Continuing our ongoing series of profiles of Westminster Alumni, Dr. Stephen Lewis graciously agreed to talk with us about his life and work since graduating from Westminster. Stephen graduated with a PhD in Old Testament in 2018. He is currently pastor of Knowlton Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New Jersey, a part-time online instructor here at Westminster, and he enjoys working on research and writing projects in his spare time. He and his wife, Amy, have seven children, and three grandchildren.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to Westminster.
I spent the first half of my childhood in Southern California, in Orange County, and the second half in a little country town – Potter Valley – in Northern California. I graduated with an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California in 1998 and then moved with my wife, Amy, and our first of seven children to Oregon where I became a PCA church planter. After 13 years in Oregon I desired to return to seminary for a PhD. An old classmate of mine, Lane Tipton, recommended that I apply to Westminster. After applying to five grad schools and being accepted by two, I joyfully moved my family across the continent to Philadelphia. Doug Green, who became my advisor, was one of the few professors during my seminary search who personally replied to my e-mail inquiries. It was that personal touch that won me over to Westminster.
At the time I planned to leave the pastorate and become a professor at a college or seminary. I had previously been a middle school teacher and an adjunct professor of world religions at a community college. Even the most undisciplined students are easier to deal with than people in the church. But over the course of my time at Westminster I discovered, somewhat like Jonah, that it is difficult to run away from your pastoral calling. In my classes and while working at the Westminster Bookstore, whether I wanted it or not, I was known as “Pastor Stephen.” The four years I spent in Philadelphia were restorative years. I was able to go to church, sit with my family in the pew for a change, and listen to someone else preach. By the time I was in the dissertation writing phase, God had prepared me to re-enter the pastorate. When the opportunity in New Jersey opened up, I was ready.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I grew up as a pastor’s kid in a loving Christian home immersed in the Scripture and in hospitality ministry. When I was four years old my older brother Nathan sat me down and explained that I was a sinner deserving of hell but that the Lord Jesus was the Savior of sinners. He led me in praying a sinner’s prayer. Some of the Sunday School teachers in our church pushed a decisionistic approach to salvation, provoking doubts in my heart. But my parents consistently pointed me back to Christ and the gospel. As I grew, I mastered a sort of Bible trivia knowledge that impressed the adults at church but which nurtured a self-righteous presumptuousness that left me spiritually dry. As a pastor’s kid I saw a lot of nonsense in the church which fed my sarcastic and sacrilegious attitude. Half-way through college my older brother re-visited the gospel with me, explaining to me for the first time the doctrines of grace and opening me up to the wonder of the person and work of Christ.
What does your work and/or ministry look like now?
While technically I am a solo pastor of a little country church, I’m not working solo at all. God has blessed me with a wonderful leadership team. Unlike my years as a church planter, I don’t feel alone in ministry. My ministry is pretty typical stuff – I preach and lead worship Sunday morning, I teach Sunday School, lead prayer meetings, visit parishioners, counsel couples and individuals, study and pray, network with people in the community, and serve in my presbytery. It is glorious work, when you think about it – work that Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof could only dream of doing. Two years ago Westminster asked if I would consider being a part-time online instructor, team-teaching Old Testament classes. At first I was skeptical of online education, but the way Westminster has set up the program you actually get to know the students personally and everyone has an impact on each other. The online schedule allows me to do most of the work late at night or in between pastoral appointments. I think of it this way – instead of having one or two face-to-face pastoral interns working with me at the church, I have 30 online students who are biblical counselors, pastors, and lay-leaders in their churches.
What are some particular challenges in your ministry or field of work that Westminster helped prepare you for?
