When Pastors Doubt

Pastors often find themselves ministering to people who assume the pastor believes just what they believe about something. Often enough the parishioner doesn’t ask “You agree with me, don’t you?” or even ask the pastor to sign on the line for some belief, but sometimes that does happen. This kind of incongruence is not uncommon, but I want to probe the issue of the pastor and doubt from a different angle today.

Pastors are required to be “on” all the time; they are expected to go from strong faith to stronger faith; they are expected to have the problems resolved sufficiently so that they can be counted on for the sure word.

But it’s not like that. At least not for all pastors.

In a recent book by John Suk, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt, we are treated to a memoir-ish sketch of one pastor’s formerly firm foundation in the faith into suppressed doubts into doubts in the open, and now from his blog I have learned that he has chosen to resign his ministerial credentials in the Christian Reformed Church. This book tells the story of the pastor whose faith has been wounded by postmodernity. That wound is worn not just by pastors but by many people in churches today.

His book strategy is to sketch Western history through the lens of its general epistemology as illustrative for his own journey: the enchanted orality world of a world alive with God, into modernity’s focus on texts and the enlightenment’s scientific, propositional approach, into postmodernity’s critique of modernity and certainty and grand narratives and local knowledge frameworks, into the digital faith where secondary orality returns as people read texts less and interact with one another via other media. His historical descriptions tend to be grand and simplistic, esp the chp on “Literate Faith,” but there’s something essential to the eras that he exploits well for illumination of faith and doubt.

Some themes, and I wonder if you are who are doubting find his themes resonate with your own journey:

1. Nostalgia: “I would love to revel in the old, old story that I was taught as a child; I want to dream the dreams I had for the kingdom when I was a young pastor just out of seminary; I want to worship with songs that I sing from the roots of my being” (2).

2. Setting for much less: “… all I can honestly do most days is put one foot in front of the other. I have lived for long periods when my faith has been mostly effort and not much consolation, and my doubts often weighty and depressing” (3).

3. Judged: Suk says their two sons have doubts — but “Christian Reformed people have been socialized to think that passing on the faith to their children is just about the most important thing going. And when people take the measure of each other in our communion, they do so, in part, by checking out where the kids are and how the parents have done by them” (5).

4. Virus: “No, doubt is a virus; you catch it without knowing where you caught it. There are very few, if any, effective treatments, and it can be painful and debilitating” (6). Therefore, Suk admits “I am a Christian agnostic” (6).

5. Education as ending enchantment: Suk’s story is that while seminary was profoundly valuable and exciting, it was a time that laid the groundwork — through exposure, through questions, etc — for what is sometimes called “cosmopolitan relativism” and doubt: knowing more and more about the world and other ideas and religions and theologies tends to erode the confidence one has in one’s traditional faith.

6. Irony: many pastors know the condition of serving people when the pastor can seemingly jump out of the scene, examine it all, and wonder if it make sense. Suk’s problems, discussed piercingly in his chp on “Postmodern Faith,” was not only the cosmopolitan relativism but learning creation stories in the Ancient Near East, and the sense of imminency in the New Testament, the politics of the Nicene Creed — and pastoring people who were tied into micro-ethics when he was seeking to find firm ground at the macro-ethical level. He reexamined some theological views in his CRC tradition and found them wanting. He encountered Chris Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as cutting into a high view of Scripture. He began to see theology as the apparatus holding up a group.

7. Rationality no longer matters: most pastors came of age when theology mattered deeply; theological differences, after all, created the variety of denominations we now have. But these pastors are encountering more and more often in their parishes people for whom theology doesn’t matter, which church they attend is not shaped by its theology, and rational thinking — classic modernity to be sure — simply does not matter and so their own faith is a bricolage of various theologians and religious ideas. So some are asking “What difference does theology make?” while they are dispensing theology weekly from the pulpit.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Stu

    Scott, I’m going to get this book.

    I’m an ex-pastor who is doubting much. I’ve always tried to go the middle road (yes I really know how subjective that is :) ), but after seeing a shallow acceptance of what I can only describe as an evangelical/charismatic superstition in my congregation accompanied by sharp loss of breath should I dare to question say, the ‘positivity gospel’, I’ve found that my doubt has been reinforced by the people of God themselves. I now feel isolated from most congregations I try to attend.

