Defense and Reconciliation | A Faculty Interview with Alfred Poirier

Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jeff Hart: Before joining Westminster’s pastoral theology faculty, you served as a pastor for thirty-eight years. Can you share about your time as a pastor and how that has shaped your outlook on pastoral theology?

Alfred Poirier: I was converted in 1972, and the man that converted me immediately took me through Romans. He had been a Christian for four years, but somebody had trained him, and he did the best job he could. It set in motion in my own life a desire to not only share the gospel, but to disciple people in the gospel. That began my so-called ministry as a layman. I served for a year as a college minister with the mainline churches in my area as I was finishing up college.

     I took my first position at a church when I was starting seminary. It was an independent Bible church in San Diego that came out of the Presbyterian Church USA. I spent four years there and was able to move them into a denomination. I really learned my ecclesiology and theology there. I was learning theology at seminary and finding its immediate application in the church.

     In seminary, I studied not only under men such as John Frame, Meredith Klein, Bob Godfrey, and Robert Strimple, but George Scippione, who was part of the CCEF movement, which was still pretty new in 1984. He inspired me to be a pastor who was a real physician of souls—that’s the language of Gregory Nazianzus, a fourth-century church father we mostly know as a theologian, but who was a working pastor. I understood that my call included not only preaching, teaching, leading, praying, and shaping the worship and liturgy of our church, but also intensive pastoral care and counsel. Really getting to know your people and their struggles so that you can love and feed them better—I’ve always had that.

     My second church was in Eugene, Oregon with the OPC. It was a place that was, if not antagonistic to the Christian faith, not congenial. The LGBTQ community from 1984–1992 was substantial in Eugene, and we got to see 1 Cor. 6:9–11 in action. People who were bisexual or same-sex attracted were coming to Christ and the church, being changed in radical ways. It was, as Paul says, “and such were some of you.” That again reminded me, boy, I need to preach, teach, counsel, and care for people.

     In 1992, I was called to Montana to an OPC church that became a PCA church. I spent twenty-six years in Billings. We saw that church grow, and it was there that I came into peacemaking. From the get-go, the whole issue of pastoral care and counsel was significant, particularly with respect to marriage. I teach marriage counseling here at Westminster and I tell students that probably 50% of their counseling as pastors is going to be for marriages. That’s how it was for me. It was quite substantial, and I loved that.

JH: Thirty-eight years in pastoral ministry is a healthy, long term of service. Can you talk about what brought you to Westminster and why you’re passionate to serve here? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

AP: I studied at Westminster California, so I’ve always had high esteem for Westminster. When I came into the Reformed faith, a number of people said, “Westminster.” My DMin in Pastoral Counseling is from here. During my time pastoring, I’ve sent members here.

     Around 2015, John Currie called me to one of his churches to do a seminar on peacemaking and we hit it off. When I retired, John asked if I would be interested in serving at Westminster, particularly to revitalize the pastoral theology curriculum. I wanted to serve under John, who is a superb leader. I also knew Peter Lillback from my time in the OPC and always appreciated his pastoral vision and stance for Reformed orthodoxy.

     Coming to Westminster was a no-brainer because of its strong pastoral focus. All the professors here are not only great scholars, but they’re men who love Christ, love his church, and communicate that clearly to students. In Matthew 9:37–38, Christ says the field is white with harvest, so pray that the Father would raise up laborers. To be a little part of that is a great honor and privilege.

JH: At what point in your ministry did you decide to pursue a Doctor of Ministry at Westminster and what led you to pursue it?

AP: In 1992, the first year I was in Billings, Ken Sande was one of my elders. He was starting Peacemaker Ministries, now called RW360. He had been working with CCEF’s David Powlison, Paul Tripp, Ed Welch, John Bettler, and others. In our peacemaking, we realized we needed a strong counseling component.

