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Genuine Ministry-feeding the flock and fighting the wolves

Genuine Ministry-feeding the flock and fighting the wolves

By Melvin Tinker
August 12, 2020

The great British classic film noir, 'The Third Man', serves as a metaphor for what happens in pastoral ministry when heresy is tolerated and orthodoxy is sidelined.

The story takes place in post-World War 2 Vienna. It centres on an American, Holly Martins, who has been given a job by his old friend Harry Lime. On arrival he receives the news that Lime is dead. Here is a spoiler alert. Lime has only faked his death. All along, Lime has been an opportunistic racketeer, stealing valuable, life-saving penicillin from Allied military hospitals. In order to maximise his profits, Lime dilutes the penicillin, the full horror of which is revealed to Martin when he is taken to a hospital to see brain damaged children who have received the tainted vaccine.

It is not too difficult to see the parallels with Gospel ministry.

The gospel is like the life-saving penicillin which is only effective when it is kept pure. Heresy is akin to the diluted vaccine and causes irreparable damage, in some cases accelerating the debilitating effects of sin, resulting in would-be believers becoming the spiritual equivalent of brain damaged children; in other cases, leading to their spiritual death. Furthermore, just as the tampering of the penicillin vaccine was in a way an affront to its discoverer, Alexander Fleming, so the tampering of the Gospel is an affront to its Divine Giver. Taking the parallel further, as the penicillin vaccine, though contaminated and rendered useless and dangerous, remains penicillin, so heresy arises from within the orbit of the Christian faith but distorts it in varying degrees so that is becomes deficient and threatens the Gospel itself. Thus, heresy is distinct from outright unbelief, but could lead in that direction if not checked.

Far from this analogy being extreme it arises out of a biblical understanding of the task of a pastor and the nature of pastoral ministry.

The task of the Pastor

One of the clearest and concise summaries of the role of a pastor is found in Paul's letter to Titus. Paul's overall concern is with right behaviour which arises out of right ('healthy'-hugiano) belief leading to salvation brought about by the divine action of the Triune God (Titus 3:4-8). The connection of doctrinal truth and moral goodness, which is a major theme throughout the letter, is established at the outset when Paul speaks of the 'knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.' Accordingly, Titus is to appoint elders who will exercise oversight of the congregations to ensure that such knowledge is taught (1:5). In addition to having certain character requirements of godliness (1:6-8) these elders must positively hold to the apostolic truth and be able to teach it (1:9a; 2:1), as well negatively refuting those who contradict it (1:9b; 11; 13). This dual role of promoting healthy doctrine and opposing those who seek to peddle contaminated teaching is an essential part of a pastor's work. In the words of John Stott, 'A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.'

Our English term 'pastor' is derived from the Latin pastor ('shepherd'), which Thomas Oden considers to be the central paradigm for the ordained ministry. As such, 'The shepherd characteristically is 'out ahead' of them [God's flock], not only guiding them, but [also] looking out, by way of anticipation, for their welfare.' The way in which the welfare of God's people is ensured by the pastor is clarified when we understand more deeply what a pastor is theologically.

Orthodoxy- Understanding reality aright for God's glory and his people's good

The task of Christian theology is 'the attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory).' Given that Christ is the ultimate revelation of that knowledge, the pastor's task in teaching that 'truth which leads to godliness', is to witness to the 'reality which is in Christ' (which is another phrase for 'orthodoxy') and in so far as he does this he is a 'minister of reality.'

Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes, 'The gospel is a reliable indicator of reality insofar as it reveals the nature, purpose, source and destiny, of the whole created order.' This reality is revealed in the Scriptures which provides the authoritative account of what is true in Christ, 'If we would have the mind of Christ, we must be students of the Scriptures, able to relate the law and the prophets to the person of Jesus Christ, as Jesus himself did.' Here is the task of biblical theology. There is also the need to co-ordinate the doctrines which arise out of a considered study of the Scriptures, including dialogue with theologians of the past (historical theology). This is the stuff of systematic or dogmatic theology. Furthermore, as well as 'exegeting Scripture' the pastor is to 'exegete the world' and bring the two together in critical engagement. Such a bringing together will not only enable effective mission to take place but also pastoral care as the members of the church need to know how to conduct themselves in the world in which God has placed them which at least means they must understand that world from within a biblical framework- the work of pastoral theology. If there is no serious attempt on the part of the pastor to understand the world in which his church members live, move and have their being (this includes an appreciation of the plausibility structures which are operating), he will do them a great disservice. They will invariably experience a kind of 'cognitive dissonance', unable to relate what they have learnt and experienced on Sunday with what they will encounter during the rest of the week. All of this part of what it means to respond to God's calling for the 'furthering the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.' (Titus 1:1).

Being a pastor is therefore no mean task! Thankfully, it is primarily Christ's work in which we are privileged to participate so that, 'The pastor is simply a St. Johnny-come lately to the cause.' This of course means that the pastor himself must be regenerate and 'in Christ' if he is to teach faithfully, model effectively and lead sincerely the congregation, not least in public worship

The Puritans tended to think of the pastor as a 'physician of the soul'. It is therefore not surprising that Richard Sibbes, the 'Sweet Dropper' of Cambridge, depicts the church as 'a common hospital wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness.' For Sibbes orthodox theology was Christ-shaped comfort for the weary and broken.

The picture of a pastor as a general practitioner is a helpful one for providing insight into the necessity of maintaining and promoting orthodoxy and resisting and correcting heresy. The pastor has a solemn responsibility for the health of the body of Christ for which teaching sound (healthy) doctrine is crucial together with 'prayer for all the saints.' To offset spiritual obesity and inoculate against disease, the congregation must be cared for by the pastor as he administers God's Word whether in gatherings or through visiting. There is to be healthy exercise through public worship (orthodoxa- 'right praise, right glorifying') and loving service. 'A church body that is awake and alive to what is in Christ has doctrine coursing through its bloodstream rather than idling in the mind.'

Orthodoxy is kind

Whilst being mindful of Wittgenstein's warning that 'a picture held us captive', the above discussion of the role of a pastor as 'physician' is one which is in line with Scripture and is highly suggestive. It lies behind Paul's use of the word 'sound doctrine' (hygiainouses didaskalias in 1 Tim 1:10; Titus 1:9; and 2:1, as being free from error as a body is free from disease (the same word, ὑγιαίνειν, is used in 3 John 2 to refer to good physical health). Jesus likens his own ministry to that of a physician, 'Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:31-32).

Following the imagery through, the pastor who seeks to apply Christian truth is acting kindly, like a doctor applying a life restoring medicine. The truth of the Gospel itself is kind for it enables the blind to see God as he is towards us in Jesus Christ and how all life relates to him. That is getting in touch with reality. It was the one time atheist philosopher Professor C .E. M. Joad who once dismissed the Christian as being like 'a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn't there', only to discover that was his position before becoming a Christian! Therefore, what greater kindness could be exercised by a pastor to administer the Gospel medicine which enables blind people to see, and dead people to enjoy life as God intended it to be (Eph.2:1-10)?

Furthermore, it is by orthodoxy (which of course is inextricably linked to orthopractice), which enables the church to be the church.

Lesslie Newbigin speaks of the local congregation as a 'hermeneutic of the gospel', the best indication to a watching world what it means to be a new creation in Christ. And so if the church is increasingly to become what it is in Christ, its members need to know what that reality is to which it is steadily conforming through Biblical teaching and genuine worship. It is Scripture which provided the template from which we dare not deviate.

