Postmodernism - Part 1: The Ministers Physical Life

One of the commendable things in the world today is its increasing interest in the immaterial. In writing of the many changes taking place in our times, David Dockery notes that "there remains an underlying hunger for things spiritual."  That is not the same, however, as saying that this generation has a renewed interest in the Christian religion. Regrettably, Eastern religions seem to be getting the lion's share of attention. As Carl Henry observes about the society of much of the developed world, "Its disenchantment with Western culture seems frequently to imply equal or greater enthusiasm for non-Western culture."  These facts present a challenge to the church of today to reach those who are experiencing a spiritual vacuum.

Some of this is related to what many scholars view as a paradigm shift in the culture away from modernism to postmodernism. Thomas Oden lists the tenets of modernism as autonomous individualism, narcissistic hedonism, and reductive naturalism.  Basic to modernism is the philosophy of realism. Reality exists in a more or less tangible form. The senses are the means of knowing it. To discover reality one must use the scientific method. Reason is the hub of the wheel in the epistemology (the knowing process) of modernism.

The ideology of modernism declared itself to be the hope of the world.

Through science it would solve all of the problems of society. Thus it would eventually rid the planet of all diseases, eliminate all social frictions, and supply the vast needs of mankind. Concerning this claim, Stanley Grenz says, "Progress is inevitable, for science coupled with the power of education will eventually free us from . . . vulnerability to nature, as well as from all social bondage." Universal utopia would result.

When it comes to describing postmodernism, Gary Phillips says, "Defining the idea of postmodernism is a bit like nailing down Jell-O." As the prefix post suggests, however, postmodernism is what comes after modernism. Yet the prefix anti could legitimately be attached instead. Oden says the new philosophy developed as a reaction against modernism, which lasted from the French Revolution in 1789 to the collapse of Communism in 1989.  He speaks of modernism as "now in final collapse or radical metamorphosis."  Postmodernists hold that modernism has miserably failed in keeping its promises; therefore, its premises must all be wrong.

Among the tenets of postmodernism is a denial of the existence of objective reality.

What exists in the universe is what is created in the mind of the individual rather than what is "out there" to discover and experience. This leads to a disbelief in objective truth. Accordingly, postmodernists deny the existence of propositional truth. To the extent that an individual can know anything, it does not come through reason. Grenz explains, "Because truth is nonrational there are other ways of knowing, including through emotions and intuitions."  This places experience on the throne, instead of logic, in the knowing process.

Carl Henry discusses the postmodernist view, saying, "They profess neither to know what reality is, for there is no objective reality or world, nor what any text actually says, because individual interpretation and not authorial intent alone makes sense."  He explains: "Not only is all meaning held to be subjectively bound up with the knower rather than with text, but words are declared to have still other words as their only referent. Texts are declared to be intrinsically incapable of conveying truth about some objective reality. One interpreter's meaning is as proper as another's, however incompatible these may be. There is no original or final textual meaning, no one way to interpret the Bible or any other text."  

All of this leads to a dim view of life. Grenz says, "Postmodernism replaces the optimism of the last century with gnawing pessimism."  Seeking to explain it, William Brown writes, "There is no meaning, no purpose. Everything is a joke that is not funny. There is a spirit of apathy, even meanness about life. . . . For this reason postmodern fragmentation creates despair, alienation, and restlessness."

How, then, is a Gospel minister to relate effectively to a postmodern generation?

Certainly he or she cannot concur with its claim that propositional truth does not exist or with its reader-centered approach to interpreting written texts. A common ground for reaching out to its members, however, is the fact that they value relationships highly. Nothing unbiblical appears in that position. Indeed, an emphasis on a personal relationship with God and a meaningful association with fellow human beings is at the center of scriptural teaching. Concerning postmodernists, James White says, "They will be reached as believers intentionally build relationships with them and share a credible verbal witness."  He suggests further, "Nothing is as powerful as a personal testimony and the visible difference of Jesus Christ in a life."  

In this series of articles, I will focus on the personal rather than the professional aspects of the life of the Gospel minister. To win the lost of postmodernists and all other generations, the man or woman of God must first and always demonstrate the difference Jesus makes in the life of His followers. Here I will discuss how the preacher must do that in his or her physical, intellectual, social, emotional, moral, and spiritual lives.

