The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.

 

Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!

 

In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:

 

[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.

 

All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)

 

But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:

 

The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]

 

These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.

 

One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.



[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.



Postmodernism: Making Their Biggest Beef Our Greatest Asset

October 30th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,

Note from Brandon: This is an exciting moment for Follow After Ministries, as today we welcome our very first guest blogger. Justin Burkholder, on the pastoral staff at Grace Pointe Ministries and soon-to-be missionary to Guatemala City, shares his thoughts on how to engage the elusive postmodernist lovingly and sensitively. In reading this, I am reminded of the old witticism, “How will they hear unless we listen?”

 

Before I say anything. I am neither condoning nor rebuking postmoderns. I am merely observing and explaining.

 

Now, I readily understand that postmoderns are very elusive. Frustratingly elusive. Illogically elusive. Irrationally elusive at times. And it is miserable to actually discuss matters of weight and depth with them. But, I think that the very fact that postmoderns can be categorized this way reveals a foundational postmodernist frustration in the way people approach them that they vehemently oppose.

 

It appears to postmoderns that the goal is not to listen to them or be with them, but only to categorize them. Once you can fully ascertain the system of thoughts by which an individual lives their life, you can ignore them, accept them, or even convince them of something else.  Though many would not agree that this is their actual goal, this—unfortunately—is the experience of many postmoderns.

 

Experience Is Everything

Postmoderns do place much weight on their own experiences. And no matter who you are, your experiences shape your truth. No matter how a magazine/website reviews a gourmet restaurant, if you had a bad experience, you will tell all of your friends and you won’t go back. 

 

Regardless of a postmodern’s religious history, almost all of them have story after story of belligerent leaders and authorities who disparaged and discouraged doubt, struggle, and anything else that rocked the theological/practical boat of their church/home/Sunday school class.

 

Take my background, for example. The problem for me was that the categories with which authorities and leaders arranged people didn’t ever actually fit the majority of my experiences. So, the authorities would talk about people who were “saved” and people who were not “saved.” These terms carried all sorts of moral baggage, establishing a pattern by which people lived their lives. “Saved” people had a standard of holiness. They didn’t do certain things (drink, smoke, dance—or go with girls who do). But the problem was that I was doing lots of things (pornography) that weren’t even talked about, which seemed to be a whole lot worse than the things that they did talk about. Was I “saved”? Was there room for someone like me?

 

Or take theology. The Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election was very appealing to me. But I just couldn’t fully accept some of the teaching on the end times. I had met some charismatic friends and they seemed to love Jesus more than anyone at my church (including me), so I became open to the sign gifts. For a time I was categorized as a heretic of sorts, creating divisions and strife, when in reality I was just trying to make sense of things.

 

Regardless of what my issue was, it was a microcosm of the greater. This kind of categorization has taken place everywhere; and it is considered poison to postmoderns.

 

Poor people, black people, gay people, women, republicans, democrats, the wealthy, used car salesmen, people with long hair, black clothing, musical genres, Arabs, Christians…etc. It wasn’t just fundamental Baptists who had legalistic tendencies. There is legalism everywhere. If you don’t want to be __________, then you do __________.  All __________ do or don’t do __________.  

 

No matter where the postmodern turns, there seems to be this obsession by others from other worldviews to categorize people (enslave people to a law), and then make a judgment based upon that categorization. And much of it is done in the name of truth. This kind of categorization and assessment releases people from actually having to listen or understand. And, even worse, one presumes to understand entire populations of people without ever actually engaging them. The “judgment” cry is not empty; it is legitimate, reflective of a wound that almost every postmodern bears, many of them having been wrongly labeled themselves—as gay, emotional, distorted, disconnected to reality, idealistic, etc.

 

And so, no matter what you do or say, the postmodern will almost always be terrified of being labeled, categorized, or “figured out”—because once they are, they are certain that no one will ever actually hear them, or even attempt to understand them. Many of them are like abused puppies: in many conversations, at the first sign of an elevated newspaper (the Bible?), they run.

 

How Is This Your Greatest Asset? (Or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love the Postmodern)

 If you can understand this approach to postmoderns, you will be light years ahead of everyone. Your words will change, your tone of voice will change—your demeanor, appearance, perspective. It will put you in a much more gentle and generous light. You should approach them as if they are terrified puppies instead of philosophical combatants.

 

Postmoderns want to hear stories. Stories resonate with them. They are broken and wounded by scandalous amounts of divorce, abuse, sexual promiscuity, and a general incongruence that they have seen in all of the institutions of which they have been part. Their lives have been a far cry from perfect. And stories express the pain and hurt they have experienced. They want to know that you aren’t perfect, because they aren’t. And stories convey that with power.

