Building a New Testament Library: Gospels and Acts

In this short article, I offer recommendations for excellent commentaries and a few monographs that will help pastors and other Christian leaders read the Gospels and Acts with exegetical precision, theological acumen, and pastoral sensitivity. Not all of the commentaries that I mention will do all three, but I assume that those studying the biblical texts carefully will be consulting more than one commentary or monograph. In 2018, Joel Green produced an excellent list for this series, and I highly recommend that readers consult his list as well. Occasionally, I overlap with Green’s recommendations, but largely I have made new suggestions.

The Gospel according to Matthew

If there were one commentary on Matthew that I would not do without, it would be Dale Bruner’s superb two-volume commentary, The Christbook: Matthew 1–12 and The Churchbook: Matthew 13–28 (Eerdmans, 2004). Bruner combines (1) careful exegesis of Matthew, (2) close engagement with critical scholarship, (3) extended discussion of important theological issues, and (4) attention to pressing pastoral questions. In my view, his work has not been surpassed in terms of its intended goal. Second, the recent commentary on Matthew by Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary series is superb (Eerdmans, 2018). While the commentary section (Part I) is not as exhaustive as some, it provides excellent exegetical engagement with the text. Parts 2 and 3 are where this commentary shines. In Part 2, the authors offer what amounts to a “theology of Matthew.” In Part 3, the authors take on some difficult theological and social issues in relation to Matthew, and their discussion is thoughtful and engaging.

Third, I have repeatedly turned to David Garland’s Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2001). Garland’s commentary is particularly helpful for illuminating the narrative shape of the Gospel—that is, how exactly Matthew tells the story of Jesus. Moreover, for a relatively short commentary, he provides a good bit of ancient cultural material against which to understand Matthew (e.g., ancient rhetoric, first-century Judaism, etc.). Lastly, though more technical and not in the evangelical tradition, Ulrich Luz’s three volumes on Matthew in the Hermeneia series remain highly valuable not only for his careful reading of Matthew, but also especially for his engagement with ancient Christian sources (Fortress, 2001–2007). Luz consistently dialogues with premodern interpreters, introducing his reader to a perhaps unknown world of Christian voices from the past.

For a helpful monograph on Matthew, look to David Bauer’s recent The Gospel of the Son of God: An Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel (IVP Academic, 2019). If one were teaching/preaching through Matthew, Bauer’s book would be invaluable for gaining a comprehensive and coherent vision of Matthew that is up to date.

The Gospel according to Mark

If there were one commentary on Mark that I would not do without, it would be James Edwards’s commentary in the Pillar New Testament series (PNTS; Eerdmans, 2001). Edwards is simply an excellent reader of Mark, and he unpacks Mark’s theological riches with penetrating insights. For example, in his discussion of the dire implications of Peter’s rejection of Jesus’s suffering vocation in Mark 8, Edwards quips, “A wrong view of Messiahship leads to a wrong view of discipleship” (256). There is a whole theological world packed into that statement! Second, Joel Marcus’s two volumes in the Anchor Bible series are superb (Yale University Press, 2002–2009). Marcus’s commentaries are not in the evangelical tradition, but they are unsurpassed in their attention to exegetical and historical detail. While I do not follow all of Marcus’s conclusions, I always learn a great deal from his work given his careful attention to the text and his expansive knowledge of early and rabbinic Judaism.

Third, Sharon Dowd’s short Reading Mark (Smyth & Helwys, 2000) is helpful for discerning the literary shape of Mark’s Gospel. Like Garland’s book mentioned above, Dowd is particularly concerned to help the reader see the shape of the narrative—that is, just how carefully Mark has told his story of Jesus. I have used her insights frequently for teaching, because so often I find that students and parishioners have never been taught to read the Gospels as stories. Lastly, an excellent resource for Mark’s theology is David Garland’s A Theology of Mark’s Gospel (Zondervan Academic, 2015). Like Bauer’s book on Matthew mentioned above, Garland helps the reader grasp the major theological, historical, and literary issues in studying Mark.

The Gospel according to Luke

I am hard-pressed to name one “must have” commentary in relation to Luke, so here I will refer to four commentaries that I have found myself returning to again and again. First, Robert Tannehill’s Luke commentary in the Abingdon series (1996) is excellent. Tannehill is a ground-breaking scholar of Luke, and this commentary makes more accessible some of his academic work. Particularly, Tannehill is good about not getting lost in the weeds of hypothetical historical reconstructions “behind” the text. Rather, he focuses on the final form of Luke’s narrative and the overall “logic” of the story while not neglecting to provide the sort of detailed engagement necessary for careful exegesis (e.g., relevant historical information, clarification for Greek words, etc.). In a similar vein is Charles Talbert’s Reading Luke (Smyth & Helwys, 2002). Talbert is attuned to the careful craftsmanship of Luke’s narrative, and he also brings a wealth of knowledge of ancient rhetoric to illuminate Luke.

Third, Joel Green’s volume in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 1997) remains a standard among Lukan scholars. Green’s commentary is somewhat unique in that it does not tend to treat background historical issues at much length (e.g., who was the author of Luke, who exactly was the audience, etc.). Rather, Green is focused more on Luke’s narrative in its cultural milieu and how it invites the audience now into a new reality, the kingdom of God. Fourth, James Edwards’s relatively recent commentary on Luke in the PNTC series (Eerdmans, 2015) proceeds in a vein similar to his Mark commentary and is likewise full of exegetically derived theological insights. It is more historically oriented than Green’s, and I find that reading Edwards and Green next to one another is rewarding.

Finally, an insightful monograph on Luke’s theological and social vision from a Latin American perspective is The Liberating Mission of Jesus: The Message of the Gospel of Luke, by Darío López Rodriguez (Pickwick, 2012). Spanish speakers will benefit from the third, expanded edition: La misión liberadora de Jesús: El mensaje del Evangelio de Lucas (CENIP, 2017). Rodriguez is a Peruvian scholar-pastor working among impoverished communities in Lima, Peru, and he provides a “lived” reading of Luke’s holistic vision of the kingdom.

The Gospel according to John

Marianne Meye Thompson’s commentary on John in the New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox, 2015) is superb. Her introduction alone is well worth careful reading and reflection as she judiciously navigates questions of history and theology in Johannine scholarship by thinking with John. In the commentary proper, she is highly attuned to the narrative shape of John’s Gospel, his rather unique style of writing, the OT allusions embedded in the narrative, and the cultural milieu of the Gospel. Second, Craig Keener’s two-volume commentary on John repays sustained attention (Baker Academic, 2010). Keener is known for his exhaustive coverage of any given topic, and his John commentary is no different. I recommend Keener to readers looking for thorough treatment of exegetical and historical issues in John.

Third, I recommend Charles Talbert’s Reading John (Smyth & Helwys, 2005). Like his Reading Luke, Talbert pays close attention to the literary and rhetorical features of John’s Gospel and thus helps the reader make connections often missed in more traditional verse-by-verse commentaries. Last, I strongly recommend Richard Bauckham’s monograph Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Baker Academic, 2015). Bauckham is a Johannine expert, and although he has not yet written a major commentary on John, this volume provides the reader with rich insights into John’s key themes and simultaneously teaches one how to read John exegetically-theologically. As a final note, I would also point to the forthcoming commentary on John by David Ford (Baker Academic, 2021). It should be excellent.

The Acts of the Apostles

Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary on Acts in the Sacra Pagina series (Michael Glazier, 2006) is full of exegetical and theological insights. Johnson is well known as a scholar of Luke and Acts, and he carefully reads Acts as a coherent narrative with attention to how Acts connects with the Gospel of Luke, the role of the OT in Luke, and the “prophetic” mission of the church. Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Eerdmans, 1997) is also a reliable, single-volume commentary on Acts. Witherington navigates judiciously some of the difficult social, historical, and theological issues pertinent to Acts, providing a sort of running exposition of the text.

A third commentary well worth engaging is Willie Jennings’s recent and unique volume on Acts in the Belief series (Westminster John Knox, 2017). Jennings’s commentary—like the series—attempts to read Acts theologically against the backdrop of contemporary ecclesial and cultural issues (e.g., racism, nationalism, etc.). Jennings is less concerned about extensive conversation with Acts scholarship and more interested in helping the church think with the revolutionary theological vision of Acts. I also recommend two monographs in relation to Acts. The first is C. Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford University Press, 2016). Rowe’s work is technical and requires careful attention, but it is so richly rewarding for thinking about the shape of the church’s existence in the Greco-Roman world and, by extension, today, that it is worth the effort. Particularly, chapters 4–5 of that book cast a vision of Christian/ecclesial existence (from reflection on Acts) that is, in my view, unsurpassed. The second is Joel B. Green’s Conversion in Luke-Acts (Baker Academic, 2015). Green’s work is also somewhat technical, but his focus on the journey-shape of conversion in Luke’s two volumes connects careful reading of Luke and Acts with current thinking about embodied human life.