I will begin this series of "fireside chats" with a look at the importance of the minister's physical life.

Please join me in viewing what the Bible says literally on the subject. With that before us, we will seek understanding of how those teachings apply to us today. Finally, I want to offer you some practical suggestions on how to demonstrate the vitality of the Christian faith in and through your physical body.

Physical requirements for the ministry under the Old Testament priesthood allowed no defects. Leviticus 21:16-24 lists these limitations. The passage specifically prohibited anyone who was blind or lame or had a disfigured face or a deformed limb from serving in the priesthood. It also excluded one with a broken foot or hand. It further excluded one who was hunchbacked or dwarfed or had a defective eye, eczema, scabs, or crushed testicles.

According to the passage, such a person, though otherwise qualified as a member of the Tribe of Levi and a descendant of Aaron, was barred from offering sacrifices (v. 21). He was not permitted to perform any service inside the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, or the court where the altar of burnt offerings stood (v. 23). The Law did permit him, however, to receive the regular financial support that went to priests (v. 22).

The question that instantly follows, then, is, "Do these physical limitations hold for the Christian ministry today?" Adam Clarke replies that they do. He writes:

Never was a wiser, a more rational, and a more expedient law enacted relative to sacred matters. The man who ministers in holy things, who professes to be the interpreter of the will of God, should have nothing in his person nor in his manner which cannot contribute to render him respectable in the eyes of those to whom he ministers. If, on the contrary, he has any personal defect, any thing that may render him contemptible or despicable, his usefulness will be greatly injured, if not entirely prevented. Let no man say this is a part of the Mosaic Law, and we are not bound by it. It is an eternal law, founded on reason, propriety, common sense, and absolute necessity. The priest, the prophet, the Christian minister is the representative of Jesus Christ; let nothing in his person, carriage, or doctrine be unworthy of the personage he represents.

Despite these facts, Clarke recognizes there may be exceptions to the rules to which he so graphically subscribes, above. He says, "It must however be granted, that there have been some imminent divines who have been deformed; and some with certain blemishes have been employed in the Christian ministry, and have been useful."

Some of my first personal experiences of the ministry related to such a case. They began in a day when visiting preachers usually took residence in the house of the host pastor. One Brother Tom Powell stayed at our house several times when I was just a boy. During the days when he was there, my specific family assignment was to lead that precious minister, who happened to be blind, to and from the outhouse as often as he needed to frequent that facility. In those early days of the twentieth century Pentecostal revival, he was warmly received as a preacher in the pulpit.

Despite Clarke's claims, few would suggest that the stringent physical qualifications for ministry in the Law of Moses be applied today. Still, missionary agencies require candidates to pass both a physical exam and a psychological test before approving them for service abroad. Of course, they have valid reasons for doing so.

Generally, people of today view the physical requirements for the Old Testament priesthood as being symbolic rather than literal in nature.

They conclude that Jehovah sought to teach a spiritual lesson through the stipulations of physical qualifications for ministry. After all, He intended that the entire sacrificial system under the Mosaic Law point to the coming of "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (Revelation 13:8). Accordingly, to symbolize Him, all animals acceptable for the altar of burnt offerings had to be without any kind of defect. God gave such instructions repeatedly, declaring of an offering: "It must be without defect or blemish to be acceptable. Do not offer to the LORD the blind, the injured or the maimed, or anything with warts or festering or running sores. Do not place any of these on the altar as an offering made to the LORD by fire. . . . You must not offer to the LORD an animal whose testicles are bruised, crushed, torn or cut. You must not do this in your own land" (Leviticus 22:21- 22, 24). Only unblemished creatures could depict the coming of the Perfect Sacrifice ho would appear and take away, once for all, the sins of the world.

In addition, Jehovah used the priesthood of Old Testament times to picture the arrival of Jesus on earth. The figures of both the priest and the animal sacrifice spoke of Him. He was not only the Lamb on the altar, but also the Priest officiating at the Tabernacle. The Book of Hebrews contains much about His priesthood. As the unblemished animals for sacrifice under Moses foreshadowed the coming perfect offering of Jesus, so the priests of ancient times, through their perfection, pointed to Him.

