Speaking Non-Signs

… they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
~ Acts 17:11

Non-Signs the Bible is Being Preached

I‘m unaware of any preacher at any time who has not claimed to be preaching the Bible, or at least claimed the Bible backed up what he was saying. Paul charged Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), which he defined as all of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Preaching the Bible is the main duty of every preacher of the Word and the standard of judgment for his faithfulness (James 3:1).

How can you be sure the Bible is being preached when you go to church? That could be a big answer. The church is responsible for that, so it’s also an important answer. I suppose we could come up with numerous ways of confirming the biblicalness of a sermon. I want to approach this from the other direction. We mistakenly assign authority to a message by a number of trappings that have nothing to do with the actual content of the sermon. I am going to give you seven non-signs the Bible is being preached. The presence of any or all of these signs in no way ensures the Bible is actually being preached.

1. A six-pound, three inch thick, black leather bound Bible is laid open on the pulpit

Such a Bible makes an impressive visual, but is the Bible necessary? Is it being used? We’ve all heard sermons where the preacher read his springboard text and then never returned to the Bible at all. If he would have closed his Bible and laid it aside after reading the text, it wouldn’t have changed a thing about the sermon. Some preachers have said the same things repeatedly for so long, they don’t even need a Bible in the pulpit to preach from. If the Bible is not being read, explained, and applied from the pulpit, the Bible is not being preached.

2. The preacher told you God gave him the message

The more a preacher primes the congregation by telling them God gave him this message, laid it on his heart, or otherwise told him to preach it, the more wary you should be. The sermons I have heard most qualified with those kinds of statements were the most obviously not from God, because they were not preaching the Bible. God did such with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. This is how he communicated his word through his prophets and apostles. That revelation is complete and we already have it. He is not giving new revelation today. God has given preachers a message. It’s called the Bible and has sixty-six books. There are thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books. Your preacher should take a text and preach it, and then you can be sure it is a message from God because it’s on the page in front of you.

3. The preacher says things you agree with

Just because a preacher is saying what you want to hear or what you like to hear, that is no sign he’s actually preaching the Bible. He may cycle through your pet doctrines like a politician hitting the talking points at a political rally, but that doesn’t mean He’s preaching the Bible. Ear-tickling comes in many forms and one of those forms is the preacher regularly regaling the congregation with their favorite doctrines or topics. The Scripture Paul told Timothy to preach is profitable for doctrine, but also for reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16). He warned that itching ears abound that will not endure actual Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3). If God is holy and we are sinners, then God’s words will cross us sooner or later. If the Bible is being preached, you Christian church goer will be reproved and corrected.

4. The preacher says some things that are in the Bible somewhere

A preacher can make true statements from the pulpit, but still not be actually preaching the Bible. On the whole, making true statements is better than making false statements, but that still falls short of the command to preach the word. Bible preaching is when the text is explained and applied. The content of the sermon consists of what is explicitly stated in the text and the consequences properly deduced from the text. It isn’t enough that the sermon’s substance can be found in the sixty-six books somewhere. It must be found in the text, if he’s to preach the Bible.

5. The church has the “right” doctrinal statement

The church may have a statement of faith that hits all the right points in your mind, but that doesn’t mean the Bible is being preached from the pulpit. Because we are humans and fallible, we can be inconsistent. We can be orthodox in one area and heterodox in another. But even if all our doctrinal ducks quack on cue, that doesn’t mean Scripture is being explained and applied every week. If a church’s doctrinal statement is actually biblical, then preaching the Bible will affirm it again and again. If Bible preaching causes you to lose articles from your doctrinal statement, that is a good indication those articles weren’t biblical to begin with. The true orthodoxy of a church is not measured by it’s church documents, but by the Bible being regularly preached from the pulpit.

6. The church and/or the preacher has the “right” pedigree

The church’s particular bona fides in terms of their lineage or associations, does not mean the Bible is being preached. The fact that a church came from, recognizes, or otherwise fellowships with another particular church does not mean the Bible is being preached. Similarly, the fact that a preacher has a certain last name, certain family connections, or the endorsement of certain other preachers does not mean he is or will actually preach the Bible. Some churches are more concerned about a preacher’s connections when it comes to having him preach, or even in calling a pastor, than they are whether he will stand up, take a text, and preach it.

7. The preacher looks like a preacher

We put more stock in appearances today than perhaps any generation before us. Many have the idea of what a preacher should look like in their minds. A man may have a matching three-piece suit, french cuffs, shiny shoes, and coordinated necktie and pocket square, but that has nothing to do with whether or not he’s preaching the Bible. For some, facial hair for a preacher is an abomination, while the absence of it is unmanly for others. We are far too concerned about appearances and set up standards that are nowhere to be found in the pages of Scripture. A preacher may fit well your idea of what a preacher should look like, but that doesn’t mean he’s preaching the Bible.