     Eventually, I realized we needed an integrated ministry of reconciliation dealing with issues of the heart. Dennis Johnson, professor at Westminster California, suggested I get my DMin and teach at Westminster California. So, I came here. David Powlison was my advisor. I did my DMin on how to teach peacemaking at the seminary level and I got to teach that. This is one of our core courses, and I love that it’s not just a doctoral course. You can’t get your MDiv here without taking a course in ministry of reconciliation.

JH: Can you describe the peacemaking process a bit? What does the ministry of reconciliation look like? Where have you seen it make a real difference?

AP: I think it’d better make a difference in your own life. So much of theology, even public theology, is at a stratospheric level, and there’s a place for that. But eventually, you always have to ask, “Where does the rubber hit the road? What does this look like?” It must grab your heart and change you—sanctification pure and simple.

"Peacemaking must grab your heart and change you—sanctification pure and simple."

     When we think of public theology, the world doesn’t look at, much less listen to, the church because we can’t get our own act together. I have heard this sad joke repeated even with major denominational heads. They say, “Alfred, you know how our denomination plants churches? We split them.” Biblical peacemaking was less about international affairs, and more like, “Can you get your own house in order?” Peter says judgment begins with the house of the Lord.

     Because it changed my life as I started implementing it in my own marriage, family, and church session, I began to develop wonderful stories of God acting supremely. When I teach here, I tell those stories. Particularly, I always talk about getting the log out of my own eye. I taught around the nation with Peacemakers Ministries. As I did mediations, not only between individuals, but within churches, I saw how these principles developed from Scripture work with sibling rivalry, in major church conflicts, and in multimillion dollar disputes.

     We need peacemaking at the seminary level because men are going into ministry and most don’t realize the sorts of conflict that will drive them out. The Pew Charitable Trust Foundation and Duke University did a nationwide review of pastors several years back, and the number one reason seminary-trained men left the pastorate entirely is everyday mundane conflict. When pastors are asked, “What one thing do you wish you had learned at seminary?,” it’s conflict resolution.

"When pastors are asked, 'What one thing do you wish you had learned at seminary?,' it’s conflict resolution."

     Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers. They will be called the sons of God.” In other words, we’re most like our Father, when we’re peacemaking. Paul defines his entire ministry as a ministry of reconciliation with a message of reconciliation. So whatever Paul is—a church historian, biblical scholar, systematic theologian—he’s
a pastoral theologian at the heart of it. He says, “This is who I am, I’m a minister of reconciliation with a message of reconciliation.”

JH: It’s hard to think of a church that hasn’t experienced some form of conflict in recent years over COVID regulations or you name it in the public square. It seems like political divides within our country and within the church grow deeper with each passing year. How can the work you’ve done in peacemaking apply to the way we handle cultural and political flashpoints within the church?

AP: I think at a very basic level, we need to train our people on what it means to be ministers of reconciliation with a message of reconciliation. Our church in Billings became known as the peacemaking church, not just to other churches, but in the secular world. Family Services, for example, knew our church as the peacemaking church. One of my elders and his wife, Jeff and Amy Laman, put together a little ministry on Wednesday night and they publicized, “Anybody from any church, anywhere, that would like to get biblical mediation to solve your conflicts, please come. It’s free.” It was great. They ran a ministry like that for several years.

     It’s also important as a pastor to say there are certain subjects we need to talk about again and again. We would have a peacemaking class of some sort every
two years. I would weave peacemaking in our worship service. One of the wonderful things about Ken Sande’s work on peacemaking is that he gave very transferable concepts, like the seven A’s of confession, the four promises of forgiveness, and the four (I use five) G’s of peacemaking. So, when our people would get into conflicts, they knew that we’d counseled them. When marriages were in conflict, they would come to us early on and say, “Help us.” When people within the church were in conflict, they’d say, “Hey pastor, I know you guys do mediation. I’m in conflict with this member of the church. Could you help us?” All our elders and deacons were trained in mediation. We would try to get everybody in the church trained.

