Prioritizing Family Over Ministry

Modern churchgoers have some messed up priorities. That’s my thesis. Sometimes we have no conscious priorities; sometimes we feel there is no flexibility in priorities where there should be; sometimes we’ve just never considered the fact that our priorities may be dangerously disordered. But thinking through what our priorities should be—and then consistently acting on it—can be very difficult.

In a recent series, we’ve been discussing the importance of the local church, the priority we place on it, and the appalling dismissal of the local church that is rampant in modern Christianity (under the guise of attending to the pressures and needs of modern life).

Maybe people could devote more time to their church family in the 1850’s, but we have more pressing matters at hand. I do love the church, I’m just so busy! I don’t have time! You don’t understand how busy my family is!

My main point? I just don’t buy it. People make time for what is most important to them. I think we simply have grossly misunderstood the value and import of the local church, and have given in to the habits, values, and worldview of the secular culture. Anyway, you can read those posts here, here, and here.

A follow-up objection to my general emphasis of the local church might be: What about putting my family first? We’re always told to do that.

Indeed we are… So I’m going to do some thought exercises here on the issue of prioritizing church over family, or family over church.

Church or Family?

First of all, it concerns me that we automatically, as a matter of axiomatic self-evidential fact, assume that us (Christians) investing in and prioritizing our family looks the same as when the world does that.

We’re often told that our priorities ought to go like this:

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Ministry
  4. Others

Or some variation of the above… Another way to word that would be,

  1. God
  2. My children
  3. God’s children
  4. Others

Do we get that from Scripture?

I’d like to challenge that. And I do so cautiously and conservatively, because I care a great deal about the natural family; yet I think even in our attempt to prioritize the family, we often do it a great disservice.

A better, but I think still insufficient, priority tier structure would be something like this:

  1. God and his family
  2. My family
  3. Others

Jim Daly talks about this priority hierarchy in this article. It’s encouraging, and worth the read. But I think we still need a little work on our priority pyramid.

I think that trying to conceptualize our priorities and responsibilities in chart or hierarchy form may inevitably have inherent weaknesses at various points. Also, I’m horrible with charts, so I couldn’t quite get something I’m happy with. But, with that caveat, I would recommend thinking about it a little more like this:

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 5.06.39 PM

Yes, it’s more complicated… quite so. But I think this helps in a couple of important ways. First, in this way, Christ is above all and defines all. When we become believers, our identity changes. Who we are in Christ shapes and defines everything about how we live in every facet of life.

Secondly, I don’t know that trying to put church or family, or God’s family or my family, or ministry or family, in a specific order is useful. There will always be tension, and there will always be conflicts at times. Within the overarching umbrella of our identity and commitment to Christ, we have certain responsibilities that we have to do the hard work of balancing. Christ has called us to be committed to our assembling with and encouraging the church community, raising and discipling our own family, and evangelizing the lost.

And yep, there’s tension and difficulty in trying to balance those. Having a hierarchy that tells me, well, whenever two seem to be in conflict at any given point, [this one] or [that one] must win out at every point, I think is less than helpful. Trying to put that tension to rest with a simple order of categorical priorities is problematic. We may need to attend to one or the other more urgently at times, and this takes wisdom, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes much sweat and tears.

Within the various spheres of responsibility that we have, however, I think we can identify from Scripture certain levels of priority given to certain functions within each domain.

For example, within our church family, our responsibilities include assembling together regularly for worship (Heb 10:25), encouraging one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), and fencing the community—meaning being responsible for who is affirmed and who is expelled from the fellowship through membership and discipline (Matt 18; 1 Cor 5; Gal 1). Beyond those responsibilities, we are blessed to have various ministry opportunities available by which we can serve in different ways as we are led, as we are able, as time allows. But the clear hierarchy here is that the various ministries we can voluntarily commit to are subordinate to our scriptural responsibilities to assemble and disciple.

