In an age of the glorification of the busy, Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s advice about reading has much to commend it: “Read much, not many”! The same may be said of writing—especially in light of the seismic development of the publishing arm of the Christian church.
I think of Jesus, the Savior and Lord whom we follow. His thoughts have filled minds, survived history, and traveled to the uttermost parts of the earth. Yet he never wrote a book by his own hand. This does not mean to say that he opposed writing, for evidently he was an authority on the Hebrew Scriptures (Luke 2:41–52). His Spirit breathed out the best book of all—a book which is about him (John 5:39). Yet, he epitomized the truth that whereas people have souls, books do not. In the process, he laid waste to the idea that greatness must entail an impressive list of high-profile articles or bestsellers. If Jesus spent any time writing in private the truths he later discussed and preached, he certainly did not publish them. He may have written much, but evidently he did not write many. Published writing, it is clear, was not his calling. Greatness, he said, is found in serving (Matthew 20:28; Mark 9:35). Writing is a service, but it is by no means clear that Jesus highlights it to the degree that the Christian community does today. The advent of mass publishing has been a great boon for the ministry of the church and the spread of the gospel, but it is not without its dangers.
First, there are homiletical dangers. The drive to publish can threaten in a pastor’s ministry the primacy of preaching. Whereas once his mornings were taken up researching sermons, now they are occupied with writing chapters. The Lord’s Day comes, and into the pulpit he walks with the draft manuscript. Unspotted by many, however, are the subtle changes this multi-tasking introduces: the exposition is shorn of its dominant thrust and becomes a running commentary; the delivery minimizes space for the Holy Spirit to direct in the moment, and becomes an exercise in reading; and the congregation present in worship to hear a word from God for them becomes a select group of samplers of the forthcoming book.
There are spiritual dangers, too. The gravitational pull toward becoming known is real. Making a killing on royalties is very much the exception, but the dream is for free. The hankering for affirmation from one’s peers is more realistic, but is no less of an impediment to spiritual growth if we cease to find our identity and satisfaction in Christ. It is by drinking of him we are refreshed and grow (John 7:37). Accordingly, our plan to publish must factor in Christ’s expectation that we will. Premature publication sows, then, the seed of self-contradiction in later years. This might not matter to us, but it may to those whose thinking we shape. There are few like John Calvin, who write as they read and read as they write, and do so without later reversing their opinions.
Given these considerations, it is important to weigh the opportunity to write in light of the glory of God, the promotion of the kingdom, and one’s own sense of calling. “Publish or perish” may be the mantra of academia, but it’s not a motto for pastors or theologians. Our commitment to God’s truth, the unity of his household, and the primary responsibilities of our specific ministry callings will sometimes mean foregoing opportunities to publish. Reformed theologian John Murray (1898–1975) epitomized this more cautious approach. It mattered to him what he taught Christ’s church, and therefore he labored away in the privacy of his study seeking precision in his understanding of Holy Scripture before going public. Doubtless, temperament and giftedness came into play in this approach, yet there is something to be said for resisting the unspoken pressure to publish, simply because getting into print is deemed essential to greatness (a.k.a., celebrity status).
These convictions are not new, but in taking up the invitation to write for Christianity 21st I am presented with an opportunity to think afresh about the role of writing in Christian ministry. I seek not to bind the consciences of others, but to work out the criteria which justifies the time taken to pen some thoughts amid the cares of the flock. These criteria are not imposed on me from without— either by a wife starved of company, or by an Elder Board seeking to micro-manage! Rather, I drew them up some time ago as a note-to-self about the brevity of life, the primacy of preaching, and the significance of relational commitments. They state that:
Authorship and publication of theological literature should not take precedence over the call to preach. The primacy of preaching must resist the usurpation of the primacy of publication. Jesus, it is important to remember, came to preach (Mark 1:38), and so did Paul (1 Corinthians 1:17–18).
Authorship and publication of theological literature should not take precedence over the pastoral needs of family, friends or congregation. Published writings can serve the church very well, but God who sees our down-sitting and uprising knows which pieces have been produced at the expense of the people in our immediate care.
The constraints of time, preaching, and pastoral work preclude publishing merely for the sake of it (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Not every sermon warrants publication, or every thought an airing. Write when it is possible and appropriate. The possibility speaks of the illumination of the Spirit and the time available to transfer his insights into the Word to writing. The appropriateness refers to the burden to serve. Let nothing inspire more than God’s glory, the fame of Christ, and the church’s maturing. Theology is important, but don’t publish repeats of what is said well elsewhere. Help fill a lacuna, or offer a fresh interpretation of Scripture.
Hearty thanks, then, for the invitation! I cherish it in my heart and hold this note-to-self in my hand.
This post was first published by Tim J. R. Trumper at http://christianity21st.com/writing-some-personal-thoughts/