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Friday, March 31, 2006

Titles of Leadership

I'm going to interrupt my series on preaching and teaching to touch on something that came to my mind again this evening while I was skimming through the news feeds that I get delivered to my blog aggregator (Bloglines). Apparently, there have been some people frustrated that the murdered minister in Tennessee has been referred to in the media as "Pastor Winkler". I was not aware of this, but it seems from some sources that the Church of Christ (in which he was a minister) uses the terms "preacher" or "minister" to refer to the main teacher in the church, but not "pastor".

Now, I have no idea what their thinking is behind this, but it reminded me of something that I had thought of a couple years ago. That is the subject of titles for any leaders in the church. Now, before anyone misunderstands, please note that I am not talking about words that refer to what the person does. For example, I may say, "Bob is a pastor." That tells me what gifting is part of the contribution Bob makes to the Body of Christ. As such, it is a descriptive word. But to refer to someone as "Pastor Bob" takes on a whole different issue, and one which I would like to examine briefly. (Can I actually stay brief?!)

But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.    --Matthew 23:8-12 (NIV)

Jesus made some interesting statements with regard to leadership in the Church, and it seems to me that the one above is so often overlooked. What was the point of what Jesus was saying here? In context, he is criticizing the Pharisees, saying that even though they were teaching the right things, they were doing everything to be noticed, and doing everything for public praise. He said in the verses immediately preceding the paragraph above that they loved to be called "Rabbi". It made them feel important. It put them on a level above the people.

Then Jesus tells His own disciples that they should not be called "Rabbi". And what was His explanation as to why? "You have only one Master and you are all brothers." (emphasis added) Do you see the significance of this? Who is the Master? Jesus. And what is the relationship of believers to each other? Brothers.

I think it's interesting that Jesus doesn't only say "Don't call others this." He actually puts the responsibility on the shoulders of the leaders not to be called by special titles! I take that to mean that if someone actually comes up to you and calls you "Teacher" that you should correct them!

So how we have gotten to the point in our churches today that we boldly refer to our leaders as "Pastor So-and-So"? Or, how about "Reverend So-and-So"? What does "reverend" mean? Well, according to one online dictionary, it means "deserving of reverence" (no kidding!) which is defined as "A feeling of profound awe and respect and often love; veneration." Does this sound like it squares with the instructions of Jesus?

Furthermore, if we look at the fact that "pastor" is just one "gift" given to the Church, that sheds some more interesting light on the issue. While it is true that only four or five gifts are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 (the only use in the New Testament of "pastor" as a part of the Body of Christ), some of those same gifts, including "teacher" are mentioned in 1 Corinthians in a list of many other gifts. So, if we are going to call someone with the gift of pastoring "Pastor Bob", why don't we then call someone with the gift of healing, "Healing Jane"? Or perhaps someone with the gift of mercy could be "Mercy Mark".

No, unfortunately, what has happened is that we have done exactly what Jesus told us not to do. We have elevated certain gifts above others and used those gifts as titles. Jesus made it clear that we are to humble ourselves, not exalt ourselves. We are to serve, not be served. Inasmuch as the titles assigned to our leaders today do nothing but exalt them, I think it's high time we take the words of Jesus seriously and get back to the flat organizational chart He described in the above passage. Jesus is our Master and Teacher. God is our Father. Let none of us usurp the titles clearly delineated for use by God alone.

Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of "Father"; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven. And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them--Christ. Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.    --Matthew 23:8-12 (The Message)

Until next time,

steve :)

By the way, as a bonus, can anyone tell me how the Roman Catholic Church priest system gets around this command not to be called "father"?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Preaching in the Church -- continued

In my previous post, I examined a good portion of a sermon given by Dr. Steve Lawson at the Shepherds Conference, as live-blogged by Tim Challies. I dealt with some of what I consider to be misapplications of Nehemiah 8 with relation to the modern practice of preaching. Some very interesting discussion took place in the comments of that post, and I encourage you to read the post and all the comments, if you haven't done so already.