Within the sphere of the household, our main responsibilities are to our spouse, and to our children (1 Tim 5:8). Our relationship to our spouse is, in fact, primary, and children secondary. Our responsibilities to our children are, first and foremost, to raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). If, and only if, we are properly instructing our children in their knowledge of the Lord, and discipling them to love and obey Him fully, we then have liberty to involve them and encourage them in various recreational activities. But recreation is clearly subordinate to our responsibility to disciple and discipline our children to develop godly and biblical beliefs, morals, and affections. I think this is the case both within the sphere of the church and within the home; and the current tendency of parents to outsource the discipleship of their children to the church is perhaps one of the leading reasons that children sniff out the hypocrisy of parents who say Christ is important, but don’t consistently live Christocentric lives.

In our relationship to others (those outside our local church) we have the responsibility to encourage, pray for, and support other believers, and to share the good news with unbelievers. Anything beyond that is subordinate to those responsibilities.

One clear implication of this structure is that it shows the deficiency of trying to put church or family above one another. Scripture clearly calls us to be devoted to our church family; and Scripture clearly calls us to provide and care for our physical family. The hard work of balancing those responsibilities is just that—hard work. It takes discipline, wisdom, and prayer—and leaning on the Holy Spirit and His church for guidance and aid in all of it.

It should be clear from this chart that our commitment to our local church takes priority over our children’s recreation. Not only that, but our responsibilities to our local church actually have priority over our relationships to believers outside our own church as well. And that’s an important principle that we’ve largely forgotten.

I’m not entirely happy with the chart. But the bottom line is this: I don’t like trying to simplify our priorities as God, then Family, then Ministry… or God, then Ministry, then Family… or even as God-and-His-Family, then Our Family, then Others. The fact of the matter is that our identity in Christ shapes and defines everything about every facet of our life, and Christ calls us to minister to both our church family, and our own family. At times there will be perceived tension, at times we will need to make the decision to put God’s family above our own, and at times we will have to radically alter our picture of what we think fulfilling our responsibilities to our family looks like. Why can’t you invest in your family by spending time with them serving the church together? Do you think that perhaps that may in fact be one of the best ways to teach your children (and yourself) the importance of serving God?

Why do we think that ministering to, discipling, and investing in our families will look the same for us as it does for the world?

Christ calls us—and our families—to live radically Christocentric lives. And that translates immediately into living church-centric lives; because those who love Christ, will love His church (2 John 1:1).


 

 

 

 

 

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Gratitude for Seminary

I graduated from Shepherds Theological Seminary in 2016. In three years of sitting through seminary classes, I think there was not one single class wherein I did not at some point consciously dwell on how amazing it was that I was sitting in a seminary this good, under professors this wise, and studying a subject of this much gravity, and then thank God for His providence—because I don’t deserve it. In Philippians 1, Paul says that he thanks God for the Philippian church with every remembrance of them. I can earnestly say the same thing about Shepherds and its professors.

I’ve often spoken with people who say something like: “What’s the point in going to seminary—it’s just more book knowledge; you can learn all that on your own while in ministry.” I’m sure you could learn much of the book knowledge on the job, or on your own. But seminary is about so much more than book knowledge; it’s about gaining wisdom, cultivating virtue, and being discipled by men who have devoted their lives to faithful ministry. As one of my professors has said, “experience is not the only way to gain wisdom, and experience does not necessarily mean that wisdom has been gained.”

One of the greatest blessings of being at Shepherds Seminary was the opportunity to gain from the wisdom of pastor-theologians (over 200 years of cumulative ministry experience between them) who are eager to share that wisdom with us, so that we can learn from their successes (and mistakes), and so that we learn that the measure of successful ministry is not growth in numbers, renown, wealth, or anything else but faithfulness to the commission God has given us—to shepherd the flock of God that the Spirit has entrusted to us (Acts 20:28).

