Traits of a Masculine Ministry

This is part of a message delivered by John Piper at the Desiring God 2012 Conference for Pastors. It is a look at the marks of a courageous and faithful Christian ministry (what Piper calls a ‘masculine ministry’) as modeled in the ministry of John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. The entire message can be found here.   May God pour out his Spirit and cause us to burn with zeal for his glory in every sphere of life and society.

jc-ryle2 Eight Traits of a Masculine Ministry

Of all the helpful things that could be said about the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle, the theme of this conference is governing what I will focus on, namely, “The Value of a Masculine Ministry”—which I tried to define at the beginning.

What I hope to do is illustrate the nature of this “masculine ministry,” or “Christianity with a masculine feel,” with eight traits of such a ministry from the life and ministry of J. C. Ryle.

1. A masculine ministry believes that it is more fitting that men take the lash of criticism that must come in a public ministry, than to unnecessarily expose women to this assault.

Therefore, a masculine ministry puts men at the head of the troop with the flag in hand and the trumpets in their mouths, so that they, and not the women, take the first bullets.

J. C. Ryle was a very controversial figure in British evangelicalism. He saw liberalism and ritualism and worldliness eating away at the heart of the Church of England, and he took such clear stands against these things that criticism against him was sometimes brutal.

In 1985, the Liverpool Review (November 21, 1885) published this assessment:

Dr. Ryle is simply about the most disastrous episcopal failure ever inflicted upon a long-suffering diocese. . . . He is nothing better than a political fossil, who has been very unwisely unearthed from his rural obscurity for no better purpose apparently than to make the episcopacy ridiculous.

Two years later, another paper, Figaro (May 14, 1887), said, “His name will stink in history. . . . It is to be regretted that he was ever appointed to fill a position in which he has done more mischief than the Liberation Society and all the atheists put together.”

The point here is not that a woman couldn’t endure such assaults. No doubt a godly woman could. The point is not that women can’t endure criticism, but that godly men prefer to take it for them, rather than thrust them into it.

Courage in the midst of combat, especially harsh and painful combat, whether with arms or with words, is not something a woman can’t exercise, nor even something she shouldn’t exercise under certain circumstances. The reason we call such courage “manly” is not that a woman can’t show it, but that we feel a sense of fitness and joy when a man steps up to risk his life, or his career, with courage; but we (should) feel awkward if a woman is thrust into that role on behalf of men. She may be able to do it, and we may admire her for doing it, if necessary. But we wish the men were numerous enough and strong enough and courageous enough that the women could rejoice in the men, rather than take their place.

2. A masculine ministry seizes on full-orbed, biblical doctrine with a view to teaching it to the church and pressing it with courage into the lives of the people.

Behind the increasing liberalism, ritualism, and worldliness that he saw in the church, Ryle saw a failure of doctrinal nerve — an unmanly failure. Dislike of dogma, he wrote,

is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and especially among young people. . . . It produces what I must venture to call . . . a “jelly-fish” Christianity . . . a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. . . . Alas! It is a type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, “no dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.”

We have hundreds of “jellyfish” clergyman, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions . . . they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views of all.

We have thousands of “jellyfish” sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint. . . .

And worst of all, we have myriads of “jellyfish” worshipers—respectable Church-gone people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than colorblind people can distinguish colors. . . . They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine”; . . . ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old.

This aversion to doctrine was the root cause of the church’s maladies, and the remedy was a manly affirmation of what he called “sharply cut doctrines”recovered from the Reformation and the Puritans and the giants of the eighteenth century in England.

Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . .

The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and His precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live—to believe, repent, and be converted. . . .

Show us at this day any English village, or parish, or city, or town, or district, which has been evangelized without “dogma.” . . . Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. . . . No dogma, no fruits!

The point of calling this failure of doctrinal nerve an unmanly failure is not that women can’t grasp and hold fast to the great doctrines of the faith. They can and should. The point is that when the foundations of the church are crumbling, the men should not stand still and wait for women to seize the tools and brick and mortar. And women should expect their men to be at the forefront of rebuilding the ruins.

The point of saying that the remedy for doctrinal indifference is a manly affirmation of “sharply cut doctrines” is not that women cannot or should not make such affirmations. The point is that long, hard, focused, mental labor should not be shirked by men. Men should feel a special responsibility for the life and safety and joy of the community that depends on putting these “sharply cut doctrines” in place. This issue is not what women are able to do, but what men ought to do. J. C. Ryle waited for no one. He took the brick and mortar and trowel and spent his whole life rebuilding the sharp edges of gloriously clear truth to make a place where men and women could flourish in the gospel.