Today, I want to touch briefly on the remainder of Dr. Lawson's points in preparation for moving on to a more general discussion of preaching and teaching. I apologize that it's taking as long as it is to get through this. Lately, I've been spending time interacting with Steve Camp on his blog with regard to the Reformed doctrine of the "active" and "passive" obedience of Jesus Christ vis-à-vis the righteousness that is imputed to us. It's been an interesting discussion, and I must commend Steve for his graciousness in dealing with my "nitpicking"! The whole discussion reminds me of a post I wrote last August called "Whisper Down the Lane" Theology about our tendency as believers to believe what a "trusted source" tells us about Scripture, rather than searching the Scriptures ourselves. And in a way, it relates to this topic of preaching.

There were some comments in the discussion on the last post with regard to "pew-sitters". Those of you who know me, and who have been reading here, probably understand that I am very passionately against "passive Christians". I do understand that there are some who sit under a pastor's teaching who do diligently check the Word for themselves. It can happen, and I don't want to give the impression that I don't think it ever does happen. However, and this is the point that I feel cannot be emphasized enough, we cannot overlook the fact that the very nature of our institutionalized "church" experience fosters passivity. Diligent Berean searching continues to be the exception, rather than the rule. Additionally, with a rather disturbing predictability, most who discover something in their Berean searching that causes them to question the doctrine being taught are treated badly as a result.

We do not see in the New Testament a pattern of "passive" listening and accepting. We see, rather, a pattern of active participation by the members of the Body and instructions to that effect. Certainly, we should respect those who are elders (by definition, those who have earned that respect by their diligent faithfulness to the Word and to the Lord) and their words should carry more weight with us. But I can find no evidence in the New Testament where believers were exhorted to receive without question the teachings that were being presented. Why else would the Bereans be spoken of so positively?

So, having said all that, to wrap up my response to Dr. Lawson's sermon, I will pick up where I left off. Last time, I shared the three major points of Dr. Lawson's sermon, and dealt with the first one and part of the second. The second point (characteristics of biblical preaching), had five subpoints, of which I dealt with three. Picking up, then, with the fourth point, I will use the same format as last time, where Tim Challies' words are in italics, and my response is in plain text.

  • A God-exalting thrust: Ezra blessed the Lord and there was an unveiling of the Word of God. We are to be exaltational expositors. Ezra blessed the Lord and the people cried out "Amen!" bowing low before God. Expositional preaching should be elevating God and lowering man. The more you lower God and raise man, you are trivializing the grace of God. But when God is put in His rightful place, you are magnifying the grace of God.

    This point has much more weight with regard to the entire Christian life than just to preaching. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:17, "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Anything that we do, anything that we say, should be with the intent of God being glorified. I love the words of John the Baptist when he said about Jesus, "He must become greater; I must become less." Should this not be the focus of every believer?

  • An [sic] precise explanation: Until you have given the true meaning of the text, you have not given the text. Christianity is concerned primarily with the mind, not with feelings or relationships, as important as those may be. It is all about truth - God’s objective revelation interpreted rationally. A pastor explains the text and gives the author’s intent for that text. He explains the text, exhorts with it, and moves on to the next text.

    I don't know if Dr. Lawson gave any support for his statement that "Christianity is concerned primarily with the mind, not with feelings or relationships" when he presented this sermon, but none is given here. I have to say that I'm not sure I agree with this statement. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. I'm not sure that one can extract from that commandment that any of those is of greater importance than the others. Much is said in the New Testament about relationships as they relate to Christianity. (For example, what does it mean to be "in Christ", if not to be in a relationship with Him? See John 15:1-17.) Christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise. To imply that there is a divide between our minds and our relationships is a bit difficult to defend, in my opinion.

    Again, however, that point being put aside, we have here the emphasis on "the pastor" being the one to explain the text, give the author's intent, etc. As I pointed out in the last post, Ezra was not actually the one explaining the text anyway. It was a group of thirteen other men who explained what Ezra read aloud. That may seem like a nitpick, but I think it's a significant point that we should not overlook.

    There also is a bit of danger in the term "true meaning". I may be overshooting here, but this gives an impression to me that we can't read the text for what it says, but rather have to make sure we find the "true meaning" behind the text. Now to be fair, I don't believe that Dr. Lawson is here encouraging a liberal interpretation of Scripture that reads everything as metaphoric and allegorical. But we have the subtle implication, once again, that the pastor will be able to share the "true meaning" with the passive laity, who must come to the pastor (see my comments in the last post about the idea of crying out "Bring me the book", which I have since found out was the title of this sermon by Dr. Lawson) and ask for the interpretation.

