We Are Not Professionals But Ought To Be True Confessionals

I recently wrote a book review about a volume by an author whose works usually prompt me to significant disagreement, but, in this case, whether because of a change of his mind or coincidence of the material, I found that I generally appreciated his arguments. Moments like these pose—at least hypothetically—opportunities for evaluation. Do I write a negative review to score points with my tribe against an author who is probably not associated with “my team” and probably won’t go out of his way to promote my causes? Or do I write an honest review praising its praiseworthy features and not overloading my criticisms of his other works into the gaps of this one? The answer is obvious—or should be—but reveals a deeper point. The nature of relationships in churchly affairs should not be one based on point-scoring and climbing the ladder, but rather on the truth, specifically of our confession, especially when it is a shared confession like among NAPARC denominations.

The nature of relationships in the pastoral vocation provides opportunity to reflect on the contours of professionalism and confessionalism in practice. The commercial world is full of maneuvering designed to help businesspeople position themselves more firmly within corporate infrastructure, tighten their role’s necessity to increase their personal leverage, and open possibilities for financial or just authoritarian advancement. This setup easily promotes or at least rewards strategizing to get ahead of the next guy, often by binding oneself into a tribe whose authority infrastructure provides the footing to navigate with or against others as it suits one’s pursuit of the ladder’s top wrung. The likely-developing question is: what has this to do with pastoral professionalism?

Recently, I entered a discussion on Twitter sparked by R. Scott Clark’s (correct) critique of Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, pushing against their decision to describe Mark Driscoll as “Reformed” and “Calvinistic.” Setting aside the label issue for now (concerning which I fully believe Dr. Clark is correct that there is no valid sense of calling Driscoll Reformed), undoubtedly Driscoll appropriated certain aspects of Reformed theology and became popular for doing so. Whether he did so in good faith at the time is beyond my ability to discern. A striking feature of the testimonies on the podcast, moreover, was how quickly Driscoll “changed teams” from the more open doctrinal positioning of the emergent church to his insistence upon these newly adopted, if minimal, features of the Reformed tradition. Doubling down on this instance, once Mars Hill fell apart, it was not long before Driscoll had renounced the five points of Calvinism as “garbage.” The point, far from concerning Driscoll’s actual theology, is how quickly and assertively he changes it when it helps him advance up the ecclesiastical ladder.

Now, readers might be thinking that Driscoll’s sort of maneuvering is typical of Big Eva and its corporate models of ecclesiology and movement-centered focus that thrives on and furthers the celebrity complex. My position, at least, is that these events are not worth Reformed people’s attention if we cannot learn from them with some semblance of self-critical posturing. Indeed, generic evangelicalism is far enough removed from confessional Reformed theology that our reflection and commentary on their affairs is not worth our effort unless we learn something to improve ourselves in the process. So, what are some things that are worth our pondering?

First, it is not the case that Reformed churches are inherently beyond having structures that enable the sort of corporate powerplays that occur in non-denominational evangelicalism. Having served for seven years in churches in Britain and Ireland, more than one Presbyterian denomination is more politically than doctrinally and confessionally oriented. By that, I do not mean cultural politics, as if the point relates at all to the debate about transformationalism. Rather, these denominations are internally political, meaning they promote ministers “up the ranks” who play to the party’s spirit and further infrastructural strengthening so that money is going to the right places and facilitating the right image and activities. Indeed, I am aware of a denomination that closed, what was in my estimation, a healthy church to seize its assets for centralized efforts.

Although Reformed denominations may not as easily become overrun with the sensationalism of celebrity culture as wider evangelicalism, we cannot assume that we are invulnerable to the same sort of maneuvering. Our rightly ordered polities, although built to protect a strong ecclesiology, can devolve into bureaucracy if left unsupported by a certain confessional—hoping my friend Darryl Hart will forgive me—earnestness. These political structures, if unhinged from the confessional theology they should further, can be turned into the mechanisms for executing the very powerplays—and excluding confessionalists—that they were meant to prevent. Apart from my experience in the Atlantic archipelago, America itself is not without its record of denominations that maintain an existing infrastructure but lack the context of true confessionalism.

