Class III: Preaching
As Christians, we probably all agree that preaching is important. But what's not immediately obvious is how the act of preaching—and the act of listening to preaching—contributes to the unity of a local church.
How exactly does preaching foster unity in the church? How we can be good stewards of the preaching we hear, not just for our own individual growth, but for the health and maturity of the church as a whole? These are some of the questions we'll consider today.
I. God Creates his People Through His Word
The first thing we must realize is that God's word and God's people have a unique relationship. The word of God is not just an optional add-on to the life of the church. Nor is it just one tool among many which will inform and benefit the people of God. According to Scripture, the Word of God is actually the source of our very life.
Life Through the Word—Old Testament
One of the great themes of the Bible is the connection between God's Word and life. When God gives life, he does so through the power of his Word. Even in the very beginning, God gave life to the universe by speaking. "Let there be light," he said, "and there was light," (Genesis 1:3).
Think also of those momentous first words of the Ten Commandments: "God spoke all these words," Exodus 20:1 says, and Israel was made a nation.
Then there is the stunning vision in Ezekiel 37 of God giving new life to his people after their exile in Babylon:
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. . . . I prophesized as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezekiel 37:7, 10).
Notice what calls the bones to life. It is Ezekiel's spoken word. Ezekiel prophesies, the bones come together, flesh grows over them, and they live. The message is clear: God's people are given life through the power of his Word.
Life Through the Word—New Testament
In the New Testament as well, God's people are given life by the Word of God. Indeed Scripture's teaching about God's life-giving Word finds its consummation in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. John writes at the beginning of his gospel,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
What an amazing statement: In the Word was life! It is through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that we are brought from death to life and "born again" by God's power.
Paul makes the same point in Romans 10: "Faith comes by hearing," he says (Romans 10:17). No one comes to faith in Christ simply by looking at the world and drawing their own conclusions. They come to believe in Christ when they hear the gospel message preached to them.
The point is that it is the power of God's Word that brings God's people to life. Because of that, God's Word is central to the identity and mission of his people. Christianity is not primarily about spiritual experience or warm community or even acts of service—though all those things are important in their way. First and foremost, Christianity is about God's people hearing God's Word and responding to it in faith. That is why we say that preaching is vital to unity in the church.
For the next few minutes, we'll consider the role of preaching in the church, thinking first about why preaching is uniquely important (as opposed to studying the Bible on your own, for example) and then discussing very practically how preaching builds the church's unity.
II. THE UNIQUE ROLE OF PREACHING
Many churches today would insist that they are Bible-centered, and yet they leave preaching as a secondary focus in their church life. Fellowship, music, small groups, or other activities take priority and set the direction of the church, while preaching becomes kind of an afterthought.
Preaching in the Bible
Relegating preaching to secondary status is simply not an option for any church that wants to pattern itself after Scripture. Throughout the Bible, the exposition of God's Word is central to the life of God's people. Here are some examples:
- When God gave his Law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, he also gave them teachers, the priests, who were to teach the Word of God to them (Leviticus 10:11). The Law of course was perfect, but God knew that his people were not. Therefore he gave them teachers to explain the Law and to exhort the people to obedience.
- In Nehemiah 8, after the wall of Jerusalem was completed, all the people gathered to hear Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law. "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:8). In other words, Ezra preached!
- Jesus understood that one of the main purposes of his own ministry was to preach. He said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose" (Luke 4:43).
- The Gospel of Mark tells us that one reason Jesus called the twelve apostles to himself was so that "he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14).
- Paul insists that the gospel will only be spread through preaching. "How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Romans 10:14).
- Paul tells Timothy: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the Word!" (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
We cannot claim that our church is founded on the Word of God unless our church is founded on the preaching of that Word. Individual Bible study is not sufficient; Bible studies in small groups are not sufficient; coffee hour Q&A's on Sunday morning are not sufficient. Only when our church is centered around the preaching of the Scriptures can we truly claim to be a Word-centered church.
Why Is Preaching Better Than Anything Else?
Between the individualism that marks our culture, and our Protestant heritage of the priesthood of all believers, we can sometimes think that simply having the Bible is sufficient—that "me, my God, and my Bible" are enough to bring us to spiritual maturity. When such thinking is left unchallenged, we can easily begin to undervalue the preaching of God's Word to the community of believers.
So what is it that makes preaching so vital to the life and unity of the church? Why isn't individual Bible study or small group fellowship better, or at least just as good? Let me suggest two reasons:
First, preaching in the church carries unique authority.
