Stewards of the Mysteries of God
Adapted from the Convocation Address delivered Tuesday, August 26, 1997,
in Alumni Memorial Chapel, Louisville, KY
Something troubles me about much of what I hear or read when theological education is discussed. I fear that many persons engage the issues of ministerial training and Christian scholarship without a proper sense of seriousness. There is so much talk about theological education, and so little weight to that talk. We speak as if so little is at stake.
This is, I believe, a problem generalized across the spectrum of theological education. So much of our conversation, deliberation, and thinking is addressed to matters of process, policy, facilities, finances, technology, and technique. These are important matters–and sometimes even urgent matters–but these are not ultimate issues.
I am very concerned that Southern Seminary be known as an institution, a school for ministers, that accepts its assigned mission with deadly seriousness, and is gladly dedicated to the unique and vital task of theological education. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the mission of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is to be totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, and to serve the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by training, educating, and preparing ministers of the Gospel for more faithful service.
This is a calling higher than that served by any other educational institution. Our aspirations for scholarship must be higher than those of the university. The medical school must teach, knowing that lives will hang in the balance as their graduates serve. We know that eternity hangs in the balance as our graduates preach, teach, and minister.
Ministry as Stewardship
In 1 Cor. 4:1-2, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the gravity of the ministry–the calling to preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. (NASB)
The Corinthian church presented the Apostle Paul with some of his most frustrating challenges. In the course of this letter, Paul has already used several metaphors to describe his apostolic ministry. He has spoken in terms of planting and building, but now he turns to use a most interesting metaphor.
How should we think of ministers? Paul speaks plainly, in language his readers would immediately understand. We should think of ministers as servants of Christ, stewards of the mysteries of God.
That latter phrase has caught my attention for some time. It is arresting in its boldness, but simple in its accountability. We who are teachers and preachers of the Word are no less than stewards of the mysteries of God.
This is such a powerful image or picture of the ministry. Stewards of the mysteries of God. For us to claim this for ourselves would be audacity to the point of blasphemy. Who are we to claim such stewardship? Is this arrogance? Not at all. Paul had previously told the Corinthians that he had come to them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” (1 Cor. 2:3) so that the Corinthian church would know the power of the Gospel rather than the power of Paul.
No, Paul is not over-reaching here. His intention is not to puff himself up, but to make his accountability clear. He is not merely a servant to the Corinthian congregation, a religious professional, or theological consultant. By grace, he is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God.
I am captivated by this image, and certain that taking it seriously will revolutionize our understanding of the ministry and of our task in theological education.
Think with me this way: What would it mean for every pastor to have printed on his card, “Steward of the Mysteries of God.” Or, what if every teacher in this seminary had as title, “Steward of the Mysteries of God?” What if our students thought of themselves, not just as learners and ministers-in-training, but as stewards of the mysteries of God?
This would confuse the world, we must acknowledge. This biblical description matches no list of vocational tracks available to school counselors. The Internal Revenue Service would certainly ask for clarification if we identify our occupation on our tax return as “Steward of the Mysteries of God.” Kitty Carlisle and the entire cast of the old television program, “What’s My Line?” would have been stumped on this one. And yet, that is precisely what Paul tells us we are: Stewards of the Mysteries of God.
As Gordon Fee indicates, Paul’s point in employing this metaphor is almost certainly to indicate that the preacher or teacher of God’s Word holds a delegated authority. A very real authority, but an authority not our own.
We need to be reminded that our role is that of a servant or a steward, not a ruler or owner. As C. K. Barrett reminds us, “The servant in any case has no significance of his own; the work done is not his but his master’s; apostolic ministry is marked by the fact that it makes no claims for itself, but points from itself to Christ. This does not depreciate it.”
