Five Questions about the Pastor’s Piety

November 19, 2015

by Scott Oliphint

The Gospel Reformation Network asked Scott Oliphint to respond to the following questions on holiness in pastoral ministry and church leadership.

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1. Do you see the need in our day for a renewed emphasis upon the pastor’s personal piety and godliness? Is legalism or libertinism the main problem among ministers today?

I was recently told by an expert in areas ministerial that the greatest need for older ministers was biblical flexibility, and the greatest need for younger ministers was holiness. In my own limited experience, the latter is certainly the case. An oddly syncretistic view of “Hip-ness” seems to be replacing holiness as a priority in Christian life and ministry. This, I think, is directly traceable to a practical neglect of the holiness of God. There is a reason why R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God lit, and still lights, a fire among so many Christians. It fills a lacuna in Christian thinking that cannot be filled by anything else. But the problem I have seen is that this holiness is not readily interpreted as a requirement for us as well. Or, if it is interpreted, it remains vague and undefined enough so that it is often too difficult to locate. Holiness, as I understand it, is a lifestyle of “transcendence.” It means that the Christian’s daily existence is supposed to transcend the “immanence” of everyday worldliness. Part of the problem, of course, is that “worldliness” takes different specific forms throughout history. This is one reason why the mandates of Scripture often purposely remain general, with the expectation that Christians will wisely apply those general truths to the specific forms of worldliness in their own age.

The Christian’s daily existence is supposed to transcend the “immanence” of everyday worldliness.

I will give three specific examples of these “general-to-specific” applications of Scripture, with a goal to the holiness of Christians, and Christian ministers, in the form of three questions, all of which will show the need for the application of Christian wisdom to the surrounding worldliness for purposes of Christian holiness, to the glory of God.

1. What does holiness require of a Christian minister with respect to his speech? I continue to be appalled at the offensive ways that Christians, and Christian ministers, routinely and casually, utter profanity in its various forms. To urge for a permanent mortification of this practice is not legalism. It is to recognize, as even the world does, that there is such a thing as offensive speech. Part of our calling is to make every effort to refrain from such offenses (Col. 4:6; Eph. 5:4). I remember my first experience of this years ago, when a Christian minister, in my presence, routinely shouted the “f” word when he sneezed, with a few chuckles afterword. I have heard many elders and teachers since who make the word a regular part of their vocabulary. I have heard gospel ministers openly and inappropriately remark about the attractiveness and attributes of other’s wives. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

What does holiness require of a Christian minister with respect to his speech, daily habits, and family?

2. What does holiness require of a Christian minister with respect to his daily habits? This one is difficult, but no less necessary. What does it mean when Scripture says, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”? Does our lifestyle show that we are dominated by the abundance of food available to us, or an addictive substance, or our physical appearance, or…? If holiness is a lifestyle of “transcendence,” then it is necessary for us to transcend harmful and addictive behaviors that characterize the “immanence” of this world.

3. What does holiness require of a Christian minister with respect to his family? I occasionally ask the question, of myself and to others, “How many Christian marriages and/or families do you know that you would want to emulate?” Sin affects all families, and in a variety of ways, so this is not a question requiring perfection in marriage or family. But I am personally convinced that the growth and acceptance of homosexuality in our culture is directly related to the practical breakdown of marriages and the family in the church. This seems to me to be the one thing in the church that will speak the loudest in our culture, and perhaps not with happy cultural consequences. But a minister’s holiness must be reflected in his marriage and family, even when unavoidable sin takes its toll there. It is important to reiterate that Scripture is general in much of its instruction in these matters. But generality is not meant to lead to a lack of practice. It is meant to lead to the application of biblical wisdom that will specifically apply these general, biblical requirements to specific practices of holiness.

There is a reason that the qualifications for elders and deacons highlight and center on various aspects of holiness.

2. Does the minister’s spiritual growth and piety play a significant role in the congregation’s spiritual growth and piety? How about the leadership?

There is a reason that the qualifications for elders and deacons highlight and center on various aspects of holiness. Yes, the Lord’s servant must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:2, 24). The doctrinal component must not be diminished or neglected. But, for the rest, the requirements include such notions as one who “manages” his household well, who is “above reproach,” “sober-minded,” “self-controlled,” “respectable,” “hospitable,” “not quarrelsome,” etc. It is striking not only how general these requirements are, but how many of these general requirements are included in the list. Obviously, the Lord is concerned that the leadership of the church work out and recognize what it means, in Christian wisdom, to apply these general requirements to specific lifestyle situations. These are significant lifestyle—i.e., holiness—issues. But the elders of the church are left wisely to discern their application. The clear implication is that the congregation is meant to see these general criteria applied to specific situations and people, so that they see wisdom working in their leadership as an imitable example of holiness! It is not that difficult to know how the command “Do not steal” applies. It is much more difficult to know how “be sober-minded,” or “be respectable” applies to a Christian, especially as those characteristics are meant to transcend any sober-mindedness or respectability that the world might demonstrate. This is all to say that a significant part of leadership in the church is showing the congregation the application of these general principles to specific situations and people, so that they might see wisdom unto holiness, to the glory of God.

My own conviction is that without meditating on Scripture there is no possibility for significant, lasting and obvious holiness.