Reading while White

I have a fair amount in common with Dr. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor at Wheaton College and author of Reading while Black (IVP Academic, 2020). For instance, we both played high school football in the Deep South—him in Alabama and myself in Georgia—with limited success. Though, his limited success was much more impressive than mine. We’re both Bible scholars and transplants to the North. In fact, I occupy his old office at Northeastern Seminary! In my interview for the position, I expressed angst about winters in Rochester, NY. His response? “There’s just something primal about shoveling yourself out of your driveway in the mornings.” This was less than comforting. But our willingness to endure impressive amounts of snow to teach biblical studies reveals another similarity: we both care deeply about biblical interpretation.

Despite our similarities, we have some important differences. Dr. McCaulley, a Black man, was reared in the Black Church and shaped by Black cultural influences. I, a white man, grew up in an almost all-white congregation with different heroes than his. He had to navigate a white-majority world and experienced traumatic encounters with police officers. I’ve never once been searched by the police. He faced ideological challenges in college that stemmed largely from being a minoritized student struggling to understand a predominately white institution. My challenges in college were academic in nature, not due to racial power dynamics.

Embodied experiences like these shape the lenses through which we interpret Scripture, and Dr. McCaulley’s work gives voice to a tradition of Black biblical interpretation. He distinguishes this tradition from Black liberation approaches, but he doesn’t conflate it with white evangelical models. He does this without using stereotypes or attacking other traditions. By describing this strand of Black biblical interpretation, Dr. McCaulley contributes to the diverse landscape of interpretive practices that people around the world bring to the Bible. I’m grateful for these gifts that Dr. McCaulley and others have given to the field of biblical studies and to the church.

But there is a risk for White Christian readers like myself when we unwrap such gifts. Because White folks in the US represent the majority culture, we can easily take for granted that what’s normal for us is normal for everyone. As philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have argued, we can assume too readily that our experiences, perspectives, and practices are universal. We can presume, for instance, that other people have race or ethnicity, but we’re just people.

Such assumptions surface in conversations, like when we refer to certain foods as “ethnic foods,” as if our own cuisine doesn’t come from a specific ethnic group. This view also appears in consumer products. When we refer, for example, to paint that’s “flesh tone” or to flesh-colored band-aids, whose flesh does it resemble? When these products bear the same color tones as Caucasian skin, we implicitly assume that most skin is white and that non-white skin is other than the norm. This perspective became painfully apparent some years ago when Dove received backlash for marketing a skincare product called Summer Glow, with the description “nourishing lotion for normal to dark skin.” Those in the majority culture can easily assume that what’s normal for us is simply normal.

Such assumptions pose a risk for people like me when we read works like Dr. McCaulley’s. I believe that we should engage a broad range of perspectives to discern the fullness of God’s word when we read the Bible. But it can be problematic if we with white racial identities read while assuming that our interpretive approaches and methods are or should be the norm. Such assumptions can lead us to regard Black biblical interpretation as just one approach among many that lie outside of what we consider “standard biblical interpretation.” That is, we risk viewing it as beyond or other than what’s normal.

As a starting point for avoiding this danger, I think it’s important to recognize that the approaches to biblical interpretation we presume to be universal and normative are actually a collection of particular and historically located perspectives and practices. I shouldn’t assume that I’m “just reading the Bible” when like anyone else, my particular racial and cultural identity shapes how I read it. Just as Dr. McCaulley describes a distinct way of interpreting the Bible, so too, we should recognize that what we might term reading while white is “a thing,” as they say. It’s a particular way of reading the Bible among others, even if we who practice it don’t always recognize this.

What is involved in reading the Bible through white racial lenses? In a series of subsequent posts, I will discuss some introductory ideas that focus on methodologies and practical concerns.

Reading while White

I have a fair amount in common with Dr. Esau McCaulley, assistant professor at Wheaton College and author of Reading while Black (IVP Academic, 2020). For instance, we both played high school football in the Deep South—him in Alabama and myself in Georgia—with limited success. Though, his limited success was much more impressive than mine. We’re both Bible scholars and transplants to the North. In fact, I occupy his old office at Northeastern Seminary! In my interview for the position, I expressed angst about winters in Rochester, NY. His response? “There’s just something primal about shoveling yourself out of your driveway in the mornings.” This was less than comforting. But our willingness to endure impressive amounts of snow to teach biblical studies reveals another similarity: we both care deeply about biblical interpretation.

Despite our similarities, we have some important differences. Dr. McCaulley, a Black man, was reared in the Black Church and shaped by Black cultural influences. I, a white man, grew up in an almost all-white congregation with different heroes than his. He had to navigate a white-majority world and experienced traumatic encounters with police officers. I’ve never once been searched by the police. He faced ideological challenges in college that stemmed largely from being a minoritized student struggling to understand a predominately white institution. My challenges in college were academic in nature, not due to racial power dynamics.

Embodied experiences like these shape the lenses through which we interpret Scripture, and Dr. McCaulley’s work gives voice to a tradition of Black biblical interpretation. He distinguishes this tradition from Black liberation approaches, but he doesn’t conflate it with white evangelical models. He does this without using stereotypes or attacking other traditions. By describing this strand of Black biblical interpretation, Dr. McCaulley contributes to the diverse landscape of interpretive practices that people around the world bring to the Bible. I’m grateful for these gifts that Dr. McCaulley and others have given to the field of biblical studies and to the church.

But there is a risk for White Christian readers like myself when we unwrap such gifts. Because White folks in the US represent the majority culture, we can easily take for granted that what’s normal for us is normal for everyone. As philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have argued, we can assume too readily that our experiences, perspectives, and practices are universal. We can presume, for instance, that other people have race or ethnicity, but we’re just people.

Such assumptions surface in conversations, like when we refer to certain foods as “ethnic foods,” as if our own cuisine doesn’t come from a specific ethnic group. This view also appears in consumer products. When we refer, for example, to paint that’s “flesh tone” or to flesh-colored band-aids, whose flesh does it resemble? When these products bear the same color tones as Caucasian skin, we implicitly assume that most skin is white and that non-white skin is other than the norm. This perspective became painfully apparent some years ago when Dove received backlash for marketing a skincare product called Summer Glow, with the description “nourishing lotion for normal to dark skin.” Those in the majority culture can easily assume that what’s normal for us is simply normal.

Such assumptions pose a risk for people like me when we read works like Dr. McCaulley’s. I believe that we should engage a broad range of perspectives to discern the fullness of God’s word when we read the Bible. But it can be problematic if we with white racial identities read while assuming that our interpretive approaches and methods are or should be the norm. Such assumptions can lead us to regard Black biblical interpretation as just one approach among many that lie outside of what we consider “standard biblical interpretation.” That is, we risk viewing it as beyond or other than what’s normal.

As a starting point for avoiding this danger, I think it’s important to recognize that the approaches to biblical interpretation we presume to be universal and normative are actually a collection of particular and historically located perspectives and practices. I shouldn’t assume that I’m “just reading the Bible” when like anyone else, my particular racial and cultural identity shapes how I read it. Just as Dr. McCaulley describes a distinct way of interpreting the Bible, so too, we should recognize that what we might term reading while white is “a thing,” as they say. It’s a particular way of reading the Bible among others, even if we who practice it don’t always recognize this.

What is involved in reading the Bible through white racial lenses? In a series of subsequent posts, I will discuss some introductory ideas that focus on methodologies and practical concerns.

The Promise of Holiness

From time to time those of us in the Wesleyan tradition pause to remember from whence we have come. From its modest beginnings in the Holy Club at Oxford, a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street, and field preaching in Bristol, we now have a global Wesleyan Methodist family. And, if Frederick Dale Bruner is correct to call Pentecostalism “primitive Methodism’s extended incarnation” (A Theology of the Holy Spirit [Eerdmans, 1973], 37), then the twentieth-century explosion of Pentecostalism across the globe can also find its roots in Wesley. All in all, this is a pretty impressive heritage for one who began his ministry struggling to save his own soul.

Wesley’s place in church history is secure. If I can put this in terms that might be theologically acceptable to him, we can give God thanks for what God accomplished through the ministry of John Wesley.

Wesley has a place of honor in our past. But does he have a role in shaping our future? I believe he does, and in a series of Consider Wesley articles I want to look at one way he might give us direction through a recovery of his emphasis on holiness of heart and life—that is, a life centered in and governed by love.

The centrality of holiness to early Methodism is beyond dispute. John Wesley believed the movement was specifically called to hold before the world the great promise of Christian perfection as attainable in this life. As late as 1790 he wrote, “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appears to have raised us up” (Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 15, 1790, in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson [Baker, 1978], 13:9). Among the four dimensions of doctrine identified by Alister McGrath in The Genesis of Doctrine ([Eerdmans, 1990], 370) is that of “social demarcation”; clearly, holiness served that function for Wesley’s Methodists. It made them a distinctive people.

