Learning from Asbury’s Cavalry

In my leisurely slog through Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, I found myself enthralled at his description of Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury and the movement he spent his life’s work trying to sustain. In the late-18th and early-19th century, most Americans, particularly on the frontier, were opting for a clergy and ecclesiology in which the common man’s conscience and intellect ruled the day. Educated and trained pastor-theologians needed not apply! And yet the hierarchical Methodist Episcopals, with the tyrannical and heavy-handed Asbury as their leader, outpaced even the Baptists in terms of denominational growth. The reason for this irony, according to Hatch, related to Asbury’s methods (sorry for the pun) and motivations. 

In terms of method, Asbury insisted upon building his denomination through a small army (wait for it) of itinerant preachers who largely traveled on horseback (bingo). And this was not your grandad’s preaching circuit: such men logged thousands of miles per year. Furthermore, “these itinerants were characteristically poor, single, and self-educated” (88). And “the high rate of single preachers in America was directly related to the severe financial constraints of the office” (ibid). These men rode and preached year-round, depending for most their needs upon the hospitality of those to whom they ministered. For this reason, a third of Asbury’s Connection (name of the ME ruling body, composed of its itinerant preachers) cavalry died before the age of 30, with five years or less of service.

While Asbury’s methods were near draconian (and certainly more austere than even the apostle Paul’s lifestyle), his opposition to the ministerial habits of the day motivated him to demand this way of life from his underlings. What exactly were those habits? Hatch describes them from Asbury’s perspective in the following language: locality, gentility, and smug complacency; the prestige of urban congregations, a “high” doctrine of the pastoral office, and distancing oneself from popular enthusiasm; creating social division between themselves and the poor and radical; loss of contact with the working class of town and country; and so on.

Certainly, there is a negative lesson in Asbury’s method: ministers of the gospel should not be forced to remain single, live in poverty, and/or die early in order to carry out the functions of their office. Undue hardship should not be tolerated simply as a function of the Christian ministry. But there is also a positive lesson in Asbury’s motivation: ministers of the gospel must cultivate a reputation for feeding their sheep, not themselves.

An Important and Less-Than-Positive Lesson from the Conservatives (which no one really wants to admit out loud)

Over at Reformation 21, Carl Trueman has a post on the coming night of full-time ministers in America. His contention is that, as the bigger-is-better mentality continues to affect the Church, pastors of smaller congregations will eventually get squeezed out of their full-time salaries. Their churches and their positions will still exist, but in a much smaller form. Enter center stage: the liberals. According to Mr. Trueman’s liberal counterparts at liberal seminaries, this reality has already set in among liberal churches and liberal clergy. “Liberal friends at mainline seminaries tell me that bivocational ministry has become an established pattern…” According to Trueman, such a pattern might very well be the “key to survival” among conservatives as well.

At first, I thought Trueman’s post was brilliant. After all, I and my peers are currently living its truth. I am a rural pastor. I serve in a poor presbytery where the ministers are generally not well-paid. Many have other sources of income besides their pastoral salary, or they have simply learned to live on very little. I myself work two jobs in order to provide adequately for my family. In fact, I have often contemplated writing the very post that Dr. Trueman wrote. But let’s be honest: he has the credentials to be heard. I do not.

With that said, drinking Trueman’s insightful post to the dregs left me with much more sediment that I expected. More specifically, this postscript left my mental palette all scrunched up:

Postscript: A week or two before Christmas, the congregation where I have worshipped for over eight years and where I now sit on session voted to call me as its pastor from August 1 next year. If the presbytery decide to place the call into my hands at its February meeting, I will most certainly accept it. The call is part time and is, I suspect, the shape of things to come for many of the more modestly sized (i.e., the majority of) churches in the USA, given the current condition of the economy. In this instance, at least, I am hoping to practice what I preach – and indeed to do so while I preach.

With all due respect to the good docent theologiae (did I decline that correctly?), this is not what he preached. How is a full-time professor (with an adequate salary and benefits) moonlighting in the pastorate analogous to a full-time pastor struggling to fulfill the demands of his ministry while eking out a living at Wal-Mart or Lowe’s or some sort of part-time government work? It is not. Furthermore, while Trueman says his work will be part time, it is unclear whether the church he will be serving is capable of hiring someone full time. If it is, Trueman is not practicing his preaching, but rather blatantly violating it. He would be filling a position that another minister or ministerial candidate (the OPC is full of them right now) might otherwise fill. So then it would appear that the lesson of the liberals is that underpaid pastors should get another job. But the lesson of the conservatives is that they should have gotten their Ph.Ds and published something in order to double dip in both academia and the church.