     Churches have been dividing and conflicted long before COVID, and they will be if they’re not taught how to put real feet to biblical principles of peace. Get the log out of your own eye first, then glorify God. Paul says, if you see your brother caught in sin, you are spiritual. You have the Holy Spirit. Gently restore him. Way before COVID, when blogs started, Christians looked like they’d never read Proverbs or James about the tongue. What’s going on? Well, I think pastors didn’t address it.

     When we think about public policy, and particularly public theology, we need to also think what marriage is. Marriage is a creation ordinance. It’s really the first time where theology is in its most intimately public nature. An individual man and an individual woman face outward and towards one another, and bound by covenant, create and procreate. By that, they fill, rule, and subdue the earth. In all the talk I hear of public theology, it’s amazing how nobody talks about the demise of the creation mandate of one man, one woman, with children.

     Studies show single parent homes constitute 63% of teen suicides, 90% of runaway and homeless children, 85% of behavior disorder patients, 71% of high school dropouts, 75% of teenagers in substance abuse rehab centers, and 85% of young prison inmates. We have lived thirty or forty years looking down upon fathers. We have, as one person put it, a dad-shaped hole in America. We’ve severed the tie between marriage, sex, procreation, and commitment. When we look at our culture today and say, “It’s a mess”—we made that mess. We said, “We don’t need fathers. We don’t need mothers. We don’t need intact marriages.”

     In the church, we’re not talking about the public nature of marriage as a public good. St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century church father, says the love of husband and wife is the force that wields society together because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives, praise the result. Great benefits both for families and states are thus produced. When it is otherwise, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down. Isn’t that amazing?

"Marriage is really the first time where theology is in its most intimately public nature."

JH: That’s incredible and certainly speaks to our day.

AP: Yes, and he’s writing in the fourth century. But we think of marriage in the church as a private good. Therefore, we don’t preach it as it ought to be as a public good. I’ve asked our students here, “Who of you are going to churches regularly preaching on marriage and sexuality?” Nobody, or maybe one or two, raise their hands. If the church is not training their own people, why even talk about public theology? We don’t know what public theology is because we’re not training our own people.

JH: You’ve been involved with Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization doing what it can from a public policy or public advocacy perspective. Can you tell us a bit about that organization and how you came to be involved with them?

AP: Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was founded in 1994 by PCA pastor James D. Kennedy, Bill Bright, James Dobson, and others. Many evangelicals got together and realized they needed legal defense. They realized that as we preached the gospel, our First Amendment rights were being attacked vociferously. So, they came together and formed ADF.

     One of my elders was asked to come train the next generations. Not generation, but generations. They were thinking a hundred years down the line. Its leader at the time, Alan Sears, said that for thirty years people have shown up in court seeking to deny all sorts of religious freedoms, and nobody was defending our First Amendment rights. So, he did. He also started the Blackstone Fellowship. In 1999, the first year of the Blackstone Fellowship, he invited me because I had spoken on marriage and brought a Westminster point of view on apologetics. Over the years, the one thing I was called upon to bring home was Jesus’s sexual ethic.

     I did that for almost 20 years. I still love their work and I connected Westminster with ADF. They help institutions like ours because we’re living in a day where our freedoms are being radically challenged.

JH: You’ve said that Cornelius Van Til, one of Westminster’s founding faculty, and his apologetic method has informed your work in this area. Can you say a bit more about that?

AP: Van Til was very consistent in his Reformed theology. Sin has twisted mankind, so the common ground is not an appeal to reason. We have presuppositions, and we bring that to bear in and discussing, for example, marriage as a public good. Sexuality—why we don’t make ourselves male or female—that is a given. The fall has affected it to varying degrees, but through Jesus Christ, we have wonderful restoration. Grace restores nature.

     Understanding that whomever you’re talking to is made in God’s image, the common ground is right there. God’s moral law is written on their hearts and they know it at some deep level. They may suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but they can’t suppress all the truth, all the time. In Van Til’s language, there’s always borrowed capital.

