10. The Sunday sermon
He taught them.
The sermon is the justification for the clergy system. The clergyman’s cardinal duty is not pastoring but teaching, and this teaching is principally embodied in the sermon on the Lord’s day. If clericalism displaces a mutual ministry of the saints in the meeting it is largely due to the sermon.
The sermon as we know it is a particular form of Bible teaching. There is nothing sacred about it. I have heard it said that the roots of the sermon are in Greek rhetoric and philosophy. Whether that is true or not is probably not important. What is indeed important is that the churches are accustomed to hearing “a three-part sermon with an introduction and a conclusion,” or some variation on this.
Also the churches are accustomed to having their teaching handed to them, week after week. Those with speaking gifts do not participate in the meeting, but are silent. Needless to say, spiritual gifts not exercised are never developed. The church, by which I mean the time when all are assembled together, is not only the first ground for development of the speaking gifts, it is the practice field.
No doubt the preceding statement provokes much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the apologists for the clergy system, where pristine doctrine is thought to be delivered via the sermon on a weekly basis. But “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” II Tim. 3:16-17. Are our church services merely ceremonies for handing down doctrine? No, the doctrine was handed down once for all to the saints by the apostles, Jude 3. There is nothing more to hand down. No, iron is to sharpen iron in the assembly as well as out of it. The men may actually speak in the assemblies! And they may actually misspeak in the assemblies and be corrected for it, to the edification of all. Are we putting on a show, or are we trying to grow up in Christ?
Compared with “sermon teaching” the churches view every other form of teaching as second-rate. For a sermon you need a clergyman. “Lay teaching” is inferior, “though perhaps permissible.” However no support for the idea of the superiority of sermon-teaching can be found in the New Testament. In the gospels and the book of Acts we simply find Jesus and His apostles teaching and preaching.
The form of the teaching is contingent on the substance of the Bible text. “Form follows function” is a law of nature and of nature’s God. Often, however, no “form” is evident in the best teaching. I look in vain for a discernible form in the Sermon on the mount.
The word “sermon” nowhere appears in the New Testament except as added by Bible editors. That does not mean the sermon is unbiblical. For example, “the Trinity” never appears in Scripture, yet we understand that it expresses the Bible truth that there is one God in three Persons.
The Lord’s teaching on the mountain is called a sermon. Notice, however, it has no form resembling the sermon. Matthew 5:2 simply says, “He taught them.” Was this an inferior form of teaching? By no means, it is most wonderful teaching. I still recall what a balm for my soul it was when as a new believer I read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.”
Then there are the “sermons” of the apostles (as well as Stephen) in the book of Acts. These are, with one exception, gospel preaching, cf. Acts 2 (Peter), 4 (Peter), 7 (Stephen), 10 (Peter), 13 (Paul), and 17 (Paul). The preaching was to the world and not the church, for the purpose of calling the hearers who believed into the church. Not one of these sermons was preached in a church, though they may have been preached in synagogues.
In Acts 11, when the apostles and brethren heard that the Gentiles had also received the Word of God, they contended with Peter, who “rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them.” This may or may not have taken place in an assembly on the Lord’s day. What we do know is that the duration of Peter’s sermon is under two minutes and bears no resemblance to the modern sermon. Peter’s “expounding” was simply explaining, that is all.
On the Emmaus road, Jesus “expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Many Bible translations render it “he explained.” A few have it “he interpreted.” However these three words are synonyms or rough equivalents, and thus we are to understand that to expound is simply to explain. Much is made of a “necessity” for expository teaching, with the sermon as the vehicle. But expository teaching is simply explaining the Word; it is not married to the sermon form.
In Acts 20 we find Paul discoursing with the saints in Troas. There, he did not deliver a sermon, he discoursed. The Greek word is dialegomai. Even with the chief apostle the saints were able to speak in the church. Troas, then, provides no warrant for sermon-monologues, much less “preaching” (as the King James Version has it). Rather, the regular ministry of the saints one to another was temporarily tabled as the church granted audience to the chief apostle. This is an indicated New Testament practice: a regular Romans 12 ministry of the saints, with deference to visiting teachers (or local teachers) to “say on” as occasion warrants. On occasion these teachers likely occupied the entire teaching time in the meeting, to the edification of all.