 

They want to know that you were/are broken too. They want to know that this world is a broken place, and that it is okay to be broken. They want to hear that you have failed and that it is okay for them to fail again. They want to be able to explain how they have come to their conclusions without you labeling them or categorizing them. They don’t want you to philosophically wrestle with them, they just want you to talk with them. They want to know that you and your God love them in spite of their brokenness and confusion.

 

More than that, many of them would just like for you to sit with them, and listen to them, and love them. Eventually, they will let you in. And when they do let you in, they want to be sure that you don’t have everything figured out. Because, despite their arrogance and pretense, they will always admit to not having anything figured out. They want the tension. Everywhere that they have been where people “have it all figured out” they encounter the judgment, categorization, and bullying spoken of previously.

 

They know there are flaws to their perspectives. Tons of them. Which is why they don’t ever have enough confidence to share them or to convince someone else of them. As a matter of fact, that just might be the theme of postmodernism: “There are flaws in everyone’s perspectives.” (And yes, I know that perspective may be flawed as well.)

 

But what many of them do know and believe without a shadow of a doubt is this: If being convicted and convinced about what you believe means treating people as they have seen them treated, then they will happily live in ambiguity for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately few postmoderns have met people passionate about their beliefs, who won’t go to any length necessary to wrestle them into believing the same. And when the postmodern doesn’t agree, they fear that the name-calling will begin.

 

The challenges of postmodernism are not some idiotic ruse that a group of dumb kids created so that they don’t have to answer questions; for many they are a defense mechanism. You must understand this to engage them. If you don’t, you will always be fighting and arguing an imaginary enemy, while the puppy—this beloved creation of God—flees in terror.



Faith and Feelings

May 14th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

As evangelicals, we tend to promote “faith not feeling” as a necessary reminder that we do not live by our changing emotions (driven by changing circumstances) but by the unchanging rock of God’s Word and character. All this is right and good. But is there more to it than that?

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on Spinoza, wrote, “Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.”[1] I suspect there is a good bit of truth in this. We are called to be joyful always (1 Thessalonians 5:16): shouldn’t this joy, rooted in the eternal work of God, overcome a host of lesser emotions, rooted in the vicissitudes of life? We have been created, called, redeemed, reconciled, adopted by God in Christ. We acknowledge this truth by faith—not feeling—but it produces within us the feeling that overwhelms all others.

 

The joy of eternity expels the sorrow, anger, fear of the moment.



[1] Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged ed., trans. Reginald Fuller, Frank Clark, and John Bowden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971): 375.



The Measure of All Things

April 14th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

Humanism, as Francis Schaeffer noted, is what happens when “man is the measure of all things.” In our educational system, is man the measure of all things—or the Man? That is, are we Christian or humanist?

 

Stemming from recent, fruitful conversation with colleagues about what makes education truly Christian instead of humanist, I have tried to compile a short, and undoubtedly inchoate, list of distinctions. As always, comments—corrections, suggestions for improvement, additions—are more than welcome. (The points proceed in tandem.)

 

Humanist Education . . .

