Houston, We Have A Problem!

By | September 23, 2014

“An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land. The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; And My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?”
Jeremiah 5:30-31

“Around the world, more and more evangelicals are giving up on church. They no longer relate to the sermons and services, systems and cultures that shape church life. Two desires stem from this disillusionment. The first is for grace to subvert the expectations and games of church life. The second is for meaningful and grace-full conversation to replace the irrelevance and harm of much theology, preaching and church life.

Many wonder if they are alone in their suspicion that something is very wrong. Some sense dissonance between the New Testament gatherings and our own conventions of leadership and church.”
“Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community” by Mark Strom

2014-09-23 Reframing Paul cover


“I once took a seminary class titled “Ministry of the Word” where we were taught the supposed biblical basis of preaching. We were given a list of Greek words for various speech acts used in the New Testament. Our group task was to study preaching from these words: preaching as keryxo; preaching as euangelizomai, and so forth. We looked up the references and synthesized our findings as “A New Testament Theology of Preaching.”  It occurred to a friend and me that the exercise was flawed because we had assumed the conventions of preaching, then sought to validate these conventions with texts. But the group would hear no detraction. Apart from our failure to grasp Paul’s repudiation of sophistry with the Corinthians, it never occurred to the group that there is absolutely no evidence for anything like our conventions of preaching in the New Testament – no expository talks, no pulpits, no ordination, no teaching of eloquence. The evidence does not point to the centrality of a monologue in the early gatherings, let alone the conventions of preaching as we have known them for two millennia.

Back in the main group, the professor defended the method. The centerpiece of his argument was the need for authority: “The Word must be ministered with authority,” and this implied the conventions of preaching. My friend and I asked if the Word was always to be delivered with authority. “Yes,” came the ready answer. “Even in the Bible study groups?” we asked. “Emphatically yes,” our professor replied. “Then why don’t we insist on the same conventions on Tuesday nights as we do on Sunday mornings?” we responded. “Because Sunday is church,” the professor replied, somewhat less enthusiastically. The rejoinder was obvious: “And what in the New Testament leads us to distinguish Sunday mornings from Tuesday nights as though one were ‘real church’ and the other something else? If the distinction is simply our construct, why do we persist with it? If the conventions of preaching are unnecessary on Tuesdays, and if the Bible study leader still ministers the Word with authority, then why do we insist on the conventions for Sundays?”

The argument was coming full circle. The case for preaching starts and finishes by presuming preaching, ordination and church as we know them. Without them control, prestige and power lose their footing. The sermon and the service prop up the conventions of eloquence and authority. No sermon, no church service. No church service, no demarcations of authority and control. But church in the evangelical system is about order and control. Leaders must retain the  “central” ministries. At the very center is preaching. Therefore preaching must remain the domain of the ordained and those whom they acknowledge. Eloquence and erudition must demarcate sermon from conversation, ordained from laity, truth from mere opinion.

Two years later the conversation resumed with the same professor, this time on the second fairway. “You were right.” he admitted. “Church and preaching as we know it is very little like what happened in the New Testament.”

“Why then,” I asked, “do we keep teaching this stuff? Most of your students do not see the discrepancy. How will this ever change?”

His answer was as telling as it was unconvincing: “It was my generation’s work to lay out the biblical theology. It is yours to change the system.””
“Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community” by Mark Strom

Phil Johnson, Pastor of Grace Community Church:


“The bending of the mind by the powers of this world has twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper. The Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness fastened. The institutional church has become a wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded.”
“The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out” by Brennan Manning, page 12

John Folmar, Pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai:

“During his last discourse in the Book of Glory, Jesus says, “I give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:34-35, The Message).

The truest test of our faith is the way we are with each other every day. When the primacy of love is subordinated to doctrinal correctness and orthodox exegesis, cool cordiality and polite indifference masquerade as love among theologians, biblical scholars, and faculties across the land. When absolute control and rigid obedience pose as love within the family and the local faith-community, we produce trained cowards rather than Christian persons.”
“The Wisdom of Tenderness” by Brennan Manning, page 46

John Folmar, Pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai:

“This authoritarianism is frequently justified by verses like Heb. 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you”). Such shepherds seem unaware of the fuller meaning of the Greek word translated “obey” in this verse. According to W.E. Vine, “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.” Conveniently ignored, too, are numerous other passages admonishing elders not to lord it over those in their charge (1 Pet. 5:3; cf. Mt. 20:25-28; 3 Jn. 9-11). Further, such spiritual autocrats arrogate to themselves prerogatives and responsibilities God never meant for them to have. By enforcing submission to their authority in areas not covered by Scripture or in matters of conscience and opinion they are unwittingly usurping the place of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The consequence of this is that the group members fall into an uncritical acceptance of whatever the leader says, and lose the ability (if they ever had it) to go directly to God for wisdom and guidance.”
“The Other Side of Discipleship” by Lawrence A. Pile (Wellspring Retreat)

John Folmar, Pastor of United Christian Church of Dubai:

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