Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to Make Your Pastor a Better Preacher

Many people lament the state of preaching today. Much blame is laid on seminaries, and a good bit on the preachers themselves. But it is possible there is also fault in the pews.

It is true that seminaries in general do not do a good job of producing preachers. Homiletics (instruction in preaching) is usually one class among dozens. Greek, Hebrew, church history, systematic theology, pastoral counseling, Christian education and other topics vie for a piece of the seminary pie. Even at a seminary with good preaching instruction, a student may have his preaching evaluated half a dozen times. So while some bad preaching may be the seminaries’ fault, they can hardly be blamed for all of it.

Preachers, too, are culpable in regard to bad preaching. Inadequate preparation is probably the leading culprit, though no doubt other things are involved. A pastor, especially a solo pastor, has a lot of responsibilities. Counseling, membership training, officer training, home and hospital visitation, demands of family and home, all take away from preparation time. There is, of course, laziness, carelessness, perhaps distaste for the work of preaching itself. It may be also that a pastor has a low view of his preaching abilities, and doesn't see any way to improve.

But it is possible that the people in the pews bear some of the responsibility for poor preaching. For one thing, congregations appear too tolerant of bad preaching. This may be for a number of reasons. First, many churches do not pay well, and the congregation may be harboring a “you get what you pay for” attitude, even if they may not recognize it. Or they may excuse bad preaching on the basis that the pastor is a really nice guy, or he’s so faithful in visitation, or he’s a great counselor. It may also be that many Christians simply have no idea what constitutes good preaching. Here is a minimalist definition of good preaching: a dealing with the biblical text that explains in a clear and orderly fashion what the text means, and identifies how it may be applied in the life of the Christian. Good preaching does not have to do with clever turns of phrase, though a good preacher may use them. Good preaching does not have to be loud (though all the people should be able to hear). Good preaching should be at least somewhat animated, and will be if the man is gripped by his message, but the amount and kind of animation will also depend on the personality of the man.

But aside from recognizing bad preaching, and refusing to put up with it, what can a congregation do to make their pastor a better preacher?

First, congregations must pray for their pastor. Pray that he has adequate time to prepare. Pray that he himself prays over his studies. Pray that he will be gripped by the message of the text so that it becomes his message as well. Pray that he would have wisdom and insight to be able to see clearly how to explain and apply the passage.

Second, congregations should prepare to hear the sermon. If you know ahead of time what passage your pastor will be preaching, spend time during the week studying it and praying over it, so that you are ready to hear it explained and applied. You’ll be surprised by how much this will help.

Third, congregations should both praise and criticize their pastor’s preaching. Now this is a touchy subject. I don’t mean here the meaningless “Good message, Pastor” as you’re going out the door after the service. I mean something like “Preacher, I really appreciated how you explained the difficulty in that passage” (and then be specific). Remember, too, that you can’t say much as you’re going out the door. If you were really struck by the sermon, send him a short email. As for criticism, do that in person. Set up an appointment. Prepare for it. Don’t make it a personal attack, but tie it directly to the sermon. “Pastor, I think you misapplied that passage.” Don’t take it personally if he doesn't agree with you. And don’t be a constant critic. Diligent pastors are all too painfully aware of their shortcomings in the pulpit, and too frequent a diet of criticism from the congregation is discouraging.

Fourth, the congregation should be patient, especially with a beginning preacher. It can take time for a man to get comfortable in the pulpit. It takes time for him to develop in his sense of what is important in a passage and what is not. As children do not go from taking the first step to running easily at top speed in the space of a day, a pastor takes time to develop his preaching skills. But if, over time, he shows no improvement; if his sermons remain garbled messes, impossible to follow, then send him packing. Don’t keep him because he’s a nice guy. Don’t keep him because he’s faithful in visitation. Send him packing because he’s not doing the primary job that he is called to do. Your congregation deserves good preaching and will die without it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

When the Bible Offends

Last week I dealt with a post from Dr. William Mounce on the use of the vocative “Woman” in the New Testament. His view was that this was difficult, if not impossible to translate, because it sounds offensive to modern Western ears (see last week’s post). In reading through the comments on Mounce’s post, it became clear that a number of his readers agreed with him. They found the term offensive, or upsetting.