    At the moment, and I haven’t given up, but at the moment point 6 about irony is sooooo representative of my current sentiments that I’m desperate for God to intervene. And here’s the kicker, God doesn’t.

    I guess that’s where real faith comes in.

    What’s frustrating is how few of my congregation would accept my pathway, again, isolating me.

    Can I ask though, where does John Suk end up with his book? Does he offer a kind of hope for the disillusioned, or does it remain unresolved?

    many thanks

  • A Pastor

    Yes, these themes – and many of the particulars – do resonate deeply with my own journey. I will be surprised if John Suk’s journey is over at this point. He may discover that the deconstruction of one’s previous faith system clears the ground for something new and more deeply true. He may be delighted to find “a new kind of Christianity.” Perhaps Mother Teresa’s story of fruitful ministry despite (because of?) the loss of God as she had known him will give him hope. Perhaps John Cobb’s thoughtful and earnest commitment to Christ from a radically different epistemological framework will ring true at some level. The intellectual certainty will (mercifully) never return, but the sense of living in reality will increase and inspire. The new emerges from the old and serves the purpose of God (as God actually is, as distinct from our ideas about God) in its generation. The emerging comes through hard labor and pain. But afterward one can breathe deeply, and smile again. And laugh.

  • Scot McKnight

    Stu, I will post a few more times on this book; he doesn’t resolve doubt but finds a faith with doubt.

  • RJS

    This is an interesting post – I am going to have to read the book. The doubts experienced by pastors are not significantly different from the doubts experienced by others, but the context is quite different and can make them even more stressful (and they are stressful enough for the rest). Scot notes in the post:

    Pastors are required to be “on” all the time; they are expected to go from strong faith to stronger faith; they are expected to have the problems resolved sufficiently so that they can be counted on for the sure word.

    One of the commenters on my post yesterday used a great turn of phrase: it is the “there is only one way to think about this issue and I will tell you about it over dessert” approach. Another variant is the “I will answer these questions in a 30 minute sermon (or a series of 4 30 minute sermons)” approach … of course with no questions, no discussion.

    I found that no pastor could help me with my questions – it would (1) take too much time, (2) require too much work, and (3) require stepping away from the party line on at least some issues. In this environment a pastor with serious questions is doubly handicapped.

  • Tim

    Scot,

    Thank you for sharing. As a pastor, I can relate. Though I do not feel that my problem is doubt per se, I feel that my own beliefs are in conflict with the “folk theology” that seems to undergird most churches and Christians in rural areas. Even in a church that has some moderate leanings, there are large pockets of six-day creationists, pre-millenial dispensationalism, inerrancy, and the only understanding of the cross being the penal substitution view.

    Furthermore, I serve in a community in which even the Southern Baptists are accused of liberalism by an association of King James only, Southern Gospel singing, fundamentalist Baptists. Their ministers are indoctrinated in Bible colleges and are taught to sell their version of the faith, with any divergences being a road to hell.

    It makes it hard for me, as a pastor who has majored in religion and has a degree from Duke, to break through these influences that are ingrained into the minds and practices of our members and the community. I never challenge these views one-on-one (though I probably should). Nevertheless, using the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ despite using parables and modern day illustrations, is mainly talking past others.

    And, then there is the God and Country crew who just don’t see a conflict between their patriotism and faith. Really, their views are Country and God, not vice versa.

    Where my doubt arises is in the church. I love Stanley Hauerwas’ ecclesiology. But if he is right, then we are all in trouble. If the Spirit is there illuminating truth as well as offering particular guidance in local congregations, I am not seeing it. Rather, I see a radical disconnect from local congregations and things that seem to be going on in Acts. And, this disconnect seems to permeate much of church history. There always seems to be a lack of excitement unless the preacher is preaching about “everyday life” things like marriage, family, career, etc. And, rarely are these topics connected to the kingdom of God. Also, there is rarely a sense of God’s will, unless the congregation is building a facility or rennovating one.

    And, I do not think that it is helpful to say to pastors that there are no perfect churches. None of us who ‘complain’ about church life want a perfect church. Rather, we want imperfect churches that are passionate about the Kingdom of God, and our conflict comes as we discern the Spirit’s movement. Our sins come as we focus on the prize but stumble and fall and get back up as we move towards effective ministry. Right now, the length of a worship service and “getting more members” seems to be our main concern. No depth whatsoever…

    I guess my struggle is how do I continue to serve a local congregation when my faith in the local expressions of the mission of God seem to be so far off the course?

