Preaching Practices on Easy Street

Preaching Donkey wide-header

Preaching has many ironies. Many are sure they are good preachers; but many congregants feel their is a famine of God’s word. Some preachers struggle weekly trying to find things to say. Others couldn’t be shut down with a gun pointed at their heads. Some preachers are deemed ‘brave’ because they dare to call out the ‘gay agenda’ and bathroom politics. Others are deemed cowards because they educate their congregations on issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, and more. Again, some preachers are a lifetime learning this work. Contradicting that are tonnes of ‘improve your preaching in three easy steps’ gimmicks.

Preaching, Entry Level

IFBdom Preaching

A local IFB we’ve met mainly in civic-related matters recently wrote a few paragraphs on preaching. Among his points, Kevin Folger says that preachers should:

  1. …Approach the text…without preconceived ideas, notions or thoughts.
  2. …Approach the text simply — let Scripture say what it says.
  3. …Approach the text as a student, mining the text for truth.

Evaluating IFB Practice

The first point is explained by saying that the Bible should form our thoughts for us, rather than our bringing preconceived notions to the Bible. Maybe he thinks this results in a purer reading of the Scripture.

He may not know it, but Mr. Folger adapts a version of Aristotle’s ‘tabula rasa’ for Bible interpretation. John Locke and others held versions of the ‘mind as a blank tablet’ idea. Some take this on a ‘we are the sum of our experiences’ path. Other philosophical derivatives may exist also. The fact is, it simply isn’t possible to do what Mr. Folger suggests. His assertion that we bring no prior ideas to the text is itself a prior idea that shapes his own approach to the text. This is called a ‘self-negating premise.’

The second point on the surface attempts a good show. But it has at least two problems. The first further illustrates the issue with the earlier point.

Mr. Folger must make gigantic assumptions that the English language words in my text mean exactly the same thing as words written millennia ago for an alien culture and in languages we don’t know or use.

Moreover, ‘simply’ in ‘approach the text simply’ too easily ‘translates’ into speaking against any heavy lifting with the text. It’s as if we’re hearing, ‘read it a couple of times and you’ve got it.’ Now go and live it.

I addressed preaching and preparation in the ‘Leaving Fundamentalism’ series. Approaching Scripture and ‘simply’ allowing the text to say what it says doesn’t exactly encourage the diligence that preaching requires whatever Mr. Folger’s third point may say.

Hearing Scripture

1Pe 1:10-11 explains that the prophets preparing questions and took them to the Scriptures in order to know what person or time Christ’s Spirit in them indicated, and what was spoken about his sufferings and glory. The Bereans also formulated questions and brought them to the Scriptures for insight into their value and correctness [Act 17:11].

Questions about faith arise from life. In stable faith traditions, believers discuss, study, pray and think about issues. Questions are formulated with care, prayer and in concert with others. Adjustments are made as needed. These questions are then brought to the Scriptures, which are searched in the spirit of 1Pe 1:10-11. God’s people listen for the dialogue in the Bible on these questions and issues.

When disagreements arise [in healthy traditions, they always do], you go back to reevaluate your questions in light of that fact, and review your process of study. This matters more than fundamentalists may suppose.

In Fundamentalism

  • Presumes that it comes to the text with no assumptions.
  • Presumes that the text means what it says on the surface.

So when disagreement arises, it’s obvious that you’re disobedient.

Beyond Fundamentalism

  • A rational process is followed at each step of the Biblical journey.
  • Study follows a self-correcting path in concert with others.

And agree or not, the result is better theology and better preaching.

Toward A Sane, Stable, NON-IFB, Theological System

Needed, a Sane, Stable, Theological System
Face it — Fundamentalists always make better exegetes. Always. Ask them. They’ll tell you…

Over several days, we’ve looked at two readings of Phil 2:12. The first is from the King James translation, and the second is from the ‘Message.’

‘fear and trembling’
‘reverent and sensitive before God.’

We’ve also considered two steps in our study of Phil 2:12.

Step One: we gather and survey data.
Step Two: we look at the context.

Today, we add a third step in our study.

Step Three: we ask which best reading fits best.

Pulling Stuff Together

Early in this study I said that ‘fear and trembling’ is an idiom, a figure of speech. God put ‘fear and trembling’ on Israel’s enemies [Dt 2:25] but told Israel herself NOT to fear or tremble [Dt 20:3]. Recall King Belshazzar’s alarm and fear when he saw the handwriting on the wall [Da 5:9]. Mind, Jeremiah addressed ‘fear and trembling’ language to Israel, [5:22]; but he did so denouncing their utter corruption. That’s the rub! Why?

Just this!

As yesterday’s post shows, the believers at Philippi were getting it right. They were obeying! They obeyed all along. They obeyed in Paul’s presence and they obeyed in his absence [Phil 2:12]. God was working his work and his will within them. Paul is commending them [2:13]!

