Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Let's Celebrate for the Right Reasons

Most people who are celebrating the last day of October are doing it because it's Halloween.

I prefer to celebrate for a reason which has much more eternal value. October 31st, 1517 is the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This was one of the first acts in the Protestant Reformation.

What would our lives be like if not for God's move in the hearts of certain men 500 years ago? We should thank the Lord for raising up the Reformers. Some we should be thankful for include:

Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, defied the church by rejecting the practice of indulgences. His 95 theses was just one of the first reforms he tried to put in place. Luther was a key figure in pointing to scripture as our primary source of authority. He proclaimed that salvation comes through the grace of God alone. He rejected most Catholic sacraments. Luther wrote many important documents including the On the Bondage of the Will. He also translated the bible into German.

John Calvin, the French Reformer, was the greatest theologian of the 1500's. Calvin wrote volumes on almost every book of the bible. His Institutes of the Christian Religion formed the first Protestant systematic theology. This work has great impact on the way we view theology even today.

William Tyndale, an Englishman, was a key figure for those of us who speak English. Tyndale was the first man to translate and then print the New Testament in the English language. His version had a great impact on the KJV. For his work, Tyndale was "rewarded" by being strangled and then burned at the stake.

Although the above three men stand out to me, there were certainly many others who at least deserve mention: John Wycliffe, John Huss, Ulrich Zwingli, Balthasar Hubmaier, Menno Simons, and John Knox.

We owe God great thanks for turning us back to His Word, at least in part, through the Reformers.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

PET Scan and Prayer

This coming Wednesday, the 31st, our son Bobby will have another PET scan. The results of this scan are critical, for they should tell us whether or not he is relapsing into cancer.

For those of you who do not know my family, please let me provide a quick review. I am married to a wonderful woman named Alice. You can read her blog here. We have been blessed by God with three children: Caroline (13), Mary (10), and Bobby (8). Read more about Bobby here.

We moved from GA to NC in 2002 for me to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. During our time there, we felt a call of God into international missions. By the grace of God alone I graduated from SEBTS in May 2006. We deployed to South Asia in October 2006.

In February of this year, we were in the midst of language learning and cultural adjustment (that's a nice way of saying culture shock) when we noticed a swelling on the side of Bobby's neck. As the swelling grew each day we became increasingly alarmed. We flew to Delhi and finally got the diagnosis of Lymphoma.

We quickly hurried back to our city, packed our stuff in two days, and flew back to Delhi. There were many quick good-byes to friends as we got home to Savannah, GA as quickly as we could.

Within a few days of being in GA we had a more specific diagnosis (which happens to be Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma). Bobby began chemotherapy treatments in March and concluded them in May. At the end of May, he had a PET scan that showed him to be clear of any cancer.

In September Bobby had another PET scan. The results of that one were not as clear as we had hoped. I would describe the results as "murky." The oncologist could not really tell what the results meant. We do know that the scan was not as clear as the May scan had been.

Bobby is scheduled to have another scan this coming Wednesday. The results of this one, according to the oncologist, should provide us with an answer to what is going on in his body. In other words, we should know whether or not he is relapsing.

We know that our sovereign, perfect Lord is in control of this situation. We believe He sent us to India for a reason. We believe He caused Bobby to get cancer for a reason. We believe He brought us home for a reason. He is good and knows what is best.

We also know that God answers prayer. This is where you come in. We ask that you pray for God to do in this case whatever will bring Him the most glory. Of course we desire that He heal Bobby. However, we know that we should all pray first that God would be glorified through this situation. If healing Bobby brings God the most glory, then we certainly want that to occur. It is difficult for me to type this, but if not healing Bobby brings God the most glory, then we want that to happen.

Thank you for your prayers.

I will post the PET scan results as soon as we get them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Baptists - Let's be Consistent

One belief that almost all Baptists hold to is the "perseverance of the saints." Sometimes this is referred to as "eternal security." The belief is that once a person is truly saved, he will never fall away from the faith. This is because he is secure in Christ.

