If You Want to Engage the Culture, Don’t Publish with Crossway

Isn’t this the flip side of Tim Challies’ advice about reading the “right” books?

If you are an academic and you publish with a famous university press, that is wonderful for your career. If you go with a vanity press, that can sink your career. That division of presses also matters in defining whether a particular issue is part of mainstream debate, or way off on the disreputable fringe.

The problem in all this, though, is that some presses are very strong and reputable within particular fields, but that fact need not be known to university authorities. I can imagine a junior professor trying to argue to a department head or dean that a title with such a firm should be counted as equal in prestige to a leading university press, and struggling to make the case. Please understand, that would not be a fair situation, but I could see it happening.

Let me take a specific example. I am currently using a book that came out from Inter-Varsity Press some fifteen years ago. It is a really excellent piece of work, scholarly and well written, and IVP is a very strong and well known publisher from the evangelical point of view. Hence my surprise, recently, when I tried unsuccessfully to find a copy in the very large and wide-ranging library at Penn State University. They had other works by this author, but not that particular title. Like many major university libraries, Penn State has standing orders with certain mainstream publishers, and acquires pretty much everything they put out. That principle does not extend to well known evangelical presses like IVP, Eerdmans, Baker, Thomas Nelson, and so on. The more library budgets shrink, the harder they cut back on any presses they don’t see as absolutely core and necessary.

In itself, that decision is not disastrous for me, because if I want a copy of the book in question I can get it through inter-library loan. But the underlying attitude demands attention. These libraries are assuming that the presses in question are not fully respectable houses for academic work, they are partisan or denominational, and therefore they do not demand the same credibility as even minor university presses.

Maybe that explains why TKNY doesn’t publish with the company that subsidized the gospel allies.

UPDATE: a multi-author 16-page tract is not a book, and I’m guessing Ross Douthat hasn’t read it.

Ye Must Be Baptized Again

Tim Challies keeps explaining what he is not. This time, it’s paedobaptist — not.

What is curious about the post, aside from how circumstantial Challies’ theological evolution is/was, is his adoption of the Gospel Coalition policy of looking the other way:

I suppose I am credobaptist rather than paedobaptist for the very reason most paedobaptists are not credobaptists: I am following my best understanding of God’s Word. My position seems every bit as obvious to me as the other position seems to those who hold it. What an odd reality that God allows there to be disagreement on even so crucial a doctrine as baptism. What a joy, though, that we can affirm that both views are well within the bounds of orthodoxy and that we can gladly labor together for the sake of the gospel.

But if credos and paedos can all get along, why did Challies have to be re-baptized? He admits that he was baptized as an infant in an Anglican church. But then he became a Baptist:

When we moved to our new home we began attending Baptist churches. We eventually settled into one and, in order to become a member, I had to be baptized as a believer. By then my convictions had grown and deepened enough that I believed it was the right thing to do. Since that day my convictions have grown all the more.

If both views are within the bounds of orthodoxy, why don’t Baptists (Reformed or not) recognize Presbyterian or Anglican baptisms? Or why don’t Baptists like Challies object to Presbyterians like Tim Keller for baptizing unbelievers? I grew up Baptist and was baptized sometime during my misspent adolescence. So far, the PCA, CRC, and OPC have not required re-baptism of mmmmmeeeeeEEEEEE.

Another Difference between New and Paleo Calvinists

New Calvinists are mean but don’t know it.

Jonathan Merritt was an unlikely person to confirm a point made here before, namely, that when you define orthodoxy you also draw lines that to outsiders will look unloving and mean. (Think undergraduates at Oberlin seeking protection from disquieting perceptions.) For a while New Calvinists and their allies at the Gospel Coalition have portrayed Paleo Calvinists as mean. Now with Merritt what goes around comes around.

He observes that New Calvinists are full of criticism (and instructions on how to do it):

The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.

Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.

Then there is New Calvinists’ refusal to entertain criticisms themselves:

Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.

TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. . . .

A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”

Finally, Merritt points out the problem of belonging to a club instead of a church:

TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”

The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.