With that, I will end my critique of Dr. Lawson's sermon. I mentioned in the comments of the last post that I had emailed Dr. Lawson and given him the opportunity to correct my understanding or submit a rebuttal. As of the writing of this post, I have not received anything from Dr. Lawson in reply. However, if he does reply, I will be sure and post his response publicly so that it can get just as much visibility as my critique.

I must say, however, that this is not anything personal against Dr. Lawson. Frankly, I don't even know Dr. Lawson. I've never heard him preach, and here I'm only going on what Tim Challies chose to type as he listened. But the topic itself was one which I was already addressing, and this gave a rather straightforward way of presenting the rationalization that is commonly given for "biblical preaching" in our churches today.

Next time, I hope to get further into the distinction between various words translated as "preach" and explore some theories with regard to the difference between preaching and teaching. But for now, I toss it back to you, my dear readers. What are your thoughts?

Until next time,

steve :)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Preaching in the Church -- Is Nehemiah 8 the Model?

So much for my plans to post heavily this week while I had extra time! But I'm finally ready to start taking a more detailed look at the subject of preaching. Preaching has definitely taken central focus in our churches, and it begs the question: Is this how it was in the early church? And the obvious follow-up question is, should it be the way it is in our churches today?

I'm amazed at the way in which people not only assume that preaching is meant to be a central part of our gatherings, but that it is absolutely essential. Many include "preaching of the Word" in their understanding of what truly defines a "church". In other words, if the Word isn't being preached every week, the gathering is not truly a church.

I've already attempted to define a local church, which in my definition does not require "preaching" per se. However, that often causes people to think that I'm describing a social gathering only. As I deal with this issue, I want to draw a very clear distinction between "preaching" and "teaching".

I think that some of the confusion, and why we often use "preaching" and "teaching" interchangeably is because Ephesians 4:11 refers to "pastors and teachers". Given that this is the only time the word "pastor" is used in the Bible to refer to a gifting in the church, and given that we have termed the leader of the institutional church a "pastor", and given that one of the primary roles of that "pastor" is to stand up on Sunday morning (and Sunday evening in some churches, and even Wednesday evening in some churches) and preach, it makes sense that we have combined "preaching" and "teaching" into one concept. This is sad, though, because it unnecessarily encumbers our thinking.

Interestingly, just one day after I posted my introduction to this topic, Tim Challies (live-blogging at the Shepherds Conference at Grace Church led by John MacArthur) detailed a session taught by Steve Lawson. I say "interestingly", not that Tim wrote that post, because Tim was live-blogging that whole week. But what was interesting to me was that Dr. Lawson's text for that session was Nehemiah 8, which I had already mentioned as being used by some as a defense of modern, expository preaching.

At the risk of once again appearing to be a small chihuahua yapping at a great dane, I would like to examine what Dr. Lawson taught from that passage. Besides the danger inherent in using Old Testament passages as a model for New Testament behavior (we can discuss that more, if anyone wishes to) without any cross-reference to the New Testament's truth (specifically, the work of Jesus Christ), there are some glaring errors in Dr. Lawson's presentation that perpetuate the myth that it is not only necessary, but biblical, for one man to stand on a platform preaching to a crowd of listeners in the church today.

Dr. Lawson's main topics, neatly alliterated for us, are:

  1. Call for biblical preaching
  2. Characteristics of biblical preaching
  3. Consequences of biblical preaching
The second point is the one that Dr. Lawson apparently spent the most time on, and so I will spend the most time critiquing that. However, just briefly, I want to comment on the first point.

Tim wrote that Dr. Lawson commented, with regard to the call for biblical preaching, "The people in your congregation who know God and love God are crying out to the pastor, 'Bring the book! Bring it to me!'" I do not doubt that this is true. But, this illustrates one of the big difficulties facing Christianity today. People are still extremely focused on getting God's revelation from a man. Our institutionalized system of church, with its professional clergy, fosters this mentality. We pay someone to study the Bible and then tell us what it says.

