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Churches today have to make a choice to follow contemporary patterns of ecclesiology or use the early church as a model, as did the Dissenters of the sixteenth century. Although they shared many theological concepts with the Protestant Reformers, the Dissenters parted company on several crucial points...

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Problems and Limitations of the Traditional ‘Sermon’ Concept: Part IV

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 25-06-2012


2. When gathering with other believers, are the saints to be preached at or taught? Should Gospel preaching have a dominant place in our churches? Some have seen justification for “preaching” Gospel sermons in the church because of Paul’s statement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:2, “teach and preach these principles.” However, the Greek word “preach” in this text means to exhort, entreat, or urge (cf. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977] p.482). Most translations have, therefore, rendered it this way (e.g., KJV, RSV, NIV, Amplified, Jewish NT).

It would also be difficult to see in 1 Timothy 5:17 any warrant for our practice of monologue Gospel “preaching” within the assembly. New Testament commentator, Homer A. Kent, Jr., writes: “The anarthrous form logoi (“preaching”) has reference to the general function of speech in connection with the elder’s ministry. The term didaskaliai (“teaching”) is more limited and denotes the particular aspect of teaching or instructing, as distinguished from exhorting, admonishing, comforting, and other forms of preaching” (The Pastoral Epistles [Chicago: Moody Press, 1982/Revised] p.175).

The words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:2 (“preach the Word”), likewise, fail to support this notion of Gospel sermons in the church. Paul commands Timothy to herald or “preach” the Word and to be ready at all times to do so – whether it is convenient or not. The “Word” in this passage appears to be the proclamation of the Gospel which may or may not occur within the assembly. However, the fact that Paul later urges Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (v.5) suggests that his heralding was done primarily outside of the Christian gathering when coming into close contact with unbelievers.

It is important to remember as well that these words (2 Timothy 4:2,5) apply uniquely to Timothy, and not to those who serve as shepherds in the local church (many of whom are not gifted as evangelists). Moreover, Timothy was not a local church pastor (as is commonly assumed), but an apostolic assistant; a temporary delegate of Paul’s to set things in order and to correct abuses. He was not “in charge” of any local congregation. The late William Hendriksen, author of Survey of the Bible (England: Evangelical Press, 1976), writes:

The “minister” at Ephesus was Timothy. We purposely surround the term “minister” with quotation marks, for Timothy’s function was not exactly identical with that of the present day local pastor, whose main duties are limited to just one congregation to which he is bound until he accepts a call to go elsewhere. Timothy occupies a special service: he is Paul’s special emissary, representing the apostle now in this, then in that congregation. Moreover, such would often “minister” to an entire group of churches (p.407).

Thus, as an apostolic assistant, Timothy would not only help the churches that Paul previously planted, but frequently, in the course of his itinerant ministry, would find himself in the presence of unbelievers and would need to boldly preach the Gospel to them.

3. According to the New Testament, a preacher, as one who preaches the Gospel to those who are ignorant of it; and a local church pastor, as one who shepherds the flock, are not one and the same. A preacher not only heralds the Gospel to the unbelieving masses, but his ministry is itinerant. A pastor, on the other hand, instructs and equips believers, and his ministry is stationary, working only with one congregation. His goal is not necessarily to convert the people he shepherds because, hopefully, they are already regenerate. This is confirmed by the uses of “preaching” and “preacher” in both the New Testament and the early apostolic fathers. By confusing, therefore, the distinct roles of “preacher” and “pastor,” we make the mistake of assuming that both believers and unbelievers should be addressed the same (i.e., through monologue preaching) and given the same message (i.e., Gospel sermons).

The problem that most churches today are experiencing is apathy. There is a lack of meaningful involvement on the part of the congregation. It seems that many pastors have confused the distinct activities of “preaching” and “overseeing.” If the pastor defines himself as a “preacher,” then on the basis of what he believes to be faithful adherence to what the New Testament teaches, emphasis is placed on preaching. Since preaching or heralding is almost always monologic it is no wonder that the congregation begins to feel like an audience.

