How is it possible for a full-time pastor who was planting a new church to earn a law degree? The short answer: It took grace and grit! It is hard to explain the challenges and difficulties that I faced while trying to complete one of the most difficult graduate degrees in higher education while pastoring full-time. However, it may help if I share a few lessons that I learned during my journey.
Before going any further, let me make it absolutely clear that I am (and will always be) a pastor. Why? It is a calling, not just a job. That is, God’s call on my life is to pastor until the day that He calls me home. It is my intention to pastor, which includes leading a church, preaching and evangelizing, until the time when I am either physically or mentally unable to do so. Earning a law degree has in no way diminished my calling. To the contrary, it has enhanced my pastoral ministry by providing additional tools and opportunities to fulfill my calling.
1st Legal Research & Biblical Interpretation
I’ve noticed an alarming trend among some evangelical pastors. Although they claim to preach the Bible, many have adopted a method of interpretation that mirrors the progressive (liberal) method of interpreting the United States Constitution. Like the progressives who believe that the Constitution is a living document that must be interpreted based on current cultural values and trends, some evangelical pastors are very comfortable reconstructing the meaning of a biblical text to fit their predetermined views. Yet, many of these same pastors will argue that the Constitution should be understood and applied according to its original meaning. Sadly, they don’t realize that their methods demonstrate greater respect for the Constitution than the Bible.
For example, one pastor was giving away gym memberships as a publicity stunt, claiming that the phrase “Jesus grew in stature…” (Luke 2:52) meant that Jesus took care of his body (i.e., worked out). He further concluded that since Jesus was physically fit, we should be too. Sadly, the
sermon “talk” was illustrated via the pastor’s extra-tight t-shirt! Although there are good and biblical reasons to teach on stewarding one’s health, this was clearly an example of reading into the text a current cultural trend. Yet this same pastor, who will go unnamed and has since moved on, regularly argued for a strict interpretation and application of parts of the Bill of Rights (e.g., the 2nd Amendment). Sadly, this example is not an exception, but in many regions has become the norm.
Reading thousands upon thousands of cases has given me a greater appreciation for the importance of a clear and consistent method of interpretation. Trying to incorporate the constantly changing ethos of the American population into the interpretation and application of the law gave us Roe v. Wade. The right to an abortion (i.e., the murder of an unborn child) is nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. However, seven justices believed that the penumbras of the Constitution protected the right to privacy, which included the right to access an abortion. Reading the Constitution as a living document that must be interpreted according to the current moral (or immoral) trends will elevate the nine justices of the Supreme Court to high priests (and priestesses) of the secular cult.
Conversely, I’ve come to appreciate the consistency of an originalist framework for interpreting the Constitution. Although some would argue that the original intent cannot be accurately discovered, one can, with some certainty, discover the original public meaning of the Constitution. Knowing and applying the original public meaning of the text provides stability and consistency in our legal system. [For an overview of “Originalism & Constitutional Interpretation, see “A Debt Against the Living: An Introduction to Originalism,” by Ilan Wurman.] Thus, I’ve come to appreciate the work and contributions of the late Justice Scalia, and current Justices Thomas and Gorsuch.
The same is true of the Bible. Although some may argue that each person’s interpretation of the Bible is equally valid, such an approach to hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) essentially voids the Bible of any authority. In this liberal approach (theologically speaking) to interpreting Scripture, the reader becomes the inspired agent who declares the true meaning and subsequent application of divine revelation. Thus, the Bible is nothing more than words on a page until the modern reader announces the text’s authoritative message. If this approach is accurate, why do we need the Bible? Just pick up any book, letter, etc. and announce a divine meaning. Better yet, just write your own divine revelation!
So who decides? The text decides! Understanding the implications of an originalist interpretation of a text and the dangers of a progressive approach to hermeneutics will help you understand where the two worlds of legal training and pastoral ministry collide.
The text in its original context = meaning!
Although I hold the United States Constitution in high regard, it is not equal to or superior to the Bible, which alone is divine revelation. I do, however, use many of the same tools to interpret both documents. Witnessing first hand (and reading second hand via case law) the direct and residual effects of progressive interpretations of the law, as well as my first-hand experiences with those who diminish the authoritative power of the Bible with their reader-response interpretative framework, I am committed to an originalist, text-driven interpretation of both the Bible and the Constitution.
2nd Defending the Faith in a Diverse & Complex Environment
Name the last three people with whom you shared the gospel. This may be harder than you think because so many of us live in a Christian bubble. So why don’t we share the gospel with more people? In seminary, I was taught that fear was the number one reason people don’t share the gospel. If that is true, I met a lot of seminary professors who were very courageous inside the church and terrified outside of it! One prominent evangelical preacher provided a strong rebuke for those who are “beasts in the pulpit and kittens in public.” Fear is not the primary reason you don’t share the gospel!
The two primary reasons, in my opinion, that Christians don’t share the gospel are: (1) they live in two separate spheres (the sacred and secular divide); and (2) they erroneously believe that evangelism is the presentation of a prepackaged set of talking points that immediately calls for a response.
Unfortunately, some Christians view their vocation as separate from their sacred/religious life. Of course, we all can think of the “Jesus-freak” at work who makes everyone feel uncomfortable with his “in-your-face” approach to engaging co-workers with his version of the good news. I too am not a fan of this guy, although he may be my Christian brother. So, how do we bridge the gap? That is, how do we live as missionaries and ambassadors for Christ in our workplaces, schools, or wherever we spend the majority of our time outside of the home without alienating ourselves?
