Over the last several months I have received a number of questions or comments about how pastors speak. On one level there is concern and on another just a genuine question. Before going any further we have to ask if there is any standard of language for a pastor. The answer is yes.
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
Rather than giving a cause for offense at what they say a young pastor is to set the pace for holiness in his words, life, love, faith and purity (cf. also 1 Pet. 5:4). Paul also tells Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Neglect of one will undermine the other.
The questions then are justified. I feel as though I have my ear to the ground of the contemporary evangelicalism, particularly younger, eager church planters like myself. If I could boil down my observations and the questions I get into a couple of categories you would certainly share my alarm. Let’s put them into two categories: “soft-serve” and “frat-party.”
Soft-Serve has to do with the softening of biblical truth by using more palatable language. Instead of using biblical term and concepts like sin, rebellion, alienation, hostility, evil, depravity—guys like to soft-serve their words. They say things are messy or broken. Instead of saying that you must repent and follow Jesus they say that Jesus loves you so much that he wants you to follow him (not false statement here but there is more to be said). Instead of saying evangelism–which inescapably communicates gospel proclamation, they say mission–which may or may not mean evangelism but most certainly means loving your neighbor.
Then there is the whole orientation of the world in general and the gospel in particular. One cannot maintain a shred of Reformed credibility, regardless of how young or restless they might be, if they have inverted the orientation of gospel to man instead of God. To make man the end for which God created the world, either by explicit statement or repeated inferences, is to operate in some sort of Calvinistic bizzarro world.
When I hear or read guys repeatedly soft-serving theological terms I can’t help but think that like Rachel, they seem to be smuggling in church-growth pragmatism in their saddle (Gen. 31:34). This is clearly intentional–and frankly, it works. People would much more gladly hear a soft-serve sermon or read a soft-serve book. If the idol is growth or popularity is needs to be expelled and replaced by the pursuit of faithfulness. Remember, Paul actually predicted that the age of self-loving, pleasure-loving, money-loving, conceited people would emerge and gather together teachers who had the spiritual-gift of ear tickling. To this and in spite of this Paul tells Timothy (and all who endeavor to be faithful) to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). He is to slash the tires of pride by lovingly preaching the truth. He is to invert the self-focused worldview by giving them a robust, God-centered worldview. In short he is to not soft-serve doctrine even if it does not seem to work as well. The issue, after all, is faithfulness.
This has to do with the cussing, sophomoric language and tones, and overall foolishness that some guys seem to think is a badge of Christian liberty. As a guy who got saved out of being a punk with a filthy mouth I don’t understand this play at all. It sounds like another attempt to relate, be cool, or not a Christian dork. But actually, cussing pastors look like dorks. They proclaim a message that communicates a new life but continue to speak as if they have never left the old life. Remember, the Bible actually tells pastors to set the example in pure speech not to be out in front of pushing the limits of what all Christians should or should not say.
Carl Trueman in his book Fools Rush In, had this to say about this topic:
D. A. Carson comments in The Gagging of God that much of the trendy theology that characterized the neo-evangelicalism of the eighties and nineties had more than a whiff of the kind of rebellion exhibited by spoiled children whose immature self-image depends on their vocal repudiation of everything their parents held dear.
What is theologically true of the trendy evangelical left seems to be practically true of the trendy Reformed right. Here, legitimate criticism of a legalistic pietism too frequently degenerates into illegitimate rubbishing of appropriate piety. Thus, the F-bomb and other casual obscenities and profanities have become, for some, the trendy hallmarks of mature Christianity. Strange to tell, talking like sexually insecure thirteen-year-olds has become the way we Christians show how grown-up we are. We embrace what the older generation rejected in order to show that we have come of age, and to show the world that, hey, we’re not as weird as we used to be; we can be as rough-and-tumble, as hip, savvy, cool, and gritty as the rest.
Of course, Christian freedom is a crucial biblical doctrine, and one of the key issues that divides Protestants from Catholics. Yet to locate its primary essence in smoking a cigar while knocking back a Scotch and poking fun at some fundie bumpkin from Tennessee, or to twist it in a manner that legitimates using language that would make the teenage son of a drunken Glaswegian navvy blush.
I think Trueman is exactly right. A pastor that frequently mixes in obscenities does in fact look and sound like an insecure thirteen-year-old trying to cut the bonds of his parents. This is hardly what Paul meant by “don’t let anyone look down on your youthfulness.”
Without a doubt you can see how these two are strangely related. They both have the apparent goal of acceptance while walking under the cloak of freedom or grace. However, the common consequence is the minister’s faithfulness. This is ironically troubling.
Don’t be a soft-serve, frat-party pastor. The church has a higher standard of excellence than to win the applause and approval of the world around us or the congratulations of others playing in the sandbox with us. Serve up the hard truths of God’s word with faithfulness, tactfulness, and love (Col. 1:28-29). Strive after holiness and set the cadence for your church in this pursuit. After all, ministers of the gospel are stewards, and it is imperative that we are found faithful (1 Cor. 4:1-2).