Second, we need to see at least part of our polity—namely the parity of elders (teaching and ruling)—as an essential part of our ecclesiology for the church’s true wellbeing. The point is that pastors easily begin to think of the sessions/consistories of which they are members as “yes men” or even obstacles to work around. Multiple issues of pastoral concern rise from this outlook. There is an issue of personal character since pastors should lead by example in not insisting on their own way (1 Cor. 13:4–5). There is also a perspective issue, requiring that we recognize, love, and submit to the pattern of ecclesiastical governance for which we believe God has revealed principles in holy Scripture. This perspective means that pastors should view the session/consistory, not themselves, as God’s gift to the church. The biblical pattern is that God works through the church courts, which Acts 15 shows in two ways: 1) the council’s decision blesses the church, but 2) Paul and Barnabas’ individual commitments result in temporary division. This means, pastor, that when you submit an idea to your elders, when they change it, by definition, in the providence of God’s appointed means of leading his church, it is better.

This ecclesiological point demands further specification. Even Reformed pastors can come to think of the other elders as a board, meant to carry out the CEO’s orders. This position is a godless distortion of God’s biblically appointed order for his church. When pastors adopt this outlook, however, they start treating the session/consistory as another context for those powerplays of church politics. This disastrous approach, although mimicking worldly success strategies, infects the church with a professionalism that easily gravitates toward agendas rather than confessions.

Third, pastors need to take serious account of what they aim to achieve in ministry. If the goal is to provide pastoral care and confessional teaching, then our goal is simple (but not easy). We will strive toward it by implementing the ordinary means of grace, visiting our people to support them, and including the other elders in the pastoral process. On the other hand, if our goal makes us resemble professionals more than confessionals, then we will work for it by political savvy, setting elders against one another, forging voting blocks on the session/consistory, and bullying our way toward our goals. The biggest trouble here is that the goals of the latter approach hardly ever—no instances as far as I am aware—further confessional theology and its application in the Christian life, but almost always further personal prestige, gain, and privilege.

This last point particularly raises questions about the way forward in promoting confessionalism over professionalism, drawing us to the needed issue of application. The first one, hopefully obvious, is to commit wholeheartedly to the proper pastoral aims and the structures of biblical ecclesiology that promote them, including the ordinary means of grace and elder-led polity. Second, pastor, dispense with corporate titles. The Bible has the category of elder, pastor, and overseer but not—as far as I can tell—senior, associate, and assistant pastor. Often times these titles are marketed as experience but usually relate more to corporate models than anything else. I have worked in some capacity or other as a “subordinate” to six pastors who “outranked” me. Two of them have been defrocked. One—in my estimation—should be. These three men have been the most insistent that they need to teach others how to be pastors, often withholding approval from all but themselves, which seems to be a sign that they want to find something wrong with others and gather praise to their own name. On the other hand, the ones who have helped me grow the most as a pastor have been those humble enough to treat me as a relative equal. Most recently, I cannot celebrate enough my friend Andy Longwe, whose humility is outstripped only by the size of his heart for proper pastoral care and thorough confessional teaching. So, as my friend Paul Levy once said to me, it should be shameful to want to be called senior pastor for anyone under sixty. In the most recent call I have accepted, I have been very clear that I will not be implementing such a title, whatever the job description might say.

I, therefore, side with John Piper in affirming about pastors that, brothers, we are not professionals…but ought to be true confessionals. Ministry is not a position in which to maneuver for advancement or agenda. As WSCAL professor Brad Bitner has said, “Ministry is not competitive—it is meant to be collaborative amongst fellow workers.” So, don’t be the sort of man who bad-mouths the members of your presbytery…until they bring you into the tighter circle of those pulling the strings. Don’t be the sort of man who happily accepts others’ help with achieving good things, then turns on them when presented with an opportunity to strengthen your own ties to those at the infrastructure’s center of authority—legitimate or otherwise. Rather, give yourself to the task of catechizing, advocating our Reformed heritage, not looking to tighten your control over people in your church or on a pastoral team. When you have a criticism of someone, let it stand on principle and remain as long as the critiqued person continues in their position contrary to our confession. Don’t change your criticism just because they invite you into the power seat. Likewise, don’t criticize confessional men just to gain points with the heavy hitters in church politics. Leave behind the love of money, prestige, and power, instead giving your heart entirely to loving your people and teaching them Christ as we confess his doctrine in our standards. Pastors do not have a job but a vocation. We are not professionals but ought to be true confessionals.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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