I have never met a Baptist who did not believe this to be true.

When asked for scriptural support, Baptists often provide passages such as Ephesians 1:13-14, which says that Christians are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.

By saying they believe this, Baptists are indicating that they believe that God sovereignly controls their future; they believe they cannot lose their salvation.

On the other hand, when it comes to getting saved in the first place, most Baptists (at least within the SBC) believe that they have chosen God through their free will. Most SBCers reject the idea that God elects out of His sovereign good pleasure. Instead, they think that God has drawn them, but that they have decided to freely accept Christ. God is, therefore, not sovereign over their coming to Christ.

The problem with this combination of views is that it is not consistent. Either God is sovereign to save those He chooses, and then keep them secure, or He is not. Either God gives complete freedom of the will to humans before and after salvation, or He does not.

Interestingly, many Baptists who would quote Ephesians 1:13-14 to support eternal security would also reject Ephesians 1:3-6 as support for the doctrine of sovereign election. Verses 3-6 and 13-14 are in the same passage. In the original language they are even in the same sentence. These verses cannot, and should not, be interpreted to mean different things.

Although I disagree with Wesleyan-Arminian theology, I respect those who hold to it because they are consistent. For example, they believe that they have complete freedom to choose or reject God prior to salvation. They also believe that they can reject their salvation after it occurs. I do not think this can be supported biblically, but at least there is consistency.

Why do Baptists walk this strange line between the sovereignty of God and the complete freedom of man? My theory is that Baptists want to feel free to choose God or not. However, once they have chosen Him, they want to believe that He sovereignly controls their destiny. By believing these things, they can feel good about themselves in their choice, and also feel relaxed about their future.

As people who claim to be "of the book," we Baptists owe it to God and His Word to be consistent in the way we interpret it. Either God is sovereign or He is not.

How did we as Baptists get to this point? Do you think this inconsistency is a problem, or do you think it is what scripture teaches? What can we do to solve this problem?

Monday, October 22, 2007

One God when it Really Matters

Back in February of this year, as soon as we found out that Bobby had cancer, we began receiving words of encouragement from many of our friends in India. All of our Indian national Christian friends gave us strong words of encouragement based upon the sovereignty of our God. They were convinced that He would heal Bobby. We had also become close with about 40 Western Christians who lived in our city. The night before we departed, almost all of them came over to our house to pray for Bobby. It was very special.

We also made Hindu friends while in India. Of those closest to us, the majority worshiped Hanuman (the monkey god pictured here), along with various other gods of the Hindu pantheon. Since our city was known as the city of Shiva, our Hindu friends also worshiped Shiva on holidays devoted to him. As far as I can tell, it is all just dressed-up Animism.

When we got the word about Bobby's lymphoma, our Hindu friends wanted to give us words of encouragement (like our Christian friends). What they had to say intrigued me.

No longer did they speak about "the gods." They made no mention of Hanuman, Shiva, Ganesh, etc. The polytheism of the Hindu belief system vanished in the face of real trouble. Instead, several different Hindu friends told us that "god" would take care of and/or heal Bobby. They used the word "god." It was unmistakable.

Why was this the case? Did they do it because they knew we were Christians and wanted to please us? I don't think so. If that was the case, then they always would have talked of one God, at least when they were at our home.

What was going on here? I believe that they know, at some level, that their belief system is false. They also know, based upon general revelation, that there is one God in heaven, the Creator of all things.

Romans 1:18-23 makes this clear, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things." (ESV)

If that passage doesn't fit the situation in India, then I don't know where it applies. Our Hindu friends know enough to be judged by God because they know He exists. They cannot be saved with that knowledge, but they can be declared guilty because they have known enough.

Their reactions to our situation showed that they know there is one true God. May they come to know Him fully through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Is it Art or is it Lego?

