Saturday, April 5, 2008

Links and a short rant

First, if you haven't already (or even if you have), go here and write my brother a note of encouragement as he waits for all his cancer to go away and never come back. He's been getting lots of attention in these first few days since we got the news, but people are fickle and selfish and busy, so they might forget to keep doing it. I'm giving you the job. Don't blow it.


Second, go here to listen to what might be the best series on marriage, sex, and dating that you've ever heard. Seriously, this is some of the greatest "relationship" teaching I've heard in a while. If you don't have time for all of it, just check out the one on dating (3-30-08). You're thinking, "A series on dating? So what?" But I'm pretty sure you ain't heard nothing like this. My boy Thad (pictured below with me and our sons) puts the theological, exegetical smackdown on all the "what's the big deal?" thinking we do in Christian America. If you have kids and you wonder how you're supposed to handle this topic, you really do need to listen to this. That's all I'll say, lest I over-sell it.


By the way, why are some Christians so against topical teaching? I've heard this thing about "expositional teaching is the only RIGHT way to preach the Bible," and honestly I'm just really puzzled by it. Listen, I think expositional, verse-by-verse teaching is great. I think it's probably one of the most beneficial and "safe" ways to examine the scripture. But I don't understand why it's seen as the only right way.

If "all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching," (and it is), then it shouldn't matter if we approach it, at times, contextually and topically, so long as we do that in the Spirit, with sobriety and caution. What if a church body is going thru something that has nothing to do with Leviticus chapter 9, but has everything to do with 1 Corinthians 4 and Matthew 18 (or whatever)? Too bad, we're studying verse by verse, and we're in Lev. 9, so we're going to ignore our people and their real-life struggles, even though there are really great passages in other sections of the Bible that speak to what the whole church is thinking about and dealing with right now. Seriously, somebody really thinks this is how we shepherd people?

That just doesn't sound like shepherding to me. It sounds like a something an uncaring professor with a lesson plan might do, but it doesn't sound much like a pastor.

There's just something really beautiful about watching the people of God closely and teaching them in direct response to the things that they are dealing with and thinking about and walking thru and living. There's something alive and interactive about saying, "many of our people seem to be at this stage of their life with Jesus, so we're going to teach them, right now, what the Bible says about that."

Or how about this:

"Lots of our people are trying to find the will of God as it relates to... dating or marriage or sex or culture or sin or money or freedom or idolatry or media or divorce or adoption or sickness or prayer or suffering or missions or church-planting, etc" (I could go on for days with the list, but you get the idea).

"So let's teach them what God says about that topic."

That would be topical teaching. I mean, I guess we could ignore the fact that many of our people -- who are voluntarily devoting themselves to our teaching and leadership, in accordance with scripture -- really want to know God's powerful, life-changing truth as it relates to areas of their real-life circumstances. I suppose we could turn a blind eye and an unlistening ear to the people whom God has entrusted to us and say, "no, what's most important is getting to the next verse in our study."

But I'd just rather deal with today's concerns today. In those moments, I'd rather teach in direct response to the current theme/concern/topic they are living in.

How, again, is this kind of thing less Spirit-led and pastoral and responsible than going thru the Bible verse by verse? How does it show a less fervent love of scripture? How does it show a less passionate affection for God's people and His Church?

Did I mention that I'm very puzzled by this?

I'm just thinking about the logic at work here. If we really think that we should only teach the Bible expositionally, then it seems to me that we shouldn't have any conferences, books, videos, or pamphlets that teach it any other way. We shouldn't have any kind of Christian media that conveys the biblical perspective on something as it relates to a certain "topic." We shouldn't have any retreats or events where anybody preaches anything in the context of a "topic;" no Sunday School classes or home groups where we study a Christian book or theme. No Christian marriage conferences, no "Experiencing God" or apologetics or "Christian Worldview"; no Beth Moore or Passion or whatever.

Verse by verse only. If that's the only right way, then it must be the only right way all the time.

Or is the Sunday morning pulpit the only place where this applies? If so, now I'm really puzzled.