There is a lot of pressure in pastoral ministry to put your confidence in methods, in event planning, in leadership management, and other good but secondary matters. Westminster renewed in me an unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, in the ordinary means of grace, in the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The intensity of the PhD program also made me a more efficient student of the Scripture. But perhaps the best thing the doctoral program did for me is bring me to despair of trusting in my own talents. Early in the program I repeatedly failed the Hebrew exam and started to wonder if I had made a really bad decision in quitting my pastorate in Oregon and moving my family across the continent. While taking the Lord’s Supper one Lord’s Day I finally understood that even if I had to drop out of Westminster as a failed student that Jesus was enough, that Jesus’ body and blood were more than enough for me to live and to thrive. I often remember this because I fail in pastoral ministry even more often than I used to fail at Hebrew.
Which professors and other relationships had the biggest influence on you at Westminster, and why?
Dr. Doug Green cared about me as a person and took time to pray with me regularly. Dr. Brandon Crowe really grew on me as a professor. At first all I could think of was how young he was. But then, in the course of my own research, I started to bump into numerous scholarly articles Crowe had written, articles that he never told us about in class. Such humility was amazing to me, because even Christ-centered seminaries can be sidetracked by personal pride. Dr. Vern Poythress was very approachable. Before I came to Westminster I knew Vern as the author of the book that rescued me from dispensationalism. Now as a Westminster student, my research on the book of Esther struck some people as misguided and allegorical. Vern was able to give me more encouragement in five minutes in his office than others could in an hour.
When Dr. Iain Duguid became my advisor I quickly figured out that even though he had been my professor and friend years earlier in California, that friendship was not going to mean he would take it easy on me. Throughout my dissertation writing he would honestly critique my work, vastly improving the final result. The fact that he was not only a professor but an active pastor also encouraged me to jump back into pastoral ministry. The fact that he was still preaching Christ from all of Scripture encouraged me not to turn the pulpit into an academic lecture. But the relationships at Westminster that had the biggest impact on me were my managers and co-workers at the Westminster Bookstore. As we read and reviewed new books, as we unpacked and shipped books all over the country at a frenzied pace, we shared each other’s struggles and dreams and got a lot of nonsense out of our systems. While I haven’t been using my box-cutting and floor-jack skills in the pastorate, I’ll never forget those bookstore brothers.
How can seminaries like Westminster continue to have a positive influence in your area of work, ministry or influence?
Stay true to your simple mission of training people to see and preach Christ in all of Scripture. People talk about being lifelong learners, but the way that’s often practiced is through independent self-study or passively attending conferences with big name headliners. Westminster already puts together compelling conferences. It can build on this by providing lifelong learning opportunities for its graduates, opportunities that promote friendships, networking, and scholarship by rank and file graduates rather than superstar speakers.
What about your time at Westminster has left the biggest impact on you?
The years I spent at Westminster were years of on-campus controversy between professors. One student said it was like watching our parents go through a divorce. In a strange way this experience actually prepared me for the inevitable controversies that accompany pastoral ministry in the local church. What’s encouraged me in the years since is to see Westminster persevering – stumbling at times, yes, but stumbling forward by God’s grace. I’m thankful to be a graduate of Westminster, not because I think it is perfect or the best place in the world, or anything like that, but because I see its leaders calling out to God for help and persevering in their holy faith.
What five books would you recommend that students should read before they go into seminary?
1) Systematics: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is so readable and so solid. Even if you only read half of it before seminary, it would be so helpful to you.
2) Apologetics: J. I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God. You need to understand why inerrancy matters, and you need good arguments for it.
4) Biblical Studies: O. Palmer Robertson’s The Flow of the Psalms. Not only will this book, bursting with insights, increase your desire to be immersed in the Psalms, it will provide a model for what biblical studies can be.
5) Practical Theology: John Stott’s Between Two Worlds. Few books on preaching will inspire you as much as this one. It will also introduce you to Stott whose NT commentaries are superb.
How can the Westminster community pray for you, your family and your ministry in the weeks and months ahead?
Pray that I would grow in love for the people of my church and community. Pray for three members of my family who have serious health needs. Pray for men willing to be trained to serve. Pray for the future launch of an effective and God-centered youth ministry.