‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’ –II Tim. 3:16-7
As my anxiety about the aftermath of 54’s report, and the influence of 13, grew, I felt it was time to try to throw in my two cents’ worth with the new players at the table, the church visitors, who were brought in by recommendation of 54’s report. I wrote my first letter to the CVs, emailed 18 September 2015, concerned mostly with the preaching at A. I wanted them to hear another perspective, and challenge them to weigh up what they were hearing. I also wanted to challenge them to compare my approach, and the evidence for my arguments, to that of the (apparently very hostile) critics. My concerns about their involvement were valid, but I actually underestimated how committed the CVs were to supporting the coup (more on that in following Exhibits). CV 21 did ask for a link to some of my dad’s sermons, which I uploaded to Google drive; I am not sure whether he ever listened to them, or whether it would have made any difference.
“To the classical visitors, Rev. 21 and Rev. 22:
Gentlemen, I know we haven’t met, but I was encouraged to send this letter by a former A. Church council member who is aware of what has been going these past several months. He thought it would be worth weighing in with the following for your consideration. I am writing because, of course, I live so far away, and I fear, the situation being what it is, there’s no time to lose. That said, I will be in the US in October, and then will be able to follow up with you in person on what I’ve written if one or both of you are interested.
The majority of this letter was actually written a few weeks ago, with the intention of sending it to A.’s council, but the time wasn’t right. As you are now involved in facilitating discussion among the members of A.’s council, it seemed appropriate to make you aware of a perspective which I do not have reason to believe has been adequately represented to you (I naturally was not interviewed by any of the council’s teams, but neither was my sister, who is in A. every week and lives in the parsonage). As I said, I live very far away from A.. I think, though, that I am not “out of line” in coming to you with these concerns for the following reasons:
first, I am still technically a member at A.—my paperwork is there;
second, I am very much personally invested in that local body, as I have been a member since my father’s installation there, and am linked through both him and my sister, along with several members of the congregation whom I consider friends. I am also linked spiritually as I pray daily for A.;
third, I still grow through the ministry of A. because I listen to my dad’s sermons every week. It is on this topic I am writing, and from an informed position.
I say “informed”, because, while I am involved with our church here in Bristol, I also listen to sermons from other churches and ministries, including my dad’s. I can say that I have heard nearly every morning message and Sunday night lesson he’s preached/taught in the past year. Due to busy schedules, I don’t have the mp3s from last October through December. But outside that twelve week-stretch, I have listened to all messages my dad has preached in the last fifteen months (I began listening in June 2014). I feel I have to give this background so you know that I am aware of what A.ns have been hearing regularly, and I hear it only a day or two after they do (and have probably heard more than the majority since the New Year, as I haven’t “missed” a single service). As is probably obvious, the preaching at A. is in fact the only exposure I have to what’s going on there Sunday after Sunday, since I’m not there for the liturgy or anything else.
Now I come to the reason I am writing—I have heard much, though second-hand from a couple of sources, criticism of the preaching at A. over the past 8 or 10 months, and I am bothered by it for two reasons: first, I am uncertain about whether the content of the criticism meshes with reality, and second, I cannot tell what the standards or expectations are against which the messages and teaching are measured.
The overall thrust of the criticism seems to be that the sermons aren’t “positive” enough or don’t emphasize “joy” enough. I have also heard the sermons which my father preached from Matthew’s gospel referred to as “the Matthew stuff” (this I found very disturbing!) or “sin sermons”. Recently, my dad told me that the latest critique consisted of describing the content of the sermons as “a continual call to repent” (for some strange reason, the concept of “repentance” seems to be viewed negatively; more on that below) and “just more gloom and doom”.