Why did the people gather (in Neh. 8:1) and ask Ezra to bring the book to them? Quite simply, they did not have access to the Word of God themselves! We cannot underestimate the fact that God has not only chosen to give us His Word in our language, but that He also has given us the Holy Spirit to open that Word to us. Now, I'm not downplaying teaching here. I'm referring here to the idea that people have to come to a pastor and ask for the Word of God. Teaching does, as I hope to demonstrate through this series, play a part in the body of Christ as it matures and grows (Eph. 4:11-12). But this type of preaching that is being described should not be assumed to be the way in which people get the Word of God delivered to them. (Or at best, it should not be presumed to be the primary method.)

Moving on to Lawson's second point (characteristics of biblical preaching), he gave five subpoints. Below are the first three of those five points in the words of Tim Challies (in italics), with my commentary following each point (in plain text).

  • A biblical reading: A reading of the Word of God. Ezra read from the Law, beginning his exposition of the Word of God with a reading of the Word. He simply read the book, knowing that the Bible is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword. This word "read" means "to cry out." He called aloud, roared, proclaimed the Word. This is how a pastor begins the exposition of the Word of God in which the pastor makes a statement that everything that is said will originate from this text of Scripture. "I will be the mouthpiece of this passage of Scripture to this congregation."

    I am certainly in favor of the reading of Scripture. And I'm certainly in favor of the public reading of Scripture in our gatherings. So this point doesn't cause me much concern. However, this idea of "I will be the mouthpiece of this passage of Scripture to this congregation" moves toward the unhealthy dependence on a particular person being necessary to speak God's Word to His people.

  • A lengthy treatment: Ezra read from early morning until mid-day. All the people, despite the length, were attentive to the Word of God. "This was not a sermonette for Christianettes." This was an adult standing in the pulpit, preaching the Word of God using adult language. Through this passage we see that there is to be a full treatment of the Word of God. There needs to be a full disclosure of the truth of the passage and a connectedness fo [sic] their lives.

    This point involves a subtle (and unintentional, I'm sure) twisting of what the text says. It does not say that Ezra expounded the words he read in order to teach the people. It only states that Ezra read from the scroll. Where the "exposition" comes is from thirteen others (listed in Neh. 8:7) who "explained the law to the people". While the point about the attentiveness of the people is accurate, and while the point about the length of time spent reading and explaining here is accurate, there are a couple of things to note.

    First of all, these are not people who had been coming weekly to hear Ezra preach. These were people who had been in exile for seventy years without someone to read and preach the Word to them. Nor do we have any evidence that they regularly gathered together to have the Word taught to them in this manner, to this extent. This was a sermon (if you want to use that term) to make up for seventy years of spiritual drought! That hardly can be compared to our weekly gatherings.

    Second, as I mentioned above, it fosters an incorrect understanding of this passage to imply that Ezra was the only one reading and explaining the Word to the people. He read, while others explained to the people what it all meant. I would imagine that probably what happened was that Ezra would read a portion, and then the other thirteen teachers explained to various groups of people that were gathered. Then Ezra would read another section, and the cycle would repeat itself.

  • An authoritative posture: Ezra stood at a wooden podium. There is an authoritative posture - he is not sitting on a stool sharing. He is not walking around gabbing. He is standing at a pulpit because the Word of God is on the pulpit. Ezra mounted the platform in order to be seen and to be heard. You cannot get the Bible open soon enough when you walk to the pulpit. That Ezra stood above the people was intentional for there was a transcendence about this. It showed the superiority of the Word of God and the position of the people.

    I really don't want to be harsh here. But how does one say this delicately? When the text is silent on something, and especially when the text does not state the significance of something, we must be very careful not to put too much emphasis on a detail. It is entirely possible, and I dare say more probable, that Ezra stood above the people simply so that he could be heard. This type of justification for a preacher standing on a stage at a wooden podium does damage to the text. Practically speaking, there was no microphone or sound system for Ezra to use. There was a rather large group of people who wanted to hear the Word being read. How best to accomplish that, then to have the speaker elevated?

    And as for the wooden podium (contrasted with sitting on a stool or walking around), let's bear in mind that Ezra wasn't reading out of a nice, leather-bound KJV Bible that can be held in his hand! He was reading from scrolls -- possibly old and fragile scrolls. A wooden podium makes sense if for no other purpose than to hold the scrolls as he read. Yet in this particular point by Dr. Lawson, thousands of pastors were made to feel justified in standing above their congregation to preach.

