You’re a polemicist? But that means “argumentative.” And pastor’s aren’t supposed to be argumentative.
The modern evangelical pastor is perceived as a fleshly version of Reverend Lovejoy and Ned Flanders rolled into one limp-wristed, pusillanimous invertebrate. We, speaking as a fellow pastor, have become the very reeds shaking in the wind that John the Baptist derided to the Pharisees. Cultural Christians have a certain sapphic stereotype in their head of what pastors should be, and pastors are all too eager to oblige them. This is why churches are full of women and nearly absent of men; it’s hard for men to follow soft-spoken, lisping debutants who fear men and only speak rebuke in whispers.
This pervasive stereotype, of offenseless preachers and white-livered, yellow-bellied pastors, is an honest derivative of a host of ingredients. First, we have a snowflake culture that is easily offended, readily distressed and eager to walk away to smooth-talking motivational speakers. Secondly, there is the gradual feminization of men in general, which has found a footing in clergy as well as laity (“skinny jeans” has become a humorous byline to describe a certain cast of preachers, but only because it is true). Thirdly, modern clergy have divorced ourselves from the generations that preceded us, who all had to walk up hills both ways in the snow to get to church and weren’t namby-pamby, overly sensitive tip-toers. Men like the Church Fathers, Reformers, Puritans and Protestant NonConformists were too busy bleeding Bible and torching heretics to care about feelings. Fourthly and finally, post-modernism has completely permeated the evangelical church, to the point that what makes most people angry when they hear a proposition of truth isn’t the truth that was proposed, but that truth is proposed at all. We find truth-claims of all types positively distasteful and necessarily arrogant, prideful and divisive.
Yes, pastors can be polemicsts. Furthermore, pastors must be polemicists.
First, a definition. A ‘polemicist’ is one who does polemics, and polemics is the field of theological study in which we contend for the truth (Jude 1:3) by demolishing arguments raised against God (2 Corinthians 10:5), always being careful to train the powers of our discernment with constant practice (Hebrews 5:14). In particular, polemics – as opposed to the broader field of apologetics – is typically contending with those who claim to be Christians, recognizing that there are many anti-christs who all bear His name, but are opposed to His mission, message and purpose (1 John 2:18).
Pastors haven’t a choice but to be skilled in a whole host of theological disciplines. Pastors must be theologians, studying carefully the doctrines of God (2 Timothy 2:15). More narrowly, pastors must be apologists, giving defenses for the hope that lies within them (1 Peter 3:15) and teaching others how to do the same. Additionally, every pastor must be learned in the fields of soteriology (the study of salvation), ecclesiology (the study of the church), pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit), epistemology (the study of truth), eschatology (the study of the end of time) and in many more areas. The pastor must be an expositor, a shepherd, a counselor, an evangelist and a teacher. Additionally, these jobs include a whole host of other tasks, including reproving, rebuking, exhorting (2 Timothy 4:2), administration (1 Timothy 3:5), discipline (1 Corinthians 5:13) and more.
Inevitably, a pastor’s skill-set and gifting will lead him to be especially talented in one area more than others. He may find counseling most joyful, or it may drain him and he looks toward it with dread. Preaching may be his favorite task, or the work of exposition – while he is able – is taxing. He may love the study of salvation, but find the study of the church to be boring. He may be a brilliant expositor, but find himself to be terrible at personal confrontation and look towards his job of reproving and rebuking to be painful. He may love administration or despise it. Every pastor is particularly skilled in one area, and not so much the next. When it comes to areas of theological expertise, he may be gifted when it comes to learning the languages of Hebrew and Greek, but his mind may struggle when it comes to understanding theology in a systematic framework. Every pastor has a different personality, and looks to each task with differing degrees of capability and strength.
Typically, we – that is, the modern evangelical masses – understand this. Mark Dever is especially talented at dissecting and explaining ecclesiology. John MacArthur is especially skilled at exposition, and teaches the rest of us how to do it rightly. James White is excellent at textual criticism and understanding the ancient languages. Other pastors are best at evangelism. Some, like my friend, Paul Dean, excel at counseling. The best theologians are typically (but not always) pastors, and most pastors feel a particularly strong in one area, weaker in others, and while all strive to excel at all areas, they have a tendency to specialize in one or two. Such is fitting in a church where each are given unique spiritual gifts for the edification of the local body (1 Corinthians 14:12), and the pastor is no exception. In fact, because the pastor’s job is to equip the Saints for ministry given their own unique gifting (Ephesians 4:12), it is only fitting he use his own.
Occasionally, pastors specialize in the field of polemics. This is, of course, no different than a pastor specializing in apologetics, evangelism, missiology or any other field of study. While he can’t (or shouldn’t) use his gifting as his only means of ministry, it is certainly to be honed, trained, and used for the glory of God. Gifted men devoted to the field of polemics include pastors like ancient names like Athanasius, Eusebius, and Irenaeus. Then there was Anselm of Canterbury and most of the Reformers. Later, Puritan pastors like the esteemed John Owen, all wrote polemical works dealing with the primary heresies of their day, and would regularly engage in debate with heretics.
Today, there are few pastor-polemicists because it’s a terrible decision for job security. The Lovejoy-Flanders stereotype simply isn’t conducive for polemics. Many modern polemicists were or are not pastors, because the pastorate is not seen as conducive to the field, at least since the modern ecumenical movement in which all Christian distinctives are seen as unnecessarily divisive, and we have replaced sound orthodoxy with a Mere Christianity. Polemicists like Justin Peters, Walter Martin, and until recently, Chris Rosebrough, certainly while preachers, were not devoted to full-time pastoral ministry. This trend is relatively new for Christendom, because until the 20th Century, most polemicists were indeed in full-time ministry. They viewed their polemic contributions as an extension of their pastoral ministry.
While we (Christians, not just pastors) are supposed to make our defenses with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), the difficulty is that our culture is one that has invented trigger warnings and safe-spaces. Our subjective understanding of things like “tone” have made it increasingly difficult to do polemics without accusations of being “quarrelsome” (Titus 1:5-9), a term that if applied to the Apostle Paul like it is applied to modern clergy (virtually banning all polemical work, the way it is modernly defined), it would have banned God’s chief missionary from his ministry. Considering the Apostle Paul engaged in polemics in literally every epistle he wrote (some more than others), one would be hard-pressed to imagine the life of the church without polemics.
Or perhaps, looking around at the steaming pile of doctrinal compromise in the modern church, it’s not that hard to imagine the church without polemics.