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Two Preliminary Thoughts (The Weakness Series)

While I’m mainly planning to do more reading about weakness, etc over the summer, I’ve still been thinking about it this week. I’ve had one thought as a result of talking to my pastor, Mark, and one thought as a result of watching a short clip about JI Packer.

Thought 1: Identifying weakness

The course of my conversation with Mark ended up in the question of what disqualifies someone from leadership, and, in particular, whether my own weaknesses and failings make me unsuitable for leadership. That’s a pretty confronting question, but it’s one I’m determined to ask honestly.

Mark said a number of helpful things that might contribute to my overall thinking on this issue but the one that stuck out to me was his suggestion that if a person is asking that question, it’s actually a cause for encouragement – because they see the weaknesses and want to grow in them. It reminded me of something from 1 John which I wrote an essay on earlier this year. The writer talks about how if you don’t see your sin, you deceive yourself and the truth is not in you. While many Christians are discouraged when they see sin in their lives, their ability to see it and their grief over it is actually a work of God’s Spirit.

So it’s not that weakness makes a person unsuitable for leadership but how they respond to it. One response is to be aware of it which leads to dependence on God – I suspect that’s part of what’s going on in 2 Cor 12 as well. I think there’s more to it than this but I wonder if this will be a helpful building block.

Thought 2: Greatest Strength = Greatest Weakness?

There’s a new book about the life and ministry of JI Packer. Carl Trueman contributes a chapter and argues (among other things) that JI Packer missed his opportunity to be THE leader in his generation – to write the definitive systematic theology of the 20th century and to become the leading light of non-conformist British evangelicalism.

Trueman argues that Packer’s insistence on remaining Anglican marginalised his views and that his reticence to ‘put himself out there’ meant that he didn’t gain the appropriate profile, in contrast to someone like Martin Lloyd Jones. It’s not to say he didn’t have a significant ministry but that his ministry was the faithful plod of a quiet minister. Trueman identifies that this was Packer’s greatest strength, that he didn’t seek acclaim for himself. At the same time, he identifies it as a strategic weakness in terms of thinking about what Packer *could* have done.

Is the old cliche that one’s greatest strength is also one’s greatest weakness correct? One could argue the case for Moses – his inadequacies meant God got the glory. I wonder how this would work for Samson though….

Categories: God Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

2 replies

  1. Tamie,
    thanks for the interesting and challenging thoughts.

    With regards to Carl Trueman’s thoughts of JI Packer. I haven’t read his chapter, and have only the youtube clip to go on, but some initial thoughts:

    1. Altho’ Trueman was very careful and moderate in his tone, and acknowledges his own great intellectual/spiritual debt to Packer, it feels presumptious and arrogant to speak of a human being and a fellow brother as a “failure” or a “success” in leadership, or indeed as a failed human being. Trueman’s dramatic statement “Packer was a failure” was supported by loose parochial statements on what might have been for the British evangelical movement. There’s almost something vile about such a worldly assessment of a life, looking at the worth of a man based on his contributions to a movement. Who, indeed, should be permitted to place a value judgment on a fellow human being’s life except God?

    2. I found it strange that Trueman almost blames Packer for failing to be an worthy opponent to Lloyd Jones’ leadership (or am I reading too much into it?). Surely the fact that Packer was always in some senses an “odd-ball” within the evangelical movement (just compare him with the more gregarious and ‘successful’ Stott) – should cause more questions to be raised against the intellectual milieu and spiritual charity of evangelical movement of that time than of Packer’s personality, or his failure to step-up and lead. (A lesson in the breadth, charity and openness of our current evangelical movement?)

    3. Quality verses Quantity argument. Trueman assesses failure/success based on Packer’s “potential” influence as a leader of wide influence, which smacks of the ‘bigger is more successful’ approach to church growth. Packer would be the first to say – depth and sound roots are important too.

    3. While trying not to be a hagiographist, there’s a sense in which books commemorating a Christian saint’s life can be only of limited use. They tell us about the historical contexts; the Zeitgeist; some strategies and benefits of certain ministries; some lessons to be learnt from decisions perhaps. But surely nothing too much can be garnered into the shaping of an individual life, the work and to certain extent the promptings of God, the ‘conversion’ of a life, which surely, must be much for worthy to God.

    4. A slightly unrelated point, because I don’t accept Trueman’s thesis that Packer’s greatest weakness was his greatest strength. (I am not sure how humbleness could ever been perceived as a weakness from God’s perspective!) The Bible seemed to be full of people who were redeemed. Samson screwed up, God still used him. Peter denied Jesus 3 times, God built his church on that rock, John was the son of Thunder, and yet his letters and epistle speak more of loving one another than any others I can think of.

    3. (a minor point) Packer is still alive. It seems a very cheap shot to say he failed to produce a magnus opus. The man could still produce a systematic theology if he wanted to. He’s written and taught on it so often.

    4. But really, I hazard a guess that Packer couldn’t care less about what Trueman has too say. We serve and live our meagre 70, 80 years here, and plead with God to prosper the work of our hands (Ps 90). It is He who will build his church, and while I understand the need to use our brains and reflect on ministry strategies/church history etc.

    So, in sum:
    1. on what basis is Trueman assessing failure/success of Packer? Is it a sound basis?

    2. I am also concerned with Trueman’s very parochial and narrow time/space window – assessing Packer in light of the C of E in the 1960s and in comparison to Lloyd Jones, focusing particularly on Packer’s breach with the non-comformists. Hopefully this is balance out by the rest of the book tho’.

    2. Would it be more appropriate to say that British evangelicalism failed Packer; failed to recognise the great leader they could have kept and preserved? (in contrast to North American evangelicals).

    Anyway, I look forward to reading the chapter and the book in general.

  2. Hi Bei En

    Thanks for your spirited response!

    I think the question of how to assess failure / success is the key here. You point out that Truemann’s analysis is quite ‘worldly’. On one level I can see the dilemma – God may see things differently from how we do! However, I’m not averse to such an approach. I suspect that many of us have questioned Luther’s anti-semitism for example, and may have wondered whether that set the cause of the gospel back. I’m not sure that Truemann’s doing anything much different.

    But this certainly highlights the issue – we’re confused about how to talk about weakness. Samson’s weakness is moral, Peter’s theological, John’s relational. And we’re able to be very honest about their ‘failings’ yet I wonder whether our tendency is more to excuse the weaknesses of those in our current day or to downplay them?

    There’s something we don’t want to face there. My question is what we’re afraid of. Are we afraid of sounding like God’s not in control? Or is it loyalty to a particular figurehead? Or wanting to protect our ministries from the ‘success syndrome’? Or is it simply too confronting to come face to face with our own brokenness? I’m not sure.

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