A Quibble With Spurgeon

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I don’t read many books more than once. I read even fewer more than twice. But Lectures to My Students is one of those books I come back to over and over. These lectures, on everything from public prayer to posture to illustrations, capture Spurgeon at his wise and whimsical best.

There is, however, one point which I’ve never found convincing. In his lecture entitled “The Call to the Ministry,” Spurgeon says “The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work” (26, emphasis original). Later in the same paragraph he offers his famous “Don’t do ministry if you can do anything else” advice that has frightened a lot of seminarians (and discouraged a fair number of pastors).

“Do not enter the ministry if you can help it,” was the deeply sage advice of a divine to one who sought his judgment. If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit by that for which his inmost soul pants. (26-27)

I certainly see what Spurgeon is getting at. We want ministers who actually want to be ministers, not those looking to make a living or serving under compulsion (1 Peter 5:2). Likewise, I fully agree that too often young men (not mention women nowadays) are pushed into the ministry by well meaning folks who think every college or youth group superstar ought to be a pastor. We are, on the whole, probably too quick to give someone the green light for full-time ministry.

But I’ve always thought these lines from Spurgeon were over the top. Is it really a biblical requirement to insist that a pastor could not possibly be content doing anything else? How does this allow for the naturally diffident or those possessing varied interests and gifts. True, I don’t want a pastor whose real passion is drywall or needlework. His passion must be for the gospel and for preaching. But according to Spurgeon, a pastor must not even be content doing something else. This is a heavy burden for young men who are considering ministry but also feel energized by other pursuits. More significantly, this can be a heavy burden for the weary, discouraged pastor who, if truth be told, probably has some days where he could be more content doing anything but full-time ministry.

To make matters worse, the Spurgeon quotation sometimes morphs into the strange notion that pastors go into the ministry because they aren’t good at anything else. On more than one occasion I’ve heard pastors say, mostly tongue in cheek I imagine, that the only reason they keep doing what they do is because they couldn’t get another job. This is decidedly not what Spurgeon had in mind. Toward the end of the same lecture he says, “A man who succeeds as a preacher would probably do right well either as a grocer, or a lawyer, or anything else. A really valuable ministry would have excelled at anything” (38).

None of this is meant to encourage lukewarm, half-hearted, double-minded preachers into the pulpit. But we must not insist upon more than God demands. The pastor should earnestly desire to preach and to serve the church. And yet, the pastor does not have to be miserable at every other pursuit, nor does have to imagine himself miserable doing anything else. If we take Spurgeon too literally we’ll scare away some good potential pastors, not to mention the real harm we might do to some sensitive pastoral souls come next Monday morning.

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