That raised the following question for me: What are we to do when something we read in the Bible offends us? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first response should be for us to ask ourselves whether we have understood the Bible properly. As I sought to show last week with the “woman” issue, this may not be particularly difficult to determine. Some time spent with a concordance, or a commentary, or a study Bible should clarify many things for us. When it becomes clear that we have misunderstood the passage, we need to labor to bring our understanding in line with what the Bible is actually saying at that point. We may help ourselves in this by seeking to explain the true meaning of the passage to someone else. I have found in my two decades plus of teaching that teaching something to someone else clarifies it for us.

Second, we should seek to determine if perhaps our offense is with the Bible, or with something within the cultures in which the Bible was written. For example, I find the practice of polygamy offensive. It is clear from Genesis 2 and from Jesus’ teaching that polygamy is contrary to God’s purposes for marriage. The fact that many people in the Old Testament practiced is no justification for the practice. The mystery is why God tolerated that sin through many generations of the lives of his Old Testament people. I can live with that. We each ought to be aware that God tolerates many sins in our own lives, and in our own cultures. The fact that he tolerates them and does not immediately judge them is no justification for our continuing in them, or for encouraging others in their practice.

Third, if we have properly understood the text, and the problem is not some cultural distinctive or some sin issue, then we should conclude that our thinking ought to be brought to the captivity of Christ. We may find it offensive that Paul tells women to be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2). However, Paul bases his statements not on cultural considerations but on the created order. In other words, the command of Paul is not a product of Paul’s misogyny, but is appropriate to the order of life as God has created it. (For a fine exegetical treatment of the issue of women in the church, I would refer my readers to God’s Good Design, by Claire Smith.) Submitting our thinking to Christ is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is necessary for our sanctification. We like to think that we are right, and that our own practices ought to be the standard for others. But our standard in all things is Christ, and it our responsibility as disciples of Christ to submit our thinking to his Word.

There. Isn’t that simple? No, because of The Nature, Power, Deceit, and
Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, to borrow a title from John Owen. Conforming our thinking to the Word of God is a lifetime process empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes when the Bible offends, we need to be offended so that the Spirit might perfect his work in us.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Thoughts on Bible Translation Prompted by Remarks of Dr. William Mounce

Mounce seems to think that gunai (“woman,” in the vocative case) is essentially untranslatable because in his view, “it misconveys so badly.” Now let’s stop and think about this. Someone is reading the Bible, preferably in one of the translations that Mounce dismisses for translating gunai as simply “Woman.” In his view, the problem with that is that it leaves the reader “to figure out what it really means.” No doubt the direct address, “Woman” might be viewed as rude in today’s context. But first, the reader should stop to think. Is Jesus being rude to a woman he has just healed? Not likely. So the alert reader should recognize that Jesus is not being rude, and in the first century this direct address was not considered rude.
But suppose the reader thinks that Jesus might be being rude to this woman, as he seems to have been with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30). Then he might look at a concordance to see how many times Jesus uses this address in the gospels. After all, the reader is concerned about Jesus’ possible rudeness here. So the reader discovers, with a little research, that Jesus uses this direct address seven times in the gospels: once in Matthew 15:28; once in Luke 13:12 (the passage Mounce is dealing with); and five times in John (2:4, 4:21, 8:10, 19:26; 20:15). In two of those cases, Jesus is addressing his mother, which again indicates that it is unlikely that he is being rude. In one case (John 20:15) Jesus is clearly addressing Mary Magdalene tenderly after the resurrection.

So with a little research and a little reflection, the thoughtful reader concludes that however rude “Woman” might appear to us at first glance, it is not, in fact, a rude form of address. Rather it appears to be a formal (rather than casual) form of address.