While we were in Legoland last month, we saw some well-known "artwork" that amazed us (I put quotation marks around the word artwork because the art was all made of Legos). I cannot imagine how much time and effort went into creating these Lego replicas. Most of us (Alice, Caroline, Mary, and I) were interested in the paintings and sculptures. Bobby, however, was not. He didn't want his picture taken with any art. That's why I have included a picture of him battling the Dark Lord of the Sith.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sermon Question 6: Have We Redefined the Word "Preach"?

This post is the final installment in this sermon series. Maybe it should have been the first one.

In discussing all of these questions about sermons, we have been talking about preaching. I wonder if we have, in the evangelical church, redefined what the word "preach" means. Have we strayed from what the bible means to preach? If we have, then what did the writers of scripture mean? What do we mean?

The answers to these questions are critical to much of what we think about sermons because, quite obviously, we preach sermons. If we get the meaning of preaching incorrect, then there is almost no way that we can be biblical in our sermons.

I want to state this clearly: I believe we have defined preaching in a much narrower way than the biblical writers intended. We have added much tradition to what we mean when we think about the verb "to preach."

What did the writers of scripture mean by preaching? Let's begin with the verse that so many modern pastors like to quote. II Timothy 4:2 gives us Paul's exhortation to Timothy. Paul writes, "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching." (ESV)

What does he mean by "preach"? Paul uses the "aorist active imperative 2nd person singular" of the Greek verb "kay-roo-so" (I got that from Bibleworks, in case anyone was wondering). Quite simply, Paul is commanding Timothy to announce, herald, or publically proclaim the gospel. Timothy is to make known extensively the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is interesting to look at other places that this same Greek verb is used in the N.T. The first usage is in Matthew 3:1, which describes John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea. The first usage in Acts falls in 8:5, where Philip is proclaiming the gospel in Samaria.

In I Tim. 3:16, Paul quotes what appears to be part of a very early Christian hymn. In that verse, we read that Jesus, "was proclaimed among the nations." The final usage of any form of "kay-roo-so" comes in Rev. 5:2; John wrote of a strong angel who proclaimed the question, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?"

When we read through the N.T., we see the gospel being preached/proclaimed in many different situations by many different people. There are instances where "kay-roo-so" is used, and other instances where it is not used, but where preaching is obviously taking place. For example, the accounts of Peter (Acts 2), Stephen (Acts 7), and Paul (Acts 17 and 22) do not use that particular Greek verb.

All in all, the N.T. writers provide us with a fairly wide definition of what it is to preach/proclaim the gospel.

Now, what do we mean today when we say "preach"?

In the evangelical American church, the prevailing tendency to to view preaching as something that the paid senior pastor (expert) does in the pulpit of the church building toward the end of the worship services on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings.

While this is taking place, the gospel can certainly be proclaimed/preached. I am pleased to say that during most sermons that I hear in SBC churches, the gospel is at least mentioned. Actually, too many times the very basics of the gospel are almost all that are mentioned (that will have to be a different post).

If we take a look at the above description of modern American preaching, how many different traditions have we added to the biblical definition? Let's see:

-the pastor (singular) preaches.
-the senior pastor preaches.
-the paid senior pastor (expert) preaches.
-only the pastor preaches.
-preaching comes from the pulpit.
-preaching occurs in a church building.
-preaching happens on Sunday (or maybe Wednesday).
-preaching occurs in worship services.
-preaching happens toward the end of the services.

I'm certain that there are other traditions that we have added to preaching that I have not mentioned here, but I think the point is clear. We have added many traditions to the proclamation of the word that puts handcuffs on preaching itself.

We do a great disservice to the Christian church when we use such a tight definition for what it is "to preach." Let's work together to return to the biblical definition of preaching. This will/should lead to more people feeling free to proclaim the good news of Christ to the lost among them.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sermon Question 5: Why are So Many Sermons Evangelistic in Focus?

Why are so many sermons primarily evangelistic?

When the church gathers, the vast majority of the people are either saved or at least think they are saved. Those who are saved certainly do not need to hear primarily evangelistic sermons. Those who believe they are saved, but in fact are not, have already heard the gospel so many times in church that they are highly unlikely to respond to it in that setting. If they were ever to accept the gospel, it would probably be outside the church building.