If the New Calvinists were more ecclesial and less parachurchian, they might not lose their critical side. And contrary to Merritt who thinks engaging culture is a positive, if New Calvinists were churchly they wouldn’t worry about the culture so much. Belonging to a church and working within its structures would not make them less critical, though Robert’s Rules supplies a structure for critique that takes away some of criticism’s sting. The best thing that might happen to New Calvinists if they looked to the church instead of the club, they would not be so doctrinaire about so many peripheral matters. The visible church has a way of focusing your outlook (not sure what happened to Pope Francis).

Sunday School as Open Forum?

Scott, Aimee and (here I tread in rake territory) Todd try to sort out the differences between Sunday school teaching and authoritative church instruction. I tend to sympathize with the point made (I hear) by Carl and Aimee that women can do whatever non-ordained men do (except of course when it comes to reproduction). And I think Scott’s points about the flimsy origins of Sunday school as a church institution should make all Christians re-think the mechanisms by which churches instruct the faithful. Need I remind folks of the fun that even H. L. Mencken had at Sunday school (even though the Christian religion didn’t really take hold):

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Not sure Sunday school is the best method of delivery for passing on the faith.

The problem however goes beyond the qualifications posed. What session wants to deal with questions and complaints that arise from non-ordained teachers providing instruction on subjects revealed in Holy Writ? It’s one thing for a woman or non-ordained man to teach math, plumbing, banking or baking. But what about a Christian view of math, plumbing, banking, or baking? Doesn’t the Christian character of the instruction indicate some kind of normative (hence authoritative) instruction? I mean, if I offer a Christian view of history, should Christians not feel a certain pull in the direction of considering this is THE way believers should think about history? Or are Christian views of subjects simply optional for Christians (that’s accepting the premises of w-w thinking).

How much more is instruction seemingly normative if a woman or non-ordained man is teaching the Bible or confession related material? Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? And if Sunday school is just a place for Christians to opine, is that a good way to prepare for worship (if services follow Sunday school)? Can I really get another member’s objectionable opinions out of my head simply because the pastor invokes God’s presence?

So the issue isn’t one of office, ordination, or even the history of Sunday school as an institution. The issue is the content of the instruction. If that content includes material that comes from the church’s standards — Bible and confession — then the setting involves some version of binding address. At that point, a session will likely want the teaching to reflect the norms of the communion. And at that point we are in the ballpark of having officers who have been vetted and approved for teaching up front behind the podium for — wait for it — Sunday school.

Blogging is Essential to Being a Christian

That is a conclusion that someone could possible draw from a recent Pew Research Center poll on Christianity in the United States:

The survey shows a clear link between what people see as essential to their faith and their self-reported day-to-day behavior. Simply put, those who believe that behaving in a particular way or performing certain actions are key elements of their faith are much more likely to say they actually perform those actions on a regular basis.

For example, among Christians who say that working to help the poor is essential to what being Christian means to them, about six-in-ten say they donated time, money or goods to help the poor in the past week. By comparison, fewer Christians who do not see helping the poor as central to their religious identity say they worked to help the poor during the previous week (42%).

The same pattern is seen in the survey’s questions about interpersonal interactions, health and social consciousness. Relatively few Christians see living a healthy lifestyle, buying from companies that pay fair wages or protecting the environment as key elements of their faith. But those who do see these things as essential to what it means to be a Christian are more likely than others to say they live a healthy lifestyle (by exercising, for example), consider how a company treats its employees and the environment when making purchasing decisions, or attempt to recycle or reduce waste as much as possible.

Is this circularity (which rivals the motives of credibility) merely a problem of Protestant subjectivity? I don’t think so:

Three-quarters of Catholics say they look to their own conscience “a great deal” for guidance on difficult moral questions. Far fewer Catholics say they look a great deal to the Catholic Church’s teachings (21%), the Bible (15%) or the pope (11%) for guidance on difficult moral questions.

Perhaps most discouraging is how poorly Sabbath observance fares, a weekly activity that winds up ordering all the days so that ceasing from work is possible:

To help explore this question, the survey asked U.S. adults whether each of a series of 16 beliefs and behaviors is “essential,” “important but not essential,” or “not important” to what their religion means to them, personally.

