Preaching Opposing Views Of Doctrine (part 2)

Last week I was saying that there are times when I will say to our parishioners, “If I believed in a prosperity, health and wealth kind of gospel, I would really push this Scripture. Look at what God’s Word says…”

I reject the notion that we should steer clear of such doctrines.

I am not geared for much apologetic exposition (in other words, you won’t find me spending much time proving a certain position or disproving what I believe to be a poorer reading of the Bible).

Instead, I prefer showing the best side of the other side. It’s the opposite of creating a straw man argument. In an article in the Atlantic, The Highest Form of Disagreement (June 2017), the author uses the term, “steelmanning.” Steelmanning considers and addresses “the improved version” of an opposing view.

Congregants of all stripes will appreciate your ability to think carefully about an opposing view and present its best side. Especially when you do it with humility and grace. You still move to a preferred reading of Scripture, but at least you have been more than fair.

(My experience over the years of research shows that most “sides” are not thorough in their appraisal or critique of the “other side.”)

A listener that was not fully on board with you on a doctrine would likely give you a better hearing if you steelmanned.

But more importantly to me is what steelmanning says about you and me. The author wrote,

“steelmanning makes you a better person….It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles….And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.”

I’ve experienced more than one setting where a dose of steelmanning would have been a breath of fresh air. I vowed not to contribute to vilifying through focusing on the weakest point of the position. It smacked of lazy thinking.

Before Sunday, see if you will encounter an opposing view in your preaching portion. If so, think about presenting its best argument, not its weakest. God will receive glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21) because you will be gracious, fair, but clear in communicating the better reading.
Randal

 

How To Preach Opposing Views Of Doctrines

At times I find myself saying to our faith-family: “If I were a health and wealth preacher, I would use this verse. This verse…” Or, “If I were an Arminian, this is an excellent slice of doctrine to support the view.”

I never really gave it any thought, never felt any risk in saying such a thing to a very conservative congregation with a strong fundamentalist history. But recently I came across this article in the Atlantic, June 2017 titled, The Highest Form Of Disagreement. I present a few key excerpts below and then give my understanding as to why presenting the best arguments of the “other side” is healthy for preaching.

The article began with the frustration many feel while listening to recent political debates where someone attacks a person rather than an idea. The author highlighted the “weak man” argument where people attack the weakest part or the weakest version of an idea (think of the weakest part of, let’s say, a charismatic’s view on the miraculous gifts or the weakest part of a part of Calvinism). And then proceeds with…

“…America would benefit if our culture of argument elevated the opposite approach, steel-manning, “the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented.” Here’s Chana Messinger extolling it in one of those great old-school blog posts that I am honored just to honor:

We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling … use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement. If you know of a better counter to your own argument, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up….Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with.
In short, she says, ‘Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.'”

That’s good stuff! Thinking more deeply is helpful for Sunday soul-watching. It’s fair to the “other side.” It shows that there is no threat. It shows we’re intellectually honest.

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion contains important information about opposing views of doctrine. Let your listeners know it and watch those minutes contribute to God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Pay Close Attention to Beginnings and Endings (part 5 in Preaching Through Books of the Bible)

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In the first post in this series on preaching through books of the Bible, I talked about the importance of selecting a theme for the series. For my current Judges series I chose: The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts. Wenham writes, “By trying to establish the main thrust of the book, we hope we have established parameters within which individual stories should be interpreted.” (Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah, p. 43).

So, each of the narratives describing the individual exploits of the judges are interpreted within the framework of Judge’s theme (providing I’ve identified it accurately!).

Does the book provide any clues? As I’ve mentioned before in posts concerning preaching through Daniel, it’s important to note how books begin and end.

In Judges 1:1-2 we read, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” Then, near the end of the book in 20:18 we read, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” Same question, but notice a very difficult foe at the end. And same answer both times: Judah (anyone with Christological antennas should pick up on this!).

