Defects in the Clergy – Philip Spener

Philip SpenerA summary of the views expressed in “Defects in the Clergy” in his book Pia Desideria (1675)–Latin for “Pious Desires.” This book was influential in Pietism, a Puritan movement in the Lutheran church. Its ideas indirectly had an impact on John Wesley as well–the founder of the Methodist Episcopal Church…and perhaps on the Great Awakening. Why it is that some people think that critiquing the clergy amounts to being demonized by the “accuser of the brethren” is beyond me (Rev. 12:10). Are there not glaring, serious errors, perversions, immoralities and compromises being committed these days in the name of pastoral ministry? And is it only to be left to rogue theologians with books, blogs, and YouTube videos to raise a problem-solving voice against these enormous transgressions? Maybe I would do well to refer to Spener’s voice from the past rather than just my own. In the same vein as Gilbert Tennent’s “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” and Charles Finney’s “Preaching So As To Convert Nobody,” here we see yet another godly revivalist from the past raising serious moral objections to the sins of pastors. I am using the 1964 Fortress Press version translated by Theodore Tappert.–edit


1. Just as when you see a tree is withering, you know that something is wrong with the roots–so also when you see that church people are immoral and undisciplined in piety, “you must realize that no doubt their pastors are not holy” (p. 44). In acknowledging the holiness of the divine calling of pastors, Spener humbly admits with wise self-judgment, “I do not exclude myself from the number of those in our estate who are lacking in the reputation we ought to have before God and the church. On the contrary, I recognize more and more how deficient I myself am, and I am prepared to be fraternally corrected by others” (p. 45). But there is a difference between immature, childish pastors…and wicked ones–and it is in keeping with the grace of the Gospel to always try to make this distinction.

2. While it is natural for people to point out the open and obvious scandals committed by pastors, for example the televangelists–it is less common, but all the more necessary that TRUE CHRISTIANITY is practiced–not only the avoidance of obvious temptations and vices or living by an external morality–but also the practice of self-denial, and the avoidance of a worldly spirit, of carnal pleasure, the lust of the eye, and arrogant behavior committed by so many pastors and church people (p. 45). For example, a common practice among pastors who are not born again, and who show no evidence of the new birth in any of the doctrines they preach, looking after their own interests, rather than the salvation of souls (Philippians 2:21), is they seek promotions and upward mobility–which in a normal state of life is acceptable, but for that of a pastor, often becomes a thing of convenience, and creates a habit where pastors only stay at a church for a few years until they seek to be transferred to a different church with higher wages; and so the flock of God is abandoned by these hirelings (John 10:12). Also, their church members are not regenerated or renewed due to the lack of truly righteous preaching. Most of their preaching comes out of the head, and not out of the heart; there were no spiritual gifts, nor mystical experiences undergirding what they were saying; no baptism in the Holy Spirit, no mystical theology. Cheap grace antinomianism sets in automatically when such lukewarm sermons are the common stock; and so, the church people will lack judgment and think that it is normal and acceptable that their pastors are immoral, natural men just like everybody else, rather than saints, who are meant to be examples of holiness. Such people “judge by examples rather than by precept” (p. 46). “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). It would be better if they judged each other by what they read in the Bible. But so popular and status quo are carnal pastors, and much more numerous are carnal and unspiritual church members, that they are more ready to label a preacher of righteousness a heretic or a fanatic than a naturally minded pastor who never preaches the morals of Christianity (pp. 47-8).

3. Spener is not against apologetics, but he argues at length that too many pastors fall into the trap of MAKING APOLOGETICS THE FOCUS OF THEIR PREACHING, exciting quarrels, petty disputes, and intellectual curiosity that has no relation to growing in holiness, righteousness, etc. The PRACTICAL THEOLOGY of Martin Luther needs to be the focus (see Luther’s Works by Fortress Press), and not the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas (pp. 51, 54). Soteriology that cultivates virtue in the heart, not vain philosophy that stirs up curious questions in the head–needs to be the direction that pastors steer their churches. But so often Spener sees the reverse is the case; and so, he finds a false judgment exercised by pastors, which is not based on righteousness, but on what they deem to be “sound doctrine.” 2 Timothy 2:23: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” Supralapsarianism is a subject that comes to my mind as Spener, in the 1600s, says that most theologians in his era occupied themselves with trivial and useless controversies–rather than preaching holiness. He says, “The study of theology should be carried on not by the strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety” (p. 50). And so, PRACTICAL THEOLOGY IS FAR MORE USEFUL TO PASTORAL MINISTRY THAN APOLOGETICS. He quotes Dr. David Chytraeus (d. 1600) as saying, “Would to God that we might accustom our own and our hearers’ hearts and minds to the fear of the Lord, to repentance and conversion, to terror because of sin before the wrath and judgment of God, and to the practice of true godliness, righteousness, and love of God and neighbor rather than to quarrelsome disputatiousness” (p. 52).

4. Spener admits that some pastors awaken from the quarrelsome, intellectual stupor of being preoccupied with the many curious scholastic subjects of apologetics: “How many a Christian minister, when by God’s grace he first enters upon his office, has the experience that many of the things to which he devotes hard work and great pains prove to be USELESS, that he must begin all over again to reflect on what is more necessary, and that he wishes he had known this before and had been wisely and carefully directed to it” (p. 54). Spener quotes 1 Timothy 6:3-5: “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.” This is really the main idea behind Spener’s argument. Rather than being focused on Christ and living a holy life–the nature of a corrupt clergyman is to be obsessed with theological disputes. If you’re just all about apologetics and you eat theological debates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–then you are corrupt, and not a lover of the truth; in fact, you have a defect. Pastors need to focus on practical theology, practical divinity, and holiness theology. Everything else is wood, hay, and stubble–knowledge without love that “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). What’s worse is that an apologetics-debate focus creates Bible-teacher pride: “in a desire to exhibit their sagacity and their superiority over others, to have a great reputation” (p. 56)–the vain pastor has “not a true fear of God but a thirst for honor and other impulses which are unbecoming a true Christian…they generally concentrate on something that is not very edifying to their hearers who are seeking salvation” (p. 56). They regard it as the greatest honor to dispute with others in the name of defending pure doctrine. But THEY LACK ANY MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE, unlike the apostle Paul, who said, “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). Good. Then let’s follow in his, and in the footsteps of other saints who thought the same way, such as the Desert Fathers, St. Benedict, St. Patrick, St. Columba, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, George Fox, John Wesley, Charles Finney, William J. Seymour, Smith Wigglesworth, Kathryn Kuhlman, John Wimber, Derek Prince, David Wilkerson, and any other godly Spirit-filled saints I forgot to mention.

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