Expediency or Obedience?

There’s a remarkable passage in Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God which speaks to a lot that is expressed in our preaching and teaching today:

“If it be agreeable to God’s will and convenient for some design of our own, and we do anything only with a respect to that design, we make not God’s holiness discovered in the law our rule, but our own conveniency: it is not a conformity to God, but a conformity of our actions to self. As in abstinence from intemperate courses, not because the holiness of God in his law prescribed it, but because the health of our bodies, or some noble contentments of life, require it; then it is not God’s holiness that is our rule, but our own security, conveniency or something else which we make a God to ourselves.”

It troubles me that in so much preaching and teaching that something may be declared as the command of God from his Word, and cited chapter and verse, but it seems that so many are unmoved until the preacher or teacher brings out some quote from some other supposed authority such as a medical doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist, and cites some statistics that people who live contrary to the declared will of God end up unhealthy or unhappy in their marriages or jobs or friendships or even unpopular. Just note when the heads turn and people pay attention: is it when the Word of God is cited or the advice and statistics of the physician or psychologist? (And how much displeasure, bitterness and resentment with others happens in marriages, families, friendships and church fellowships not because someone is disobedient to the clear teaching of the Word of God, but not living up to some expectations fostered by some outside authority upon grounds which come down to the personal expediency of the aggrieved party?)

For the person who has come to faith in Jesus Christ, who is the authority, the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word of God, or the medical doctor or psychologist? And what is the goal, our own being happy and well adjusted in this world, or to be reflections of the holiness of God by the power of the Holy Spirit?

“As obedient children, do not conform yourselves to the desires that you had previously in your ignorance, but as the One who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your behavior, just as it is written, ‘Holy you are to be, because I am holy.’” (I Peter 1:15-16).

Advertisements

Something Unfashionable From an Unfashionable Old Evangelist . . .

“Listen, if I heard shrieks and cries coming from a house and I ran in there and I found a great big broad shouldered whiskey soaked Joe weasel, dragging his wife about by the hair, and over here, two children are unconscious from his blows and kicks and another one screaming in terror, do you think I would apologize for being there? No! I’d knock 7 kinds of pork out of that old hog.” —Billy Sunday

I recalled having read this quote many years ago, and it brought to mind that the memory that verbal and physical abuse of others was at one time more soundly confronted in the pulpits of churches and in evangelistic campaigns as a terrible sin. Certainly Billy Sunday is more a figure of caricature to the few believers nowadays who remember his name; his blunt preaching and physical dramatics tend to be the kind of thing that many preachers now may try to avoid. His personal war on alcohol seems quaint nowadays, but in context, it was also a war on family violence and verbal abuse as well. There’s also a well documented connection of family violence and abuse to alcohol abuse and alcoholism  in modern times, so Billy Sunday wasn’t all wrong in what he was seeing and what he was confronting, however unfashionable his style and emphasis may be now.

I’m not a prohibitionist on drinking alcohol, and I’m not advocating a return to  prohibitionist preaching or preaching on total abstinence. I’m totally unconvinced by the linguistic and historical arguments of some that wine in the Bible was actually grape juice. Rather, I’m showing that the avoidance of one unfashionable and probably unBiblical emphasis in preaching may have also meant neglecting another very Biblical emphasis in preaching for a very long time.

“You’re Not a REAL MAN If . . .”

Over the past twenty or so years, first starting with the growth of the Promise Keepers movement, and then continuing onward, there has been renewed interest in men’s ministries in many evangelical churches. There has been some well intentioned recognition that the Bible does call for, at some level, some of the traditionally ‘masculine’ virtues such as courage and perseverance. There has coincided with a recognition that the Biblical pattern of following Jesus does not include the immaturity, irresponsibility and hidden abuse that characterize the lives of many men. Nevertheless, I think that there are three dangers in the way the approach that some take.

The first danger is that some may take some male-dominated activities and cultural stereotypes hold them up as part of what make someone a REAL MAN. These unBiblical intrusions do not provide a Biblical solution. For instance, in some parts of the United States, especially more rural areas, hunting and fishing is a more male dominated activity, and some may disdain a person who does not hunt and fish as someone who isn’t a REAL MAN. Or, in other parts of the United States, participation in high school football programs, or other sports, may be esteemed as part of the coming of age process for a male, and thus anyone who didn’t participate in that program for whatever reason may be disdained as not being a REAL MAN.  Or, someone from a military background or family, where ownership of guns and marksmanship and physical endurance and physical combat skills are esteemed, may disdain someone else who does not display interest or participate in those activities as not being a REAL MAN. In other words, characteristics which go along with a person’s background or regional culture are added onto the Biblical portrayal of manhood.

