Not Preaching

After some wrestling with the issue, I, in good conscience, don’t think that the sermon is a particularly blessed way of teaching the bible. I say this as someone who has been greatly blessed by preaching, who quite appreciates listening to a sermon for an hour, and who regularly downloads John Piper sermons (and not just to get a kick out of the way he pronounces Habakkuk). But I’m not convinced by the arguments that a sermon is especially blessed. Particularly there seem to be three arguments for sermons that are generally used all of which don’t hold up.

Some say the word translated “preaching” in the New Testament is the same thing as preaching a sermon. The Greek word is Kerussw (Κηρσσω) which is translated in the ESV as preach, proclaim, or herald. In some situations it seems it’s used for preaching sermons, in others for just generally telling people about Jesus. In most situations how the preaching is done isn’t clear. The writers of the New Testament use the word Kerussw in a much wider than we do when we talk about preaching sermons, as this passage from Acts shows.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” – “Acts 17:16-20”:

Paul is reasoning with the Jews and conversing with the Greeks and this is described by Luke as “preaching Jesus and the resurrection”. I don’t see how then we can argue that the word translated “preaching” must always be the same thing as our modern preaching of sermons.

Others will say it’s the normal practice of the church. This is argued from Deutoronmy (which seems to be a series of sermons delivered to the people of God before they entered the promise land), from the sermon of the mount, and from various parts of Acts. It’s worth pointing out that all these sermons might not be sermons the way we recognise them, and none of them are really spoken in a similar context to our current church one. But for the sake of the argument let’s assume they are sermons, just because they happen a few times does not make it them the necessary pattern for the church. In Deutornomy you could ask how else could Moses have communicated to over six hundred thousand male Israelites other than through a sermon. Pragmatically a sermon makes sense.

The last argument is the authority of the leader. This is the argument I find most compelling, but ultimately I don’t think it holds up. If someone is appointed to teach and lead a church then they should be teaching and leading, and over a certain size how else can they lead but by preaching? But again, that’s a pragmatic argument not a theological one, it relies on the practicalities of the size of the church. It’s also tied to a particular style of church that sees there being only a set few who are allowed to teach and preach and one who leads and oversees overall. Now clearly not all are given the formal position of teacher but all are taught to teach and admonish each other (Col. 3:16) and so, under the authority of official leaders and teachers I don’t see why others can’t lead small groups, or preach in churches.

It’s not just that these three arguments seem weak though, it’s that quite often they’re argued really badly. You know when you hear an argument and you think “you’re reading quite a lot into the text here, is this really the only way you could prove your point?” I get that sensation a lot when reading the arguments for preaching. Here’s a quote from a talk from the Proclamation Trust called What’s So Special About Preaching (pdf, registration required) which is a good example of this as any.

Let’s read Luke 4:16-32. It establishes that the Lord Jesus was an expository preacher. He chooses a text from Isaiah 61 which focuses his ministry by repeating the verb “to proclaim” (which is mentioned 3 times in verses 18-19).

And here is the text of Jesus’ expository sermon.

And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.

Now, this might not be the full text of what Jesus’ said, it might just be a summary, but if it is, the only exposition here is the one line where Jesus says “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. Everything else seems to be spoken in response to their lack of acknowledgement to Jesus being the one prophesied about. It could be that he gave a sermon, but from the crowd interaction and the way he responded it doesn’t seem like it was, and it’s a lot to argue from one verse. It’s a flimsy argument, so when you read a organisation as theologically as rigourous as the Proclamation Trust arguing giving a sermon from that passage, you feel a bit like their argument hasn’t got much ground to stand on.

All that said I don’t want to come across as negative on sermons. People talk about having a high view of preaching and I agree with them. Just I’m not sure that should be limited to the sermons. Can we have a high view of communicating the Word of God where the Spirit comes upon the person speaking or leading and they teach with power and authority? I’d like a high view of small groups and bible studies if that’s possible. The Word of God is open in front of a congregation, and is being read aloud, I think that probably that’ll make a difference.