What do we do about confusion in congregational preaching?

Intelligent listeners will notice differences in teaching between preachers even in the same denomination, as well as between denominations.

The right of private judgment is permitted to Christians, but the continuous and unchallenged preaching of different doctrines only leads to confusion in congregations – and God is not the author of confusion 1Cor 14:33.

So what should congregations do?

 

When did the Bible last change your thinking or behaviour?

Christians claim to be submissive to the Word of God. They acknowledge that they are not ‘the finished article’.

The development of their Christian character is effected by the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God to their thinking, speech and behaviour. It is called sanctification – ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth’, prayed Jesus for His disciples in John 17:17.

Christians desire to be ‘fit for the Master’s use’ 2Timothy 2:21. Does the Lord use you? Are you open to His guidance? Does the Bible change you? Or are you beyond change? Some people’s views never change, which suggests that they don’t submit their thoughts to Scripture – ‘bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ 2Cor 10:5. When did the Bible last change your thinking?

Why don’t people change?

1. because they do not study their Bibles for themselves. Once a godly person sees the teaching of Scripture, his conscience is bound to it; but if a person rarely studies Scripture, it is unlikely to change him.

2. there is another reason. The fear of change and being thought unorthodox.

Many Christians are familiar with the concept of ministers and elders looking over their shoulder and not acting freely according to their own understanding and conscience because of what others might think. They are afraid of seeming to be unorthodox.

This is a recipé for disaster, curtailing one’s readiness to respond to the leading of Scripture.

So why does it happen? Usually because there is one person who pulls up others for what he perceives to be unorthodox. This person is rarely challenged in his thinking and may have ties to influential people, so that he has influence out of all proportion to his understanding. But he is orthodox! and this is all that matters. Rather, he is orthodox in the area he knows about, but he fails to see what others see and would like to act upon.

This ‘one man ruins all’ attitude is very common and very influential in the Christian church. ‘A little folly’ can ruin a reputation Ecc 10:1, but it can ruin a congregation and many other things.

It is time for individual Christians to remember and reclaim the liberty with which Christ has made them free. ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage’ Gal 5:1.

Questions and answers in church and congregational life

In 1Corinthians Paul deals with some congregational issues and in 1Cor 14:35 he tells wives: “if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

This strongly suggests that husbands were asking questions in congregations – but how many preachers finish their sermons with “Any questions?”

Imagine the scene – Paul arrives in a new place and preaches a sermon to the gathered people.  Does he stand up and leave, or will there be questions? Jesus was often questioned by His disciples afterwards Mat 13:10-11; Mk 4:10,34; and the Gentiles in Antioch wanted an after-church fellowship, which Paul was happy to encourage Act 13:43. The disputes described in the Acts of the Apostles Act 7:57; 13:45 show that congregations discussed what was said. The disciples gathered in homes to have fellowship Act 2:46 and collective prayer Act 12:12.

“Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God” Act 13:43. Contrary to this, many congregations hurry home and have no fellowship afterwards. Some ministers even expect them to go home immediately and to come back to the next set diet of meetings. The after-church fellowship meeting is an apostolic tradition.

Questions give feedback to the preacher and help relevant issues to be addressed.  Answers give opportunity for the congregation to learn collectively and teach Christians the skills of gracious discussion.  The benefits are so great that it seems obvious to me that this is how the new testament congregations grew and developed, how congregational life flourished, and how Christian leadership emerged and was recognised.  I believe that this is central to spiritual development in congregational life and that it should help the growth of a congregation both spiritually and numerically. Further, the gifts and graces given by the Lord to the congregation are recognised, appreciated, and more effectively utilised.

When catechising was commoner, the spiritual life of the church was healthier.  With the demise of feedback from the hearers to the preacher, a disconnect has emerged in many congregations and denominations with the result that congregations are not edified to the extent that they could.

Updates:

23 Mar 2013: John Knox on asking questions after sermons.  Husbands are to study.

10 Apr 2013: a rare example of taking questions during a sermon.

13 Jul 2013: the pope of Rome begins answering questions

9 Aug 2014: Jesus was not static in His pursuit of knowledge in His human nature, but ‘Jesus increased in wisdom’ Lk 2:52. In the Temple He sat among the doctors ‘asking them questions’ Lk 2:46.

24 May 2015: ‘God is not the author of confusion’ 1Cor 14:33 is a well-known quotation. However, the context is not often noted. Prophets were making statements which were not vetted by others in the congregation 1Cor 14:32. So how is this confusion to be avoided in Christian congregations if there is no process for challenging the preaching?  Critical listening to sermons is often encouraged with reference to Act 17:11 ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so’. However, the method for challenging teaching is not often mentioned – far less suggested. Without it, there is liable to be confusion and God is not the author of such confusion.  Congregational discussion should be peaceful, orderly and edifying.

21 Jul 2015: I have heard that some Baptist churches in Germany have a Questions and Answers session.

6 Nov 2015: the Rev. Brian Norton of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Durham, recently gone to glory, gave opportunity for questions about his sermons afterwards.  Also, during the mid-week Bible study he would stop in the middle of the service and ask for any questions so far, and he gave another opportunity at the close of the service.

19 May 2017: the Rev. Partheepan Shanmugam spoke of the advantage in his mission work in Sri Lanka from congregational discussion of sermons after their being preached.  The benefit that one person receives is shared with all, and another benefit another receives is also shared with all.