  1. Is driven by a concern for results. Schools clinging to a humanist mindset emphasize quantifiable measures of success, such as standardized test scores and number of graduates who attend college, as if these numbers were a reflection of genuine learning—or even the most important aspects of education.
  2. Produces productive members of capitalist/socialist societies. Part of the problem with a results-driven approach is that the results only measure one’s aptitude for entering the marketplace, which is the sole goal of humanist education today.
  3. Encourages self-esteem, and does so openly and proudly. However, what is lacking in this world is not self-esteem, but a true understanding of biblical anthropology, which humanist education will not provide.
  4. Embraces postmodern epistemology, leading to subjectivity, and stealing away such core concepts as truth, certainty, and even judgment.
  5. Enforces cultural (and moral) relativism. As part of its uncritical acceptance of postmodernity, humanist education assumes no culture or code is intrinsically superior to another, and insists that all members of its system adhere to the same rigid dogma, ironically.
  6. Exhibits a vapid yet undimmed enthusiasm, undoubtedly springing from a belief in the inevitability of progress and the innate goodness of humanity—both of which empirical evidence (and sheer common sense) seems to deny.
  7. Adopts democratic egalitarianism as the norm within and without the classroom. Other than the academic elite themselves, no one can claim certainty, superiority, or expert status—not even the teacher, really. Every idea is as good as every other, whether academic, cultural, aesthetic, philosophical, or even theological.
  8. Is student-centered, the corollary of democratic egalitarianism. Modern educational fads push teachers to empower students to learn and then to serve as mere guides on a journey of self-discovery. While this may work in some subject areas, it often leads to the equalizing of unequal ideas, especially in classes where certainty and precision must prevail (such as Bible, of course, but even literature and the social sciences).
  9. Employs behaviorism as classroom management. Because the problem is external behavior, not a corrupt, sinful heart, the solution is simple behavior modification—detentions and demerits, gold stars and “good jobs.” Even within Christian education, we reward those whose behavior is acceptable, no matter how twisted the heart, and punish those whose behavior is less than spectacular, no matter how willing the spirit.
  10. Leads to absolute fragmentation. Dismantling the curriculum into discrete subject areas, each with largely unrelated standards, and then dividing the day into short, interrupted bursts of fragmented learning has become the accepted norm. Beyond that, even, we have the separation of academic instruction from every other type—spiritual, moral, emotional, etc., leading to compartmentalized, fragmented existence.
  11. Practices an uncritical acceptance of technology. While much technology is good and has its place in the classroom, the trouble stems from assuming it all is good and should be embraced uncritically. In practice, technology often leads to greater fragmentation, a shorter attention span, an inability to read and comprehend the written word, and the diminishing of sustained, reasonable thought.
  12. Commits to human-centered paradigms. Christian schools that seem more humanist than godly accept that what the world has to offer them will be good enough—bell schedules, curriculum, standards and benchmarks, educational fads—rather than discerning and sifting, or even reworking the whole paradigm from a Christ-centered framework.

 

Christian Education . . .

  1. Is driven by a concern for fruit. Numbers do not matter, but hearts do. The measure of “success,” if we may even use that term, will be the invisible, eternal qualities, such as conversion, revival, loving obedience, and obedient love.
  2. Leads students to pursue vocation—God’s calling—apart from purely economic concerns. Because preparing students to enter the marketplace per se matters but little (and attending university may even be superfluous), Christian schools help students glorify God in the way he has called them instead, equipping them to use their gifts in the service of his kingdom.
  3. Encourages Christ-esteem. A biblical anthropology, centered on the cross, assures us we are both profoundly sinful and profoundly loved. Students develop a healthy sense of who they are when they embrace both of these points in glorious tension. What matters is not what others think of them, or even what they think of themselves, but what God thinks of them in Christ.
  4. Embraces Christian epistemology, leading to conviction and humility, a willingness to espouse adequate (if not absolute) knowledge in key areas.
  5. Engages in honest frustration and painful dialogue that moves toward humility before the Creator of all intricacy and nuance. The culture-shapers of the institution, such as the administration, faculty, and chaplains, then “enforce” this humility and dialogue.
  6. Exhibits a Christ-centered historical hope built on the substantive sacrifice that is shaping the school culture. Humanity will not progress, nor even individual humans, except by the grace of God and the work of his Spirit, which we seek regularly in spontaneous prayer.
  7. Adopts the hierarchical model of Scripture itself. All who are in Christ have ideas to share, as Paul reminds the Corinthian church; but some have been given unique roles within the church to equip others, as Paul reminds the Ephesian church. Those whom God has specifically called to pastor and teach the church will shape discussion of the ministry (and even vision) of the school especially.
  8. Is God-centered. Teachers and students, within and without the classroom, submit to Scripture, follow the Spirit’s guidance, and recognize the God-ordained authorities over them. Especially in Bible classes, but ideally in all, teachers will eschew both teacher- and student-centered approaches, allowing the Center to be the center.
  9. Employs relational authority as classroom management. With an unwavering and outwardly visible commitment to the gospel, teachers will strive to reach the heart of students as instruments of God’s grace, knowing that behaviorism produces naught but whitewashed tombs. Love is, of course, the ethic of the kingdom, and thus it will be the ethic of the classroom, for both teacher and student.
  10. Strives after full integration. Being willing to rework the model from the ground up, Christian schools will pursue not only academic integration, as well as educational integration into a biblical framework, but absolute integration. There is neither secular nor sacred, mind nor spirit, education nor discipleship, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
  11. Practices a discerning use of technology. Teachers will utilize what will aid in achieving real integration and advancement; but they will also sensitively discern the differences between contemplation and stimulation, information and knowledge, thought and activity.
  12. Commits to submission to the Spirit’s leading when it conflicts with our pre-conceived (and often humanist) paradigms. For example, teachers will joyfully spend instructional time on prayer when necessary, or even hold a class “late” when the Spirit is moving in a discussion. The administration will critically evaluate all humanist ideas, models, etc., before (if) adopting any of them.