Conclusion

I have given you seven non-signs the Bible is being preached. You may think I’m saying the things I listed don’t matter at all. I am not saying they don’t matter at all. I am saying they don’t matter more than the fact the Bible is not being preached from the pulpit. If you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, inerrancy of Scripture, authority of Scripture, and sufficiency of Scripture, then you must accept no less and nothing else than God’s Scripture being opened, read, expounded in its original context, and applied to the saved and unsaved today.

Swipe Right for a Pastor

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
~ 1 Timothy 3:1

What a pastor must be.

I don’t understand this newfangled world we live in. I feel a dinosaur at times. I’m crusty and curmudgeonly. I get that, but I’m not wholly averse to technology and its advances. I’m decidedly no sympatico with Luddites. Take online dating, for instance. I’m barely aware of online dating, though that’s what the kids these days are doing. The mechanics of it seems easy enough. An interested person fills out some forms and makes their profile. This information is surreptitiously fed into an over-mechanized piece of equipment, which is in the dank innards of an empty factory in a post-industrialized city somewhere in the midwest. The machine commences to whirring and churning while puffing and coughing and emitting all sorts of steampunk noises. The carefully crafted algorithms do their work and out comes the suggested matches for the criteria you have specified.

Of course, the convenience lies in the “online” part of the whole scheme. You have no need to besmudge your shoes with unidentifiable mixtures of oil and grease from the abandoned factory. No, no, the information is wirelessly, and might I add, magically, transmitted to your handheld device and appears on your screen. You are presented with a few digital photos and brief statements about the person in said photos. You then swipe right to approve this person as a potential date, or you swipe left to expunge them from your account because you do not approve of their few photos and statements about themselves. It’s not at all clear to me what happens to the unfortunate lot swiped left. Are they then surreptitiously fed to the whirring and puffing mechanical beast? I suppose America will never know.

Some who are better apprised than I will entertain the possibility my outline of the process may not be entirely accurate. I readily admit the possibility. I’m not ashamed of it. In the interest of artistic integrity though, I had to fill in the blank spaces left in the procedure of it all after the fifteen seconds of Google searching I engaged in. I do take my place in the industry seriously.

The gist of using the dating app is as follows: a person makes a quick decision based on thin criteria and thin knowledge that the alleged does or does not meet said criteria. Though honesty is barely a part of the process, if we are being honest, people primarily swipe right or left based on the looks of the person in the photos. That’s about as superficial as the apology of a politician.

What are you looking for in a pastor?

One would hope a church looking for a pastor would not be anything like dating app users in their search for a match. A guy can hope like Teddy Roosevelt said, “When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” I hope that my hope is not misplaced, but I have heard some things that greases the grip.

If it were not so sad and serious, it would be funny what people are sometimes looking for in a pastor. Some do not want a pastor too old, or too young if it comes to it. Some insist upon gray hair, and others would rather not. Some are deemed too short, too fat, too bald, or just plain too ugly. After all, they reason, I’m going to spend a lot of time looking at him up front. Some require certain degrees of formal education and some have very settled ideas about his dress and mannerisms. His manner of speaking must be pleasing, and, to some, he absolutely must not have the offense of hair upon his face. His sermons must not be too long, and I don’t know if anything would be considered too short these days. This is not to even mention all his wife must measure up to, if he could possibly be an acceptable pastor to a church.

Some will suspect hyperbole in the previous paragraph, but there is not as much as you might think. I have sometimes heard people talk about what they are looking for in a pastor, and if I were tasked by editorial to write the copy for their advertisement, I would conclude it with, “Peter, Paul, John, et al, need not apply.” If your pastoral search criteria means that neither Jesus nor any of his apostles could be the pastor of your church, then just go ahead and swipe right on every pearly tooth grinner whose name sounds like Hinny Ben, or Lowell Joesteen.

What he must be

A pastor may be many things. He may be tall, short, thick, or thin. He may be formally educated, or not. He may be polished, or young, or old, or any number of things. He might stutter or mispronounce certain words. He might fill an armchair as though everyone were wearing armchairs tight about the hips this season. His grammar might be impeccable, or he may not know a diphthong from a dangling participle. He might be all kinds of things, but there are a few things he must be. Whether he has gray hair, dark wavy hair, or no hair is not important at all. Choosing a pastor should be nothing like a beauty pageant, or using a dating app, if I want to maintain the purity of the metaphor. Whether he meets the requirements of God’s breathed out word is utmost important and vital to the spiritual health of the Lord’s church. So, what must he be?

