Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eldership, the preacher, and presuppositions

Preaching recently through Titus, I was teaching (again) on the role of elders, as set out in the New Testament. That led to the comment that I was focusing too much on their teaching role and not nearly enough on their pastoral role. It gave me opportunity to set out in some detail what I believe preachers ought to do – here it is. I began by asking ‘Is that criticism right?’

It’s a good question. Perhaps I can best try and answer it by giving you a little insight into what the preacher’s job is. He starts with the belief that the Bible is God’s word: God has spoken, and he has spoken in his word. Everything the Bible says is true; but not everything we think the Bible says is true. Only what it really does say. And everything the Bible says is binding on us – though we must understand it properly, or else we will find ourselves trying to make sacrifices at a Temple in Jerusalem that hasn’t been there since AD70.

Not only that: the Bible is not only true in everything it says, it also tells us everything we need to know for our walk with God; how we are to conduct our personal lives, what kind of churches we should be, what baptism is, what the role of ministers and deacons and church members should be – all of it. We don’t need outside sources – especially tradition, otherwise known as ‘the way it’s always been done’; the Bible is true, and it is authoritative, and it is sufficient. And the preacher’s job is to take that word as it is, explain its meaning, apply it to the people, and motivate them to live by it.

And all that would be straightforward, were it not for the blinkers we all wear. I mean by that the assumptions – the presuppositions – that we bring to the text. Let me give you a couple of examples.

‘You are Peter, (the rock), and on this rock I will build my church.’ The Roman Catholic assumes that that text teaches that the Pope is the supreme leader of the Christian church. Ask a knowledgeable Catholic why he believes the RC church is the true church, and he’ll quote for you Matthew 16:18. But it’s an assumption. If you know your Bible and your history, you can argue for ages and make little progress. You can point out that Jesus used two different words for ‘rock’; he said ‘You are Petros and on petra I will build my church’ – and ask whether it’s not at least possible that Jesus meant ‘They call you the Rock, but it’s on a different kind of rock that I’m going to build my church.’ You can point out that there’s no evidence in the New Testament at all that Peter had any primacy over the other apostles. You can point out that the Roman Catholic church believes that Peter was bishop in Rome at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans – yet Paul names at least 29 people that he sends greetings to, and none of them is Peter. At the very least, that would be astonishing bad manners from one apostle to the chief apostle – isn’t it at least possible that Peter wasn’t in Rome at that point – and in fact was never church leader in Rome? No; Peter was bishop of Rome and the church is built on him. So you can ask: even if all of that were true, where does the text say anything about any of Peter’s successors? If Peter was the leader of the apostles; if he was bishop in Rome; where is there any suggestion that Peter’s successors were to be leaders of the world-wide church? But no: Matthew 16:18 tells them that the Pope is supreme.

It’s not that they’re being deliberately awkward: it’s the power of presuppositions. Breaking them down usually takes a great deal of time and patience.

It isn’t only Catholics, of course. I’ve known some Anglicans, who used the AV, insist that their church is more Biblical than the Free Churches because the Anglican church has bishops. Every time they read the passages about Bishops, they thought: ‘That’s right. We’ve got them.’ Even though the texts that mention bishops – episcopoi, overseers – make it clear that each congregation has at least one and probably more than one, so they’re not what Anglican mean by bishops at all – they couldn’t see it. Their presuppositions blinded them to what the text actually said.

And it isn’t just them, either. It’s us, too. We all have presuppositions. It’s really easy to spot other people’s, and fiendishly difficult to spot our own. But the preacher has to be careful: he comes to the text with presuppositions, and he preaches on that text to the congregation and asks them to believe it is the word of God. And Scripture is; but his presuppositions are not. So what’s he going to do?

He’s going to work at it. He’s going to know that he’s not infallible; he’s going to read and read the passage he’s preaching on and any other that bears on the issue. He’s going to consult the original languages if he can; certainly he’s going to consult the commentaries. He’s going to talk regularly and often to other preachers – not just those who agree with him, but those who are Anglicans if he’s Free Church, and vice-versa. He’s going to debate these things; he’s going to do everything he can to expose his own presuppositions – to himself! Sometimes, he’s going to get into the pulpit and say ‘you know when I said such-and-such? I was wrong – here’s how I know, and here’s what I should have said.’ And he’s not going to feel threatened by that, or that he’s making himself look stupid: what he’s doing is modelling his subjection to the word of God, and that’s likely to be as valuable as his preaching.

Presuppositions are one reason wise churches set men aside to teach; they don’t just use anyone who is prepared to devote whatever spare time he can find to ministering the word. Paul told Timothy to ‘diligently labour… to divide the word of truth rightly.’ Diligently labour – it’s hard work, time-consuming work and it has to be done, otherwise the preacher will misuse Scripture, misguide others, and answer for it before a very strict God on the day of judgement: ‘Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, because you know we who teach will be judged more strictly.’ Topical sermons – ‘Four steps to a successful prayer life’ or ‘Five ways to stay happy though married’ can be produced very quickly; they’re the sermon equivalent of a TV dinner – taken from the freezer, popped in the microwave and served piping hot, but still a plastic substitute for the real thing. Real food takes longer; real sermons take work.

But wait a minute; hearers, not just preachers, have their presuppositions too. They may well judge a sermon or a preacher not on the basis of whether it or he deals faithfully with what the text says; they may judge on the basis of whether their own presuppositions have been agreed with.

Take this matter of elders. We all know some elders. Maybe you like them, and value what they did – naturally, you’re going to assume that they’re the model for eldership. When you hear eldership preached on, you’re going to look for your friends to be described. Or maybe you don’t like the elders you know, and don’t appreciate their work. You assume they’re wrong – and therefore you expect a sermon on eldership to criticise them and point out their shortcomings. If it doesn’t, it’s all too easy to assume the preacher has got it wrong.

What I’m doing as we look at this subject is simple: I’m trying to see what the text says, without letting my presuppositions – or yours – get in the way. If I’m missing something, it ought to be easy to show me: ‘Gary, you didn’t deal with that phrase in the text. Aren’t you missing something important?’ But any statement like ‘I think elders ought to do this…’ has to be backed up with Scripture.

Let me hone in even further. For a moment, let’s ask: what do the Scriptures say Christians should do? We could list a thousand things: but it would include things like this. Who comforts the bereaved? The ‘ordinary’ (so-called) member of the congregation – 1 Thessalonians 4:18. Who visits the sick? The ordinary Christian: (see Matthew 25:35-36 and James 1:27) Who bears the burdens of those who are hurting? The ordinary Christian ‘Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,’ (Galatians 6.2).

Doesn’t the elder do those things? Of course he does – he’s a Christian too! But those things are things he shares with everyone else in the church; they’re things he does because he’s a Christian, not because he’s an elder. The things that he does by virtue of his being set aside to the eldership focus around teaching: he is the pastor/teacher (Ephesians 4.11) – and the main focus of his teaching, according to that verse, is to get everybody else out doing the work of the ministry.

Now, that’s a longer introduction than some sermons, but it is important.