There certainly is a place for evangelism inside and outside the gathering of the body. Whenever I preach, I try to take some time to explain the beauty of the gospel. However, it is not my primary focus when speaking to the church. Sometimes I just make a short reference to the gospel if the biblical text I am preaching from is not directly related to it.

In the bible, I don't see people coming to Christ when the church assembles. Rather, it appears to me that the church is supposed to take the gospel out to the world by living it out and proclaiming it verbally. Matthew 5:14-16 says, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (ESV)

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, spoke mostly about living out the Christian life. He was speaking to people who certainly did not understand fully what he had come to earth to accomplish. In light of that, it seems foolish for preachers to proclaim evangelistic messages to people in the pews who already know and believe what Jesus accomplished.

I'm speaking mostly from a Southern Baptist (SBC) background because that is where I have spent the past 11 years. Most SBC churches are currently plateaued or declining in number. My personal experience is also that many SBC churches are fairly shallow in doctrine once you get past the gospel. Please do not misunderstand me. The gospel is critical. Without it, nothing else in the Christian life matters.

SBC churches, for the most part, do not need another sermon on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The members of the body need, rather, sermons that focus on issues such as personal holiness, marriage and family, prayer, servanthood, and the biblical functioning of the church.

Our SBC churches need spiritual depth. I imagine most churches outside the SBC also need spiritual depth. One great way for this to take place is for the preacher (assuming it is one person because in most churches it usually is), to preach through books of the bible. He will then be forced to preach about topics that might not be his favorites. In this manner, he will cover a much broader range of issues. This will, in turn, strengthen the church.

Let's keep the gospel at the center of the church. Let's not keep the gospel the sole focus of the church.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Sermon Question 4: Why Does the Entire Service Lead Up to the Sermon?

Everywhere I have ever preached, and everywhere I have ever attended a church gathering, the sermon has come very near the end of the service. In fact, it seems that the entire service is designed to culminate with the sermon. Why?

If we take a look at today's typical church service, we see an order of worship that, for the most part, remains the same from week to week, at least within most Protestant churches. It probably goes something like this: the service begins with a congregational song, which is followed by announcements. After this, two or three more songs will be sung. Then, scripture reading and/or some type of presentation will occur. After one more song, the ushers will take up the offering while the choir (or soloist) sings a special. That is the normal order of worship.

All of the above is supposed to build to a crescendo that culminates with the sermon. Why?

If we look to the bible, what do we see when the church gathers? Does it look like what we see each Sunday?

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I Corinthians 14 is the only place in the NT which actually describes the gathering of the church. This gathering appears to be one in which multiple people are involved. The order of what occurs does not appear to be of prime concern. The key is simply that the purpose is edification (see 14:26).

Does the average Sunday morning service order look like what we see in I Cor. 14? No.

Does the average Sunday morning service order have to look like what we see in I Cor. 14? I don't think so.

I strongly believe that we have freedom in how we worship when we gather as a church body. As long as edification is the goal, then we can order a service however we want. Based on what we see in scripture, it seems that part of the service would include the proclamation of God's word. Also, the church must perform (with freedom of frequency) the ordinances.

Therefore, if a church wants every service to build toward the preaching of the sermon, then this appears to be fine. However, must it always be this way? No.

Based on what we see in I Cor. 14, it seems that it would be nice for the body if the order of worship was varied some of the time. In fact, if you have multiple people involved, offering "a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation," then the order that takes place will almost automatically be different from week to week.

Of course, there is also the option of trying to follow I Cor. 14, in which the order of what occurs does not appear to be planned at all. In Corinth, it seems that the body was relying on the Holy Spirit to guide them in when things occurred. If this was the case, then the preaching of the word might come at any point (or points) in the gathering.

