It seems every couple of months now the evangelical world is wrestling with the moral implosion or other kind of disqualification of yet another church leader. And while our first priority ought to be justice and healing for any victims of these leaders, one subject that inevitably comes up is what to do with all of these leaders’ works. Should we read their books any more? What do we do with all the ways they’ve informed or ministered to us through their preaching and writing?
The endorsements printed on the back cover of Paul Tripp’s 2012 book Dangerous Calling now serves as an ironic reminder of how many of our vaunted figures stand on feet of clay. Some of these “falls” we probably should have seen coming. Others startle us. I don’t know about you, but I am weary of having this rug pulled out from under me. There are more than a few quotes from fallen leaders I wish I could go back and take out of my books and past sermons.
Now, the solution, I don’t think, is that we no longer pay attention to living ministers! Loving the brethren necessarily means hoping and believing all things. I don’t think gracious discernment entails embracing a spirit of cynicism and suspicion about everybody. And as one who continues to be blessed by numerous colleagues in local and public ministry, I plan to continue enjoying that blessing. And as one who hopes to continue preaching and writing, I sure hope the solution is never paying attention to the living!
But there are still some reasons why it may be wise to prioritize the wisdom of those saints who have gone before us, who have already passed into glory. I’ve begun intentionally prioritizing the voices of departed brothers and sisters in my own work. I have a book coming out later this fall in which the vast majority of quotes from Christian works comes from departed saints. In my ministry book coming out next week, I intentionally planned for literary longevity and enduring usefulness by only quoting two or three living Christian leaders. The rest of the quotes represent my leaning on the pastoral wisdom of tried and true voices past. Here are a few reasons I’m leaning that way these days:
1. We can see how those who’ve died finished their race.
Some Christian leaders tend to serve faithfully for a long time and then seem to get into some kind of trouble in their final season. Whether it’s the exposure of a long-hidden pattern of sin or the devolution of their message to something less dignified than gospel exposition, we have seen how strangely easy it is for too many leaders to falter in the waning days of their work. We can see how our dead heroes finished their race and don’t run any risk of embarrassment in endorsing their work in our own.
2. We can see the failings of departed heroes better through the clarity of time.
I don’t think any person we quote, other than Jesus, is ever a perfect person. Indeed, I’m not saying at all that we should never quote the work of even departed saints who struggled with sin or exhibited any troubling aspects in their thinking or ministry. It would be difficult to find any voice from church history who didn’t have something in their life worthy of a caveat. The point is, we can see these things more clearly. We can even cite that troubling context in our references to them. The rearview vision is 20/20, and so we can bring to our consideration of these figures a clearer appraisal of their wisdom, how well they followed it themselves, and the like. In that sense, they are more reliable. We see them more clearly, warts and all.
3. The enduring work of departed saints endures for a reason.
The tyranny of the new imparts value to many voices and statements that have not yet stood the true test of time and impact on the church. Treasured legacies are not really made in a few years or even in one’s own lifetime, but rather in the enduring impact of a life — even a short life — on the church or the ongoing fruit of one’s work through subsequent decades. There are reasons we are still reading the figures from 2,000 years of church history today. Their words have proven helpful, formative, or otherwise impressive through the ages. That’s the kind of wisdom I want to lean into more and more.
Of course, to repeat, I plan to continue enjoying the wisdom of faithful voices speaking to the church today. But for those three reasons I’m more and more intentionally looking back in my work rather than around.