Of course, holiness was not the whole of Methodist doctrine; that includes such key elements as the Trinity, the incarnation and atonement, original sin, prevenient grace, conviction of sin, justification, and sanctification. But holiness as perfect love was the orienting goal of all the other doctrines, giving them their purpose and direction.

It could not be otherwise for Wesley. Because he believed God’s purpose in salvation is to restore the fallen imago Dei in this life, Christian perfection, which designates that restoration, must be seen as the soteriological capstone. But not only for soteriology; holiness is also the central mark of the Christian community, and hence the goal of ecclesiology as well. But not only ecclesiology; holiness is the shape of redeemed human society, and therefore also the eschatological goal. But not only eschatology, for holiness as perfect love is that which marks the trinitarian life of God itself, in whose image humanity was created.

As all this implies, “doctrine” for Wesley did not simply designate concepts to be cognitively affirmed but promised realities to be experienced and lived out. What McGrath says of Luther and Melanchthon is equally true of Wesley:

Doctrine is not understood as naked intellectual belief, but as a means of generating an atmosphere of expectation, of removing obstacles, of orienting oneself in an appropriate manner, in order that the risen Christ may be encountered and known, and his benefits appreciated. (Genesis of Doctrine, 127)

We can see this in Wesley’s own description of “genuine Christianity” when it is understood “as a scheme or system of doctrine.” Having pictured Christianity as a life of love for God and neighbor, along with other attendant affections and practices—that is, in terms of holiness of heart and life—Wesley then discusses the purpose of Christianity as doctrine:

First, it describes this character in all its parts, and that in the most lively and affecting manner…. Secondly, Christianity promises this character shall be mine if I will not rest till I attain it…. Christianity tells me, in the third place, how I may attain the promise, namely, by faith. (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” §II/l ]

Doctrine for Wesley was “practical divinity” that served to direct persons to Christ and create in Christians an expectant faith and a hunger for holiness.

Doctrine then was not irrelevant to Christian life and experience. It was instead a pointer to a God who can be encountered and to a new life that can be received. This was the message of early Methodism that seems to be lacking in much of the contemporary church. Without the promise being preached and taught, and affirmed through testimony, it becomes difficult for people to seek to receive this new life. For the early Methodists, it was the promise of sanctification as a lived reality among them that gave their message of holiness authenticity.

Divine Call and the Historic Struggle over Women’s Roles

In a previous Catalyst blog entitled “The Biblical Basis for the Ordination of Women in the Wesleyan Tradition,” I described various patterns of women’s leadership evident in the NT and historic early church. In this blog I will trace how these practices were severely curtailed in many places within Christianity by the medieval era—centuries later to be revived by Pietists, Wesleyans, and other Christians. Women in some of these bodies met with ecclesiastical resistance to their callings once again in the context of North America, but resistance to their leadership was eventually overcome in many instances.

In the early medieval era, the dominant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations expanded their power, territories, and cultural influence throughout Europe. In the process of formalizing institutional policies, these bodies increasingly ruled women out of officially recognized ministerial roles. For instance, in 441 AD the Council of Orange declared, “Let no one proceed to the ordination of deaconesses anymore” (quoted in Elizabeth Gillan Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church: Two Thousand Years of Female Leadership [University of Toronto Press, 2019], 17). By the eleventh century, theologians authorized by the long-established denominations were well underway with the task of embedding into their respective institutions religious gender ideologies that reserved priestly and formal leadership roles within the church for males. By this time in Roman Catholicism, women who expressed a call to formal roles within the church were viewed with suspicion. Benedictine monk and cardinal Peter Damian, for example, characterized women as “charmers of the clergy, appetizing flesh of the devil, … castaway from paradise, … poison of the minds, death of souls, venom of wine and of eating, companions of the very stuff of sin, the cause of our ruin” (quoted in Muir, A Women’s History, 23). The one credible option left for women within the realm of the Roman Catholic Church was to commit themselves to lives of virginity and prayer, sequestered within a female religious order (Barbara J. MacHaffie, Herstory: Women in Christian Tradition, 2nd ed. [Fortress, 2005] 49–51; Muir, A Women’s History, 22–24.). Within such religious orders, a limited number of women did rise to the position of abbess, itself in many cases a form of ordained ministry.

The Protestant Reformations that began in the sixteenth century gradually opened new doors for women in church leadership. Both the Pietist movement that arose in the seventeenth century and the Methodist movement that was strongly influenced by it developed out of a sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation ethos that hearkened back to NT and early church practices in many respects, such as the inclusion of women in ministry. These movements and their leaders, including John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley, called into question Roman Catholic doctrines that were based in ideologies of male superiority and entitlements to ecclesiastical power historically associated with Rome and its pontiffs.

Protestants—including Lutherans, Calvinists, Pietists, and Methodists—developed theologies that viewed women and men as spiritual equals and encouraged substantive biblical and theological study by all Christians. In these traditions, women were expected at a minimum to cultivate holiness in their personal lives, counted on to teach children the basics of the faith, and to take responsibility for ministries of hospitality, prayer, and Bible study. To varying degrees, Anabaptists, Moravian Pietists, Quakers, and Methodists assigned both women and men to leadership roles in ministry, including preaching, based on their understanding of NT precedents and principles of spiritual egalitarianism.

When he visited the Moravian Pietists at Herrnhut, Germany, in 1738, Anglican and Methodist John Wesley would have encountered Moravian practices of appointing women as congregational judges and members of governing boards, as well as the ordination of women as deaconesses, eldresses, presbyters, priests, missionaries, and evangelists (Muir, A Women’s History, 182–84). In contrast, as a renewal movement within the essentially traditional Church of England, the early Methodists did not “ordain” anyone. However, John Wesley certainly did send forth many men and some women as Methodist preachers and exhorters, and as prayer, Bible study, and class leaders. Grandson of Puritans, avid scholar of the Bible and biblical theologian, Wesley stood firmly in the Protestant Reformation tradition that affirmed NT spiritual egalitarianism between men and women. He acknowledged prohibitions in NT epistles against women speaking in particular church contexts (e.g., 1 Cor 14:34–35; 1 Tim 2:11–12) and justified his own appointment of women as preachers of the gospel by the “extraordinary call” the Holy Spirit had placed on not all, but certain women in his own context in eighteenth-century England, and on the evidence of the spiritual fruit of their preaching and other ministries (Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism, 1760–1939 [Abingdon, 1999], 31–32).

In the century after Wesley’s death in 1791, his (male) successors in leadership in England and America reverted to severe restrictions regarding women in ministry, which quickly became a self-perpetuating cycle. They developed policies more in accordance with the spherical ideology of dominant social norms that relegated women to the home and men to the world of business and politics. As the Methodist movement developed into institutionalized denominations, positions of influence and power, such as ordained ministry and the vast majority of preaching circuits, were explicitly reserved for males. Nonetheless, in the first half of the nineteenth century, as if a grand pendulum were swinging in the opposite direction, numerous Holy Spirit-led women came forward seeking licenses to preach as well as ordination in several American Methodist-related and other denominations. This phenomenon multiplied and eventually blossomed within several denominations into vast new opportunities for women in leadership in Christian ministry in the twentieth century and beyond. We will explore these developments in an upcoming blog.

Narcissistic Leadership in the Church

Narcissist.

It’s a descriptor we’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Whether spoken about politicians or pastors, celebrities or social media savvy teens, it’s alive in our common discourse. But it’s important to be clear and wise as we use powerful and potentially inflammatory descriptors like this.

Marilyn McEntyre in her excellent book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009) writes that “caring for language is a moral issue.” She says, “Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.” I wonder: Can a word like narcissism be a means of grace, even an invitation to wholeness and holiness?

Years ago as a pastor, I was stung by the bite of a narcissistic church leader. That bite led to bitterness before it led to healing. A few years later, I found myself in the daunting role of an assessor of church planters, seeing the warning signs in the early 2000s of what would become a church culture seemingly addicted to platform, influence, success, power, and relevance. Even in those early days, I’d hear the language of narcissism floated. My concern was growing. But I was also concerned about amateur diagnosis and cheap labels often flung amid the same trauma I experienced. People were hurting, though. Lay leaders were confused. Ministry associates were sometimes strewn like debris after a narcissistic leader’s tornado. Behind the glitter of successful ministries, I could even see the shadow side of pastors who shined on Sunday morning but battled shame, depression, addiction, and thoughts of suicide when the lights went off.

To be clear, while many of us may display narcissistic tendencies, the most serious manifestation is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a clinical diagnosis and significant disorder of the personality often traced to a combination of an inherited disposition and significant dysfunction in childhood. When you hear “disorder” you might immediately think about the more common mood and anxiety disorders – depression, bipolar, panic, social phobias. These are often treatable with the right therapy, support, even medications. But personality disorders are altogether different. They’re not treatable, even curable, with short-term therapy or medications. You don’t read a book and get over it. It doesn’t go away with a confession of sin.

