About Svigel

Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, author, husband, father.

Some Historical Voices on Christian Voting

ForkThe Bible-believing Christian today faces the seemingly impossible (though, as we are rightly reminded, false) choice between casting his or her vote for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. As we stand at this multi-pronged fork in the road, it appears to many of us that the road to the left leads to devastation; the road to the right leads to destruction; the smaller paths in the middle seem to go nowhere. At this puzzling juncture, I’m hearing and reading all manner of opinions, perspectives, arguments, and assessments. The simple, God-fearing Christian who just wants to do what’s right feels paralyzed with indecision.

Do I vote for “the party” but not “the person”? Do I vote for Trump simply because he’s not Clinton? Do I vote for Clinton and hope this balance of power thing still works? Or do I vote for neither? But then what? Leave the presidential boxes blank and just vote for offices on the rest of the ballot? Write in a candidate? Support a third party? Build a bunker? Flee to Canada?

At times like these, I sometimes find it comforting to remember that we’re not the first generation of Christians to face this kind of issue. Though Christians in the ancient, medieval, and reformation periods didn’t have the right to vote for their government leaders, there are still forgotten voices from the past who have left their thoughts for us. They may not have faced such a perplexing problem as the Clinton or Trump decision, but their insights might help each us of think through the issues with more depth of perspective.

So, as we face the fork in the road, let’s pause, turn around, and look backward down the path for some wisdom from the past. When we do, we realize that others who have faced similar crises can lend us a little insight. In the following quotations, I have included a variety of theological traditions (and even one by Finney). These excerpts all bear the marks of their very specific historical, social, political, and theological contexts, but they touch on some important points to consider. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I still think their voices deserve to be heard.

 

Charles G. Finney, Second Great Awakening Revivalist Preacher, 1835.

It is perfectly in the power of the church to regulate the commerce of the world, if they will only themselves maintain perfect integrity.

And if Christians will do the same in politics, they will sway the destinies of nations, without involving themselves at all in the base and corrupting strife of parties. Only let Christians generally determine to vote for no man for any office, that is not an honest man and a man of pure morals, and let it be known that Christians are united in this, whatever may be their difference in political sentiments, and no man would be put up who is not such a character. In three years it would be talked about in taverns and published in newspapers, when any man is set up as a candidate for office, “What a good man he is, how moral, how pious,” and the like. And any political party would no more set up a known Sabbath breaker, or a gambler, or a profane swearer, or a whoremonger, or a rum-seller, as their candidate for office, than they would set up the devil himself for president. The carnal policy of many professors, who undertake to correct politics by such means as wicked men employ, and who are determined to vote with a party, let the candidate be ever so profligate, is all wrong, wrong in principle, contrary to philosophy and common sense, and ruinous to the best interests of mankind. The dishonesty of the church is cursing the world.

(Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 2d ed. [New York: Leavitt, Lord, & Co., 1835], 138).

 

From John A. James, English Congregational Preacher and Writer, 1840.  

A question is sometimes asked, whether a professing christian, in exercising his elective franchise, ought to give his vote for an ungodly man; or whether, in the case of a contested election, he ought not to uphold the interests of piety, rather than those of a party, by endeavouring to promote the return of a christian, though he may take a side in politics opposed to his own? This resolves itself into another question, “What is the end of civil government?” If this be the promotion of religion, there can be no question but the christian man ought to be supported by all Christians: but if, on the other hand, the end of civil government be the protection of life, liberty, and property, with all that can conduce to the complete enjoyment of these, piety, however desirable as a qualification, is not indispensable. He who best understands the purposes of civil government, and has the best views of the means of promoting them, is the fittest person for such a situation. Piety is desirable for persons in all situations. Who would not wish to have a pious lawyer, or physician; but does any one reject an eminently skilful one, because he is not a pious man, and choose one of less skill, on the ground of his religion? A man may be a very holy professor, and yet a very bad statesman: and indeed the holier he is as a man, the more mischievous he may be as a senator, if he has wrong political sentiments, as his virtues may produce a toleration even for his errors. No false measures are likely to do half the harm, which is done by those of good men. Many of the most distinguished statesmen, in whom all parties have placed, according to their political creed, the greatest confidence, have been far enough off from personal religion. If none but good men are to be chosen, we must go without a legislature, or have a very incompetent one. True it is, there are some men so utterly bad, so notoriously vicious, and immoral, that it is an insult to virtue, and an outrage upon decency to elect them. But, with such exceptions as these, it is not possible to make piety a sort of senatorial eligibility. Converted men may make very bad laws, and unconverted ones, very good laws. Still it is a consummation devoutly to be wished, that our “officers should be peace, and our exactors righteousness.”