My primary emphasis with this post is that as long as we focus on Christ-centered edification, then the order we follow is of little concern. A church is free to order the service however it wants, or to not set any order at all. If the sermon is near the end in crescendo-fashion, that's O.K. But let's not imprison ourselves to that service order.

Have you ever attended a service/gathering where the sermon did not occur near the end? What was it like? How did the people respond?

Take a Look

There is a good discussion going on over at Reforming Students. I think most of us agree that our churches are not meeting the needs of our youth. How can we make changes for the better? My friend Nick tries to tackle these issues. Take a look.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sermon Question 3: Why are our Sermons so Carefully Crafted?

While in preaching class in seminary, we were taught in detail how to prepare sermons. One thing that I really liked about the method of sermon prep. that we used was that the main focus was the biblical text. The preaching was "expository," which basically means that we preached directly from the bible. I liked this emphasis and am thankful for it.

The question that I am posing today is not directed at expository preaching in general. Rather, the question is: Why do expository (or any other form) sermons have to be so carefully crafted? Why do they often look and/or sound like something that is so prepared beforehand that the Holy Spirit could not intervene even if He wanted to?

Let me provide an example. In seminary, we were taught to prepare a sermon in the following manner. After analyzing the biblical text, we were to come up with what we might call the main message of the text. This would, then, be the primary thrust of the sermon. We were then to break down the passage into three, four, five, or more main points. Sub-points were to follow.

Each point mentioned above was to have a section for explanation and argumentation. After this came illustration. Finally, we would get to application. This was to occur on every point.

When we completed each manuscript to hand in to the professor, the end result was a very neat looking, organized product. It almost looked like it came from some sort of advertising firm.

But should our sermons be so carefully crafted?

Please let me inject something here before answering the above question. I am not talking about the importance of preparation. Whoever is preaching has a great responsibility to faithfully proclaim the word of God. He should spend time in the original languages (if he is familiar with these), know the context of the passage, read commentaries, get advice on difficult passages, and, if he has time, memorize the text itself. Whoever is the preacher should know his text backwards and forwards. There should be no exception to this.

Now, the question again: Should our sermons be so carefully crafted? Should they have numerous points? Should they follow the explanation, illustration, application model?

What examples do we have in scripture? Let's look at four from the book of Acts.

Peter, in Acts 2:14-39, preaches at Pentecost. He testifies to Jesus Christ as Lord, and says that Jesus has just poured out His Holy Spirit upon believers. Peter does not appear to follow any sort of script, but rather lets the Holy Spirit guide him as he testifies to the Lord. Peter's sermon is organized, and at the end he certainly has application, as he tells the listeners to repent.

Stephen, in Acts 7:1-53, preaches to religious leaders in Israel. Appearing to be guided by the Holy Spirit, he recalls much of the history of Israel, based on what he knows from the OT. At the end, like Peter, he calls for some sort of action by the religious leaders, even though it appears to be implied. Stephen does not follow a script, but rather tells what he knows and lets the Holy Spirit guide him.

In Acts 17:22-34, Paul preaches to philosophers in Athens. Since the OT has little meaning to these men, he does not quote it directly, although he certainly alludes to it. The apostle begins at creation because his listeners do not have knowledge of the biblical account of how the world began. Paul testifies to Christ, relying on his testimony and on general revelation. Paul calls for a response at the end.

Later in Acts, Paul speaks to a Jewish mob in Jerusalem. In 21:37-22:21, Paul testifies to the Lordship of Jesus, tells of his conversion, and makes his calling known. Again, he seems to be relying on the Holy Spirit to guide what he is saying. Quite obviously, he is not using a script.

What can we see from these sermons?
1) The place where the preachers began their sermons was based upon the knowledge of their listeners.
2) The sermons contained much scripture (OT), or were at least based upon scripture.
3) Illustrations were biblical illustrations.
4) The speakers all seemed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. They did not rely on a previously prepared written text.
5) Most of the preachers called for some sort of response from those listening.
6) The focus of the sermons, ultimately, was Jesus Christ.