In a world where people hardly know the Bible anyway, the last thing we need to be doing is telling folks that studying the Bible thoroughly, earnestly, and intensely is only righteous and profitable if they do it using the method that we approve.

In a world where Christ-followers are desperately trying to battle against the world's lies and the enemy's schemes, it seems to me that it makes sense to bring up specific topics and teach on them, in light of The Kingdom, and in the moments that bring them to that light.

Should we teach expositionally as well? Sure, when it makes sense to do so. But the moment we start exalting man-made study methods over real-life, flesh-and-blood, Spirit-led interaction and instruction in the Body of Christ, we're making a big mistake. Go ahead and teach expositionally. We at Community Church will do it as well, when/as the Spirit leads. But don't tell people that's the only way. Don't start criticizing churches and pastors for leading responsively, sensitively, and in-the-Spirit. If they're not leading in those ways, that's a different story. But we should never assume that a "topical teaching" is always reckless or man-centered. That's just too easy.

Sorry, this came out of nowhere. It's just that I've been so moved, as we've been in this topical study, by the power of scripture (there's loads and loads of it in these sermons) and what it has to say to us, and I recently came across something that implied that we're wrong for studying/teaching it this way. To put it mildly, I was a tad perturbed.

OK, am I going to get killed for this one?

Either way, go listen to that teaching.


Bobby said...

I agree with the fact that to proclaim any method as the ONLY right way to teach/preach is a dangerous and arrogant attitude.

I think what some people think of when they hear the word "topical" is a preacher jumping from verse to verse using twelve different translations completely oblivious to the context of the verse. This image of a frankenstein kind of truth distrubs people; so, they knee-jerk to extremes that condemn any kind of non-expositional preaching.

I am a firm believer you can do both at the same time. You can explore individual topics while approaching the Scriptures expositionally.

rk said...

Yes! Bobby gets it.

I agree completely with your assessment of the "knee-jerk" situation. thanks for pointing out the possible reasoning/motivation behind it.

I guess I just want people to understand that those kinds of knee-jerk generalizations (and the resulting legalism and method-pushing) can be just as dangerous as the poor teaching that inspired it. Am I making sense?

Either way, Bobby, thanks. Perhaps I was wrong about you.

Bobby said...

You're absolutely making sense. The only thing that separates legalism from poor teaching arrogance. Legalism itself is merely a prideful form of unbiblical teaching -- it just adds a bunch of man-made rules to the idiocy.

Bobby said...

This is Bobby's wife. AKA his editor. He meant to say, "The only thing that seperates legalism from poor teaching IS arrogance."

Robert Conn said...

1 Cor 15:19 says that if our hope only exists in this life then we are to be pitied.

The knee-jerk reaction comes from hearing preachers who preach topical sermons like "Christian Cussing: Why saying Dang is Evil" or "21 ways to get the blessings of God on your life." The need for expositional sermons I believe is that if we ONLY hear sermons in our churches concerning the things that ONLY matter in this world then we are to be pitied. However (flip-side of the coin) if I only hear sermons concerning things which neither help my walk nor equip me for ministry then I am (again) to be pitied. If I had to balance the two I'd probably fall more on the expositional side but only because I've not seen many who can preach the gospel in your typical topical sermon. I'm sure it can be done, but narrow is the gate. To neglect topical teaching is to overlook an integral aspect of pastoring... you must make room for those 'life moments' and use them to teach your people.

In addition I think the temptation for a lot of these guys out there that state Expositional is the ONLY way is just a pride issue stemming from their misbelief that only seminary trained pastors can teach the Gospel. As if to say, "I've put in a ton of work here... I've learned all these dead languages and because I have then my preaching is somehow superior and more God-honoring."

Johnny! said...

My only criticism regarding topical teaching is that the modern Church tends to stick to miniscule range of topics, resulting in a people who think Leviticus 9 is not relevant to their lives.

We don't have any examples of expositional teaching by the Apostles. They did exegesis of various texts in their topical Epistles, but there's not a long discourse by Paul on Haggai.