Among Christians, believing in God tops the list, with fully 86% saying belief in God is “essential” to their Christian identity. In addition, roughly seven-in-ten Christians say being grateful for what they have (71%), forgiving those who have wronged them (69%) and always being honest (67%) are essential to being Christian. Far fewer say that attending religious services (35%), dressing modestly (26%), working to protect the environment (22%) or resting on the Sabbath (18%) are essential to what being Christian means to them, personally.

Hearing the Word of God read and preached in the public assembly of the saints? Forget about it.

Another Solution to Celebrity Pastors — Modesty

I’m betting (if I were a gambling man) that celebrity pastors are a bigger problem for God’s people than transgender bathrooms. At least, Denny Burk Jared Wilson concedes that famous ministers are a problem, though he writes at the website that would not have a following if not for — wait for it — celebrity pastors. Here’s how celebrity happens:

. . . we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling.

BurkWilson adds that “pastoral smallness and obscurity” have their own problems, but “the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.”

The possible fix for the celebrity pastor include:

1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.

2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.

3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.

4. Actual parity among elders.

What about recognizing that celebrity pastor is an oxymoron?

1. Celebrity pastors are not really celebrities. Bruce Springsteen and Scarlett Johansson are celebrities. D. A. Carson and John Piper are not. And if Protestants long for pastors with celebrity appeal, they may show a greater degree of worldliness than they should. What it says about an organization — Gospel Coalition — that thrives on celebrity is something that the celebrity pastors and professors may want to consider the next time their schedules permit them to meet.

2. Pastors are not celebrities. First, they are undershepherds. They serve their lord and master, and are mere stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1) — sort of like butlers. Unlike celebrities who avoid rubbing shoulders with the people and who hire servants to do work beneath them, pastors need to live and move and have their livelihood among smelly sheep (at least they’re not goats).

Second, real pastors serve a local congregation. That means real pastors have much more the fame footprint of a local television news show anchor than they do a Hollywood, NBA, or network star. Who outside eastern Michigan knows the NBC anchor for the 5:00 news show? I don’t. In other words, the genuine audience for a pastor is the local congregation, the one who called him. Fame outside the congregation is an indication that something is wrong.

What if the pastor writes books? Depends on whether the books are good, pretty good, or great. Great books won’t be so until they stand the test of time. Will Tim Keller’s books still be in print in fifty years? That’s one test of greatness. Simply having someone with fame write a book is no indication of merit. The bookshelves are full of promotional materials designed to feed off and enhance celebrity.

3. Celebrities can’t pastor. This may go without saying since celebrity is something that increases fame but decreases access. A pastor has to be available to his people almost 24/7. But imagine a celebrity pastor like Tim Keller paying a family visit. If he does, great. Chances are, with celebrity come handlers, schedules, and limitations to access. A celebrity is remote, a pastor is accessible.

What about recognizing that celebrity is unbecoming sanctification (where are the obedience boys now that we need them?)?

This is where the New Calvinists may want to take a little instruction from the original Calvinist (and notice the connections between 2k and piety that is modest in its affects and aspirations). Here is John Calvin’s commentary on the sons of Zebedee’s exchange with Christ about greatness (celebrity?) in the savior’s kingdom:

Their ignorance was worthy of blame on two accounts; first, because their ambition led them to desire more than was proper; and, secondly, because, instead of the heavenly kingdom of Christ, they had formed the idea of a phantom in the air. As to the first of those reasons, whoever is not satisfied with the free adoption of God, and desires to raise himself, such a person wanders beyond his limits, and, by unseasonably pressing himself forward beyond what was proper for him to do, is ungrateful to God. Now to estimate the spiritual kingdom of Christ according to the feeling of our flesh is highly perverse. And, indeed, the greater the delight which the mind of man takes in idle speculations, the more carefully ought we to guard against them; as we see that the books of the sophists are stuffed with useless notions of this sort.