After all these years of reading the Bible, I think that the Biblical portrayal of manhood is this: a male is created male (Genesis 1:27), and nothing any human being can say can contradict that. Certainly being male can mean that either godliness or ungodliness can make a man mature, compassionate and responsible or immature, irresponsible and cruel, but that the Bible does not put those characteristics in terms of being a REAL MAN or not being a REAL MAN. Pastors and leaders go into unBiblical territory when they address manhood  in that way, and they may unwittingly reinforce a man who excuses his cruelty as toughness or his workaholism or sports idolatry as fulfilling his manly responsibilities.

The second problem then arises from this. Nowhere does the Bible use being a REAL MAN as being a major motivation for faith in the promises of scripture or following the commands of scripture, or give any justification to disdaining anyone for any kind of immaturity or irresponsibility as not being a REAL MAN. Rather, Biblical motivation is based in being a new creation in Christ and having been freed from the bondage of sin (John 8:31,34,36, Romans 6:1-23, 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:17-24, among others), love to Christ (John 14:21-14), and responsibility to Christ as Lord, Savior and Judge (II Corinthians 5:17). I think that this simply becomes another form of guilt or shame manipulation, and it ultimately doesn’t differ much from a statement like, “You’re a REAL CHRISTIAN if you do << some unBiblical standard>>” or “You’re not a REAL CHRISTIAN if you do not do << some unBiblical standard>>.” This type of guilt and shame manipulation may achieve a temporary change of behavior, but it loses its effect over time because it is ultimately using carnal means to try to restrain the sinful tendencies of human nature.

The third problem with this is that it feeds the backstabbing tendency among many men to try to make themselves look good by parading the faults of others around behind that person’s back – man gossip and man slander. Sometimes this does take the form of “He’s not much of a REAL MAN because he <<falls short of some unBiblical standard which I’ve set up, which I may conveniently happen to fulfill, or perhaps, not, in which case this slander is also hypocrisy>> ” They may try to justify this by claiming good intentions afterwards, but ultimately according to the Bible it’s still slander (James 4:11-12).

There was once a time when, in a conversation with a couple who were close friends, I mentioned someone who spread a rumor about me in rivalry for the affections of a girl, and the wife immediately responded with the statement, “Coward.” I think that we need to recognize that this kind of man-gossip and slander is compounded by an unBiblical cowardice as well, and that Christlike moral courage and Biblical obedience, for a man or a woman, is found in being willing to take responsibility for one’s own actions (part of self control, which is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit – Ephesians 5:22-23), to provide a gentle, private correction to our brothers and sisters based upon scripture (II Timothy 3:16-17, Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-17), and to be willing to be found wrong if someone has misunderstood or misjudged the conduct or behavior of another believer (James 3:1-2).

God’s Take on Dirty Fighting and Underhanded Tactics

The Old Testament has many passages which are difficult for many in contemporary congregations to understand. Many do not go much into the Old Testament in their personal reading, and thus do not get the wealth of what the Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus and the apostles, has to say about the God of the Bible and his ways.

Some of the most difficult passages may take place in the civil regulations of the Pentateuch. Here is one such passage: “If two men are fighting and the wife of of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).

This passage may seem to be senseless for someone reading it now, but through the Holy Spirit God inspired these passages as much as the passages that someone may gush over in public in the currently fashionable cliché, “I LOVE this verse.” This passage might have offended Victorian modesty if it had been preached over a hundred years ago, but that’s hardly a problem for congregations nowadays. It seems harsh by modern standards of justice, and it might play into some false idea, played upon both in liberal churches and by Gnostics in the past, that the God of the Old Testament was somehow harsher, more unreasonable and somehow different than the way that God was revealed to be in the New Testament by Jesus Christ.

