-countrymen, and we feel that we are raised to our high office on purpose to do good. Now, you see, if you make us bigots, and will not let us yield, you cut short our opportunities of usefulness." Ah, my dear brethren! there are many that are deceived by this method of reasoning. They remain where their conscience tells them they ought not to be, because, they say, they are more useful than they would be if they went "without the camp." This is doing evil that good may come, and can never be tolerated by an enlightened conscience. If an act of sin would increase my usefulness tenfold, I have no right to do it; and if an act of righteousness would appear likely to destroy all my apparent usefulness, I am yet to do it. It is yours and mine to do the right though the heavens fall, and follow the command of Christ whatever the consequences may be. "That is strong meat," do you say? Be strong men, then, and feed thereon....
Now; beloved friends, if any of you are in great difficulty and trouble, tempted to do wrong, nay, pressed to do it, and if you do what is right, it looks as if you will be great losers and great sufferers; believe this: God can deliver you. He can prevent your having to suffer what you suppose you may; and if he does not prevent that, he can help you to bear it, and, in a short time, he can turn all your losses into gains, all your sufferings into happiness. He can make the worst thing that can happen to you to be the very best thing that ever did happen to you. If you are serving God, you are serving an Omnipotent Being; and that Omnipotent Being will not leave you in the time of difficulty, but he will come to your rescue. Many of us can say with Paul, "We trust not in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us." The Lord has helped us in the past, he is helping us in the present, and we believe that he will help us all the way through. He will help you, too if you just follow his word, and by a simple faith do the right thing. I believe that we have reason to expect interpositions of providence to help us when we are called to suffer for Christ's sake....
They resolved that they would, obey God at all costs. Now, I knew a young man once, to whom a certain ordinance of Christ was made known as being Scriptural; but as far as he could see, if he followed that ordinance, every door would be shut against him. If he was bold to do as he thought he ought to do, according to his Master's command and example, it would be the ruin of everything. Well, he did it, and it was not the ruin of anything; and if he had to do such a thing again a hundred times over, he thanks God that he would do it. There is such sweetness in having to make some sacrifice for God; there is such a heavenly recompense, that one almost envies the martyrs. Rather than pity their sufferings, one feels an intense longing that such honor had been ours, and that we had had the moral courage and holy stamina to suffer for God even as they suffered. Who among the bright ones are the brightest in the land of light? They that wear the ruby crown of martyrdom most certainly lead the van; for they suffered, even to the death, for their Lord. O friends, it is a glorious thing when we make no calculation of costs, but with our whole heart and soul follow the Lamb whithersoever he leadeth us!
May God make us such men! Read the rest of the sermon here.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A signed letter to an anonymous professor

I posted the following comment on SBC Outpost in response to an anonymous letter posted there, purportedly by a professor at one of our 6 SBC seminaries. The author accuses Drs. Al Mohler and Paige Patterson of actions that he believes have dispirited faculty and administrators at Southern and Southwestern seminaries. Perhaps some of what he writes is true. Perhaps it is not. Here is what I wrote there in response.
I agree with the author of this letter on one point: His anonymous letter is an act of cowardice. What he has admitted is that he values his salaried position more than he values integrity and truth. if his accusations and charges are true then they are serious enough to declare openly and honestly. Sign your name, friend. Show your fellow Southern Baptists that you value truth and integrity more than money. Continued anonymity discredits everything you say and I, for one, refuse to put any credence in anonymous accusations.
It is time for those who care about the SBC to play the man, speak truth in love and leave the consequences to God. Boyd Luter says that this kind of anonymous post over at the Outpost is "barely even a work in progress" and calls it "a new idea" that he does not quite yet know how to handle. For what it is worth, I recommend that the Outpost handle anonymous letters by encouraging the authors of them either to man up or remain quiet in order to keep your paycheck while realizing that you are a part of the very problem over which you profess concern.
I have more to say on this issue and so I will express my thoughts in a letter of response to the anonymous professor.