These are phrases and themes that have been repeated many times; there are apparently some new ones which I hadn’t heard before this week, namely, the need for more “grace”, and changes to “tone and style”. As these are new, I won’t interact with them much here. Frankly, I don’t how to respond to the latter; I find my father’s “tone and style” to be quite unremarkable, in the sense that overall I don’t find it emotionally provocative, definitely not negatively so, and to my mind it’s comparable to the approach of the ministers of other churches of which I’ve been a regular attendee. I find him in his preaching to be “real”, natural, passionate, thought-provoking, clear-spoken, deliberate, respectful of the text, honest, attentive, faithful; sometimes funny, sometimes sober, sometimes lighthearted, sometimes grave, always sincere, and indeed sensitive. But anyway…
When I first started hearing dissatisfaction about the series from Matthew, it didn’t make sense to me. Since that particular series simply went through the book of Matthew passage by passage, it would have been impossible, unless the preacher was twisting the text, to get on a pet topic or fixation of one kind or another, repentance or otherwise, as the gospel is chronological, and Jesus’ teaching and ministry have so many different aspects. Once my dad felt compelled to steer away from Matthew (I was stunned to hear that people were “tired” of it; when I remarked on this to one of the elders at my church here, he also was surprised and said, “If you’re tired of Matthew, you’re kind of tired of life, aren’t you?”), his sermons were of course not parts of a larger series, though some were in miniseries.
Because I have them all as mp3s by their titles, I can go through and look at the passages and subject matter. One from the spring which I found particularly encouraging was titled, “Sit and be Blessed”, one of the best messages I’ve heard on Mary & Martha, and I’ve heard several. I also especially enjoyed “The Man who Wouldn’t Let Go”, based on Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel of the Lord in Gen. 32 (my favorite part is the description of Jacob getting his household together to go out and meet Esau, with much trepidation). I listened to that sermon three times. These, and the two series, “For the Love of the Church” in the morning, and in the evening, “Accomplishing through Adversity”, I also found incredibly encouraging and timely, and are only some examples of messages and teaching I thought of (off the top of my head!) that didn’t fit the “all we get is repent” paradigm.
Indeed, the latter series, which I’ve abbreviated “A thru A”, also seems to directly contradict the assertion that there are no messages that encourage or which communicate “triumph” and “victory” (words which people used to describe what they’re “wanting”). A recent Sunday message my dad preached (in early August?), from Hebrews 12, was about running our race well, and about perseverance. The one before that was on the promise of God’s presence and nearness to His people; the one two weeks ago was called “Extravagant Worship”, about Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany—am I missing something? So, while my above statement about the criticism “meshing with reality” may have sounded a bit strong, I hope you can now see why I think that way. Both the scriptural texts and the teaching based on them has actually been quite varied, and to my mind, “positive”, and I’ve been grateful to have had my Christian teaching supplemented so easily by means of technology.
Now for my second point. As you’ve probably inferred, I find it hard to “dialogue” with a point of view that I don’t understand—I haven’t heard all the “negativity” and “repentance and judgment” messages that people say they’ve heard—but I’ll try to interact with it on its foundational level.
I’ve been a regular attendee of five different churches over the past 8 years, in addition to A., in different states and countries, in five different denominations, of different sizes (ranging from 25 members to multi-congregation) with different worship styles and different church cultures. My experience in them is what has shaped my expectations of preaching in a Bible-believing church. And it also, I believe, demonstrates that what A. gets in terms of preaching is not unusual.
I’ll explain—American evangelicalism (whatever that means) is likely on the verge of collapse (there isn’t time to explain my thinking on this), and in many places, the Gospel, let alone the whole word of God, is not being proclaimed, for myriad reasons. But in serious confessional churches, there is a minimal standard for what goes on behind the pulpit, and it was in confessional churches of different stripes (mostly Reformed, but one was Nazarene) where my adult expectations have been formed. I will admit my bias straight out—I do think my dad is a very gifted preacher and teacher, and after teaching college courses myself, I appreciate his gifts even more.
But his approach to the biblical text, exegesis, hermeneutics, teaching, application—it’s all rather ordinary; it’s standard procedure in Protestant churches with a high view of scripture. All the ministers of my past and present did and do the same thing. They seek the Lord for what He wants the churches they serve to hear at that particular time, and then the Lord works through their study and messages to illuminate His word to His people and help them apply it in their lives, and grow to know and love Him more. And most often, these ministers who do expository preaching (again, it’s the same across the board, in confessing churches: PCUSA [I went to a confessional PCUSA church for a time while in Hillsdale], Nazarene, PCA, Church of England, Free Church of Scotland, Independent Evangelical) work through books of the Bible, either whole or in large chunks, though of course with breaks for advent, guest ministers, or miniseries on other passages.