Monologue is inherent in heralding – appropriate for Gospel proclamation – but it can be detrimental for edifying and the “equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). To be sure, occasion may necessitate a strong sermon of exhortation, refutation or teaching, but there are no biblical grounds for a tradition that tends to discourage congregational activity in worship and ministry. In this day of concern over the lagging vitality and ineffectiveness of many churches a reappraisal is imperative. It may be that one area where fruitful change could take place is in understanding the role of the parish minister within the context of the assembled congregation (Evans, “‘Preacher’ and ‘Preaching’: Some Lexical Observations,” pp.321-322).

4. Where did our practice of preaching a monologue Gospel sermon to assembled believers on a weekly basis come from? Much of it came from the Protestant Reformers who saw the “church” as consisting of all those within a given territory – saved and unsaved. Because so many unbelievers were present within the Reformation churches (and even compelled to attend), it was necessary to continually preach the Gospel to them.

Where, however, there exists the territorial or state conception of the church, and the whole society in a given territory, saved and unsaved alike, belong to the “church” – preaching is the necessary function within the church. Here the unredeemed are expected to sit among the believers in the congregation, and to them the Gospel must be preached. In the state or mass church the preaching of salvation takes the place of teaching. For the didache is not for the unconverted.

They are only saved through the proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel. And since the congregation usually meets only on Sunday, there is not much, or any, room left for teaching. Thus preaching occurs at the expense of teaching. The pastor becomes the preacher. The believers do not get the right food (teaching), the congregation never reaches full maturity, and there is no outreach, no preaching done to the outside by emerging mature Christians. Why are there so few evangelists and teachers emerging out of our present congregations? Why is the enrollment at our Mennonite seminaries on such a low level and seemingly on the decrease? Preachers and teachers are not produced by preaching. The Christians who “by this time . . . ought to be teachers,” and preachers, remain babes in Christ and eventually “become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11-12) (Hans-Joachim Weihler, “Preaching in the Church?” Searching Together [Autumn – 1982, Vol.11/No.3] pp.36-37).

It is one of the incredible paradoxes of history that the Reformers, who so boldly and effectively recaptured the Gospel of Grace from its medieval distortion and restored the central message of justification by faith, should have retained the mass church of the mixed multitude, the territorial church of the Constantinian compromise, in which real faith was not a requirement for membership (H. Bender, These Are My People, p.70).

A fundamental doctrine, in the system of church order which we have deduced from the Scriptures, is, that genuine piety [salvation] is necessary to church-membership. If this doctrine had been steadfastly maintained from the times of the apostles, the corruption which overspread the churches would have been prevented, and the papal apostasy would never have occurred.

The admission of unconverted members opened the door to every evil, and ultimately subjected the churches to the spirit that works in the children of disobedience. The Reformation by Luther corrected many abuses, but this chief inlet of mischief it did not close. Hence the Reformed churches do not exhibit the purity, devotion, and zeal which characterized the churches of primitive times. We need a more thorough reformation. We need to have the axe laid at the root of the trees, and this is done when none are admitted to church-membership but persons truly converted (J.L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order [Harrison, VA: Gano Books Reprint, 1990] pp.275-276).

5. We are not saying that we should never explain the Gospel to believers so that they can better comprehend its content and implications. Neither are we denying that, in special circumstances, there might be the need within the assembly to declare the Gospel message – but we are saying that continuously preaching Gospel sermons in the assembly is not the normative New Testament practice.

Church meetings are for believers only and, specifically, for their spiritual edification and development – not for the purpose of converting the few pagans who might be present! This explains why there is such a strong emphasis in the pastoral epistles upon teaching or doctrine, since it would serve as the mainstay of the believer’s diet and because it was necessary for their maturity (1 Timothy 4:13,16; 2 Timothy 2:2,24-25; Titus 1:9; Colossians 1:28). If we continuously focus our church meetings on converting the unbeliever, those who are already regenerate will not grow and learn the deeper truths of their faith. They will remain weak and stunted. God desires that we progress in our spiritual walk and grow in the deeper realities of the Christian life (Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1-3).