Testing Two Readings

Things we’ve seen lead to several questions:

  1. For what conceivable reason would Paul in the midst of commending the Philippians inject into the narrative language reserved for God’s enemies? That is unseemly and runs counter to the spirit Paul wants to elicit.
  2. How can a ‘fear and trembling’ reading coexist with encouragement in Christ, consolation of love, fellowship of the Spirit, and affection and compassion? This reading is out of place with Paul’s broader appeal.
  3. Why would Paul in the midst of speaking repeatedly of their joy and his interject a saying that God wants craven fear as a matter of principle?
  4. This passage puts Jesus’ and the Philippians’ obedience in parallel. Those who contend for a craven ‘fear and trembling’ reading must explain what part of Jesus Christ fears and trembles before his heavenly Father.

This fourth issue is especially thorny because it concerns the Trinity. The question of whether the Fundamentalist/broadly_Evangelical view of the Trinity is particularly Biblical itself requires another post.

A Preferred Reading

Phil 2 discusses humility of mind, preferring others over self, looking out for others’ interests, and imitating Christ in our attitude and behavior. Likely, Paul uses ‘work out your salvation’ as a summary for all he is saying. They ‘work out salvation’ in the sense that in all these things, they ‘press faith into life.’ We live a cruciform [cross-shaped] life.

Nothing here tells us to cower in fear and trembling before God on general principle. The common IFB line on Phil 2:12 interrupts the flow of Paul’s tightly knit statement. The abrupt interjection of a saying with a very different connotation and spirit cannot be admitted EXCEPT for the most compelling reasons. But those reasons are not forthcoming!

‘Reverent and sensitive before God’ much better fits Paul’s argument. The lexicons allow it [even if pastor doesn’t]. The context indicates it, as does the ‘Christ-and-his-people’ parallel. It is the convergence of MANY lines of inquiry which indicate that the better reading is:

‘…reverent and sensitive before God.’

How Do They Do It

When people hear a sane, stable explanation of a passage plus enough detail to show that yes, a good case can be made for this alternative, we are left reeling. ‘How could I have missed this so easily for so long!’

As standard procedure, many IFB and broader evangelical preachers:

Divorce a text from its context.
Derive from it a universal principle.
Preach their principle as timeless truth.

This has made God’s people hostages to hosts of spurious inventions! The result is that faith becomes a struggle and growth is stinted.

But thank God, we need not be dependent upon them. God is good.

More next time…


Studying Scripture Outside the IFB

Wrestling with Scripture
What you do when you know your pastor isn’t getting it right…

Unapproved Bible Study

Over the years, Independent, Fundamental Baptists have denounced and forbidden many things. But Bible study is one activity you might think qualifies as a pre-approved activity needing no special pastoral approval. So long as your pastor [or some approved associate in ministry] leads the Bible study, it seems unlikely that IFBs would disapprove of it.

But then ‘so long as’ and ‘your’ pastor imply that for all IFBs claim to promote it, even Bible study may end up on the ‘do not’ list of censored activities. If such rules apply in your case, read no further. It’s highly unlikely your IFB pastor would approve of what’s about to happen.

We began our study last time with Step One: we gather and survey data.

Philippians 2:12 in Context

‘So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;’

Step Two: we look at the context of the text in question.

When believers at Philippi faced division [Phil 1:27], opposition [1:28] and conflict [1:30], Paul urged them to stand with one spirit and mind, striving together for the gospel [Phi 1:27]. In the midst of that depressing and draining situation, he points them in Phil 2:1 to–

  • the encouragement in Christ,
  • the consolation of love,
  • the fellowship of the Spirit,
  • affection and compassion

The practice of harmony [be one in mind, spirit, love, unity and purpose –2:2] mends division. Selfishness and conceit set aside, speaking humbly to opponents and estimating them highly [Phil 2:3] deescalates conflict significantly. So does investing in opponents’ interests [2:4].

As our pattern, Paul points to Jesus himself [2:5]. His ‘gentleness’ and ‘humility’ in the incarnation, and his obedience in suffering and death on the cross is our pattern for relating to others. We are to relate to and bear with opponents in imitation of how Christ bore our opposition to him.

Having humbled himself and borne with OUR opposition, Jesus was lifted up [2:9]. One day, he will be recognized universally [2:11]. It is in view of all these things that we ‘work out’ our salvation ‘in fear and trembling.’

Then the prohibitions resume. Paul forbids grumbling and disputing [2:14]. This echoes Phil 2:3. But there’s more. While stated antithetically, Phil 2:3 and Phil 2:14 stand in parallel construction.

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit’ [Phil 2:3].
Do all things without grumbling or disputing’ [Phil 2:14]

This is a clue to meaning. The parallelism shows that this whole passage functions as a single, literary unit. That’s is why it is so cohesive. That’s why Paul’s spiritual strategy is so keenly honed to their specific situation. That’s why Paul speaks to this conflict with uncanny accuracy. That’s why he gave us a very tightly woven reading with no missing or superfluous words. Every syllable is weighed and measured.

In Phil 2, ‘working out salvation’ means humility of mind, looking out for others’ interests, esteeming them above oneself and obeying all the things Paul has been discussing. And it is doing so in imitation of Christ.

