What is the legacy of a great church leader? Is it his books? Is it his blogs or his podcasts? Is it the recording of his sermons? Is it his inspirational life story? ….It might indeed involve any or all of these; but surely above all else the legacy of the church leader is his followers and especially those he has helped to put in to positions of influence.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of an encounter between Croesus, the fantastically wealthy king of Lydia, and the Athenian sage and lawmaker, Solon. Pointing to his wealth and power, Croesus asked Solon if he considered him to be blessed. Solon’s laconic response was simple: ‘Count no man blessed until he is dead.’ Years later, having been stripped of his earthly power and wealth by the Persians, Solon’s words came back to haunt the former monarch with something of a vengeance.
I first read that passage nearly thirty years ago while polishing my Greek for the Cambridge Common Entrance Exam. It haunted me then and it still haunts me now. Solon’s point is obvious and powerful: one cannot assess a man’s life until it is over, until he is dead and in the grave. Only then can one know if he really did have a happy life.
There would seem to be an application there to the Christian church: one cannot truly assess a Christian leader until one can see clearly what his legacy is. That is sobering to anyone who is a minister, from the pastor of a small church to the international statesman.
It is also reminiscent of something P. T. Forsyth said. Writing about the cross of Christ and its connection to other great doctrines, he once commented as follows:
The ideas at the centre of the Christian faith are too large, too deep and subtle, to show their effects in one age; and the challenge of them does not show its effect in one generation or even in two. Individuals, society, and the Church, indeed, are able to go on, externally almost unaffected, by the way that they have upon them from the past; and it is only within the range of several generations that the destruction of truths with such a comprehensive range as those of Christianity takes effect. Therefore it is part of the duty of the Church, in certain sections and on certain occasions, to be less concerned about the effect of the Gospel upon the individual immediately, or on the present age, and to look ahead to what may be the result of certain changes in the future. God sets watchmen in Zion who have to keep their eye on the horizon; and it is only a drunken army that could scout their warning. We are not only bound to attend to the needs and interests of the present generation; we are trustees for a long future, as well as a long past. Therefore it is quite necessary that the Church should give very particular attention to these central and fundamental points whose influence, perhaps, is not so promptly prized, and whose destruction would not be so mightily felt at once, but would certainly become apparent in the days and decades ahead. (The Work of Christ, pp. 142-43)
Of course, Forsyth was himself no bastion of orthodoxy. Thus, as Luther once commented on James 3:1, ‘Oh, James, if only you had taken your own advice’, so the reader who reads Forsyth on kenotic Christology might well wish that he had paid more heed to his own words here. Nevertheless, the principle he articulates is a useful one.
There is a popular view of the dispensations of evangelical decline which runs something like this: the first generation fights for orthodoxy, the second assumes it, the third abandons it. The model makes a lot of sense and one can certainly point to a few historical precedents as verifying that it contains more than a kernel of truth. Hans Küng makes a similar comment in his memoirs, citing Carl Jung to the effect that it takes several generations for an idea to move from the lecture theatre to the pew. Interestingly enough, the comment of Forsyth is also a multi-generation one. That is why he urges the contemporary age to be always reflecting on how its doctrinal actions will look in, say, fifty or sixty years time. One might summarise Forsyth’s view by saying that the orthodoxy or otherwise of any doctrinal position is only really evident after several generations, once all of its implications have been worked out and any weaknesses exposed.
I have a suspicion that the speed of change in our hi-tech world will likely prove faster than Forsyth or Jung could ever have imagined. Jung knew nothing of blogging or twitter. Forsyth could not have envisioned in his darkest nightmares the advent of virtual churches, detached from any bodily contact at all and able to export exegesis, good, bad and indifferent, to anywhere at the touch of a button. Ideas can now move from a classroom to a worldwide audience in an instant. There is also no golden rule which says someone who fought for the gospel at age twenty might not be assuming it at age thirty and abandoning it at age forty. I believe in the perseverance of the saints; but I have been around long enough to know that there are a good many convincing counterfeits out there and, indeed, for myself, that a man should take heed if he thinks he stands lest he fall.
Yet I think the Forsyth rule is still perhaps significant and that not simply in the arena of doctrine. It is also relevant in the realm of the appointment of leaders. For all of the IT developments which have accelerated the spread of information and exacerbated the continually kaleidoscopic nature of the state of knowledge, mortality means that important people still have to make way for successors. Of course, it is just possible that the gurus of the satellite campus phenomenon might be planning to have their sermons played on some kind of endless digital loop so as to ensure their continued disembodied leadership of the church from the point of their own death to that of Christ’s return; but the likelihood is that even they will have to concede the importance of embodiment at some point and make preparations for an actual physical succession. Some of the older generation are already doing so.
Whether a pastor should have a say in who is his successor is a moot point. Practically speaking, however, it is unlikely that a pastor who has been a powerful influence in his church will have no impact upon the choice. Still less is it likely that a pastor who has been a key leader in a wider movement will have no role at such a time. Perhaps such influence might be unintentional in some cases, the result not so much of positive involvement as underlying presence; but the likelihood is that in many churches and certainly in many movements, a retiring pastor or leader will have influenced the future direction of his church or organisation through the mentoring of a successor or the establishment of a vision among the elders for the kind of person they should be seeking.
This is where the Forsyth rule can be applied. The next decade will witness the rise of a new generation of leaders who have been groomed to take over from the great and the good of the here and now. We should watch very carefully to see who are being moved into pole positions in such successions. If my summary of Forsyth’s rule above is correct in the area of doctrine, we might expand this a little and say that a leader’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy are only really evident in the line of succession he helps to establish. A man might tell you over dinner that he believes in the Reformation position on justification or scriptural authority, for example, and might even on occasion preach such doctrines from his pulpit; but if he manoeuvres into position those successors who care for neither then one can legitimately wonder what his belief in these things actually amounts to in real, practical, pastoral terms. So here is a word to those involved in big churches and big organisations: Watch the succession plans closely, for they will reveal much about the real priorities and vision of today’s leaders for the church of tomorrow and beyond.
What is the legacy of a great church leader? Is it his books? Is it his blogs or his podcasts? Is it the recording of his sermons? Is it his inspirational life story? Is it the number of satellite campuses he can fill each Lord’s Day (as long as Christmas does not fall on a Sunday, of course)? It might indeed involve any or all of these; but surely above all else the legacy of the church leader is his followers and especially those he has helped to put in to positions of influence.
As Solon might have said, count no church leader as being truly faithful until you can see what steps he took to leave a faithful legacy. And for the rest of us, while we tend to spend our time talking about this generation, perhaps we might devote a little more time to worrying and praying about the one after next.
Carl R Trueman is Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. This article is reprinted from the Reformation 21 blog and is used with their permission.