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    To anyone wrestling with these kinds of doubt (as I have) I can’t reccommend enough Peter Rollin’s “How (not) to Speak of God” and (after reading that) “Insurection.”

    Thanks in large part to Pete I’ve come to see doubt as NECESSARY to a mature faith. To believe that our doctrines and ideas about God can ever contain and define Him is a path to making “God” himself (or, rather, our conceptions of Him) into an idol.

  • Andy

    Scott,
    I am a pastor who seems to be in a similar place as Tim. I have already gone through the doubt stage (Dark night of the soul) – while I was a lay member. More often than not I find that I am at odds with not so much the theology of the pews, but the unwillingness of the congregation to live into a present reality of the reign of God through a Risen Messiah.

    My personal antidote is a focus on the spiritual disciplines daily. When I am faithful to this practice, I am strong in my weakness like Paul. When I am not faithful, then I’m just weak. And naming where the reign of God can be touched and be seen and be can be heard is important to me. An example is when one of my congregants known for her sharp tongue and propensity for gossip – even during worship – speaks up reminding the congregation that “as the pastor has preached we are called to pray for not only our family and friends, but neighbors, and even strangers we meet in line at the grocery store.”

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    We just get so wrapped up in knowledge, in the content of our cognitive theological beliefs, that we blind ourselves to the only thing that matters: following in the footsteps of Christ. We segregate and separate and divide, and push away based on theology when the only Truth is found in union with the broken body and and spilt blood of Christ. When we see people and theology and church with Christ’s eyes we become humble about our own cognitive idolatry and realize that everyone else is going through the same, though they do not see.

    In the end does the content of our ideas about God matter at all apart from the fruit of the content of our beliefs? If a set of beliefs frees one from his sins and leads him along a path of giving one’s self up as Christ did does it not pass the central test of orthodoxy? In a desire to incarnate the love of christ to others in loving sacrifice might we be called to lay aside our more “correct” theology and to take up residence in the world of those we are to love and be willing to lay down “righ thinking” to manifest the peace of God in the midst of brokenness without condemning the people who believe differently? How far are we willin to go to “be all things to all people” in a post-modern world?

    If this is true it is a lonely life. To enter into a space where you can never be understood or agreed with. Where you must speak in parables and acts of mercy because propositional words would not be heard as you mean them to. You would have to give up defining the gospel by words, sharing it by living it and speaking it more plainly only to those with ears to hear. You would have to literally be willing to give up your Self to become like the ignorant masses. But isn’t that what Christ did for us?

  • PastorM

    I would suggest reading what James Fowler and Scott Peck write about the stages of spiritual growth–Peck has about 4 pages in Further Along the Road Less Traveled. What some call doubt, may really be spiritual growth, moving from one stage to another. Many fear this, calling it doubt, or losing one’s faith, but there comes a time when one’s “old” ways of seeing things does not work any longer. I view conversion as all about seeing and coming to see as Jesus sees–Just look at how many times Jesus uses the verb see in the Gospels.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    (One more note) I can’t begin to imagine how difficult this calling (my last post) would be for a pastor of a church who demands perfect congruity of every belief. It might be impossible to pastor such a church. Jesus was run out of many towns. I want to express the deepest compassion and love for those of you who are doing this, trying to love people who just don’t see it. Thank you brothers and sisters. To have enough faith to doubt is the narrow road. Thank you for walking it.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, your question at the end is one of mine, too. I have taken comfort in Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, but it doesn’t go far enough. And my Anabaptism, wherein we expect disciples not apathy, makes the problem more serious.

  • scotmcknight

    Pastor M,

    It’s one thing to tell a doubter that they are in a phase of growth; it’s quite another for the doubter to say right back, “But it’s not true.” My favorite image for the one with doubt is that of Jacob — who wrestled God but limped the rest of his life. Some think they will be healed, some are; others learn to walk and run with a limp.

  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    Tim:

    I think of the serious warning by Jesus in His Revelation to John about this or that congregation losing its candlestick. In my opinion, many places called church in America have lost that candlestick a long time ago.