Postmodern Humility

April 10th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

There is a false humility that breeds subjectivity and precludes certainty. Because we cannot know anything absolutely, we assume we can know nothing adequately—and forbid others from thinking or speaking so.

 

There is another humility, born of conviction, that produces faithful service and selfless love. Because we know some things with certainty, we act with conviction and grace-driven purpose.

 

To one of these we are called. To the other we succumb with alarming frequency, giving in to the fads and falsehoods of this present darkness.



Whatever Is True

December 28th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,

In a famous passage the apostle Paul enjoins us, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). I wish to focus on the first part today: what it means to think about “whatever is true” only.

 

This encouragement has broad implications for our lives, for training our minds to live by the revealed truth of God’s Word—and not the lies and falsehoods proclaimed so loudly by an erring world. Our adversary is, of course, the father of lies (John 8:44). And yet, it seems we often spend more time reflecting on his pronouncements than on the life-giving words of our gracious Father.

 

If we are to overcome this tendency, we must discipline our minds to know the truth thoroughly and think on it exclusively. Martin Luther says it memorably: “[Y]ou cannot read too much in Scripture, what you read you cannot read too carefully, what you read carefully you cannot understand too well.”[1] Knowing the truth thoroughly, thinking on it exclusively, will free us to live the abundant life Jesus offers. After all, it was only a few verses before Jesus calls Satan the father of lies that he said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

 

A few examples should suffice to show the freedom God’s truth—and disciplining ourselves to think only of it—can bring.

 

Many experience crippling fear and worry on a daily basis. Frequently this springs from the petrifying question, “What if…?” What if I lose my job? What if my spouse gets cancer? What if my child suffers harm? However steeped in reality these fears might seem, they are not truth. You have not lost your job. Your spouse does not have cancer. Your child has not suffered harm. They are hypotheticals, mere possibilities—and therefore not worthy of serious reflection. Of course, should any of these tragedies befall a Christian, God will provide grace for that time. But God does not give grace for what might be—only for what is.

 

Others look backward in time, but experience the same paralysis. Trapped in a quagmire of regret and remorse, they spend their time contemplating successive fantasies beginning with the deceptive phrase, “If only….” If only I had married a different person. If only I earned an extra $10,000 per year. If only I hadn’t committed that sin. Frequently this line of thinking leads to outright sin—thoughts that are not pure, lovely, excellent or praiseworthy. Imagining yourself married to another man or woman will lead to emotional unfaithfulness, for example. And once again, the trouble is that these thoughts simply are not true. You are already married to your spouse, and the commitment is until death. You make the amount of money you make, and that is sufficient for your daily bread. You did sin, but your forgiveness is complete in Christ Jesus—so complete, in fact, that even your guilty conscience has been cleansed by Christ (Hebrews 9:14).

 

Or take some temptations common to men and women. Men feel the need to prove their manhood by bettering themselves—and their competition. Success is the ultimate indicator of a life well lived, whether that be athletic achievement, financial gain, or career advancement. I believe this masculine urge stems from a desire to make ourselves feel worthy. Do I matter? Have I earned the air I’ve breathed today? Of course, God has answered these questions for us already. We know we matter because of the great lengths God has gone to rescue us from our deserved damnation. There is no need to prove ourselves. Knowing this, and thinking on it continuously, frees us from our false worship of the idol success—and frees us to worship God single-mindedly by carrying out the commission he has given us, even if it means halting our career advancement.

 

Fewer women find themselves driven by this need to become successful (though some do). Instead, women spend their time and energy trying to feel loved—giving themselves sexually to the undeserving, dressing immodestly or extravagantly to attract attention, even harming themselves irreparably in a ghastly attempt to keep themselves slender. Am I beautiful? Will anyone ever love me? Once again, God has already answered these questions graciously and tenderly. We are lovely because he loves us, beautiful because he made us (cf. Psalm 139:13-18). Knowing this, and thinking on it continuously, frees us from self-hatred, from looking for love in all the wrong places—and frees us to live modestly, chastely, contentedly in the light of God’s unfathomable love.

 

What thoughts occupy your reflection, whether conscious or not? Do you listen to the father of lies, bent only on destroying you? Or do you attend to the word of your gracious Father, who loves you perfectly and longs for you to live the abundant life he offers? “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. . . . And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8, 9).



[1] As quoted in Donald McKim, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 141.