     Even peacemaking you can’t really do without Reformed theology because unless you have a substantial view of creation, fall, and redemption, you are going to have a weakened ministry. Reformed theology that is best expressed here at Westminster teaches us that.

JH: It seems like the way Christians often engage in all the rancorous political divides of our culture is almost no different than the rest of society. What would you say marks a distinctly Christian approach to engaging the hot button issues of the day?

AP: Well, going back to creation, God is sovereign. If we’re going to “change the culture,” we can’t be Arminian. We can’t think we’re going to do it merely by our own effort.

     I think when people get into conflicts with one another, why they stop listening to one another and don’t appeal when they ought to appeal with tears, is because they’re Pelagian. They think, “What’s the problem with you? You don’t see it as I do. It’s so simple, stupid.” We start getting angry with people. But if God is sovereign, and how much more now that we have fallen, it’s grace that restores nature. We must not only bring a message of grace, but the “adverbs of grace” must attend it.

     Going back to Galatians 6:1, if you see your brother caught in sin, you who are spiritual must restore him gently. 2 Timothy 2:24–26 says the Lord’s servant must not quarrel. Instead, he must be kind to everyone—even the angry LGBTQ person or the angry pro-abortionist—and able to teach, not resentful to those who oppose him. He must gently instruct in the hope that God would grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil who has taken them captive to do his will.

     If we would listen to that, I think we would carry on our public policy discussions as Christ would have us. He doesn’t say don’t talk about it. Ephesians 5:11 says to have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but expose them. We are to expose them, but how? Going back to 2 Timothy 2:24 and following, we expose them gently. Those who oppose him—that’s strong language—those who oppose him, he must gently instruct. There’s the adverb of grace. And the hope is that God would grant them repentance.

"If God is sovereign, if grace really is grace, it’s only a gift of God that any of us come to our senses and a knowledge of the truth."

     If God is sovereign, if grace really is grace, it’s only a gift of God that any of us come to our senses and a knowledge of the truth. Do we conduct our public theology in that manner so that they may come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil? Think of who we’re up against. Therefore, we have to be wise as serpents, innocent as doves.

JH: That’s really helpful. What counsel would you give to pastors seeking to guide their flock through these tumultuous times?

AP: I think you need to hit it head-on. There are times in the pastorate where we preach through books, but there are times where topical teaching is very necessary. For example, when President Obama came out before Mother’s Day of 2012 and said that he and Michelle as Christians had come to see from Scripture that same-sex marriage was biblical, I immediately addressed it. That Sunday, I said, “I’m sorry, I cannot continue preaching through the book I was preaching, but I must address what our President has said.” I said, “I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking President Obama.” What gets me is that I know he has a pastor and Jesus said, “Woe to you.” Woe to you, pastors, who are preaching falsehood and leading people like our President into gross godlessness. I attacked the liberal church that has said the Bible is not God’s word and that the gospel is largely a works salvation.

     So, if there’s conflict, or even before there’s conflict in the church, you need to take a passage like 2 Timothy 2:24–26 and unpack it for your people. Say, “This is what God calls of every Christian.” Just before that, Paul says, don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because they produce quarrels. Now, there’s going to be conflict, but let the unbeliever do the quarreling. We who are following Christ should be teaching, kind to everyone, gently instructing those who oppose us, not quarreling, not resentful, and with great prayer, hoping that God would grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Because our adversary is not flesh and blood, but they have been trapped by the devil.

     That’s what Westminster does best. It gives us the tools to know Scripture and defend the faith, and go against those that would tear down the knowledge of God and of his truth.

Dr. Alfred Poirier (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He has held several additional teaching positions and has 38 years of pastoral ministry experience. His academic interests lie in the areas of pastoral counseling and expository preaching. He is the author of The Peacemaking Pastor (Baker, 2006), and Words that Cut: Learning to Take Criticism in Light of the Gospel (Peacemaker Ministries).

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