No comments yet

Teaching the Text Seriously

In recent years I have become increasingly persuaded that there is a fundamental flaw in standard evangelical teaching (also in preaching, but to a more indeterminate degree). I especially see this flaw in my own teaching, and so I hope no one takes this criticism personally; although, I won’t be coy, I see it almost everywhere I look, and I could give many examples of it from the ministries of my friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and ministers I only know through the audio of their sermons. However, I will endeavor to only use my own failures as illustration… and praise God there is no shortage of them, he has thus delivered me from the temptation of possibly embarrassing anyone else.

First let’s establish the difference between teaching and preaching. I think that everyone agrees that there is a difference between these two disciplines. And, we all also agree that there is some degree of legitimate overlap of the two. However, that is really just in theory. In practice it is often nearly impossible to distinguish them. In theory teaching is informing the mind and preaching is convicting the heart; teaching is a light that shines and preaching is a fire that burns; teaching is illumination and preaching is electrocution. But in practice I find that the definition is far less poetic. In practice teaching is slow, long, boring preaching— which is really bad if the preaching wasn’t that great to begin with. Having established the difference between teaching and preaching, we will consider the teaching hemisphere of the ministry. 

What should the teacher teach? I am of the persuasion that all truth and relevant facts are viable subject matter in the church. I do not think it is necessary to only teach the Scriptures. I realize that this will be anathema to some of you, and I will point out the irony of this reaction a little later. But first, let’s consider why I say that church teaching doesn’t have to be Scriptural. There are subjects that are necessary and relevant in our day, that the Scriptures do not speak to directly, if at all. For instance voting, capitalism, quantum physics, minimum wage, economics… and the list could go on and on. Now one approach to these topics is simply to not deal with them in church. But that approach has resulted in a generation of ignorant youth that our country and our church may never recover from. I believe it is the church’s duty to fully and completely inform the congregation of everything they need to succeed in life and life eternal. 

Before you strike the match to the kindling you have just piled around my feet, allow me the opportunity to confess that I acknowledge that the Scriptures do contain fundamental truths that should guide our thinking on all of these subjects, and any teaching in the church should acknowledge those first principles and build off of them. But there is a difference between extrapolating deductively from admonitions against envy and finding Marxism deconstructed and refuted point for point in Scripture. Also, try to listen past the hot blood rushing in your ears and hear me when I say categorically that I don’t think that these extra-biblical subjects should comprise the bulk of our teaching; but I do think that there is a time and place for them. 

I am firmly persuaded that the lion’s share of our teaching curriculum should be the Scriptures. And not deductions, extrapolations, applications, insinuations, implications, or conclusions about the Scriptures. Just the Scriptures. This is where I remind you of the irony I observe in those that vehemently criticize my previous statements about teaching topics not directly Biblical: In my opinion, the vast majority of “Biblical Teaching” is not teaching the Bible at all. It is using the Bible as a diving board for the teacher to launch himself into a topic born of their own creativity. The text is often nothing more than a uniform that serves to make the sermon official. I realize that many, well ok, most will strongly dissent with my appraisal of common Biblical teaching, but for sake of argument, stipulate that I can substantiate this indictment; don’t you see how ironic it is to finger-wag at teaching that is unabashedly and unpretentiously not Scriptural, but defend and elevate teaching that is merely branded as Biblical, but aside from reading a few texts, really is just the opinion of the speaker?

Personally, I would prefer that the teacher simply acknowledge that his talk was mostly developed independent of the Scriptures and that it is not the word of the Lord, but rather he is teaching it by permission of the Lord. Something like the Apostle Paul did when he encouraged everyone to forgo marriage. I will grant that this category of teaching is broad and towards the edges it might be difficult to differentiate between it and true Scriptural teaching, however, you should grant that throughout the center of that range it is precisely as I describe: Many teachers desire to speak their opinion but also lust for the authority of Scripture. I would further refine this point and say that this style is so commonplace, that even those that aren’t consciously using this subterfuge, are often doing so unwittingly— many of us don’t even know how to avoid it. 

For most congregants, it is difficult to identify that this is taking place, and so they put up with it and even praise it. The principal source of this obfuscation is that these teachers usually are saying things that are either true, orthodox, or incidentally Biblical; and often a combination of all three. In other words, if the teacher reads the text of the Prodigal Son, and teaches a lesson on repentance and salvation, detailing the choices that led the Prodigal to ruin and the graces that lifted him out of the mire: Who can object to that? Is there anything wrong with this teaching? Well, aside from not being Scriptural? And by not Scriptural I don’t mean it isn’t incidentally true. I mean that this is not what that Scripture is teaching. It is true that the Bible teaches all those things somewhere and perhaps even everywhere, but that is not the teaching of the text.

I am aware that many will argue vociferously that the “points” of the aforementioned lesson can be found in the text, and that they are there by inspiration of the Spirit; and I do not disagree, at least in theory. However, I can also find all the unbiblical points I mentioned previously, somewhere in the text of Scripture. I reiterate, I am not prohibiting lessons such as this: I just said that I think that this and far less are acceptable teachings in the church. My objection is anointing this as teaching the Scripture. And lest anyone think I exaggerate, consider that the above average churchgoer doesn’t have any idea what the point of the Prodigal Son is, or even that it has a point, or even that the point is not the Prodigal Son, or even what “Prodigal” means. Perhaps if the church had already mastered and exhausted the actual meaning and objective of each Scripture, then it would be acceptable and even advantageous to fling up trick shots from behind the backboard; but in our current state, I think we need to focus on the fundamentals.