First and Second Timothy and the letter to Titus are commonly referred to as the pastoral epistles. The qualifications and disqualifications of a man for pastor are clearly spelled out in them. Reading through the letters, we pick up at least five must-haves for a pastor.

  1. He must be enabled and put into the ministry by God (1 Timothy 1:12).
    He must be called and gifted by God for the ministry. The local church plays a role in confirming a man has been gifted by God for the work of the ministry, meaning he possesses the necessary abilities to fulfill the office as outlined by Scripture. The church must also confirm he meets the qualifications for the office, which is not a list they produce in a brainstorming session. Those qualifications are spelled out in Scripture. The man must give evidence of this call of God on his life and the church must confirm it.
  2. He must be a godly man (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 6:11-14; 2 Timothy 2:21-22; Titus 1:6-8; 2:7-8).
    The qualification lists are dominated by aspects of character. This does not mean his orthodoxy is unimportant, but his statement of faith does not trump the character of his life. He must be of good reputation and a man who pursues holiness in life. He must be self-controlled and abstaining from sinful temptations. He must be just in his dealings and not a hot head.
  3. He must be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:2, 14-16; 4:1-2; Titus 2:1).
    He has to have the ability and willingness to teach God’s word. He must be able to make the word of God understandable to his people and applicable to their lives. These are gifts that must be given by God, and if a man has them, he can and should be improving them. If a man does not have them, no amount of sincerity or seminary will put it into him. He must be able to instruct those who are in error and to refute the error.
  4. He must know the Bible (2 Timothy 1:13; 2:23-26; 3:14-17; Titus 1:9-11; 2:15; 3:9).
    He doesn’t have to possess all knowledge and perfectly understand all mysteries and prophecies, but he has to know the Bible and should be growing in his knowledge of the Bible. He should not be a man who boasts of his ignorance, but rather he should acknowledge it and labor to erase it as much as possible. Having the ability to speak does not mean anything if he doesn’t know his subject. How is a man going to mature and equip saints in the word if he doesn’t know that word himself? How is a man going to identify and refute error if he does not have a thorough knowledge of the truth?
  5. He must be wholly given to the work of pastoring (1 Timothy 4:15; 5:17).
    He must not be a disinterested or lazy man. He must be a diligent laborer who works at his preaching and teaching. He must not be a man given to trimming and finding shortcuts to his work. He must be a man who puts his hand to the plow and does not look back.

Again, a pastor may be many other things that make him more or less useful in the work of pastoring, but these are things he must be. These are the qualities a church must be looking for when searching for a pastor. I’m not recommending a church have low standards in what they are looking for. I am saying a church should have God’s standards in what they are looking for in a pastor. Ultimately, a church should be looking for a pastor after God’s heart and not after the image they’ve come up with from throwing their gold in the fire.

To Hold a Baby Bird

But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children:
~ 1 Thessalonians 2:7

This article originally appeared in the Baptists for Liberty newsletter, June/July 2017 edition.

John Feinstein published his 1996 book on professional golf under the title: A Good Walk Spoiled. The phrase probably wasn’t original with him, but it is a great description of the game played in otherwise idyllic settings. I’ve personally experienced the spoiling of a good walk, particularly in my younger days. I continually sought advice on how to improve and get strokes off my game, but to give you the rest of the story; I will just say I’m not a professional golfer today, nor any sort of golfer, really, since I never play.

Golf is much like a lot of things in that you have to start somewhere. It’s unavoidable. Assuming you have the clubs, tees, and enough balls to Johnny Appleseed the woods and lakes of the course, the game of golf begins with the grip. Before you can address the ball or begin a swing, you have to hold the club in some fashion and gripping it like a Louisville Slugger isn’t going to do. The first grip I learned was the Vardon grip, though I later changed to the interlocking grip, which I think was made famous by Jack Nicklaus. I don’t think the change made a lot of difference for me, but I felt like I had done something.

The grip has two parts—the arrangement of the fingers and the pressure. I often heard the analogy that one should grip the club like they were holding a baby bird—firm enough so that the bird could not escape your hand, but not so firm that you crush the bird. This finer point of the grip is lost on most amateurs who white-knuckle the club like they are trying to wring the neck of a disagreeable chicken. While the amateur’s grip may be beneficial for Sunday dinner at the farm, it’s no good for splitting a fairway or finding greens in regulation.

The golf game begins with the grip. Aside from the tense muscles and coiling of the torso to unleash a monster drive down the middle, there must be gentleness to hold the baby bird and not kill it. You need enough pressure to hold the club but not all the pressure you can muster. To play golf, you must strike the ball. In order to strike the ball, you have to grip the club. In order to grip the club for striking accuracy, you have to use the right amount of gentleness in your grip pressure. So my philosophy all comes out to this: golf begins with gentleness.