NPD is characterized clinically by a grandiose sense of one’s self, a lack of empathy for others, a sense of entitlement, attention-seeking, and ruptures in family and work relationships. Psychological professionals use a combination of testing, personal interviews, and assessment tools to determine if someone meets the criteria of NPD. We do this, in the spirit of Marilyn McEntyre I hope, with great care, not to arbitrarily label someone but guided by the desire for “truth in the inmost being” (Ps 51:6). We do this not to indict or convict, but to provide a clear description of the kind of pattern that needs attention and healing.

But NPD is as ancient as Genesis 3. Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God” (Gen 3:5), transcending their God-ordained limitations and creatureliness. Christopher Lasch in his best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism (rev. ed. [Norton, 1991]) says narcissism is the “longing to be freed from longing.” Narcissists are bothered by their limits, perturbed that the world doesn’t revolve around their needs, ultimately refusing to live within God-ordained limitations of creaturely existence. Yet here’s the paradox: Our desire to be superhuman dehumanizes us, wreaking havoc on our relationships, and turning us in on ourselves (see Matt Jenson’s The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se (T&T Clark, 2007).

Adam and Eve grasped, and we’ve been grasping ever since. Adam and Eve hid, and we’ve been hiding ever since. That’s the general plight of humanity. But here is the difference with NPD: They never come out of hiding. Indeed, their fig-leaved, masked-up, self-protected selves are all we see. Often psychologically enslaved to profound shame and terror, they’re afraid to open themselves, instead armored up to survive in a threatening world.

Ten Characteristics of Narcissistic Leaders

As a young seminarian, I committed Philippians 2 to memory. It seemed seminal for the pastoral life. St. Paul sings that the incarnate Jesus

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (2:6–8)

The Christ-hymn invites every pastor to the non-grasping, non-anxious, non-exploitative way of Jesus. And perhaps it’s the longing of every one of us who sits in Greek and church history classes, who dreams of one day telling others about the grace of God.

Years ago, a veteran Bible professor at my seminary pulled me aside and whispered, “You know Chuck, I’ve been in seminary education for 30 years. Ninety percent of the general public doesn’t like public speaking, but we get the rare few that not only enjoy being on stage and who feel comfortable saying, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’”

Soon enough, we transition from classroom to stage, from winsome and light-hearted conversations about our favorite profs and most engaging books to the serious business of leadership. Soon enough, we are wearing the collar, the robe, or at the very least the invisible mantle of a shepherd of the sheep, whose word has power within the flock.

As it turns out, my older colleague wasn’t joking. I’ve been assessing pastors and planters for twenty years, and the assessment process includes long narratives, personality tests, personal interviews, and clinical disorder testing. What I’ve found is stunning but not altogether different than what many other colleagues who do this work report. The vast majority of pastoral candidates show elevations in the category of Cluster-B personality disorders. I call this the “narcissism family.” It’s a cluster of disorders that feature more dramatic and attention-seeking behavior, and a deeply armored personality that protects them from anything that makes them feel vulnerable. The two that show the most elevated results: Narcissistic and Histrionic Personality Disorders, two close cousins in the narcissism family.

Recalling McEntyre’s wisdom, let’s be careful and clear: An elevation on the narcissism spectrum doesn’t necessarily make one diagnosably narcissistic. Narcissism is not a binary, an on-off switch—either you have it or you don’t. Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Some are significantly disordered (NPD), others have noteworthy symptoms (Narcissistic Type), and still others merely show tendencies (Narcissistic Style). It’s not helpful or appropriate to assume that a confident, inspiring, influential, even charming leader is NPD. Much goes into the diagnostic process. Serious mental health practitioners take the time to look at a bigger picture before making any kind of diagnosis with certainty.

So, how can we tell? We can often tell by monitoring the relational and vocational orbit of a leader. For years, I’ve observed pastors in a variety of settings. And while some confident and charming pastors may exhibit slight tendencies of narcissism, a larger cluster of features is often seen in diagnosably narcissistic leaders. Expanding on Craig and Carolyn Williford’s helpful work on troubled church ministries (How to Treat a Staff Infection [Baker, 2008]), I suggest these ten features of narcissistic pastors:

  •  All decision-making centers on them
  • Impatience or a lack of ability to listen to others
  • Delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff
  • Needing to be the best and brightest in the room.
  • Inconsistency and impulsiveness
  • Praising and withdrawing
  • Intimidation of others
  • Fauxnerability (a faux or fake vulnerability)

While we’ll likely not see all of these features in one person, I’ll often observe a significant cluster of them in a diagnosably narcissistic pastor.

It’s important to recall that narcissism isn’t exclusive to one denomination or theology, it doesn’t respect descriptors like conservative or liberal, it doesn’t even matter the size of the church. Narcissism can be found in large church pastors in evangelical church plants and in small mainline pastors who bemoan how ignorant people are of their expansive ministry. I’ve diagnosed NPD in a bullying-and-domineering dictator of a pastor whose elder board of yes-men enabled a pattern of abuse in a large, urban church over twenty years. But I’ve also seen it in leaders whose sense of grandiosity, entitlement, attention-seeking, and callousness sabotaged an inner-city justice-and-mercy ministry and blew up a tiny, rural church in the remote Midwest. I’ve observed it in leaders revered as saints by a social media community of followers but whose behind-the-scenes track record featured a conspicuous and regular departure of talented staff.

I even saw it in a nationally known ministry whose president seemed universally revered as a “bold woman of God” for strong leadership in a season of financial distress. However, those who served under her described someone who constantly needed acknowledgment for successes, even taking credit for the innovative ideas of others. Employees feared her wrath but also spoke of a confusing “she loves you sometimes and hates you at other times” dynamic. When emails were revealed that showed a pattern of belittling, lying, and manipulating, she resigned, posturing herself as the victim of detractors who didn’t care about the gospel like she did.

The ten features above are by no means comprehensive, but they do strike me as quite a contrast to the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2. The one who refused to grasp like Adam, the one who becomes a servant—this is the one who is Lord and King. It is a stunning and sobering image of power in service of others, power meant to bless and never, ever to exploit.

Character and Giftedness?

In a popular podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (Christianity Today), producer and director Mike Cosper notes the tendency in recent decades to choose giftedness in church leaders, giftedness at the expense of character. He tells stories of young, gifted leaders who rose to power in settings as diverse as sprawling Southern California, urban Seattle, and the Chicago suburbs. Armed with bold visions, compelling personal stories, and a seemingly relentless desire to succeed, these gifted young leaders would lead flocks of thousands. In some cases, young and influential leaders were rising to prominence in their twenties, absent accountability, mentoring relationships, seminary training, communities of care. Though the kinds of churches would be different in mission, vision, even theology, the dynamics were often similar.

At least part of what happens in situations like this is that gifted young men—and the statistics do seem to show that these are mostly men—rise to power and prominence without deep spiritual discipleship and formation. Charisma trumps character. In time, those confused by the tactics, personality, even the abusive tendencies of the leader are faced with a question: How can someone so gifted and influential do such harm? As a longtime pastor myself, I’m aware even of the lack of spiritual formation and character development in my seminary training more than twenty-five years ago. At least part of what we need to keep in mind is the importance of discipleship, formation, and character development in our seminary training and in the early years of pastoral ministry. Without this, we send pastors into a treacherous situation without a moral compass.

What I’ve learned about narcissistic leaders over these many years is that each and every one has a story of trauma that is now traumatizing those around them. If we engage the work of healing at an earlier stage, we may be able to couple innate gifts with greater character, sending what Henri Nouwen called Wounded Healers (Image, 1979) into the work from a place of wholeness and holiness. In recent years, I’ve formed students with wisdom gained by the work of Ruth Haley Barton (Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, expanded ed. [InterVarsity Press 2018]), Trisha Taylor and Jim Herrington (The Leader’s Journey [Baker, 2020]), Sheila Wise-Rowe (Healing Racial Trauma [InterVarsity Press, 2020]), and more in seminary formation processes that include deep self-reflection, growth in emotional/social/cultural intelligence, contemplative practices, conflict-engagement practices, and more, all in an effort to cultivate character alongside giftedness in this next generation of pastors. But this often involves more than what a seminary or training program can do. Good pastoral mentoring, community, and trauma-informed therapy are all essential for the kind of character development necessary for this challenging season of ministry.

Pastors are shepherds of the flock, called to nurture and care for the flock. The prophet Ezekiel warns in ch. 34: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” Narcissistic shepherds are perpetually self-referential, tending to themselves, in part, because they are sufferers of their own trauma. For this reason, I have compassion on these wayward shepherds. But not to the neglect of the suffering flock who’ve endured their toxic leadership. At least a part of our collective work of repentance must include the healing of the sheep, a validation of their suffering, and a plan to care for and heal the wounds inflicted by those called to care for them. Each community must do this particular and localized work of discernment with the recognition that wounds unseen and unnamed become traumas that further perpetuate the cycle of narcissistic abuse.

