Pastor, Professor, Pilgrim: An Interview with Derek Thomas
by Derek Thomas
Tabletalk: How did you become a Christian?
Derek W.H. Thomas: I became a Christian during my first year at university. My best friend (who had recently become a Christian) sent me a copy of John Stott’s Basic Christianity in the mail. Within a few days of reading it, I prayed something akin to the sinner’s prayer and received an immediate assurance that I was a Christian.
TT: What is your role as editor-in-chief of Reformation21?
DT: I make some behind-the-scenes contributions to the direction and content of the e-zine. Think of it like Red Adair rushing in to cap a blazing fire in a Texas oil field, and you will get a picture of what I do. The e-zine is a vehicle for expressing opinions and ideas from a highly focused team of contributors.
TT: You’ve had lengthy ministry experiences in Northern Ireland and the United States. What are the differences in ministering in these two contexts? What are the similarities?
DT: To be more accurate, I have had ministry experiences in Northern Ireland and the Southern states of America, both of which still retain a residue of Western cultural Christianity. Both communities display what might otherwise be called “nominal” Christianity, with an acceptance of some basic ethical norms, a high regard for the institutional church, and a tolerance of conservative Christian views. Both communities display ethnic and religious tension—an “us” and a “them” with the church divided almost as much as the secular society. Ministering to received prejudices and anticipated barriers has therefore always been an issue. Uppermost, perhaps, has been the issue of the role of the church in reforming society—is the church to withdraw from these issues (as a “spiritual body”) or attempt change?
TT: Why does John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress remain valuable for believers centuries after it was written?
DT: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is valuable, first, as a piece of English literature written by a seventeenth-century Christian, and second, and more importantly, because it reflects in an altogether unique way the gospel from a Reformed, Calvinistic perspective. The issues of law and grace; justification and works; the nature of Christian discipleship as another; assurance; perseverance—these and much more are weaved into its captivating narrative. It is fantasy literature of sorts (strictly speaking, it is an allegory) that captures the entire range of biblical teaching on the Christian life from a Puritan, experientialist point of view. It is the best theology told in the form of a road-trip tale that ensures its readers are both carried along and informed at the same time. As an antidote to the shallow forms of Christianity that pervade our times, Bunyan’s tale of Christian’s journey (as well as Part 2—the story of Christiana and the four children) knows no equal.
TT: If you could discuss theology with any theologian from church history, who would it be and why?
DT: That would have to be John Calvin. I spent a good part of my life reading his material for doctoral studies, and I have many things I would like to ask him, not least of which would be his opinion on which biography best captures him. A man who could write the first edition of the Institutes in his late twenties, after only being a Christian for a few years and with no seminary education, is a phenomenon in itself. Particularly, in his communication with Westphal on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, I would want to ask him precisely what he meant when he wrote, “By the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit life is infused into us from the substance of Christ’s flesh.”
TT: How should church members pray for their pastors and elders? What specific things should they ask God to grant these leaders?
DT: Pray for moral and spiritual perseverance to the end. There are too many casualties around for elders and pastors to hit the cruise-control button. Two particular features constantly threaten elders and pastors, and the manner in which they view their role. The first is a view that eldership is promotion to a higher office and therefore suggests authority rather than servanthood. This often loses sight of the self-denying posture that should mark all service (Phil. 2:5-9). The other issue is gifting—every-member gifting, to be precise (Eph. 4:12, translated to imply that the purpose of the unique gifts of Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers are given in order to “equip the saints to do the work of ministry”). Too often, elders and pastors think in terms of “control” rather than “enabling,” thereby stifling vision.
TT: What challenges and opportunities have you encountered in your new position as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church?
DT: To stand in Thornwell’s pulpit every week is both exhilarating and humbling. First Presbyterian Church is one of those historic, well-attended churches in which any pastor would dream of preaching. To be called as the senior minister is without doubt the greatest honor I have received. I had the immense pleasure of working at the church for two years when Sinclair Ferguson was the minister, and those two years were very special indeed. The challenges include the high expectation (especially in preaching) among the First Presbyterian family, as well as encountering a session that is larger than the entire membership of some churches I have been in. First Presbyterian is very much a downtown church, a few blocks away from the state capitol and the University of South Carolina. The opportunities are vast. How do we preserve our history as a church without becoming a fossil? How does one retain gospel freshness in the pulpit, especially in a congregation that expects a certain standard of homiletical skill? These are some of the challenges.
TT: What is the greatest temptation that young pastors face in gospel ministry, and how can they stand against it?
DT: To think too highly of themselves. The ministry is a place of enormous temptation to pride. It doesn’t make any difference as to the style of church (historic or hipster-urban church plant)—young ministers often stand in a place where words and opinions sway the hearts and affections of people. This can make the most stable person giddy. Paul knew this issue when he warned Timothy about elders: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). How can one avoid issues of spiritual pride in a culture of entitlement? I am tempted to say, “Marry a girl who loves you enough to be honest enough to tell you what you need to hear,” but if current Facebook entries by pastors’ wives are to be believed, this may not be the solution. But accountability is paramount—whether with a good friend, or something more formally established with or by the session.
TT: If a man told you that he feels called to ministry and he asked you how he should pursue this calling, what would you tell him?
DT: I find today that many young men feel called to “ministry” but not to a traditional view of a “minister.” This issue needs to be addressed carefully. Assuming the call is to preaching and pastoring, I would tell him that the subjective call is one thing and the objective another. He needs to go to the church with this sense of call. Depending upon the ecclesiology, he should go to the pastor(s), who in turn will ensure that the elders endorse this call. There is a view that the seminary will sort out candidates and reveal who is and who is not called. This is a false belief. Usually, I tell a young man to find an opportunity to speak (a Bible study, perhaps) and then ask him to record it and evaluate it so that we can talk about it later.
TT: You’ve written extensively on the book of Job. What are three lessons that Christians should learn from this book of Scripture?
DT: God is the architect of bad things as well as good things. God has a wonderful plan for my life, and it may be one that hurts. We have no right or entitlement to understanding why trials come our way. God is incomprehensible, although we can know Him in part, and we must learn to live in submission to the superior knowledge of God, trusting Him at every turn. Also, that some counseling methods are inept. Job’s friends talked a great deal, and though what they said was often true, the context was entirely misunderstood and therefore the counsel utterly irrelevant or wrong.
Derek W.H. Thomas is senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He is also editorial director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and editor of its e-zine, Reformation21. Dr. Thomas is originally from Wales, and he holds a PhD from the University of Wales. He is author of numerous books, including God Strengthens: Ezekiel Properly Explained, Mining for Wisdom, Praying the Savior’s Way, and How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home.