Ultimately, the authority of preaching rests on the authority of Scripture itself. In fact, preaching that isn't rooted deeply in Scripture carries no authority at all! Not a few preachers seem to think that their authority flows from their great personality or knowledge, or even because they hold some church office. But none of that gives someone the right to speak with authority about God; to claim otherwise requires more than a little hubris! Whatever authority a preacher has is not his own; he has authority only so far as he is truly explaining the Bible.
But that brings up another question. Why should we trust a particular preacher's interpretation of the Bible? Any preacher can go wrong in his explanation, interpretation, and application of the Scripture. So what gives us any confidence that a particular sermon is a true and trustworthy interpretation of Scripture?
The answer is that preaching takes place in the context of a local congregation. Therefore, it is backed by the united testimony of an entire community of Christians, each indwelt by God's life-giving Spirit. When the church is healthy, the words the preacher says on Sunday morning are tacitly confirmed by the church's elders and ultimately by the congregation as a whole.
If the pastor starts preaching something the congregation believes is contrary to Scripture, then the church as a whole has a duty to say so—gently and respectfully to be sure, but firmly. That's exactly what Paul tells the congregations in Galatia: It is your responsibility to make sure the message being preached to you is the true gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). Final authority over the message preached is given to the entire congregation—not to a pope, a presbytery, or pastor, but to the church.
Thus we can have extra confidence in the truth we hear preached in a healthy church, because it is backed by the testimony of a community of Christians. That is one distinction between preaching in a church and our own personal study of the Bible. Preaching represents the unified agreement of Spirit-filled believers, and therefore we can have an extra degree of confidence in its authority.
Second, preachingis applied in the context of relationships.
Preaching is truth that confronts us from outside ourselves—outside our biases, our assumptions, and our sins. As Christians, we all know that our hearts are sinful and our minds are deceptive. Yet we often forget that sin affects even our ability to interpret the Word of God. Yes, God has given us the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding, but the presence of the Holy Spirit does not mean that our interpretation of the Bible is free from error.
If we are to understand God's Word rightly, we need other Christians to speak truth to us. Moreover, we need that truth delivered to us in the context of community—in the company of a group of people who know our lives and will confront us with the truth of God's Word.
There are many important ways we can apply this truth to our lives. Here are three:
- First, don't think that listening to a CD of a great preacher is enough. It is not. Every Christian needs to be sitting under the faithful preaching of God's word in a real church. Only then are your brothers and sisters able to speak into your life and help you respond in a godly way to what has been preached. Growth in Christ is not an automatic thing. It's not "just add sermon and watch it grow." You need the sanctifying influence of other Christians challenging you, exhorting you, and encouraging you—all on the basis of the preached Word of God.
- Second, come to church even when you don't want to. Many Christians stop coming to church when they face difficulty in their lives—whether sin or depression or just discouragement. But those are exactly the times when we most need to be at church! God speaks to us through the preaching of his Word, and it's during times of spiritual struggle that we ought to be most hungry to hear from him. Don't isolate yourself in times of spiritual difficulty.
- Finally, let people into your life! None of these benefits will accrue to you if you don't let people know you, or if you don't talk with others about how God's word should apply to your life. When you go to lunch with other Christians after the service, don't just talk about sports or the upcoming week. Talk about the truth of what was just preached. Open yourself to be confronted and challenged by those who have just heard the same truth that you have. Preaching is about living community.
III. How Preaching Promotes Unity
For the rest of our class, we'll look at three ways in which biblical preaching promotes unity in the church.
Biblical Preaching Gives Us a Message Around Which to Unite
The first way that biblical preaching promotes unity is by making clear what we are uniting around. As we noted two weeks ago, church unity has a particular purpose—to showcase the power of the gospel by uniting very different people who find commonality in the good news of Jesus Christ. And how is that unity-creating gospel message proclaimed? Primarily through preaching. Biblical preaching makes crystal clear the specific message that defines who we are as God's people.
What does that mean for us as members of this church?
- Above all it means that we should expect everyone who leads us to be committed to gospel-centered preaching—preaching that explains, exalts, and revels in the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we all understand the gospel; we are all Christians. But God's people need to hear the gospel message regularly. We are forgetful, and therefore we need to hear over and over again that God is holy, that we are sinful, and that our only hope is in Christ's perfect work on the cross. If preaching ever becomes merely a list of to-dos—a mere description of how we should live—then it is no longer Christian preaching.
