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Podcast | 23 Minutes

The Leadership We Need in Church & Government | Peter Lillback

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
The Leadership We Need in Church & Government | Peter Lillback

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What qualities make someone a good leader? Hint: They’re all deeply rooted in the principles that God sets forth in the Bible! Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Theological Seminary, guides us as we explore what these qualities look like in the church, the home, and in government.

Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode for better readability.

Marlin Detweiler:

Hello again, I'm Marlin Detwiler, and you've joined us for another episode of Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Today, we have with us Dr. Peter Lillback. Peter, thank you for joining us.

Peter Lillback:

Marlin, it's a pleasure to be with you, and thank you for your leadership in the area of education of our young people.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, it has been a real joy to do that. But I've enjoyed knowing you and being involved a bit with things that you do with us. Tell us, though, a little bit for our listeners, a little bit of your personal background, growing up, family education, and how your career is taking you to Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

Peter Lillback:

Okay. Well, the short version of that is that I was born 71 years ago in northern Ohio, east of Cleveland, to a Finnish ethnic family that was Christian and kind of a conservative evangelical Baptist background. And so that gave me a lot of parental biblical encouragement. I went to a public high school, where I went off to Cedarville College. I married my high school sweetheart. We've been married for over 50 years now, went off to Dallas Theological Seminary, and then came to Philadelphia to do my Ph.D. studies at Westminster. Along the way, I really became more and more committed to reformed theology as I discovered the Westminster Confession and Calvin's writings. And I did my doctoral dissertation on Calvin and the Covenant.

We've had two daughters that are grown. We have four grandchildren, and my wife has been a lifelong emergency room nurse, so I've had a lot of medical wisdom surrounding me at all times. And my pastoral work– I began my first pastoral work in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in a small country town called Oxford, Pennsylvania. I've been that was there for six years. I always like to say I read theology at Oxford for six years, and people are very impressed still, so I say, “And the horses and buggies were very quiet.”

Marlin Detweiler:

Wouldn't slip past me. I know Oxford better than that!

Peter Lillback:

Then I joined the staff of a PCA church, served about three years in Newark, Delaware, by the University of Delaware, and then came to Bryn Mawr and helped launch a small little church where I pastored for almost 20 years and then was called in on my last couple of years there to Westminster, where I've served now for 18 years as the President. I'm a church historian by training. A pastor by experience and now an administrator who serves one of the world's, I think, finest, reformed seminaries.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, for the time, there was a time period, and I think it was when we first met that you were serving as the senior pastor of a PCA church in Philadelphia, the suburbs, and the president at Westminster Seminary. And I didn't know if you were superhuman or crazy!

Peter Lillback:

Well, I'm not superhuman, and I probably am a bit crazy. But the reason that that made sense was that the church didn't need me to leave at that moment. And the seminary needed a president very quickly. And that was equidistant between both campuses. So, for a period of time, I said, I'll do both because I think it made sense. And there was even a sense where maybe my term as a president would be short to get just help them over the hump and go back to pastoring. But then, over time, it became clear they needed a president to carry on, and it was time for me to step aside from my pastorate. But I did it for both for about three years until both were happy that I stopped doing both so well.

Marlin Detweiler:

I do know that you left the church in very good shape, and that's a good sign of a leader. And you've talked about a leadership in a couple of different categories, and knowing a little bit about some of your writings, I'd like to focus our conversation on leadership in the church and in government. Let's focus on the church first, if we could.

We're involved in well, our mission, of course, is restoring a culture for Christ one young heart and mind at a time. We believe that one of the key categories where restoration is needed is in church leadership, that the church, the senior pastor, and the pastoral position in general is not what it once was. How would you describe what you think? Do you agree with that? How would you describe what we have lost in the pastoral role, if not broader, at least in the scope of the 250 almost years of American history?

Peter Lillback:

Well, that's a marvelous question. That would take a lot of careful analysis. But let me begin with a general statement. In classical thinking, there are three attributes that are essential for a leader. They are the words ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is your ethical character. Pathos is your ability to really sense the feelings and emotions of the context.

