The Contribution of Derek Tidball to Pastoral Theology


Bruce W. Fong


Presented at the
Evangelical Theological Society
San Antonio, TX
November 2016



On December 14, 2012 Adam Lanza entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults. He had already shot and murdered his own mother. Before first responders arrived on the scene, Lanza committed suicide by turning his gun on himself.

The nation and the world were horrified and in shock. Innocent lives were murdered. A young crazed man was guilty of this horrific crime.

In the days following the nightmarish event, investigators carried out their grim tasks. Families embroiled themselves in mourning. Newscasters broadcast every angle on any stories of interest that they could conjure up.

Interviews of counselors, mental health experts, law enforcement officers, friends and acquaintances of victims and the perpetrator, debates with lawmakers and various pundits and experts filled up the airtime with national reporters. In the background of many of these shots were crowds of people gathering at churches for memorial services for the victims.

What escaped the nation and the world’s notice was that the pastors were never sought out to speak into the event. They were relegated into the background. There, they would help people deal with their grief but any inquiry, insights or expertise on the events of the horrific event were directed toward others with specialized credentials. It was unsettling to see how pastors were not regarded as experts in their community to address such critical topics that surround family, life, death, hope, transformation, evil or community. Instead, they do the tidying up and oversee the background activities of burying the dead.[1]

It has not always been like this. Pastors were once among the most educated in their communities. They not only served as the minister of their church but were also civic leaders.[2] Citizens turned to the pastors for advice, insight, wisdom and guidance in all matters of life and practice.[3] Pastors do serve their church and, in some ways, they also serve their entire community.[4]

Into this arena of lost influence and regard, Derek Tidball has made a remarkable contribution. He has been part of the new discussion on the place of Pastoral Theology in the community, academy and clergy. His helpful work Skillful Shepherds is subtitled as “An Introduction to Pastoral Theology,” and delves into the overall framework of the discussion.[5]

Tidball explores the first and foremost question of what the Scriptures say about pastoral leadership. Then, he advances the notion that the Scriptures are themselves a pastoral theology. His heart for ministry and not theory is evident as he points to current issues facing the church that fall squarely into the pastor’s daily schedule as he shepherds his people. Note his clear intention: “I have written out of a concern that much of our pastoral practice is not sufficiently related to our theological study.”[6] Pastors who pursue many activities without a driving anchor firmly attached to theology, end up weakening their impact:[7] “Theology which is removed from ministry and ministry which is purely pragmatic are both poor servants of the church and even worse masters.”[8]

I have never been a student of Derek Tidball[9] but I laugh at his illustration of Pastoral Theology as described by Chrysostom. “ . . . no unskilled person would ever be asked to pilot a merchant vessel through the obstacles into harbor, laden as it would be with valuable cargo. How much more foolish it is, he argued, to ask an unskilled person to pilot the church through difficult waters, laden as it is with cargo of eternal value.”[10]


Introduction of Derek Tidball

A helpful introduction to Derek Tidball comes in the form of our modern Internet option through You Tube.[11] There is a friendly debate between Gordon Livesey, an atheist, and Derek Tidball, a theist. The debate was structured on a town hall format, which included a moderator, who guided the conversation.

Livesey dominated the interaction, establishing the boundaries and propositions to be proved.[12] While Tidball did a respectable presentation of a theist’s position, he had an uphill climb with the absolutes that Livesey had set up to weaken a Biblical defense. From a strictly debate perspective, I would surmise that Livesey won on the basis of points. However, winning is not a matter of faith’s real concern.

This debate does not advance the discussion of Pastoral Theology rather it serves as a good introduction to Derek Tidball. Aside from the debate features of this recording, Tidball is clearly a warm, inviting and thoughtful man. He cares for those with whom he speaks. He was gracious to a feisty debater like Livesey. His Biblical and Theological knowledge are vast; his life experiences are also supportive and extensive when it comes to faith living. In some respects he was modeling Pastoral Theology in a hostile environment.