Think I’m being too hard on Dr. Trueman? Think again. The Aquila Report reported today that the Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan has been elected as a regular faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary while remaining in his pastoral position (Senior Minister) at First Presbyterian Church. “But it ain’t the same!” you say. Well, yes, that’s formally true. Trueman is adding the church to his W-2; Duncan is adding the seminary. But aren’t they both adding lots more work to already adequately paying work? Of course they are. How could the Senior Minister of an almost dozen-member ministry staff possibly be in want or bored, especially when formerly occupied with regular “national speaking engagements”? Are we to believe that an academic dean and professor of church history at one of the top Reformed seminaries in America needs a part-time call to minister at his local church in order to pay the mortgage? Of course not. Yes, Messrs. Trueman and Duncan are bivocational; but their bivocational ministry resembles very little of the bivocational pattern that I and my peers know and live.

In fact, if we are going to be truth tellers, their pattern, like mine, also has a counterpart in liberalism. It’s an open secret that while many liberal congregations are poor and weak, their denominational headquarters are well-funded and vigorous. I know, I know: neither Duncan nor Trueman work at their denomination’s headquarters. But like their liberal counterparts, they do form an elite by virtue of their respective educations and positions. And like any elite–liberal or conservative–they have more well paying work than they can probably handle. 

So I guess the lesson then is neither from the liberals nor the conservatives. The lesson is from life in a world governed by God’s providence: there are have’s, and there are have-not’s. Patronizing the latter certainly isn’t going to change anything. 

The Lure of Rome

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey gives a great interview to Dr. R. Scott Clark over at Office Hours that focuses on the relatively recent departure of many prominent evangelicals to Roman Catholicism . I only had time to listen to the first five minutes or so of the interview, but it’s title (I stole it for this post…sorry!) and lead in stimulated my thinking on the attraction of Rome from a different perspective. Here in the hinterlands of South Dakota, people don’t really join up with Roman churches because they experience some sort of theological or ecclesiological awakening. The reasons here are far more mundane: boy falls in love with a nice Catholic girl (or vice versa), or boy/girl was simply born into the Roman church. The reason for these folks putting up with or staying connected to Rome has always fascinated me because of its coexistence with South Dakota’s wily cowboy culture. For both good and evil, folks in South Dakota are very sensitive to receiving the advice of experts. This includes theological ones whom they support with their weekly donations. Talk about not getting what you pay for (I have to keep telling myself that not everyone has relatives whose last name begins with “Van”)! But there seems to be something more important than that here in these parts (if you figure out what it is, please enlighten me). All I can tell you is that, when it comes to the Roman church, cowboy culture seems to press the pause button, and people whom you otherwise can’t tell anything to go and express their allegiance to the man who sits in what is reputed to be Peter’s Chair.