Logos is your ability to be reasonable. If you compromise any of those three, you begin to fail to be an effective leader. When all three of them come together. The impact that a leader makes is substantial. And so, what do we mean by ethos? Well, that's the ability from a Christian perspective, to carry out the ethics of Christ, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. And the truth is that no one does them perfectly. We all are sinners. That's the beginning of the gospel. And every leader and every pastor, it doesn't matter where it is, we fall short of the glory of God. We need a savior. But to the extent that we begin to have a character development of doing what's right, that makes for responsible, trustworthy leadership. Character is compromised.

Today, we are everywhere seeing bad role models. Our culture lets people get away with things that are at one time would have been unthinkable. And so that is power corrupts. When too much power gets in one's hands, corruption happens. That's a ministry or in government.

So, accountability the idea of logos, we're loosening our standards of academic excellence among our clergy. There was a sense where pastors were expected to know the original languages or have substantial experience. Today, a person because of celebrity or popularity, or just a charismatic personality, suddenly are leadership, and that compromises their ability to lead. So logos.

And then the idea of pathos. One of the things perhaps our past leaders might have lost is that often they were very well-educated and they were very powerful, but they didn't have sympathy with their people. And so the pastoral skill sometimes was lost with leadership. So I go with the apostle Paul, who's sufficient for these things, who can have them all? So I think is what we're struggling with is how do we find the requisite requirements to be a leader in all of those areas. And so part of the solution has been to have more of a staff approach to how people have different gifts. And I think that is a valuable thing. In other words, no one person can do it all. To be a great preacher doesn't mean you're going to be a great pastor. To be a great pastor doesn't mean you're going to be a great teacher. So sharing our gifts and, ultimately in the Presbyterian context of which I come, the plurality of leadership among elders and pastor was part of the solution, that you had more than one person leading collectively, holding each other accountable and also supplementing each other's gifts.

So, when I put all that together, a godly leader recognizes that in humility, he needs others to help him to fulfill his job. Nobody can do it all well. So that's the beginning of an answer. I could unpack it more fully, but I think excellence in character is lost today. Excellence in theological skill training is being compromised, and pastoral care is something that we're getting better at. But if you only do pastoral care and you don't have teaching and theology, we're going to be weak as well because it's more than just relationships. We need all of those things.

Marlin Detweiler:

The Roman Catholic community, in years gone by, had such a high regard for the church leader, the priest, that it was kind of the ultimate calling. Martin Luther spoke against that, saying that all callings are valid and good, but there was a sense in which that permeated the community where I think even the Protestant pastors were regarded with an element of respect, not because necessarily of their character or their education, but rather their position. That seems to me to be an important aspect that we don't have. Would you agree with that?

Peter Lillback:

Well, I think the office of the pastor is something that we need to continue to honor, even though there have been less-than-ideal pastors in it. And I think that's true of in government as well, because of our political rivalries and our assault methods of campaigns today, we no longer respect people in the office.

And so what we often need to learn is, can we respect the office even as we critique the occupant of the office? In other words, the people that are there are imperfect, but yet they hold a noble position, a high calling. That's worthy of respect, even if they are less than ideal. And so but on the other side, you can see if you have such a high view of the office that when there is real crises in character, as the Catholic Church has found, they've so honored the office that a whole aspect of child abuse was neglected.

And so we do have to have the ability to hold the office with high regard, but also to hold the occupants accountable for their place within it. So it's both, and it's not an easy balance and we need to restore a proper respect for both.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah, well, you're involved in that process as the president of a seminary is one of the most significant things that you do is you help people graduate with a doctor of ministry, a DM, and they're out there becoming the pastors of the next generation. What do you see in the preparation that you contribute to that process and really a maybe a regaining of that relationship between pastor and his people that I'm suggesting has fallen on hard times?

Peter Lillback:

Well, the two main ministerial degrees that we offer are the Master of Divinity and then the Doctor of Ministry. We offer other degrees as well, academic, Ph.D. and otherwise. But in the M-DIV of it is possible to enter into that work directly out of college with not a lot of life experience but with solid educational work, with the recommendation of a Christian community, and in that case, the education often can easily fall into an academic context because you're learning, you've been a student, you continue to learn.