  • Michael Teston

    I too have just recently stepped away from the local parish after 26 years of serving. I share the sentiments of Stu and Tim above. But many of the responses resonate with me. I am just exhausted what with (I like the phrase) “folk religion” in the pews and the flag waving politic of the average pew sitter that ignores The King and the Kingdom, a much bigger picture than what pervades most of the practices of local “church.” I am actually embarrassed by the insulated enclaves, ie. church, that in real practices promote a world and kingdom diametrically opposed to the ways of the King. Today, I cling to only my “trust/pisteuo” of Jesus, trust not “belief/believe” which has been a demeaning kind of cognitive exercise in check list religion in so much of what goes for faith in my journey as a pastor. I am fearful that much of “textless” belief or “proof-text” belief has left behind the largest expressions of “abundant living” Jesus came to offer us. So much of what you find germinating in “church” is “fearful living” covered in the veneer of a controlling, vindictive character portrayed as god. I guess there really is only three things left for me . . . faith, hope, and love.

  • Chris Miller

    I am a retired United Church of Canada pastor. John has joined the UCC and will be a minister in one of our Toronto churches. Here`s the url. In our denomination, his journey will be welcomed by many. http://www.lawrenceparkchurch.ca/
    I am using the following Eugene Peterson quote this Sunday introducing the Assurance of Forgiveness and Grace:
    “The central theme in the religious life is not my knowledge of God but God`s knowledge of me – of you. Not my faltering search for God but God`s search for me. God`s aggressive search for us and God`s exhaustive knowledge of us have resulted in an existence in which there is no place we can go where God is absent….We can deny God, we can curse God, we can ignore God, and God is still intimately acquainted with all our ways, still tenderly holding us in his love, still faithfully extending his mercy to us, and still generously offering us his grace.“ [Conversations, Eugene H. Peterson, P. 921]

  • Jon G

    Nate in #6 beat me to the punch. Rollins’ treatment of this issue is wonderful. I specifically feel the weight of his claim that congregants often don’t wrestle with their doubts because they take on the belief (whether genuine or just percieved) of their pastor. They think “well, he/she believes and obviously has spent their life sorting this stuff out…I may not understand it, but I’ll believe it because I trust their judgement.”

    It’s an appeal to authority, and it’s a burden that no pastor should carry.

    I think any discussion of this topic has to engage Rollins’ work at some point.

  • Theo

    I appreciate Andy’s comment above (# 7) about practising the spiritual disciplines. I cannot say that I personally have had huge struggles with doubt, although I have experienced my share of day-to-day doubts in the course of living. Yet, like Andy, I find that praying the Daily Office for over three decades now has been a sustaining discipline, especially the rhythm of praying through the Psalms. The psalmists were of course plagued by their own doubts, and they give voice to these on behalf of all of us, if we are honest about it. The Christian Reformed Church has sung metrical Psalms from the outset, but these are increasingly supplanted, as in most other protestant churches, by hymns breathing a different kind of piety. This undoubtedly has its effects on the people in the pews and perhaps even behind the pulpit.

    I understand that Suk will be transferring his credentials to the United Church of Canada, easily the most liberal denomination in that country and one that has experienced a huge membership decline over the past half century. There may be residual pockets of vitality, but in general the focus in the United Church is less the centrality of Christ and his work, and more on social and political causes, especially those closest to Canada’s New Democratic Party. Will Suk find spiritual solace there? I have my doubts, but God’s grace is capable of reaching us in the most unpromising of settings. Our prayers go with him.

  • Chris Miller

    Amen to Theo`s comments in 17.

  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    Michael (#14) also reminded me of this little piece of an essay by Jacques Ellul on “Faith and Belief”. It may be relevant: http://www.christinyou.com/pages/faithbelief.html

  • Michael Teston

    thanks Cal for that essay. Relevant indeed.

  • Wyatt

    Pastors are people too. And I thought doubt was important to learning about oneself and the world.

    If I was a pastor (thank God I am not and you should be glad I’m not), I’d be very afraid to even say the word. There are way too many knee-jerkers, judges, theological and personal shock troops, gossips, rumor mongers, theological assassins, character killers, hand wringers, head waggers, naysayers, seminary students and Church Ladys in our midst.

    Scary.

