Posts Tagged Preaching

The Need for Polemical Preaching

Erik Raymond has an interesting post up at The Gospel Coalition entitled The Problem with Polemical Preaching. Although his opening lines suggest that polemic preaching impairs sermons and muffles ministries, he actually concludes that there is a legitimate place for it within one’s ministry as long as one does not become characterized by it. He draws counsel from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the matter that is mainly helpful and which all of us who preach regularly should consider.

I’d like, though, to toss out a few ideas to place along side of Raymond’s concerns, some of which differ slightly and some of which simply complement them.

Pauline Call for Polemics
I think that there is greater biblical warrant for polemical preaching than Raymond’s post suggests. It seems clear that Paul considered the ability to engage in polemical preaching to be a qualification for elders, based on his instruction to Titus, “He 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” (1:9). Paul goes on to say that these false teachers must be silenced and sharply rebuked (vv. 11, 13). If it is a qualification, doesn’t that mean our ministries must be characterized by it to some degree?

Win? Hopefully. Warn? Absolutely.
I’m not sure, either, that narrowing the outcome of polemical preaching to winning or losing your opponents is helpful. What about third parties who are listening to the preaching? Perhaps I’m off on this, but most of the polemical preaching that I’ve heard (and engaged in) isn’t exclusively aimed at winning over the “opponent” as much as refuting their position in order to protect others from their errors. Should we desire to win those who teach error back to the truth? Certainly, but they are usually not even present to hear the polemical sermon. For the sake of those being influenced by error, polemical preaching is a necessary activity that can help congregations grow to maturity “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

Most pastors use polemical sermons to tackle errors that threaten their own congregations, not to confront false teachers directly. Even well-known preachers who engage in polemics in a conference are usually only addressing the ideas of their “opponent” rather than the person. A sermon isn’t a debate; it is a declaration. There is no need to assume that all polemic preaching is grumpy. It is quite possible to be winsomely polemical. But, I’d quickly add, that OT prophets and our Lord seemed not to think that being bitingly polemical was somehow sinful (cf. 1 Kings 19, Isaiah 44, and Matthew 23).

Let’s Balance Our Polemics and Our Assessment
I share Raymond’s concern about imbalance on this point. I have seen men hurt their ministries by creating a culture of criticism within their congregations, and once you unleash that beast, you can never satisfy its thirst for blood. Yet, I’ve also seen men who would never challenge or oppose error and therefore failed in one of their basic pastoral responsibilities, resulting in great harm to God’s people. The easy answer, I believe, is to do systematic exposition of the biblical text since that allows the Scriptures to control your preaching. When it confronts, you confront. Where it is under attack, you expose the weakness of the attacks.

Let’s be careful, though, of drawing faulty conclusions about how polemical other preachers are. It seems to me that the picture is easily distorted by the fact that polemical issues tend to generate a lot more attention than normal pastoral preaching. If I may risk an example, let’s consider John MacArthur’s ministry. My guess is that many readers of the TGC blog might think someone like MacArthur fits the bill of Raymond’s concerns, especially in light of the Strange Fire conference brouhaha. Is MacArthur a polemical preacher? Definitely at times. Most of his decades of preaching ministry, though, has been devoted to the chapter by chapter exposition of God’s Word from the pulpit of Grace Community Church.

The polemical side has shown itself, it seems to me, when he is addressing issues outside of Grace that threaten, in his mind, the health of evangelicalism. The only reason people even hear him speak at that point is precisely because of some threat to biblical truth that needs to be confronted. Since that is all some people hear, they might wrongly conclude that he is mainly (or exclusively) a polemical preacher. That would be a very shallow conclusion.

From a personal standpoint, I have experienced the tension this produces. Because of my connection to DBTS, I’ll get asked to speak at conferences that focuses on some issue and am assigned (or chose) an issue to address for the conference. If all anybody ever heard of my preaching was in that kind of context, they would be inclined to think I’m a polemical preacher. But if they showed up Sunday after Sunday at Inter-City Baptist Church, they’d have a very different picture as we walk through books of the Bible (currently, the Gospel of John).

My point? All faithful pastors must engage in polemics as they faithfully preach the Word. Some men, with access to a megaphone outside of their own congregation, will need to speak regularly about issues that matter and do so polemically. While that may be only a fraction of their overall preaching ministry, it may be the only part that most people see. As for me, I’m thankful that God puts watchmen on the walls. They have helped me. I hope they never stop sounding warnings about danger simply because they might be labeled as polemical preachers.

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Feeding and Leading

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
1 Timothy 5:17

Although it has been overused, there is some truth to the adage, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” The New Testament is clear that one mark of a healthy congregation is godly leadership. The Apostle Paul’s church planting strategy included seeing that godly and gifted men were in place to provide spiritual leadership and biblical teaching for the new churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; cf. 1 Ths 5:12). When Paul writes to Timothy about “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God,” high on his list of concerns are the qualifications and function of pastors. The church is healthiest when its spiritual leaders function as God commands.