Although there is no basis for one man regularly dominating the speaking ministries in the churches on the Lord’s day, some will object, what if the man’s sermon teaching is always sound? Of course that is better than unsound teaching. But false teaching at least lends no credence to the one-man ministry tradition. By contrast, the soundest sermon-teaching perpetually reinforces the age-old tradition of a Christian pastorate that displaces the ministry of the brethren found in Romans 12. Is it possible to have both sound teaching and an order in the churches that is contrary to sound teaching? By no means. The order in the churches is contrary to sound teaching for the reason that it is never taught. “Church truth” is never taught. The Christian ministry is never taught. Ecclesiology is never taught except when it is taught amiss. Frequently New Testament ecclesiology is undermined by “seminary anecdotes.” Indeed, typically New Testament ecclesiology is undermined by “seminary anecdotes” and the citation of various learned men. Not that it is wrong to cite other Christian teachers. I do it myself. But too frequently this is part of the mystique of scholasticism. (By scholasticism I do not mean that divinity schools are unbiblical. Scholasticism is embodied in the idea that training in schools separates Christians into “teachers” and “non-teachers,” and also in the idea that “schooling” prepares a professional pastorate.)
Let us examine two seminary courses thought to be indispensable to training in sermon-teaching.
The first is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics gets its name from a Greek word, hermēneuō, the verb, or hermēneia, the noun, which words barely appear in the New Testament, and where they appear they mean interpreting a word into a different language, e.g., “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.)” Or they concern interpreting tongues, I Cor. 14. Never are the words used in connection with interpreting the plain and unvarnished Word. So based on the words’ usage in the New Testament, interpretation is accomplished by translators of the Greek or Hebrew scriptures into the various languages. Once translated into the reader’s language, the Word does not need “interpreting” again!
“Hermeneutics” is based on an assumption that the Bible is characteristically or intrinsically hard to understand and thus warrants regular, weekly interpretation to the people. This, however, is not what the Word itself says. Paul said he spoke plainly, II Cor. 3:12. If his gospel was veiled it was veiled to those who are perishing, II Cor. 4:3. He said his teaching commended itself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God, II Cor. 4:2, meaning both the learned and the unlearned. Peter said there are “some things hard to be understood,” II Pet. 3:16, thus clearly inferring that most of the Bible is not hard to be understood. Indeed, the Bible as a whole is hard to understand for all those who in wickedness reject the plain gospel of Christ crucified. By contrast, for believers there are only “some things” hard to understand.
The big problem for those of us who have believed on Jesus is not that we lack Bible understanding but that too frequently we are hearers and not doers of the Word. This, by the way, is an argument in favor of more exhortation and less teaching in the churches, for in exhortation the exhorter says, in effect, “You know what to do, brethren, now do it!”
“Hermeneutics” teaches principles of Bible interpretation as if learning to interpret the Word happens apart from studying the Word. This, too, is a dis-integration of the process of acquiring Bible understanding, as if the learning is comprised of component parts. But Paul simply told Timothy to study, II Tim. 2:15. Presumably Timothy only had the Old Testament manuscripts and a few of the NT manuscripts available for study.
What does the New Testament teach us about interpreting the Word? It teaches that the Spirit of God will lead us into all truth. Jesus promised His saints the Holy Ghost would do this, Jn. 14:26. Each believer must do his or her part, which is to faithfully study the Scriptures. In the process the Holy Spirit teaches, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” I Cor. 2:13, i.e., the teachings in the Word of God are harmonized as one through comparing them. We learn to interpret the Word by studying the Word. Thus, “Study.” Teachers are given the churches in order to finish or perfect this work rather than make it appear beyond the capacities of the brethren, I Thess. 3:10. However the body of this work must be done by each individual. As our unerring aids we have the Word and the Teacher.
The other seminary area of study thought indispensable to a sermon-teacher is exegesis, from the Greek word meaning “to declare or to tell.” Many teachers in the history of the churches have managed to teach without the benefit of a course in exegesis. But that is not my concern. My concern is that the seminary training is imagined to qualify teachers, and that lack of this training is imagined to disqualify all others, at least it disqualifies them for the only kind of teaching actually found in the churches on Sunday morning, which is sermon-teaching.
The seminarians define exegesis as “the discipline of learning to preach and teach.” In my opinion this is nothing but oratorical practice or perhaps “developing one’s communication skills.” However their training ground is the seminary and not the church. In the days of the apostles Christians were given opportunity to teach by teaching in the churches. They didn’t deliver sermons as we know them, but they taught. They learned to teach by teaching. As their gifts were developed, some of these may well have gone on to be teachers, and these would have taught at length on some occasions. Both the Lord and His apostles were granted audience in the synagogues. Without the polity of the synagogue the Lord of the universe would have been unable to teach there! How did Apollos learn to teach? Lacking information to the contrary, I suppose he learned to teach by teaching. Paul instructed Timothy to teach faithful men “who shall be able to teach others also,” II Tim. 2:2. This was done in the church, for it was prior to the advent of seminaries. If it was a school, it was a school connected to the local church. (“Church schools” for centuries have rarely functioned as adjuncts to the local churches.) Only the false apostles separated themselves, measuring, comparing, and then commending themselves to the churches of God. These, Paul said, were “not wise.” (Please note, I do not say that only the false teachers separate themselves, but I do say that the pattern of separation was first established by the false teachers.)