  • Beakerj

    Whilst I’m not a Pastor, rather a voluntary church youth worker ( in the British, not the American sense) of 15 yrs standing, a lot of this resonates for me. During my recent (2010) experience of my Mother’s death the knowledge I had of God was severely tested…and failed really, on the epistemology of language, (as well as any ‘felt’ sense of God) especially of knowing exactly what the words ‘good’ and ‘love’ mean in relation to God. The stressors on this knowledge has really been the ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ talked about by Smith, especially when informed by the Calvinist/Arminian spectrum. My confidence in those words broke in the face of death, and I don’t know how to rebuild. All my Christian life I’ve asked God to make what he has given, his revelation and works, enough for me to truly love and trust him, and it just hasn’t happened. And this happened alongside my dying Mother clearly professing her faith in Christ ( I hadn’t been sure), and my church family totally stepping up to look after me when I was at home ill with grief. So I doubly don’t understand – why would God be present there, but not in my internal struggles?

    I come out of a background of L’Abri really, and a with it an acceptance and welcome of honest doubt, which is always what I taught my church young people. I’ve stepped away from church work right now, and don’t often go to church because I know if I tell those young people what I really think and feel about God right now it could derail them. I have huge sympathy for the Pastors talking here. I really don’t know where my story will end.

  • dopderbeck

    In these conversations about “doubt,” it often troubles me that we don’t make more careful distinctions. For this pastor to “doubt” some of his received CRC distinctives, for example, is not a form of sinful “doubt,” IMHO. Certainly this can be emotionally very jarring, particularly if it means changing polities and jobs and so-on. But it may be that through this he perseveres and even grows in basic faith in God’s goodness in Christ and finds other ways to live and serve — even if, as you say Scot, he goes on to “walk with a limp.” Maybe the kind of “growth” God wants for some of us is that humbling limp… and maybe that humbling limp is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.”

    The fact is that if you are any kind of Christian with any kind of convictions, you are in “doubt” as to some convictions held by at least some other Christians with at least some other convictions. At present, for example, I “doubt” the infallibility of the Pope; I “doubt” that the King James is the only true translation; I “doubt” rapture theology; I “doubt” snake handling; I “doubt” double predestination…. etc., etc., etc. If “faith” requires holding with absolute certainty every distinctive proposition of one particular Christian polity, then almost nobody has “faith” and the “faith” of most of us is invalid.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, RJS already cross-referenced her excellent post on this, and there is one other book that I’ve often found helpful, which is Os Guiness’ “God in the Dark.” Guiness helpfully distinguishes between doubting God and realizing that Christian faith presents mysteries that no one has yet fully understood — and that the humble desire to seek greater understanding is part of faith.

  • dopderbeck

    Sorry triple post!: also the classic quote by Newman: “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

  • Theo

    I’m not certain how to take this: “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Did Newman mean to say that 10,000 difficulties do not add up to a single doubt? or that 10,000 difficulties do not cause a person to doubt? Newman was a master of English prose, but this sounds ambiguous to me — at least taken out of its context.

  • http://www.banditsnomore.com Richard Heyduck

    Postmodernity is a problem for us because for too long we put all our eggs (well, most of them at least) in the wrong basket, coming up with a Christian epistemology adequate to the requirements of modernity. Failing that (as postmodernity highlights failure as inevitable), we’re left with what? What we’ve always done?

    I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of Nicky Gumbel’s first Alpha Talk – “Boring, Untrue, and Irrelevant?” Our modern Christianity focused on the “untrue” problem in our attempt to win over moderns. Now we’re almost entirely mired in “boring & irrelevant” for so many people. There is no way of accommodation to culture (whether from the liberal or conservative sides) that will overcome those deficits (or bring us back to a healthy version of “true”). There’s a lot of Hauerwas that I’m not sure what to do with, but he’s on the right track when he pushed non-accommodation, living in the church in a way that makes no sense to the world.

  • John Squires

    This is a fine reflection and the responses dig deeper into the issue. There is no doubt (sorry!) that doubt has been given a bad rap — not the least by Jesus and his brother James. (I won’t wuote the passages.) But when I read Matt 28:17 and Luke 24:38 I see that doubt is integral to the post-resurrection story. And surely that doubt is not simply wiped away in one fell swoop by a brisk Jesus appearance? I prefer to read these texts as validating the role of doubt in the Christian life and encouraging us to grapple with it openly in the way that this book encouraged. But doing this in an environment of ‘apathy’ and clinging to ‘the traditional ways’ [which may or may not relate to the central traditions of Christian faith] is difficult. After 20 years of teaching biblical studies to candidates for ministry and interested lay people (and supervising research students) I am now in a local congregational ministry where these dynamics play out each week. Yes, it’s a struggle.