When we compare what we see in scripture to what we often see in church pulpits today, the differences are quite obvious. So what can we, who have opportunities to preach, do about this? Do we follow the scriptural model or do we not?

This is what I propose, and also what I plan to do from now on when I have the chance to preach: first, after selecting a biblical text, I will prepare in the manner I suggested above. This will not change.

Second, the change will come as I put the sermon itself together. Instead of carefully crafting a manuscript with points, subpoints, and a fully written sermon text, I will go into the pulpit with just an outline in hand. I plan to have a clear idea of what I want to say, but I also desire to be more open to the leading of the Holy Spirit than I have in the past.

Third, other changes include beginning the sermon where I believe the listeners are, quoting more scripture than I have in the past, including primarily biblical illustrations, and calling for some sort of response/behavior change at the conclusion of the sermon.

Finally, I hope that my previous sermons have all been focused on Jesus Christ, but from now on I'll make sure that they are.

I'm curious to hear what you think of this. Should we follow the biblical model as seen in Acts, or is there a better way? If so, what is it?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Sermon Question 2: Why Does Someone with an M.Div. have to be the One Preaching?

Somehow, by the grace of God alone, I graduated from Southeastern Seminary with an Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in May 2006. I praise the Lord for getting me through Southeastern's program, because there is no way I could have done it in my own power and strength.

While in seminary, I heard quite a bit of preaching, most of it in chapel. I am no expert in preaching, but I thought that most of what I heard was pretty good. Some of it was excellent. Some of it was not so good. A few of the sermons were even poor.

Why do I bring this up? I'm mentioning it because everyone I heard preach at Southeastern has at least an M.Div. degree. Therefore, an M.Div. does not guarantee excellence in preaching.

This brings me to my question for today: Why does someone with an M.Div. have to be the one preaching? This is the view held by most churches in our country.

If you ask almost any pastoral search committee at a church, they will tell you that one of the qualifications they are looking for is an M.Div. or equivalent degree. They are usually assuming that this will lead to good preaching.

My experience tells me otherwise. I can tell you that in my preaching class at seminary, we had a very wide range of preaching abilities. Some of the men interpreted scripture well, but their presentation was weak. For others, their presentation was excellent, but their interpretation was not up to par. Of about 40 men in the class, I would say that seven or eight were excellent preachers in all phases of the task.

Having grown up in the church, I have heard many different of preachers. I have even heard a few who did not have an M.Div. (this is rare because most pastors have to have this degree to be called by a church in the first place). Some of the M.Div.-less men I heard did a good job; others did not.

What does the bible have to say about all this? It is clear that anyone who preaches must be faithful to the biblical text. In writing to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the importance to "preach the word," which in his case was the O.T. (you can read II Tim. 3:14 - 4:5 by clicking here). In that particular context, Paul was warning Timothy of the danger of false teachers. Timothy was to be faithful to the holy scriptures.

Most current churches are looking for a pastor who will preach faithfully. The qualifications for pastor/elders are in I Tim. 3 and Titus 1. Paul tells Timothy that elders must be "able to teach." He writes to Titus that elders "must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."

What can we glean from the above two passages? Anyone who is an elder must be able to teach the scriptures and hold firm to them. What is the purpose of this? The elder should, then, be able to teach biblical doctrine and also correct those disagree with a faithful interpretation of the bible.

So a pastor/elder must be able to teach. This much is clear. However, let's not make the mistake of saying that only a pastor/elder should preach. This is clearly nowhere taught in the bible. In fact, I Cor. 14 shows many different people involved in the gathering of the church. I think it is fair to say that more people than the pastor/elder should be preaching (read here).

What can we make of all this?

Here are some conclusions I have come to:
1) An M.Div. does not guarantee good preaching.
2) A man without an M.Div. may be a good preacher.
3) A pastor/elder must be able to teach.
4) When the church gathers, a pastor/elder does not have to do the preaching.

If a church, then, is looking for a pastor, and they expect him to do the bulk of the preaching, what should they do? My suggestion is that they look at the man, his character, and his abilities. An M.Div. will not ensure good preaching ability. In fact, a man with no theological degree may be an excellent preacher.