I believe that when a Bible teacher explains the original Greek or Hebrew (but especially the Greek, for it is the language of the New Testament), it is or it can be tremendously edifying to the church. But the teacher doesn’t need to study hermeneutics or exegesis in order to do this, he needs to study Greek or Hebrew. And for all the Greek I once heard explained in the churches, I scarcely remember hearing the Greek words that pertain to ministry and church order explained. In all of Christendom it is hard to find many who know who “the ministers” are. Words like diakonos, oikonomos, presbuteroi, episcopoi, and poimano are either never taught, or they are taught amiss. If these words are properly explained it necessarily results (unless we are simply hearers and not doers of the Word) in a different church polity than is practiced almost universally. The Greek words for “appoint” or “ordain,” properly taught, dispense with all high-church, mid-church, and low-church ecclesiasticism. Paul admonished Timothy, “Hold fast the form of sound words,” II Tim. 1:13. Words are the stuff of doctrines, and doctrines are the stuff of theologies. There is certainly good reason for the explanation of Greek words, at length, in sermon-form, as occasion warrants.
It is significant that both Apollos and Paul were the Lord’s teachers, and yet Apollos was eloquent while Paul was “unimpressive.” Paul might have difficulty getting hired except in a small church today. In “style” they were different. However in doctrinal substance they were the same, though each had his own personality.
The sermon, as practiced, assumes an infallibility of the teacher. However even Paul’s teaching was judged in the churches. In Berea they “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things (i.e., the things Paul taught) were so.” While Acts 17 does not expressly indicate whether the Bereans were able to question Paul during the meeting, the account of Paul in Troas makes it clear. Acts 20:7 says, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” The word translated “preached” in the KJV is the Greek dialegomai, which means discourse, dialogue, or conversation. The fact that many Bible translations use “preached” does not make it right. Some translations say he talked with them (ESV, NASB). Others have it that he spoke with them (NIV, Holman). And some say he discoursed with them (ASV, Darby, Young’s). God’s Word Translation says, “Paul was discussing (Scripture) with the people.” It is thus safe to say that Paul conversed with the church in Troas. Eutychus fell asleep, not because Paul was boring them with a monologue (which is not to say that Paul’s monologues would have been boring), but because it was late and most of the church was accustomed to being home asleep by that hour.
Other problems with sermon-monologues are 1) the teacher may misspeak and thus misrepresent New Testament teaching, though he understand the NT accurately, 2) the teacher may misunderstand what he is teaching, but the audience has no recourse to correct him, and 3) the teacher may teach clearly and soundly and yet be misunderstood by the people, and yet they are not permitted while all are assembled to ask for clarification. These are reasons supporting discourse and not monologues. For those who protest that most Bible teaching is simple and straightforward, and that there teacher never errs, why, that is a reason for returning the regular ministry of the Word to the brethren. If the ministry is returned to the brethren, no one questions the necessity for dialogue, or “iron sharpening iron.”
Protestants, evangelicals, and fundamentalists have long derided the doctrine of papal infallibility. But the sermon as a permanent institution in the churches, delivered in monologic form, assumes every teacher is infallible in actual practice. When is the teacher questioned? After church? On Tuesday? Any inquiries made out of the assembly can never edify the assembly (except, perhaps, if the teacher issues a retraction the following Sunday). But more than likely the pastor is never questioned on his sermons, because the people are dull of hearing. Dull of hearing sermons, that is.
Many will say that they have been extremely edified by decades of hearing sermons. Where, then, is the eldership capable of leading the churches? If they had been taught, they would have understood there comes a time for them to assume responsibility for pastoring the flock. But this has not happened anywhere I know. Rather, the older men sit in the back of the churches, at least spiritually if not also physically. Rather than being equipped for duty these have been marginalized. It is not only the elders that have been marginalized.
The sermon at its best is a very good thing. But too much of a good thing will make us sick or weak. As a regular, recurring, perpetual practice in the churches on Sunday morning it is way too much of a good thing. Its place in the church is, or should be, occasional. The sermon as centerpiece of the Sunday meeting permanently displaces the regular “work of the ministry” found in Ephesians 4:12, it permanently displaces the mutual ministry of believers found in Romans 12, and it is nowhere to be found in the regular church meeting modeled in I Corinthians 14.