The typical solution proposed for this popular ignorance is what is commonly called “Exposition”, and while it is certainly an improvement over Topical and Text-Topical sermons, often it is just a scholarly form of the same opinion based teaching. Topical sermons are messages in search of a text. The teacher already has the subject matter, the points, and the conclusion, and all he lacks is that pesky little text. Text-Topical messages employ the text the way an artist or author avails himself of a muse; the text is his inspiration but not his roadmap or guardrails. Expository sermons can be true teaching of the text, but it is not uncommon for them to be simply longer versions of their opinion laden cousins.

What I believe is incumbent on teachers is teaching the actual purpose, point, meaning, objective, message, argument of the text; all the way from the 10,000 foot bird’s eye view of the entire book down to the microscopic analysis of the words. What did the author of the text intend to say? What was his point? What are his arguments? How are they developed and how do they flow? How can we justify bouncing off of the text into our own interests if we haven’t at least made an attempt to make the Apostle’s intended message clear? 

There are several objections commonly raised that we should consider. One is that Jesus and the Apostles quoted fragments of text and taught truths from them. How can it be wrong if they did the same? Well, I didn’t say it was wrong. Paul also preached an entire sermon without citing any Scripture; he only quoted a pagan philosopher. I don’t think that is wrong either, but I am also not the one who objects to sermons that don’t read a text. However, I would point out that they were not expounding on the written word, they were writing the word. They cited the Old Testament as evidence and illustration of the truths they were communicating through divine revelation. If you think that is what you are doing also, then just say so, and we the audience will discern accordingly. However, what Bible teachers allege to do is teach what the Scriptures say, not innovate new Scriptures. 

Another common objection is that many books, paragraphs, and passages don’t have a point. The usual suspect that they march out for the lineup of the “Pointless Passages Gang” is Proverbs. Even if I were to concede that Proverbs has no point, no structure, and no development, that is one out of 66. Exposing an exception does not nullify the rule. And do you know that the Epistles have no point, or do you just assume so? If you were required to submit a book report on Ephesians or Hebrews for a grade, do you think you might find some structure somewhere in those long sentences full of conjunctions and logical arguments? And if they do have a point, then why are so few congregants even aware that such a point might exist? Perhaps we should prioritize that teaching before our own conjectures and diatribes. 

Another common objection is that these books are full of incidental truths and parenthetical statements. I agree. Completely. Notice that the reason they are incidental and parenthetical is because the book has a point and a structure. Otherwise, how could we identify them as incidental and parenthetical? But how do we know that they are only incidental or parenthetical if we don’t know what the broader point of the book is? And why is it that every sermon somehow lands serendipitously on an incidental truth? It would seem as if the point of the text is being intentionally overlooked, since by definition, the incidental passages should be relatively few. 

I realize that teaching the text (like I am advocating) constrains the teacher. Assuming each book of the New Testament has less than five major points each, that would be 135 topics to speak on. That leaves us with an infinite number of other issues that the text does not deal with deliberately, except possibly only incidentally. I think we should teach the text first and foremost, and that we should also teach the supposed incidental truths all the while making it abundantly clear that we are applying a substantial conjectural filter and that the congregants should exercise corresponding discernment. Bible teachers must make a clear and unflinching distinction between what is teaching the Bible — so I am clear: Teaching what the author intended the reader to comprehend and nothing more — and what is teaching their own deductions and conclusions.

Congregations also have a part in all of this. Just because you might not be a teacher or preacher, that doesn’t exempt you from discerning what is taught and preached. One reason Bible teachers get away with mangling the text is because Christians have such a low spiritual self-esteem. They don’t think they can judge if what is said is right or wrong, good or bad, textual or mere opinion. Many are also astoundingly ignorant, and easily impressed when the teacher reads a plethora of texts in the sermon. You should remember that the plural of “prooftext” is not “context”. Just because you might not be able to teach correctly doesn’t mean you can’t discern when teaching is done incorrectly. You don’t have to be a chef to know that something doesn’t taste right. We are commanded by the Apostle Paul to judge the teachers, preachers, and prophets. We have been given the anointing of the Holy Spirit so that we can recognize the things that God has given us. We need to exercise this responsibility and hold our teachers accountable. Don’t skewer them on the way home from church, approach them directly and privately, in love, and skewer them to their face. As a teacher myself, I assure you, I much prefer criticism over compliments. Compliments are so cheap that in reality they are expensive not to give them. Whereas criticism exacts a great price on those who offer it. 

You need to be more discriminating, more demanding. I don’t mean malcontent. You should desperately want to hear God’s message. You desperately need God’s message. And you should prioritize substance over style. But you should not allow teachers to pawn off personal opinions as Scriptural teachings. You need to analyze the text being taught carefully and discern if what is being said really is what the inspired author was trying to communicate; or if the speaker is simply constructing his own edifice on a convenient flat spot. For example, if the teacher presents a sermon on Romans 14:19, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace”, and teaches on the three things that “make for peace”, you should wonder: Why three? (Why is it almost always three? Did the authors of Scripture really design their writings in sets of three?) What is the grammatical and logical structure of the text that substantiates three things and not two or twenty five? Is this list of three things something that the teacher came up with by thinking to themselves, “I wonder what things would make for peace in the church?”, or did they carefully follow the author’s argument and glean those from the text? If Paul were present, would he be surprised at the things that make for peace? It is possible that there are 100 other things that make for peace than those that Paul might have meant; so teach those 100 things, just don’t say that you are teaching the Bible. Say you are offering your rendition of Paul’s idea. Sermons like these should have the same disclaimer as many Hollywood films: 

This sermon is based on a real text. No apostolic thoughts, points, or arguments were used in the building of this sermon. Any similarity with the actual development of the text is purely coincidental.

Post a comment