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:
- Call for biblical preaching
- Characteristics of biblical preaching
- Consequences of biblical preaching
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,