  • http://nakedpastor.com David Hayward (aka ‘nakedpastor’)

    Great post. I wrote a similar one about why it is so difficult for pastors to leave the ministry: http://www.nakedpastor.com/2012/06/02/why-it-is-so-difficult-for-pastors-to-leave-the-ministry/ I thought it might contribute to the conversation.

  • http://gospelthemes.blogspot.com Tom Schuessler

    What Theo said about the spiritual disciplines is so true. Right now 2 Cor 4 is a lifeline for me. Because I work long hours the best Bible study for me is listening to the NT audio in my car. A side benefit is that you miss the news, which is not a good thing to dwell on, especially today (Colorado).

  • R.C.

    All true.

    But one other thing to remember: The Early Church Fathers.

    I think doubt sometimes comes from all our current obsession with reading either one another, or with reading Scripture. By “one another” I mean popular but modern Christian writers who are of course well-meaning, but who’re just as widely separated from the fountainhead as we are, and share all our myopias. We are parochial in our view, not so much geographically, but temporally: We’re too much creatures of our own age.

    And, living in an echo-chamber of popular spiritual writers and systematic theologies and political crosswinds, we become dimly aware of our intellectual and spiritual inbreeding, and become equally suspicious of the whole conversation, and all the voices in it, including our own. Where is truth in all of this conversation?

    Jesus’ hearers were surprised because he taught as one with authority, and not as their usual scribes and teachers. Don’t you feel a bit surrounded by mostly the “usual scribes and teachers?” No wonder we doubt!

    And of course there’s no such thing as “just” reading Scripture…but our minds are so weighted with our own opinions of interpretation, or the (sometimes conflicting) patterns and approaches of our own era to the Scriptures, or a few quotes from our personal preferred 16th century martyrs or reformers, that there comes a point when Scripture itself seems to lead us back into ourselves and the narrowness of our era, rather than the depths and fullness of Christ.

    C.S.Lewis’ comment about the importance of reading old books goes a long way towards solving that. How much we can learn from Bede, from Boethius!

    But the salutary effect of reading the saints of old gets even better as we draw closer to the disciples of the apostles themselves, I think.

    For it is one thing to see how another age receives the words of Paul, the words of John, the words of Peter. But it is quite another thing to read the words of the men who were taught by Paul, by John, by Peter, or by their close and trusted disciples. It is one thing to read a scripture commentary from a man who rose to a position of preeminence in a 20th century church on the basis of his excellent preaching or that church’s excellent youth programs; it is another to read scripture commentary from a man who only became a presbyter or an episkopos because Peter or Paul or John laid hands on him and approved him for a leadership position in the early Church!

    Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, plus the Didache and Hermas and the rest, right up to the era of Chrysostom and Athanasius and Augustine, give us pages and pages, volumes and volumes, of reflections on the faith, on worship, on doctrine, on holiness, on issues of morality.

    Are they inerrant writings? Of course not. But neither is C.S.Lewis or A.W.Tozer or (fill in whatever spiritual writer you think relevant). And yet these fellows were taught by the apostles, or the apostles’ close disciples. These fellows saw Scripture through, if not first-century Jewish eyes, then at least second- and third-century Greek and Latin and North African eyes, which I suspect is a darned sight closer than 20th and 21st century post-Christendom Western Civ eyes. They received the faith at two or three or four removes from Jesus Himself. Not too shabby!

    Anyhow, if a person feels his anchor is becoming unmoored, I think it’s not a bad idea to hook it a little deeper in the roots of Christianity.

  • Rob Henderson

    There is always the risk and danger of doing “virtual reality” ministry. It’s almost as though we are playing a video game as we move our lives in and out of the lives of the people, the faces and the Person of God.

    Thankfully, my children (adult kids of great faith) saw the warning signs that led to my wife and I going to a pastoral retreat center that helped us deal with some very real matters of faith in God and healing of our broken hearts. Through the prayers of my loving congregation, family support and the Holy Spirit we found incredible victory in our “dark night of the soul.”

    Ministry is tough work. But the truth is that I am not the rescuer, Jesus is. I came to this church to change the people; instead, the Church through Jesus Christ has changed me. I continue to be a product of His grace through faith- not by works, lest I boast.

