george hancock stefanDuring the month of December, I had the opportunity to read two phenomenal books. One book, written by Leland Ryken, was entitled, J.I. Packer – An Evangelical Life. The other, written by Leon Panetta with the help of Jim Newton, was entitled Leon Panetta – Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace.  While this combination may seem odd to some readers, I have a lecture in my Church History class where I look at theologians who had to make political decisions such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is expected that theologians spend lots of time in prayer, in study, in church, and in identifying with a particular denomination.  J.I. Packer identifies with the Anglican Church, even after the Anglican Church revoked his ordination license. While I was impressed with Packer’s tenacity and commitment to the church of his youth, I was amazed at the pride and transparency that Panetta had about being Roman Catholic. He talks about his faith, about his regular attendance at Mass, his prayers, and especially the comfort that he received from praying his Hail Marys.  Once they accepted their callings in life – to be a theologian and to be a politician respectively – the variety and the specificity of their calls came independently.

Packer’s training as a theologian concluded with his receiving a Ph.D in theology while Panetta’s concluded with his getting a Juris Doctor. Packer was then called to be a theologian and a pastor, a lecturer, a debater, a conference speaker, and a systematic theologian.  He wrote hundreds of books and thousands of articles.  While Packer’s influence is international, he always sees himself as a member of the local church wherever he lives – Britain, the US, or Canada. Panetta started as a lawyer, but then swiftly moved to Washington as a representative and worked in President Clinton’s administration as the Budget Director and Chief of Staff and then in President’s Obama Administration as the head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense. Panetta was at the pinnacle of power, yet he made an agreement with the president that he needs to return regularly to his home in Monterey, Ca. He needed to stay closer to his home base, his family, and his friends.

In the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther talked about the sacredness of each calling.  He emphasized that not only priests and nuns were called, but every profession is a sacred profession if it is done with great integrity to honor God and to benefit human beings. On the cover of the Panetta book, Leslie Gelb of the New York Times Book Review writes, ” Young people searching for the role model of a public servant will find few as good as Panetta.  A playbook for how to behave with integrity in a city with limited virtue.”  Within the book, Panetta praised his immigrant Italian father and mother for instilling in him the values of working hard, frugality, and endless thanks for this country that gave his parents, Panetta himself, and then his children the ability to live and work here. There were other men and women of honesty – those who were able to look and work for what is the best for this country in the midst of difficult situations.

Just as Panetta loves this country, Packer loves the church because God loves the church. It is known around my church that I give a copy of Packer’s book to every college student who is serious about their faith. This book is called Knowing God. It is one of the great 20th century classics. Students who have read this book found out that while the church is disregarded in many parts of the world, God is in love with the church. Packer writes as one who needs to defend the church, enrich the church, challenge the church, and leave the church in a much better state than it was in when he started his ministry as a pastor and theologian.


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Any reviewer of biographies finds small items that he does not like. As I finished reading Packer’s book, I agreed with some of his friends that there was not a single theological debate (not to say fights) in which Packer felt that he didn’t need to be involved. As a result of being involved in so many minor debates, many felt that it kept Packer from writing more books (although I cannot imagine how many more he can write). As I read Panetta, whose adherence to Catholicism I admired, I was perplexed that he uses the f word as commonly as asking someone to pass the bread. Some people mentioned that he has trained Rahm Emmanuel whose awful language is well-known, but Panetta claims that Emmanuel gained his language completely on his own.

What I found in common between the two – a theologian and a politician – is the reality of life and death. Packer writes and preaches as one who imparts life and death.  He has read and practices what Paul wrote to the Romans that we are the aroma of God (alluding to the Roman procession of the Caesar marching in Rome) distributing for some life and for some death.  For those who receive Christ, we distribute life and for those who refuse the message, we distribute death.  Panetta is aware that in the Budget Department, the State Department, and the CIA, he deals with life and death. Decisions that he made were always carefully measured with the knowledge that he needed to act with courage and integrity. Above all that, he was entrusted with the defense of the USA.

As we begin this year, we need to be thankful to God for the calling that he has placed on us.  The majority of humanity will not be at the high positions that Packer and Panetta had, but each one of us are called to use the same qualities that they use – complete assessment of all the positions, fairness to those who hold opposing views, and courage to face difficult situations. When we reach a conclusion, let it be known that we did so with integrity.


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Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

George Hancock-Stefan

Pastor George Hancock-Stefan completed 30 years as the pastor of the great congregation at Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands in 2020. Those 30 years have been a blessed time for him, his wife...