Brothers – and sisters – we are professionals

John Piper is a distinguished American pastor, who served for more than thirty years as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. A prolific writer, his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee 2013) has recently been re-published in an updated and expanded edition. It has been accompanied by rave reviews – according to Preaching Magazine it is one of the ’10 best books every preacher should read’. I beg to disagree. It is a misguided and prejudiced rant!

Wow! That is strong language, but it is the only language I can use. To my amazement Piper does not engage in argument – but simply rubbishes the position he seeks to attack. At no point does he seek to define the term ‘professional’ – rather he attacks those who would be professional.

The very first paragraph of the book sets the tone:-

We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt 18.3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph 4.342); there is no professional panting after God (Psalm 42.1).

A little later he writes:

The professionalization of the ministry is a constant threat to the offense of the gospel. It is a threat to the profoundly spiritual nature of our work. I have seen it often: the love of professionalism (parity among the world’s professionals) kills a man’s belief that he is sent by God to save people from hell and to make them Christ-exalting spiritual aliens in the world.

The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man. The strong wine of Jesus Christ explodes the wineskins of professionalism….

God, deliver us from professionalizers!

It is all good tub-thumping stuff. But nowhere does he define his terms. His preface to the New Edition attacks “the professionalization of ambience, and tone, and idiom, and timing, and banter” – but that is not professionalism . With approval he quotes E.M. Bounds, who equates professionalism to “the low, managing, contriving, maneuvering temper of mind among us”. He ends the preface with a prayer:

Banish professionalism from our midst, O God, and in its place put passionate prayer, poverty of spirit, hunger for God, rigorous study of holy things, white-hot devotion to Jesus Christ, utter indifference to all material gain, and unremitting labour to rescue the perishing, perfect the saints, and glorify our sovereign Lord.

As one who throughout his ministry has sought to be professional, I resent such language. I resent the charge that those of us who seek to serve the Lord in a professional manner fail to give their all to God. I take that as a personal slur. The reason why I seek to be a professional is because I want to give my very best to God. I wonder, would John Piper be happy to engage the services of an ‘unprofessional’ surgeon! The very thought is a nonsense!

The English word ‘professional’ stems from the medieval Latin word professio, which was used of the taking of vows upon entering a religious order. In the context of Christian ministry, therefore, the word professional surely relates to the solemn ordination vows taken by those of us who are ministers. There we acknowledged afresh our faith in God, and confessed Jesus Christ as our Saviour and our Lord. We promised “with all fidelity, to preach and teach the word of God from the Holy Scriptures, to lead the congregation in worship and administer the gospel sacraments, to tend the flock of Christ and to do the work of an evangelist”. We promised too

… to be faithful in prayer and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

My desire to be a professional is rooted in my desire to be faithful to the vows I took at my ordination. For me there is nothing cold and unspiritual about seeking to be professional – rather my professionalism is an expression of love of and passion for Jesus Christ.

Those who decry professionalism run the risk of endorsing mediocrity rather than excellence, sloppiness rather than carefulness, laziness rather than industry, the second-best rather than the best. Sadly I believe that John Piper has done the cause of Christ in general, and ministry in particular, a disservice.

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