One Reformed Baptist church I know of spent years working through Hebrews on Sunday nights; our church here just finished the gospel of John, which, with breaks, took more than three years. But perhaps that’s what it takes to do it right, and even then, the word of God is so deep and full of riches that someone who’s heard all those messages can still learn more about and from Hebrews or John. If people bristle at sound doctrine, at the truth clearly presented, there should be cause for concern—and it shouldn’t be looking askance at the Bible—it should be wondering what’s up with the hearer.
A rabbit trail may be relevant here: since the Bible was written by God through human authors, in the order we have it, it should be read in its entirety by Christians “on their own time”. In church, the books within it should be considered in themselves and as a whole, not in little isolated bits. That’s why series on whole books or large parts of them are so useful—they remind us that the Bible isn’t just a collection of pithy verses and sayings. The Holy Spirit produced all of it—in the way He did—for a reason, and we should want to understand it all. We wouldn’t read any other books by skipping parts or cutting things out, because then they wouldn’t make sense.
God’s word itself is not only deep, it is varied—even if a pastor wanted to avoid it, and even if it were all His choice, and not the leading of the Holy Spirit, he’d have to get around to sobering or unpleasant passages sooner or later. But in point of fact, the very gospel itself—the heart of the faith, what should fill all of us with joy and gratitude, the work of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection— is offensive to people and the Bible reminds us over and over again that people don’t like it (!). Moreover, even Christians can be at a point in their faith walks where certain aspects of God’s word don’t set well with them. Isn’t it dangerous, then, to demand a pastor who is supposed to be seeking the Lord’s leading on the most important part of his job, preaching the word, in season and out of season, to tailor his messages to what people “like”? If so, people’s opinions have to be weighed up.
What is the standard for preaching at A., where the preaching practice, even if not the particular Bible passages taught, is actually so much like that of the solid confessional churches which I described above? What are A.ns’ priorities compared to these other churches? What do they know about the Bible and how it should be taught and applied? Do they treat it with love and respect, as the final authority in their faith and practice? Do they want to know the Lord more, learn to love Him more and serve Him better, walk more closely with Him? Do they want to know what He says about what it means to live the Christian life and be conformed to His likeness? The first two questions anyone should ask when evaluating a sermon are, “Is this biblical?” and “Does it point us toward Christ?” Are these the questions A.ns are asking? If not, then what? People might say I’m an idealist to expect this, but many of these folks are much older than I am and have been in the church their whole lives. If someone were to tell me that these expectations are unreasonable, and that I need to face facts, I’d have to say, “Jesus Christ is the highest fact”, or something like that. God is the one who sets the bar, not the ebb and flow of human commitment.
Certainly there is a place for asking how a sermon makes you feel, and no doubt, many passages of scripture are “hard”; but so much of the practical instruction for Christian living in the Bible itself is in Paul’s and Peter’s letters, and they are very weighty indeed! Striving toward holiness and walking before the face of the living God is serious business. It is marvelous to know what the Almighty has done for us, and the Christian life is full of blessing—but how do we experience that blessing if we don’t want to know God for who He is, or know all of His word, such a precious gift to us? There are some people in A., for example, life-long members, who don’t think God has spoken definitively on human sexuality, or who think it’s okay to call God “she”. A human being, a professing believer, thinks he/she can decide what to call the Creator of the Universe, and calls Him other than how He’s revealed Himself! What does this say about these “believers’” view of Scripture, and about how they feel when they hear it?
At any rate, in our current church here in Bristol, we’ve recently had a sobering series from the first several chapters of Ezekiel; other very challenging series at our previous church (a church of several hundred, full of Oxford students and faculty) were from Jeremiah and Deuteronomy. Heavy, but it was what the Lord wanted people to hear, and the people in the pews recognized that; every week of the Ezekiel series, one of the women of the church would encourage the pastor—“It’s tough to preach and tough to hear, but it’s of the Lord”. She knew it wasn’t easy for him to be teaching from such sad history and prophecy, but it was for our church at that time. Not everyone was being called to repent by those sobering sermons, but everyone was supposed to be learning something. (If your heart is right before God, you know whether a call to repent is for you or not, though since we should always be growing in holiness, we should be asking God to show us where we can be growing anyway, not assume we’ve arrived just because we’ve been Christians for so long. Even Paul talked about how he was still struggling with sin. The culture is always telling us how great we are, always boosting our “self-esteem”, encouraging us to talk about and analyze ourselves on Facebook and Twitter. If a church is hearing a lot about who we are without Christ, the importance of what he’s done for us, and what temptations we still face this side of the cross, it probably is a healthy antidote to what we get the other six days of the week—a healthy dose of reality!)
