John Owen, one of the most esteemed and seminary-educated puritan scholars of the 1600’s, was once challenged by King Charles as to why he wanted to go hear John Bunyan preach. A metal-worker turned preacher, Bunyan was uneducated by Owen’s standards and, on the surface, an unequal to many eyes. Owen wisely replied to the King, “I would willingly exchange all my learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts”.
Owen recognized that while a Christ-centered education is beneficial, it is not the same as spiritual maturity and genuine faith. Authentic, Christ-centered spiritual maturity is only found when one is deeply connected to the person of Jesus and His gospel. Preachers with this attribute have something to say worth hearing. Its lives deeply transformed by the gospel that are the most effective at winning souls. Raw knowledge without love puffs up, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians.
Fast-forward to modern times and many evangelicals make the same mistake King Charles did: we confuse the accolades of academia with spiritual maturity. We often associate someone’s ability make a sound theological argument, quickly recite scripture, or having a seminary degree as evidence of maturity in Christ.
I recall a pastor in the Dallas area who was well-known for citing, by memory, the entirety of Matthew’s begats within the pulpit to start a sermon. The crowd would clap and cheer each time he finished, forgetting that, by itself, this was a very minor accomplishment; anyone with enough time can memorize a section of scripture. Such demonstrations of knowledge, when separated from a life practicing the gospel of Christ, are potential spiritual hazards. This dangerous dichotomy of knowledge without doing is causing many pastors and their congregations agony.
Ill-equipped and unprepared to spiritually shepherd a flock, many pastors are surprised to find the job unfulfilling and difficult. Seminary may have prepared them to write an exegetical sermon, but it didn’t prepare them to love their neighbor, put to death sinful, sexual desires, handle harsh criticism, or circumcise their heart. Struggles, like these, are causing pastors to leave the ministry in rapid fashion. Worse, some press on when they shouldn’t and end up committing devastating moral failure. Sadly, there is example, after example of this.
As Paul David Tripp points out in his book Dangerous Calling, if pastors are to avoid these failures they must not only preach the gospel to their congregation, but to themselves. The pastor’s identity must first and foremost be in Christ and not in a ministry or church attendance goals. He must recognize that he is fighting a war and the greatest battleground will always be within his own heart. All men, regardless of vocation, are fatally flawed and in desperate need of the transforming grace of God. This is true whether you have never trusted Christ a moment of your life or if you have been faithfully serving in the pastorate for 40 years.
Tripp offers some tips for churches and pastors to help bring sobering clarity to a culture that can inflate and emphasize a false sense of spiritual maturity. I found these particularly points helpful and wise. He suggests:
- The pastor attend a small group he doesn’t lead
- The pastor should seek out a spiritually mature person to mentor them at all times
- Establish a pastors’ wives small group
- The pastor should be committed to appropriate self-disclosure in his preaching
- Church members should regularly invite the pastor and his family to their homes
- Make sure there is someone regularly mentoring the pastor’s wife
- Make sure the pastor and his wife have the means to regularly get away with one another
- Make sure counseling help is always available to the pastor, his wife, and his family
What’s interesting is these ideas are not revolutionary and ground-breaking. Many are the same things Christians have been doing for centuries. It’s odd we are reluctant to apply the same logic towards clergy. I fear many will read this list and assume their pastor already has measures in place. Don’t assume that. I suggest you ask him and use it as an opportunity to build community. Ask him how he is doing and listen careful to his response. It might surprise you how many pastors feel alone and disconnected from the congregation they serve.
As a church, we must learn to define spiritual maturity, not by a degree on a wall, but by a life demonstrating confession, repentance, and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Seminaries are good things. In fact, I think all clergy should receive a seminary education, if possible. But knowledge is best applied when a heart is seeking after Jesus.