- It also means that as members, we have a responsibility to protect the church against preaching that is not biblical. In the New Testament, when error slipped into a church's teaching, the apostles did not blame the preacher alone; they blamed the church (2 Timothy 4:3, for example). As a member of this church, you are accountable for the integrity of what you hear on Sunday morning—and for the message that you support with your tithe money. If you're concerned that the preacher is teaching something that is unbiblical, then you have a responsibility to learn more and perhaps even to respond.
Of course, you have to handle a situation like that with wisdom and care. How should we respond to teaching we think is in error? A few guidelines to remember:
First, remember that you may be mistaken. You may have heard something that wasn't really said, or you yourself may be the one who's in need of correction. Humility and thoughtfulness will always serve you better than anger or rashness. When you speak with someone about what you think is an error in their preaching, do so with respect; after all, this is someone in whom the church has decided to invest significant authority. Recall Paul's words to Timothy—"Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father" (1 Timothy 5:1).
Second, consider carefully when and how to raise the issue with the preacher. The severity of the error is important to consider here. If the error you suspect is one that cuts to the heart of the gospel, it might be worth raising it immediately after the service. But if it is a minor point—one of emphasis, or one having to do with non-essential matters of theology, for example—then it's probably not worth monopolizing the preacher while a non-Christian is waiting to ask questions about the gospel. Be wise about when and how you raise your questions.
Third, be careful about talking to other friends about the concern you have. That's not to say you shouldn't talk about it. Sometimes it's a good idea to ask others if they had the same concern. Their thoughts can help you to refine your thinking, or even convince you that your concern is unwarranted. But be wise about whom you talk to. Is your friend a fairly new Christian or a vulnerable Christian? Is your concern going to disrupt that friend's ability to trust the pastor in the future? Are there other issues that your friend would benefit more from talking about? Consider those things carefully before you speak.
Fourth, encourage the pastor more than you raise concerns. Any concern you raise with a preacher—especially if he preaches regularly at the church—ought to be in the context of a long history of encouragement. That means you need to be in the habit of encouraging those who preach in our church. Let them know how God is using them in your life through the preaching of God's word. Speak to them—and with something more than a handshake and an "Enjoy'd it." Encourage with specifics. Tell the preacher how this illustration or that application particularly affected or convicted you. Send him an email on Monday morning and tell him how you're being encouraged and challenged by what he said in the sermon. Thank him for preaching the unity-building Gospel of Jesus so faithfully.
Biblical Preaching Builds Us Up in Christ
A second way preaching can foster unity is by promoting spiritual growth. As a congregation hears week after week who God is, what he has done for us, and how that ought to impact our lives, it will be built up in the faith and better equipped to love. Hearts will soften and grudges will melt away. We will be humbled, encouraged, comforted, and led to repentance, and the result will be a greater degree of unity among the members of the body.
Of course, preaching that falls on deaf ears or unrepentant hearts can hardly accomplish all this. Think about your own life for a moment.
- Are you faithful in applying to your own heart what you hear each week?
- Are you changed somehow each week by what is preached?
- Are you faithfully and humbly working to apply truth to the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ?
- Are they better shaped by God's Word because they live in a church community with you?
When the members of a church are being genuinely changed and shaped by the preaching of the Word, unity will naturally result.
Biblical Preaching Applies God's Word to the Unique Needs and Characteristics of the Congregation
Finally, preaching promotes church unity because God's word is applied to the specific needs of this congregation. All churches are not the same. Our congregation has particular needs and characteristics, so when our preacher prepares a message, he is applying God's word with us in mind— our strengths, our shortcomings, and our particular struggles and joys as a congregation.
Not only so, but through the preaching of the word we develop a unique vision of ministry as a congregation. Different churches in different circumstances are led by the Holy Spirit to respond to Scripture in different ways. As we listen together to the same message, our unity with one another is strengthened as we develop a common vision of ministry.
With all that in mind, what should we do to promote unity through the preaching we hear week after week?
First, we should be careful to keep preaching in its proper place as the central activity of our life together as a church. Nothing else is as important to our growth and unity as the preaching of the Word. Therefore, our conversation, our ministries, and even our weekly schedules ought to reflect and communicate that priority.
Second, we should remember to pray for those who preach to us. Pray that God would speak to them through his Word, guard them from error, give them insight, and use them to edify the church.
Third, we should be deliberate about applying the preached Word to our own hearts. Every time you hear a sermon in this church, it is an opportunity to apply God's Word to your own life and the lives of your brothers and sisters. If you do that, you will be a part of drawing this congregation together in the unity of the gospel.