The Forsyth Rule
One cannot truly assess a Christian leader until one can see clearly what his legacy is. That is sobering to anyone who is a minister, from the pastor of a small church to the international statesman.
It is also reminiscent of something P. T. Forsyth said. Writing about the cross of Christ and its connection to other great doctrines, he once commented as follows:
“The ideas at the centre of the Christian faith are too large, too deep and subtle, to show their effects in one age; and the challenge of them does not show its effect in one generation or even in two. Individuals, society, and the Church, indeed, are able to go on, externally almost unaffected, by the way that they have upon them from the past; and it is only within the range of several generations that the destruction of truths with such a comprehensive range as those of Christianity takes effect. Therefore it is part of the duty of the Church, in certain sections and on certain occasions, to be less concerned about the effect of the Gospel upon the individual immediately, or on the present age, and to look ahead to what may be the result of certain changes in the future. God sets watchmen in Zion who have to keep their eye on the horizon; and it is only a drunken army that could scout their warning. We are not only bound to attend to the needs and interests of the present generation; we are trustees for a long future, as well as a long past. Therefore it is quite necessary that the Church should give very particular attention to these central and fundamental points whose influence, perhaps, is not so promptly prized, and whose destruction would not be so mightily felt at once, but would certainly become apparent in the days and decades ahead.” (The Work of Christ, pp. 142-43)
... I think the Forsyth rule is still perhaps significant and that not simply in the arena of doctrine. It is also relevant in the realm of the appointment of leaders. For all of the IT developments which have accelerated the spread of information and exacerbated the continually kaleidoscopic nature of the state of knowledge, mortality means that important people still have to make way for successors. Of course, it is just possible that the gurus of the satellite campus phenomenon might be planning to have their sermons played on some kind of endless digital loop so as to ensure their continued disembodied leadership of the church from the point of their own death to that of Christ’s return; but the likelihood is that even they will have to concede the importance of embodiment at some point and make preparations for an actual physical succession. Some of the older generation are already doing so ...
This is where the Forsyth rule can be applied. The next decade will witness the rise of a new generation of leaders who have been groomed to take over from the great and the good of the here and now. We should watch very carefully to see who are being moved into pole positions in such successions. If my summary of Forsyth’s rule above is correct in the area of doctrine, we might expand this a little and say that a leader’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy are only really evident in the line of succession he helps to establish. A man might tell you over dinner that he believes in the Reformation position on justification or scriptural authority, for example, and might even on occasion preach such doctrines from his pulpit; but if he manoeuvres into position those successors who care for neither then one can legitimately wonder what his belief in these things actually amounts to in real, practical, pastoral terms. So here is a word to those involved in big churches and big organisations: Watch the succession plans closely, for they will reveal much about the real priorities and vision of today’s leaders for the church of tomorrow and beyond.
What is the legacy of a great church leader? Is it his books? Is it his blogs or his podcasts? Is it the recording of his sermons? Is it his inspirational life story? Is it the number of satellite campuses he can fill each Lord’s Day (as long as Christmas does not fall on a Sunday, of course)? It might indeed involve any or all of these; but surely above all else the legacy of the church leader is his followers and especially those he has helped to put in to positions of influence.
As Solon might have said, count no church leader as being truly faithful until you can see what steps he took to leave a faithful legacy. And for the rest of us, while we tend to spend our time talking about this generation, perhaps we might devote a little more time to worrying and praying about the one after next.