Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What A Good Pastor Is To Do, 11

I'm not sure what people mean when they call someone a "heresy hunter," but I'm pretty sure I'm one. It has to do with my own conversion story. Having been committed to the gross error and idolatry of Islam, when I came to Christ I was perhaps a bit hyper about doctrine and theology. Upon being brought to Christ, I was driven to read sound doctrinal works. I didn't know the term "doctrine" or have a coherent sense of what I was looking for except to know that I wanted to know God. Imagine how my heart jumped when on the first weekday following my conversion, I visited the local Lifeway bookstore, made my way to that shelf or two tucked into the abandoned, dusty corner of the store marked "theology," and purchased two books: J.I. Packer's Knowing God and Lloyd-Jones' three-volume work, Great Doctrines of the Bible.

I had no idea what I was buying, but I've not been the same since purchasing and reading these works. It was a tremendous expression of God's grace to lead me to these men and their work, to start my Christian life in this way. I am thankful, so thankful.

Having known what it is in my own life to believe a lie and to base my life on it, I'm something of a "heresy hunter." Now, by that term, I don't mean I'm the type that searches under every rock for any error however so small to slam the person and the idea with all my might. Neither am I angry and vengeful when it comes to error. But I am seriously concerned with it.

So, there's a certain amount of resonance that's set off in me any time I come across a passage in the Bible warning of false teachers... and there are a lot of such passages. But today I'm taken with Paul's warning not of false teachers "out there" but of the creeping effect of falsehood and laxity "inside" my own thinking and teaching. 1 Timothy 4:16 -- "Keep close watch... on the teaching."

In verses 1-5 Paul warned of such corruption in others who would fall for the deceiving doctrines of demons. There, he warned the young minister that some would turn away from the truth. In verse 16, he warns the young pastor of his own corruption in doctrine. "Keep close watch... on the teaching," on your own doctrine. It's a good charge to all who would be good pastors. How are we to watch our doctrine closely?

Some preliminary suggestions....

1. Make the Scripture central. A good pastor is a man of one book. He knows no higher science than theology, and no richer art than the study of Scripture. The holy Word of God occupies center stage in his thinking. He seeks to drink deeply from the Scripture, and hears Paul's admonition to "learn not to go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6).

2. Read and re-read good, old books. The old books are still the best books. I don't think that's temporal snobbery (at least I don't mean it to be), or a blanket slight of recent books. But the old books typically offer greater rigor, insight, and depth than most of what's published in our mass-market-oriented publishing industry.

3. Read bad books once in a while. Not regularly or exclusively, but on occasion, a good pastor reads a bad book. He may do this because many of his people are taken with interest in the book, or because the book is creating a stir in the larger church world. He may read such a book to know what the issues are, what's at stake, to better shepherd his people, or to sharpen his own apologetics ministry.

4. Read church history and historical theology. Most of the errors we'll ever see have already been made by someone before us. There's nothing new under the sun... including bad theology. A good pastor helps to innoculate himself from such errors by reading church history and hihstorical theology where these issues are chronicled, debated and resolved by godly men who have gone before us. Reading church history and historical theology is likely a regular part of a good pastor's reading diet.

5. Avoid novelty and fads. It seems that this is where most error starts, with a desire to say something new or innovative. The last place we want to be innovative is in doctrine. When a good pastor comes across something altogether new in his study and reading, he will be pressed with three questions at least: (1) Specifically how does this depart with accepted, established truths of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints? (2) What impact does this idea or doctrine have on other important doctrinal issues? (3) How does this impact the lives of people? Is this impact really worth the dangers or problems associated with the novel interpretation? Paul tells Timothy in verse 7 to avoid irreverent, silly myths; the good pastor will avoid these things as well.

6. Keep learning from solid teachers. What good pastor will ever stop learning? And who can master all there is to know from a Tom Schreiner, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, and all your other favorite teachers? A good pastor commits himself to continuing to strengthen his knowledge of the Savior and the faith, and he will make a specific plan for such learning. He may take a seminary course (on campus or online), listen by radio or online, attend good conferences, or join a study group, but he'll keep learning.

7. Be the first to sign the church's statement of faith. Give yourself to upholding and defending it as an accurate summary of the Bible's main teaching. And the moment you waiver in your commitment to an article in the statement, confess it to your fellow elders and leaders for accountability, correction, and discipline if necessary. Cheerfully accept the discipline of the church for serious error in teaching.

8. Develop an instinct for identifying doctrinal softness and drift. In most cases, a good pastor is going to be the "chief theological officer" in the body. Consequently, he'll need to be fairly astute at monitoring his own thoughts and being intellectually rigorous with himself. So a nose for identifying when he's being lazy or sloppy or indifferent theologically is critical. He has to fight against that tendency toward compromise. He must realize that he will not serve his people well if his tendency is to constantly surrender "small plots of theological ground" whenever the fear of man surfaces. He must discern whether people-pleasing tendencies are the habit of his heart and whether that weakens doctrinal resolve. He must know whether he tends to avoid conflict and whether that erodes his fidelity to the truth. He must know when and how pragmatism assumes control of his thinking such that he's tempted to leave off sound doctrine and choose a thing "because it works." He needs a honed instinct for spotting drift and softness in himself and a specific plan for overcoming it.

Here's a stark reality: Nearly every heresy or widespread doctrinal corruption in the church came while some pastor was on the job. He either introduced it or he allowed it into the body. And a significant number of such errors were developed by men who sought what was right in their own eyes and disregarded the great truths of Scripture and the godly wisdom of those gone before us.

Paul's exhortation is the most practical and critically important possible. The good pastor's close watch of his life and doctrine affects the spiritual well-being of his people. By keepig close watch of his life and doctrine, the good pastor "will save both himself and his hearers." May the Lord give us grace to be good and faithful ministers to His people.


Steve Weaver said...

Great post and a great series. I look forward to reading these posts more closely in the future.

Thanks my brother!

Scott Welch said...

Wow! These keep getting better and better. My heart has been encouraged and challenged through this series.

Anonymous said...

To #2, I think the oldest books are best because we have forgotten all the bad ones from the same time period. It's like the reams of detritus we have on today's bookstore shelves - 99% of it will not survive the 21st century, but that 1% will be notable for various reasons. But your point stands - old usually means good if people still remember it.

Scott Welch said...

I heard John Piper say once that the reason we should read the classics is because they have stood the test of time...that is what makes them classic! His biography of Athanasius is very helpful in this area (he draws on C.S. Lewis) and I commend it as a resource.

Shawn Abigail said...

Old books have not only stood the test of time and remained classics, but they also speak to us from outside our society and culture. This gives them a useful perspective, unaffected by whatever hot button issues society is currently worrying about.

blogstad said...

I really liked how you laid this out Thabiti, and everything that you write here. I think this is a great list of ways to test doctrines for a lay person like myself as well. Like everyone else has said, I like #2 because it gives us a view outside of our culture (as I'm noticing how the culture I grew up in has tweaked my mind the more I study non-postmodern writings). So, keep up the good work!