In the end, this is a conversation for pastors and laity, for seminary professors and church planting assessors, for elder boards and mission organizations, for mercy ministries and activist organizations, for therapists and spiritual directors. Together, we can imagine what it might mean to follow in the way of the one who refused to grasp, who became a servant, whose kingship does not demand loyalty but invites humble followers to walk in the way.

 

[Stories shared are amalgamations of many stories in order to protect identities and confidences.]

I Stand at the Door … of Your Church

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Jesus, Rev 3:20)

When I was a boy, my grandmother had a picture of Jesus standing outside a door. He was knocking gently, as if asking politely to come inside. This image was burned in my mind when, years later, I heard an evangelistic sermon built around this text and the accompanying painting. The preacher reminded us that there is no handle on the door of that painting. Rather, is it up to us to open the door to Jesus. Maybe you have heard a similar message preached on this passage.

Jesus’s proclamation by itself sounds like something he would say in an open field to a large group of people, calling unbelievers to follow him for the first time. While there is certainly an evangelistic message in Jesus’s words that is consistent with his teaching throughout Scripture, the content of this verse deserves a closer look. Jesus’s words are found at the end of his message to the seven churches in the third chapter of the Book of Revelation. He is speaking to the church at Laodicea. If you have heard a sermon or Bible Study on this before, the teacher probably emphasized this church as being the “lukewarm church.”

While the church in Laodicea was once on fire for the kingdom of God, Jesus points out that it had become neither hot nor cold. They had begun to rely on their own wealth, fine clothes, and medical abilities. They were tempted in several ways by worldly comforts and accomplishments, and Jesus points them out, one by one. About ten years before these words were written, the city of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. The population of the city was so wealthy, they completely rebuilt without government assistance. Can you imagine a city today recovering from a natural disaster and not expecting the government’s help? There were hot springs near the city, and they were one of the first to have hot and cold running water in their homes. They raised sheep that produced fine wool, which made great clothes. They produced a unique ointment that was known to cure certain eye problems. The Laodicean church didn’t have any problem meeting the budget, clothing the community, or with medical missions. Yet, Jesus says they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17). Ouch! He calls them to repentance and says that he does so in great love.

His solution to their wayward state is to come to them and knock at the door. He wants to be invited in and to share a meal together. Don’t miss the significance of this: Jesus could have disowned the church or easily have wiped the city off the map. Yet, he is standing at the door and asking to be invited in. There are three things in v. 20 that he invites them to do:

1. Pay attention: There is a saying that goes, “Power doesn’t move.” I learned this when I was an elementary school student and was called to the principal’s office. The weaker one comes to the one with power. Yet, here is Jesus, the one who sits on the throne in Revelation, who has emptied himself to call his church to repentance. Because of this posture, he is highly exalted and praised. (See Phil 2:6–11.) This is the type of leader that deserves our attention, and we should listen to him.

2. Open: It is important that Jesus says we should open the door for him. He does not force himself on us, though he certainly could. God respects our divine right of refusal. This is another demonstration of his love for us. Love does not coerce or force itself on another. If you cannot say “no” to the offer, then your “yes” would mean nothing. The church in Laodicea is asked to say “yes” to Jesus’s love again and again.

3. Feast: The Greek text gives the image of people sharing a feast together. The word used here indicates that all formalities of a banquet are dropped—no heavy rules of protocol and decorum. Rather, the meal that Jesus wants to share is a reciprocal relationship between two people who share a deep bond.

Around the world, there is a great deal of anxiety about the future of the church. The pandemic is but one of the concerns I hear from people. However, the lesson to the first-century church in Laodicea is just as relevant today. Jesus is still knocking at the door, still inviting, and still admonishing: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

The Church and the Depressing Speed of Change

In a restaurant in North Dakota, I found myself sitting across from a pastor I had met just hours earlier when I presented at his church. By every outward mark, his congregation was vibrant. And yet he felt a creeping crisis.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said to me. “It’s something more than apathy. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that my church, maybe the whole denomination, seems depressed. I know that sounds weird, but that’s how it feels. I’ve battled depression myself for years. I know it from the inside. This feels like a church-wide depression. Like we’re stuck in mud or trapped underwater, and we just don’t have the energy to face it.”

We paused as our sandwiches arrived. He then continues, “I mean, these should be exciting times. Everyone across the church knows we need change. But instead of creating energy, it’s creating depression.”

The Fatigue to Be Me

Parisian sociologist Alain Ehrenberg made a provocative argument in his late 1990s book La fatigue d’être soi: Dépression et société, which was mostly unknown in the English-speaking world until it was translated and published in 2016 under the title The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. In this book, the sociologist argues that depression is an ailment of speed, the feeling of not being able to keep up. Ehrenberg shows convincingly that while there are antecedents, such as melancholy (something Martin Luther battled), it wasn’t until the 1970s that depression became an extensive part of western societies.

The title of Ehrenberg’s book, La fatigue d’être soi, translates more literally as “the fatigue of being yourself.” Depression in late modernity is a fatigue with no direct outward cause. It is the feeling, born within yourself, that you just don’t have the energy to be yourself.

Psychiatric therapies outstrip psychoanalytic ones in late modernity because often depression has no real narrative source. That’s what’s so scary about it. It feels like there is no reason for it coming. It arrives like a dark cloud that, painfully, won’t lift. For instance, depressed people can have bad childhoods or not, experience abuse or not, feel unaccepted or not. Depressed churches can have big budgets or not, be in the suburbs or not, have a full-time paid children’s minister or not.

Depression is so haunting because, for some, you can have everything you want, seemingly possessing all the sources to be a happy self, and yet you’re sad. But not so much a hysterical sad, crying until daybreak—that would be a relief, those tears at least acknowledging that you feel something. What’s worse is just feeling nothing, unable to garner the energy to feel even hysterical. Without analyzable narrative sources, it becomes much easier—even logically presumed—to make it a chemical issue, making pills the best treatment for it. Enter the world of Prozac, which Ehrenberg richly delves into.

But it isn’t as though depression completely has no source. Rather, Ehrenberg argues that its source is late modernity’s demand to create and continue to curate your own self (hence his title). This task is taxing and deeply fatiguing. The speed of late modernity, its frantic pace of life imposed on us by the blitzing social and technological change since the 1970s, makes life a raging river. In this raging river, you need to not only create your own identity but also reach out into the world to receive recognition for that identity, swimming madly to keep up in the breakneck currents. It is your individual job in a constantly moving environment to be a self in the always-increasing pace of late modernity. And you need to be not just some generic, bland self but a happy, successful, recognized self who’s not spitting out water but riding the rapids, maybe even with style. Needing to swim yourself to the crest of the current means that the self in late modernity can never rest. To be this kind of self requires constant navigating. This self constantly rushes to keep up.

Ehrenberg believes depression is not necessarily a response to some objective disappointment outside of you, but a response to the fatigue of failing to keep up, to over and over and over again create and curate a distinct self. It is la fatigue d’être soi: depression is the fatigue of being yourself. When this fatigue becomes too much, when we can’t find the energy to keep going into the water, creating and curating our self, we feel stuck. We feel sucked back by the current, passed over (a potent nightmare in our late-modern secular age). Everything else is moving so fast, changing and adapting every minute, and we just don’t have it in us. Perhaps we even feel something overtaking us that just won’t allow us to ever catch up. “I just can’t be the parent, employee, spouse, friend I should be. I should try harder, but I just don’t have the energy.” I have every invitation to change and change again and then change more. But I don’t have the energy to meet this demand. If I had the energy, the openness of identity construction would be exciting. But without it, the choice and openness are depressing. According to Ehrenberg, this is the source of my depression.

Back to Depressed Churches

As I drove the streets of that North Dakota town, passing strip malls and pickup trucks, I couldn’t shake my lunchtime conversation with that pastor. Was Ehrenberg’s perspective applicable to the church? So congregations lack energy right when it’s needed, unable to garner vigor when the opportunity for change is most ripe?

Without the help of Ehrenberg, I might have thought this was just bad timing. Right when congregations need to change, many are too depressed to grasp firmly with both hands their destiny. What a shame! It’s like finding yourself with a terrible flu on the very day you hold front-row tickets to see your favorite band. It’s so disappointing, such a lost opportunity, but the concert’s arrival and the ailment are unrelated. Therefore, you can only chalk it up to bad luck, or blame yourself for not taking better care of yourself. But you would never think to blame the concert for the flu.

Yet this is exactly Ehrenberg’s point. The conditions for change are what push us into depression. Depression is la fatigue d’être soi; it’s the fatigue to be yourself. It’s the openness, the broad horizon stretched before us, that demands we create and curate our own self, which then boomerangs on us. Depression breeds within the freedom to change and then change again and again, but never delivers on the promise that this change will produce the good life we seek and the meaning we need. Depression is us facing this horizon and realizing that we don’t have the energy or time to reach it. It’s the need for change itself, the openness to be and do anything (which is supposed to be exciting), that turns on the congregation, giving us la fatigue d’être eglise, the fatigue of being the church. This is exactly what this pastor told me over sandwiches.