Case Study: Defending the Faith When You are Surrounded by Brilliant People
If you think it is hard to present the gospel at your work, imagine being surrounded by intelligent and opinionated people who are highly trained to dismantle every argument. In that arena, where would you start?
As a pastor in law school, I’ve had to run on several tracks at the same time. That is, simultaneously attempting to teach, in both words and actions, what Christianity is and what it is not. Most unbelievers already have an opinion of what Christianity is, which is usually based on either a bad experience with insiders (Christians) or misrepresentation from outsiders (non-Christians). When you are around people 4 to 5 days a week for three years, you learn a lot about them. How much more if you work with someone 5 days a week for 10 to 30 years? They are also learning a lot about you! They are watching, listening, and critiquing your life. The following are principles and practices that have guided my interactions with colleagues (students, faculty, and administrators) as a missionary for Christ.
1st Be genuinely interested in the lives of others, especially those whose lives and beliefs are very different than yours. This approach will provide you with plenty of opportunities to learn what people believe about Christianity. Moreover, you will, through listening to their views, find inroads to sharing the gospel. The people who I disagree with the most (religiously, morally, etc.) are the ones that I want to get to know.
2nd Don’t be a “Ned Flanders”! Although I realize that we are called to be a peculiar people (cf. 1 Peter 2:9), we cannot completely alienate ourselves from the culture around us. It is perfectly acceptable to take a stand for your beliefs and not compromise. However, it is extremely awkward and ineffective to take a “holier-than-thou” approach to life. For example, I don’t consume alcohol or any other intoxicant, but many law students and lawyers do. If asked why I don’t drink, I quickly explain that it is a personal conviction and not a core Christian doctrine. Although there is a time and place for conversations on the biblical position against drunkenness, this is usually not the time. Thus, I explain my dedication to Christ and why I’ve chosen to live for Him, which always includes central gospel elements. Do I get to share the entire gospel every time? No. However, I am laying significant groundwork for an ongoing presentation of the gospel or I am building on what I’ve presented during past conversations.
3rd Take a “both-and” approach to engaging people. That is, when appropriate be “loud” (not obnoxious) about your faith, but also consistently engage in quiet conversations with people about Christ. I have absolutely no problem with standing up in front of my peers and praying, which includes acknowledging Christ as my Lord and Savior. I’ve stood up countless times before final exams and before the beginning of classes and prayed for my colleagues. I’ve never had an unbeliever show any aggression or offer any negative feedback. More importantly, I’ve had countless conversations either privately or in small groups about Christ and Christianity as a result of my public prayers. You may not believe this, but when unbelievers know that you are serious about Jesus, they will come to you privately when they are facing a crisis, needing encouragement, or just looking for answers. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been able to share the gospel through these interactions.
4th Be clear on what IS and what ISN’T the gospel. Good intentions don’t negate bad theology. At the end of my first year of law school, one professor decided to present the gospel through an emotionally charged story about a Hispanic football player getting drunk, dying, and going to hell. Since attendance to the class was mandatory and no one could leave early, every student in my section had to listen to this impromptu sermon. Needless to say, I was grateful that a professor wanted students to hear and believe the gospel. However, I was disappointed by the lack of either preparation or forethought in the professor’s approach to evangelizing students. Ironically, this same professor had scolded and berated us on numerous occasions for not being fully prepared for the task at hand. The entire message took about ten minutes and was filled with tears and pleas to believe in Jesus. However, the professor said THREE TIMES that although the story of Jesus sounds like a fairy tale (I’m paraphrasing), we should believe anyway. In a room full of law students who are being vigorously trained to question everything, I am confident that the “believe anyway” approach essentially gave them permission to NOT believe. To be fair, the professor had already alienated most of the unbelievers in the class and at this point, even if the gospel had been accurately presented, most of them had tuned out.
Because I had spent a significant amount of time getting to know many of the students and had countless conversations with them about Jesus and Christianity, I felt compelled to follow up with as many of them as possible. Both Christians and non-Christians, with the exception of one “hyper-fan” of the professor (i.e., “brown noser”), felt like the presentation was a disaster. Although the believers admired the courage, many recognized that all credibility that the professor may have had was out the window due to the way students had been treated throughout the year. Frankly, you can’t publicly berate students and “go off” in front of the class and then at the end of the year expect a revival. The unbelievers, however, we’re confused about why the man in the story went to hell. Was it because he was Hispanic? Was it because he was drunk? How did the professor know the man went to hell? Or was it because he wasn’t a Christian that he went to hell? I spent the next week trying to have a conversation with as many students as possible to explain what the gospel was and what it wasn’t. In these interactions with law students, I was reminded of the importance of clearly and concisely presenting the core tenets of the gospel. Thankfully, I was able to use this negative experience as an opportunity to point many of my colleagues to Christ and explain the gospel of grace.
Action Plan: Get Rid of the Prepackaged Evangelism & Proclaim Jesus
After two decades of ministry, which has included sharing the gospel personally with several thousand people (the majority of which were one-on-one and outside of the church context), I’ve come to the conclusion that most people are willing to discuss religion and spirituality. Get involved, stay connected, be patient, answer questions, and always be ready to tell them about the grace of God made available to rebels and sinners through the substitutionary and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ!
Evangelism is an Investment You Make in Others! Persevere in telling others the good news.