And of course, there is a place, not only for hard preaching, but even focusing on what some might think is depressing. Sometimes, life plain sucks. People treat us very badly at times (I’ve been betrayed by both Christians and non-Christians in my own short life), but the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and His salvation and rest are assured. I want to hear that God knows about suffering, and that He warned us about it in advance. I need to hear from the pulpit that Jesus can sympathize with us, and that we don’t need to pretend the cost of discipleship isn’t high, because when we struggle He raises us up. And I know I need to be reminded that I have obligations, and that I can know what they are—God doesn’t keep us guessing, and He’ll help us learn to please Him.
The stick against which preaching should be measured is the Bible itself—is the pastor twisting God’s word? Is he avoiding telling people the truth or taking honor away from Christ? Is he living in unrepentant sin? If not, then he is not doing anything wrong. If people in the pew are not only offering suggestions, but are actually angry with a minister even as he’s preaching biblical and balanced messages (balanced in the sense of offering both encouragement and challenge. The Word is full of challenge from Christ himself and the apostles, for living the Christian life is reward and work! And the work is done by our relying on and growing in God’s grace by His Spirit and knowing His word), there ought to be some questions asked of them. What do they think a good message is? Do they understand how the pastor comes to preach the sermons and texts that he does? Do they think it’s important to hear the whole counsel of Scripture? Do they know that sometimes, the Lord uses preaching to show us something that’s lacking in our lives, somewhere we’re not right with Him or stunted in our growth, all in order to draw us to Himself?
This brings us back to repentance. ALL the churches I’ve been in have dealt with repentance regularly, because as Christians, we still struggle with sin. And in our culture, it’s so easy to be complacent, it’s so easy for us to have blind spots! Repentance isn’t a dirty word, and it’s not just for unbelievers. Repentance is part of the gospel of grace, and it’s a part of living the Christian life. On the other side of repentance is restoration, and I can guarantee that that second part of it has been preached along with the first, when it has been preached at A. this past year. Churches made up of professing Christians who don’t know that repentance is a regular part of their relationship with Christ, and resent that message being preached, aren’t really churches, are they? What sort of Christian is it who doesn’t want to know the biblical truth about himself and doesn’t want to know what it takes to grow? A willfully stunted disciple is a useless disciple.
At A., the challenge to repent has never been unaccompanied by the promise of forgiveness, growth in sanctification, the faithfulness of God. Not only is it the simple truth of our existence on earth, that we need to be reminded and exhorted, but repentance is also beautiful, because it is true, and because it is important to God. The double-edged sword of challenge, hard truths, and encouragement—that the Lord keeps His promises—and presentation of the scripture, as it was written, in order, and chapter by chapter, is God-honoring, Bible-respecting, and absolutely normal in serious-minded, orthodox churches. Again, what am I missing? We get a full-on gospel sermon every Sunday morning in our church in Bristol. And a presentation of the Gospel, geared toward non-believing visitors, requires the preaching of repentance and faith, and those components are perfectly relevant for mature Christians too, because we’re supposed to be living the Gospel. How can you live something if you don’t love it? And people prove they don’t love it when they seemingly want joy, or even grace, preached in isolation—what use is grace if you don’t know what it’s for?
Finally, the apparent standard at A., whatever it consists of, has some key terms and foci, and one in particular has been used a lot: “joy” really seems to have become a buzzword, or a catch-all term for what people want. I for one think the church’s messages have been quite practical, as learning the word and therefore the heart of God is the key to “success”; they’re all about the life to which we are called, of which joy, peace and all positive things, both fruit and blessings, are components.
