The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry -- By: Kurt R. Linde
RAR 2:4 (Fall 1993) p. 93
The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry
(An essay on Gilbert Tennent’s celebrated sermon)
On March 8, 1740, Gilbert Tennent, Presbyterian minister, delivered a sermon in the Presbyterian Church in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, titled “The Danger of An Unconverted Ministry.” It caused a great uproar among the colonial churches. Yet I should like to show in this brief essay that Tennent’s sermon was both correct and appropriate for his time, and it is still so for ours.
According to Joseph Tracy’s history of the Great Awakening, one of the distinctive emphases of this movement was the doctrine of the new birth. Reformation theology had certainly included the doctrine of regeneration, but often it was taught in such a way that the hearers could not expect to know whether they had been born again. So orthodoxy in doctrine and outward respectability of life were generally accepted measures of piety for those who remained in the Protestant state churches of Europe, and from there these views came into some of the colonial churches. Men entered the ministry, in many cases, not knowing whether they themselves had a personal interest in Christ’s saving work.
Itinerant evangelists like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent preached often on the new birth and the need for a converted ministry. But in this sermon Tennent needlessly inflamed a volatile subject by some rash remarks. He clearly described the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and then equated unconverted ministers to them, even though in Jesus’ time not every religious teacher was a Pharisee. Nor was it necessary for Tennent to attribute Judas’ greed to all unconverted ministers, for self sacrifice and virtue (outward) are not the sole possession of pious ministers. As Tennent inadvertently implied by quoting the Apostle Paul, it is no great thing if his [Satan’s] ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14–15). Nevertheless, some of Tennent’s words, though harsh, bear
RAR 2:4 (Fall 1993) p. 94
some resemblance to those of our Lord Jesus. Note Tennent’s words:
I fear that the abuse of this instance has bro’t many Judases into the ministry, whose chief desire, like their great grandfather, is to finger the pence, and carry the bag. But let such hireling murderous hypocrites take care, that they don’t feel the force of a halter in this world, and an aggravated damnation in the next.
Compare Tennent’s words with Jesus’ words: “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his ne...
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