Under the Lordship of Christ, as stewards we are charged with the faithful transmission of the mysteries of God–the truth of the Gospel. For Paul, the mysteries of God are clearly the revealed mysteries of the Gospel; once hidden but now revealed. He has used this image often, referring not to a gnostic secret to be held in confidence by co-conspirators, but to God’s great open secret of the Gospel–hidden in the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ and now the great message of salvation. These are not mysteries to be concealed, but mysteries to be proclaimed.
Thus, Paul draws our attention to the revealed truths of God’s Word, the disclosure of God’s purpose throughout the ages made manifest in the birth, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What had been hidden is now revealed. The mystery of the ages is now disclosed. We are now stewards of those mysteries.
What would it mean for all of us to take up our calling as stewards of the mysteries of God? What would it mean for Southern Seminary, for teachers, students, trustees, and administrators? How should we rethink our task in light of this powerful image?
Teachers as Stewards of the Mysteries of God
The teacher in a theological institution holds one of the most powerful posts in the world–and an office laden with responsibility. The theological professor molds the ministry, both by teaching and by example.
For this reason the election and appointment of new faculty members is the greatest challenge for any theological seminary which takes seriously the task of securing teachers who are stewards of the mysteries of God. Southern Seminary must settle for nothing less than the God-given combination of biblical conviction, consecrated scholarship, and teaching excellence demanded by the mission of this institution.
The faculty serving this seminary represent the highest degree of spiritual commitment and scholarship. A theological faculty is known, not only for what it knows, how widely it is published, or how well it teaches, but by its conviction. Put simply, a theological faculty must be measured by what it believes. This sets a seminary faculty apart from the faculties of other institutions.
We are measured by a higher standard than the secular academy. As Paul instructed Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
This succession of faithful teaching–and faithful teachers–is absolutely necessary to the integrity of theological education. This was recognized by James Petigru Boyce, our founder. In his famous address which gave birth to the Seminary, entitled “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” Boyce put forth his argument. “Peculiar obligations rest, however, upon those to whom are entrusted the education of the rising ministry. God in His mercy preserve the instructors from the crime of teaching a single error, however unimportant, and grant unto all our boards the grace necessary for faithfulness to the trusts developed upon them, that false doctrine, however trifling, may receive no countenance.”
The ideals of value neutrality and scientific objectivity to which the secular academy aspires are foreign to the theological school. The current battles over political correctness and the ideological conformity of secular scholarship now threaten the very notion of a liberal education in the classic sense. The modern university is now more an arena for political and ideological warfare than an oasis of higher learning.
Southern Seminary is a confessional institution, which declares its convictions, by means of a formal Abstract of Principles. Our purpose is not the imposition of ideological conformity, but the assurance of theological integrity.
The formal induction of new members into the faculty of this seminary takes place in a public ceremony which remains basically unchanged from its origins in the founding of this institution. Professors place their names on the very manuscript penned by the founders and pledge to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the explicit truths contained therein. The public pledge made by these professors represents the teaching contract required of all who teach at Southern Seminary.
What would it mean for us to understand our teaching task in terms of stewardship of the mysteries of God? I believe the image of professors as stewards of the mysteries of God underlines the gravity and glory of the teaching office.
Some time ago I came across a citation from the diary of Samuel Miller, one of the greatest professors ever to teach on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary. On the day of his inauguration into office, he wrote:
Today I could not help trembling under a sense of unspeakable solemnity! Yes, this is an office which an Owen, or an Edwards would undoubtedly undertake with trembling. How, then, ought I to feel, with all my want of the requisite qualifications! God of all grace!–Thou with whom is the residue of the Spirit–I cast myself on thy care! I implore light, and guidance, and strength from thee! Oh that my deficiencies may not be permitted to disgrace me, and, above all, to disgrace the precious cause in which I profess and hope that I am engaged! Oh that I may have grace given to me to be wise and faithful, and thus to be made a blessing to the youth whom I may be called to instruct.
Charles Hodge, the teacher of Boyce and Manly, remarked concerning 1 Cor. 4:1-2 that Paul was distancing himself from secular teachers. Stewards of the mysteries of God “are not, like Aristotle or Plato, the originators of their own doctrines, or the teachers of the doctrines of other men, but simply the dispensers of the truths which God has revealed.”