The difference with a doctor of ministry is that someone is entering that after they've had years of experience, and they're no longer just academicians learning. They are now people who are hungering to equip themselves with the bumps and bruises, the blessings and burdens, and failures and successes of ministry. And they are far more serious learners because they're hungry to learn, and their experience makes them able to see where their gifts and weaknesses are in a way. So, a doctor or a ministry degree is one where there is automatically experience and hunger. They're ready to learn both academically and practically in application. I'm not against either one. We need both. But I think one of the things I say to our young students entering into the M-DIV is if they haven't had background is make sure you surround yourself with people who've had experience your elders or your deacons or whatever your form of government and often say every church needs to have a doctor, a medical doctor, an accountant, a lawyer, and someone who's a successful businessman that will be part of the mentoring group of a young pastor because he doesn't know what he doesn't know. And yet he will be asked to address issues that are very life-changing, and he will have biblical insight and some wisdom, but the application will be limited. And those people that he can talk with honestly and say, I've got this issue, can you give me guidance?

It's very, very important. So, over time, a pastor who is grown and seasoned and taught the word becomes a counselor to those very kinds of people who will come to him and say, I'm a lawyer, and I need help. I'm a doctor of medicine, and I need help. I am an accountant. I'm facing this. So, there's an interesting role reversal that takes place over time. But that's that's the nature of the church. It's growing and then becoming a mentor by learning and experience.

Marlin Detweiler:

I remember several things. As a young man I was interested in mentors. I don't know if that was for the right reason or not, but found them hard to find. Then, as I got older, there were some that functioned as mentors informally, and I was probably too stubborn to have learned as much as I should have from them and still made the mistakes that I wish my children wouldn't make and hope they won't.

And, of course, in the world that we are in with education, we seek to provide influence and wisdom enough to avoid our youthful mistakes. And it is a tough balance, and it's the nature of life for the older generation to speak into the younger generation in ways that they will listen as a way of trying to see things build.

And I think that the pastoral role plays a key role in it. And what you do in the training process sounds to me like you're thinking about these things and seeing them come to fruition in good ways.

Peter Lillback:

One of the things I would say is that those are older should not overlook what a privilege it is for a young person to have them as a senior friend in their life. And we easily look at our own interests and say, I don't have time for that. But you know what? You're imparting life skills to a younger person that may really bless many, many people long after you're been called to eternity.

So we shouldn’t overlook that. I do think the pastoral role is a place also where we ought to ask the question, do I have an incarnation or component to my ministry? And in other words, am I part of the lives of my people? Can they approach me? Can they be able to touch me with the feelings of their infirmities, just like we can with our high priest in heaven?

And that's that's hard. But we can create that opportunity through opening ourselves to a group of people that we can mentor. Another suggestion I've given to young pastors is to start a community Bible study or join one and become not the guy who knows everything but learning together with a group of guys where they're not all part of your denomination, they're part of different groups and their wild ideas. You engage in, talk with them with respect, and and those people help you to grow, to be more effective in your work. So I have, through the years, been part of many men's Bible studies. And I'm not always the teacher, I'm just one of the guys. And it's a wonderful way to become a mentor and to be mentored.

Marlin Detweiler:

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. There is a lot we could talk about there, but I want to talk about another area that I know that has interested you. You've written on and that has to do in the broadest terms with government. You wrote a book about George Washington called George Washington's Sacred Fire. I want to have you talk about in the same theme of leadership, where we see ourselves today, and what we can do to inspire better leadership.

It might be said that the church has had a dearth of leadership, but I think it's even more true when we look at the civil magistrate and in Washington DC, in particular, we've had some very concerning things going on in recent years. But tell me first, what were you trying to accomplish? The book's title implies something that may not be as easily understood without a little bit of explanation. What was George Washington's secret fire? What was the book about?

Peter Lillback:

Well, basically, the word is sacred, not secret.

Marlin Detweiler:

Oh, I'm sorry. I wrote it in secret. But you're right. And I knew that!

Peter Lillback:

So I wanted it to be known because I don't want any secret. I wanted to be checked, but that's okay. So basically, the thesis of the book is to challenge the ubiquitous claim that George Washington was a deist. What a deist is, is someone who believes that there's a first cause of the universe, some divine figure.