So, in a story about God’s salvation of stubborn hearts, this will involve God raising up deliverers who will keep God’s people from being enslaved to the idols and inhabitants of the land.

Of course, everything gets worse as the story develops. Instead of fighting the enemies, God’s people end up fighting themselves. Unity gives way to civil war that threatens to destroy God’s work.

Anyway, if you ever decide to preach through an Old or New Testament narrative, pay close attention to how the book begins and ends. Often those segments provide clues to a books intention and meaning.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Why the Storyline Must Be Followed (part 4 of preaching through books of the Bible)

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This past week I enjoyed the privilege of spending time with masters level students at Lancaster Bible College/Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Lancaster, PA and Greenbelt, MD. Because I’m teaching an Advanced Homiletics class, we spend a lot of time in Old Testament narratives (as opposed to NT epistles).

One of the things I wanted them to think about was that because the Bible is literature, theology is conveyed in narratives through the storyline. So, take a detour from the storyline and you run the risk of losing the theology God conveys through the narrative.

Why would a preacher stray from the storyline in an effort to preach a narrative? One reason is because many of us continue to develop a sermon on the basis of what jumps out at us in the story. I call that the Jack-in-the-box method. The problem is we tend to interpret and apply what jumped out at us without linking it to the rising action of the narrative.

Another reason I’ve seen over the years is the tendency to identify timeless principles from the narrative and preach them in isolation from the rising action. The principles function on their own and the preacher gives the impression that the principles are conveying the theology, not the storyline.

So, before Sunday, if you are preaching an Old or New Testament narrative, see if you are allowing the storyline to carry the theology of the preaching portion. See if the rising action is the source of your sermon’s subject matter.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Bookend Theology: The Key to Handling Daniel 4:1-37 (part 7)

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I’ll get right to the point: the bookends of Daniel 4:1-3 and 34-35 lead the way to showing how a large chapter functions for the church. Those bookends anchor meaning.

Daniel 4 begins and ends with the king’s confession of the sovereignty of God. The king’s dream (vv. 4-18), Daniel’s interpretation of the dream (vv. 19-27), and God’s fulfillment of the dream (vv. 28-33) all contribute to explaining how the king got to the point of repentance and confession of the sovereignty of God.

Such a large chapter requires this kind of analysis. Unless you want to spend three or four sermons on this chapter, knowing how the parts fit together is critical.

And the bookends? Well, they show the king displaying the kind of attitude towards “the Most High” (cf. vv. 2, 34) that every true Christian displays.

In the middle is our nemesis: arrogance that thinks we’re god and God is not and all the sins that accompany such pride.

I title this message: Embracing the Humble Faith “that heaven rules”: Remaining Godly in an Ungodly World.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis has a chapter called, “The Great Sin.” On page 114 he wrote, “The first step [to becoming humble] is to realize that one is proud.” The king in Daniel 4 shows us how proud we are. Actually the king’s pride expresses human pride: our naive thinking that we can ascend God’s heaven and overtake His rule (cf. v. 11 “The tree grew large and became strong, and its height reached to the sky, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth”).

God graciously forced the king to recognize his pride. The bookends of the chapter show a humbled king and his stance is shared by every genuine Christian. That’s because our Savior humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Cf. Philippians 2:1ff.).

I hope this helps you see how such a long apocalyptic chapter can function for the church for His glory (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Saints Under Pressure: Preaching Through Daniel (part 6)

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One of the main themes in the book of Daniel is our allegiance to Christ being put to the test. It’s part of the overall theme of Christians remaining godly in an ungodly world.

Daniel 3:1-30 is a long narrative that preaches theology as Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, face intense pressure to commit idolatry. I outlined it this way:

1. The pressure to join in on idol worship (vv. 1-7)

2. The threat if we don’t (vv. 8-15)

3. The faith to say “No!” (vv. 16-18)

4. The deliverance our God provides (vv. 19-30)

This famous escape story is a picture of how every Christian is tested in this world. One of the key observations is in vv. 2-3 when seven kinds of professionals, plus “all the officials of the provinces” attend the official dedication of an idol. Fewell wrote, “conformity is normative, disobedience is unthinkable.”