(John Angell James, The Christian Professor Address, in a Series of Counsels and Cautions, 3d ed. [London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1840], 148–149).   

 

Reverend E. N. Bartlett, Congregationalist Pastor, 1846.

No matter how flagitious the characters of the candidates may be, though they be “devils incarnate,” if by the management of parties, a “crises” has been brought about, and one or the other of the rival candidates must be elected, the Christian, it is urged, is bound to vote for the less obnoxious of the two. On this point Dr. [Nathaniel] Taylor [of Yale] is explicit, and his illustration is the legitimate carrying out of his principles. “Suppose,” he says, “there is no reasonable doubt that one of two devils, one of which is less a devil than the other, will be actually elected, let the Christian vote as he may, and that his vote will therefore be utterly lost if he does not vote for one of them. I think that an enlightened Christian would vote for the least devil of the two!” And this invocation of help from the devil in time of trouble, is justified by an appeal to the “circumstances of the case” and the “necessity” Christians are under of “choosing the least of two evils.” And upon those who refuse to sacrifice to devils under such circumstances, is charged the responsibility of “neglecting to prevent” and therefore of “producing the greater of two evils.” Against such principles and such a charging over of responsibility, I protest. What! shall a Christian people strike hands with the wicked, and say to Belial, “rule thou over us”? Shall they lend their influence and efforts deliberately to install a devil in the chair of state? Shall they let their minds be blinded by the fallacious resort to extreme suppositions? Such extreme cases will never occur, if Christians will do their duty. “Good men are the fountain of character,” even with respect to rulers. Let the professedly Christian portion of our nation stand fast by the principles inculcated in the scriptures, and proclaim their position to the world as unalterable, and they never need be caught again in the dilemma. They can dictate to the nation if they will. The question for American Christians to ask is not, What would be duty in a barbarous nation where no good men could be found! nor, Can we elect a good candidate if we try! but, are the candidates whom we are called upon to support, men whom God will approve? If so, support them; if not, refrain: and let the “potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth.” Or, if votes must be cast, let them be cast for honest men, irrespective of party nominations. Is it objected that this would be throwing away votes, and that it is better to save a little than lose the whole! I answer, that what can’t be saved by right means is not worth saving. The good that can be purchased only by doing evil, costs too much.

(E. N. Bartlett, “Address before the Alumni of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, Delivered at Commencement, Aug. 25, 1846, in Oberlin Evangelist, vol. 8, no. 19 [September 16, 1846], 149).

 

From The Covenanter, of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, 1859.

The plea is sometimes put forward that by taking part in electioneering politics, Christians may prevent much evil, and do good. It is assumed that the franchise, being a solemn trust, will always be exercised by Christian men, in the churches, for the placing of worthy persons in civil offices, and for the promotion of the best moral and religious public measures. It might be a sufficient answer to such an allegation, that we are never to do evil that good may come; and if the elector cannot tender his vote for a candidate for the Legislature, without virtually binding himself by oath to uphold what is unscriptural, Antichristian, and infidel, then his plain duty is to abstain from voting, rather than belie his Christian profession, and defile his conscience. The plea of doing good by taking part in ungodly politics, is utterly fallacious. Those who are most ready to advance it, among professed Christians in the churches, only, in fact, do evil in this case, and their conduct is followed by no other result than evil. In political elections, it is party and class interests that are generally consulted, and not the moral and religious character of the aspirants to legislative office. In the United States, it is notorious that those who are termed New Light Covenanters, frequently vote for the worst man to fill national and State offices—for the advocates of slavery—and for such as have no claim to the possession either of Scriptural qualifications or of a proper moral character.