The Great Change Challenge

Being too fatigued to be the church is a challenge. When a congregation seems to be falling behind its most often assumed that what it needs is change. Perhaps, at some level change is needed, but the pursuit of change runs the ever-present risk of producing depression. If we fail to keep up, finding ourselves falling behind, depression will meet us. This fashions in us the very opposite disposition than what is needed to meet the challenges brought by changes in our culture.

For church consultants and denominational leaders to call congregations to change is to risk something significant. It opens them to communal depression, producing the opposite of what they need to meet their challenge: despondency. Church consultants risk moving the congregation into a vicious cycle that is too often misunderstood as a straight line. The consultant is often called in when a congregation has either fallen behind or is too obdurate to meet the challenges of a changing world. The consultant leads the congregation in a process of speeding up, offering new models to speed them up to meet change. And then leaves, moving on to another congregation needing change. That feels like a straight line.

Point A: the church is stuck

Point B: give it the strategies to get unstuck

Point C: so that it can meet the speed of change

Point D: move on (and return periodically to tweak the strategies, asking the congregation to speed up further, then move on again)

But once the congregation is up to speed, it needs to forever maintain that speed, and also continually increase the speed year after year.

Modernity is the constant process of speeding things up. If we’re not careful, to diagnose the church’s issue as the need for change is to cover it in the core commitments of late modernity itself. If the consultant raises the church to a new speed, this yokes the congregation to always be speeding up to meet the never-ending change that will always remain on the horizon, a carrot forever out of reach. Speed is the supposed gift of late modernity that can quickly turn into a depressive curse.

Change is almost always considered to be some kind of growth, and in late modernity that which grows must continually grow. Modernity is about change because it is about growth. It takes a lot of work, and a whole different imagination, to disconnect change from growth. Untying the two leads to something completely different: transformation in the Spirit. Being the church is about transformation, not change. Though at first blush these seem synonymous, transformation and change are quite different.

Transformation, in the Christian tradition, comes from outside the self, relating to the self with an energy beyond the self. Because transformation comes from an energy outside the self, it invites the self into the new as a gift, as grace. It demands no increase for continuation, no energy investment to receive it. Transformation is the invitation into grace, it comes with an arriving word: “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). Transformation is not the necessity to speed up, but the need to open up and receive. Change, on the other hand, comes from within the self. Change makes the self into something new, using the power and the effort of the self. It is produced by the energy of the self.

Transformation and change have significantly different relationships to time. Change seeks to catch up to and possess time. Transformation is an experience of encountering the fullness of time. It is to feel a resonance, not speeding up to change but remaining open to transcendence.

When we push for change, if we’re not careful we impose modernity’s pursuit of growth, which risks congregational depression by thrusting it into a vicious cycle we don’t often recognize. The vicious cycle is endemic to modernity itself. Modernity, at its core, asserts that all pursuits must be primed, mathematically speaking. The equation is always something like M + C = M’ (money plus commodity equals money prime, meaning money increased). You don’t invest money to lose it; the point is to get more. This is how late modernity is structured. The same equation works with the modern research university, where knowledge plus research equals knowledge grown (K + R = K’; I’m taking this equation and therefore the overall point from Hartmut Rosa, “Two Versions of the Good Life and Two Forms of Fear: Dynamic Stabilization and the Resonance Conception of the Good Life,” paper presented at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture conference on Joy, Security, and Fear, New Haven, CT, 8–9 November 2017). The point of learning, in late modernity, is not to encounter a mysterious world unveiled by that learning. Rather, the point is to prime knowledge. It’s to create more and therefore to advance. Those who publish the fastest win.

If modernity were a computer, the code driving the system would be the algorithm X + Y = X’. Everything must be primed, and as quickly as possible so that it can be primed again. Our models of exemplary congregations fit the equation. They are exemplars because we see them through the lens of late modernity. They are the few congregations that have mastered prime. Megachurches like Saddleback, Eagle Brook, and North Point function with an equation of M + P = M’ (members plus programs equals members prime). If, like Apple or Amazon, you can return back again through the equation, you can prime your objective again and again. But every time you prime—to be able to prime at all—you must speed up the enterprise, find a way not to become friends of time but to possess and master time. Tim Suttle shares the story of a megachurch that raised $5 million to fund a new overpass to the freeway so that the departure time from their large parking lot could be cut to less than twenty minutes (Suttle, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture [Zondervan, 2014], 59). They knew that in order to prime the M (members), they would need to control the time. The faster you prime, and prime again, the faster you win, increase, and grow.

Modernity promises that if you can get to the speed of change, you’ll find purpose and significance. But this purpose and significance won’t deliver the goods of contentment, peace, or rest; instead, they only open new horizons inviting more change upon the change you’ve just met. Speeding up to meet change, late modernity pushes us inevitably to reach for another gear, to speed up further. Speeding up to meet change after new change only promises to create the necessity for more change. This may be good for corporations, like Apple and Amazon, competing in markets and seeking new products. But it’s much less so for persons seeking a good life, and communities of faith seeking the communion of the Holy Spirit through the crucified Christ felt as the shalom of God the Father.

Even if the congregation follows the consultant’s advice and reaches for an innovation that spurs them toward change, pushing them to a new speed, a new unavoidable demand to increase that speed is thrust upon the congregation. The excitement of reaching a speed that allows for change quickly reveals that exponential amounts of energy will be required in order to keep going. It is more than daunting to realize that change requires change which requires more and more change. Ehrenberg says poignantly, “Depression appeared not as a pathology of unhappiness but more as a pathology of change” (12).

Revving the engine to get up to speed to meet every new change over every new horizon produces the fumes of depression. These fumes gather as you realize that the tanks are too low to continue at this speed (let alone to meet the demand necessitated by speeding up further). This pastor in North Dakota was right: The church’s biggest challenge is not decline and the need for change, but how it relates to time.

[Adapted from chapter one of The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time against the Speed of Modern Life (Baker Academic, 2021).]

Theology and Parish

Last month I came across a complaint on the internet. It was pretty standard as internet complaints go, but it stayed with me because it was a complaint I have heard often from pastors and students, and it gets to the heart of what I understand myself to be doing as a theologian and teacher.

The complaint was about an interview published by Christian Century this summer, a conversation between William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas about the work of pastoral care. The complaint I saw was not one of the lengthy critical comments on the Christian Century page but a comment on Twitter. The author, a pastor, wrote that academic theologians talking about pastoral care was invalid. The sense of the statement was that academics don’t have the experience of doing pastoral care and therefore should not talk about it. I understand the complaint in one way: Pastoral care is a practical thing, and to only theorize and never practice puts one in a category of less expertise in the area than someone who practices it. I also understand that Willimon and Hauerwas are challenging the current practice of pastoral care as they see it. Pastors who are in parishes and other ministries doing pastoral care may feel they and their ministries, their vocations, and in some cases their identities, are being challenged or even attacked.

At the same time, I wonder about this complaint. If practice is the only thing that matters, then why do we send pastors to seminary at all? Why don’t we just treat pastoring as an apprenticeship or on-the-job training? As an academic theologian, I feel my own vocation challenged by this complaint.

The complaining pastor assumes that anyone who practices pastoral care automatically has more expertise than anyone who has not practiced, whether or not they have studied theology, including practical theology, at a theory level. Leaving aside the issue that Willimon has served churches (and is a professor of practical theology), there is a category distinction here. Practical and theoretical expertise are both important, and they are not the same kind of expertise. Indeed, each kind needs the other.

Willimon and Hauerwas are speaking out of their vocation as theologians, offering a critique of certain current church practices and a vision for Christ-centered pastoral care. The job of a theologian is to serve the church. When I was in seminary and graduate school, I had an older pastor friend who often told me, “You’re on loan from the church. We’re giving you time to study, but you have to come back to us with what you’ve learned.” The theologian holds the truths about who Jesus is and what Jesus calls his church to be and to do and tries to understand how all the strands hold together, even when all they can know about how they hold together is that it is a mystery. Then the theologian offers this to the church. Sometimes the offering is a book to build up the greater contemplation of God. Sometimes the offering is a commentary that helps a pastor think about her sermon text. And sometimes the offering is a call to remember that Christ and Christ’s kingdom are the whole purpose of the church.

Often I hear from pastors and students that because I don’t pastor a church I can’t tell them not to do this one thing in worship or how to talk to people who are hurting, right in front of them. I don’t understand what they have to do. My knowledge is theoretical and doesn’t work in practice. I agree that pastors absolutely have a harder job. People are more complicated than books. Moreover, I need pastors to tell me what they’re doing and facing so that my theology remains honest. Yet there are things that are true, things I can know, things that God has revealed about the universe, and these things should anchor the church. Christians are not just people who like to hang out together on Sunday mornings; Christians are people who worship and follow Jesus Christ. If I can’t tell people about this anchor, this foundation, and suggest that all of our practices have to work toward this, then we should no longer require that pastors go to seminary.