Christians follow the trio’s example. It’s a “go and do likewise” sermon. They remain loyal to God despite the enormous threat that could cost them their lives.

That means spending some time in the sermon defining idolatry. You might also want to show how sin, at its root, is connected to idolatry. It helps to recite or show a list of typical American idols (see Keller’s, Counterfeit Gods).

And then, for those of you who want to practice a consistent Christo-centric interpretation, you’ll be quick to highlight the fourth Person in the fiery furnace that looked like “a son of the gods” (v. 25). On the cross, Jesus stayed in the fire for us so we could pass through the fire having God with us. We can’t always promise we won’t die due to persecution, but God promises to save those who worship Him alone.

(an aside) Before Sunday, check your outline to see if it contains the unity of your preaching portion. If you’re preaching a narrative this weekend, see if your main idea reflects the plot. The plot drives the theology.

Preach a good sermon for the sake of God’s reputation in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

How to Avoid “Coruscating” Communication

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Somewhere in my readings last year, I learned a new word. “Coruscating” means the fragmentation of light. It means to give forth flashes of light (as opposed to one beam).

Take another look at the image above. What happens to your eyes when you look at it? I found my eyes quickly moving to each individual light. I wasn’t focusing on any one light.

Think about this in  light of our sermons and what our sermons do to our listeners. If our sermons engage in coruscating communication, our listeners’ attention will be easily diverted to all those individual flashes of concepts or ideas. Throughout the sermon we shine a bright light on various exegetical fragments and draw listener attention there for a few minutes before moving on to the next one. We are not communicating the cohesiveness that’s built into the structure of the preaching portion.

I am entering my second week of teaching Advanced Homiletics for Lancaster Bible College’s Graduate School. Soon I will be listening to student sermons. If history repeats itself, one comment I will make repeatedly in my evaluations is:

“The sermon contained too many unconnected ideas.”

Before Sunday, check to see if you are doing the following to help your parishioners focus on God’s Word:

1. Use your outline to display conceptual unity. Check your major points to see if they communicate the unity of the passage.

2. Use the intention of the passage to display unity. Throughout the sermon, keep everyone focused on how your preaching portion functions for the Church (what listeners are to do as a result of hearing God’s Word).

3. Finally, keep everything connected to the big idea of the preaching portion so that all those individual beams of light point back to their source.

All three demand the use of clear, logical transitions, every step of the way. I suggest that you write your sermon manuscript with these transitions in mind so that your listeners always see how the ideas in the passage combine to create meaning and intention.

And all for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. Preach a good sermon, will ya!?!

What I’m Learning About Preaching From Atheist Attendees

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Two events produced this post. The first event happened a few years ago and lasted over a three or four-year time period. The second event happened yesterday. Both events involved atheists attending church and overhearing worship during the teaching time. Both events continue to teach me valuable lessons about preaching.

First, atheists listen more critically to what we say than our faith-family. In this way, in a small way, I feel what Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian feels about preaching in New York City. He said he always has to make sure he has his facts right in NYC because he knew his listeners will verify his words.

My two atheists–one regular attender and one, one-Sunday visitor–listened more closely than most regular attending Christians. It means I have to pay attention to my facts during illustrations (I find that’s the time I’m most apt to misspeak). But actually, having experienced atheists in the house has made me realize how important it is for me to do my homework. I don’t want to take advantage of Christian listeners who are not as critical listeners. I don’t want to lead them astray with false data.

Second, my interaction with the two men helped me realize that our Christianity rests on faith that God’s revelation explains the reality of our world. I’m currently reading, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, by Linda A. Mercadante.