But he has absolutely no relationship with humanity. He has not revealed himself. He's not accessible through prayer. There is no providence. There is no religion that really has access to him is just a philosophical first cause, and that's claimed by scholars, by popular pundits, and some historians have claimed it. And I won't go into all the reasons why I felt like I needed to write this book. But there's that's a 20 minute story in its own right.

What I can tell you is that if you take Washington on his own terms and his historical context and in his own words and there are voluminous messages of Washington, there's something like 37 volumes that were of his writings as a politician, a military man, a businessman, a family man.

And it's filled with theology, it's filled with Christianity, with claims of his Christian faith. He was an active churchman. And to me, understanding a great leader such as he is, I mean, his legacy is not just the Washington Monument and Washington as our capital, but the character that he had placed upon the formation of our nation– his critical role in only serving for two terms a peaceful transition of power, the military being under the civilian branch of government. All those things are direct results of his character. And I said if those came about and he was a Christian, then we ought to be able to understand how his Christian leadership principles shape those things that are so important for the American story. So, my argument is that you cannot look at Washington on his own terms and turn him into a deist.

It would be just as much as looking at Marlin Detweiler and saying he hated education of children. It's an exact opposite of your work. That's true of Washington. You can't make him into the deist if you take his own writing seriously.

Marlin Detweiler:

He, as I understand it, in the process of writing that, you learned a good bit about his leadership, too. What did you learn about that, in contrast to what you observe today, what can we learn from his leadership as a Christian but also as a government official?

Peter Lillback:

Well, there are several thoughts that come to mind, some practical ones. Number one, he said the higher a person moves up the ladder of authority, and this is in the context of the military, but he would agree in government, the more important character becomes because as a person gets higher up, the secrets that they know, the ability to cause harm increases.

And, of course, you have the story of a man named Benedict Arnold, a military hero who was a general who moved all the way up and almost turned over West Point and had Washington captured. Today, we use the name Benedict Arnold as a synonym for a traitor. Washington his argument is the higher you go up, the more important character is. It seems like character doesn't matter anymore. That is the principled ability to live. The fundamental principles of life and of government and of faith. That's one thing he would be very good at. What happened to character?

Second principle he would argue, he believed very strongly in disciplined frugality. Interesting word. In other words, he didn't mind luxury, but it was not because you were squandering your resources. It's because you've carefully saved, successfully earned, and you spent your money well. And so he warned our country about indebtedness and wasting our resources. Well, that's one of the fewest things we talk about today. Let’s just print more money! The danger of government is there. He also believed that there was a principle, a phrase I learned from him what he called the good of the great whole.

What he meant is every decision that a leader has to make has to be determined not by sectional interest or personal advancement, but what's best for the whole community that you're leading. And the decision you may make may be personally painful, may be hard on the people that are most close to you, but is what's necessary for the entire community you're leading if you're going to succeed.

So in other words, the idea of I'm leading not just what gets me and my people ahead, but what I am leading is a whole community and how do I advance them? That's a phrase that comes up again and again. And then the last one of the four that jumped into my mind when you asked the question, is that he said that we need to imitate the divine author of our blessed religion. Without imitating Him in terms of his charity, humility, and specific temper of mind, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

In other words, Christ's love, Christ, humility, Christ’s commitment to peace need to be part of our national character. In other words, we're banishing Christ from everything as a principle today. Washington said we ought to be following his character as we look at it in these areas. And lastly, in his farewell address, the fifth one that I guess I'll add is he said religion and morality are indispensable supports for our political prosperity.

In other words, we need to have religious training because it helps to create moral people. And you can't have a successful Republican form of government unless they are people that are morally committed to following words on a piece of paper, he said. A constitution is just a wall of words, a mound of parchment, and a power-drunk politician, aided and abetted by lazy people, can easily leap over it and disregard it all.

That's words that he actually wrote with his own pen. I paraphrase them, but basically he's saying you need to be able to look at and say, I'm obliged to follow this. These are the rules of my country. These are my Constitution.

So there's five quick principles that Washington would look at Washington, D.C. And he say, Why did you name the city after me? And you've disregarded foundational principles that I have lived by and called the country to follow. It's an amazing disconnect between the city and the person.