3. How do you cultivate and maintain personal holiness as a busy pastor?

As a seminary professor, and former pastor, I continue to be in awe of those who are called to be pastors. I know from experience how challenging it is to fulfill that calling well. For me, when I was in pastoral ministry, the best avenue for cultivating holiness was to ensure that the particular biblical texts that I was dealing with in a given week—whether in bible studies or sermons—were also a focus of meditation for me. That was not always possible, because of the busyness of the schedule. But it was crucial, and without it my weekly walk would suffer. My own conviction is that without meditating on Scripture there is no possibility for significant, lasting and obvious holiness. We must move beyond knowing Scripture, which is crucial; we must press it into our souls. Thomas Watson put it this way:

“There is as much difference between the knowledge of a truth, and the meditation of a truth, as there is between the light of a torch, and the light of the sun: set up a lamp or torch in the garden, and it hath no influence. The sun hath a sweet influence, it makes the plants to grow, and the herbs to flourish: so knowledge is but like a torch lighted in the understanding, which hath little or no influence, it makes not a man the better; but meditation is like the shining of the sun, it operates upon the affections, it warms the heart and makes it more holy.”

4. What are some clear and present dangers to a pastor’s sanctification and walk with God?

From my perspective the clearest danger is the newest danger—technology. Technology is a gift from the Lord. It is an extraordinary example of man taking God’s creation and developing unimagined tools and resources. The difference between typing my Master’s thesis on a typewriter and writing my dissertation on a word processor is almost beyond belief. But now that we have the ability to access anything at any time, anywhere, there is endless and immediate opportunity for attaching ourselves to sinful, reprehensible behavior. Jean-Paul Sartre once famously wrote that “no man can be vulgar all alone.” By that, he meant that as long as no one can see us, what we do cannot be obscene. You don’t have to know Sartre to see the application of his statement. How many Christians, and Christian ministers, have convinced themselves of Sartre’s dictum?

Meditation takes focus, it takes thinking, it takes synthesis of ideas, it takes mental effort.

What is less obvious, and more subtle, however, with respect to technology is the way in which it changes our ability to think. Or, perhaps, the way in which it destroys our ability to focus on anything at all. I see this in many (certainly not all) seminary students. Their writing looks more like a collection of tweets than like a reasoned and thoughtful argument or thesis. If Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows) is right, and our thinking is “formed” by our habits, then the constant habit of having to be constantly “in touch” and interrupted is killing our ability to focus. We all become victims of ADD, even if inadvertently. And spiritual ADD can never produce growth in holiness. This takes us back to the necessity of Christian meditation. Meditation takes focus, it takes thinking, it takes synthesis of ideas, it takes mental effort. These things are rapidly fading from the church and must be recovered if holiness is going to be a priority. I think C. S. Lewis had it about right:

“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find their heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and pencil in their hands.”

The progression that Lewis highlights is important. The study of Scripture, if done in a focused and concerted way, should lead to a heart that “sings unbidden.” Proper study, which includes biblical meditation, leads to personal holiness. Are we too busy for such study? How much time would we have available if we “unplugged” for a set time each day?

Without holiness, Scripture tells us, it is impossible to see the Lord.

5. In regard to personal holiness, what advice would you give to young ordinands training for the gospel ministry?

As stated above, my advice to seminary students is NOT to get rid of their devices. It is to see them as instruments—servants—for use in serving Christ. Aside from the obvious filth of the content of much that is “out there,” which must be resolutely and completely avoided, the problem of technological “thinking” is epidemic and serious. Just because we can be “in touch” at all hours does not mean we should be. We should get used to times—significant times—when we are “out of touch.” We should instill habits in ourselves that require that we are unplugged and out of touch on a regular basis. When I was in pastoral ministry, these problems were not as acute as they are now. Even so, with permission from my session, it was agreed that there were certain times during the week when I would not be available, except for emergencies. This practice allows for times of deep study and meditation on Scripture and on biblical truth. Those times did, by God’s grace, produce a heart that would “sing unbidden.” But that didn’t come easily, and it didn’t come naturally. It had to be resolved and maintained in my own life. I am personally convinced that those who meditate on the reality of what it means to be like Christ would never give credence to offensive and abusive speech, to addictive and “out of control” lifestyle habits, or to less-than-godly marriages and families. Without holiness, Scripture tells us, it is impossible to see the Lord. Conversely, in seeing the Lord, as He is given to us in all of Scripture, and in the whole counsel of God, we will be motivated, above all else, to be holy even as He was. But to see Him, we have to look, even to stare, and that will take mental resolve and a commitment to personal habits that are, increasingly, counter-cultural. But what is the “transcendence” of holiness if not counter-cultural? It is impossible to put it better than John Owen did:

“It is to be feared that there are some who profess religion with an appearance of strictness, who never separate themselves from all other occasions, to meditate on Christ and his glory; and yet, with a strange inconsistency of apprehensions, they will profess that they desire nothing more than to behold his glory in heaven for ever. But it is evident, even in the light of reason, that these things are irreconcilable. It is impossible that he who never meditates with delight on the glory of Christ here in this world, who labors not to behold it by faith as it is revealed in the Scripture, should ever have any real gracious desire to behold it in heaven. They may love and desire the fruition of their own imaginations; — they cannot do so of the glory of Christ, whereof they are ignorant, and wherewith they are unacquainted. It is, therefore, to be lamented that men can find time for, and have inclinations to think and meditate on, other things, it may be earthly and vain; but have neither heart, nor inclination, nor leisure, to meditate on this glorious object.”

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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