Derek Tidball has lived an accomplished life in the ministry. His first degree was in sociology. He has since served as the Principal of Studies at London Bible College for twelve years and has also served as the minister of Mutley Baptist Church in Plymouth, England. The Spurgeon College in London lists him as a visiting scholar.[13]

Tidball gives a helpful call to the clergy. He invites them all to rejuvenate pastoral theology and give to it the prominent place that it is due. In his observation Pastoral Theology had “ . . . largely degenerated from being a serious theological discipline to not much more than handy tips on how to practice the ministry.”[14] His observations about clerical challenges in the church can be relegated to a return to the basics: “it’s confidence in the Gospel.  A confidence we have lost.  I’ve recently spoken on the theme ‘When did we stop preaching the Gospel and start preaching mission?’  Because actually we spend all our time talking about strategy rather than talking about the Gospel, and I think we should talk less about means and methods and our resources and our approach and our marketing, and just get on and talk more about Jesus.”[15]


Tidball on the State of Pastoral Theology

Speaking for many who have thought through the current state of Pastoral Theology, Tidball describes the “disorientation” that this discipline is experiencing since the end of World War II. He identifies six factors that have contributed to this condition. First, our communities have found a replacement for the key role of leadership that pastors once had. Now, the myriad of social services has replaced the clergy as experts in guiding a community with the problems that the world has poured out on its citizens. Second, the social structure of our communities has moved away from a rural cultural environment to a scientific and business framework. In this discussion Tidball notices the move away from the pastoral role as “shepherd” because so few are familiar with the agrarian culture that give context to this role. Third, as society has shifted through the industrial revolution, the assumption that a Christian nation only has to concern itself with keeping the sheep penned is inaccurate and inappropriate. Fourth, the church has been on a journey to realize that ministry is a shared responsibility with the whole body and not just the clergy. This movement has lessened that role of the pastor and has even brought some pastors, who lead too strongly, under fire. Fifth, in the information age when truth has been questioned, authority is diversified and reasonableness has taken on many different means of validity and pastoral theology as an application of Christian truth has been ignored because it is out of touch or old fashioned. Sixth, pastoral boundaries are no longer clear. “It stems from the growing recognition that God is not confined to work only in and through the church and truth is not to be found exclusively within the church’s boundaries.”[16]

This discussion continues with a search for an adequate definition. What is Pastoral Theology? Since this discipline has been reduced in impact and regard, it has been relegated to being “not much more than handy tips on ‘how to’ practice the ministry.”[17] Tidball identifies five aspects that have a significant influence on the composition of this definition.

First, Pastoral Theology is defined by how a church is constructed from a governance perspective. Its officers, members and their relationships in exercising ecclesial authority are important.         While sociology has influenced this discussion, the foundations of a definition of this specific discipline should find their center in the New Testament.[18]

Second, the office and function of the pastor should be premier in this definition. Tidball cites T.C. Oden in his contribution to this discussion.[19] The limitations that Tidball points out are helpful. If Pastoral Theology begins with function it is far too restrictive and limited. He assesses this approach to a definition:


“…it is still lacking if it claims to be full-orbed pastoral theology, firstly because it is so completely tied to the ordained ministry and secondly because it starts primarily from the function of the ministry. Both of these lead to a restricted form of pastoral theology which, if it is to be adequate, must cater for more than simply what the minister does and must include the wider pastoral dimension of the life of the church.”[20]


Third, a definition of Pastoral Theology should include but not be limited to matters of management and leadership. How a Pastor organizes the effective oversight of volunteers, paid professionals and group dynamics are of concern to this philosophical discipline as well. Yet, the heart of Pastoral Theology must be observed elsewhere.[21]

Fourth, pastoral counseling has a place in the definition. In recent generations the necessity of counseling the sheep is a demanding part of the clergy’s time. Christian ethics can be rolled into this discussion as well. This begs the question, could Pastoral Theology ever be primarily or exclusively focused on caring for people’s problems or weaknesses? It seems clear that the strengths that people have are key for service, well-being and community development.[22]

Fifth, it is important to identify the place that moral theology or Christian ethics have in Pastoral Theology. Spirituality is in fact a part of the definition but various participants in the discussion contest how it emerges as a focus or element of the focus.[23]

A cogent definition does not have a consensus. Many voices emphasize one feature or combination of others. Even the place of Homiletics in Pastoral Theology leaves the task of an effective definition in an even more confused state. Tidball considers it too often an overemphasis of Pastoral Theology.