Certainly the focus on the importance of the physical in the ministry of Old Testament times suggests principles that are applicable to the work of the New Testament preacher. I confess with regret that I gave little thought to all of that in the early days of my ministry. I was utterly foolish when, as a young fulltime evangelist, I went for two and a half years, seven days a week (as we scheduled "revivals" in those days), without taking any time off. Perhaps with some kind of unrecognized pride I declared, "I just want to burn up everything I have for God and then get out of here!" I succeeded in burning out, all right, but then I found that I couldn't "get out of here." I have long since learned that if you break your health, you have broken your ministry.

Nolan Harmon correctly observes that, while "a prime duty for every person is proper care of the body," yet with regard to the ministry, "The minister will preach only as along as his physical body is a functioning organism in this world."  You simply can't function in this world without the aid of a reasonably healthy body. Scripture does not support the dualistic concept of the body being evil and therefore due either neglect or punishment.

Among the things required to sustain a healthy body is a well-balanced diet.

Other authorities will serve you better than I in detailing what such a diet might consist of for you, though Scripture does offer some guidelines. Certainly, having a good diet does not call for us to go to the extreme of becoming "health food" devotees. Some point to the fact that in the beginning the Creator provided only the fruit of the ground as food for man and declare that we must all become vegetarians in order to be healthy. To Adam and Eve, Jehovah did say at first, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food" (Genesis 1:29).  After the Flood, however, He said, "Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything" (Genesis 9:3). Later He gave extensive details as to what one should and should not eat (Leviticus 11:24-47). It is sometimes difficult, though, to determine the Lord's reasoning as to what is "clean" and "unclean" among the creatures.

Today's preacher, like most people in this fast-paced society, needs to beware of always eating on the run at fast-food restaurants. Both the menu and the manner of preparing its offerings are not always the most conducive to good health.

At the same time, the minister must be on guard against eating every time someone offers food as a part of common hospitality. While the preacher does not want to offend by declining such offers, there are ways that he or she can graciously do so. Certainly the man or woman of God wants to avoid the sin of gluttony (Deuteronomy 21:20). The Bible often connects it with the sin of drunkenness. It is likely, however, that the evil involves more than just overeating. The word gluttony may speak of a life of excess in other areas as well as that of one's eating habits. It may include the riotous living of the prodigal son, who wasted all of his inheritance through his indulgent activities. For that reason, then, the wise man of old advises, "Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags" (Proverbs20-21). Even the problem of obesity may sometimes be related to overeating.

The Designer and Maker of the human body decreed that it must have periods of diversion and recreation.  In the first place, He arranged that the human body cease all of its conscious activity during a portion of every day. The darkness of the night serves that purpose well. As he experienced times of sleeplessness, Martin Luther sometimes said to Satan, "Devil, I must sleep. That's God's command. ‘Work by day. Sleep by night.'  So, go away."

Experience teaches that it is wise to move from a day of stressful activity through a period of relaxation into a night of peaceful sleep. A minister owes it to himself or herself to allow daily time for doing something enjoyable. Having a hobby is one example of this.  Joe Trull and James Carter observe, "Recreation or a hobby that both provides enjoyment and diverts the mind from ministering tasks are important for a balanced life."  Other such activities include taking a brisk walk or reading an interesting book. Looking forward to an hour of doing whatever brings pleasure to a person makes a day of hard work not seem so long.

Then when bedtime comes, sleep follows more quickly than when one is still tense from the duties of the day. Thus one can follow more readily the example of the psalmist, who declared, "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety" (Psalm 4:8). That rest should continue relatively undisturbed for a period of about eight hours. I once met a baker whose early rising left him with only four hours of sleep each night. He declared he had done well through the years with no more time in bed than that. His experience was the exception, however, rather than the rule. For most, to slice too much off the eight-hour average of sleep is to experience the law of diminishing returns. Fighting a shortage of sleep while at work reduces one's efficiency on the job. A person can accomplish more in a shorter space of time if he or she allows the body the daily rest that it needs.

God's plan to promote the wellbeing of the human body also provides for a minimum of one day per week for rest and worship.