Dear Sir or Madam:

After reading and rereading your letter what has become sadly obvious to me is that it demonstrates little understanding of biblical integrity and boldness. The accusations that you make under the cover of anonymity lack courage, plain and simple. You admit your reason, as if doing so justifies your action and alleviates your cowardly action.
I am writing to you anonymously because I do not want to lose my job as a seminary professor. Not that I feel worthy of being fired for what I am doing, but because I am concerned my president might do so for exposing these matters. No doubt some will equate my anonymity with cowardice. But of one thing I am sure: doing this has required more nerve than my years of silence watching good people--and the SBC--being hurt.
Your admission is an indictment of your failure of nerve. You have decided that maintaining a paycheck is more valuable than directly engaging the issues that cause you concern. So, rather than honor Jesus Christ in handling your concerns the way the Bible says to handle them, you sit in the shadows, under the cover of darkness and work like a sniper. Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-18, and Paul's example in Galatians 2:11-21 all rebuke your way of handling your concerns.

While it may have required more nerve for you to write an anonymous letter than to sit back for years in silence while watching good people being hurt, your present action is nothing to applaud. In fact, it is to be greatly lamented by everyone who not only affirms inerrancy but is simple enough actually to believe that our inerrant Bible ought to be obeyed, even when doing so jeopardizes one's job.

You liken your actions to those in the conservative resurgence years ago who informed Southern Baptist church members of problems in our seminaries and institutions.
In the past the SBC was spared disaster when rank and file Southern Baptists became informed of how truly liberal our seminaries had become. Courageous trustees did not simply rubber stamp the presentations of liberal seminary administrations. Instead they investigated the concerns of Southern Baptists and took appropriate action when needed. Thank God! Though the issues now are different, courageous trustees are still needed for the long term health of our seminaries and ultimately our convention.
Courageous professors are also needed. But your method of informing Southern Baptists is far different from those who led out in the resurgence decades ago. Jerry Johnson did not make his accusations of problems at Southern Seminary anonymously. Tom Nettles and Russ Bush did not make their accusations anonymously. Paige Patterson did not make his accusations anonymously. They signed their names on their charges and were willing to endure the consequences, regardless of what they might be.

In 1980, when I was still a seminary student and just coming to understand the issues at stake in the denominational struggle, Dr. Patterson gave me a few hours of his time at his study in Dallas. When I asked him what he had learned thus far in his efforts to bring these issues to light, he said, "I have learned what I would never have imagined to be true--that so many Southern Baptist pastors are cowards." He went on to explain that a common refrain he was hearing went like this: "I am with you, brother. I believe in inerrancy and think we need to take a stand, but because of my position, I am not able to come out and speak on this openly."

I was young and idealistic then and shuddered at the thought of trying to minister with that kind of pressure. Now I am old and realistic and I realize that such pressure is self-imposed and arises from unbelief. I am not suggesting that I am in any way above those temptations. Rather, I am saying that they are temptations to sin and must be fought vigorously.

You also distance yourself from the "insensitive presentations and even coarse language" of some bloggers who have raised concerns similar to your own. I agree with you that some of the things that have been written on blogs have been over-the-top and are regrettable. But one thing that can be said about the bloggers who have done this--they signed their names to what they wrote. Some have readily provided substantial documentation for claims they have made. They didn't shoot from the shadows.

You obviously wrote this letter because you believe that in doing so you are bringing to light some serious problems in our SBC seminaries. The kinds of things that you mention ought to be addressed and not swept under any rug. What you have also unwittingly done is to display a far more urgent and serious problem than concerns me greatly. Simply stated, it is this: our future generations of pastors are being trained by professors who care more about their salaries than they do God's truth and honor! That, my brother or sister, is a problem of staggering magnitude.

I trust that you are in the minority among our Southern Baptist professors. You write, however, as if you would have us believe that that is not the case. I hope you are wrong. I hope that most of the professors whom we are employing to teach future pastors are made of stronger stuff than either to turn a blind eye to serious problems or to address them from the cover or anonymity.

You make this appeal to your readers:
My prayer is that you will consider whether the message is true rather than the praiseworthiness of the messenger.... I hope you likewise will not turn a deaf ear to me and other seminary professors who might find the courage to speak up.
If your message is true, then sign your name to it. It is hard to imagine a servant of the crucified Savior being unwilling to endure repercussions for speaking the truth openly in pursuit of His glory and honor. Follow the Scripture that you teach. Be an example to your students and your fellow Southern Baptists in demonstrating how to handle such serious matters in a biblical way.

Finally, I assure you, I and others will not turn a deaf ear to you and your colleagues if you ever do find the courage to speak up about sinful matters that need to see the light of day. Keep looking for such courage. Thus far, it has eluded you.

Labels: , ,