Tidball likes the definition suggested by Hiltner.[24] He believes that a definition of Pastoral Theology is better served if it does not limit itself to a particular function of the ministry. Instead, he believes that it is more precise if the essence of Pastoral Theology rests on a “ . . . shepherding perspective which affects one’s perception of the whole pastoral task and the content of which that task is pursued.”[25] While it is important to note that he likes the concept that Pastoral Theology is a Theology in its own right, “ . . . the foundation of the discipline is therefore theology not contemporary social sciences.”[26] Finally, “it stresses the close interaction between theology and pastoral experience and the way in which experience must lead to theological reflection.”[27]

A definition of Pastoral Theology that Tidball would like to approve must not result in perspective that is too subjective or narrow. Theology must be a solid point of a satisfying definition. A relatively subjective conclusion would not be satisfying. It must serve as an effective

“ . . . interface between theology . . . on the one hand, and pastoral experience and care on the other. As such it is found to be a discipline in tension. It is not theology in the abstract but theology seen from the shepherding perspective. The shepherding perspective may well inform and question the theology but more fundamentally the theology will inform and question the work of the shepherd and the relationship must not be reversed.”[28]


Whatever definition is reached, Tidball suggests that a blend of practical functions and the theology of the Word of God provides the best solution. He is convinced that the authority of the Scriptures is key. The pastor is the curator of that trust. He is never to allow ministry practices to dictate what his priorities are either in function or belief.[29] An interface must be rediscovered that neither highlights only Christian doctrine or pastoral experience.

“A discipline in tension is not theology in the abstract, but theology seen from the shepherding perspective. The shepherding perspective may well inform and question the theology but more fundamentally the theology will inform and question the work of the shepherd and that relationship must not be reversed.”[30]

Those who are cared for by the clergy are the ultimate beneficiaries of this careful exercise of pastoral theology.

“The Christian life is not a mere general philosophy; it is that but it does not stop at that! It is a life to be lived, and it is a life to be lived in particular details.’ The Christian life is not a set of codes of conduct, morals or ethics to which we must confirm. Rather it is something, which inevitably arises out of what we believe. “[31]


Leadership in the Field of Pastoral Theology

During an interview with Derek Tidball he was asked to reflect on the broader changes of the Evangelical movement during his lifetime. His reflections provide the infrastructure for his discussions on how Pastoral Theology has shifted and the needs it has to develop into a cogent and directive discipline for today’s clergy. His perspective takes on a worldwide scope: “The center of Evangelicalism has moved from Britain and America to Africa and Asia and Latin America. In the UK because we have been struggling with secularism and to some extent the US as well, but it’s more advanced in Europe, we have perhaps compromised at times too much.  But Evangelicalism is always a living tradition though some people see it very much as ‘fixed thing.’ . . . This impacts the discussion of ‘women in ministry.’ Here many of us felt we could read Scripture quite faithfully, authentically but differently than we have traditionally. The sexuality debate is the one that we’re in the thick of at the moment.”[32]

Tidball ascribes his own thinking and influence to the influence of two notable individuals: John Stott and Robert Runcie. On the influence of John Stott: “Stott had written the Lausanne Covenant…I hadn’t met him until then, but I identified him on the underground station before travelling to the EA together.  I introduced myself and as we were speaking, an old tramp standing about 10-12 feet from us, pulled out a stub of a pencil, dropped it, and it rolled down the platform.  John simply picked it up and gave it back to him, in a way that gave the tramp huge dignity, spoke to him about life in London, and before long was speaking to him about the Lord.” [33]

Regarding the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie: Tidball explains that Runcie did not know of the connection between John Stott and his past liberal teachers. In a conversation about John Stott Robert Runcie exclaimed,

“Utter tragedy, utter tragedy!  John Stott was taught by some of the best liberal theological minds in Cambridge, and he never believed a word of what they were teaching!”  So what Runcie and other liberal leaders in the Church thought was a tragedy, many of us thought was fantastic.”[34]