To avoid the risk of this post turning into one of the "books" to which "flutemom" referred in a recent comment (hehe), I'm going to pull it to a close there. There are two other subpoints that I did not cover above, but I will touch on those in my next post.

For now, let me summarize in this way. Nehemiah 8 recounts a very moving and powerful story in Israel's history. It shows the need for the Word of God. It shows the hunger that was deep within the Israelites after seventy years of exile from their land and religious practices. It shows the wonderful way in which their hunger and thirst (spiritually speaking) was quenched by the Word of God. There is a lot to be learned from this passage.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lawson's applications are not the lessons to be learned. This passage cannot, and should not, be used to justify any particular model of our gatherings together. If anything, the use of this passage to defend the modern practice of preaching in church shows how closely tied the institutional church is to Old Testament models. This represents a severe danger, in my opinion, of underestimating the change that the life of Jesus brought to our relationship with God and with each other. If we believe in the "priesthood of all believers" as something that was brought in by the New Covenant, then we should be very careful to eschew any model which places one person above the rest as the voice of God and His Word to that people.

Until next time,

steve :)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why Don't We See the Miraculous?

I will get back to the preaching and teaching topic in my next post, but I started to reply to a question that Larry Who asked in the comments of my last post, and my reply got so lengthy that I decided to just post it here. Somehow, the comments section of the last post took a turn from talking about preaching and teaching to talking about revival. And in that context, Larry wrote: In other parts of the world, these types of miracles are happening. Why not here?

I can't say for certain, Larry. However, lately, I have been intrigued by the comment that the Scripture makes that Jesus could not do many miracles in a certain region because of the lack of faith there. (Forgive me for not looking it up right now)

My question is: Is there faith in America to the same extent that faith is being exhibited in China, certain nations of Africa, etc.? I believe, and very sadly so, that American Christianity is largely faithless.

I tend to listen to a lot of Christian music (or, to be more accurate, music produced by labels who use the term "Christian"!) and Christian preaching on the radio -- I'm not sure why, because it invariably ends up frustrating me! But one thing that I continue to notice is that we really don't believe God wants to move in our lives in that way. The common thread is that God is probably going to just allow lots of tragedies in our lives, when in reality, we know nothing of true suffering for Christ. When the New Testament talks about suffering for Christ, it's talking about persecution, not getting cancer.

No offense to a well-respected preacher, but when John Piper comes out with the revelation that he has prostate cancer and then tells people that this is God's design (not just that God allowed it, but that God designed it) for his life, who wants to interfere with God's design by praying for miraculous healing?

Update 3/16/06: A very astute reader emailed me privately and pointed to the fact that Piper does say in the italics at the top of the article to which I linked that he believes praying for healing is the correct approach. While he doesn't believe that it is always God's will to heal, I do stand corrected on my implication that it would be hard to pray for healing for someone of the belief that God designed this cancer. My sincerest apologies for misrepresenting Piper's words in that way.

The New Testament is clear that we can expect to suffer persecution (even from religious leaders) if we take a stand for our faith in Christ. This happens daily in China. And they "get it" there. They understand that it's their privilege to suffer that persecution for Christ. But here in America, we define "suffering" as any kind of hardship in our lives. And we just tell people to ride it out and not to try to thwart God's "design" for our lives.

Sorry for the rant here, but that is really how I respond to Larry's question. I'm not upset at you, Larry, so don't misread the tone of this response. But I do believe that as long as a large percentage of Christians in America continue to hold such a strange view of God (reference the way people explained Hurricane Katrina, or the devastating tsunami in Asia as a direct act of God), we should not then expect to see the miraculous events that other countries see.

I sincerely hope I'm not stepping on too many toes with this. I once wrote a post called "Quit Blaming God!" which garnered a bit of disagreement in the comments section. I realize in retrospect that I probably didn't articulate my point as well as I should have (and probably am not here, either!!), but I still believe that there is a difference in the way we will handle things in our lives between trusting God through any circumstance and believing that God actually designed/caused/wanted this circumstance to happen. Back then, frequent commenter "ded" responded with some very thoughtful replies, basically questioning why it needed to be defined the way I defined it. And I certainly respect my brother's disagreement with me on that. But I guess I'm still pretty convinced that ultimately it does matter. I just can't seem to convince people why ;) hehe

I better quit now! ;) I may be getting myself in too deep.

Until next time,

steve :)