One of the more ingenious tricks the Devil has played on us “conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, Bible-believing Christians” has been to get us to confuse what we should be doing when we come together with what we should be doing when we go out into the world. We have been bedeviled into believing we should be “evangelizing” when we are together (when not more than five percent of those present are non-Christians). And, while “out there in the world,” we are taught to be a “separated people,” lest we become tainted by the influence of the ungodly should we associate with them too closely.

Consequently, nearly every time he goes to church, the average evangelical Christian hears a simple evangelistic sermon designed to “convert the sinner” (who isn’t there). While, “out in the world,” he doesn’t have three friends who are not Christians. No question about it. The Great Commission says, “Go ye into all the world and bring them into the church building, so the pastor can preach the Gospel to every creature” . . . In some weary hour, when we stop to face for an honest, fleeting moment the utter impossibility of thinking that the world could possibly be reached inside the church, we may even admit that if our members were winning people to Christ, as they ought to be, we might be able to minister differently.

But they aren’t and won’t and can’t – so we must go on as we are. We cannot figure out why they don’t move past the baby stage into reproduction. The fact that they never get anything but milk from the pulpit and the church program somehow doesn’t seem to our ecclesiastical mentality to be relevant to the problem. Is the purpose of the church, as it comes together, to win the lost? Or do we have our church fellowship confused with our mission in the world? In the first-century church, unbelievers became believers at gatherings of the believers, but that does not seem to be the purpose that brought them together.

In Acts 2:42-47, the Lord added new converts to the church daily, but the reason for gathering together was so that those who were already believers could be taught by the apostles, enjoy spiritual fellowship with one another, remember the Lord’s’ death and its benefits by sharing communion, and pray together . . . Early church gatherings were for Christians to grow – not for evangelism. Even though the modern evangelical mind cannot understand, their evangelism was as explosive as it was, in part, because their gatherings were what they were . . .

When the church comes together it is not to concentrate on converting the five percent who may have dropped in for the services, but it is to concentrate on the maturing, stabilizing, edifying, grounding, deepening, developing, effective living and ministering of its “in-group” believers. Its ministry is not to be aimed at building the biggest crowd possible, but at building believers (whatever their number) into a vital person-to-person fellowship of love – fellowship that really comes to “know” the Son of God . . .

Today I see my ministry chiefly as a ministry to Christians. As an individual believer, I am as responsible to witness and win pagans as any other believer. But, as a pastor, my first responsibility is to teach and to structure the church so as to encourage the spiritual growth and maturity of believers until they become able to carry out their own evangelistic responsibilities (Robert C. Girard, Brethren, Hang Loose [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972] pp.80-84).

Another reason why the church gathering should only be comprised of believers and why there is no mandate to constantly evangelize those in the assembly, is because Jeremiah 31:34 declares that those who are within the New Covenant community will no longer have to be urged to “know the Lord; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, declares the Lord.”

To further support this, it must be remembered that all of that which is to transpire within a church meeting presupposes that the participants are believers (e.g., worship, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, exercising of spiritual gifts, corporate prayer, etc.). Such exhortations to worship God and edify one another makes no sense if the church meeting was for unbelievers or even a mixed company of believers and pagans. Thus, church is for the church!

by Darryl Erkel

Recommended Reading:

David C. Norrington, To Preach or Not to Preach? The Church’s Urgent Question (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1996).

William Barlow, “Communicating the Gospel,” [ed. Jon Zens] Searching Together (Vol.21:1-4, 1993) pp.45-61.

Kevin Craig, “Is the ‘Sermon’ Concept Biblical? A Study of Its Greek Origins,” [ed. Jon Zens] Searching Together (Spring/Summer – 1986, Vol.15:1-2) pp.22-29.

Craig A. Evans, “‘Preacher’ and ‘Preaching’: Some Lexical Observations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (December – 1981, Vol.24/No.4) pp.315-322.

George Barna and Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2008).

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