Preaching Temptation #6

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 9.10.12 AMBy John Frye

I will conclude this series by offering three more temptations pastors face as they fulfill the injunction “to preach the word.” These three can be captured in the words control, fixation, and anger.

Control. I know of few pastors who believed their mission was to shape and control the beliefs and behavior of their congregations. Back in the 1970s when small groups became the rage of church life, when all the New Testament “one another’s” took on a life of their own, some pastors got jittery if not downright paranoid about small group life. People meeting in homes out from under the pastor’s control would lead to all kinds of doctrinal error. The most extreme example of control I heard was from friends who had a pastor who actually said that his congregation had no access to God except through him. He represented God to them and he represented them to God. This was in a Bible-believing church. It sounded like Bill Gothard’s “umbrella” theory on steroids. A more recent example, made known to me through a family member, was the pastor who belittled women from the pulpit as being too emotional, too feminine, to offer good theology. He feared that books by Christian women were more susceptible to mysticism which in his thinking was a red flag. He poked fun at them because he “does not get them.” (I would wager that his study had copies of John Eldredge’s masculine books which we all know women “get”). Pastors are not called to micromanage their congregations’s spirituality. Manageable template Christianity that you can buy in a box with DVDs and workbooks flies in the face of the Creator’s expression of variety, beauty and creativity in each congregant.

Fixation. Pastors can get fixated on a topic, a theological issue, a cultural value and no matter what text they preach from (Old or New Testament), their fixation will find expression. In days gone by, it would be said, “She’s riding her hobby horse again.” I tend to slip into this temptation myself because I love theology. Seeing the church at her best “reformed and reforming” invigorates me. That is why I, among so many, am startled that many pastors and theologians are stuck, literally stuck, in the 16th century C.E. Jesus had one fixation: his Father’s will. Look at the phenomenal creativity and range of experiences in his life! The Apostle Paul had one fixation: to know Christ. Are you not staggered by the scope of wisdom and revelation to the variety of churches he planted and/or addressed? To substitute some topic, value or theological idea for those two eternal fixations severely limits us as pastors.

Anger. I will never forget the time I preached a two part sermon on Psalm 139 and I titled the sermon “The Hound of Heaven” from a prompt by Derek Kidner’s commentary on the Psalms.

I even quoted the opening to Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” After the sermons, the next Sunday a long-time member of the church chided me in the church foyer. “I can’t believe that you, our pastor, would liken Almighty God to a dog. You should never have done that.” Smiling on the outside, but boiling on the inside, I tried to explain to him what a metaphor is. He would have none of it. I got my ego too invested in the message. I needed to hear this good, yet misguided brother. When the church doesn’t go the way the pastor wants it to, or she gets upset with push-back, she can spank them with a timely sermon. I did that once and it backfired on me. We had the expected “worship war” issue over music and song preferences. I did a brilliant sermon from Romans 14 about “disputable matters.” One of the worship team people came to me after that blazing sermon and said, “You preached that just at me, didn’t you?” Of course, I piously begged off, but in fact I had. Anger in a pastor, in a preacher is an ugly thing. “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Not everyone who pushes back on a pastor is captive to the devil. The overriding point, however, is the demeanor and approach of God’s servant to those who disagree with her or him.

These three must die: control, fixation, and anger. Freedom, curiosity and joy energize good preaching.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.