But so is holiness. And again, I’ve been listening to these sermons. Is there a biblical definition of joy that can be pinned down? What is it, and are there any prerequisites for it? For instance, can a church or individual have true joy if they’re rejecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit, or have hardened their hearts against certain parts of the Bible? Joy isn’t something you can create or experience just by focusing on it to the exclusion of all else. The Bible is big, and many of the aspects of the Christian life are experienced in tandem and are dependent on one another. Can you focus on joy and the happiness that comes from serving the Lord without talking about what it means or looks like to serve Him, or the fact that it isn’t easy? Can joy be experienced in trials and hardship? Even more basic—is it within the pastor’s power to make people “feel joy”, real joy, that isn’t there independent of him? Should he attempt to produce, or even manufacture, joy by using fancy rhetoric, tickling ears, or pumping oxygen into the sanctuary (which I have seen at one megachurch)? True joy is of the Lord, produced by the Holy Spirit (Gal.5:22-3), and wrought in His people who walk with Him and seek him. *To be fair, as far as I know, the preoccupation with “joy” has not been articulated for a few weeks, so perhaps this passage is no longer relevant.*
As I was writing this, I thought it might be worth looking at the use of the English word “joy” in the ESV translation of the New Testament, especially in the epistles, and what follows is my own commentary on every* instance of joy in the NT letters:
When Paul mentions his joy being complete in Philippians 2:2, it is based on the unity and harmony of the church at Philippi—has A. been unified by the form this lobbying for joy has taken, with people refusing to even talk to others involved? He also speaks of his “joy and crown” at Phil .4:1—the brethren are his joy. How do the brothers and sisters at A. treat each other? Do they act as though their brothers and sisters in Christ are their joy? You may be able to tell by the wording of the questions that I’m not convinced, and it’s not just because of the present situation. Casting the net wider, I think it may be observed that in many rural bodies, certain unloving behavior amongst believers is tolerated that would not be so in more “cosmopolitan” churches.
In I Thess. 1:6, Paul refers to the joy of the Holy Spirit, by which the believers at Thessalonica first received the gospel and endured persecution for it, and Paul also says with that joy they became “imitators of [Paul & the apostles] and of the Lord”. Joy here seems to be linked to a concern for Christlikeness and loving and clinging to the truth in spite of affliction.
In Hebrews 13:17, joy is to characterize appropriate submission to church leadership, who are “keeping watch over your souls”. As I read this passage and tried to consider it with regard to A.’s context, the irony was not lost on me. The role of the flock and of the weighty responsibility of the leadership is very concisely put in this passage.
James 1:2 is probably one of the most prominent passages on Christian joy—you probably have read it for yourselves; trials and testing of faith, which produces steadfastness, is to be joy. These first century Christians could find joy in the midst of suffering that we in our day can’t even imagine (I’m reminded of the opening passages in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs).
In I Peter 1:8, Peter describes the joy in the scattered believers’ rejoicing, joy based in their faith in the living Christ whom they have not seen, a joy “inexpressible and filled with glory”, which looks toward faith’s outcome, their salvation. This is joy that is transcendent.
Finally, the word is used in I John 1:4, where the apostle is explaining his reason for writing—“so that [his] joy may be complete”. And this epistle, which is to complete his joy, and in some manuscripts, the readers’ joy, is full of serious admonitions, particularly 1:6-2:6. Being warned against sin, or knowing the implications of hypocrisy, can lead to joy. I would argue that the truth itself should be a source of joy.
This is a very long letter, I understand, but I believe everything I wrote needed to be said. I should also note that I know several other people in the pews at A. who appreciate my dad’s preaching, who know that the clear preaching of God’s word is actually rare and getting rarer in America, and whose spiritual growth has been greatly aided by it.
There is a lot more I wish I could speak on, but it is perhaps best that I stick to this subject for now. I hope you will prayerfully consider this feedback as you seek the Lord for His direction and will for how you can support A.’s leadership in your role as classical visitors.
Yours in Christ,
Ps. 119:103, 111; Ps. 133.
PS. Please feel free to get in touch with me via this email address.
PPS. I am prompted to ask that you consider listening to a sampling of my dad’s sermons. I have put together a folder of nine morning messages (many of the individuals whom I know have complained don’t come on Sunday nights anyway, so there’s no point in including those), and uploaded it to Google drive, about one per month from 2015. As they are the “evidence”, so to speak, and my dad is the “accused”, the “testimony” against him should be evaluated based on the facts, which are the reality, what he’s actually preached.”