Pastor, Are You Talking About Me?

This post is a sort of detour from the game plan laid out at the end of my last post, and there will be at least one more detour on the way, but it isn’t actually changing the topic at all. You see, I’m not only talking about politics. I have been talking about Christian anxiety and the need to make Jesus your soul’s satisfaction. This whole series is secretly about pastoral theology. I’m trying to sneak soulcare into a conversation about worldview. Don’t tell anyone. And so, to the question at hand. Have I been talking about you?

This is something that pastors actually experience frequently. In sermons or other writings we use illustrations or we praise or critique something by description, and so the question arises, “Is he criticizing one person in particular?” I am not here talking about academic, formal, or legal cases. It is appropriate and necessary to name names and cite sources in those instances. But in pastoral contexts, things are different. We aren’t making charges against someone. We aren’t writing a book review. We are using illustrations and examples to prove a more general point about sin and righteousness. These can be tricky and even dangerous occasions, and they are why we have the expression “bully pulpit.” Using a sermon or pastoral essay to “go after” someone is a sort of power-play, and it is hurtful and unfair.

Now, sometimes things are pretty obvious. I have known pastors who, unfortunately, did basically name names in the pulpit and use their authority as a weapon. I have known theologians who criticized churches pretty directly, describing their pastor and worship practices in identifiable ways. I think this tactic is inappropriate, imprudent, and even, sometimes, cruel. And I also know that I have been guilty of being too careless in my illustrations in the past. I can remember one occasion where a brother in Christ emailed me about the matter, and I had to admit that he was right. My intent had not been malicious, but, in failing to protect a man’s reputation, I had sinned. The only thing to do was repent. On that occasion it was pretty objective. The concerned brother wasn’t simply being paranoid or overly sensitive. He could reasonably show that I had “outed” someone based on my description of the time and occasion of our encounter. In short, it was obvious that I was talking about an individual person, and it was equally obvious that if you knew both that person and myself, you could connect the dots without much difficulty.

But in the majority of cases, people feel like they are being criticized directly when the pastor is really criticizing an idea, behavior, or relationship problem in itself. They aren’t using specific and personal examples, or if an example is taken from their personal experience, it is a sort of composite picture. For instance, when I say that I have “known churches” or “known families,” it should be kept in mind that I have a decent-sized pool from which to draw. In my relatively short life, I have been a member of four churches and a regular attendee of three more. Additionally, I have preached at fifteen churches across ten different states, and through my network of pastoral and academic friends, I probably hear reports of a few hundred specific churches. I have visited dozens of churches on a random Sunday morning, and to be honest I can’t remember them all. Beyond that, I read pastoring journals and online magazines, as well as general sociological works as a part of my job. So I become acquainted with trends and demeanors of churches that I don’t know specifically and have never attended. This means that I have a mosaic formed by real churches and people, but not simply a caricature of one or two people. Pastors must be aware of the real trends at work, especially those close to their own community, and they need to paint pictures which resonate with their people as being more or less realistic.

Additionally, if a pastor only spends his time preaching against “those guys out there,” and never preaches against the sins which affect his own flock, then he is an incompetent pastor who is harming the souls of his people. He isn’t shepherding the sheep at that point. Instead he is raising Pharisees. And so if I believe that immoderate political consumption is driving people within my general ecclesiastical community to a sinful sort of anxiety that prevents them from following God’s calling in their lives, it isn’t mean spirited of me to speak up. It’s my duty. You can’t ask me to take a stand against all the sins of the liberals but not against the sins of the conservatives. Quite simply, if you want someone to tell you how bad the other guy’s sins are, then you don’t want a Christian pastor. You might want a consultant or a motivational speaker, but you don’t want an elder or shepherd as described by the Bible. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, when there is a flood, you don’t want your pastor breaking out the fire extinguisher, even if there is a fire in the next county.