If I can’t talk about church or pastoral practices from my expertise, then yesterday’s church history class on Gnosticism and Marcionism would have been pointless. Instead, after discussing the second-century heresies and why second-century Christians said those two ideas were problematic, I talked with my undergraduates about how these ideas show up in churches today. At the end of our conversation, one student said, “I’m going to start reading more from the Old Testament. Christians need this to understand who Jesus is and what salvation means!” Another student said that she would think about this at funerals, and if she had to give a eulogy would be careful not to talk about the spirit being released but instead talk about the resurrection of the body because it’s more hopeful. Seems to me theology still matters.

Scripture, Ministry, and Moral Injury

When thinking about those who need ministry care within our congregations, it’s easy to overlook service members, veterans, and military families. They often appear composed, resolute, and strong. Yet caregivers both inside and outside the church have recognized that those who’ve endured the realities of war directly as soldiers or indirectly as families may experience complex psychological and mental health struggles. Over the last decade, psychologists have identified another effect of war now known as “moral injury.”

In short, moral injury is a non-physical wound that results from the violation (by oneself or others) of a person’s core moral beliefs and ethical convictions about themselves, the world, or even God as a result of experiences such as participation in war. It’s not the same as fear-based adjustment disorders such as PTSD, with their flashbacks and traumatic episodes. Rather, the sense of moral violation can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, as well as the inability to trust in the morality of oneself and others or the goodness of God and the world.

For pastors, as well as for those preparing for ministry, knowing how to minister to those struggling with the psychological aftermath of trauma often falls outside of typical seminary training. This is even more true for the lasting effects of moral distress and anguish that can result from the experience of violent, or otherwise ethically questionable, circumstances and events. Our first thoughts here rightly go to veterans. But recent years have seen an expansion of the notion of moral injury to include the effects (and even moral disillusionment) that may result from serving as a frontline medical worker in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing the impact of systemic racism and sexism within societal institutions, or witnessing the troubling actions and social turmoil that has characterized US politics in recent years. All of these things can create a sense of moral woundedness and disillusionment, as well as feelings of guilt and shame, which take an emotional and psychological toll, create lasting injuries that are not physically observable, and need perspectives and practices that offer moral healing and repair within a communal context.

Work on moral injury in general has emerged at a staggeringly fast rate since 2009, with academic analyses, clinical studies, firsthand accounts from veterans, and other discussions appearing in works from clinical psychology, military studies, moral philosophy, chaplaincy resources, general-audience books, and popular press publications such as The New York Times and the Huffington Post. Two major sites for online resources and programming are available for those seeking the broadest engagement with moral injury: (1) The Shay Moral Injury Center at Volunteers of America, and 2) The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.

For a published collection of resources, see Brad E. Kelle, ed., Moral Injury: A Guide for Understanding and Engagement [Lexington, 2020]). Although not moving as quickly as work in disciplines such as clinical psychology, several recent works on pastoral theology, Christian counseling, and spiritual formation (e.g., Larry Kent Graham, Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls [Abingdon, 2017]; Nancy J. Ramsay and Carrie Doehring, eds., Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care: A Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers [Chalice, 2019]) have engaged moral injury and the need for moral repair within Christian ministry and theology.

But what about the study of Scripture? For those practicing or preparing for Christian ministry in congregational settings, the study and proclamation of Scripture will stand at the center of their work and therefore of any engagement with moral injury, its effects, and its healing. Those working on moral injury in other fields have already established a habit of using interdisciplinary study to examine ancient writings such as Greek myths and epics for reflections of moral dissonance and distress (e.g., Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character [Touchstone, 1994]; Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming [Scribner, 2002]). They have also looked to the sacred texts of various world religions (see Joseph McDonald, ed., Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts, Studies in Religion and Theology [Jessica Kingsley, 2017]), as well as specific writings of early Christian theologians (e.g., Brian S. Powers, Full Darkness: Original Sin, Moral Injury, and Wartime Violence [Eerdmans, 2019]). There is no reason to doubt that the ancient texts of Christian Scripture can also contribute to this pressing matter appearing more and more in today’s context. But how can the interpretation and proclamation of Scripture contribute to the efforts to recognize moral injury and move toward moral repair?

Below are some excerpts from my recent book entitled, The Bible and Moral Injury: Reading Scripture alongside War’s Unseen Wounds (Abingdon, 2020), which is dedicated to the question of whether the study of the Bible—in academic, ministerial, or other contexts—can benefit from and/or contribute to the ongoing work on moral injury. My approach is to explore (with case studies) the interpretation of biblical texts (especially war-related stories, rituals, and laments from the Old Testament) in conversation with research on moral injury in other fields. My thesis is that the engagement between the Bible and moral injury generates a two-way conversation. On the one hand, moral injury can be an interpretive lens that brings new meanings out of biblical texts, especially those associated with war and violence. On the other hand, the study of biblical texts can make substantive contributions to the ongoing attempt to understand, identify, and heal moral injury.

“Psychologists, researchers, and other caregivers have recently identified another of war’s unseen wounds that has come to be referred to as “moral injury”…. Put more technically, moral injury refers to the deleterious effects of war participation on moral conscience and ethical conceptions—the wrecking of a person’s fundamental assumptions about “what’s right” and how things should work in the world that may result from a sense of having violated one’s core moral identity and lost any reliable, meaningful world in which to live…. The first part of my thesis suggests that moral injury can be a heuristic or interpretive lens through which we can read biblical texts in new ways…. We can become attuned to characters and stories that resonate with issues raised by moral injury—characters who display the characteristics of violating their moral conscience or experiencing betrayal, and stories that illustrate the consequences of and attempts to deal with these experiences. We can look for war-related rituals, poems, or prayers that connect to experiences of moral injury and attempts to come to grips with them. Moral injury can provide a window into the human experiences, realities, and dynamics that stand behind these ancient sacred texts and the communities that created and preserved them, particularly the reality of human pain caused by loss, death, moral violation, and betrayal. …

“The other part of my thesis suggests that the study of the Bible, especially as undertaken through the academic field known as biblical studies, can contribute to the ongoing efforts to understand and work with moral injury being done by psychologists, veterans, philosophers, chaplains, and others…. Perhaps the most readily apparent contributions involve perspectives related to faith and spirituality. First, however, I would note that the chapters that follow hope to show that the critical study of the Bible can also contribute a distinctively humanities dimension to moral injury work. So far, moral injury study has been dominated by mental health, psychology, and related therapeutic contexts…creating, at times, a kind of clinical and scientific reductionism…. [But] the perspectives of historians, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and textual scholars can provide different dimensions by allowing access to human experiences and reflections that can help modern persons see and articulate more clearly their own experiences. The biblical texts in particular—as ancient writings from historical communities and cultures—purport to describe human lives and experiences that point to the historical and cultural breadth of the moral struggles involved in war. The biblical writings can place moral injury into contexts of human experience that clinical psychology and even moral philosophy cannot—contexts of rituals, penance, confession, and narratives about complex moral agency and characters. …”

I then go on to summarize the flow of the book.

“From the starting points discussed in this introduction, the following chapters will explore the two-fold thesis that moral injury can be an interpretive lens that brings new meanings out of biblical texts and that the critical study of biblical texts can make substantive contributions to the ongoing attempt to understand, identify, and heal moral injury…. [One] chapter will explore how the story of King Saul (1 Sam 9–31), with its often-cited tragic dimensions, might be read as the tale of a morally wounded warrior and how biblical interpretation might, in turn, contribute to moral injury work that seeks new and illuminating readings of literary, especially tragic, characters…. [The next] chapter will focus on postwar rituals and practices that appear in the Old Testament, including especially the ritual purification of warriors, captives, and objects after battle (e.g., Num 31) and the various kinds of redistribution of spoils from battle (e.g., Gen 14:17–24; Num 31:25–47; Josh 22:7–9). The discussion will look for textual elements in the rituals and practices that suggest the recognition of and need to deal with the experiences now associated with moral injury.