I may have been able to get some knowledge on my own, on the job… eventually. However, first of all, I gained knowledge at STS from professors who have unique gifts, perspectives, and expertise which have not been disseminated in published works, but which have deeply shaped and influenced my understanding not only of doctrine but of ministry and my own spiritual growth as well. Secondly, in three years I gained the knowledge it would have taken me fifteen to gain on my own. But, thirdly, in addition to gaining knowledge, seminary allows you to gain wisdom, to gain lasting friendships with brothers in arms, and to gain crucial resources in having professors who truly care about discipleship, and want to be available to you as you head into ministry. North Carolina and Shepherds Seminary have become home to me, and leaving to begin ministry has been one of the hardest things, and certainly the most bittersweet thing, I’ve ever done in my life.

I truly cannot express how grateful I am to God, and to my professors, for the examples I’ve had in them of wise, faithful, godly ministry.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. — Ephesians 3:20–21

Tax Resources for Ministry

If I were to choose two things about which I wish I would have learned more in seminary, one of them would be taxes (I’ll talk about the other issue another time:). Trying to figure out taxes as a pastor is incredibly difficult; and the problem is, if you’re planting a church or coming into a new church that hasn’t dealt with these issues before, you’re on your own. Even someone in your church who might be fairly knowledgeable regarding taxes in general may still not be very helpful to you as a pastor. That’s because taxes for churches and for pastors are quite different from taxes for businesses and non-ministry employees.

How does a housing allowance work? What expenses are covered under a housing allowance (why do wall-hangings and decorations count, but not toiletries)? Why should I choose a 403(b) rather than an IRA? What does it mean that a pastor is considered by the IRS to be “dual-status” (an employee for all purposes except social security, for which the minister is considered self-employed)?

Trying to guess where to start can give you quite the headache, and trying to make sure you’re doing it right can be rather frightening. So, for anyone who may need to know a little more about tax issues, either for churches or for pastors specifically, I’ll just share a few of the resources that ended up being helpful to me.

Guidestone is a good resource to have on hand in general. They have some really helpful online resources, especially on housing allowance, but the site is kind of difficult to navigate. Their PDF on Ministerial Tax Issues is very helpful though—that’s probably where I’d start.

Clergy Financial Resources is the other main site I used when I was figuring out tax issues for my own ministry.

Free Church Accounting has some helpful blog posts.

You can also find stuff on the actual IRS site like here and here, but the other resources may be easier to wade through than the actual tax code.

What about you? Any other helpful resources for those on the quest to understand the delightful subject of tax guidelines for ministry?

A Brief Statement on the Nature of Church Ministry

Jesus Christ, in His matchless grace, came into the world to die in our place in order to deliver us from the penalty, the power, and, one day, the presence of sin (Eph 2:1–10; Col 1:12–14), so that we now can develop in knowing Christ, in loving Him, in becoming more like Him, and in living in obedience to His Word (John 17:3; Rom 8:29–30; 2 Cor 3:18–20; Eph 2:10; 4:11–15; Col 3:5, 25). Christ, in His sovereignty, has chosen to use the local church as His primary means to evangelize the lost in order to deliver souls, and to disciple believers in order to develop them in their knowledge of, love for, and glorifying of Him (Matt 28:18–20; 2 Cor 5:18–20; Eph 4:11–15).

Thus, God’s plan for this dispensation is that the people of God regularly assemble together and associate themselves in local churches under the authority of God’s Word and for the purpose of edifying and equipping disciples of Christ to better know Him, love Him, live in obedience to Him, and disciple others toward a deeper relationship with Him (Acts 2:37–47; Heb 10:22–25). The church is governed by the teachings of God’s Word through delegated leadership (1 Thess 5:12–13; 1 Tim 3:1–7; 2 Tim 2:2; Heb 13:17), and is to obey Christ’s commission to make disciples by evangelizing the lost, and training, equipping, and developing believers to become fully committed and competent disciples of Christ (Matt 28:19–20).

