My friend Nick Morgan, whose letter to me at the end of 2008, and whose influence in my life as a friend led me to this five-part series of posts, is a godly man. He loves Christ and he loves the church. He also reads theology seriously. He did this while he was an evangelical and he still does it as a Roman Catholic. He reads theologians from both sides, as you can readily see. He often recommends good ideas to me by email and responds to the blog posts I write with genuine interest and charity. He also sends me private correspondence that gets forwarded to him. Lately he has sent me a number of conservative political pieces and asked for my input. I have cautioned him against allowing his soul to become preoccupied with the fiercest forms of criticism that poison the culture, from the left and the right. I have urged him to stay close to Christ, to fill his mind and heart with the glory of Christ and to stay faithful to the church by frequent communion and regular worship and prayers. I have also urged him to keep focusing on loving his wife, children and Christian brothers at work where he spends most of his waking life.

Nick makes reference to the evangelical pastor and the sources he routinely quotes in his preaching ministry. These sources are all good, solid conservative evangelical sources. I have cited them all and still read several of them with great appreciation. But the point he makes is all too true. Once a pastor chooses a few sources, and cites them as those he listens to, then he is not likely to become willing to read other sources. It is not that these sources are bad, it is that using only them is too limiting to real growth intellectually and spiritually.

Let me take C.H. Spurgeon as an illustration of my point here. There is no one on the list who I have valued more over the course of my Christian life than Spurgeon. His photograph adorns my study. His books have shaped me in powerful ways. I was given his entire set of sermons by my late mother and now my son uses these in his own preaching ministry. One of my favorite photos is that of my sixteen year old son standing by Spurgeon’s tomb in Norwood Cemetery in London. Spurgeon has had a massive influence on my life. But I do not think something is true simply because Spurgeon said it. In fact, Spurgeon said some things that are positively wrong in my judgment. A story will suffice.

Some years ago a pastor, whose church at the time supported me financially, read a few paragraphs from a Spurgeon sermon to me in a private meeting. The words were very Spurgeonic; i.e. dramatic, Elizabethan and polemically Protestant. The particular words were about the error of Roman Catholicism. There was no room for anything but condemnation in the words. My friend asked me, “Would you preach these words?” I knew my response had to be truthful and I knew if I answered I would lose the support of this church. I said, “No, or course I would not use words like that. They are in a context and we do not live in that same context any longer. Further, they represent a fallible man’s opposition to what he saw and understood. I think much has changed and even if nothing had changed in our modern context this language is not appropriate.” Good-bye friendship. Good-bye monetary support.

This leads me to conclude that another type of argument is employed in many similar circumstances. It is the straw man argument. Take the position of another, portray it in a very negative way that does not require you to listen to what that person is really saying, and then knock them and their argument down. This type of argument is as easy as reading a Spurgeon sermon and asking, “Would you use these words in your preaching?”

What this amounts to is setting up parties and names within the church just as was done in ancient Corinth. People today, at least in many conservative churches, are of Piper, or Carson, or MacArthur, etc. Fill in the blank. This idea fits many of us. My family makes fun of me if someone starts following me too obviously. They call these people, to my face, “John’s groupies!” It is a great reminder that I should do everything in my power to refuse such adulation and following. I am a “mere servant” of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:1). This word servant here refers to an “under-rower” in the bowels of an ancient ship who was just one of many doing a job. That is who I am in my calling to ministry. I am just one man doing a job, hopefully doing it faithfully.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:5–9), “Who is Spurgeon? Who is Piper? Who is Carson? Who is MacArthur?” Answer: Mere men, men who are the just ordinary servants of Christ. The word Paul actually uses here is not “who” but “what” since he wants to make sure we do not put too much emphasis on the servant but on what the servant does with the gifts the Spirit has given to him. To make Spirit-gifted men into a movement, into stars (some even refer to such men as having “rock-star” status, which particular grates on my soul), or into powerful voices that we must go to in order to hear Christ speak is a major mistake. It is a mistake that multitudes of conservative evangelicals have made and it is more than ironic that these same evangelicals decry the very idea of a pope.