“In an extension of the rituals and practices trajectory, ch. 5 will single out the practice of lament, especially as expressed in the Old Testament’s lament and penitential psalms (both individual and communal). The discussion will explore the possible connections between ancient Israel’s expressions of lament and the emerging emphasis on imaginative confession or disclosure, compassionate dialogue, and forgiving moral authorities within current moral injury work. Chapter 6 will then move to a broader question on which perspectives from moral injury may provide new insights for biblical studies: ‘Do the biblical warfare and violence texts morally injure their readers?’ This discussion reconsiders the perennially difficult issue of the interpretation of the Old Testament’s texts depicting divine and divinely sanctioned violence by exploring whether elements within moral injury yield a new way to understand what is theologically troubling about these biblical texts (especially for Christian readers) and whether any of the proposed ways to heal moral injury in soldiers can help with interpretation. …

“In the end, then, I hope that what I’ve tried to do with the biblical texts and moral injury in this book becomes an invitation, especially for those whose primary vocation is biblical interpretation. The invitation is, first, to allow perspectives from moral injury to keep us honest about the fact that the Bible contains narratives, rituals, prayers, and poems that depict the moral harm that so often accompanies the experience of war. When seen through the lens of moral injury, the Bible isn’t a legitimation of war but an indirect acknowledgment that war is morally injurious (at least potentially, and perhaps necessarily). But I hope my work here is also an invitation to all biblical interpreters—professional, scholarly, ministerial, devotional, and more—to engage in ongoing reflection on the roles our interpretations play in how people think about war and its effects—morally, ethically, personally, and communally. Given the stark realities attested by the notion of moral injury and the Bible’s overall emphasis on the love for God and others, our interpretations of the biblical war and violence texts should help people have a more fully orbed understanding of war, including the moral burdens and wreckage it involves. The goal of such interpretation isn’t to hide from these realities of war, but to face them full-on with the hope of moral repair. As we consider the dialogue between the Bible and moral injury, we study war and its injuries in order to work for peace and its possibilities.”

As these excerpts show, I encourage all interpreters of Scripture—and especially those engaged in the preparation for or practice of congregational ministry—to consider how the emerging understandings of moral injury from various sources might bear on the reading of biblical texts, and how the interpretation of Scripture might contribute to serious engagement with moral distress and efforts toward moral repair. Clearly, faith communities can offer perspectives on moral theology and communal practices to supplement the work being done in psychological study and practice. And the Bible can aid those concerned with moral injury by providing texts that allow deeper explorations of how persons of faith experience moral violation; what the effects of such experiences are; and what role may be played by honesty, grief, theodicy, forgiveness, and healing.

I don’t mean to suggest that preachers and teachers should look to the Bible to find a simplistic set of moral principles or values. Rather, those engaged in the proclamation of Christian Scripture should attend carefully to how its diverse stories, poems, prayers, teachings, and rituals depict complex moral characters and situations and invite all readers to new ways of imagining what it means to be a human being made in the image of God and living in a morally vexed world. I hope all those who preach and teach the Bible in our current moral moment will appreciate that they take up the biblical texts in the midst of a larger cultural conversation about the moral questions of human agency and actions, the social responsibility for morally damaging experiences, and the possibilities of meaningful ethical and spiritual life after moral injury. This kind of biblical interpretation and proclamation may ultimately save the lives of those whose sense of moral self (or even a moral God) has been shattered by their actions, the actions of others, or the circumstances of a morally injurious world.

[Adapted from Brad E. Kelle,Scripture, Ministry, and Moral Injury among Veterans,” Circuit Rider (2019). ©2019 Circuit Rider Used by Permissions. All rights reserved.]

Just Tell the Truth

St. Augustine, writing in what is arguably the most influential handbook for preachers in the Christian tradition (De Doctrina Christiana) begins by citing the experience and words of St. Paul to emphasize the importance of learning from the example and wisdom of others: “What do we have, after all, that we have not received? But if we have received it, why should we boast as though we had not?”

Augustine was writing against a practice that is all too common in our time: preachers who claim to receive “messages” directly from God but without the mediation of human teachers and preachers. Augustine’s words call attention to our place within the “great company of preachers” with whom we share the vocation of hearing and speaking the word of God in Scripture, a practice best learned by attending to and thinking with the faithfulness of others who dare to speak the truth of Jesus Christ.

We are fortunate to have received the most recent publication of one such exemplar, Richard Lischer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. Just Tell the Truth: A Call to Faith, Hope, and Courage (Eerdmans, 2021) is a collection of edited sermons preached over many years of ministry. These sermons, thirty-seven in all, represent the seasons in the Christian Year (33), as well as preaching on special occasions (4). Learning from a book of sermons means more than simply repeating what the author has already said. Imitation entails attending to habits of believing, thinking, perceiving, and speaking in fidelity to the gospel. As Lischer notes in the introduction: “For us [Christians], telling the truth begins with an accurate and passionate account of what the book of Acts calls ‘the facts about Jesus’ – who he is, what he did, what he demands, and the sort of people he empowers us to be.”

As a preacher, Lischer stays close to the text while also remaining close to life. Here the modern dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity is overcome by a unity of sermon content and form offered as a living witness to the truth of Christ. Lischer’s present tense preaching means listeners are not invited into a historical and cultural time warp by which he works to transport them back to biblical times. Rather, the use of personal language, informed by closely attending to the scriptural witness to the “Word made flesh” in Jesus presses the “today” of God’s address which is sufficient to create, sustain, and strengthen faith. In a sermon from Luke 10, Lischer announces the change of the ages brought by Jesus: “We see something small: he sees something big. We see churches struggling for solvency: he sees a large and more exciting arena in which God’s power is at work. We see improvements here and there: he sees a transformation under way fueled by the Holy Spirit. We see the church at its most fragile: he sees the church at its most majestic.”

This form of preaching—which is called “sermon”—is best understood as a conversation initiated by God in Christ and mediated to the church by the Holy Spirit. Here Lischer’s consistent, pastoral use of “we” invites listeners to see themselves as graced participants in a divine/human dialogue in which Christ is speaking to evoke the offering of living faith with and through himself to the Father. A sermon on John 9, the story of a blind man healed by Jesus concludes: “We are free from having to be religious experts or self-appointed saints, free from having to calculate the cost-benefit ratio of every decision we make, free to be brave in the world. We have the freedom to stand up in a god-free culture where so many claim to know so much and to say, ‘One thing I know … and it is no small thing. It saved my life!’”

Lischer’s truth telling reflects the paradox of his own Lutheran tradition. This is evinced by his use of concrete language as a means of directing attention to the radiant glory of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord of all that is. A theologian by training and lover of good literature, Lischer speaks eloquently of a God who is with us in the life and ministry of Christ while doing so with a particular kind of “learned ignorance.” On the one hand, these sermons provide outstanding examples of preaching that is “learned,” the fruit of many years of prayer, study, teaching, and practice. On the other hand, this learning is largely hidden in elegant expressions that seek to make room for the Word in the words that are spoken. Preaching on the Ascension, he declares: “We stand between two advents, the first and second coming of the Lord. That means that we are free to look for Jesus in all the wrong places, for he is coming toward us from more than one direction.”

Lischer’s sermons read therefore like acts of worship, offerings of love for the Word and words that seek to be an enactment of that which he seeks to exemplify: Just tell the truth. He does this in a manner that prompts deep existential questions that resonate throughout the book. If this really is the truth, what would my life look like; what would our lives look like? A brief childhood anecdote illumines the cost of telling the truth: “When I was a kid, my mother always told me what your mothers told you: ‘As long as you tell the truth, you won’t get in trouble.’ Our mothers lied. ‘Did you cause your brother’s nose to bleed’? ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘It’s good that you told the truth. You’re not in trouble, dear, but you are grounded for three weeks.’ And then this brief summary: “You see, it’s just the opposite: Tell the truth, and that’s when the trouble starts.”

The sermons challenge and correct without being polemical. They seek to comfort without being sentimental. They speak the truth in love without sacrificing either. Taken as a whole, they stir a deep longing to receive God’s gifts of faith, hope, and courage without neglecting God’s commands as the means of their realization. In each instance, the hearer or reader is a respected, beloved conversation partner. Or, as Lischer depicts this: “You might think of the sermon as a picnic to which the preacher brings the basket and the listener brings the sandwiches.”

Preachers will benefit by attending to Lischer’s clear, compelling prose and economy of words. Here I would also point to the unpredictable nature of the sermons. For example, these sermons do not begin with long human interest stories that do little good work other than to serve as attention getters. I suspect this is because Lischer begins with the conviction that preaching is situated within, and contributes to, the church’s worship of the Triune God who summons and claims our attention by all that is prayed, sung, spoken, heard, celebrated, and shared. The sermons are therefore conformed to the pattern of truth revealed in Scripture and the sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper: the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, of his body broken and blood poured out for the life of the world.

Lastly, conspicuously lacking in Lischer’s preaching are what many contemporary preachers consider to be the heart of a sermon: practical applications, “take aways,” “so what?” moments, and lists of things to do for improving ourselves or changing the world. I suspect a reluctance to provide such practical props betrays a greater confidence in the spoken word to transform listeners by faith that comes by hearing God’s promises and commands that are fulfilled in Christ. Thankfully, readers will find Just Tell the Truth to be a timely reminder that encountering the truth of Christ is the gracious work of the Spirit who freely bestows the gifts of faith, hope, and courage so that the whole church, and not only the preacher, may delight in being more truthful in a world of un-truth.

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