Marlin Detweiler:

We don't have much time. And this is a bevy of books, not just a single one. What quick wisdom might you offer for how we might right the ship, so to speak, for where we find ourselves? Obviously, one of my motivations is to see our students come into a Christian work, the pastorate being a key part of that, but also into government work. How might they think about this in order to become the kind of people and influence those around them so that more become the kind of people that we need as government leaders?

Peter Lillback:

I would I would start with some very basic principles. In the Westminster Confession, we have articles on the family, the church, and the state. Those are called by Abraham Kuyper, the famous Dutch theologian and politician, The Spheres of Sovereignty. He calls them each sovereign spheres of life. And so we need to begin to be reeducated into our inheritance.

We've been educated out of our inheritance. And you're doing part of the work, which is the family is the building block of all society. And it is no small thing to be a father and a mother. What a high calling it is of loving our family and raising our children. And moms who find themselves raising kids should not say, “Well, what's wrong with me?” They ought to say “I'm shaping the next generation. I am shaping the character of those that will lead my country and establish the next families.”

When it comes to the church, we need to recognize the church is the moral custodian of the great truths of Western civilization, the Ten Commandments, the character of Christ, and the Gospel. And we need educated and godly leaders there.

And then we need to not complain about the state and say it's just a bunch of power-drunk people. There ought to be people that go in there and say, “I want to make a difference.” Aren't you glad your mechanic doesn't say, “I'm not going to work on your car, I might get my hands dirty”? Well, you say I'm going to fix the brakes.

Well, thank you. We need people that feel called to go into the system of our political crises say it's going to be rough and tumble. It could be really difficult. I'm going to be torn apart, but I'm called to do this, and I'm going to use my character to make an impact. When we get family, church, and state cooperating together, we have a stable society that has the ability to really move forward.

And so the question with understanding the legitimate callings of each of those is how we should educate our children. We need to say you're called to be perhaps a mother and a father. Do it well, you may be called to be a pastor, an elder or a deacon or a deaconess. Learn to do it well. You may be called to be a political leader. It's a high and lofty calling beyond to understand your principles and understand your character, and then do it to the glory of God and know it's going to be tough work.

When we get Christian leaders working in all of those areas, we will make an impact. And I think I'll finish with this. You don't have to be a majority to make a difference. Someone has said it only takes about three or £4 of salt to preserve £100 of meat. Where to be the salt and light of the earth. You don't have to have the sun to light the darkness. You just need a candle. And so we are faithful lights where we're at. If we are the salt of the earth, we will begin to make an impact that will change where we're at.

And you know what? As our Puritan forefathers said, do not curse the darkness. Light a candle that can light 1000 more. And that's what education, that's what ministry does. That's what godly family training is. And there are no quick fixes, but there are generational impacts. Our God says, “I will be the God of your children and their children after them. To a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” So we start right here, turning the ship around in our family and our church and our state. And we know God is going to touch the future with our faithfulness. And that's how we're going to change the course of our nation. No quick fix, no quick politician, no quick gimmick, no platform but faithfulness. Now, in each of those areas, doing our part with a vision to touch the future and we will make a huge difference.

Marlin Detweiler:

I couldn't agree more. That is wonderful. I don't need to offer any other comment other than just to say thank you.

Peter Lillback:

Okay. Well, it's my privilege.

Marlin Detweiler:

So good to have you. Dr. Peter Lightheart, President Westminster Seminary. Thank you, Peter.

Peter Lillback:

Okay, Thank you. I know you said I could correct you. It's a Lillback, not Lightheart

Marlin Detweiler:

Oh, did I call you that?

Peter Lillback:

Yeah, I know a great theologian by the name, Lightheart. But I don't want anyone to be confused.

Marlin Detweiler:

Oh, I did. I can't believe I said so. I made two major mistakes here. I told you we didn't edit things. Now wishing we did!

Peter Lillback:

You can edit them out if you want, but there you go.

Marlin Detweiler:

So thank you. Thank you. Dr. Peter Lillback. This has been great. Thanks. Great to be with you. Join us for Veritas Vox, the voice of Ethical Christian Education. Hope to see you next time. Thank you.

Peter Lillback:

Bye bye.