As stewards, true ministers of the Word, and true teachers, we are to dispense “the truths which God has revealed, and which, as being undiscoverable by human reason, are called mysteries, into the knowledge of which men must be initiated.” This is one true and vital measure of our stewardship. Have we faithfully passed on the truths revealed in God’s Word? Not the latest fads of the academy, not the current rage of the theologians, but the faith once for all delivered to the saints?
Martin Luther explained Paul’s point in these words: “We do not preach our own interests, nor teach our own doctrines. We do not seek to have you obey us, or give us allegiance and accept our doctrine. No, indeed. We are messengers of him who is your Master, your Lord and Leader. We preach his Word, enlist men to follow his commandments, and lead only into obedience. And in this light should you regard us, expecting of us nothing else than to bring the message.”
What a precious mantle we bear as stewards of the mysteries of God. Such care is required of us that we be faithful to this charge. As Samuel Miller confessed on that day he entered the office, the charge is greater than we can bear alone.
Students as Stewards of the Mysteries of God
Those who teach are not alone in being stewards of the mysteries of God. A stewardship is also required of students. Ministerial education, when seen in this light, is not a matter of mere vocational training. You will not see late-night commercials advertising a new career in the ministry in just six easy lessons.
The ministry is not a career–not even a profession. The high calling of a steward of the mysteries of God demands a preparation and an accountability beyond that of any secular career or profession. This is measured, not so much in length as in depth. A minister of the Gospel must be matured in heart as well as in mind. Character and devotion are as important to the minister as learning and knowledge.
The learning, however, is vitally important. You cannot teach what you do not know. Looking to Paul’s metaphor, you cannot dispense what you have not received.
The theological education provided for students at Southern is unprecedented in the history of the Christian Church. They have access to world-class theological professors and an invaluable theological library, and on a campus which is the envy of the seminary world. And yet, far too many students pass through seminary as if gaining a union card for ecclesiastical employment. This precious school is not a line on your resume–it is a matter of your stewardship.
To the students at Southern I ask this: What will you do with the learning available to you here? As ministers of the Gospel, you will be responsible for the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and for the cure of souls. No one is equal to these tasks, but God has placed you here that you might be a more faithful servant minister once you have departed this campus and graduated from this school.
As you take courses, read books, write papers, and ponder the truths of God’s Word, do you think of yourselves as stewards of the mysteries of God? By your study here, are you seeking to grow in grace and in knowledge so that you will be a more faithful steward in ministry?
Recognize that theological education is not mere education. Genuine learning is always to be desired and admired, but the knowledge of divine truth is a different matter altogether. President Boyce stated this clearly:
The scriptural qualifications of the ministry do, indeed, involve the idea of knowledge, but that knowledge is not of the sciences nor of philosophy nor of the languages, but of God and His plan of salvation. He who has not this knowledge, though he be learned in all the learning of the schools, is incapable of preaching the Word of God. But he who knows it, not superficially, not merely in those plain and simple declarations known to every believing reader, but in the power, as revealed in its precious and sanctifying doctrines, is fitted to bring forth out of his treasury things new and old, and is a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, although he may speak to his hearers in uncouth words or in manifest ignorance of all the sciences. The one belongs to the class of educated ministers, the other to the ministry of educated men, and the two things are essentially different.
This is not an argument for an uneducated ministry–to the contrary, Boyce and the other founders of this sacred school literally gave their all for the sake of a truly educated ministry. Boyce was concerned, as we should be concerned, that students not leave this institution with the essential lessons unlearned–and those essentials are precisely what Paul identifies as the mysteries of God.