For that reason, He commanded, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates" (Exodus 20:8-10). In addition, then, to the one period of rest daily, the physical body needs one full day per week in freedom from work-related activities. This facilitates efficiency in work even more than the one period scheduled daily for relaxation and sleep. The week is shorter when one keeps the weekly "break" in view. It is often expressed in the words, "Thank God it's Friday!"

This Sabbath principle holds for the minister, despite the fact that his or her one day per week for rest does not often come on Sunday. Although no longer living under the Law, the minister adapts its guidelines on the weekly Sabbath, violating them only in the case of genuine emergency. Experience teaches that the preacher will have to fight to maintain that day off. It certainly cannot become a matter of haphazardly finding a time to take a little break. Regardless of the population of the area served or the number of people in the congregation, if the pastor takes the work seriously, he or she always sees more to do than time will allow.

Since Sunday is usually out of the question for a minister's weekly day off, Monday seemed a natural for me. After a long day of strenuous activity, I experienced an automatic let down at the end of each Lord's Day. Other ministers, however, say that in the services on that day they often would learn of needs that required immediate attention. They concluded they must take Monday to attend to those needs. Thus, for them, Saturday was a better day. Still others may prefer Thursday.

Whatever the day, it should be spent doing what one really enjoys. Some like fishing, hunting, or golfing. I like to do things with my family. Before we had children in school, we used to leave town to get away from it all. This often included spending the night elsewhere and returning to the parsonage on Tuesday morning.

In addition to the period of relaxation for an hour or more daily and the longer space of a full day weekly, the preacher needs an annual vacation to anticipate.

That vacation should continue for two or more weeks. Scripture takes note of how busy the schedules of Christian workers often are. Concerning Jesus and his students, Mark records, "Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat" (Mark 3:20). He makes reference to their demanding schedule again following the return of the Apostles from their first solo preaching tour. He writes, "Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'" (Mark 6:31).

A preacher's vacation should be spent in some manner that is unlike the weekly routine. Two weeks attending meetings at a convention or a camp meeting or preaching a revival for a friend is certainly no vacation!

When scheduling vacation time, it should not be during summer months, unless, of course, one has children in school. The reason for considering avoiding summers is because so many in the congregation are usually absent during that period. Since many in a church take a two to three-week vacation, and that usually means they are absent three to four Sundays, churches commonly experience an absentee rate of about one-fourth of the congregation on any given summer weekend. For this same reason and others besides, a pastor does well not to be away from his pulpit during the Christmas season, either.

As a pastor, I found it unwise to publicize my plans for a vacation. Naturally, church leadership must know in advance. For the rest of the congregation, however, I found that several would not attend on a weekend when they knew the pastor was going to be away. A fellow minister in the area where I served some years ago had an even bigger problem when he made the mistake of announcing on his radio program the dates that he would be away from home on vacation. When he returned, he found his house empty of all of its belongings! Apparently burglars had tuned into his broadcast that day.

The mention of a preacher's need of rest sometimes evokes a negative reaction from young ministers. Some have been known to say, "But the devil never takes any time off, so why should I?" Well, who ever said the Gospel minister is supposed to pattern his or her life after Satan? Besides, the devil doesn't have a physical body to contend with. It is said that on one occasion, A. G. Ward (the father of C. M. Ward, long-time radio speaker on Revivaltime) was traveling by train, and he rented a sleeping berth. A young minister on the same train rebuked him for wasting God's money that way. The young man declared he would sleep in the seat for which he had a ticket. Ward replied, "Son, you go ahead and save God's money. I'm doing the best I can to save God's man." Burton Pierce wisely observes, "A sensible recreational program will help insure longevity in the ministry and in the family. Recreational activity is always much less expensive than an occasional hospital stay or even a moderately priced funeral."

You can work hard with few ill effects if you take your breaks daily, weekly, and annually.

It is the one-track-mind approach to life that can harm you. It is likely that no minister experiences burnout because of overwork alone. Rather, when the preacher continues at a fast pace for too long without stopping for the necessary breaks, resentment builds. It is that attitude rather than the workload that gets the minister into trouble.

