Worse Things Have Been Said

 

Not long after I graduated from seminary, I spoke to a friend about my discouragement with the church I was serving. Looking back I realize now that things were not as bad as they seemed. The opposition I faced was the sort that every young pastor deals with, especially when he is eager to prove himself. But at the time it seemed to me that I had made a terrible mistake.

Some of the church’s charter members were grumbling about changes I had initiated. A few even hinted that I had bullied the church’s leaders into seeing things my way. Their criticism was unfounded but it stung just the same. I began to wonder if I was wrong to accept a call to this congregation. My friend listened to my tale of woe but was unsympathetic. “Worse things have been said about better men” he told me. I was annoyed by his blunt reply but could not disagree with his point.

Jesus warned those who speak in his name that they will also share in his reproach: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)

The problem here is ultimately one of authority. Christ’s words serve as fair warning to all who preach that divine authority does not guarantee a smooth path. We would like to think that God given authority also gives us leverage with our hearers. “Listen to us,” we want to say. “We speak for God.” But the same Bible that gives us our authority also offers ample proof of the congregation’s capacity for discounting that authority.

Preaching is an awkward business. The preacher does not give advice, the preacher declares. The preacher tells people what is right and what is wrong. When they turn to the right or the left, the preacher stands before them like the angel who stood in Balaam’s path, and says, “This is the way, walk in it.” What right do we have to make such demands? Who are we to tell others how to live?

Preaching is impolite. When we preach we draw public conclusions about the motives of our listeners and impugn their character. We utter things from the pulpit that we would not dare to say in private conversation, at least not to strangers! 

This is the preacher’s prophetic responsibility. “Prophetic preaching does not necessarily imply that the preacher assumes the role of Jeremiah or Amos, but that the preacher remains faithful to the prophetic dimensions of biblical texts” Thomas G. Long explains. “If the word comes from God in the biblical text, the preacher remains true to that word, regardless of the reaction or the cost.”

Unfortunately, the prophetic mantle cannot guarantee that every barb that aimed in our direction is undeserved. Some of the complaints leveled against us are warranted. The reproach we bear is not always the reproach of Christ. Sometimes it comes as a result of rash decisions we have made or right words spoken in the wrong spirit. My friend was right. Worse things have been said about better men. And just as often better things are said about us than we deserve.

Preaching and the Authority of the Text

Preaching derives its authority from the text of Scripture. Our work of correcting, rebuking and encouraging all flow from a more fundamental command: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 2:4). Without the authority of the biblical text there would be no authority for preaching.

There are some who prefer to point past the text and locate the preacher’s authority in the ideas of Scripture, generally in the gospel or more particularly in the person of Christ. In his book Homiletic, for example, David Buttrick writes: “Of course, when we claim that the Bible is our ‘authority,’ we are pointing past text, and past even the gospel in scripture, to God-for-us in Jesus Christ.” Buttrick admits that there are many who believe that God has conferred authority on the Scriptures themselves and are convinced that “the Bible has been designated ‘Word of God’ by divine fiat to rule the church.” But he clearly sees this as a problem.

Buttrick is right to say that the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Christ. Jesus asserted as much when he told the religious leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). But Jesus also testified to the authority of the biblical text, down to the smallest letter and to the least stroke of the pen (Matt. 5:18). He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). 

It is certainly possible to misunderstand the Scriptures. We can intentionally twist the Scriptures. But we cannot put Jesus at odds with the text of Scripture without putting Jesus at odds with himself. To attribute authority to Christ but to deny it to the Scriptures is a contradiction. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures. They both speak of each other and they both speak with the same voice.