‘I just teach the Bible.’, he said, glaring at me. In a tone that was slightly defiant, slightly challenging, and – if I’m honest, slightly intimidating. Slightly arrogant, too.
I still bristle, years later, as I remember the direct gaze, implying that he spent all his days either with his nose in books, or preaching sermons, and that the rest of us were probably wasting our ministries by doing anything else.
Why do I still bristle? Because I really do get what he wanted to say positively. Enough of self-reliant, self-promoting, self-centred pulpiteering. Enough of clever gimmicks of communication, and wafer-thin messages. Enough of not trusting in the cross of Christ to convert. Enough of anything other than the Bible. We preachers are commanded to ‘Preach the Word.’ And so no-one ever ‘just’ teaches the Bible. Heaven and hell lie open before us and our hearers.
But still… Pause before you hit the play button.
I think I bristle for four main reasons, all to do with that little qualifier, ‘just.’
1. That simple word ‘teach’ is not the only thing the Bible teaches us we are to do with the Bible. Those of us who have the privilege of being preachers must – even minimally – also ‘rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness.’ That means much more than giving an unanswerable lecture. It means we get involved in people’s hearts and minds as they unscramble the big issues of truth and error, and then in their lives as they try to reorder themselves and their habits in line with what they’ve learned. The sequence in 2 Tim 3:16 certainly begins with teaching, but it doesn’t end there.
In fact if we shift to Titus 2, we can see that what Paul tells that pastor to do is ‘teach what accords with sound doctrine.’, and what then flows out is a sequence of life-changing material for men and women, young and old, slaves and masters. They weren’t just taught doctrine, or taught the Bible – they were taught the implications, too.
2. The word ‘teach’ is quite a plastic term, implying far more than a monologue. Read the second half of Acts and look at the words Luke uses to describe the activities of Paul and his team: reasoning, proving, refuting, explaining- all of that fits into the word ‘teach’ , and if I read Acts properly it means quite a bit of dialogue and discussion. And Luke describes training, and personal work, and he models writing good stuff too. In the Pastorals, directing a local church properly is also an aspect of teaching.
The problem is that my friend had narrowed the ‘teaching’ word to one of its elements, ‘preaching’, and then narrowed that word to one particular expression of it: the 30 minute expository form. And unless an activity fitted that particular cultural expression of teaching, it didn’t count.
Now to me that is a really helpful focussing of the issue, because I do still maintain that expository preaching is the best way of feeding a church on a regular basis. Careful, regular exposure to the entirety of what the bible says is the healthiest diet we can offer. We’ve just worked through James, and have started to work through Exodus. That’s our food.
I was trying to explain to someone yesterday that the reason I can’t preach a really short sermon with one simple bullet point, is that I am trying to change people’s minds by telling them a different story – and that takes time. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet to tell a story. He didn’t just put ‘Indecisive Prince’ on a Post-It note and leave people to work it out.
But there other things we can do in even that 30 minute slot: QandA, Bible Overview, doctrine series, apologetics, following a word, addressing an issue. If the basic diet is in place, there’s then liberty to look at other forms.
3. My slightly bullish friend was contending that we what we do is a fairly straightforward task, but I think it’s complex. Every decent preacher will have way too much material, which means we edit. Am I going to raise this issue, or that one? Am I going to look at that exegetical issue or bury it? How can I make this memorable? How can I show its relevance? How do I tell this story? Do I need to explain this concept?
And that means that around the front of every pulpit I want to hang the sign ‘work in progress.’ Yes, I believe in the authority of the scriptures, and in the authority of the gospel – but I am fallible, fallen, and finite. So I make mistakes. Even yesterday I had someone come up to me after my sermon with an open Bible and ask me about me about something I’d said – and, yes, I’d blundered. I’d misquoted a verse.
So I need to be open to correction by the other members of the body, which must mean that I daren’t take a ‘Me vs. You’ approach. “You must listen to me because I know more about the Bible than you; I’m right, which means that if you disagree with me, you are wrong. End of.”
It’s more complicated than that.
4. And we really do do more than teach. Take the famous summary from Acts 6: the apostles need to ‘give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ Two things. Not just one. That’s what the word’ pastor’ implies when it is coupled to the word ‘teacher’ (Eph. 4:11) – we have a concern for the lives of the people under our care.
You see, put like that, the question really isn’t ‘What am I going to teach?’ – it’s ‘What are people going to learn?’ Because if people aren’t learning, then I’m not teaching. I’m just going through the 30 minute expository motions, admiring myself in the mirror all the while.
We don’t teach the Bible. We teach people what the Bible says.
Now hit ‘play’.
Want to watch me put this in practice?
In ‘The Word of His Grace’, I try to help preachers tackle a long, narrative book: Acts. I walk you through the structure, to show how it fits together, and give sample sermons along the way, with a running commentary on the choices and decisions I made.
You can order ‘The Word of his Grace’ at discount from 10ofthose here.
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4 comments on “‘Just’ teach the Bible? Pause first”
Thanks Chris. There is something about simplicity of the phrase that captures something important, and yet, as you say, it seems to reduce what preaching is too. I think your emphasis on the listener and how they’re being changes is really important. A while ago I posted about the way we can sometimes introduce a preacher by saying they’re going to ‘explain the Bible/passage’…
Cheers, robin – test, there’s that buggy little word ‘Just’, again. I think my problem – and yours – is the reductionist nature of the language. I know it’s designed to communicate to our outsider friends, but like you, I’m not sure that ‘Explain’ quite does the job, because it’s too flat a word. Equally, though, I’m not a big fan of the ‘romance of the pulpit’, where robes and pulpit height are used in even quite right-thinking churches to give a skewed idea of the preacher’s authority.
We are very blessed at St James. The preaching is inspiring, and I am learning lots!
You’re very kind, Shirley!