How is the translator to address this in a translation? This is another point at which Mounce and I differ. He seems to think that a translation ought to be explanatory, as he applauds the NLT for translating “dear woman.” He then discusses a number of other possible translations, none of which seem to him to work. My sense is that there are other ways of addressing this difficulty than with an explanatory translation. First (and perhaps easiest), the Bible editors could put in a marginal note explaining that “Woman” was not rude in Jesus’ day. At the next level would be the study Bible, which could also add an explanatory note. Then there are commentaries, most of which, especially those geared to the lay reader, will address the point. Finally, there is the responsibility of the preacher, who in preaching from one of these passages ought to clarify the point for his listeners.

To insist that the translation is responsible to clarify this point (and many others) seems to me to fail to recognize two things. First, at what point does the explanatory translation stop explaining? There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of verses that might be unclear or misunderstood by someone. How many of these should the translator explain? Is the translator supposed to try to prevent readers from taking the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view on John 1:1? There are two explanatory translations that I know of: The Amplified Bible, and Wuest’s Expanded Translation of the New Testament. They are both awful. They are unreadable in any normal sense of that word. The result would be the same if Mounce followed his reasoning to its conclusion: a translation/commentary that doesn’t work as either one.

The second point that Mounce misses here is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls the “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1:7). What that means is that there are means by which people can learn the meaning of the Bible any time it appears to them to be unclear, confusing, or just plain rude. Marginal notes, concordances, commentaries, and preachers faithfully expounding the Word all fall under that “due use.”
So translate it “Woman.” Let the reader puzzle it out for himself, or consult a commentary, or ask his pastor. But don’t turn a Bible translation into a travesty.

“Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.” A. E. Housman

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Paulin Bedard, In Six Days God Created, Xulon Press, 2013

Bedard is the pastor of Reformed Church of Saint-Georges, Quebec.

This is a very fine book. As a quick look at the table of contents will tell you that it is a critique of the framework hypothesis. For those of you who don’t know what the framework hypothesis is, it is a way of reading Genesis 1-2 which sees the material as set out in a framework fashion. That is, Days 1-3 of Genesis 1 parallel Days 4-6. The days are not ordinary days, nor are they entirely figurative (depending on which framework author you read). The result is that Genesis 1-2 is considered as not having anything to say about how God created, but rather make the point that God did create. The material is exalted poetic narrative, rather than historical narrative, hence cannot be read literally.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is, “The Literal Interpretation is Satisfactory.” The point of this section is to argue against the view of many framework proponents, who propose that there are a number of problems with taking Genesis 1-2 literally that are solved by the framework hypothesis. Bedard does a commendable job of addressing the issues, showing that the supposed problems are more imaginary than real.

Section two is, “The Framework Interpretation is Problematic.” In this section, Bedard shows the many exegetical problems of the framework hypothesis. Some framework proponents attempt to deal with the problems, others seem to deny that the problems exist. However, by fairly presenting the arguments of the framework proponents in their own words, Bedard succeeds in demonstrating that the problems are real, they are serious, and that framework proponents have not successfully addressed them.
The final section is, “The Framework Interpretation is Dangerous.” Here again, Bedard is careful not to misrepresent framework proponents. But he does demonstrate a number of serious consequences to the framework hypothesis. Not all framework proponents have followed their views into these consequences, but some have. Some of these dangers are: the rejection of the historicity of some events (including a historical Adam and Eve); a false view of the doctrine of God’s accommodation; the lack of clarity in the Scriptures, particularly regarding fundamental issues; the pervasive influence of modern secular science. With regard to this last, many framework proponents argue that their view arises from a strict exegesis of the text, not from an attempt to accommodate the long age of the earth that is the standard view in modern science. Bedard recognizes this, because he has carefully studied these authors. But it is also clear that a large number of framework proponents are driven to find an explanation of Genesis 1-2 that will accord with modern scientific views. Bedard allows these men to speak for themselves.

This is a devastating critique of the framework hypothesis. It is especially so because Bedard has been careful not to misrepresent framework proponents. Not all who hold to the framework hypothesis agree in all the particulars, and Bedard is careful to note that. Bedard allows them to speak in their own words, and he has carefully cited the views he presents. I would recommend this work first to all proponents of the framework hypothesis, that they might see the exegetical and theological difficulties of the view. I would also recommend this book to all those who have an interest in what the Bible has to say about the origins of the earth. Does the Bible speak plainly, or does it speak in frameworks?