Paul was well educated, but he was not eloquent. He intentionally avoided the use of classical rhetoric, lest his point be lost in the presentation, or, more importantly, lest his rhetorical power impress his hearers, at the expense of the Gospel itself. This frustrated the Corinthian congregation, who rejected Paul’s apostleship as too Word-centered. Paul answered with the cross of Jesus Christ–a gospel which confounds all worldly wisdom.
The theological curriculum has been transformed in the past several decades as the proficiencies of ministry have often eclipsed the knowledge of the message. In all too many pulpits, we see a demonstration of what Paul explicitly avoided. There is altogether too much attention to technique in so many ministries, and so little theology. Too many ministers are merely mechanics of modern ministry and not stewards of the mysteries of God.
I am not arguing that you should be unconcerned with developing every skill and area of knowledge in ministry. That would be a tragedy, and would be evident in the mediocrity of your ministry. Nevertheless, I am warning you that an even greater tragedy–a far greater tragedy–would be for you to leave this seminary without a deep knowledge and a burning passion to preach and teach the Word of God and the eternal truths of the Christian faith.
In other words, determine here and now to be a good steward of the mysteries of God while you are engaged in study at Southern Seminary, that you might be a good steward of the mysteries of God when you graduate and draw for a lifetime from what you have learned and invested here.
To this one further point must be added. The mysteries of God cannot be treated like any other arena of thought or knowledge. The medical student may go home at night and fall asleep, satisfied with the knowledge gained through the course of the day, but fundamentally unchanged. The student minister, however, as a steward-in-training, will be changed by what is learned in the seminary classroom, through reading and research and study.
We are to be continually transformed by the renewing of our minds, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Word. In this sense, the good steward is transformed by the stewardship of God’s truth.
Conclusion: It is Required of Stewards that One Be Found Faithful
Paul refused to be tested by the Corinthians. He bluntly told them that their estimation was of no consequence and of little interest to him. Paul recognized only one test of his ministry, and that was a test to be administered by God Himself “In this case, moreover,” he asserted, “it is required of stewards that one be found faithful.”
Found faithful. That is all that is required, but what an awesome test this is. All stewards are required to give an account. How can any of us be faithful to this charge? How will our faithfulness be measured?
Gordon Fee argues that, for Paul, faithfulness “means absolute fidelity to the gospel as he received it and preached it.” As a steward he had received what was not his own, but his Master’s, and he passed it along intact, unadulterated, undiluted to the Corinthians, and to all others.
As a steward, his only authority was a delegated authority. His only message was the cross. His only judge is God himself, the Master from whom he had received his stewardship.
My prayer is that all who are associated with Southern Seminary will look on this institution as a community of fellow stewards of the mysteries of God. Thinking this way, we must have an entirely new sense of the importance of our task, of the weightiness of our mission, and of the glory of our calling.
With this in mind–and in heart–we would teach differently, learn differently, lead differently, serve differently, live differently, than if we think of this school as a mere academic institution. We are that, and more–far, far more. And the test we will face is far greater and more demanding than that faced by any other academic institution. We will answer to God Himself for our stewardship of His mysteries.
I close with this exhortation offered by Charles Haddon Spurgeon at the opening of a new session of his Pastors’ College:
Remember, if any of you are unfaithful, you win for yourselves a superfluity of condemnation. You were not forced to be ministers. You were not compelled to enter upon this sacred office. By your own choice you are here. In your youth, you aspired to this holy service, and thought yourselves happy in attaining your desire. Brethren, if we meant to be untrue to Jesus, there was no necessity to have climbed this sacred rock in order to multiply the horrors of our final fall. We could have perished quite sufficiently in the ordinary ways of sin. What need to qualify ourselves for a greater damnation? This will be a dreadful result if this is all that comes of our College studies, and our burning of midnight oil in acquiring knowledge. My heart and my flesh tremble while I contemplate the possibility that any one of us being found guilty of treachery to our charge ,and treason to our King. May the good Lord so abide with us that, at the last, we may be clear of the blood of all men! It will be seven heavens in one to hear our Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
So may it be said of us, to the everlasting glory of God’s only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.