  • dopderbeck

    theo – I think Newman was being intentionally ambiguous!

  • Chip

    The responses here are generally passionate and heartfelt, and so I have no intention of minimizing them. But for those shepherds who are struggling with the differences in their own faith vs. that prevalent in the congregation(s) that they serve, I have a serious question: Can you love and respect your sheep just as they are, even if their faith never changes to be more like your own? For probably the majority of ministry work proceeds at what seems to be a glacially slow place. Those who do not doubt traditional Christian beliefs also find it difficult to influence Christians to become more fervent disciples. Every Christian, it seems to me, must learn to be content with planting and watering, and with few, if any, signs of growth.

    The second question I have is more difficult, I think: Will your own doubt actually, if unintentionally on your part, draw those under your care away from God rather than closer to him? If so, then the various New Testament warning passages concerning ministers apply, as does the issue of loving others sacrificially.

    I am well aware that this is a difficult subject, but warning bells should go off whenever a minister seeks to bring a congregation along to his or her beliefs when they are not essential doctrines of the faith. To cite a much less serious example than what is being discussed here, an ordained friend of mine insisted on filling congregational services with stately hymns played on an organ rather than, as he said, “Fanny Crosby tunes played on the piano.” The congregation kept requesting what he did not want to give them, and he did not budge. His desires ruled, regardless of whether Fanny Crosby hymns might actually aid the congregation’s spiritual growth. I was left wondering where my friend’s love was for those he pastored. And if that can be true with adiaphora, how much more does it apply to a case of wanting to promote newer theological beliefs to people whom you consider to be woefully behind the times or ignorant?

  • Nate

    This blog always makes me sad.

  • Stu

    Chip, i’m not so sure that these are the right questions to be asking. The flock seemed content in a pasture that was actually barren. I want to take them to a place of fuller faith which involved asking important questions. It dismayed me that the shallowness and superstitious veneer of faith that many claimed as absolute was untested and perhaps even testified to masking unfaith. This then becoming the framework for ‘dogmatically certain’ evangelism and ministry became deeply concerning. My concern rests then on apprehending true truth and drawing them toward that.
    Two massive and tectonic issues are central to my disillusionment: first, the church in the west is in decline and is aging; second, for many of those outside the church, the faith that has been proclaimed doesn’t work. In addressing this question, the default settings have to be challenged.
    “Will your own doubt actually, if unintentionally on your part, draw those under your care away from God rather than closer to him?” to which i reply, are they close to God in the first place or are they shielded from God by primitive and untested superstition?
    Frankly the questions you ask, are not questions I ignored either—in fact I lived and breathed them as the prophets did in years gone by. I loved and respected my congregation in many ways, but in some i didn’t respect their faith. I feel your question simplifies my relationships way too much. I can love those who disagree with me, respect and care for them! But, charged with the task of pastoring people meant I could and had to keep a goading distance from them too (a dynamic that felt entirely artificial and antithetical to the idea of community to be quite frank).
    I did wonder if the prophetic voice still played a part? Were the people already led astray? did they need to be goaded back?
    Please, for all concerned, keep the issue more complex than a couple of broad-sweep questions. Perhaps balance is being sought, and I appreciate you being concerned, but your concern was shared and in fact meditated on for years by myself and I’m sure many others in this forum.

    thanks.

  • http://shanemoe.wordpress.com/ Shane

    Having been immersed in philosophy of religion, theology, and social science for about 15 years, with two seminary degrees thrown in along the way, I can certainly resonate with Suk’s struggles in 1-7 here. I’d be curious to hear if anyone who has struggled with doubt here has read Robert Wennberg’s Faith at the Edge (Eerdmans, 2009) and whether/how you found it to be helpful. Despite some concerns, I was impressed with his treatment of the subject.

  • William

    I am a pastor that is in so much confusion at this time and don’t know which way to go. I have attempted and continue to use Gods word as my guide and build my faith. But I have people come and people go, my wife and I argue, and I had one of my leaders called yelling at me last night. I feel there is nothing in life I want to do more than preach and pastor. I just love it. I love watching the change and the progress in life through God in someone life. But now even the ones who life I have seen God bless have left and are back to old behaviors or at a different church. I don’t want to stop but I am down to fifteen people attending. And I am hurting so bad, if I stop the hurt will be worse but how much more can I or do I take. I am lost any one with any word thank you. Please pray for me.


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