If we take Jonathan Edwards's evocative thought that the world was created so that 'the eternal Son might obtain a spouse', and Hugh of St. Victor's contention that God wishes to prepare the soul to be the Son's bridal-chamber, we may then reconfigure the image of a pastor from being that of a physician to being a beautician. No beautician worth his salt will use inferior products to adorn the bride for her wedding day, and certainly use nothing which will disfigure her; similarly no pastor worthy of the name would dare use anything than the apostolic Gospel to prepare Christ's bride for her groom. In other words, orthodoxy diligently pursued and applied will yield 'ecclesiadoxy', a glorious and glorified church.

Heresy is cruel

If orthodoxy is health giving truth, heresy is the exact reverse; it is disease spreading error: 'Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.' (2 Tim. 2:16); 'There were false prophets amongst the people as there will be false prophets among you. They will introduce destructive heresies'; '...they will be paid back for the harm they have done' (2 Peter 2:1; 13); 'They must be silenced for they are disrupting whole households' (Titus 1:11); 'They are ungodly people who pervert the grace of our God for a licence and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.' (Jude 4). It is difficult to imagine fewer things more cruel than doing something to someone which results in them developing gangrene resulting in amputation or death. That is the biblical assessment of what heresy does to the Body of Christ. To counter this, the pastor is to take seriously spiritual safeguarding.

But first, a pastor must understand what heresy is if he is to protect his congregation from its toxic effects.

Alister McGrath writes, 'Heresy arises through accepting a basic cluster of Christian beliefs- yet interpreting them in such a way that inconsistency results. A heresy is thus an inadequate or deficient form of Christianity. By its very deficiency, it poses a threat to the Gospel.' The reason why heresy gains traction in the church is because it contains at least an element of truth; as such it is parasitic on orthodoxy. 'In the Catholic faith, we recognise that a heresy is not so much a false doctrine as an incomplete doctrine. It has rejected part of the truth and is representing what is left over as the whole truth. But what a heretic usually ends up doing is attacking the greater truth.'

Nearer home

Recent developments in the Church of England furnish us with a clear example of this very thing.

In July 2017, Jayne Ozanne placed a private member's motion to the General Synod meeting in York (GS 2070A) calling upon the Synod to effectively repudiate the practice of conversion therapy for those who experience same sex attraction. The heresy can be found in the summary statement: 'The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God's gift of our creation. Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God's creativity and something to celebrate. The biblical concern is not with what we are but how we choose to live our lives, meaning that differing sexual orientations and gender identities are not inherently sinful, nor mental health disorders to be "cured".'

The partial truth, which is being taken and exaggerated as the whole truth, appears in the opening sentence: 'The Bible teaches us that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps.139.14), and that we should praise God's gift of our creation.' This has been taken by Christians in the past as a basis for the sanctity of life which is undermined by the practice of abortion. But it is a non sequitur for Ozanne to then conclude 'Thus, our diversity as human beings is a reflection of God's creativity and something to celebrate.' If anything, as we have noted, it is the belief in human sanctity which is to be protected which logically arises out of this passage, not human diversity. This is followed up by a falsehood for it is certainly not the case that the Bible isn't concerned with 'what we are' but simply 'how we choose to live our lives.' How we choose and what we choose at least in part arises from 'what we are' in terms of our dispositions. Some of those dispositions are towards things which God forbids (such as idolatry, greed and same- sex genital relations) and not only flow from 'what we are' (idolaters, gluttons, homosexual etc.) but reinforces what we are becoming.

The missing doctrine which is necessary to check the heresy Ozanne is promoting is that of original sin. To be sure, according to the psalmist we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made'. But according to the same psalmist, 'I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.' (Psalm 51:5). At both one and the same time, David is 'fearfully and wonderfully made' in the womb and 'sinful' from the moment he was conceived in the womb. We are 'warped wood' (Immanuel Kant), 'incurvartus in se' (Luther) or, to use the more traditional term, contaminated by original sin which, according to Article 9 of the 39 articles of the Church of England, is 'the fault and corruption of Nature of everyman... and is of his own nature inclined to evil.'