There are some guidelines from scripture itself on how to look at these passages. First, much of the civil law of Israel was in fact an expansion on the Ten Commandments, as some modern preachers and teachers do recognize. This passage, though, does not seem to be one of these. Second, the comparison of the civil law of Israel with the laws of other nations shows that pretty much always the civil penalties are not nearly as harsh and often the civil regulations command compassion. Moreover, it’s reasonable to understand, as many rabbis claimed, that the penalties which seemed to prescribe mutilation were in fact civil fines of a set value, such as a set value for loss of an eye. In this way the penalties would resemble modern tort law, with a certain set financial liability for harming another person. It’s reasonable to see the penalty in this passage in this manner, although the way in which it was worded would have a strong deterrent effect. The complete absence of known mutilations for crimes in the Old Testament does seem to point to these laws not having been enforced with actual mutilation and perhaps not having had to have been enforced much at all.

This law is an example of what appears to be ‘case law,’ and God seems to use these to teach wider principles than the exact circumstances of the particular statutes. There is in fact scriptural guidance for this, in scripture interpreting scripture, in the path of progressive revelation. The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 9:9, takes the law about not muzzling the threshing ox as meaning much more, as pointing to a greater principle, which he applied to a New Testament apostle having the privilege of being supported by churches for full time ministry. Moreover, in I Timothy 1:8-11 he cites the civil penalties of the Old Testament Law as demonstrating what punishments are due to different kinds of sinful acts. So, the principle that this passage seems to point to seems to be to some lines that are not to be crossed in personal disputes, and that God takes a personal interest when these lines are crossed.

The first thing to consider is the situation which gives rise to the regulation. Two men have come to a fist fight over something. This could have been over possession of a lamb or a goat, a boundary stone, an agreement or even an insult or remark which was taken the wrong way. It’s much likely not to be a fight to injury or to the death; Exodus 21:18-19 prescribed that the one who dealt a disabling blow to the other would have to pay a penalty, and a fight to the death could have come under murder law, and the best result for the one who survived would have been to spend years in an Israelite city of refuge far from his home and family. It might even have been a sanctioned physical contest to decide the winner in a dispute, since these were not unknown in the ancient world, just as they are not unknown in the modern world. It may in fact be referring to a fight under definite rules, such as the staged fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaghlen in the movie The Quiet Man, which was characterized as a private fight under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Many times these kinds of fights led to the participants settling their differences and becoming fast friends, as happened in the movie. The setting would have been the multitude of Israelites in the Exodus, or in their villages and farms after they had settled in the Promised Land.

So, in the midst of this physical contest, the wife of one of the men attempts to intervene. This does not look from the passage to be a blow intended to incapacitate but to hold or even to mutilate the man fighting against her husband.  It would be considered to be dirty and unfair fighting even today. If the fight were over property or the wife feared the defeat of her husband, she might have been tempted to some kind of intervention like this. But I don’t think that we’ve come yet as to why God put this incident under a severe civil penalty. Again, it’s hard to say whether this law ever had to be enforced, and the most likely case would have been a wife intervening for her husband, but this statute would have sufficed as precedent to decide the penalty if there was ever an intervention in the same way against a fight which involved a woman’s father, uncle, or brother. It may even have been a known tactic in ancient disputes settled by fighting that some women would attempt to have the contest decided in favor of their husbands. This passage would then be not a sanction of violence but a restraint upon something particularly offensive to God that may have been taking place already. And this is also how many of the case laws in the Old Testament do apply and how they may serve as a guide to what God finds offensive.

The tactic that this wife would have chosen struck directly at the manhood of the other man. It could have led to his being unable to father children or a physical defect sufficient for exclusion from the assembly of the Lord, as in Deuteronomy 23:1 (although that may rather refer to deliberate emasculation or castration of an Israelite for pagan cultic reasons). It would have represented an attempt to win at an expense to the other person which God would not allow to go uncorrected and unpunished. In the civil laws God allowed physical punishment but not humiliation to the point of utter degradation of the other person (Deuteronomy 25:3), and took murder personally as an attack against the image of God which was in mankind by creation (Genesis 9:5-6). Here, by analogy, it could also be taken as an attack of female against male and against the created order of male and female (Genesis 1:27).

So then, what’s the significance of this? Well, to dispose of the most obvious understanding, I don’t think that it would forbid a temporarily disabling blow against the crotch in self defense if a man or woman’s life is in danger, since these disable by pain and are not aimed to mutilate or permanently harm the assailant. I have some memories of several such blows delivered against myself by sneaky and unscrupulous fighters in junior high, and the blows temporarily disable by the pain but normally do not cause long term disability – but I would still counsel parents and teachers to deal strong discipline against any child or teenager that would ever try to deal such a blow, which is, in legal terms, assault, against another person in the course of teasing, taunting or any other kind of childish interaction. But even more, I think that this sets a principle that is well to repeat, that God has and will pronounce his judgments against those who use any and every tactic to win, and who would strike against the humanity, manhood, or womanhood, in an effort to gain an unfair advantage and to win a disagreement, an argument or a dispute. This would put this passage clearly in the context of creation, of progressive revelation and under the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, and it would furnish an illustration of the kinds of things that we human beings might do that offend God deeply. So, does this passage speak more clearly now?

