Help Thou My Unbelief [link to Sojourners Magazine]
What is the Preacher's Authority in a Post-Modern World?
Democracy and the Way of Jesus
Paul's Weak Preaching
Help Thou My Unbelief [link to Sojourners Magazine]
What is the Preacher's Authority in a Post-Modern World?
Democracy and the Way of Jesus
Paul's Weak Preaching
[A version of this article appeared in Preaching (online, 10/13/14).]
Several years ago a student intern spent the summer following me around, seeing what a pastor does. He attended meetings of the elders and the church council; he accompanied me on hospital and home visits; he sat in on one or two premarital counseling sessions; he assisted with our educational program; and he and I engaged in many discussions about the inner workings of congregational leadership. He was interested in all of it. But when I told him I wanted him to preach a sermon, he stiffened and replied, “What authority do I have to tell other people what they ought to believe or how they ought to live?”
Good question. Many people today wonder why the Bible should be given a privileged position. They doubt whether any religion has more or better truth than another. They question why particular persons should have authority to be spokespersons for God. In an increasingly postmodern society, what is the source of the preacher’s authority? An adequate and convincing response is crucial for the continuing vitality of the church.
To help sort through this question, the following preaching identities will be examined: the Bible Teacher, the Counselor, the Storyteller, the Witness, and the Prophet. Each of these identities sees its task and authority in a unique way, and each has useful approaches—as well as drawbacks—for the preacher’s postmodern context.
The Bible Teacher. Preachers who embrace this identity see preaching as a way to teach the content of the Bible, explain its original meaning, and suggest modern applications of its message. The Bible Teacher wants the congregation to learn the individual books, stories, and famous verses in the Bible, where to find them, and how to put the parts together into an understandable whole. Because the Bible is a highly complex document, made up of many books and sources from very different times, cultures and perspectives, the Teacher has the difficult task of uncovering and explaining the historical and cultural backgrounds, and doing careful exegesis of individual passages, verses and words so that the congregation has a sense of the original intent. The Teacher’s task is completed by then finding dynamic parallels between the text and the congregation’s situation so that the Bible has a relevant contemporary application.
This preaching identity makes two assumptions about authority. First, the Bible has unique and superior authority over all other sources regarding God and God’s will. The Teacher may preach sermons to try to prove this authority, but usually the Bible’s authority is simply assumed. Second, the Teacher has authority because the Teacher is an expert on the Bible. The Teacher knows the contents of the Bible, the original languages, the historical and cultural contexts, and the critical tools to recover its meaning.
Seminary training often results in a Bible Teacher preaching identity because seminary emphasizes these skills. Within the Bible itself we can see an example of this identity at work in the figure of Ezra. He returns to Jerusalem to find a fragile community that has forgotten the Torah. So he gathers the community at the Water Gate and reads the Torah aloud, interpreting it for them as he reads. Ezra is remembered as one who saved the community from religious oblivion.
The Bible Teacher identity has several strengths. It is straightforward and confident. That confidence tends to rub off on the congregation. The preacher’s assumption that the Bible has unique and superior authority tends to become the congregation’s assumption as well. This is why, even in a postmodern culture, many conservative churches continue to draw an enthusiastic audience. People still yearn for authority and order in their lives, and so if the preacher can transmit a strong impression of the Bible’s authority, and show that the modern applications are useful, many will accept it. This preaching identity also has the advantage of strengthening a congregation’s biblical literacy—standing firm against an alarming trend in most churches. As a result, the church retains a strong identity grounded in its foundational documents.
But the Bible Teacher identity also has several limitations. Preaching—and in turn the Christian faith—run the risk of becoming primarily a cognitive activity in which the Bible gets “figured out.” There is also a tendency for the past to become more important than the present (or at least to receive more attention). Another problem is that, although the assumed authority of the Bible will rub off on some hearers, it will not rub off on others. Many in our culture will simply reject such an unproven assumption. Finally, this represents top-down religion; the Christian faith is controlled by “the experts” who know better than the rest of the congregation. The Bible Teacher does not sufficiently honor the people’s experience and authority.
The Counselor. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York City (1926-1946), rejected the Bible Teacher preaching identity. He purposely did not focus on textual exegesis, nor did he compel the congregation to become deeply informed about the past—which he considered antiquarianism. As he famously said, people don’t come to church “desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Instead, Fosdick developed an approach to preaching that focused on such things as personal growth, relationships, and life decisions. He measured the success of his preaching by how many people were in his office on Monday morning. Although Fosdick also championed theological and social issues in his preaching, it is fair to see him as an example of the Counselor preaching identity. It is still a popular approach today. Robert Schuller has been one of its many famous practitioners.
The Counselor identity assumes that the Bible is the greatest source of psychological wisdom, personal healing and growth. The Counselor has authority because of expertise on the connection between personal human needs and the Bible. These preachers are well-versed in psychology and know how to interpret the Bible in psychological terms.
Such an approach is popular even in an authority-questioning, postmodern culture because it scratches where people are itching. Most everyone has an intrinsic interest in learning how to deal with personal problems and relationships. So if the Bible can help—that’s attractive. The Bible has proven itself over time to be an extraordinary source of practical wisdom for living.
But the Counselor also tends to misuse scripture. Most of the Bible is not concerned with self-esteem, emotional growth, and solving our personal problems; it is not a psychology guidebook. The Counselor too often reads psychological lessons out of texts that have no such purpose, resulting in an artificial interpretive veneer. As a result, the congregation sometimes gets more Maslow than Moses, more Rodgers than religion.
