A Word of Warning for Ministers of the Gospel

knotsuntiedI believe that there is a subtle temptation among those of us who are pastors to give our own beliefs and teachings the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our orthodoxy. We may keep an eye out for error or false doctrine “out there,” so to speak, but somehow assume that it could never be an issue for us.

A similar tendency can also be found at times when it comes to one’s Reformed orthodoxy. What I mean is this – pastors at times can seem to assume that because they consider themselves to be Reformed, whatever they happen to believe and teach must therefore (of course) be Reformed as well. In other words, we can tend to then (whether consciously or not) define what is “Reformed” by whatever it is that we ourselves hold to be true.

In his book, Knots Untied, J.C. Ryle writes,

” . . .none need warnings so much as the ministers of Christ’s gospel. Our office and ordination are no security against errors and mistakes. It is, alas, too true, that the greatest heresies have crept into the church of Christ by means of ordained men. Neither Episcopal ordination, nor Presbyterian ordination, nor any other ordination, confers any immunity from error and false doctrine.” (p.365)

It is not without reason that Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, ESV). Likewise, in Acts 20:28-31 he gives the elders of the church in Ephesus the following sober admonition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (ESV)

One of the dangers inherent in the mindset mentioned above is that it is not exactly conducive toward keeping a close eye on one’s own doctrine. Keeping an eye on other people’s doctrine? Maybe. But your own? Probably not so much if we define orthodoxy by whatever we ourselves happen to believe! And so we who are pastors and teachers must be careful not view our ordination (as Ryle puts it) as conferring “any immunity from error and false doctrine.” We must seek to be reformed and yet always reforming.

There are a number of things that we can do to safeguard ourselves (and so our respective flocks as well) from this potential pitfall. First, continue to study the Scriptureskeep on studying. As Paul told Timothy, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV).

Not only that, but if you are a minister in a Presbyterian or Reformed denomination, make it your practice to continue to read, study, and teach your particular denomination’s doctrinal standards. If you are a Presbyterian pastor, that means continuing to familiarize yourself  with the Westminster Standards (i.e. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism).  Dare I say, even memorize some of it!

Now the Westminster Standards are certainly no cure-all. Frankly, they do not deal with every possible theological question that a pastor might need to deal with in the course of his studies – nor were they designed to do so! But they do give the basic substance of the system of doctrine that is taught in the Scriptures. Think of the Standards as (among other things) guard rails to keep you from drifting off to one side of the road or the other, so to speak.

This means that there may be some areas of theology upon which solidly Reformed pastors may disagree without really being at odds with the Westminster Standards (or even with each other, for that matter). But those areas of difference will inherently not therefore be regarding the main points of the system of doctrine. And so a strong familiarity with one’s doctrinal standards is then not only a way to study to show yourself approved (to borrow Paul’s words above from 2 Timothy 2:15), but also an effective way to study the peace and purity of the church in which one has taken his ordination vows.

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6 comments

  1. Was there a time in Church history where the Reformed laity knew their Confessions very well? I often see push & pull, some saying don’t rely too heavily, others saying we don’t rely heavily enough. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle?

    1. I do know that pastoral visitation used to be much more common than it is today, and Reformed pastors often made it their practice to use their visits to catechise the members of their flock, including children.

      There are still churches that teach the catechisms (Heidelberg, Westminster Shorter) to their people, thankfully. They are almost certainly the exception, not the rule, though.

      1. Sadly, not only are a lot of Reformed churches not catechizing, many are not even teaching Reformed theology. It’s offensive & it often gets camouflaged or downplayed. Some Presbyterian Churches are more like community churches & have lots of Arminians joining so that seems to put some pressure on the pulpit
        As I’ve seen this going on I’ve asked myself, if things keep up as they are, in a few generations these churches will be Reformed in name only.

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