This was a total mystery to me until I had lunch one day with a member of my congregation who very much has the pulse on what goes on with most people in our small South Dakota community. He and his associate, a former Catholic, intimated to me that the draw of Rome is very simple: all the pomp, all the circumstance, all the ceremony, all the gravity and dignity–as we like to say in the business, “the bells and the smells”–gives Roman worship a very strong sense of legitimacy. It wasn’t so much that people really knew what Rome taught or believed. The truth is that they didn’t really care enough to go and find out. They liked Rome–and stayed there–because it felt holy, dignified, religious. How strange Protestantism must seem to the born and bred Roman Catholic! There’s no missal, just a bulletin that keeps changing every Sunday. There’s no scripted kneeling or standing or crossing of oneself. If you’re a Catholic and find yourself in the wrong Protestant building, there might even be rolling around in the aisles or people spitting out gibberish that they call “tongues” (whatever that means)! At a much more realistic level, however, the problems of Protestant church life are manifold, especially when it comes to the local church. When is the last time a Roman parish had a church split? Um…the Reformation…nearly 500 years ago!!! If you’re Protestant, when is the last time your home congregation had a church split? For me: only about 10 years ago.
The temptation to come to Protestantism’s and the Reformation’s defense at this point is nearly irresistable, but I’m going to do so as best as I can. The lesson to be learned here is not how to engage in pro-Protestant polemics. The lesson to be learned here is that, for many people, their Christianity is appropriated through their experience of congregational life. The lesson to be learned, for Protestants, is that if our version of Christianity, from its doctrine of justification to its doctrine and practice of the church, is really so much better than Rome’s version, then we had better start living it out.
Here are three things we can start doing today.
1. We can commit ourselves to stability.
I like visiting Roman parishes from time to time (especially in little towns) because, when I do, I inevitably come to learn that two people who are sworn enemies out in the world somehow manage to play nice before the priest in church. Those predisposed to cynicism will say that this is part of the hypocrisy of Romanism. Sorry, but that’s too easy. In my opinion, it exhibits a kind of civility that most Protestants know nothing of, even though, as far as their doctrine goes, they should. In Protestant doctrine and ethics, congregational life (especially outside of worship) is all about carving away your own selfishness and sin so that God can use us to bless others. Sadly, we Protestants find ways to fight with people whom we only see in a church context! Personality and preference trump the preaching and practice of the gospel. Shame on us. We need what Gerald Schlabach (oh no!…a Mennonite!) urges in his book Unlearning Protestantism: we need stability.
2. We can deeply desire doctrine.
If the Reformation was all about Rome’s adulteration of the doctrine of justification (indeed, the kernel of salvation), guess what the success of all subsequent Protestantism will be based on? The charisma of your church’s next pastor? An awesome music ministry? The purchase of an arcade-esque ministry center? Nope. It’s doctrine, dummy! We need pastors who are ready to shepherd their flocks with an accurate and faithful summary of the truths of the Bible. Perhaps more importantly, we need churches that are eager to eat spiritually from the ministerial work of such a shepherd. Our heritage as the Protestant church is not one of the pursuit of relevance or of being snazzy. It’s one of doctrine. If we stop wanting that, we’ll naturally stop wanting to be those opposed to the unfaithfulness of Rome. In fact, we might even start being mesmerized by its bells and smells.
3. We can worship God in reverence and awe.
This isn’t just a Roman thing. It’s also (or at least should be) a Protestant thing. After all, as my favorite Roman priest always quips, aren’t we the Bible people! Hebrews 12:28-29 clearly states, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.'” The truth about Protestant congregational life and doctrine is that they all begin and end with worship. You’ll never find Protestant doctrine and practice closer than when a congregation gathers for worship. There is where you will find out whether folks are gathered for entertainment or for the feeding of their souls, for the triune God and each other or merely for themselves. If we’re going to chase relevance (which is necessarily subjective and determined by those outside the church) and fun in our worship, the messiness of a meaningful Protestantism will always seem like a distant second to the predictable yet safe liturgirobics of Rome.

Bavinck on Pietism and Rationalism

For Pietism and rationalism are ever prone to separate what God has joined together and either with disdain for the sacrament stress personal conversion or emphasize the practice of ecclesiastical confirmation.  But the rule of the covenant is that the church must nurture its youthful members, who were born as children of the covenant and incorporated as members by baptism, to where they can make an independent personal profession of faith and on that basis admit them to the Lord’s Supper.  It does not and cannot judge the heart.  Accordingly, while on the one hand it bars from the Lord’s Supper all those who by their talk or walk manifest themselves as unbelieving and ungodly people, it never, on the other hand, desists from seriously preaching that the Lord’s Supper is instituted only for those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins but who nevertheless trust that their sins have been forgiven for Christ’s sake and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and lead a better life.

The Rev. Dr. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Dutch Reformed Translation Society, 2008), IV, 585.

Dr. Hart Strikes Again

I’m not sure who appointed Dr. Darryl Hart as Presbyterian gadfly to The Gospel Coalition, but I’m sure Justin Taylor would like to know. Dr. Hart once again presents a Presbyterian critique of Mr. Taylor’s “Reformed” views, this time in analyzing an interview with Baptist theologian Stephen Wellum that he published on his blog at TGC. Dr. Hart’s comments confirm once again the Presbyterian and Reformed beef with credo-baptism: the continuity of the covenants (as expressions of the covenant of grace) and the ecclesiology they assume get trampled under foot in pursuit of the covenants’ discontinuity. At least that’s what the 1689 London Baptist Confession seems to suggest…

Magisterial Minus the Magisterium

The Presbyterian and Reformed tradition grew out of what is called the magisterial Reformation: the part of the Reformation that accepted and even called upon the civil government (magistrates…”magisterium”) to promote church reform in doctrine and practice.  While maintaining the emphasis on biblical doctrine and practice, American Presbyterianism represents a marked break from the magisterial Reformation in terms of the role of the civil magistrate.  In particular, the American version of the Westminster Confession of Faith consigns both the magistrate and the church to operate in their separate spheres, crossing over only in exceptional cases (e.g. public order, humble petitions).

This central, although often overlooked, doctrine of American Presbyterianism lies at the heart of a book review by Dr. Darryl Hart.  In reviewing two books–one that baptizes the idea of a Christian empire, the other the American republic–Dr. Hart warns us not to baptize the regimes of those who are in authority over us.  There is only one kingdom of God, and they are not it.