I realize the readers of this newsletter did not come here for tips on keeping their ball in the short grass. My point is that most amateurs see the game as one of brute strength. They think most of the drive off the tee and how much distance they can get. While a towering drive on a par 5 can give you hopes of an eagle, golf is much more about finesse and delicacy. Accuracy is more important than length. Being farther in the woods is undesirable. This is probably why most amateurs don’t make much progress.

I once played in a foursome with a gentleman in his seventies. I outhit him all day. I consistently drove farther, though he was in the fairway and I was in the rough or trees. He would land on the green while I was over it. He two-putted most of the time and I easily doubled his effort. At the end of the round, his stroke count was also in the seventies and I had made a century. Had we been playing cricket, I would have been bucked up making a century, but it is an open-face shame in golf. It’s the sort of thing that causes many to put down the clubs and take up gardening or bird watching. Obviously, he understood the touch of gentleness the game requires and I nearly came out of my shoes every time I swung.

The Theme of Gentleness

Gentleness is the theme of this edition and this article’s design is to see something of how that theme works out in the life of a church. A church, of course, is a body of baptized, believing disciples who have been organized and joined together for the purpose of doing Jesus’s work on the earth until the end of this age. A church is made up of some number of people holding common membership and assembling together in a location for worship, instruction, and business.

Anyone who has been a part of two or more people trying to work together understands that such an arrangement has challenges. Different levels of maturity, skill, understanding, temperament, schedule, expectation, patience, sensitivity, and personal preference give opportunities for all sorts of problems. Unfortunately, many pastors and church members deal with the problems that pop up like an exuberant twelve-year-old boy playing Whack-A-Mole at the arcade. Mallet firmly in the hand, they bounce back and forth waiting for the next talpid head with beady eyes to pop-up. Then they whack it.

In the life of the church, our grip should begin with gentleness. Though there are times when we must use sharpness and severity, we should overall be characterized by gentleness, or meekness. This is a theme in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth we call, Second Corinthians. In the general exhortation in the opening of the letter, Paul calls the church members to gentleness by reminding them of God’s comfort to us in tribulation, and having received comfort of God, Paul writes we are “able to comfort them which are in any trouble” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The necessary inference is that they should comfort those among them who are in any trouble.

Before Paul was deep in the letter, he pressed this application on the Corinthians in a specific case. A “punishment” was imposed on a “man” by the “many” (2 Corinthians 2:6). The word for punishment, epitimia, means a penalty. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. It was in common use, a word referring to a legal penalty imposed for some infraction against the city/state. It was a punishment for an infringement by one of his own rights of citizenship. The word used for many, pleionon, means the more part, or the greater number. It was used as we would say, majority. It is clear Paul was talking about a man who had been a member of the church who had discipline enacted on him by the church. Some suppose this was the man from 1 Corinthians 5, but that is not certain.

Paul said the punishment was “sufficient,” which meant the discipline had accomplished the purpose of bringing the man to repentance. Paul urged gentleness toward him so they would not increase his sorrow by their severity (2 Corinthians 2:7). He wrote they should “forgive … comfort … confirm … love toward him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). This is consistent with how he instructed the church at Galatia that they were to restore a repentant one “in a spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1).

Paul’s Gentle Example

Paul particularly taught ministers were to be marked by gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24-25; Titus 3:2). He also modeled gentleness in his ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:7). He likewise taught and modeled it to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:3-6, 10-11; 7:9). Paul was deliberate in his gentleness. It was his preferred manner (2 Corinthians 13:10). He could be severe when he believed he needed to be (2 Corinthians 13:2).

Paul was criticized in Corinth because of his gentleness. As is often the case, it was mistaken for weakness and he was put down because of it (2 Corinthians 10:1, 9-10). Paul could be so bold as to be gentle because he had confidence in the work of the Spirit in the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 1:15; 2:3; 7:16; 8:22; 10:2). He could speak to them the word of God in humility and meekness and have patience for the Spirit’s work. He set an example all ministers and church members should follow because we have confidence in the Spirit (Colossians 3:12-17; Ephesians 4:32).

Hold that Bird

Birds innumerable have met their end in the hands of many church members. Honest questions can be met with immediately hostile answers. The weak can be pushed down rather than helped. Like the Corinthians, we can be in danger of overloading sorrow on a repentant one. Sure, severity is needed at times, but remember it takes wisdom to use severity well. We should also remember that the true wisdom that comes from above is “pure … peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:17-18). May we manifest good “works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). Don’t kill the bird. Start with gentleness. Be guided by wisdom.

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