The one, supreme authority for the church is Christ — the head of the church (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18). Church leadership, order, discipline, and worship are all appointed through His sovereignty as found in the Scriptures. I hold, somewhat cautiously, to a version of the regulative principle (oddly enough, perhaps, considering my background). This basically means that we are not at liberty to ‘do church’ in any way we see fit. We have only the authority to do that which Christ has authorized us to do. Jesus has authorized the local assembly (the church) to exercise the authority of the keys of the kingdom (1) (Matt 16:15–19).  The assembly exercises the keys of the kingdom by declaring, upholding, and proclaiming the Word of God, by officially affirming one another’s citizenship in Christ’s kingdom by the ordinance of baptism (Christ’s ordained means of public identification with Him, and the distinguishing line between the church and the world), and by overseeing one another’s discipleship through the teaching of God’s Word, and admission to and exclusion from the Lord’s Table (Matt 16:15–19; 18:15–20; 28:19–20; Acts 2:41; 8:12; 1 Cor 5:4–11; 11:17–34).

The local church exercises this authority of the keys under the oversight and leadership of biblically qualified elders, whose qualifications and duties are defined in the New Testament. The congregation is to be led by these elders, who are commissioned by Christ to bear the responsibility of teaching, leading, protecting, and caring for the spiritual well-being of the local church (Acts 20:28–31; 1 Thess 5:14; 1 Tim 3:2, 4–5; 4:13; 5:17; 2 Tim 4:1-2; Heb 13:17; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:2). These leaders are to model the servant-leadership of Jesus Christ, and should always remember that they too are sheep, and are accountable to God for the manner in which they lead (Matt 20:25–26; 1 Pet 5:2–3; James 3:1). The office of deacon can also be filled to minister to the financial, physical, and practical needs of the church, so as to allow the elders to devote themselves fully to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1–4; 1 Tim 3:8–13). Although the church utilizes these two offices, all believers have equal access to God and are gifted and called to serve Him as ministers (Matt 27:51; 1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 4:14-16; 10:11–25).

The church, then, is to commit to regularly assemble in Christ’s name for the purpose of discipleship, corporate worship, the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, and the observance of the ordinances. The church is to commit to pursue Christlikeness in thought, word, and conduct, seeking to faithfully love God and love others, joyfully and humbly seeking accountability with and for fellow members of the assembly, thereby developing one another to better know Christ, love Him and love others, and live in obedience to His Word and for His glory.


Footnotes

(1) For a full explanation and discussion of the keys of the Kingdom, see:

– Chapter 5 of “Going Public,” by Bobby Jamieson
– Chapter 4 of “The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love,” by Jonathan Leeman
– Chapter 6, part 2, of “Political Church,” by Jonathan Leeman
Church Discipline: The Missing Mark by Al Mohler, in “Polity,” edited by Mark Dever
The Glory of a True Church, and its Discipline Display’d (1697), by Benjamin Keach, in “Polity”
A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church (1743), by Benjamin Griffith, in “Polity”
Summary of Church Discipline (1774), by the Charleston Association, in “Polity”

Phil Johnson Interview [Part 2]

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 just a few of those questions. Read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here. Phil talks about his personal life and ministry, church discipline, addressing doctrinal error, 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.

________________________________________________________

What, in your opinion, are one or two of the most pressing theological threats to evangelicalism today?

Here are three: 1) Apathy about sound doctrine; 2) the utterly false notion that if the gospel is properly contextualized no one will be offended by it; and 3) a ministry philosophy based on worldly values.

What is the importance and impact of a conference such as the Strange Fire conference?

The goal is to bring a note of clarity to fundamental truths like the authority and reliability of Scripture. With wave after wave of outlandish chicanery coming from the charismatic movement (on the one hand), and (on the other hand) so much confusion left in the wake of postmodern “emergence religion”—someone desperately needs to speak a word or two of correction without hedging, and no one else seemed to want to.

In the scope of large-scale evangelical opinion, we are merely a whispered voice of dissent—and every effort will be made to silence that whisper. People who claim to be “Spirit-filled” and people who tout the virtues of tolerance are awfully quick to get angry, aren’t they? That’s because in a culture like ours where diversity, inclusivity, and tranquility are deemed higher values than truth, there will be strong resistance to any message that exposes the fallacies of popular opinions—or unmasks fraud in popular movements. But we persist. It’s a matter of biblical conviction and conscience.