Can you drink the cup which I shall drink? To correct their ambition, and to withdraw them from this wicked desire, he holds out to them the cross, and all the annoyances which the children of God must endure. As if he had said, “Does your present warfare allow you so much leisure, that you are now making arrangements for a triumphal procession?” For if they had been earnestly employed in the duties of their calling, they would never have given way to this wicked imagination. In these words, therefore, those who are desirous to obtain the prize before the proper time are enjoined by Christ to employ themselves in attending to the duties of piety. And certainly this is an excellent bridle for restraining ambition; for, so long as we are pilgrims in this world, our condition is such as ought to banish vain luxuries. We are surrounded by a thousand dangers. Sometimes the enemy assails us by ambush, and that in a variety of ways; and sometimes he attacks us by open violence. Is he not worse than stupid who, amidst so many deaths, entertains himself at his ease by drawing pictures of a triumph?

Our Lord enjoins his followers, indeed, to feel assured of victory, and to sing a triumphal song in the midst of death; for otherwise they would not have courage to fight valiantly. But it is one thing to advance manfully to the battle, in reliance on the reward which God has promised to them, and to labor with their whole might for this object; and it is another thing to forget the contest, to turn aside from the enemy, to lose sight of dangers, and to rush forward to triumph, for which they ought to wait till the proper time.

The advance of the kingdom of grace does not come from great awakenings or grand gestures or bestsellers or big conferences. It comes through Gideon’s small band, an obscure Palestinian kingdom, a suffering savior, and apostles who died as martyrs. It is time more than ever for New Calvinists to get over George Whitefield.

The Presbyterian Fix

Scott Sauls (thanks to our southern correspondent) bemoans the pressures that pastors experience:

Studies show that pastors experience anxiety and depression at a rate that is disproportionately high compared to the rest of the population. Due to the unique pressures associated with spiritual warfare, unrealistic expectations from congregants and oneself, the freedom many feel to criticize and gossip about pastors with zero accountability (especially in the digital age), failure to take time off for rest and replenishment, marriage and family tensions due to the demands of ministry, financial strains and self-comparison, pastors are prime candidates for relational isolation, emotional turmoil, and moral collapse.

Studies also show that some pastors face unreasonable, even impossible, demands placed on them by their people. I am NOT one of those pastors, thanks to a church that both receives my gifts and embraces my limitations. All in all, the people of Christ Presbyterian Church treat me with extraordinary love and kindness. But, sadly, not all pastors are as lucky as I am.

Dr. Thom Rainer, a leading pastoral ministry guru, once conducted a survey asking church members what they expected from their pastors. Specifically, Dr. Rainer wanted to know the minimum amount of time church members believed their pastors should give each week to various areas of ministry, including prayer, sermon preparation, outreach and evangelism, counseling, administrative tasks, visiting the sick, community involvement, denominational engagement, church meetings, worship services, and so on. On average, the minimum amount of time church members expected their pastors to give to the ministry was 114 hours per week.

One solution to the problem is for congregations to adjust their expectations of pastors:

[I]t is time to once and for all remove your pastor from the pedestal where you and others may have been tempted to placed him. Under the right circumstances, we pastors can be some of the best friends and advocates. But we pastors make very, very bad heroes. Turning us into heroes not only hurts our churches, it also hurts us. When you put us on a pedestal and we fall, it hurts a lot more to fall from a pedestal than it does from the ground where everybody else is standing. Plus, only Jesus belongs on a pedestal. We pastors are shepherds…but we are also sheep just like everybody else. We have struggles and fears. We get depressed and anxious sometimes. We are at times unsure of ourselves, and we go through seasons wondering if we really belong in ministry.

I would have thought a Presbyterian pastor would have two solutions at the ready other than congregational lowered expectations. The first is a session that oversees a pastor and reminds him that the pulpit is not his show but a ministry shared by an assembly of officers. The second is a ministry based on word and sacrament so that what drives a church has less to do with the pastor’s charisma than with Word and Spirit. Pastors are only farmers — not public intellectuals. They only plant seeds. God waters, right?

Presbyterianism is the great antidote to celebrity pastors, if only people would stop looking at Presbyterianism as a social and cultural upgrade from being Baptist.