Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?

Casting out demons

In my previous post, we looked at the ways in which John Wesley named the work of the devil in his setting. I noted in that post that his description of the devil’s work still seems relevant and suggested that the contemporary American church would be wise to take up again the spiritual language that has fallen out of fashion in the last hundred years.

As we go further with Wesley into his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” we turn to his description of what it means to say we cast out devils or demons.

For Wesley, there was a bright line division between those who are in Christ and those who are still children of the devil. Those who do not have a vital, living faith in Christ are still held by the power of darkness. They are blind to the gospel and therefore robbed of all its benefits.

It is important to remember as we read these words that this did not mean Wesley thought non-Christians were incapable of good or were without any kind of moral compass. Far from it. Because we are created by a good God and God’s grace is active in our lives, even when we do not believe in Him, we are capable of goodness and kindness and all manner of virtues. Our problem is that without grace we are prone to slide into the darkness of greed, selfishness, jealousy, spite, and lust. We might fight the devil who has dominion in our hearts, but we cannot overcome him on our own.

For Wesley, to cast out demons is to bring people to repentance and to faith in Christ. We often call such work the “saving of souls.” Wesley grounds this work squarely as a spiritual struggle between the kingdom of darkness and the God of light. To bring a person to faith is to drive out the evil one who had previously bound them to his ways.

Wesley’s description of this takes up a fairly short portion of his sermon, but it is crucial for everything that comes in the rest of the sermon. He understood the work of preaching the gospel and building people up in holiness as work of a same kind as the casting out of demons that we read about in the gospels. It is the work of casting out Satan from the places where he reigns in the hearts of men and women. It is Christ, not preachers who do this. The devil is too strong for us to dislodge, but he flees before Christ. And yet, God has used human beings as the instruments of this work.

As I consider these crucial paragraphs in this sermon, I am struck by a couple of thoughts.

First, we in the contemporary church talk much more about shades of gray than Wesley did. Wesley took seriously the line from 1 John 5 that says God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. His ministry was not about helping people cope better with a difficult world or making mostly nice people a little nicer and more service oriented. He understood himself to be in the midst of a titanic spiritual struggle between Satan and God for the souls of men, women, and children. We can understand both his incredible passion and his sometimes grim attitude if we see his work as he saw it. People in the midst of battles are often somewhat determined and grim.

Second, this work is something that mere humans such as myself simply cannot do on our own. I can give counsel and comfort to people. I can teach them a lot about the Bible and church history. I can help order the life of the church I serve. On my best weeks, I can string together words in a sermon that touch the head and heart. But I cannot save souls. I cannot bring life to a dead soul any more than I can bring life to a dead body. Only God can do this. To the extent that I define my ministry in terms of what I can do, I will fall short of my calling. The key for me is to seek to live out my vocation in such a way that God chooses to use me to do what only God can do. I have no control over that. I can only seek to be faithful to my call and hope that in my imperfect faithfulness God chooses to act through me.

As John Wesley always does, he challenges me in this sermon. He challenges me not to take too lightly and not to misunderstand my role. One strain of my training as a pastor places a lot of emphasis on using the tools of secular helping professions and secular politics to meet the needs of the people I serve. When I read Wesley, I encounter a very different view.

It is one that runs at odds with some aspects of my personality. Like many clergy, I tend to be pretty good at the soft skills of empathy and listening. I do not relish conflict or confrontation. I am quite capable of seeing multiple sides to many issues. You don’t have to push me hard to acknowledge shades of gray.

But there is another part of me that Wesley speaks to. It is the part that has become convinced first in the truth of the gospel — that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and that we require saving. What I see in Wesley is a man who understood this truth and did not flinch from living out the implications of it in his ministry, even when that set him at odds with others.

If the gospel is true, if Wesley is correct, then I don’t want to be serving as a chaplain to the damned, helping to comfort them in their chains and darkness. I don’t want to do that because I love them. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to fail God who has called me to this work.

I need encouragement in this. That is why I value Wesley so much. He is a constant challenge and encourager to me in my vocation.

The perilous work of the pastor

I read an immense amount these days about clergy burn out. My brothers and sisters serving churches are well aware of the many pressures that have come with leading a congregation during a pandemic.

When I find myself feeling such burdens or stress, I often find it helpful to ask myself what lies at the core of what I’m doing. Finding my focus often helps me better cope when days get difficult. It may not help you. It does help me to ask questions about who we are and what we are about.

What is the work of a pastor?

Here is one of the ways John Wesley described it:

It is, indeed, a very great thing to speak in the name of God; it might make him that is the stoutest of heart tremble, if he considered that every time he speaks to others, his own soul is at stake. But great, inexpressibly great, as this is, it is but the least part of our work. To “seek and save that which is lost;” to bring souls from Satan to God; to instruct the ignorant; to reclaim the wicked; to convince the gainsayer; to direct their feet into the way of peace, and then keep them therein; to follow them step by step, lest they turn out of the way, and advise them in their doubts and temptations; and to comfort the weak-hearted; to administer various helps, as the variety of occasions requires, according to their several necessities: These are parts of our office; all this we have undertaken at the peril of our own soul. (from “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”)

Having been a recent sojourner in the ordination process of the United Methodist Church, I am struck as I read these words by the sense of danger Wesley infuses into his description of the pastor’s work. In case you missed it, he writes that as we preach and shepherd the portion of the Lord’s flock that has  been placed in our care, we must be aware that our own souls are on the line. If we lead people astray or speak falsely of the things of God, we are responsible for the harm we cause. Christ will hold us to account if we betray this trust.

We don’t talk about that in seminary. It does not come up in our interviews. No one ever says to those navigating the hoops and hurdles of ordination: “Consider this carefully. Make sure you are really called to this work. If you screw this up, it is your soul that is on the line.”

Okay, so perhaps this does not feel like the best way to ease the burden of pastors in days like these, but I want to explain why it helps me.

I think the biggest challenge that pastors face in the church today is mission creep. Since there is no job description for pastors, you can come up with a reason why we should do literally anything. It might take a little work to get there, but since most people see the primary job of pastor as “helping” people, you can talk yourself into just about anything as long as it helps someone.

As the American church has become much more reticent to talk about sin, judgment, hell, and eternity, the notion that the church and the pastor exist to “do good” has become not just the external evaluation of churches but often our internal justification as well. In Methodism, we even pretend that John Wesley told us “do all the good we can” was the definition of what it means to be a Methodist.

In such an environment, it is no wonder pastors are burning out and breaking down. There is literally no end to the things pastors should be doing right now if you think our primary job is to “help people.”

For me, the words of Wesley help me clarify why I am here and what I am called to do in the church. They put the focus on the particular “good” I am called to do. They do not simplify this work in the least, but they do help me to keep my eyes on the target. They do not eliminate the questions about how to be the church in a pandemic, but they do help me think a bit more clearly about what “the church” is and what it is meant to be doing.

Reading Wesley’s words above, I find myself a bit intimidated by the importance and the size of the task I have been given to do. I am immediately aware that the only way I can hope to do this work is by spending a lot of time asking God to help me. Thank God, he does.