Aside from being informative for those who already agree with the conference’s position, what kind of impact do these conferences have on people who may disagree? Do these kinds of conferences effectively persuade and lead people to the truth?

A conference like “Strange Fire” isn’t going to stymie the wholesale charlatans or slow down the large movement much. But it does help lots of individuals who are caught up in prosperity teaching or other charismatic doctrinal oddities. And a voice of biblical clarity is a much-needed lifeline for discouraged souls who have been told they didn’t get healing through some fault of their own—a deficiency in their faith; failure to sow a generous enough seed offering; or whatever. Those are sinister teachings, and they need to be opposed and denounced regardless of whether this or that person or group might be pleased, persuaded, or provoked.

Nevertheless, people are influenced for good. I have met dozens of people in the months since the “Strange Fire” conference who have told me that the conference helped change their thinking and led them out of charismatic confusion. Just last week I spoke at an event on the east coast where I met one family who had left a prosperity-gospel-style church because of what they learned at “Strange Fire.” I also met another woman who told me “Strange Fire” gave her the courage to face what her conscience had always been telling her: that there was nothing supernatural about her “tongues-speaking”; she was just saying random nonsense syllables. She’d been afraid to question what she was doing, lest she be guilty of an unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But to her surprise, when she finally confessed the truth, her soul was uplifted by a great sense of liberty, and her passion for Scripture was now greater than ever. One case like that would be worth all the scorn that has been aimed our way in the blogosphere. But I know there are thousands more like her, because we hear from such people almost every day.

By the way, despite the noisy public controversy about “Strange Fire,” the direct feedback we have received (letters and e-mails sent directly to Grace to You) has been almost completely positive.

How much would you agree with, or qualify, the phrase, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity?”

That would take a much longer answer than I can give in a paragraph or two. In short, I do completely agree with the famous cliché, as long as we have a proper understanding of what’s essential and what’s secondary. Most believers simply do not know where to draw the line. John MacArthur dealt with this issue in Chapter 4 of Reckless Faith. (Reprinted in chapter 6 of Truth Matters.) I agree with him.

What is your opinion on 2nd or 3rd degree separation? How do you discern between those whom we may associate with or minister alongside of, and those pastors, churches, organizations or theologians who are too far left or compromising to endorse or associate with?

Again, that’s a huge issue that would require volumes to cover adequately. First-degree separation is clearly commanded in 2 Corinthians 6:14. There is no place for spiritual partnerships with unbelievers. But what do we do with disobedient believers? In a perfect world, a stubbornly unrepentant person would be excommunicated from the church—in effect making separation automatic. But we all know instances (including some very high-profile cases) where church leaders have sinned, compromised on some crucial point, or done things that ought to disqualify them from church leadership—yet they have stayed in their pastoral role. Their sin is sometimes even celebrated or waved around like a banner by people in their churches.

Suppose a well-known minister has publicly embraced and formally affirmed a well-known Sabellian heretic (or some theological miscreant of similar enormity). Or suppose it comes to light out that a celebrity pastor who has run up a massive debt in his church is also secretly a high-stakes gambler. Now suppose that when his moral turpitude is exposed he remains in his position of leadership and influence. Suppose he is not only unrepentant about his own actions, but also aggressively critical of anyone who refuses to affirm him.

I would never publicly affiliate with someone like that, even if I was fairly confident he himself is a genuine (albeit disobedient) believer in Christ, not an utter apostate.

Some would argue that my refusal to join arms with that guy is a form of second-degree separation. Fine. There are times when separation from a notoriously ill-behaved, over-tolerant, or doctrinally errant fellow Christian is clearly warranted (1 Corinthians 5:10). Separation from a disobedient brother seems even more vital when the disobedient brother is in a prominent position where he might influence people in my own flock. Of course, the ideal would be for the man’s own congregation to correct him or discipline him. But what if they don’t? And let’s be honest here: nowadays, most mainstream evangelicals simply do not demand either holiness or accountability from their leaders—especially those leaders that attain some degree of fame or celebrity status.