So, does this happen nowadays? I don’t think that it’s impossible that the literal event might happen nowadays if there was to be a fight in the parking lot of a restaurant or bar nowadays, but I don’t think that that the civil law of Israel would apply in that case, but rather, the civil law of the locality. Rather, the application of this passage to present conduct would be to examine our ways and understand the ways in which those in our culture and we who claim to be followers of Christ and who regularly attend our churches might attack the manhood or womanhood of others and use underhanded tactics to win disputes, fights and disagreements which may well be petty and superficial. It would be to understand that God understands our humanity and that we will disagree and fight with each other, maybe not physically, and that there are tactics in personal disputes which God finds most offensive and worthy of his special mention and harsh penalty.

So, in the course of personal disputes, do men and women in our culture try to strike out at the manhood or womanhood of another man or woman in an attempt to cripple or incapacitate that person and get an unfair advantage to win in a situation? Definitely – but they use words rather than physical blows. That is actually the point of many of the insinuations of homosexuality or lesbianism that some people in our culture dish out against others – sometimes against single or divorced men and women who love Christ with all their hearts and who are seeking to follow him in all that they do. The rapper Eminem, who actually dishes out a lot of the anti-gay rhetoric nowadays, admitted as much in an interview with MTV once that that was his tactic to attack the manhood of another man whom he saw himself in some sort of conflict. It is also what happens when someone insinuates against another person that he or she isn’t a ‘real’ man or woman – a demanding parent or coach, for example. So, I think that we may look at this Old Testament regulation and easily see ourselves there, as saying and doing the same kind of things that God finds reprehensible.

I don’t think that we can see it in the light of the justice and compassion of the God of scripture that he takes it in any other way than extremely seriously when one of the men or women he has created attacks the humanity, manhood or womanhood of another man or woman not only with acts of physical violence but also with malicious words. Could such words crush and humiliate a person? Definitely. Could such words form a barrier to a person’s finding love and marriage in the will of God? Possibly. But these kinds of insinuations do happen in Christian circles and break hearts unnecessarily in many cases – because someone thought that he or she could use this tactic to try to enhance his or her reputation at someone else’s expense or to undermine, incapacitate or destroy a perceived rival.

But even more, I think that this passage demonstrates an underlying principle that warns against a win-at-all-costs (to another person) or a protect-what’s-mine-at-all-costs (to another person) mentality. Is that around today? Definitely! How many proud, stubborn and self sufficient people are there who approach personal relationships with a ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ mentality, and will say or do anything to ‘win’ and not to ‘lose’ in a situation’? It would be extremely naive and dismissive to deny that there are those around like that today, and some of them call themselves Christians, and may even be in positions within churches and denominations.

That there are some things a person simply does not do in a disagreement, dispute or conflict to gain an unfair advantage without coming under the extreme displeasure of God would seem obvious to anyone who has come to know the God of the Bible, but, with the Biblical illiteracy and superficial discipleship of many in our churches, many never seem to have looked at their personal conduct and relationships with others very deeply in the light of scripture, and the ways of the God of the Bible. Even more, it’s hard to say if there has been a time than now since before the Reformation when evangelicals have been so unaware of their personal responsibility before Jesus Christ and the fact that they will face him one day in person to give account for their lives, for everything that they have ever thought, said and done. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). So then, what someone says or does now to ‘win’ in a situation may in fact be something for which Jesus Christ will call that person to account before the whole universe, and for which that person may suffer loss in eternity.

On Pastoral Plagiarism

In Jeremiah 23:30, God spoke to Jeremiah strikingly about the false prophets who “ . . . steal from one another words supposedly from me . . .” Not only were the words that they were speaking delusions that claimed to be from God, they were copying each other’s words. With a closer look at the whole passage and chapter where Jeremiah prophesies about the false prophets, it is evident that God considered his Word not only to be his own possession, but to some extent the possession of the prophet to whom he had given his Word, and therefore, he termed taking the words of another man of God and presenting them as one’s own as an act of theft.