The pastor has a responsibility to draw attention to such heresies as they begin to surface in the church in order to ensure the spiritual health of God's people and prevent diseased teaching from spreading. This will mean spelling out clearly the nature of the false teaching and naming the names of those who are teaching it (as does Paul when referring to the gangrenous teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus- 2 Tim. 2:17).

Silence is betrayal

If heresy is a contagion which spreads it follows that a pastor's responsibility to check it extends beyond his own immediate congregation; there is a proper concern for the well- being of other believers too. Some pastors, for whatever reason, seem reluctant to do this. There appears to be a widespread view that so long as one is faithfully 'preaching the Word' in one's own church, that is sufficient. This is like the Levite walking on the other side of the road aware that someone is harmed and in danger, but keeping a clear conscience with the knowledge that one is getting on with one's own priestly practice in the temple.

It was Martin Luther King Jnr who in relation to American involvement in the Vietnam War remarked, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." For pastors to remain silent in the face of heresy within a denomination is a betrayal of the trust which has been given to them by virtue of their calling (Titus 1:11). The silence which exists within the Church of England amongst otherwise sound Evangelical leaders is deafening and needs to be repented of for the sake of the health of our sisters and brothers in Christ.


The solemn task of the pastor to promote the kindness of orthodoxy and counter the cruelty of heresy is an onerous one. It requires diligent study and careful communication. It will draw opprobrium in a culture where 'it is forbidden to forbid' and the unholy trinity of pluralism, relativism and subjectivism hold sway so that truth, like beauty, is considered to be in the eye of the beholder. It will almost certainly be a barrier to 'preferment' in the established church.

Over the years, the words of Richard Baxter have become more and more precious to me when tempted to waver in my calling: "Did I die for them and you will not look after them? Were they worthy of my blood and yet they are not worthy of your labour? Did I come down from heaven to seek and save that which was lost, and you will not go next door or to the next street to seek after them? Compared with mine, how small is your labour and condescension? I debased myself to do this, but it is your honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make you a co-worker with me, and yet you refuse that little which lies within your hands.'

Show Christ's kindness: be orthodox, teach orthodoxy and counter heresy- this is the minister's calling.

1. See, Melvin Tinker, 'Titus- and introduction', in The NIV Proclamation Bible (Hodder and Stoughton, 2013), pp 1314-15.
2. John Stott, 'The Message of Timothy & Titus'- The Bible Speaks Today (Inter Varsity Press, 1996), p 179.
3. Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (New York: HarperOne, 1983), pp 50-52.
4. Ibid., p 51
5. Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Baker Academic, 20015), p 104
6. Ibid., p 109
7. Ibid., p 109.
8. Ibid., p 114
9. 'In sum: the work of theology is the work of getting real- conforming people's speech, thoughts, and actions to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, the source and standard of all truth, goodness and beauty.' ibid., p 125
10. Ibid., p140.
11. ' 8 Reasons why we need the Puritans'-
12. Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, Puritan Paperbacks (Banner of Truth, 1974), p 34.
13. Pastor as Public Theologian, p 164
14. The Greek term for 'visit' both in the Old Testament (LXX) and the New Testament is episketomai (epi+ skopos) which is the root of episkopos, overseer. Such 'overseeing' involved 'going and seeing.'
15. ibid., p164
16. Lesslie Newbigin, 'The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel,' in, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989), pp 222-33.
17. Jonathan Edwards, 'The Church's Marriage to her Sons, and to her God,' in Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, vol.25 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press, 2006), p 187.
18. Which is the thesis of Boyd Taylor Coolman, The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor: An Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
19. There are Scriptural warrants for such thinking, see 2 Cor. 11:1-2; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:9.
20. Alister McGrath, Understanding Doctrine (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), p 115.
21. Dale Ahlquist, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (Ignatius Press, 2003), p 35.
22. Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam - A Time to Break Silence: a speech delivered April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.
23. Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Pickering and Inglis, 1983), p 91.

The Rev. Melvin Tinker is the former Vicar of St John Newland and now Director of Theology of the Christ Church Newland network in Hull.

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