(“Evils in the Churches—Ungodly Politics of the Day,” in The Covenanter [March, 1859], 196)

 

From The Epworth Herald, a publication of the Methodist Epworth League, 1907

No righteous vote is ever thrown away, even though it is in such a hopeless minority that the judges do not count it.

No nation is safe until its citizens care more about its safety than about their own.

A nation is safe so long as it prefers godliness before gain, and truth before trade.

It is good to pray for righteous rulers, and one of the best accompaniments of such prayer is a righteous vote. Unrighteous voting is nullification, and makes the prayer a blasphemy.

A nation dedicated to liberty should serve Him whose service is perfect freedom.

The politics of this world will never be purified by the ungodly.

(“The Mixing of Religion and Politics,” The Epworth Herald, vol. 18 [June 15, 1907], 87)

 

 

Some Thoughts on Intra-Trinitarian Relationships in the Earliest Church Fathers

Back in 2004, I presented a very long (71-page) paper at the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church.” This paper was the result of research I conducted related to my PhD studies in patristics. In light of recent discussions among evangelicals regarding the issue of subordination and intra-trinitarian relationships, I thought I would make this paper available. It is an exhaustive (some might say, exhausting) analysis of every instance in which the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are even mentioned in the orthodox writings between Didache and Irenaeus. The full paper can be found here as a PDF. Because it was written in 2004, it is clearly not up-to-date in its secondary literature, but my hope is that interested readers will find the primary source data (all included in a lengthy appendix) to be helpful.

Below, I include the excerpt from the paper that summarizes my conclusions and implications based on the work of these early fathers. I would ask that readers first review the analysis of the entire paper before interacting with my conclusions.

Excerpt from Michael J. Svigel, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church,” a Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.

Conclusions

Based on the preceding analyses, we can make the following conclusions regarding the relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the writings of the earliest fathers.

No Clear Arian Ontological Subordination. There is no clear example of an Arian ontological subordinationism in which the Son is a created being or has an inferior divinity to the Father, though Tatian’s concept of the Logos may come close. When their language was clear, the early fathers’ concept of subordination was functional, not ontological. LaCugna rightly stated that “we should not regard this economic subordinationism as heretical or even as an inferior or incoherent Christian theology of God and Christ.”[1] Rather, just the opposite is true: where there was opportunity given by the context, Christ was called “God,” “eternal,” or the essential mediator of the Father’s will.

No Functional Egalitarianism. There is no discernible tradition whatsoever of what is today described as ontological and functional equality or a “communitarian” or “democratic” model of the Trinity. Nor is there clear evidence of a view which states that the persons of the Godhead could have agreed to take on different roles than what has unfolded in the economy of creation (e.g. that the Father could have become incarnate or the Son could have indwelled believers rather than the Holy Spirit).

Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. There is an overwhelming tradition of what is today described as ontological equality and functional subordination within the Trinity that emphasizes the monarchia of the Father. While the Son and Spirit are not creatures, the Father is their head, meaning that all activities conform to his will.

Possible Drift toward Ontological Subordinationism. While the later second century fathers began to speculate more on the specific nature of the generation of the Son,[2] we begin to discern language implying an eternal functional subordination while still maintaining essential (ontological) equality. However, with Tatian the language becomes fuzzy, and the stage appears to be set for greater deviation away from ontological equality toward Arian ontological subordinationism.

 

Implications

If, for the sake of argument, we were to regard the fathers of the first and second centuries as our canon of orthodoxy and the proper understanding of Scripture, then our judgments on various views of subordination and the Trinity become rather clear.     