One of the biggest temptations to a pastor is that he may become a spiritual copycat and take what was presented in the preaching and teaching of other pastors and teachers of the Word as his own. There will always be an influence on the spiritual life and therefore the preaching and teaching of a pastor from the preaching and teaching of those he has heard and read. No pastor is a spiritual island, or the first one to whom the Word of God has come. Yet plagiarism is considered a form of academic dishonesty and theft, and throughout church history there have been those who have spoken out against it. It’s ironic that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most plagiarized preachers over the past century and a half, was one of the most outspoken critics of plagiarism in the pulpit himself.

The first guideline to avoid being a plagiarizing pastor is simply: acknowledge when you are citing the words of someone else as a corroborating, more experienced or more eloquent witness or authority with specialized knowledge in your preaching and teaching. If possible and appropriate, give the name of the source of a citation, either as as direct quote or paraphrase, and something about who that person is and why what that person said or wrote is relevant.

Even if it somehow does not seem to be appropriate to name a source directly, don’t try to give the impression that you are the real source if  you are in fact echoing the words of someone else. For instance, in my first church, one of the women recognized one of the stories which I used as an illustration was from a devotional booklet she had read. When she asked me, I acknowledged to her that it was the source, and that I took my sermon illustrations from many other sources as well, such as my personal experience and my personal reading of Christian and historical literature.

Of course, it’s hard to give footnotes when a person is preaching and teaching. It is a good idea, though, to indicate that the insight you may be sharing is not specific to you, that it may reflect universal Christian experience, that it may come from others with specialized knowledge in the Biblical languages, history or archaeology, or that it  may simply be stated in words more eloquent than you can formulate. No one expects a pastor to have all possible or available knowledge of the Biblical languages, history, background or theology, or to be the only one who can express something succinctly or aptly. Congregations do expect a pastor to do his preparation for preaching, and for it not to be merely a statement of a pastor’s personal opinions, notions and preferences, but to be based upon the scriptures, to be a reasonable explanation of what the scriptures mean, to reflect universal, realistic and attainable Christian belief and practice, and to be stated in an understandable and attractive way. Being able to point to these kinds of influences can be a tremendous bolster to the credibility of a pastor.

There are also times when a pastor can credibly preach the sermons of others, and if a pastor does this, he should acknowledge that he is using or adapting the sermons of someone else. For instance, Billy Graham preached the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” during the Los Angeles crusades, when he himself was running out of prepared sermons due to the crusade meetings being extended. A seminary professor of mine once memorized and preached the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7. Moreover, V. Raymond Edman preached some of the sermons of Charles Finney during the Wheaton Revival. They all acknowledged this publicly, though, and there is no indication that their ministries were ever strongly dependent on preaching what others had previously preached or written.

Certainly, then, pastors need to make sure that the majority of their preaching and teaching comes from personal study of the Word of God and preparation time. While others in the body of Christ, and others who have preached and taught the Word of God through the ages may have had a great influence on a pastor, seek to formulate your own sermons and lessons as much as you can from your own study of the Word, prayer and pastoral ministry. In the age of Google there is more material available than ever before. In the past sermon-stealers relied on collections of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons a lot, and I’ve seen some pastors who were sons of pastors preach their father’s sermons without any acknowledgment. But God  definitely holds the pastor responsible to receive the Word of God personally (James 1:22-25) and handle the Word of God accurately (II Timothy 2:15), and most congregations expect that as well.

Finally, don’t bad mouth someone personally, living or dead, in the pulpit, or through any kind of insinuations, to whom you are indebted for any part of your preaching and teaching. I frankly don’t know how anyone could ever expect God to bless his ministry with conviction and power who does this, but I’ve seen it happen. No one expects a pastor to agree with everything that someone else said and wrote who has been an influence on his preaching and teaching, but it seems that there is something dishonest, hypocritical and even malicious if a pastor takes insights and material from someone else and then disparages, demeans or disdains that person in any way. Scripture says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6) and “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold hem in the highest regard in love because of their work” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). This would definitely apply to giving due respect to those whose preaching and teaching has been a positive influence on one’s own preaching and teaching.

So, if you are a pastor now, if you were to be in a secular job, would you present a report which someone else had written or to which someone else had contributed as your work alone? If you were to reply no, that that would be dishonest, it’s the same kind of matter with a sermon. To present something that another person has written or spoken, when that person has put in the time and effort to go into the Word and formulate its truth and has communicated it to others, as if it were your work alone is just as dishonest.