So, back to that original question. “Have I been talking about you?” There are two answers, and the first is simply “No.” You can read the posts from the last few weeks and the most specific descriptors you will see are “libertarian,” “conservative,” and “political.” Libertarianism is the most specific of the three, but it is currently a cultural phenomenon at large. National media outlets write about it regularly, and it is quite simply “a thing.” I happen to believe that it has some pragmatic advantages but that, ultimately, it is incompatible with a truly Christian political theory. I say this not out of spite but simply because libertarianism fragments the virtues and requires a secular and naturalistic state. A Libertarian might reply that Christians would benefit from this sort of establishment, but they could not say that a Libertarian society would enact positive Christian values in the public or legal arena. A consistent Libertarian could not say, as the Westminster Confession of Faith does, that the civil magistrate ought to be a nursing father to the church and protect and promote the Christian faith. So we’ve got a discussion of ideas and philosophy, much like a typical book review or academic debate. There’s nothing personal here.

But what about my generalization that conservative Christian churches are taken by great anxiety due to constant political obsessions? Isn’t that more personal? Well, it depends on what you mean by personal. I didn’t name names or describe anyone specifically. I didn’t mention the church that meets at the roller rink or the pastor with the peg-leg. No, instead I mentioned a general problem which affects a specific but large and diverse community. To say that political anxiety is a problem which is real to our folks is along the same lines as saying the American South has struggled with racism or that Millennials have a poor sexual ethic. It is an observation that ought to be like the Big E on the eye-exam. It is a sort of contemporary endemic, and any preacher not in need of immediate defrocking should be able to spot it.

So, no, I wasn’t talking about “you,” but I was talking about “y’all” or perhaps even, as we say in the South, “all y’all.” There’s a saying that when you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one who yelps is the one who got hit. If my descriptions of a general problem felt like descriptions of you or your church or your family, then the appropriate response is not to be angry at me for “going after you,” but instead to spend some time thinking about your situation. If you felt like you got hit, then you should ask if you really did get hit. And if you did, then you should ask whether you believe the problem is a problem or not. If it’s definitely a problem “for the other guy” but could never be a problem “for you,” then, well, you’ve found your problem. So, do you have a problem? While the first answer to the question was “No, I have not been talking about you,” the second answer is, “I don’t know, maybe. Have I been talking about you? You tell me.”

So, did you get hit? Did I describe a pathology that you recognize and think might be close to home? In that case, you know what to do better than I. Take a personal inventory. Take it to the Lord. Sacrifice it to him. All that you might have thought was “gain,” you should consider counting as “loss” so that you might gain Christ.

At the end of the day I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about you and Jesus. That’s what this has always been about.

Spiritual anxiety is a sin. Plain and simple. Be anxious for nothing. Don’t worry about today. When you are persecuted or reviled, rejoice. Find rest in Jesus. In him your soul can be– and for Christians, it must be– satisfied.

God ordains all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. Do you believe this? Christ gives His people contentment. Do you believe this? The Holy Spirit gives peace. Do you believe this? Then let your light shine before men.

Proverbs says that the wicked flee when none pursueth. We could say the same thing about the guilty conscience. It frets when none accuseth. And what should a Christian do when his soul feels accused? Take it to Jesus. In Him there is no condemnation.

I’m going to circle back to politics and wrap it up for now. In the future posts we will, as I have been promising, lay out a Christian philosophy of politics. But no political theory will be of any use in the world if Christians don’t first find fulfillment, confidence, security, and joy in God through Christ. All of the best plans, smartest arguments, and most accurate information will turn out to be sand, a sinking foundation that leaves you when you thought you needed it most.

If politics has you shaking, take a break. If it gets you internally weary, put it on pause. If you can’t talk to your friends and family, not because of the rudeness or abuse but because of the fact of the disagreement, then you’ve got a spiritual problem and not an intellectual one. Take it to Jesus. He will give you rest.

This is a simple message. Trust not in horses or chariots. Trust in the name of our Lord.

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