Eternal Functional Equality and Ontological Equality. Modern day advocates of what I call “eternal functional equality” suggest that “there can be no separation between the being and the acts of God, between the one divine nature of the three persons and their functions.”[3] Therefore, orthodox ontological equality is said to demand functional equality as well, and distinctions in rank between the Father, Son, and Spirit are rejected. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are regarded as functioning in a co-equal fellowship, with one mind and will. Though each member of the Triune community performs distinct activities, these activities are not ordered in rank or hierarchy.[4] Instead of the Son and Spirit functioning in submission to the Father, the three persons are said to function in mutual submission to each other. In light of this study, the problem with such a view is that no extant Christian writings of the first and second centuries suggest anything remotely close to such a model, but rather consistently present the Father as the head and the Son and Spirit as functioning in submission to the Father.

Incarnational Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. Advocates of a temporary or voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father limit the submission of the Son to the time of his earthly ministry or commencing with the incarnation. Thus, the Son’s role of submission to God is a result of his taking on full human nature and living in obedience to the law. However, in light of the early fathers, limiting the functional subordination of the Son to the incarnation would be too narrow. In the first and second century writers, the Son and Spirit consistently submit to the Father’s will, even prior to the Son’s incarnation and Spirit’s sending into the world. Also, such a view of incarnational subordination does not explain why the Holy Spirit is presented by the fathers as functioning in submission to the will of the Father without having become incarnate.

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. If we were to employ first and second century Christian teaching as a standard, the advocates of an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father would have little clear evidence to support their view. The descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit in the early fathers refer to activities of the Godhead in relation to the created order. Apart from actual activities in creation, the nature of the relationships is vague. This does not preclude the existence of an ordered relationship based on fatherhood, sonship, and spiration, but the actual evidence is minimal and unclear. In this sense, complaints against the language of “eternal functional subordination” seem to be valid, and evangelicals should probably cease using such terms.[5]

Economic Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality.[6] The view of the earliest post-apostolic fathers is best described as one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal with regard to deity and power, but in extra-Trinitarian actions the Father is the head, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the pervasive active presence of God. While we cannot logically project this economic functional subordination into an eternal state apart from creation, this taxis would be consistent with the interpersonal relationships implied by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.”

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Subordination. The fathers’ consistent subordination of the Son to the Father in their will and works has sometimes been mistaken for an ontological subordination relegating either the Son or the Spirit to the realm of finite creation rather than eternal deity. For example, in his polemic against Trinitarianism in favor of Unitarianism, Stannus, citing Polycarp’s prayer on the pyre as evidence of non-trinitarianism in the second century, writes, “The ante-Nicene fathers invariably spoke of Christ as subordinate to the Father.”[7] Although he is correct in this assertion, his conclusion that this necessarily implies an inequality of divinity is an unfounded exaggeration. His error is similar to that of modern assertions that subordination in function necessarily means inequality of eternal nature. Where the early fathers are not silent, they illustrate that one can hold simultaneously to both functional subordination and ontological equality of being. Therefore, attempts by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek sympathetic theology in the early fathers are misguided.[8]

 

Two Final Questions

Does Economic Functional Subordination Prescribe a Particular Social Order? The ordering of ecclesiastical leadership suggested in 1 Clement and stated explicitly and repeatedly in the Letters of Ignatius was not tied to an eternal role in the Godhead, but to the sending of the Son in the economy of salvation. This ordering is independent of questions regarding the eternal relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. In the context of contemporary egalitarian and complementarian debates—whether in the home, government, society, or church—the debate concerning eternal functional subordination is irrelevant as far as the early fathers are concerned. There appears to have been enough justification for ecclesiastical ordering in the simple fact that the Son was sent into the world. However, we must recognize that the fathers do not extend this divine ordering beyond that of ecclesiastical structures. Although 1 Clement addressed the issue of God’s establishment of human government on earth to which all men are to submit, he linked such authority to his divine decree, not to a Trinitarian model (1 Clem. 61:1). However, one could suggest that the ways in which God orders society in general should be consistent with his work. In short, functional subordination in the Trinity need not be eternal to serve as a basis for social structures, but this type of application of Trinitarian theology outside church order is not found in the early fathers.

Are the Early Fathers “Orthodox” or “Heretical”?[9] Based on an exhaustive analysis of the primary evidence summarized in this paper, the fathers’ teaching can be summed up in Athenagoras’s statement, “power in unity, diversity in rank.” For a moment, allow me a brief fit of rhetoric. Those who want to define historical orthodoxy as discerning no functional distinction in rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forced into one of three solutions with regard to the first and second century fathers. They must either a) anathematize the early fathers as heretics; b) twist their writings to conform to an egalitarian standard; or c) simply ignore them. It appears that most have chosen the final option. I reject this move. Instead, I believe we ought to embrace the early fathers as a solid, though developing, orthodox link in the chain of Trinitarian tradition handed down from the apostles in Scripture, subsequently taught by catechesis and liturgy, and guided in its growth and development by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, orthodoxy must not only grudgingly accept the concept of ontological equality and functional subordination as merely an acceptable option, but perhaps it should cheerfully embrace it as most accurately reflecting the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to “faithful men” who were “able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

Visual Summary of Evidence

TrinSum.

[1] LaCugna, God for Us, 26.

[2] This may have been the impetus for Irenaeus to assert that the generation of the Son is unknowable (A.H. 2.28.6).

[3] Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 93.

[4] Ibid., 92–96.

[5] In my current thinking on this matter, the second century fathers’ adamant insistence on the utter distinction of Creator and creature, with the latter a creation ex nihilo, makes the notion of eternal functional subordination a problematic description. Subordination or submission to the will of the Father implies some sort of activity or function. Without a creation in which and toward which such actions are aimed, can we really speak about “subordination?” Unless we argue for a subordination of essential nature, we cannot speak of subordination in a timeless, eternal state. My view, of course, assumes a notion of creation ex nihilo. However, if one advances a doctrine of God and time that includes God’s “own time” or some pre-creational activity, then the term “eternal functional subordination” could be a legitimate category. On historical and contemporary issues of God, time, and creation, see William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity—The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001).

[6] My use of the term “economic” here refers to any divine activity in the economy of creation. That is, in all extra-Trinitarian works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not apply to whatever inconceivable and unknowable relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit had in their existence apart from creation.

[7] Stannus, Doctrine of the Trinity, 28.

[8] Cf. for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu, 2000), 215.

[9] This assumes, of course, that we can meaningfully use these terms in their normal sense with reference to the early fathers who precede the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. While historians shy away from them, evangelicals may use these terms because of their belief in a transcendent standard of doctrinal truth against which teachings of every age can be measured.

Avoid the Latest Outbreak of This-Is-That Syndrome!

BloodMoonSome of the first books I read as a young believer had to do with the end times. Okay, that’s actually an understatement. I didn’t just read them. I consumed them. And they weren’t just about the end times. Those books made it sound like we were either in the tribulation itself or at the brink of that climactic world crisis that would usher in the end. Those books had red, yellow, or black covers. They usually featured atomic blasts, fire, smoke, dragons, or demons. All of them alleged that we could (and should) read the Bible alongside the newspaper because current events were fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation almost every day.

Some of the more nuanced treatments said things like, “So-and-so could be the Antichrist” or “This or that technology may be used in the Tribulation as the mark of the beast” or “These events in Europe [or the Middle East, or Russia, or China] might be setting the stage for the rise of the Antichrist’s one world government.” In short, these authors, T.V. preachers, pastors, and end-times enthusiasts sought after signs in the news or in the skies that would point to the imminent end of the world. In fact, I was once told not to waste my time at seminary because “There isn’t time.”

I began to grow weary (and distrustful) of this practice of sign-seeking when some of these teachers kept changing their identifications. First the ten-nation confederacy in Revelation 13 was the European Union . . . then it was a Mediterranean alliance that included the Middle East . . . then it was a Middle Eastern and Asian alliance. Or some suggested the Antichrist would be a New Age guru . . . others a European politician . . . others a Muslim dictator from the Middle East. And the mark of the Beast? Social Security numbers? Bar codes? GPS devices? Smart phones?

Besides looking foolish, sign-seekers can also do damage to people’s faith and to the cause of Christ. How so? When these possible “fulfillments” don’t pan out, weak believers, unbelievers, skeptics, critics, and scoffers might conclude one of two things: 1) Christianity and the Bible are utterly untrustworthy, legitimately leading to the question, “What else does the Bible teach that isn’t really true?” Or, more likely, 2) The Bible is hopelessly ambiguous, because if careful interpreters can wrongly read so many different current events into it, then Scripture can apparently be interpreted to say anything people want it to say. In either case, nothing good comes from repeatedly failed sight-seeking. Rather, those who engage in this dangerous sport make authentic, Bible-believing Christians look bad, as they lump us all together and regard us as misguided, brainless zealots.

Since those early days of my end times enthusiasm, I’ve watched countless sign-seekers, date-setters, and victims of this-is-that syndrome come and go. The latest misguided miscreants pointing at red moons in the sky aren’t the first . . . and won’t be the last. But balanced Bible-believing Christians need to be inoculated from this disease with a healthy injection of truth about the end times. We of all people need to correct, rebuke, and reject the end times hacks and quacks pointing at current events to boost their book sales while bamboozling believers.

 

[Adapted from Exploring Christian Theology, vol. 3, available here.]

Your Questions Answered: Is It Heresy to Reject a Literal Hell?

Question MarkQUESTION:

You mention in RetroChristianity that rejecting belief in hell is heterodoxy, not heresy. But why? Why wouldn’t that be heresy? Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven, we are told. And the apostle’s creed says he descended into hell.

ANSWER:

It is definitely true that the view of a literal conscious place of eternal torment for the lost is the overwhelming view of most orthodox Christians, in most places, at most times. However, it has never been the universal position, nor has it ever been dogmatically articulated in an ecumenical creed. Passages that speak of fire and smoke and darkness and “forever and ever” have been read by Christians throughout history in different ways ranging from literal and metaphorical. However, even those who have tended to read the language metaphorically have still affirmed a literal conscious torment that is indescribable. Nevertheless, some have read the language as a metaphor for universal purification by fire or as a figure for absolute irreversible annihilation as if by fire.

So, is a non-literal view of the fires of hell heresy or heterodoxy?

Part of this confusion may be how narrowly I apply the word “heresy.” When I use the term “heresy,” I mean damnable doctrine, that is, “If you believe this, you cannot be saved.” When I use the word “heterodoxy,” I mean, “If you believe this, be careful! You’re holding to something very few Christians have held and you’re standing against the vast majority of thinkers throughout history, and this view has sometimes led to more dangerous doctrines.”

So, I call the views of universalism and annihilationism “heterodoxy” rather than “heresy” because: 1) there has never been a complete agreement on how to understand those hell passages even among those who hold to eternal conscious torment; 2) there has never been a universally adopted creed that reflects a clear teaching on this matter one way or another; and 3) those errors in personal eschatology don’t necessarily and directly distort the Trinitarian creation/redemption story or the person and work of Christ.

I think rejecting eternal conscious torment of the lost fits the category of heterodoxy the best. And not a heterodoxy of the harmless kind, like whether angels have actual wings. Rather, I think those who deny a view of hell as eternal conscious torment and instead hold to annihilationism or universalism are sailing in dangerous waters. Pushing those views too hard could cause them to capsize or shipwreck, distorting other important doctrines. But if a figure in history or even today held firmly to all the other essential tenets of orthodoxy but flirted with a figurative interpretation of hell, I would not put that person in the category of a heretic. I reserve that label for those who reject the fundamentals of the faith like Arius, Pelagius, or Joseph Smith.