It’s a shame churches are so negligent in the duty of spiritual discipline, but the fact that the wider evangelical movement is worldly and impure does not obligate me to pretend that our fellowship in Christ renders all sin moot.

To be clear, I’m not a zealot when it comes to the issue of secondary separation. The meltdown of fundamentalism in the second half of the 20th century shows the danger (and the folly) of making a high degree of separatism the quintessential test of one’s piety or orthodoxy. But I also think the course of neo-evangelicalism during that same period of church history shows the utter fallacy of viewing separation as a sin or a defect rather than an unpleasant necessity. There clearly are times when some kind of “secondary separation” is advisable and justifiable—and even those who say they don’t practice it really do. Rick Warren and Andy Stanley aren’t exactly going out of their way to seek partnership with R. C. Sproul or Al Mohler, are they?

In preaching/teaching from the pulpit, how do you discern when you should name a dangerous/false teacher that may be influencing those in the congregation?

It’s subjective. I should point out that that in my preaching—when I’m handling the word of God—I’m not usually as polemical as I would be on a blog or in an article dealing with some specific point of controversy. But if I am going to be publicly critical about anything (or someone) in a sermon, it should be something truly important, not trivial.

Even then, however, I don’t name names if I can give a description of whatever false teaching or dangerous trend I’m dealing with and be fairly sure that the people who need to know what I’m talking about will understand who or what I have in mind. I don’t like to name names if I can reasonably avoid it. But I don’t shy away from naming names if it is necessary for clarity’s sake.

I realize that calls for a subjective judgment. So be it. But if I err in this, I hope it’s on the side of restraint.


Read part 1 of the interview here, and part 3 here.

Next, I ask Phil about church discipline, addressing doctrinal error, and more!

Phil Johnson Interview [Part 1]

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 just the first few of those questions. Read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here, where Phil talks about the Strange Fire conference, church discipline, degrees of separation, addressing doctrinal error, 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.

____________________________________________________________

Let’s start at the beginning, when/how did you become a Christian?

April 15, 1971. I was 17 years old at the time, enthralled with politics, and disillusioned with the liberal religion I had been indoctrinated with all my life. I had grown weary of hearing Sunday-school teachers caution us not to take the stories in the Bible too seriously. It was hard as a 17-year-old to understand why anyone should go to church weekly to talk about the Bible if the Bible isn’t trustworthy. So as soon as I had freedom to choose for myself, I stopped going.

But after dropping out of church, I sensed a void in my soul. One night (a month before my high school graduation) I was feeling particularly depressed, or guilty, or unfulfilled, and I decided to read from the Bible. I opened my Bible at random, and it fell open to the first page of 1 Corinthians. I started reading, and the early chapters of that epistle demolished everything I ever thought about what it takes to please God: “It is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1:19). “Your faith [should] not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5). “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (3:18-19).

When I reached chapter 12, I was feeling very lost and hopeless. But my mind was arrested by verse 3: “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” I didn’t really understand the context or grasp the reason Paul wrote that, but I knew it meant that Jesus is Lord, and I needed to yield to Him and relinquish my pursuit of human wisdom, social status, political clout, academic prestige, or popular fame. I knew I was sinful and lost, and I begged God to save me.

Within a week, several significant things happened to help me understand the gospel. The very next day, someone handed me a tract outlining the key points of gospel truth. (As far as I can recall, I had never before been handed a religious tract.) Later that week, a friend invited me to a large citywide evangelistic event where the preacher explained the atonement from Isaiah 53. I emerged from that week with a fairly sound grasp on the gospel, and a repentant, believing heart.

What all do you do at Grace to You? And what are your other responsibilities at Grace Church?

I’m the executive director at Grace to You, the media arm of John MacArthur’s teaching ministry. I oversee the team of managers who actually do all the hands-on work of radio production, customer service, development, editorial work, etc. (We have a great staff of managers with a lot of longevity on the team. All six of the men who constitute the core of our management team have been here more than a decade, and collectively we have invested more than a hundred years in the ministry. All the others are much more skilled in their areas than I am. It’s my privilege to work with them.)