The godly Puritan pastor Richard Baxter also saw the connection between the proper function of godly leaders and the health of the church: “If God would but reform the ministry and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal, and ability for their work.” Baxter simply reflects biblical wisdom here—godly and gifted shepherds are needed to guide God’s flock into spiritually green pastures and guard them from spiritual harm (cf. Acts 20:28-32).

Yet, we live in a day where the idea of spiritual leadership in the local church has shifted away from its biblical moorings. Both the church and pastoral ministry have felt the eroding influence of secularization. I share John Armstrong’s concern on this:

The way evangelical ministers presently deal with scriptural authority leaves them in a profoundly vulnerable position. While affirming the Bible’s authority, large numbers of pastors now se it ever so lightly (inconsequentially) in preaching popular sermons aimed at restoring the emotional and spiritual health of their flocks. They counsel with profound dependence upon the newest fads and popular psychological books while they lead with the sharpest managerial techniques of the most successful corporations of our age (“Semper Reformanda” in Reforming Pastoral Ministry [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001], p. 25.).

Here’s the sinister nature of secularization in the church—pastors still to do what God says to do (feed and lead), but they do it according to secular rather than biblical principles, and they use secular rather than scriptural methods. Complicating the problem, our American preoccupation with visible and immediate success blinds us to the fact that the church might be “succeeding” by secular standards, but failing by biblical ones. The church is larger, but is it healthier? Pastors are popular, but are they faithful?

At least one step toward reclaiming the pastorate from this secular stranglehold would be to renew our commitment to the principles taught in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” Paul’s concern for the health of the church leads him to urge Timothy to see to it that faithful pastors receive appropriate honor for their ministries.

God’s plan for the church calls for godly men to direct its affairs, “let the elders who rule well.” The biblical term elder is synonymous with overseer and pastor (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Titus 1:5, 7). All three are used to describe those men who serve as spiritual leaders for the local assembly of believers. All elders are overseers and pastors, and all pastors are elders and overseers. We know that these are men because of what Paul says earlier in this letter about their responsibility to manage their own homes (1 Tim 3:4-5), and also how Paul restricted women from exercising authority over men in the church (1 Tim 2:11-12). The word translated rule “is used here of one who has been placed before, or at the head of the church, and who has responsibility in that position both to ‘rule, lead, or direct’ and to ‘be concerned for and care for’ the church” (George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], p. 232).

Elders who excel in their duties are worthy of double honor, “elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor.” The idea of well here is that their service meets “high standards of excellence or expectation” (BDAG, p. 505). It would be incorrect to view this as comparing one elder against another since that is not the point of the text. The sole issue here is whether an elder excels in his God-given responsibilities, not that he exceeds the performance of others. The spirit of competition which marks our culture is contrary to the biblical nature of ministry (cf. 1 Cor 3:4-9). Comparisons like this are arrogant and foolish (2 Cor 10:12; cf. Matt 20:25-28).

There is some debate about what double honor means. Verse 18 makes it clear that financial remuneration is involved, and it supports this from both the Old and New Testaments. The instruction about not muzzling the oxen is a quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4, which Paul also quotes for the same reason in 1 Corinthians 9:9. Paul also quotes the Lord’s teaching, which is recorded in Luke 10:7, about the laborer being worthy of his wages. Clearly, the honor that Paul refers to in v. 17 includes a financial dimension, but how should we understand the word double as used here? Some suggest that it means double pay, but it is probably best to see it as tying together the ideas of respect and compensation. Elders that rule well are to be both honored and cared for financially.

The priority for elders is their ministry of God’s Word, “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” This portion of the text has been a point of real debate between the various forms of church polity. Some view it as the basis for two classes of elders, ruling and teaching (e.g., Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, rev. ed. [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1995], pp. 207-210.), but this reads into the text something which is not there. Instead of naming a second group of elders, it is further specifying those elders which are worthy of double honor. Since all elders must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9), it is not likely that Paul is splitting the tasks here.

The key here is to recognize what Paul is commending—ruling well and working hard at preaching and teaching. In other words, he isn’t setting up a two-fold office; he is detailing the characteristics in elders that are to be honored. Among all elders, those that rule well are to receive double honor, and this applies especially to those who work hard at preaching and teaching. By stating it this way, Paul actually elevates the task of preaching and teaching to the place of prominence among the elders’ responsibilities. This is consistent with Paul’s other admonitions about preaching and teaching (cf. 1 Timothy 4:6, 16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:2; Titus 1:9; 2:15).

The church in the United States is facing enormous challenges within and without. We are faced with an important choice. Will we stick with God’s plan for the church and its leadership, or will we adapt the church and its leadership to the culture? Gauging by the popularity of church growth strategies and marketing plans for churches, the sad answer seems to be that the American church is becoming secularized. Too often, the pastors that are applauded in our day are religious entrepreneurs and pop psychologists. Success is being defined by the marketplace rather than by the Master. God’s call for pastors is to lead and feed His flock, not build a business!

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