By Gary Weedman
At the North American Christian Convention, June 28, 2006, a friend of mine responded wistfully to Steve White’s morning sermon, “Together in Faith”: “That’s the first doctrinal sermon I’ve heard in years.” My friend, a lifelong member of the Christian church, a former Bible school teacher and elder, attends worship regularly, so I found his observation surprising. I had not seen anything that unusual about Steve’s sermon. Having been a member for some years of the Plainfield Christian Church where Steve ministers, I had become accustomed to such substantive preaching from him.
But it did make me wonder about the role of doctrinal preaching in the total witness of our congregations. Is it, in fact, so rarely heard that such a sermon as “Together in Faith” is an anomaly? Has the vacuous “feel-good,” self-affirming, “five steps to a happy life” preaching that dominates religious television programs crept into our pulpits?
I frankly don’t know the answer to that question. On the contrary, I know a great number of our preachers who work hard at preaching, as evidenced by the groups of preachers who organize informal meetings to discuss and even plan together their preaching programs. Furthermore, several from our churches have been recognized as outstanding preachers by churches outside our movement. And my own relationships with preachers confirm that many take biblical preaching quite seriously.
Standard Publishing has even given prominence to preaching through a helpful Web site, www.preachingstandard.com, edited by Tom Ellsworth with participation from notable preachers such as Rich Atchley, Ben Cachiaras, Brian Jones, Roy Lawson, Rubel Shelly, and Billy Strother. So, I realize we do care about quality preaching in our churches.
And yet I have this nagging fear that doctrinal preaching is generally neglected in many evangelical churches. A perusal of contemporary journals and books on preaching confirms this conclusion. Just one example: Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, observes of doctrinal preaching, “The very word doctrine, like its cousins dogma and dogmatic, has fallen on hard times. For many people it connotes authoritarianism, intellectualism and legalism.”1
I suspect there may be good reasons for the “hard times” to which doctrinal preaching has fallen. For one, we must admit that some doctrinal preaching in the past has been nothing but combative in tone and intent. Doctrinal preaching does not deserve much space when it has an air of self-serving, self-righteous satisfaction, the sense that “we’re right and they’re wrong, and we’re proud of it.” Furthermore, this kind of preaching is seen as impractical, not meeting the “needs” of contemporary congregations, a “turnoff” to the typical seeker-oriented congregation.
And yet, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath. George affirms that “the recovery of doctrinal preaching is essential to the renewal of the church. The crisis identity which engulfs contemporary Christianity, especially in the West, has resulted in large measure from the loss of a persuasive message clearly proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit.”2
George traces the loss of doctrinal preaching to Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of modern theology. Schleiermacher’s emphasis was “not on the content of the message, which may be quite irrelevant, but on the authenticity and self-expression of the messenger.” His goal was for the preacher “to project his innermost self as a subject of shared observation.”3 Thus, he “shared” rather than “proclaimed.” We have largely coopted this liberal theological communication when “sharing” becomes a substitute verb in much of the church’s vocabulary for preaching or teaching, words that imply some content beyond the speaker’s inner experience.
Our vocabulary reveals much about our theology. We have moved from calling congregational leaders evangelists, then preachers, then ministers, and now pastors. Without getting into a debate about the biblical support for such titles (a debate with no clear outcome), does such a move reflect an attitude about the role of preaching in the life of our churches? Has the ancient form of worship—the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the table—lost out to “sharing?”
The verbs used in the New Testament for speech in the context of the church’s ministry reveal a much different view of communication than Schleiermacher’s penchant for “sharing.”
1. There is the proclamation of the gospel to nonbelievers, characterized by two words—to preach and to evangelize. The “gospel” is treated as an identifiable content. Paul reminded the Corinthians of “the gospel I preached to you” (1 Corinthians 15:1) with the assumption they knew what that gospel was. The content of the gospel included the facts that God has invaded history to fulfill his promises to Abraham to restore all creation unto himself. He did this, according to prophecy, in the person of Jesus, his life, death, resurrection, and his exaltation.
2. Then, there is the word for teaching directed toward believers and expanding on the facts of the gospel. The word for teach is used nearly a hundred times in the New Testament as a communication done within the church. Much of the material of the epistles of the New Testament, often the first half or so, consists of teaching—taking one or more parts of the gospel and expanding the meaning of that gospel for the life of the church. Thus, Paul expands on the results of the death of Christ in the first three chapters of Ephesians, explaining that through his death Jews and Gentiles have been made into one body now restored to fellowship with God. This restoration has come solely through God’s loving grace and not by the work of humans.
3. Finally, there is a whole class of words that describe speech that builds on the gospel and on the teaching growing out of the gospel. These include exhort, comfort, console, warn, strengthen, build up, and, only occasionally, rebuke. Usually these words occur in the latter part of the epistles (e.g., Ephesians 4:1; Romans 12:1) and build upon the teaching that was the focus of the material in the early part.
Thus, it is helpful to think of these three categories of New Testament speech as concentric circles with the gospel at the core, expanding to the second circle of teaching about the gospel, expanding to the third circle of contemporary application of the teaching.
The point is that doctrinal preaching (the middle circle) is a critical component of the speech of the church. It is what William Willimon calls in Peculiar Speech, “speech for the baptized.” It forms the foundation for the “contemporary application,” the speech of the outer circle. Without that doctrinal foundation, George pointedly asks, “What does the church have to say that no one else can say? What does the preacher have to say that the psychologist, politician, stockbroker, or social commentator has not already said with more passion and insight than most pastors can muster, even on Easter Sunday?”4
The New Testament authors did much more than “share” a few thoughts with their recipients. They proclaimed, exhorted, comforted, consoled, warned, strengthened, built up, and rebuked. They made such application only after a good dose of doctrinal preaching.
What, then, to do?
1. Restore, if missing, doctrinal preaching to our churches.
2. Make such restoration a cause for celebration, not an occasion for self-satisfaction. When Paul describes the consequences of the death of Jesus in Ephesians, he doesn’t argue about the point. Rather, he celebrates, he breaks into prayer, he exalts, he makes poetic such teaching.
3. Encourage preachers, both individually and collectively, to develop creative ways to present doctrine in their sermons.
4. Ensure that our colleges and seminaries not neglect the preparation of their ministry students for such work.
5. Affirm, with Timothy George, that the “recovery of doctrinal preaching is essential to the renewal of the church.”
1 Timothy George, “Doctrinal Preaching,” in Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, ed. by Michael Duduit (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 93. See also Dan Doriani, “Doctrinal Preaching in Historical Perspective,” Trinity Journal, Spring 2002, 35-62.
2 George, 93.
3 George, 94.
4 George, 93.
Gary E. Weedman is president-elect of Johnson Bible College, Knoxville, Tennessee. He formerly served as senior vice president of TCM International Institute, provost at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and vice president for academic affairs and dean at Milligan College. He is a graduate of Johnson Bible College, Western Illinois University, and Indiana University, where he received the PhD. He has served in campus ministry and local church ministry in Indiana and has had teaching and administrative duties at Indiana University, Johnson Bible College, and Lincoln Christian College. He has written a number of articles and books and recently made a presentation at the International Society of Biblical Literature in Groningen, the Netherlands (2004). He is married to the former Janis Morgan and is the father of four sons—Mark, Matthew, Micah, and Joshua—and five granddaughters.