I do a lot of editing for printed materials—books, magazine articles, blogposts—anything written by John MacArthur and destined for publication. My largest, most time-consuming editorial duty is editing his major books. I work with sermon transcripts to produce book-length first drafts. John MacArthur then polishes the material before it goes to the publisher. The material is all drawn directly from his preaching, but he permits me a great deal of editorial discretion when it comes to the process of organizing and streamlining the material, eliminating redundancies and rabbit trails, and so on.

At the church I am a lay elder. I share teaching responsibilities with one other guy, Mike Riccardi, in GraceLife, which is essentially a large Sunday-School class for adults. There are some 400 people on our class roll, and we meet in the gymnasium at 8:30 every Sunday.

I know you are a busy man. How have you balanced work/ministry with family time? What advice would you give to pastors or others in full-time ministry as to how to dedicate enough time to the ministry, without neglecting one’s family?

                  My sons are all adults with their own families now, and all of them still live nearby, still are active members of Grace Church, and they all serve in various ministries in our church. It’s a great blessing to have faithful sons. God has been very gracious to our family.

I would have to admit that as a parent, I didn’t do everything the way I would if I had a do-over. But one thing I did do in order to avoid neglecting my family was spend as much time with them as possible, even while I was working on ministry-related tasks. With all the responsibilities I had, I knew early on that I needed to get all my work done without being an absentee father. So I learned to work at home, not shut off in a back room somewhere, but in the middle of our family’s living space, with kids playing around my feet while I worked. I tried never to scold them for interruptions. (And that’s not easy when you’re doing editorial work.) As a rule, they had first claim on my attention.

Life with a schedule like mine can be chaotic, and sometimes when deadlines were pressing, I had to miss their baseball games, or I couldn’t go with them on outings to the beach or the park. (This is one of the things I would try to change if I had a do-over. I wish I’d gone to their games even if it meant I missed a deadline.) But on the whole, I tried hard to make sure that they never needed to wonder where they really fit in the order of my priorities. I did everything I could to insure that they never saw my ministry as something that they had to compete with in order to get my attention.

BTW, the desk where I work at home is still in our living room. Darlene likes having it there. It’s not pretty, but it’s a symbol of the fact that my family members always have easy access to me—and that even when I’m working, I’m with them.

How did you first meet and become involved with John MacArthur? I know that’s a fascinating story.

He came to speak at Moody Bible Institute in 1977, when I was working as an editor at Moody Press. As an employee, I was free to attend student chapels during the week he was there, but I’d never heard of him and wasn’t particularly impressed with his resumè, so I wasn’t planning to go hear him. But I had recently begun dating a very lovely girl in the office (she is now my wife), and when she stopped by to ask if I was going to the student chapel service, I decided to drop what I was doing and go, just so that I could enjoy her company.

But I was immediately blown away with both the clarity and biblical content of John MacArthur’s preaching. My very first thought was, He should be writing books! A good editor could shape material like this into blockbusters.

Two years later, “Grace to You” premiered on the radio. By then, Darlene and I were married and living in Florida. (I spent three years there as an assistant pastor in a St. Petersburg church.) Tampa was one of only three cities that carried the original “Grace to You” broadcasts—and they started just a week or so after we moved to Florida. So I began listening daily from the very start, and for three years, every time I heard John MacArthur preach, I silently lamented the fact that his material wasn’t being published in book form. I would have given anything to work with his material, but now that I was out of publishing and engaged in full-time church ministry on the opposite side of the continent from John MacArthur, the likelihood of my even meeting him (much less working with him) seemed so remote that in my mind it was only an unrealistic wish. I never pursued the idea or volunteered for the task.

But in 1981, Moody Press invited me to sit in on a meeting with John MacArthur and a group of free-lance editors to discuss The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series. The timing was uncannily perfect; I was going to be in Chicago that week anyway, on other business. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to be part of that meeting.