3. A masculine ministry brings out the more rugged aspects of the Christian life and presses them on the conscience of the church with a demeanor that accords with their proportion in Scripture.

Ryle is most famous today for his work on holiness and sanctification. And the overwhelming impression you get in reading his book on holiness is how unsentimental and rugged most of it feels. That is, it feels very much like the New Testament, especially the Four Gospels.

Over against the perfectionism and Keswick quietism of his day, he was unrelenting in stressing that sanctification, unlike justification, is a process of constant engagement of the will. And that engagement is war. He asks,

Is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to ‘yield themselves to God’ and be passive in the hands of Christ? Is this according to the proportion of God’s Word? I doubt it.

“True Christianity is a fight.” He cites, 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:3; Ephesians 6:11–13; Luke 13:24; John 6:27; Matthew 10:34; Luke 22:36; 1 Corinthians 16:13; 1 Timothy 1:18–19, and says,

Words such as these appear to me clear, plain, and unmistakable. They all teach one and the same great lesson. . . . That true Christianity is a struggle, a fight, and a warfare.

“A true Christian,” he said, “is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within.” And this is true at every stage of maturity: “The old, the sick, the dying, are never known to repent of fighting Christ’s battles against sin.” The tone he sets for the Christian life is “the soldier’s life.” “A holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier’s life, a wrestling, are spoken of as characteristic of the true Christian.” “He that would understand the nature of true holiness must know that the Christian is “a man of war.”

Of course, this is not the only picture of the Christian life; but it is a true and prominent one. And Ryle sets it forth with clarity and with a tone that fits the soldier-like theme it is. But the point, again, is not that women cannot, or should not, fight sin with as much urgency as any man. Nor is the point that she is unable to see these things in Scripture, bring them out, and press them on the conscience. She is fully able to do that. The point is that the theme of Christian warfare and other rugged aspects of biblical theology and life should draw the men of the church to take them up in the spirit of a protective warrior in his family and “tribe,” rather than expecting the women to take on the spirit of a combatant for the sake of the church.

4. A masculine ministry takes up heavy and painful realities in the Bible, and puts them forward to those who may not want to hear them.

One of the heaviest and most painful realities in the Bible is the reality of hell. It is a godly and loving and manly responsibility of the leaders of the church not to distort or minimize the weight and horror of hell. Ryle faced the same thing we do. In 1855, he preached the sermon that 24 years later was published in the expanded edition of Holiness. There he said,

I feel constrained to speak freely to my readers on the subject of hell. . . . I believe the time is come when it is a positive duty to speak plainly about the reality and eternity of hell. A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever—that there is a love of God lower even than hell—and that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly some of them may be, will sooner or later be saved.”. . .  We are to embrace what is called a “kinder theology.”. . . Against such false teaching I desire, for one, to protest. Painful, sorrowful, distressing as the controversy may be, we must not blink it, or refuse to look the subject in the face. I, for one, am resolved to maintain the old position, and to assert the reality and eternity of hell.

He pointed out that no one in Scripture “used so many words to express the awfulness of hell” as Jesus did.

Hell, hell fire, the damnation of hell, eternal damnation, the resurrection of damnation, everlasting fire, the place of torment, destruction, outer darkness, the worm that never dies, the fire that is not quenched, the place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, everlasting punishment—these, these are the words which the Lord Jesus Christ Himself employs.

He confessed that it sounds dreadful. But then said that the question is: “Is it Scriptural?” If it is, we must not shrink back. “Professing Christians ought to be often reminded that they may be lost and go to hell.

Ryle’s manly courage that takes up a heavy and painful reality and presses it on people who may not want to hear it was not a callous courage.

God knows that I never speak of hell without pain and sorrow. I would gladly offer the salvation of the Gospel to the very chief of sinners. I would willingly say to the vilest and most profligate of mankind on his deathbed, “Repent, and believe on Jesus, and thou shalt be saved.”

The point is not that women are unable to lift the weight or bear the pain of the reality of hell. The point is not that they are unable to press it into those who don’t want to hear. The point is that one of the marks of mature manhood is the inclination to spare her that load and its costs. We admire her for embracing the truth, we share her longings to nurture with tenderness, and, if we can, we carry for her the flaming coals of final condemnation.

5. A masculine ministry heralds the truth of Scripture, with urgency and forcefulness and penetrating conviction, to the world and in the regular worship services of the church.