Give Some Guidance and Consideration to the Biblically Inexperienced

In one Sunday evening service, not long after I took up the pastorate of a new church, I started to give the Biblical reference for my sermon. I said something like, “It’s in the book of Ephesians, just past the middle of the New Testament. If you opened the Bible to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians or Galatians, keep on going toward the back of the Bible. If you’ve turned to Philippians, Thessalonians, Timothy or Hebrews, go back the other way, more toward the front of your Bible.”

A number of the long time churchgoers in the congregation laughed at that. I let them know that it wasn’t a joke, that there were those who came to our services who didn’t know the Bible well enough to find some of the books. I asked them never to laugh at that again, since we didn’t want to have someone feel ashamed of not having learned something that the long time churchgoers had learned perhaps in their childhood. It’s my experience that many times new believers and the spiritually curious don’t get a lot of help with some basic Biblical navigation. Many times their spiritual hunger and curiosity would find greater satisfaction if they simply had some basic guidance, given with kindness and consideration, during the course of normal preaching and teaching. Many times more experienced believers forget how precious the Bible can be to a new believer, especially if that person has had little or no exposure to it before, and provide too little basic guidance on how to navigate through the written Word of God.

I’ve noticed that in many churches there isn’t much guidance given to someone who isn’t already familiar with the Bible on where to find the text for the sermon, and many times there isn’t any common sense guidance given during the normal course of preaching and teaching on where to find the text for a sermon or lesson. Projecting the text on a screen is helpful, but there is more guidance that could be given. Most books of the Bible are short enough that someone could read them easily in an evening, and it can only be commendable for someone listening a series on a book of the Bible to be interested in reading that book on his or her own. Here are some suggestions:

  • If there is a church purchased Bible in the pew of a church, give the page number of the text in the church bulletin or project it on the screen. Biblically inexperienced listeners may not have the order of books in the Bible sufficiently memorized to be able to find a text, but they know how to turn to a page number.
  • From time to time remind people in the congregation that the vast majority of Bibles have the page numbers for the individual books of the Bible in the front of the Bible. Let them know it’s OK to look there for a reference, since it can take years for someone to get sufficiently experienced with the order of the books to be able to find some references quickly. This seems obvious to someone who has experience with a Bible, but it might not occur to someone who has never used a Bible until recently.
  • Provide some coaching when letting people know the Biblical text for preaching or teaching on where to find the books of the Bible. In this day, I think that this would apply even for the larger and well known books such as Psalms, Isaiah and the four gospels. This is extremely inoffensive and many are grateful when it is done with kindness.
  • Occasionally let people know in a kind and perhaps humorous way that King James English is not inspired, and that there are more modern and understandable translations available. My experience with using the New International Version during my own preaching and teaching is that many times someone would come up to me and say something like, “I can understand that Bible that you’re using better than the one I have. Where can I find a Bible like that?”
  • Occasionally let the people know that there are study editions of the Bible and books like Bible dictionaries and commentaries that can provide greater background information on the Bible.
  • More experienced believers should be aware of anyone nearby fumbling through a Bible to find a text. A bit of help quietly and kindly given will often find a grateful heart.

This may seem like very basic guidance, but it’s easy for someone who has been in church and followed the Lord for years to forget what it’s like in those first few days and months of seeking to learn God’s Word. New believers in Christ often seem to be born with a deep hunger for the Word of God, and often they will keep on going into the Word once they get some guidance. Their inexperience shows in those days, and it’s not because of ignorance or stupidity, but because of lack of exposure to the Bible previously. Quite frankly, professional people with advanced degrees may never have come to a realization that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak in King James English or that a Bible has a table of contents. It’s not that they are stupid, uneducated people, but they simply hadn’t been exposed to the Bible before or thought about these things before.

Three Questions for Each Sermon

In listening to a number of sermons from other preachers over the years, I think that many of them could be improved markedly by asking three questions during preparation. Most certainly these questions are the kinds of inquiries that are going through the minds of the congregation as they listen. Many listeners are more sophisticated about the preaching that they hear and the interpretation of the passage than many pastors understand, and they are more sensitive to when a passage is being misinterpreted or misapplied than many pastors realize. Many are also left feeling empty when the sermon is overly academic, more in the manner of a Bible school lecture.