That said, one of the greatest sermons I've ever heard was Doug Wilson preaching on the list of returning Exiles in Ezra.

rk said...

Yeah, I think this is all really interesting and good. As far as I can tell after an initial reading of all this, all the criticisms of topical teaching that you guys have given have been regarding bad examples of it, rather than a criticism of the actual practice.

And that's where I think the problem lies. I'm telling you, our "topical" sermons at Community Church have huge, overwhelming piles of in-context scripture in them. And again, we preach on things that are relevant to OUR people, not just to THE AMERICAN people. Our sermons are an integrated part of how we pastor, specifically and responsively, the followers that God has entrusted to us.

Anyway, great thoughts everyone. I love that I have friends who will speak honestly and lovingly to me, even when there's potential for disagreement.

rk said...

for clarity, when i said this:

"we preach on things that are relevant to OUR people, not just to THE AMERICAN people",

I was trying to highlight the distinction between two differnt kinds of "topical" sermons:

One kind (for example) might be a study about biblical views of suffering when lots of folks in our church seem to be suffering (relevant to our people). the other kind has sermons entitled "American Idol" or "What's in Your Wallet" of "Deal or No Deal" (attempts at being relevant to America).

I think those two VERY different stereotypes/models of "topical teaching" might be at the heart of the various criticisms. Am I close on that one?

Robert Conn said...

By the way, the cussing sermon... true story. Ask Todd.

thad said...

Hmmm...this all seems very sketchy to me, as does your Community (so-called) Church and your preacher, handsome as he may be.

A few more serious notes:

- Ross is right that this is a really good sermon on dating.

- I am, of course, joking when I say that about my sermon, but I'm also not joking. What I mean by that is that it's as "communal" a sermon as I've preached. By that I mean that I didn't hide away in my office and come up with an hour's worth (yes an hour) of opinions on dating. I did study, and I did hear from the Lord, but a lot of that came in the form of wisdom shared by people in my community who are following Jesus and handing down the faith. I just packaged it up.

- A word of warning: at some point in the sermon I say, "for the next 15 minutes" as though I'm that close to being done. What I meant to say, of course, is "for the next 35 minutes."

- Another word of warning: I use the word "absolutely" way too much (which, for a topical preacher, isn't very postmodern of me). I'm a writer first and speaker second, which is part of the reason I struggle to keep my notes concise.

- I would like to add a thought to what I believe drives the exposition-only sentiment, at least its strongest manifestations. There is, in my opinion, a bit of a problem in the theology of the Bible among many who teach the Bible. This is a terribly unpopular thing to say to people who teach the Bible (and love the Bible), but I'm more convinced of it than ever.

The problem is, roughly, that the Bible is approached as though it is primarily a manual. The Bible neither speaks of itself as primarily a manual nor presents in manual form.

The guiding sentiment I find in the exposition-only defense is deeply tied to a particular understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture, namely that Scripture is sufficient in such a way that if we'll just teach straight through it, our lives will be sufficiently and appropriately guided. To question this idea is, for many, to question the sufficiency of Scripture. I don't buy this.

I believe Scripture is sufficient (I suppose a discussion of what "sufficient" means would be useful, but I'll leave that for someone else to stir up), but saying its sufficiency necessitates it being approached as a book to always be read and studied front to back, never breaking stride or rhythm; well then I think we're no longer talking about sufficiency. I think we're talking about the nature of the Bible itself.

Is it, primarily, a logically ordered manual for living? I fervently believe it sufficiently and authoritatively guides us into right living. I do not believe it is, primarily, an instruction manual. If it is, I wish someone would tell me why it wasn't constructed and presented in a form like Calvin's Institutes or Grudem's Systematic Theology.

I'm not punking those books. I'm saying they aren't the Bible and the Bible is a fundamentally different kind of work. It is not accidentally poetic and prophetic and narrative and propositional. It is purposefully all of those things, alternately and illogically.

This is why I believe this particular approach to and theology of the Bible, while seeking to rightly exalt the Bible, actually misses some of its value and beauty.