Over and over again I’m reading excerpts of people believing that human beings are basically good and that they will do the right thing given enough education. Very different perspective than the anthropology of Scripture. I was challenged to continue to make it clear that God’s Story is our story. We believe that what God says in His Word is reality. We continually assess whether the lives we’re living match the reality of God’s Word.

Third, my time with the self-proclaimed atheists, both of which left the Christian faith, confirmed for me that no apologetical skill will turn a committed atheist into a committed Christian. I am responsible to preach the Word. Apart from the Spirit of God, I can’t force someone to believe God’s Word is real.

I remember hearing Dr. Norman Geisler, one of my former professors at Dallas Theological Seminary in the ’80’s say, “Apologetics is effective in helping a person who’s on the fence.” These two atheists, one of which is my friend, are not on the fence. And my best attempts at being an apologist will not win the day.

(Some readers might be interested in learning that the well-known Yale Old Testament Biblical Theology professor, Brevard Childs, once wrote me a letter stating that he felt that an emphasis on apologetics was detracting from the preaching of God’s Word.)

Anyway, there you have it: what I’m learning about preaching from atheist attendees.

Preach well so God receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Surprising Help from a Critical and Historical Commentary!

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It is not often that a critical and historical commentary delivers consistent help to preachers beyond technical, exegetical fragments. That’s why I was surprised to see the Daniel commentary in the Hermeneia Series contain a segment called, Structure and Unity.

As Collins goes through each large segment in Daniel’s gospel, along with the brilliant technical stuff, he includes a brief treatment of the segment’s structure and unity:

Major points are listed (I, II, III, etc.)

Verse parameters (I. 3:1-7, for instance)

Summary statement (I. 3:1-7. Introduction)

Summary of the section (two or three sentences describing the content of the section)

For the past few years, I’ve been assigning a similar assignment to my students. I call it, Major Thought Blocks. I believe it to be the most important aspect of developing genuine expository sermons. It’s the first phase of my own study every Monday morning. Here’s why…

Theology is conveyed through the structure of your preaching portion. Unity of thought is also conveyed through the structure. Disregard or break from the structure and, chances are good (within the realm of the sovereignty of God, of course!), that you will stray from the theology and unity of the preaching portion.

So, I add only one more thing to the list above. Along with major points, verse parameters, summary statement, and summary of the section’s content, add logical transitions between the major points. That allows you to track the Author’s/author’s flow of thought. It’s that flow that communicates the theology (whether narrative or epistle).

Before Sunday, see if you have identified these components in your preaching portion. See if your sermon idea matches what is being communicated. If your sermon’s structure and unity is different from the preaching portion’s, check to see how different your message is from the message of the Text.

Preach well for God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Anticipate Push Back (part 8 of What We Do to the Bible to Create Sermons)

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Our preaching portions routinely contain truth that causes an allergic reaction in some of our listeners. So preachers will spend some time during sermon preparation anticipating push back. During delivery of the sermon we will actually talk to our listeners who have this reaction.

For instance, in Luke 13:34 Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jesus is describing how He feels when we don’t let Him save/sanctify us. But, it’s extremely difficult for us to think that we are as bad as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In order for this teaching to have full impact, it’s important to anticipate and address this push back: “Surely, we’re not as evil as those people were!”

Another example of the same concept is in Luke 19:14 “But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.'” It’s tough to think that such an extreme emotion is a part of our carnality. Our blatant disobedience and, seemingly less offensive, delayed obedience is equal to the hatred that ultimately crucified our Savior.

If you read Buttrick’s massive, Homiletic, he refers to this as a contrapuntal. It describes those minutes in the sermon when we talk to our listeners about their disagreement with what God is saying. He argues that if we do not address the possible push back, those listeners stop listening. Talking to them about their thoughts is one way to keep them listening to God’s Word.

Before Sunday, see if you can anticipate potential push back that will occur as your congregants hear God’s Word.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal