14 October 2014

Piercing the fogbank with discerning questions

by Dan Phillips

Having introduced my dear ones to the work of God in Ephesus, last Sunday I took them into the letter itself.

I was very conscious of Kevin DeYoung's very funny anecdote about being fresh out of seminary, and giving (I think) 20 minutes on the question of authorship — when the good folks in his congregation were all just looking at the words "Paul, an apostle..." and kind of blinking.

So I faced the choice — what do I do about the debate over authorship? And the question of destination: is it really to the Ephesians, is it a circular letter, or what?

You can see for yourself how I handled it if you like. I did deal with the issue of authorship, and the history of controversy. I did it briefly and very forcefully, and then I explained why I was spending time on what seemed like an obvious issue: I am concerned that they may transfer jobs to a new city, or their kids in college may start attending International New Springs of Joyful Higher Plane Apostolic Barking Impact Abundance Worship Center. I am concerned that their pastor may have gone to Fuller, or Princeton, or somewhere. I'd like them to be able to get a fix on where he's coming from.

Why? Couldn't they just ask him if he believed the Bible was inspired? Ah, I see you're smiling. You know that lots of wolves would say "Yes" to that question. They'd say it was inspired, it was God's Word, it was authoritative for faith and practice... and they wouldn't mean anything like what you and I mean.

So I told the story of the kid I worked with in the 70s. He was a young man, Christian-raised, wanted to be a pastor one day. His Church of God had actually named him to the pastoral-search committee, and they were considering a candidate. This particular candidate was from Princeton.

Well, I'd been a Christian just a few years, but I'd already been studying and preparing with enthusiasm, and my ears pricked up. I said, "Ask him who wrote the Pastoral Epistles and when, who wrote the book of Daniel and when, and who wrote 2 Peter and when." (I don't think I included Ephesians.)

He looked at me like I'd sprouted a third eye. What stupid questions! Whyever would he ask those?

He didn't. They called the gent. I went to his welcoming party. After he'd told an off-color joke, I chatted with him. I asked him my questions.

His answers? No idea when Daniel was written, but it wasn't by Daniel or 6th-century; no idea who wrote the Pastorals, but it wasn't Paul; no idea who wrote 2 Peter, but it wasn't Peter.

He wasn't, as I recall, particularly evasive. I just had to ask the questions. (Of course, at this point the church gig was a done-deal, and I was not [and would not be] an attender.)

So: this committee had called a man to pastor their conservative, Bible-believing church, who did not believe in the inerrancy and full authority of the Bible. Because no one knew or cared to ask questions that would pin the gent down.

But he had great programs, the young man told me. The candidate really wowed them with his programs.

Surely the would-be pastor would have said he believed the Bible was inspired, though. Meaning, inspired by his definition.

This is what discernment involves. It's too bad; I wish we lived in a world where religious leaders could be relied on to say, "Well, I'd say I believed in the Bible, but I should tell you that I wouldn't mean anything like what you mean by it. And you won't hear too much of it from the pulpit."

But we don't live in that world. We live in the one where there are wolves and serpents and where we have to be constantly on guard.

And where, sadly, sometimes the sheep have to do their own guarding, since the shepherds are defaulting.

Dan Phillips's signature


Kirby said...

I'm tweeting this to my entire extended family.

FX Turk said...

Yes, but who wrote the letter to the Hebrews?

DJP said...



Doug Hibbard said...


St. Arbuck.

He brews to this day.

Doug Hibbard said...

On topic:

This matters, because there is so much fluffery out there. And because of the various default positions presented by "scholars" on TV programs. When the History Channel is telling your congregation that Bart Ehrman is a renowned New Testament Scholar, they listen.

And if the Word of God has not been held in high regard, he sounds so nice...

DJP said...

"On topic" — which is where you lose Frank, but thanks. And sad but good point.

FX Turk said...

I thought the question was on-topic, and I love DJP's answer. I always thought "Timothy" was a good answer also, and saying Paul did it is also completely traditional and historically-adequate.

The point being (which is on-topic) that there are orthodox answers to hard questions, and that's how we should take a look at people who are claiming spiritual authority over us: do they submit the the actual spiritual authority which establishes their basis for ministry?

DJP said...

Well then, I need to clarify that it is not on-topic if one reads ham-fistedly (to mix imagery). The difference between Ephesians, the Pastorals, and 2 Peter on the one hand and Hebrews on the other is that the former all have what the latter lacks: unambiguous in-text ascription of authorship.

So one could be perfectly Biblically orthodox, as far as that goes, and think that Hebrews was written by Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Luke, or for that matter Quartus.

Doug Hibbard said...

It leads into this need: if we are not expecting pastors/ministers to know the Word, and be able to hold some weighty discussions on it, then we get this:

"Our pastor's nice, but if we want to learn we watch 'Bible Secrets Revealed' on the TV."

All the pragmatics in the world put you down as "nice guy" while trust goes to the person who seems to know what he's talking about.

I like Apollos for Hebrews and Barnabas for helping, a lot, with 1 Peter. I also like Hebrews as written-out sermon material, but that's another discussion. I think it's a sermon (or series thereof) condensed into a letter rather than a letter written for its own sake (like Romans).

Bike Bubba said...

Amen. My family just left a church in part because the leadership wasn't asking the serious questions before using materials from a prominent church in the west suburbs of Chicago, and when I called them on it, they closed ranks to protect the guy.

So in some places, the question is not just a lack of discernment, but rather an active hostility to attempts at the same. And that's a shame.

FX Turk said...


Of course the text is king. Or the voice of the King as the case may be.

Terry Rayburn said...

"International New Springs of Joyful Higher Plane Apostolic Barking Impact Abundance Worship Center"

That's too good.

There are three of them here in the Nashville area, two with only remote video screens, but one with an actual holographically projected Pastor (for those who prefer the personal touch).

DJP said...

"There are three of them here in the Nashville area" — ROFL, right there. Then it just gets better.

Jim Pemberton said...

This is a good reason why multiple "shepherds" are beneficial.

Robert said...

In this age of intellectual and spiritual laziness, it is no wonder that people don't want to ask the hard questions. Heck, most don't want to do the research to know the answers themselves. We all need to treasure Scripture more and have an intense passion for God instead of just saving that for movies, sports, reading, or "programs". God looks to those who tremble at His Word...not those who gawk at the Blue Man Crew types of shows that many churches perform on stage these days.

Anonymous said...

Nobody's ever going to let me near a pastor search committee, because I think the Holy Spirit wrote Hebrews.