Not all preachers have the same personality or the same tone. Some are louder, some are softer. Some speak faster, some slower. Some with long sentences, some with short. Some with many word pictures, some with fewer. Some with manifest emotion, some with less. Some with lots of gestures, some with few. These differences are inevitable.

But preaching, as opposed to teaching — kerussein (Greek) as opposed to didaskein — involves a kind of emotional engagement signified by the word “heralding.” There is in preaching a kind of urgency and a kind of forcefulness. A message is being delivered from the King of the universe — with his authority, in his name — and this message deals with matters of infinite importance, and the eternal destiny of the hearers hangs on how they respond to the message.

This is preaching. And no matter what a preacher’s personality or preferred tone, this preaching necessarily involves urgency and forcefulness and a penetrating conviction which aims to come with divine thrust into the minds and hearts of the listeners. And therefore, this is a manly task. Coming to a people with an authoritative word from God, aiming to subdue the hearts of men, and summon them into battle, and lead the charge at their head against the principalities and powers—this is where men belong.

J. C. Ryle’s preaching is model for preaching in these ways. J. I. Packer refers to his “electric force of utterance.” Ryle knew that he had to crucify his florid, literary style which marked his early preaching. The nature of preaching demanded something different. Something simpler, but more forceful and penetrating. What developed was really astonishing. Packer describes it, referring to his

brisk, spare, punchy style . . . its cultivated forcefulness, its use of the simplest words, its fusillades of short, one-clause sentences . . . its a rib-jabbing drumbeat rhetoric, its easy logical flow, its total lack of sentimentality, and its resolve to call a spade a spade.

Ryle knew the preaching of his day was languishing. It was “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire.” So he made every effort to break the mold, even as a dignified Bishop of Liverpool. He would keep it simple, but he would untame his preaching. His simple, forceful, clarity was renown. One older lady came to the church hoping to hear the Bishop, but afterwards said to a friend, “I never heard a Bishop. I thought I’d hear something great. . . He’s no Bishop. I could understand every word.” Ryle took it as a great compliment.

Listen to what Packer means by the “electric force” of “fusillades” and “rib-jabbing, drumbeat rhetoric.” This is from a sermon on Lot’s lingering as he came out of Sodom and how so many Christians linger as they leave sin.

  • Would you know what the times demand?—The shaking of nations—the uprooting of ancient things—the overturning of kingdoms—the stir and restlessness of men’s minds—what do they say? They all cry aloud—Christian! do not linger!
  • Would you be found ready for Christ at His second appearing—your loins girded—your lamp burning—yourself bold, and prepared to meet Him? Then do not linger! . . .
  • Would you enjoy strong assurance of your own salvation, in the day of sickness, and on the bed of death?—Would you see with the eye of faith heaven opening and Jesus rising to receive you? Then do not linger!
  • Would you leave great broad evidences behind you when you are gone?—Would you like us to lay you in the grave with comfortable hope, and talk of your state after death without a doubt? Then do not linger!
  • Would you be useful to the world in your day and generation?—Would you draw men from sin to Christ, adorn your doctrine, and make your Master’s cause beautiful and attractive in their eyes? Then do not linger!
  • Would you help your children and relatives towards heaven, and make them say, “We will go with you”?—and not make them infidels and despisers of all religion? Then do not linger!
  • Would you have a great crown in the day of Christ’s appearing, and not be the least and smallest star in glory, and not find yourself the last and lowest in the kingdom of God? Then do not linger!
  • Oh, let not one of us linger! Time does not—death does not—judgment does not—the devil does not—the world does not. Neither let the children of God linger.

There is urgency, forcefulness, penetrating power. Preaching does not always rise to this level of urgency and force and authority, but regularly does, and should. Again the point is not that a woman is not able to speak this way. The point is that godly men know intuitively, by the masculine nature implanted by God, that turning the hearts of men and women to God with that kind of authoritative speaking is the responsibility of men. And where men handle it with humility and grace, godly women are glad.

6. A masculine ministry welcomes the challenges and costs of strong, courageous leadership without complaint or self-pity with a view to putting in place principles and structures and plans and people to carry a whole church into joyful fruitfulness.

Leadership in the church — tending and feeding and protecting and leading the sheep — is not only the work of preaching, but also a firm, clear, reasonable, wise guiding voice when it comes to hundreds of decisions that have to be made. This calls for great discernment and no little strength. There are a hundred ways that a church can drift into ineffectiveness; and wise leaders spot these early, resist them, and win the church joyfully into a better direction. And what is required again and again is a decisive strength that does not weaken in the face of resistance.

