We’ve been reading A Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry as an AFES Hobart staff team this year. We’re 6 months into the year and only 46 pages into the 225 book, and I’ve already had enough. It’s triggered some really helpful discussion, but in a strange way:
- either we’re generously working to grasp the good point hidden in what he’s saying and how he’s saying it… and having a good discussion about a legitimate issue,
- OR we’re having a really fruitful discussion as we react to and critique what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.
In other words, the benefit we are deriving from reading the book is largely in spite of Paul Tripp, not because of him.
I wouldn’t recommend the book.
It strikes me as verbose, judgmental, voyeuristic, simplistic, misanthropic, melodramatic and exhibitionist. For a book all about sincerity and Being Real, there’s something oddly disingenuous and unreal about it. I don’t think that it lifts me up and inspires me and equips me. It doesn’t often even challenge me, actually. Rather it presumes to know me and humiliate me and frighten me. Like an unwelcome Pentecostal street preacher or charity mugger or guidance counsellor getting right up in my face and presuming to read my motives.
I agree with its basic premise: we need to be honest about our frailty and brokenness. But there are so many other books out there that help me do this far better. A few things that make me squirm:
There can be terrible secret sins. But not everyone is equally terribly beset with secret sin
We are all sinners. Our hearts are desperately wicked. We should stop pretending we’re not. Yes. But A Dangerous Calling betrays to me a kind of misanthropy that sees everyone as probably a pervert or addict or abuser. We mustn’t delude ourselves with the naïvety that says “It could never happen here” or “A preacher could never commit that outrageous sin”. But the horror of just how sinful we can be mustn’t lead us to the opposite problem of a paranoia that everyone is therefore as sinful as they might be.
Perhaps this is the unique tendency of those who deal with people at their most broken? By the sheer mass of severe problems they encounter in their consultation rooms, they get a slanted view of the whole. What is a lot of people for them personally becomes counted as a massive proportion of the total number of people.
But I don’t know how helpful it is for me to contemplate (for as long as Tripp wants me to) just how terrible ministry marriages and ministry lives can become. Especially when that is not my current personal experience. I need to face it, absolutely. And I have my own share of horror stories from my own pastoral experience and networks. But Tripp seems to want me to wallow in it. Which is why I say there feels like a kind of voyeurism in the book.
Christian leadership needs humble honesty about our brokenness. But it also requires uprightness and integrity
Tripp makes much of facing and admitting our weakness. He describes the burden of weak and frail pastors trying to keep up a good face. Surely this denies the gospel of grace, he says. We must admit our sinfulness and weakness.
But the kind of grace alone by which we are saved — by grace along through faith alone because of Christ alone — is not the kind of grace alone by which we serve in Christian leadership.* In Christian leadership, I qualify by God’s grace that works with my human will and effort to produce godliness (Philippians 2:12–13). If I am not living a mature and relatively upstanding Christian life, I am not qualified to be ordained. If I do not persist in a certain level of faithfulness in life, doctrine and ministry I can be disqualified. I do not serve as a Christian leader by grace ALONE in the same way that I am saved by grace alone.
This means that there is an unavoidable pressure and burden and gravity to Christian leadership, as James 3 says.
The degree of detail Paul Tripp goes into about his own alarming personal failings is supposed to be an admirable thing. And on one level his openness and vulnerability is courageous. But it is also troubling. Firstly, this is because in another way it is a particular kind of power move. By being so public about such personal matters, and so forthright with such serious weaknesses, he has in a way gained himself a different kind of kudos for his courage. Moreover, he has protected himself against criticism, by beating his critics to it. At worst, a similar ploy can even discourage critics, by making them concerned that they will crush their fragile pastor into despair.
Secondly, I am troubled by Tripp’s confessions, because I find it hard to piece together the timeline of his various disclosures. There seems to be a series of them, and in between he seems to also tell stories where he is the hero. So I find myself doubting at points whether he is even a credible teacher? Or is he still ‘in process’? Should he be presuming to tell me how to live my life and conduct my ministry or does he need a bit longer to work through his own stuff?
This is far from the example of the apostle Paul who commends himself as an example in his sincerity and uprightness and faithfulness. Yes he is frail and continuing to press on in his own faith, aware of his weaknesses and dependence on God’s grace. But he is not oversharing his ongoing secret sins… is he?
*incidentally that’s the problem with that song Grace Alone by Kings Kaleidoscope: it conflates saving grace with common grace, sanctifying grace and empowering grace and robs the word ‘alone’ of its meaning.
Pastors, and even pastoral counsellors, must be careful about presuming to know and shepherd another person’s heart
At many points, Tripp challenges the reader with long paragraphs of searing, searching, stinging questions aimed at the depths of our hearts. He tells stories of doing similar things in his classes, and then coming up against defensive and overwhelmed students. He expects us to be shocked at the defensiveness of these proud students. But I am just as inclined to sympathise with them — I’m feeling that way just reading the book! But he then tells us that he comes up eye to eye with these students and challenges them still further. I think we are supposed to applaud his prophetic insightfulness. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but as I read these stories on the page, they strike me more as invasive encounters, where he oversteps his proper place.
A danger with the Gospel-Centred-Christian-Counselling movement is that it emboldens counsellors, pastors and parents with the duty and confidence to shepherd the hearts and motives of other people. Yes we should ask probing questions, and yes sometimes we should boldly point out inconsistent beliefs or challenging underlying loves. But we must do so very cautiously, aware of our enormous limitations.
Our primary duty is to set forth the truth of God’s word, plainly and persuasively, and trust the Lord to apply this word specifically to the hearts, minds, motives, loves, secrets and decisions of our hearers. Primarily our roles in the lives of our friends, children or congregation members is an external role that God might use to do an internal work.
Disbelieving the gospel is not the only problem and embracing the gospel is not the only solution
This is another tendency that I encounter often in the Gospel-Centred-Christian-Counselling movement. It’s also a major theme of Tim Keller’s teaching. And it has a lot of truth in it. The gospel is a central and ordering truth for our theology, ethics, spirituality and even our psychology. But the narrow truths of the gospel of salvation by faith alone through grace alone by Christ alone is not the whole counsel of God.
Some sins are not primarily about ‘not believing the gospel’, and the amount of ethical and psychological acrobatics that have to be done to prove that in a sense they are fails to ultimately convince. Worse, it takes away from a clear vision of what the gospel, and gospel response, primarily is. Sometimes the primary driver for sin is actually an area of frailty or brokenness and the primary way to rectify it is through cognitive behavioural therapy, or good boundaries or better health and life routines, possibly even in concert with medication.
And some solutions are found on other levels than ‘believing the gospel more deeply and truly’. I may be a devout and sincere believer who still really really struggles with anger or anxiety or lust or greed. And there might be other courses of reflection, repentance and progress that lie in different or even more external approaches than a deep dive in the glory of God.
This is why the book also comes across as simplistic. It doesn’t reckon well with the complex physical, social, psychological and spiritual creatures that we are. It reduces us, it seems to me, to merely gospel-believing-spirits surrounded by repulsive pathologies.