3 Ways Preachers Undermine the Bible (and the Sermon)

March 5th, 2014
Image: Caraman | Bigstockphoto.com

You’re sitting in church, if not innocently, then at least penitently. The preacher (bless his soul!) says something in the sermon that undermines the Bible, and consequently, the whole sermon, and the whole concept of a sermon. Ouch. Here we go again. Sometimes I’ve been the guy sitting in church when this happens. Sometimes I’ve been the preacher.

In either pair of shoes, the rule holds: Undermined Bible = Undermined Sermon.

Here’s another rule: Person “Preaching” Personal Opinion = Person Not Preaching. A sermon is not an oral good advice column.

Here are some ways I’ve seen preachers like myself shoot themselves in the foot. Do these things if you want your preaching to be irrelevant.

1. Do things that make the Bible seem far away from your people. My friend Jonathan was just going off on this the other day. There are bad ways to use your knowledge of Greek/Hebrew/Latin. You can preach in such a way as to make it clear that your congregation can’t really know what the Bible says unless they know [insert “original language” word here, and what it “really” means]. You can make them think they need to know Greek to read the Bible in English.

But this is bad theology. It ignores Pentecost, the divinely merciful imperialistic act of the Spirit that reveals that all the languages can be filled and fulfilled by the truth of Christ to the praise and glory of God the Father (Acts 2:4-6). It ignores the fact that Jesus probably spoke lots of Aramaic, so that his “original” words in the Greek New Testament are already a Pentecost-derived, Spirit-inspired, divinely authored translation.

Preachers who, for some reason or other (Romans 10:8 maybe?), don’t want their congregation to feel like the Bible is far from them and inaccessible, just might use their knowledge of original languages to tastefully deepen (rather than contradict) what this or that English rendering says. Note: this can even be done without saying the Greek/Hebrew/Latin word. You can expound the sense of it without even signaling your super education. So clever! But there are also tasteful ways to use the actual Greek word, etc.

2. Preach against what the Bible says. Sometimes this happens. From good motives or bad, this is a methodological mistake that destroys sermons by undermining the Holy Bible.

On the other hand, occasionally a preacher is just so smart, just so almost-as-smart-as-God, that they have an axe to grind. They get up to preach and just can’t wait to say how wrong the Bible is, how primitive/ignorant/undemocratic were its pre-modern authors. Their sermons begin with pride, and end as a Toyota Prius commercial.

Here’s the thing to do if you cannot in good conscience preach a passage from the Bible. Don’t preach it. That’s it. Pick another Scripture to preach from, or preach from one of the other Scriptures in the lectionary for that Sunday.

3. Think that your job as a preacher is something other than to teach what God has revealed in Scripture. Rest assured. Your job is not to protect your people from the Bible. Your job is rather to preach and teach what it says, since it comes to you on divine authority. Think of it like this: you are a member and shepherd of the community of whose faith one essential component is the belief that God is the primary author of Sacred Scripture, and the source of its unity, and that all the human authors of Scripture merely participate in that greater and unifying divine authorship.

So as Christian preachers, it is not our job to act as judges (much less juries and executioners!) over the contents of divine revelation. Our job is to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Our preaching is Christian only to the extent that we preach and teach what God has revealed.

Clifton Stringer is a Ministry Matters contributor and Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College.

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