Derek Tidball’s life, like all who are called into the ministry, was greatly influenced by those who were already practicing ministry. John Stott was a key influence in Tidball’s life, and it is noteworthy. The connection helped shape him as a minister of Jesus Christ. Tidball’s thinking was also shaped by his studies of the Scriptures. The authority of the Word God detailed how he would practice the ministry for a lifetime. Finally, through decades of faithfully shepherding people in the local church, Tidball learned the function of an ordained minister of the Gospel. Pastoring people resulted in his perception that function was essential to ministry. He valued all three of these elements: study of the Scriptures, functional duties of a pastor and shepherding people. Collectively, they formed his Pastoral Theology.

Perhaps Tidball’s contribution to the very broad discussion on Pastoral Theology is about him modeling his call as a minister of the Gospel. He first thinks about what he does as a member of the clergy. Then, he does it. The Scriptures give him a direction to address certain functions of local church leadership and then he puts them into practice.[35] The example of others around him confirms his conclusions. He is a well-balanced pastor. This balance of theological thinking and consequential function affirmed by colleagues in ministry is Tidball’s call to all who enter the clergy.

Very likely as John Stott influenced him, I suspect that there are many of his students, colleagues and fellow clergy who would testify to his influence on them. Fundamentally, a pastor is a generalist with the necessary combination of skills, panache and character that will attract and serve many types of people in all seasons of life.[36]

Tidball’s six features that are a part of his definition of Pastoral Theology are helpful. Some are precise and crystal clear. Others may take a little longer for someone to embrace. They may choose to discard a point or two. But, all of them will make a minister think. They will also lead a theologian to examine the Scriptures for a basis of declaration or disagreement.

All in all, the clergy will rethink and restudy as a response to Tidball’s teachings and beliefs. Both of those are good things. Perhaps the best thing is that when the dust settles, the community will have naturally gained a leader in the key aspects of life. They will again find a civic voice through tough times. The influence of the pastor will again be one of calm, insight, truth and direction for people trying to find the peace that surpasses all understanding.


Selected Bibliography

Crawford, Sue.  Clergy at Work in the Secular City (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1995.

#197 Debate – Gordon Livesey vs. Derek Tidball – Biblical Contradictions – 2009.

Hiltner, S. Preface to Pastoral Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958.

Kidder, Joseph. “The Biblical Role of the Pastor,” Ministry, International Journal for Pastors, pp19-21, April 2009.

King’s Evangelical Divinity School. “Interview with Derek Tidball” Oct 2010,

Matcham, Richard. “Interview with British Theologian Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball” Gralefrit Theology, 22 July 2015.

Oden, T.C. Pastoral Theology: “Essentials of Ministry.” San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

Slutz, Ted. “The Changing Role of Clergy,” Religion & Community, Vol 5, No2, Spring 2001.

Tidball, Derek. Ministry by the Book, “New Testament Patterns for Pastoral Leadership”. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.

________. “Holiness: Restoring God’s Image, Colossians 3:5-17” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, Kelly Kapic, editor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014.

________. How Does God Guide? Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001.

________, Editor. The Message of Holiness. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010.


________. The Message of Women. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012.


________. “Review of Love Wins”. Evangelical Alliance “Better Together.” 29 March 2011.


________. Skillful Shepherds: “An Introduction to Pastoral Theology.” Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

________. The Social Context of the New Testament. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press in the Biblical Classics Library, 1983.

Wilson, Todd and Gerald Hiestand, editors. Becoming a Pastor Theologian “New Possibilities for Church Leadership.” Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016.


[1] I am grateful to Dan Alshire, Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools for this poignant observation in the aftermath of the heinous Sandy Hook crime.

[2] Sue Crawford concluded that the clergy in her study felt torn by their own congregations and denominational leadership. Social activism was in need of influences and leadership more than the ministers taking the initiative out of conviction. Serving the poor and needy was way to appear to be impacting their community [Sue Crawford, Clergy at Work in the Secular City (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1995)].