One more note with regard to the creedal language. The Creed states that Jesus descended to “hades,” which in the early centuries was a reference simply to “the place of the dead.” Throughout history there has been no complete consensus on what was meant by the term; all acknowledged it was a term borrowed from Greek after-life concepts, so it meant, simply, “Jesus went to the place dead people go when they die.” Some took it as referring to His physical place of burial, so “hades” = “the grave.” Others took it to mean the place of the departed righteous, thus, “hades” = “Abraham’s bosom” or “Paradise.” Others took it to refer to the place of the wicked spirits, including demons, so Christ descended there and proclaimed victory over the spirits of wickedness. In any case, there was no clear consensus on the descensus ad infernos, as it is called, and, in fact, not all of the articulations of the Regula fidei (“Rule of Faith”) and the various baptismal confessions contained that line. So, it is not a good place to go to affirm a universally binding orthodox view of a literal fiery eternal hell. The mention of Christ’s descent to hades was not intended to affirm anything about the literal fires of hell.

 

Your Questions Answered: Pastoral Ministry Transitions

Question MarkQUESTION:

I really enjoyed the article on calling. But how do you counsel pastoral transitions?

I’ve had friends in ministry who were released from their positions by their churches’ elders, even though they didn’t feel called to leave. In one sense, I guess it was time for them to go because our leadership made the decision. But I really struggled with one of the decisions because of how it was handled. I’m confident God is sovereign, but I was frustrated by the process.

What would you say to these men? Do they aggressively pursue other ministry? Do they wait until someone asks them to come work for them?

I think your comment that “I don’t do anything without being asked” is helpful. So if you are in a pastoral job where you like what you do and are having a good season and another church comes along and says, “Your gifts would really help us,” would you consider it? What about when a friend says, “I know this church is looking and you might be a good fit.” Would you pursue it?

 

MY ANSWER:

Over the years, I’ve developed a dimmer view of lay eldership, so I tend to be pretty skeptical about elder decisions in churches when “elders” mean lay people who are not ordained making decisions instead of (and even against) the ordained, trained, experienced pastors (the biblical elders). So chances are pretty good that I would more or less reject dismissals of this kind as the wrong people making decisions. (But you’re right, it could still be the right decision arrived at by the wrong people in the wrong way.) At that point, it would be completely appropriate for the dismissed pastor to begin pursuing a new ministry position elsewhere. My general principle of not doing anything without being asked is a rule of thumb, but a rigid regulation.

On the second question, I would at least consider every “ask”—if even for a just a few minutes. I would listen for God’s leading in explicit opportunities and offers, but the rule for me (this is a personal thing) is this: “Don’t do anything you’re not asked to do, but don’t do everything you’re asked to do.” One of my own professors in seminary once told me, “You can’t do everything.” Another told me, “I don’t do anything I’m not asked to do.” Between these two bits of wise advice by two godly men, I find both freedom and direction in my own pursuit of the will of God. It doesn’t make decisions easier, but it does relieve me of both pressure and guilt.

In short, when it comes to ministry transitions, I would say we need to listen, pray, think, discuss with close confidants and family, and set aside those offers that don’t seem to fit at the time. I’ve tried to pray something like, “Lord, I’m going to turn this down. But if you do want me to take that path, please make that clear to me through circumstances. I want to do your will, not mine, so make your will known.”

One final point. I think the “burden of proof” for saying “yes” to an offer is greater when moving from something to something than when moving from nothing to something. The reason? The current call, having been God’s will, is the default. If we’re not reasonably assured that He’s moving us elsewhere, we’re responsible for being faithful to the place where we know He called us—that is, our current place of ministry.

 

[NOTE: The original question was edited to better fit the purposes of this post.]