Pastors Turning Tail

To turn tail describes behavior of a coward, someone who runs from danger. Mr. Crane described the dynamics of cowardice in The Red Badge of Courage. I read it in eighth grade and will never forget the experience.

In days where denominations and departments of state are turning tail and running from the clear teaching of Scripture, pressure will increase on pastors to do the same. If the world is a battlefield on which pastors are called to fight a spiritual war for the kingdom of God, the godly will stand fast; but false teachers (sometimes called “thieves”) turn tail from their commitments and exchange the truth for a lie, scratching the “itching ears” of those who by nature do not want to hear hard words of repentance.

But what about fleeing for one’s life? Escaping persecution is a different matter, isn’t it? This question became important in the fourth century when Emperor Diocletian (pictured above) brought baptized followers of Jesus Christ to death in droves.

In light of this, some principled pastors–called rigorists–held that running from the dangers of persecution  was the same as fleeing from Christ. For such men, in dying times, true faithfulness could only mean martyrdom.

Tertullian was a rigorist, but St. Augustine opposed him, advising there were times when pastors might lawfully attempt to escape, provided their congregations would not be compromised. Here’s how he put it in a letter to a certain Honoratus:

…for I said that, on the one hand, those who desire to remove, if they can, to fortified places are not to be forbidden to do so; and, on the other hand, we ought not to break the ties by which the love of Christ has bound us as ministers not to forsake the churches which it is our duty to serve. The words which I used in the letter referred to were: Therefore, however small may be the congregation of God’s people among whom we are, if our ministry is so necessary to them that it is a clear duty not to withdraw it from them, it remains for us to say to the Lord, ‘Be to us a God of defence, and a strong fortress.’

St. Augustine’s position is moderate: he did not forbid pastors to flee, but neither did he permit them to forsake the churches which it was their duty to serve.

When Not to Pursue a New Pastoral Call

I think Augustine’s moderate mindset provides a grid for pastors seeking to leave one church to serve another. In some cases, a move can represent the blessing of God; in others, it is  a faithless departure from one sheepfold for another.

How can you identify a faithless move?  You will recognize it as either the fruit of a restless or covetous impulse taking root in your heart; or the dregs of unresolved conflict and the leftovers of unrepented-of sin.

It is gardening season in New Jersey: I’m reminded that a mark of godly pastoral work to stay in one place and hoe a long row of souls. Eugene Peterson called this intentionally anti-awesome approach to pastoral work “a long obedience in the same direction,” a book which pastors love in principle, but which we (in our flesh) hate in practice.

I don’t know the statistics, but isn’t the average stay of an average evangelical pastor in one parish or pulpit about three years?


The topic hits home for me, as a pastor, having just helped to particularize a new congregation in south Jersey–that’s the presbyterian term for the formal process of organizing a church around locally elected and installed elders, and a locally called pastor. (Here’s an article about our particularization service on

Some have asked me, “Do you want to plant/organize another church?” My answer has been no. There is work to do and if I don’t do it, I believe I would betray the Lord’s calling on my life, and the sacred trust with which I have been called.

Strong words. But we believe that when the Lord calls, he provides the strength with which to carry out that call. To quote St. Augustine again: “Lord command what thou wilt; and grant what thou dost command.”

Abraham couldn’t do the work on his own. Neither could Moses, Joshua, or Samson. The pattern of Scripture is that weak men stay and fight by the power of God; and cowards leave in their own strength. This was brought home to my heart this week when reading Calvin’s commentary on Stephen’s martyrdom.

The story goes like this: St. Stephen is killed and once innocent blood had been shed, the floodgates fly open and the enemies of God ravage the church in Jerusalem, such that many were scattered into Judea, Samaria, and beyond.

But–and this is the point–the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. They did not turn tail. Observing this, Calvin insightfully explains why the apostles do not scatter out of Jerusalem to spread the gospel:

[God] exempteth the apostles out of this number, not that [to free them] from the common danger, but because it is the duty of a good pastor to set himself against the invasions of wolves for the safety of his flock.

And again:

…seeing the gospel so mightily resisted at Jerusalem, they dare go to no other place until such a time as they have broken that first huge heap of straits…they are purposed to do their duty; and especially, whereas they stand to it when all the rest fly, that is an evident testimony of valiant constancy

The phrase, “that first huge heap of straits,” aptly describes the kingdom work to be done in South Jersey. While it is not persecution, I do believe I have a “clear duty not to withdraw,” and whatever difficulties I may yet face, nonetheless, I must say to the Lord, “Be to us a God of defense and a strong fortress.”

Though Satan sought to drive the apostles out of Jerusalem, they refused to leave, staying instead like captains on the battlefield, empowered and emboldened by their faith in Christ alone.

I am resolved–and now, not alone, but with men who stand by my side as ordained ruling elders–to follow their godly example, knowing and believing, as they did, that “he who is in me is greater than he who is in the world,” and that therefore I may “take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

(edited 5/6)