I am convinced that missional-ecumenism addresses this and a myriad of other problems that plague the modern church. This is why I carry out the servant’s role that Christ has entrusted to me by pursuing the unity of the whole church, which includes humble and faithful Catholic brothers just like my good friend Nick Morgan. I need Nick in my life as much as Nick needs me. He may not believe this but it is true. He reminds me that I am truly gifted by God but he also reminds me that the same Spirit who is in me is also in him and working his grace in his life just as in mine. Nick's life matters to God as much as mine. In my world Nick is a hero, plain and simple. He loves Christ, he loves his church, he loves his family and he loves people enough to risk his life every day as a St. Louis firefighter. Now you know the rest of the story.

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  1. Bruce Newman October 30, 2009 at 7:21 am

    As a person who has been a reader most of my life I know that I have been guilty of glorifying something because of who said it as well as denigrating something for the same reason. I have made a conscious effort to drop that mindset in recent years. It can creep back upon you, particularly when somebody says the words that speak so eloquently what you had never been able to articulate. Or when they say things that represent something that burnt you in the past.
    I know now that it takes a certain detachment and a stronger than average dose of humility (in which I fail almost daily) to navigate this all to human path we are on. I’ve enjoyed this five part series. Thank you.

  2. John H. Armstrong October 30, 2009 at 8:26 am

    What a self-reflective and insightful comment Bruce. I wish every Christian I knew would admit what you do and then take the action steps you have sought to take. We fail but we press on, calling no person master yet learning from, and respecting, those who are our teachers and friends. There is a delicate balance here and we waver from side to side in most instances.
    Until about age 40 I tended to pick a “hero” and follow them a bit too uncritically. When a few thought I was a hero I was mortified. The cult of personality is huge in America. Leaders must consciously resist it in my estimation. Many do not even try I fear.
    At the same time I find that at age 60 I am a role model to younger men and women in a way I never expected. How do I carry this well and glorify Christ alone? It is a call to daily prayer. God also keeps critics, helpful and harmful, in my life so that I will be reminded every day of just how unimportant I really am as a man.
    Christ is all! Let him be praised.

  3. Jim October 30, 2009 at 10:50 am

    Frank Schaeffer IV, in an interview with Rachel Maddow, done in the last year, cites “cult of personality” surrounding his family as a reason for his conversion to EO. He prefers the “interchangeability” of the players in the liturgy, and the fact that priests “lead” worship with their backs to the congregation.
    An over-reaction? I haven’t walked in his shoes. I don’t remember his family being that famous, but was certainly guilty of putting them on my private pedestal, mostly before they emerged as political activists. And I wasn’t alone.
    Still, the fact that the apostle Paul had to correct problems with cult of personality in Corinth suggests to me that bringing the Word face to face is a risk that normally we should take. During the reformation, the Genevan gown helped tone down the individual personality of the preacher. I’m not sure it has that result today, but dress can be a part of it.
    As for John Armstrong. I appreciate the breadth of your blog, and so check in every week. Maybe its the fact that you are a Crimson Tide fan that keeps me from becoming a groupie, while appreciating what you have to say, and the challenge it brings.

  4. John H. Armstrong October 30, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Good word Jim. You have expressed my viewpoint well. I feel the rush to leave Protestant churches (by the way the number leaving is a very small number) is over-rated by our Catholic friends. Are some really leaving? Of course. Is the cult of personality a reason? Maybe. But it is one Paul addressed so it must be one that we should continue to address without over-reacting. Catholics will admit that they can over-honor the pope as well.
    As for a cult of personality around me I am glad you never felt tempted to buy into such a burgeoning and fast growing movement but your reason for not adoring me is dubious at best. You must see the light someday bro. The Tide is rolling on and may be the team of destiny this year! The “block” last Saturday made me a total believer in this season.

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