I recently had the honor and privilege of asking Phil Johnson, a well-known and accomplished writer, blogger, editor and preacher, several questions about ministry, practical church issues, theological concerns etc. Phil was gracious enough to take the time to respond and interact fully with all my questions.
Below are the last few questions. The first set of questions dealt with Phil’s personal life and ministry. In the second part of the interview, Phil talked about Strange Fire, second-degree separation, and addressing errors from the pulpit. In this final set of questions, Phil talks about church discipline, addressing errors with grace, and more.
My questions are in bold, with Phil’s responses in regular text.
Phil Johnson is the Executive Director of Grace to You. He has been closely associated with John MacArthur since 1981, and edits most of pastor John’s books. But he may be best known for several popular websites he maintains, including The Spurgeon Archive, The Hall of Church History, and (formerly) the Pyromaniacs blog. Phil has a bachelor’s degree in theology from Moody Bible Institute (class of 1975) and was an editor at Moody Press before joining Grace Community Church. He is an elder at Grace Church and pastors the GraceLife fellowship group. Phil and his wife, Darlene, have three adult children and five grandchildren.
Could you briefly explain the role and importance of church discipline in the life of the local church?
Proper biblical discipline is as essential as proper exposition of the Word of God for purity in the fellowship of God’s people. It’s a command, not an option. See 1 Corinthians 5.
Speaking of church discipline, I see people (adults, as well as kids in our youth group) often posting pictures or even bragging about sinful activities on Facebook and Twitter. If I find out about a sin pattern a brother or sister in Christ is letting the world know about, how do I respond? Do I confront them on these things? What is our responsibility in these situations?
The person who is concerned about this should confront the offender privately, not in the comment-section of some public forum. We all know that the temptation to speak unwisely in social media is HUGE, and pastors and churches simply cannot (and should not) spend time policing their members’ Twitter feed or Facebook page. But our duty to one another as Christians is to hold one another accountable when we do see something truly sinful or shameful. Our first response should not be to report the infraction to the pastor; each Christian should fulfill his duty as a fellow believer and go to the person alone. Admonitions about things like this are best when they are spontaneous feedback from friends and fellow church members. And most people, when admonished, will remove any overtly sinful material.
If the sin is truly egregious and the offender refuses to repent or correct the wrong, it may become necessary to bring church leadership into the matter and follow the steps of church discipline. But I would think this should be very rare. Indiscretions on social media aren’t really the sort thing churches should be regularly threatening people with discipline over.
What is your position on a pastor who is found to have been living in immorality? Even after repentance and restoration to fellowship, should that pastor ever be restored to the eldership?
Proverbs 6:33 says the reproach of sexual sin can’t ever be completely wiped away. Since the overarching requirement for elders is that the man “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2), it would seem to me that adultery, fornication, or any equivalent kind of scandalous marital infidelity or sexual sin would be permanently disqualifying.
What advice would you give regarding critiquing/answering those in one’s own camp about errors in doctrine, attitude, or behavior, in a gracious and loving manner?
Always attack bad ideas, not the people who propagate them. Be as vigorous as you like in denouncing fallacies and refuting errors. In extreme cases, sarcasm or ridicule can be legitimate tools for showing the fallacy of terribly wrong ideas (1 Kings 18:27). But never stoop to mere personal insults or bare ad hominem just for the sheer pleasure of degrading or humiliating an enemy.
It’s true that no matter how careful you try to be, in these postmodern times, you will automatically face critics who will accuse you of being cruel and unkind (or arguing ad hominem) any time you point out the fallacies of someone else’s beliefs. Don’t be swayed by those accusations if they are false.
On the other hand, don’t be guilty of merely trying to injure or abuse the person whom you disagree with. “Speak evil of no one . . . avoid quarreling . . . be gentle, and . . . show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:2-3).
That’s a universal guideline. When circumstances make it necessary to voice reproof, dissent, or criticism publicly and the person whose views you are refuting is a friend and partner in ministry, an extra dose of grace to season the rebuke is surely in order.
What Systematic Theology have you found most helpful?
They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Grudem is good, except for his charismatic slant. Robert Culver’s massive tome is probably the one I agree with most, but he’s awfully wordy. I frequently turn to Berkhof (because that was our textbook in theology when I was a student). Strong (though sometimes wrong) is a gold mine for good quotes and helpful insights. If I were sent to prison and permitted only two volumes, I suppose I would choose Grudem and Berkhof. But I would be loath to give up Culver.
What is one of your favorite books on apologetics?
That’s a tough one. I suppose Faith & Reason by Ronald Nash. But I’m not an avid reader of books on apologetics, either.
Any quick word of advice for those of us in seminary? What is something that many beginning pastors, perhaps coming right out of seminary, struggle with?
The most valuable thing about seminary is that it equips you with study tools. Don’t imagine that it makes you an expert in the practical side of pastoring. This is an empirical observation, so take it for what it’s worth, but it seems to me that the main reason for failure among seminary graduates is that they enter their first pastorate with the attitude of a know-it-all. They tend to be aggressive and unyielding, and those qualities, blended with inexperience, are a surefire recipe for failure. Don’t fall into that trap.
Phil, thanks so much for taking the time to interact with me on these questions. I really appreciate the responses; it was an honor.