Packer describes Ryle’s leadership like this:

His brains, energy, vision, drive, independence, clear head, kind heart, fair-mind, salty speech, good sense, impatience with stupidity, firmness of principle, and freedom from inhibitions would have made him a leader in any field.

Ryle was called by his successor to the bishopric of Liverpool, “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” He was described as “the most rugged and conservative of all Anglican Evangelical personalities.” He said of his own leadership: “The story of my life has been such that I really cared nothing for anyone’s opinion, and I resolved not to consider one jot who was offended and who was not offended by anything I did.” These are the words of man surrounded by a rising tide of liberalism, ritualism, and worldliness in the Church of England. They are the voice of strength against overwhelming odds.

I am fully aware [he wrote in 1878] that Evangelical churchmanship is not popular and acceptable in this day. It is despised by many. . . . But none of these things move me. I am not ashamed of my opinions. After 40 years of Bible reading and praying, meditation, and theological study, I find myself clinging more tightly than ever to “Evangelical” religion, and more than ever satisfied with it.

“None of these things move me.” “More than ever I am satisfied with [the evangelical faith].” Immovable joy in truth is a precious trait in the leaders of the church. A masculine ministry looks on the forces to be resisted, and the magnitude of the truth to be enjoyed, and feels a glad responsibility to carry a whole people forward into joyful fruitfulness.

7. A masculine ministry publicly and privately advocates for the vital and manifold ministries of women in the life and mission of the church.

The aim of godly leadership is a community of maximum joy and flourishing for everyone within—the women, the children, the men—and maximum impact on the world for the glory of Christ. It’s not about the privilege of power, but about the burden of responsibility to enhance the lives of others.

Ryle was outspoken in his zeal for women in the various ministries of the church. He drew attention to Romans 16, where 11 of the 28 names mentioned are women, and said,

The chapter I have mentioned appears to me to contain a special lesson for women. The important position that women occupy in the Church of Christ—the wide field of real, though unobtrusive, usefulness that lies before them . . . I cannot go away with the common notion that great usefulness is for men only, and not for women. . . . It should never be forgotten that it is not preaching alone that moves and influences men. . . . Humanly speaking, the salvation of a household often depends upon the women . . . [and] men’s character is exceedingly influenced by their homes.

There are countless needs in the community, and needs on the mission field, Ryle says, that cry out for the ministry of women.

There are hundreds of cases continually rising in which a woman is far more suitable visitor than a man. She need not put on a peculiar dress, or call herself by a Roman Catholic name. She has only to go about, in the spirit of her Savior, with kindness on her lips, gentleness in her ways, and the Bible in her hands, and the good that she may do is quite incalculable. Happy indeed is the parish where there are Christian women who “go about doing good.” Happy is that minister who has such helpers.

The aim of a masculine ministry is the fullest engagement of every member of the church in joyful, fruitful ministry. The aim of leadership is not to be the ministry, but to free the ministry, according to God’s word, by the power of God’s Spirit, for the glory of God’s name.

8. A masculine ministry models for the church the protection, nourishing, and cherishing of a wife and children as part of the high calling of leadership.

The year after he came to Liverpool as bishop, Ryle published a book of eight messages for children. It’s called Boys and Girls Playing based on Zechariah 8:5. It reveals the rare mixture of concern for children along with a very masculine feel. One of the messages is called “The Happy Little Girl” about a girl he met in public carriage who spoke of Jesus. He asks, “Dear children, are you as happy and as cheerful as she was?” And another message is called “The Two Bears” about the two bears that killed forty-two children for mocking God’s prophet. And he says, “Dear children, remember these things to the end of your lives. The wages of sin is death.” He was a masculine lover of children.

Before his ministry was complete, he had loved and buried three wives, Matilde, Jessie, and Henrietta. He had thee sons and two daughters. All the testimonies we have of his children praise their father for his care for them. Whether he did this well, the evidence is too sketchy to know. But what we do know is that he tried. He gives us a hint of the burden he carried in his small biography of Henry Venn, who also was made a widower in the pastoral ministry with children to care for:

Those who have had this cross to carry, can testify that there is no position in this world so trying to body and soul as that of the minister who is left a widower, with a young family and a large congregation. There are anxieties in such cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them; anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit, and wear out the strongest constitution.

But no matter how difficult the homelife of a pastor, it is part of the calling, part of the masculine ministry.


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