In 1750, Jonathan Edwards was fired from his church. A source of controversy regarding the Lord’s Supper created a division between he and his people and this culminated in his termination after more than 20 years of faithful service to his church. Although Jonathan Edwards desired to make his points clearly known through a sermon series to the people, the leadership thought it would be best for him to put his theological positions in print. Before the book was finished, printed, and delivered to Northampton, the controversy reached a boiling point. In a letter to John Erskine on May 20th 1749, he writes the following:
A very great difficulty has arisen between my people, relating to qualifications for communion at the Lord’s table. My honoured grandfather Stoddard, my predecessor in the ministry over this church, strenuously maintained the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance, and urged all to come who were not of scandalous life, though they knew themselves to be unconverted. I formerly conformed to his practice but I have had difficulties with respect to it, which have been long increasing, till I dared no longer proceed in the former way, which has occasioned great uneasiness among my people, and has filled all the country with noise. 
By August of 1749, Edwards’ new book had arrived in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was titled: An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church. The rift continued to grow wider as the controversy intensified. By 1750, Edwards decided to lecture on his positions regarding the Lord’s Supper at 2pm on Thursday afternoons. Unfortunately, more guests and curious people from the community attended than members of his church. Soon therafter, a vote was taken and only 10% of the church was in support of Jonathan Edwards staying as their pastor. The brilliant minded, pastor-scholar had been fired from his church after more than 20 years of faithful service.
Although the case can certainly be made that Edwards was mistreated in this process, he preached his Farewell sermon on July 1st 1750 and exited the church with class and dignity. What lessons can the church learn regarding the firing of Jonathan Edwards?
In many circles within the evangelical church today, theology is minimized. The case can be made that the pulpit is extremely shallow across the evangelical spectrum, leaving the deeper theological issues to the seminary classroom. This pattern of dumbing down theology causes pragmatism and church growth techniques to rise to a state of prominence and influence within the evangelical church.
Theology matters for the local church and should not be reserved for a seminary classroom. Jonathan Edwards understood this reality as he sought to put great emphasis upon God in His preaching. This eventually cost him his pulpit, but it was a risk worth taking. Could this brilliant man have found a loop hole and remained silent about the theology of the Lord’s table in order to keep his job? Certainly, but Edwards was no coward nor was he a man who approached the pulpit as a mere job. He was a pastor, a shepherd, and a scholar. He refused to remain silent because theology matters.
Pastors are Students Too
As a student at Yale, Jonathan Edwards penned a list of Resolutions. The 28th on the list states, “Resolved: To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” Often churches call pastors to serve without considering the fact that all pastors are perpetual students. This was true of Edwards and it should be true of all pastors. Unless a pastor is merely a marketing team builder, he is constantly reading and challenging his mind to think through big theological issues, practical church matters, and this is a good thing. While the pastor is in his study each week, he isn’t merely reading for the church, he’s also reading for himself. No matter how long he has served as a pastor and how many degrees he has tagging along after his name, he is still a student of God and all students change positions at times. The church must realize that even the most seasoned pastor will be brought to a place where he must change his position on a theological issue as he learns something new about God. Unfortunately, the First Church of Northampton was unwilling for Jonathan Edwards to change his position on the Lord’s table no matter what he had learned about God and the church of Jesus Christ.
Don’t Ignore Your Pastor
Churches should not ignore their pastor’s sermons and his writings. The church must avoid the same mistakes that plague the immature teenager who refuses to listen to his parents and persists in a rogue and disobedient attitude through life. Refusing to listen to the man God has placed over the church to oversee the flock of God and to shepherd the souls of God’s people is immature and it leads to disaster. If your pastor introduces a sermon series, show up with anticipation as to what he will preach from the pulpit. Seek to know what he is teaching and don’t pass it off as something that you don’t need. If your pastor has a writing ministry, take time to read what comes from his pen (or his keyboard). It doesn’t matter if it’s a blog, a book, or a monthly letter to the church, read what your pastor writes. It will benefit you in terms of theology and practical areas of life. According to 1 Peter 5, the role of the pastor is to shepherd the flock with faithful oversight as the undershepherd who will give an account to God. It would not be wise nor beneficial to your soul to ignore your pastor who has been appointed by God for such duties (Heb. 13:17).
During Controversy – Make Biblical Decisions
When faced with controversy within the church, it’s often easier to make the wrong decision rather than the biblical decision. The reasons for such mistakes is based on the fact that the devil is perpetually opposed to the church of Jesus Christ. Schism and division is the speciality of the devil, and when controversy arises in the church it’s difficult to stay on the right path. Like a thick fog, you often find yourself encompassed by a multiplicity of opinions, slander, and gossip. It’s the duty of every Christian to examine their heart, their theological positions, and their final decisions through the pure lens of holy Scripture. We must not forget that our adversary is on the prowl and is seeking to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8). It’s imperative that we walk by the light of God’s Word (Ps. 119:11).
Jonathan Edwards, in his final sermon titled, A Farewell Sermon, addressed his church with clarity, dignity, and accuracy. In one part of his sermon, he said the following:
Now in this present state it often happens that when ministers and people meet together to debate and manage their ecclesiastical affairs, especially in a state of controversy, they are ready to judge and censure with regard to each other’s views, designs, and the principles and ends by which each is influenced, and are greatly mistaken in their judgment and wrong one another in their censures. But at that future meeting, things will be set in a true and perfect light, and the principles and aims that everyone has acted from, shall be certainly known. There will be an end to all errors of this kind, and all unrighteous censures. 
- Jonathan Edwards to John Erskine (May 20, 1749), in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, (Yale University Press, 1998), 271.
- Jonathan Edwards, A Farewell Sermon, July 1, 1750.
Helpful on Jonathan Edwards:
- The Pastor as Theologian: The Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards – John Piper
- How Jonathan Edwards Got Fired, and Why It’s Important for Us Today – Mark Dever
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