[3] Slutz notes that the early role of the clergy 1890’s–1910’s embraced a social gospel that encouraged their involvement in community matters. Civil rights actions in the 1950’s–1960’s drew attention to well-known activist clergy but may have skewed the role of the minister population at large (Slutz, “Role of Clergy,” 2001).

[4] Joseph Kidder rejects the traditional role of the pastor as impractical. In his article “The Biblical Role of the Pastor” he lists five expectations of the traditional role. These expectations come from the people in the pew. Today’s pastor cannot succeed at this old model. Nor can the new model of the pastor as a CEO limits a pastor’s attention only to his congregation at the expense of the universal church. His suggestion is to follow the example of Christ. Yet, his argument may be more suited to what a Christ follower will do as opposed to a pastor charged with caring for a congregation in a given community. (Kidder, “The Biblical Role,” 19.)

[5] Derek Tidball, Skillful Shepherds “An Introduction to Pastoral Theology”, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

[6] Ibid., 7.

[7] Hiestand agrees with this concern that results from bifurcation of theology and ministry. He warns “that the result of this split is theological atrophy in the local church.” Furthermore, he “also calls the emerging generation of theologians to consider the pastorate as both a vocation and a fitting context for further scholarship.” For a further discussion with Hiestand’s position (The Expository Times, 261-271) see Heslop’s discussion in Theology and Pastoral Ministry, 12.10.2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The personal background of Derek Tidball recounts a life of local church pastoral leadership and a rich contribution into the academy through his personal leadership and scholarship: Minister of Northchurch Baptist Church, Berkhamsted (1972-77); Tutor and Director of Studies at London Bible College (1978-85); Sr. Minister of Mutley Baptist Church, Plymouth (1985-91); Secretary for Evangelism and Mission of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (1991-95); Principal of London School of Theology (formerly London Bible College) (1995-2007); Tidball was married to Dianne and they had one son. He was a prolific author. Selected publications that follow is from the kings divinity website ( describing Tidball’s writing achievements.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] #197 Debate – Gordon Livesey vs Derek Tidball – Bible Contradictions – 2009. Tidball comments on his views that relate to the New-Atheism: “… if God doesn’t exist why are they protesting about Him so much?”  He continues on in a similar vein: “The challenges, I think, are very much more subtle and hidden, so yes, the New-Atheists might give people some confirmation about their position but only after they’ve decided God is irrelevant.”  The greater battle is in Britain where for most people, church and God just isn’t a serious proposition.”

[12] Livesey was fixated on casting doubt on the veracity of the Bible. He believed that if he could show any level of inconsistency in the Bible, then he would have won this debate.

[13] The many positions and offices held by Derek Tidball are gleaned from the author’s description from several books that he has written. These titles are noted in the Selected Bibliography.

[14] Tidball, Shepherds, 13.


[16] Tidball, Shepherds, 17

[17] Ibid., 13

[18] Ibid., 18.

[19] T.C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), x.

[20] Tidball, Shepherds, 19

[21] Ibid, 20.

[22] Ibid,, 20.

[23] Ibid., 21.

[24] “Pastoral theology is defined here as the branch or field of theological knowledge and inquiry that brings the shepherding perspective to bear upon all the operations and functions of the church and minister, and then draws conclusions of a theological order from reflection on these observations.” S. Hiltner, Preface to Pastoral Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958), 20.

[25] Tidball, Shepherds, 22

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 24.

[29] Tidball notes as an example where pragmatism and theology have separated and by default sunk into a shallow conclusion: “Romans 12.1-2 Paul spends eleven chapters laying the foundation on which the exhortation is based. However, too many focus on an unhealthy activism or too pious a moralism.” Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 27.


[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For a further discussion on this topic of the pastor being the resident theological of a community and serving as the overseer of his flock see Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Pastor Theologian as Public Theologian” in Kevin Vanhoozer, Becoming a Pastor Theologian, Downers Grove, IL, IV Press, 2016, 37-51.
[36] Peter Leithart, “The Pastor Theologian as Biblical Theologian” in Becoming a Pastor Theologian, Downers Grove, IL: IV Press, 2016, 22.