The theme of ‘joy’ also runs throughout this passage. Paul speaks of their joy in their faith [1:25], asks them to make his joy full [2:2], shares his joy with them [2:17], and bids them share their joy with him [2:18]. This also implies the unity of the passage. And it expresses the relationship between Paul and the Philippians. Lastly, joy frames the spirit in which Paul hoped they would respond to the faith situation in their city.

General observations on Phil 2:12

  1. Whatever ‘fear and trembling’ means, the action required was present all along — you have always obeyed. The call is to ‘keep getting it right.’
  2. ‘[You] work out your salvation’ is followed by ‘God is at work in you both to will and to work…’ [2:13]. This sounds rather like the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ which God produces in us, and the Ep. 2:10 good works ordained for us.
  3. Jesus’ life is the paradigm for ours. This ‘gentleness’ is rugged stuff. It can mean bearing great weight and refusing to respond the way our flesh, culture and instincts tell us to respond. Gentleness is not weak.

We can now consider how best to read Phil 2:12.

Seeking God Outside the IFB

To Seek God Outside the IFB

Seeking God

Fundamentalists readily tell people to seek God. They’re also quick to tell you that their IFB sect is a great place to find God. If you’re in a church rather than an IFB sect, fundamentalists are fairly sure you don’t know God. And yet fundamentalists inside IFB sects haven’t always convinced us that they are competent guides in these matters. Recently, SFL noted some common types of spiritually abusive practices. Then we suggested that God’s attributes can guide spiritual practices and biblical understanding.

Many attributes can [and should] be used in such an exercise. But God’s gentleness is used for this very limited study. Other studies go further, and still only scratch the surface. But our aim is not to be exhaustive.

The intent is to establish a point and learn a few lessons from it. It is, after all, one thing to say that God’s attributes can be a guide for us; it is another thing to demonstrate this.

Preparation for Work

Before beginning any study, it is helpful to formulate basic questions to guide us in our work.

Can God’s attributes guide us to spiritual understanding?
Do God’s attributes lead us in the imitation of Christ?
Do God’s attributes help us read Scripture with new eyes?

Some questions formulated, we search Scripture for answers.

Step One: we gather and survey data.

Gentleness and Biblical Interpretation

Not great wind, earthquake or fire — but in the gentle whisper that God met Elijah [1Ki 19:12].
In victory, David confessed that God’s gentleness made him great [Ps 18:35].
Gentleness is the answer that turns away fury [Pr 15:1].
Gentleness was the prophet’s demeanor when threatened with death [Je 11:19].
The blessed gentle will inherit the earth [eschatology yet!] [Mt 5:5].
Jesus promise to receive us rests on his gentleness [Mt 11:29].
Jesus entered Jerusalem to die clothed with gentleness [Mt 21:5].
Gentleness is the preferred method for admonition [1Co 4:21].
Gentleness is the fruit of the Spirit [Ga 5:23].
Gentleness necessary for spiritual restoration and health [Ga 6:1].
Gentleness seeks the unity that the Spirit gives [Ep 4:2-3].
Gentleness attests the Lord’s nearness [Phil 4:5].
Gentleness is normative for Christian living [Co 3:12].
Gentleness is commended for labor in ministry [1Th 2:7].
Gentleness is requisite for the office of overseers [1Ti 3:2].
Gentleness is contrasted to the dissolute life [1Ti 6:10-11].
Gentleness is required to work with opponents [2Ti 2:24-25].
Gentleness is mandated for dealings with others [Ti 3:2].
Gentleness belongs to the wisdom from above [Ja 3:13, 17].
A gentle, quiet spirit is imperishable and precious to God [1Pe 3:4].
Gentleness is requisite for Christian witness [1Pe 3:15].

Broadening the Study

Several texts pair God’s gentleness to other traits, making them relevant. Mt 11:29 uses ‘gentle and humble in heart.’ So does Ep. 4:2. Co 2:12 reads, ‘heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.’ Ps. 45:4 combines truth, humility and justice.

In Gal 5:23, gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit listed between faithfulness and self-control. So gentleness contrasts to the works of the flesh.

Any thorough study of the gentleness of God will reference texts using words that are similar in spirit to ‘gentleness.’ Together, these texts provide a backdrop against which to read Scriptures where such traits are referenced or are otherwise relevant.

Preliminary Conclusions

While not massive, this is significant attestation. Our ‘gentleness’ texts relate to God’s presence and promise, to the strength and victory he gives, to the practice of prophets and apostles, to the coming and passion of the Savior, to our spiritual life, health and salvation. Also related are such themes as church office and discipline, Christian ministry, witness, apologetics, unity, normative Christian living and other divine attributes.

God’s gentleness is a significant, spiritual motif. With many other themes, this motif is necessary to frame our spiritual disposition, to order our life practices, and to direct our reading of Scripture in ways that honor God.

The more this approach to study is used, the more apparent it becomes that God IS his attributes. Such study indeed guides us into spiritual maturity, and leads us to imitate Christ and opens our understanding to read God’s word in new ways. Indeed, it is to seek God.

To be continued…