A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality.  Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive.  Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.

A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices.  For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister.  Murray relates the Doctor’s response:

‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).

Murray also tells of Lloyd-Jones’s proclivity to avoid talking about himself in his sermons:

References to himself in his sermons were brief and rare.  Anything in the way of a testimony to his conversion experience was almost wholly absent.  The omission was not an oversight on his part but the result of deep convictions.  For one thing, he noticed that the giving of testimonies tended to reduce all conversions to a similar pattern, to standardise experience in a way which went beyond Scripture.  And yet, at the same time, testimony-givers were prone to emphasise what made their story noteworthy.  No doubt the motives were often well-intentioned, but the effect could easily be carnal and man-centered (p. 150).

As to Lloyd-Jones’s insistence on simplicity in ministry and church life, Murray narrates that, when the Welshman began his pastoral work in Aberavon he had no intention of following others in their zeal for various activities that were attached to the church (musical evenings, a dramatic society, etc.).

In the event, Lloyd-Jones had nothing to say about any new programme.  To the surprise of the church secretary he seemed to be exclusively interested in the purely ‘traditional’ part of church life, which consisted of the regular Sunday services (at 11am and 6pm), a prayer meeting on Mondays and a mid-week meeting on Wednesdays.  Everything else could go, and thus those activities particularly designed to attract outsiders soon came to an end.  The demise of the dramatic society posed a practical problem, namely, what to do with the wooden stage which occupied a part of the church hall?  ‘You can heat the church with it,’ the new minister told the committee….The Sunday sermons were, indirectly, to indicate the meaning of these and other changes.  The church was to advance, not by approximating to the world, but rather by representing in the world the true life and privilege of the children of God.  The fundamental need was for the church to recover an understanding of what she truly is (p. 135).

What do you make of these emphases found in Lloyd-Jones’s life and words?  If you find them salutary, what might we do to cultivate them in our churches?  If you find them to miss the mark, in what ways?

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7 thoughts on “A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

  1. I at one time thought self-forgetfulness was a good thing. I termed it to “un-know” oneself. However, I soon realized that Faith is knowledge. We know God as he has revealed himself in Christ and relate to him in this way. We do not forget oneself, but truly know oneself as we participate in the life of Christ that gives itself to Christ in love. My fear is that this sort of thinking is doectic and trys to find and ideal way to relate to God apart from the self-revelation of God in Christ Jesus. The result would be an idol constructed from the subjects own observations rather than the life we have in Christ in creation.

  2. The intent on the part of Lloyd-Jones (and others who would resonate with his concerns) is far from producing a pathway to God apart from his revelation in Christ. It is simply a matter of making sure that the minister of the gospel doesn’t himself (or herself) become part of the content of the gospel. It’s difficult to see how docetism would follow from this.

  3. Steven D:

    To try to relate to God as a sort of abstract spiritual ideal, without seeing him as understanding or addressing the full complexity of our human nature, could rather make our relation to God slightly … airless. Or colorless.

    It is generally thought that the advantage of having seen God appear in a human person – a physical person, Jesus – is in part God’s way of acknowledging the importance of our physical human selves, in part. And is though to be God’s way of giving us a human face, for God.

  4. Steve, as I read through these two quotes I found it interesting that “representing in the world the true life and privilege of the children of God” meant, for Jones, retaining what had become the traditional elements of local parish life. Giving him all the benefit of the doubt, certainly Jones was aware that such practices were culturally developed and have no real authority of their own or any inherent capacity to represent the life of union with Christ (he certainly couldn’t be saying that a Wednesday night meeting is inherent to the life of the Church). Yet, such practices had become normative within his Reformed Scottish culture. So focusing on these activities constituted for Jones the recovery of “an understanding of what [the church] truly is”?

    Wow. While there is a part of me that admires his chutzpah, it is hard for me to admire his focus on church meetings as the means for demonstrating to outsiders what the church “truly is.”

  5. Hey Kent, I think the point about meetings as meetings not really representing the essence and fullness of the church is an important one. In response, though, it has to be said that for Lloyd-Jones (and for me as I was thinking through the post), the focus was less on meetings as mere meetings than on the meetings as indispensable gatherings of God’s people for the proclamation of the word, for prayer, for spiritual and theological discussion and exhortation over against bringing into the church activities that don’t really have much to do with being a local congregation. Meetings per se don’t necessarily demonstrate or accomplish anything (though perhaps in some way we do demonstrate something by just showing up at church instead of relaxing at home), but the point was that Lloyd-Jones had a way of stripping back the some of the distractions and urging the fundamental practices of the church.

  6. SD:

    Your post raises a scenario important for many doctors of theology: meeting a congregation, and then deciding to what degree to meet and follow, their culture and proto-theological expectations. Or say, guide those expectations and assumptions to a (perhaps) more informed and possibly more ascetic, less “world”ly theology.

    Meeting the culture, confronts 1) the general, popular cultural expectations, of a secular/modern culture. And 2) specifically, their often politically-conditioned quasi theological beliefs (/”religion”?). In this situations though, is it simply a matter of becoming a Charles-Chaput-style culture warrior, and just rip out whatever cultural “stage” appears to be on the scene?

    There is a tendency in the inner sanctum, to regard The Culture around us, as the enemy, the material “world.” And to simply seek to simply counter and oppose it, in church.

    On the other hand though? My own experience, my own theology, suggests that the material life of the culture around us, has more validity and value than much of traditional, anti-worldly theology believes. If the Bible condemned “the world,” that would have likely been merely the “world” or “era” (Gk. “aeon”?) of Jesus’ time; not the entire physical world (as in some forms of dualism). Nor would it have been an attempt to condemn the life of those honest workers, working hard to keep the plumbing working; repairing the church roof and so forth. The “body of Christ” that is after all, partially physical.

    Especially in fact? Far from seeing the educated preacher as a “Focus on the Family” type culture warrior, or ascetic/gnoistic world-rejecting monk, I firmly belive that the only viable theology in the end, is one that might to be sure note 1) sins and errors in everyday opinions, in excessive materialism and so forth. But that would 2) however also note – and even follow – much that is necessary and good, in physical life. Especially much that is good in say, “secular” “worldly” Science.

    Much of contemporary Theology in fact, does not reject the ‘world” or the “flesh” as completely as monks once did. But attempts to reconcile itself to explicity, especially, “science.” Which in turn of course does not flee from or despise this physical existence. But begins to grapple with it fully, and sympathetically.

    And even? Begins to learn from the world around us.

    I dont’ know much about his work. But it may be that say, Kent’s exploration of Pannenberg’s notation of the value of the finer detail of our human “nature” too, would be useful here. In carrying even our “own personal Jesus,” and/or “personal” theologies, deeper. Carrying our sense of God into a deeper and fuller, more finely-grained embrace of specifically, the aspect of the “world” once known as human “nature.”

    So that when a PhD in theology finds himself looking out at a congregation of mere physical human beings, and practical people? It would be in part with a sense that they need guidance into a refined spirituality. But also with a sense that our reverend doctor himself might learn something good, even something about God, from their allegedly “worldly” or physically-oriented existence.

  7. The interface between the minister and the “world” is a very complex subject. But it seems to me it involves more give-and-take on both sides, than many suppose. If God made the physical world and “said it was good” for example.

    No doubt a minister has much to teach the people in the way of spirituality or and self-sacrifice and so forth. But? The minister himself might learn a little about physical existence, about the world that God made, from his parishioners, in turn.

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