Get to know the man, not the degree.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Sermon Question 1: Why Am I the Only One Speaking?

Over the past three weeks, I have had the opportunity to preach a total of four times in three different churches. I am grateful to God and to these churches for the opportunities. During the midst of all this, several questions popped to mind about preaching and sermons in general.

As I was preaching a few weeks ago, I thought, "Why am I the only one speaking today?" As I looked at the people sitting there, it seemed to me that it would have been much more edifying for all of us if several people had spoken, instead of just me.

That got me thinking about the biblical model for what happens when the church gathers. As my friend Alan Knox has mentioned several times, I Corinthians chapter 14 in the only place in the NT where the gathering of the church is described. As we read chapter 14, it is clear that the purpose of this gathering is the edification of the body of believers.

So, as the body gathers, what do we see in I Cor. 14? Paul writes in verse 26, "How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (NKJV). Several things are clear here. When this church gathered, at least a few different people were involved in speaking in a way that led to the edification of the body. We also see that the speaking took different forms (psalm, teaching, etc.). Finally, Paul said nothing against this. Surely if it was wrong, the apostle would have told them so. He certainly did not hesitate in this letter to address their problems with division, immorality, the misuse of the Lord's Supper, etc.

The norm, then, in the only gathering of the church described in the NT is for several different people to speak in a manner that builds up the body of Christ.

Interestingly, look at what is written in verses 29-31: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged" (ESV).

What can we learn from these three verses? First, when Paul writes, "Let two or three prophets speak," he is actually giving a command. In the context of NT prophecy, more than one person is supposed to speak. It is not advice; it is a command.

Second, others there are to weigh (again a command) what is said. This provides us a picture of several different people getting involved in the edifying speaking of the local church.

Finally, verse 31 makes it clear that this should be done in an orderly manner so that learning and encouragement will take place. It seems from this that a key to edification is that more than one person be involved in giving prophecy.

How does this relate to the proclamation of the word in the church today? NT prophecy takes the form of a person saying something that they believe the Lord has laid on their heart to say to the body. While proclaiming the word is not exactly the same as this, there are similarities. Whoever is proclaiming/preaching should be exhorting the body based upon scripture. This is what we might call more objective than prophecy. However, the preacher still, I hope, believes that God has led them to a specific passage for a reason.

Preaching and prophecy in the NT, within the context of the church, exist for one purpose: the edification of the body. When we look at I Cor. 14, we see multiple people involved in the speaking ministry of the church. Paul even commands this.

So what can the church do about this today? I propose that churches, if they really want to move toward more of a NT model, actively get many more people involved in speaking when the body gathers. How can this happen?

Here are some ideas:
-Have two different people read scripture, one from the OT, and one from the NT.
-Have a time each gathering for people to talk about what God is doing in their lives.
-Each meeting, give people a chance to voice prayer requests, and/or pray publically.
-If a person speaks in tongues, make sure that someone is there who can interpret. Also, don't outright condemn speaking in tongues.
-Set aside time for people to prophesy in the gathering. This might scare some people at first, but if anyone is unbiblical, I Cor. 14 makes it clear that they can and should be corrected.
-Have two or three people preach. This could take the form of several shorter sermons.

If even some of these ideas would be instituted in our churches, I believe much more edification would take place. Why? Because the church would be following the NT model much more closely.

What other ideas do you have or have you seen to get more people involved in speaking when the body gathers?

Friday, October 5, 2007

How Do You Interpret Your Authority?

For those of us who depend on the bible as our primary authority in decision making, the way we interpret the scriptures is critical. Unfortunately, what we often see and hear is people with good intentions coming to incorrect conclusions. How does this happen?

We have been taught by our secular schools and news agencies that we can come to our own conclusions about things apart from biblical authority. So what we often see happen within the church is folks coming to decisions about different issues, and then finding individual verses to support their conclusions. This type of process will cause the bible to be able to justify almost anything.

