The Church in dialogue with God

In my quest to understand the current rationale for the centrality of preaching in Protestant church practice I’m evaluating different posts and articles by prominent proponents of preaching. I found “Who is doing the talking in our church gatherings” by Thabiti Anyabwile through Dashhouse.

In the post he responds to someone who reviewed one of his books and aired some typical objections to the centrality of preaching.

The review left me asking myself: Who’s doing the speaking in our church gatherings?

The fatal flaw in my reviewer’s comments was his tendency to think that the service at its best is a conversation between man and man, a human dialogue, a gathering of people of rather equal status speaking to one another. But is that really what’s happening in preaching and in the gathered worship of the church? How we answer this question reveals much about our theology of the church gathering and of preaching in particular.

He then goes on to say

The Christian worship service is inherently dialogical. The dialogue, however, involves a more important party than any living human. The Lord of the Universe speaks during the service. We have the wondrous privilege of being able to speak to Him as a community of saints. When God speaks through the exposition of His word there certainly will be many reactions, but as our Sovereign speaks there should not be an interruption in favor of our pooling our comments and sharing our insights. Our best wisdom is foolishness before God. Better to first listen to the One who speaks, then talk with one another about it afterward.

If I’m reading this correctly Thabiti considers the proper exposition of scripture by a faithful preacher is the voice of God in the church’s dialogue with God. Thabiti appeals to 1Thess 2:13 to support this connection. Here is it with a bit more context:

As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

(1Th 2:5-13 NRSV)

There are a number of things about this situation that are distinct from a typical conventional church situation:

  • Paul and company personally knew each person and cared for them like family
  • They worked for their living
  • They did not use their authority as apostles of Christ
  • This was primarily missionary activity
  • There is nothing in this passage that implies they preached sermons to Christians
  • The person speaking wrote things we consider to be scripture

If we cross reference this with Luke’s account in Acts 17 we find that Paul “reasoned” or “argued” with the people in the synagogue. The word used is dialogomai and it has a range of meanings from “discuss” and “argue” all the way to “address.” The meaning is determined by the context. In a typical gathering at a Synagogue the scriptures are read and someone offers their exhortation and commentary after the scripture reading. Initially Paul likely engaged with some form of monologue but it was also likely that the Jews would have questioned and eventually objected to what Paul was saying. In the end they ran him out of town and even travelled to the next town to do it again there. It isn’t hard to see where Luke might have got the idea that there was some arguing or disputing going on.

There is nothing in Luke’s or Paul’s account of what happened in Thessalonica that suggests that the people their received their words as the “word of God” solely through the medium of preaching. These accounts raise interesting questions for me about how Paul’s love for the people might be just as important as his words to the people. If the message of Christ’s love is conveyed in a way that is divorced from the tangible reality of that love embodied in the actions of God’s people it won’t have the same impact. Given the stress Paul puts on love, I’m beginning to believe that one can’t proclaim or live the gospel without tangibly demonstrating God’s love. This leads me to conclude that an over reliance on oratory could very well stifle other essential aspects to the proclamation of the gospel.

I understand how we might try to equate the scriptures with God’s voice. Unfortunately the bible is at best words inspired by God written by one human to other humans in a specific context. We are in a sense observing God’s dialogue with someone else. Observing this dialogue can help people understand God and humanity, find principles to live by and bring inspiration but at its core it isn’t a direct dialogue with God. Because of this there is an extra level of complexity in understanding what is being communicated. Most of us rely on a translator to accurately convey the meaning of words of people that lived in a very different context using a different language. That is one lens of interpretation. The next lens comes from the preacher who in turn is interpreting the words of the translator and he or she has their own bias.

I think a lot of people can do a good job of both of these but is always dangerous to equate one person’s interpretation of scripture with the voice of God. As one who has been authorized to preach a few sermons in my day, I’d never claim such a high level of authority or faithfulness for much of the content my messages. I’m far too aware of my failings as well as complexity of biblical interpretation. That doesn’t mean that I’d be completely unsure of what I’m trying to convey, but we all have things we have a great certainty about and things we aren’t as sure of. As a product of a post-modern culture my circle of certainties might be smaller than it should be, but in this world of conflicting ridiculous notions about God I’d rather be safe than sorry. We enter a dangerous place when we casually equate our interpretations as the “word of God.”

One thing I don’t get about Thabiti’s post is that the words of the preacher are considered God’s voice but the inclusion of a voice from the congregation is considered “pooling our comments” and “sharing our insights” or even an “interruption.” Does God only speak through the preacher? Based on the all the examples scripture provides us of people and even donkey’s speaking for God I’d say this is a pretty dangerous assumption. I’ve observed God’s word proclaimed and God’s love displayed in many multi-voiced church gatherings. 

[Edit]  In the comments Thabiti makes it clear that he believes that Spirit of God fills up the discussion in other types of church gatherings where there is dialogue.  He believes this qualifies as “ministry of the word.” He argues that only certain people occupy the “teaching office” based on the requirements of 1Tim 3 and James 3, therefore not everyone should preach.  1Tim 3 speaks to requirements for elders not anyone who might offer a question or comment on what is being taught.  If it did wouldn’t it apply to all forms of ministry?  1Tim 3 speaks of the role of elder, not the ability to speak in a church gathering.  If it were it would be completely inconsistent with 1Cor 14 where only women were instructed to remain silent but men are not.  In 1Cor 14 Paul describes a dynamic meeting where people were spontaneously inspired to prophesy and were doing it it out of order.  The solution wasn’t to silence everyone but to simply do things in order.

Thabiti suggested that the critic of his book had a low theology of preaching. I would counter by suggesting that Thabiti’s comments suggest he has a low theology of the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit works through the entire body as it wills and can inspire anyone to utter divine truth.

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