Using obvious irony, George Miller has offered advice as to what a minister must do to join the Preachers' Coronary Club:

  • Never say "No."
  • Never delegate responsibility.
  • Never plan a day off.
  • Never plan for a night at home.
  • Take all the revivals your church will allow and use your vacation to book others.
  • When your doctor advises you to slow down, ignore him and brag that you had rather wear out than rust out.
  • Watch attendance records carefully.
  • Try to beat the record of the former pastor and yours of last year.
  • Make it a point to lead your church in a building program.
  • Join every civic club in town.
  • If the above do not contribute to a coronary, seek a larger church and work even harder at everything. With this you should have a coronary within six months.

Finally, some other things are worthy of attention as far as the physical life of the minister is concerned. For example, a long time ago I read Blackwood's advice that a preacher should have an annual physical check-up. I confess that I did not do that in my younger years. For some time now, however, I have made it my practice. It comes under the category of prevention. The old adage still applies, "An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

A preacher should also include in his weekly schedule a reasonable amount of physical exercise. Though he was not at the time advocating it, Paul did recognize that "physical training is of some value" (1 Timothy 4:8). I will pass on to you the counsel I received some years ago at the conclusion of a physical education course on a university campus. The professor advised us to make good use of what we had learned during the semester. He warned against going to the extreme of equipping a basement full of expensive exercise equipment. According to him, in most cases after the original enthusiasm wears off, such equipment sits there and does nothing except gather dust. Instead, he declared, we should develop a simple routine that we would continue indefinitely. He promised that if we would engage in some physical activity that would readily fit into our schedule for fifteen to thirty minutes, two or three times a week, it would serve us well.

Trite as it may seem, I suggest further that you take a bath daily. A dandruff shampoo may be in order, especially considering the preacher's standard dark suit worn at weddings and other special occasions. To keep one's breath clean requires more than just brushing the teeth daily. The semi-annual trip to the dentist keeps down odor-producing elements around the gums. Along with daily brushing and the periodic trip to the dentist, one will probably need to use breath mints. I prefer not to carry the small plastic container with mints which rattle with the movement of my body. I also dislike seeing others publicly use a mist which has them spraying with mouth wide open as if they are attending to their tonsils.

Along with personal hygiene comes cleanliness for the wardrobe. If one does not take each of the suits in the wardrobe to the cleaners periodically, just one in the closet can spoil the others. Be aware that some fabrics harbor odors more than others. Synthetics do so more that cottons. A shirt with a combination of the two is much better than one that is all synthetic.

To win the lost of postmodernists and all other generations, then, the man or woman of God must first and always demonstrate the difference Jesus makes in the lives of His followers. The preacher must do that in his or her physical life. One's personal appearance and mannerisms in the ministry are of the utmost importance. An unkempt appearance brings no credit to the Gospel that a minister carries. With the disciplined and well-ordered life that the Bible teaches, the preacher can challenge, by example, the "hang loose" attitude of the present generation. Hopefully, his "presence evangelism" will inspire them to nobler conduct. As Ravi Zacharias says, "What our culture needs is an apologetic that is not merely argued, but also felt. There has to be a passion in the communication. There must be a felt reality beyond the cognitive, engaging the feeling of the listener. Second, it must be an apologetic that is not merely heard, but also seen. We live within a context that listens with its eyes."  

Selected Bibliography

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: New American Library of World Literature, 1950.

Brown, William E. "Theology in a Postmodern Culture: Implications of a Video-Dependent Society." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Clarke, Adam. Clarke's Commentary. Vol.1. Nashville: Abingdon Press, n. d.

Dockery, David S. "The Challenge of Postmodernism." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Grenz, Stanley J. "Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Harmon, Nolan B. Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette, 2d Revelation ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978.

Henry, Carl F. H. "Postmodernism: The New Spectre?" In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Miller, George W. "The Preacher's Coronary Club." Advance (July 1974): 13.

Oden, Thomas C. "The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Pierce, T. Burton. Ministerial Ethics: A Guide for Spirit-Filled Leaders. Springfield, Mo.: Logion Press, 1996.

Trull, Joe E., and James E. Carter. Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993.

White, James Emery. "Evangelism in a Postmodern World." In The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

Zacharias, Ravi. "The Touch of Truth." In The Telling Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

About the Author 

Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.

In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.

Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.