So what is a better process? First, we must interpret scripture within its own context. Biblical meaning almost always stems from the paragraph, not just one verse. Therefore, we must look at the entire argument that the author is making. In fact, we should really look at not just the paragraph, but also the chapter, the book, and the place of the book in the canon. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said of preaching, "You must take your text in its context, and you must be honest with it. You must discover the meaning of the words and of the whole statement." (Preaching and Preachers, Zondervan, 1971)

We must also remember that some texts are clearer to us than others. In light of this, we should interpret difficult, seemingly vague texts with those that are straightforward. We should avoid at all costs coming to important conclusions based upon only one text that may be ambiguous.

Keep in mind that a text should be interpreted literally unless there is an obvious reason for not doing so. As a general rule, when we move away from literal interpretations, soon afterward almost any interpretation is up for grabs.

When we are in the process of interpretation, let's also remember to be humble about our conclusions. We are faulty after all. Enlisting the insight and advice of others in this process is a must.

Why does all this even matter? The answer is simple: if we want scripture to be the decision maker in our lives, we must strive to correctly interpret the words of the God who inspired the text.

When we interpret in context, interpret difficult texts with clearer texts, interpret literally, and try to stay humble, we will then be on the right track for accurately understanding what the original author intended.

If we follow the above process, it will make it much simpler for us to understand key teachings in scripture, follow the commands of scripture, and model our lives after what we see in scripture. This pleases God.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

What's Your Authority?

In the blog world people argue from all different kinds of authority. For most people today, that authority is their own experience. For others, it is what they have heard famous people say. For still others, tradition (familial or societal) is the authority of choice. For many, reason is king.

Within evangelical blogdom, however, almost everyone agrees that the bible is their authority. That is something we can agree upon. However, when you begin reading many of the arguments, you realize that reason and tradition are often the real authority people are depending upon. The bible is often then used to support conclusions that were first made based upon tradition, reason, experience, etc.

This is one of the reasons I appreciate my friend Alan Knox so much. I don't always agree with his conclusions, but I am glad that he tries to begin with scripture, and then comes to conclusions based upon what the bible says. Even though Alan is a Southern Baptist, he is not tied down by Baptist tradition and heritage.

While I was attending seminary (SEBTS), we were constantly told how important the bible was, and how it needed to be our primary authority in all things. In this, the professors were correct. However, what was interesting was that when it came to their teaching on the church in general, and pastoral ministry in particular, it seemed to me that the bible often took a backseat to SBC tradition.

This is what often occurred. An assumption would be made based upon Baptist history, tradition, and heritage. This assumption was then supported by a few different biblical texts. For example, congregational rule within the church was taught as biblical, and then several texts were used to support this. Another example is believer's baptism. We were told that this was the only biblical method of the ordinance. This was then supported with scripture. A third example is the office of pastor (I like the term "elder" better, but that was rarely used on campus; some see it as "too Presbyterian," whatever that means). We were told what the pastor does, and this was supported by scripture.

The above process of "proof-texting" can be very dangerous. This is the case because almost any biblical text taken out of context can be used to support almost anything. For example, I could say that I like polygamy, and then I could find a verse or two that shows King David having several wives. This sounds crazy, but it is the same method often used by many of us (I sometimes make this mistake, too).

What, then, do we do to ensure that the bible is really our authority? On any issue, within or outside the church, we must simply ask, "What does the bible say about this?" Then we must search all of scripture to find the answer.

Let us beware making decisions based upon reason, experience, tradition, or the authority of famous people. Let us not pick and choose certain scriptures to support conclusions we have already come to based on the above faulty sources of authority.

It may be that the other sources of authority, such as reason and tradition, agree with the bible. That would be great. But what happens when they conflict? What do I do, as a Baptist, if I study scripture and come to the conclusion (I hope humbly) that Baptists might be wrong about congregational rule, believer's baptism, and/or the role of the pastor?

If the bible is my authority, I must follow scripture.