This may make some people crazy; me suggesting that an alternate view of Scripture actually values it more. I don't mean to boast that I have the highest view of Scripture possible. I just mean to suggest that it's not a given that the exposition-only crowd has the market cornered on valuing the Bible.

Mary-Light House Gal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thad said...

No worries, Mary. I haven't been properly trained by a seminary either. Those needing to discount my words accordingly should feel free to do so.

It also occurs to me that even we have conceded an imprecise definition of "exposition" in this discussion. Expository preaching is, technically, preaching that exposes or explains the Scriptures. We started there and then made up a new meaning for the label, claiming that preaching is only "expository" if it uses a particular course and method to expose and explain the Scriptures. It's handy because it makes it easier to imply a certain superiority for a preferred approach. I would argue that all kinds of preaching that no one calls expository are, in fact, expository forms. But whatever. Just saying.

Bobby said...

Johnny mentioned this earlier, but if a pastor were to go through 1 Corinthians verse by verse, he would be required to teach on various topics because that is what the letter is -- a response to different questions, concerns, and trouble spots within the church.

I think all of this has to do with us (read sinful man) needing to properly define the boundaries of our world. It somehow empowers us and feeds our lust to be in control of something.

If I can label the "right" and "wrong" way to preach, regardless of either forms biblical accuracy, then I have wrapped a tidy little bow on another part of my faith. I've got that part figured out.

rk said...

go write your own post, you blog-hog. or, what i meant to say is, thanks for cleaning up my mess.

this little nugget contains the best two sentences i've read all week:
"I think all of this has to do with us (read sinful man) needing to properly define the boundaries of our world. It somehow empowers us and feeds our lust to be in control of something."

careful... i know what church you go to... seriously, thanks for the challenging and insightful reminders.

Mary-Light House Gal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny! said...

I disagree with the notion that people think the Bible is a manual for their lives. IMO that's about the last thing most people think. They think, at best, that it governs the thoughts in their heads and their (mostly sexual) morality. Everything else is dismissed by being "under grace." No one would dream of preaching a sermon series on the poor tithe and its abiding validity, or how to allow for gleaning in a contemporary context.

But It does govern all of life, just not in a systematic one-to-one way. I totally agree with Thad there. Scripture language isn't scholastic language. It's multi-layered, symbolic and poetic. Most of us don't know how to read that way. I spend a lot of time trying to unlearn my rationalist indoctrination.

Robert Conn said...

Mary ~ it's words like yours that makes all of us guys who are seminary trained beat our heads and chests and wonder, "When did we lose the ability to be real and honest like our friend Mary?"


rk said...

Great thoughts. Some day I really want to get you and Thad in a room together over a beverage or two. If my head doesn't explode, it might be a pretty good time. It will certainly be the closest I'll ever get to Tuesdays at The Eagle and The Child.

I concur with Robert. Don't apologize for honesty, even when it smells a little like cynicism. For better or for worse, this is probably a pretty safe place for that.

thad said...

Johnny: I didn't say the people who think the Bible is a manual actually use the whole manual or practice that belief with any consistency. You don't want to get me started on that one lest I really hog the rk blog. I've just lived much of my life with people who speak of the Bible as though it's a manual but refuse to acknowledge that they don't really live that way.

I had a recent conversation with some of these knuckle-heads which included them yanking the emergency brake when I mentioned the role of interpretation of Scripture. They insisted that the Bible speaks clearly for itself and needs no interpretation; that interpretation was man's way of selfishly making it say what we want it to say.

Now I'm not as smart as I may seem when I use big words (I just like words), but I knew they'd already backed themselves into a corner on this because I knew they were from a tradition that exalts preaching. So I suggested they all stop preaching and instead practice only public Bible reading, since the Bible was a manual that needs no interpretation. They responded that it did require some "explanation." Ah....I see.

Mary, please don't be silent. I don't know what church community you're a part of, but I know every community needs prophets who will point to our arrogance and lovelessness and gently love it away.

thad said...

Also, knuckle-heads is a term of endearment.