“So what?”

What is the significance of the passage for a modern day believer? Why should I care here in the twenty first century what was being said or done in this Biblical passage which is the subject of the sermon?

The sermon needs to go beyond any academic background on the passage and deal with its timeless theological significance and its current application. Too many preachers get stuck in the background and do not go on to tell what the passage teaches us about the God of the Bible, the salvation he has provided, and what it means to me today. The impression that this gives is that the preacher has spent more time in learning about the Bible and too little time in learning how to live the Bible. The sermon comes off more as an academic lecture than a heart felt exhortation to trust and obey God and follow his Word.

This problem tends to happen more with pastors who preach through a whole book at a time. What comes up on the preaching schedule for next week’s sermon is the next passage in order in the book. The problem with this approach comes when the passage does not enter into the pastor’s life significantly enough to be able to bring out much more than an academic lecture. In this case the pastor would do best to do a lot of praying over the passage and seek to get what God is saying through the passage much more beyond the background and interpretation. It’s a good rule of thumb that each sermon needs to be preached by the preacher to himself and through himself before he preaches it to the congregation.

It needs to be said that preaching through a whole book at a time is a comparatively recent practice in preaching. As far as I can tell, it was practically unknown in evangelical circles until the 1950’s. It does leave the preacher and the congregation with a definite expectation of what will be the subject of the sermon from one week to the next. It does leave a sense of continuity between one sermon and the next. I don’t think that it necessarily tends to build a more Biblically literate congregation, though. What would tend to build a more Biblically literate congregation from the pulpit tends to be a greater demonstration of accurate interpretation and reasonable and workable application of the Bible during the sermon. But a stronger Sunday School for adults and children and small group Bible studies in conjunction with Biblical preaching from the pulpit tend to build a Biblically literate congregation.

“How can you say that?”

What is the basis for your interpretation and application of the passage that you’re preaching on? How did you come to that conclusion?

The more sophisticated listeners, especially those with a modern study Bible, are sensitive to when a sermon takes a passage out of its immediate context, its context in the Bible as a whole and its context in terms of its linguistic and historical background. Many can pick up on the non-sequiturs of misinterpretation of a passage. The problem with this approach is that the hearers understand instinctively that a misinterpreted passage of scripture does not command their belief, trust and obedience. Misinterpretations from the pulpit leave them with little profit from the sermon and a diminished view of the scholarship, if not the character, of the preacher.

I would encourage pastors to read or re-read a work on interpreting scripture at least once per year. One which I recommend is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. James Sire’s Scripture Twisting is another which I would recommend. It’s directed against the cults but there are a number of their methods that evangelicals fall into when they misinterpret scripture. For example, one of the most common ways in which pastors misinterpret scripture in the pulpit is overspecification. This is where a passage is made to say much more than it actually says. The cults do this very often to support their doctrines, and congregations instinctively understand when this overreaching of the passage takes place.

It’s a good idea to give sufficient basis for the interpretation of the passage in the sermon. Make your case for why you believe it means what you say it means. This does not have to be long, but it can be made brief and accurate. I personally avoid going into Greek and Hebrew beyond saying things like that the passage can be better translated in such and such a way, or that the original language has such and such an implication. That way, the congregation can understand the scriptural basis for living out the application of the passage that the pastor gives.

“Who are you talking about?”

One of the difficulties in applying the scripture is that it can become the pastor taking surreptitious potshots at individuals within the congregation. There are times that I could tell by the descriptions given which individuals the pastor was addressing. Sometimes when congregations see this tendency in the pastor they can tell who has irritated the pastor in the past week or so, or they can tell which individual or individual the pastor is addressing. This in turn grieves the people in the congregation that see this happening, and diminishes their opinion of the character of the pastor who does this. C.H. Spurgeon once mentioned that the pulpit in his day for pastors who did this was called the “Coward’s Castle.”

The best way to address this is to write out the application of a scripture beforehand and avoid trying to improvise it from the pulpit. This will avoid this kind of ‘emotional leakage’ of personal irritations during the sermon. Also be sure to address individual problems with individuals in the congregation outside the pulpit. Use the time in the sermon to feed, correct, and instruct the whole flock and not to go after one individual sheep. Usually, when a pastor does this, the application of a passage will apply to other believers and other churches, and the pastor can preach the same sermon in other churches with the same blessing without having to rewrite the application for each congregation.