In my last post, I posed the following question: What would happen If we Christians were to hold preachers and Bible teachers as accountable as we do unbelieving film directors? In continuing that conversation, I want to equip readers to know what to look or listen for in a Sunday school lesson or sermon so they can know that those in authority over them are seeking to be faithful to the text. This is not an exhaustive list, but I hope you’ll find it helpful.
“A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
This is the fun way Dr. Bruce Winter taught me to think through each passage of the Bible. The meaning of any given text for us today is found in the meaning of any given text for its original readers. So as we listen to a sermon, we want to be confident that the interpretation and meaning of the text being taught for us today would make sense to the original readers 2000-4000 years ago. Without this guiding principle, a preacher can make just about any verse mean whatever he wants. Is your pastor teaching you the historical and literary contexts of the passages you are studying? He doesn’t have to give a history lesson or a lesson on the literary forms of the Bible each Sunday, but if the “take away” wouldn’t work for the original hearers, something could be amiss in the sermon, and inevitably something will go wrong with you.
Is the sermon mostly about what man has done, can do, or should do … or is it mostly about who God is and what He has done?
In other words, would you classify the sermon as legalistic and pragmatic, or as God-centered and grace-oriented? The Bible is unapologetically God-centered and grace-oriented. Man is notoriously man-centered and works-oriented. What is the dominant theme of the message you are hearing? The implications of this are far-reaching.
Is the sermon his, and if it’s not, is he telling you that?
There are so many books, websites and services these days that pastors can quickly become lazy plagiarists. Granted, there’s nothing new in the Bible, and no pastor should be saying something new! But at the same time, authenticity and credibility are important aspects of a healthy teaching ministry. One sermon series I look back on with joy is one that came directly from a book I read. I held the book up from the pulpit each week and said, “I hope you will read this, but I know many probably will not, so I’m preaching this book for the next month.” Even though the text of the messages was not mine, the sermons were credible and authentic because God had done a work in my life in part through that book and I was honest with my congregation about it and the source. This is in stark contrast to the time I preached to a group of college students. The sermon was original, but one illustration was not, though I passed it off as though it was. One godly student humbly approached me afterward and called me out, for which I am grateful.
Is the preacher/teacher prepared?
Paul was not exactly known for his public speaking skills, but he knew the gospel and was always ready to share. The preaching and teaching of God’s Word, as we’ve seen, is eternally important … even cosmically important (“Through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:7-10). Don’t expect your pastor to be Apollos (or “insert your favorite preacher’s name here”), but if you find yourself wondering if he consistently spends time doing other things … even things at are good or related to their pastoral ministry … at the expense of preparing to preach, then there may be a problem. The preaching and teaching of God’s Word is a high priority … if not the chief priority … of a pastor. Are they prepared?
Context. Legalism. Pragmatism. Authenticity. Preparation. These are five ways to humbly and prayerfully scrutinize your teaching pastor in an aim to help him stand strong under the judgment coming his way. In my next post, we’ll talk about how to approach a pastor in a biblical way.
But for today, what others would you add to this list?