That’s when I met John MacArthur personally for the first time. (Ironically, the MNTC is the one major publishing project of John’s that I have never been involved with.) In a private conversation after that meeting, I told John I thought he ought to write a book on the lordship controversy. He was surprised by the suggestion, because he said he wanted to do a book on that subject but hadn’t met anyone in the publishing industry who thought it would be a good idea.

That brief conversation started a relationship that has lasted 33 years. Over the next year and a half, I worked with John on a few of his early books. The Ultimate Priority was the first project we did together where I began with raw sermon transcripts and helped produce a book manuscript. Since then we have probably done fifty or so books in that fashion. My favorites are The Gospel According to Jesus, its sequel, The Gospel According to the Apostles, The Vanishing Conscience, Ashamed of the Gospel, and The Jesus You Can’t Ignore. A new book covering Jesus’ key parables just went to the publisher on July 1.

Who is one well-known pastor/author/leader who has shaped you as a Christian and teacher?

Warren Wiersbe. He was my pastor before I came to California, and he has been a good friend and mentor to me. Wiersbe’s and MacArthur’s styles of preaching are significantly different. My own style of sermon preparation is a hybrid, integrating things I learned from each of them.

Who is one lesser-known pastor/friend/mentor who has shaped you?

Steve Kreloff, pastor of Lakeside Community Chapel in Clearwater, FL. He has been my closest friend for 43 years and is probably the one person who has influenced me most of all. He used to give me cassette tapes of John MacArthur in the days before “Grace to You” was on the air.

How did you know you were called to ministry?

As a new believer, I really didn’t think about it consciously or analytically; I just couldn’t imagine doing anything but serving the Lord somehow. I knew I needed to learn the Bible, so I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute. I didn’t have a well-formed expectation of where that would ultimately lead. Having given up all my worldly ambitions, I suppose I had no option in mind but some kind of full-time service in Christian ministry. So I was training for ministry, but my mind was open as to what that might look like. I didn’t assume I would be a pastor, though that option was certainly open in my thinking. But I really didn’t try to look very far into the future. In college, especially, I was only concerned with passing the next exam.

For a few years after college, I assumed I would pursue a career in publishing rather than church-centered ministry. When I got married, I reevaluated that plan and decided to pursue pastoral ministry. That’s when I spent three years as an assistant pastor in Florida. My long-term plan then was to enroll in a seminary as soon as time and finances made it possible; I wanted to earn an M. Div. while continuing to get pastoral experience. That 1981 meeting with John MacArthur interrupted those plans with something far better.

I didn’t do any scheming or politicking to get where I am today. I just kept taking the next step that seemed reasonable, and the Lord led me here.

Looking back, I know the Lord has ordered my steps by His all-wise providence, and for the past 32 years I have felt very strongly that I’m doing the very thing that I was born to do. It still seems fresh and exciting. So I’ve never really had any occasion to be morbidly introspective about it or wonder if the Lord really called me to do what I’m doing.

I know the pursuit of God’s will is not necessarily that simple for most people, so I’m thankful for His grace to me.

I know you do a lot of writing, you encourage pastors to write, and you edit John MacArthur’s books. What advice would you give regarding the role of writing in the ministry of the pastor? How essential is it for a pastor to write, whether through books, blogs, journal articles, etc.?

Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s essential for every pastor to publish written material. Both writing and pastoral ministry are time-consuming, and most pastors frankly would be better off not to attempt to do both on a large scale.

However, good sermon preparation involves all the same disciplines as writing. Both activities require the essential skills of good communication: clarity, accuracy, freshness, the ability to engage and hold the readers’ (or audience’s) attention, and a knack for saying as much as possible as powerfully as possible in the fewest possible words.

In other words, honing your writing skills will improve your preaching. That’s why I encourage preachers to write, even if nothing they write ever gets published.


Read Part 2 of the interview here, and part 3 here.

In the next two segments, I ask Phil about the Strange Fire conference, church discipline, degrees of separation, addressing doctrinal error, and more!