Another problem is that the Counselor is still a top-down authority; the Christian faith is defined by the psychology expert. This is mitigated by the dialogue the Counselor creates with the listener’s life situation, but it runs the risk of devolving into emotional dependency on the preacher—a kind of salvation through guru.
The Storyteller. Many preachers use the Bible as a source of rules and principles to live by. The preacher asks, “What should we do in this situation?” and then proceeds to find a verse in the Bible to give the answer. But perhaps we should see the Bible, not primarily as a source of rules or principles for ethical conduct, but as foundational narratives for cultivating a Christian community with unique ethical character. Much of the Bible consists of stories, and those stories typically are not moralistic—they do not teach us what we are supposed to do in various circumstances. In fact, many of the Bible’s stories are not moral at all. But the overall story has the effect of creating a community that trusts in God, cultivating the virtues of humility, compassion, and seeking justice.
This insight may lead the preacher to adopt the identity of the Storyteller: re-telling the biblical stories as the backbone of the sermon. One tells the stories in fresh and engaging ways so that the congregation imaginatively enters the story and is formed by the story.
Preaching biblical stories as stories can be done in a variety of ways. One approach is to simply recite a biblical story. For instance, during a Sunday in Lent, the preacher might choose to present a dramatic word-for-word recitation of Mark’s passion narrative. The Network of Biblical Storytellers promotes cultivating the skill of scripture recitation so that the Bible can speak with the power of its own voice.
Another approach is to re-tell the story, paraphrasing it in one’s own words. This allows the preacher other options such as modernizing the story, or telling the story from the point of view of different characters in the story, or dramatizing the story with actors.
The Storyteller may choose to expand the story—filling in the gaps in the story with imaginative elements, or extending the story. For instance, what happened after the father tried to convince his elder son to come inside for the prodigal son’s party? Or what happened when the good Samaritan returned to the inn where he had dropped off the wounded man and pledged to pay his expenses?
Or, the Storyteller can tell a new story—a story that conveys a similar experience as the biblical story and which forms the congregation’s character in a similar way. These new stories may be true stories, or stories from popular fiction, or stories created by the preacher. By telling the new story alongside the biblical story, the stories interpret each other.
Jesus is a prime example of a Storyteller preacher. He did not recite or re-tell stories from scripture, but he did tell new stories—parables—that envisioned the fulfillment of scriptural themes. According to the Gospel tradition, he rarely offered explanations of his stories. The interpretive task was up to his listeners as they imaginatively entered the world of his parables.
The Storyteller identity assumes the Bible has authority, but it’s a different kind of authority—it has the power to form character and community. The Storyteller’s authority comes from skill in telling stories, as well as sensitivity to the meanings and power of biblical stories. But this preaching identity introduces another authority: the listener’s. The listener is given the authority to interpret the story through imaginatively entering the story and engaging one’s emotions. It is an approach that empowers listeners.
But the Storyteller identity also contains drawbacks. If the preacher simply tells stories, with minimal explanation or application, the congregation is likely to become frustrated. The sermons will seem overly vague and incomplete, because congregations need more than just stories for their formation, health and mission. This approach neglects the fact that the Bible, and the Christian faith, is more than just narratives.
The Witness. The problem of top-down expert authority, and the problem of presumed biblical authority, is solved by the Witness who simply shares his or her own spiritual experience. The Witness does not claim to be an expert, and does not demand that others believe what is said. Rather, this preaching identity humbly shares one’s own encounter with God that has been mediated through scripture, the faith community, and other personal experiences.
An example of this identity is seen in John’s story of the woman at the well. After engaging Jesus in conversation, the woman wonders whether Jesus might be the Messiah. She tells her neighbors about her encounter, sharing her astonishment at Jesus’ insight into her life. This leads the villagers to have their own encounter with Jesus, after which they tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Inter-religious dialogue usually takes the approach of the Witness. A Christian doesn’t tell a Buddhist, “You’re wrong.” A Jew doesn’t tell a Muslim, “You’re deluded.” Instead, all participants share their own religious convictions based on experiences of healing and truth that have come through faith and a faith community. In turn, each may gain something from listening to the story of the other.
This approach to preaching assumes that the authority of the Bible is subjective; one makes one’s own evaluation of its authority through personal experience. The preaching authority of the Witness is also subjective; one’s expertise extends only to one’s own personal experience. Authority is also given to the listeners. They discern whether what they are hearing connects with their own experience; listeners determine their own convictions.
The strength of the Witness is humility and openness. This approach honors the discernment of the listeners, and their experiences of truth. It thereby potentially opens up the pulpit to the voices of the congregation. We call this form of preaching, “testimonies.” Anyone who has had an encounter with God may share.
As attractive as this preaching identity may be in a postmodern world, the Witness has some serious short-comings. Preaching tends to become “all about me.” The individual becomes the measure of God, rather than God the measure for the individual. Preaching devolves into “my God”; we can no longer talk about “our God.” Also, if nothing has authority except personal experience, this would seem to lead to an unstable faith community with a weak mission.
The Prophet. Biblically speaking, a prophet is someone who speaks for God, announcing what God is saying, wanting, or doing today. At first this may seem like a highly presumptuous activity in which no modest preacher would engage. But actually, preachers speak prophetically all the time. For instance, to say “God loves you” is a prophetic statement; the speaker is presuming to speak for God, announcing God’s activity in the present with particular persons. The Bible Teacher, on the other hand, would say something exegetical such as: “John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world ….’ John often uses the word ‘world’ to refer to those forces that are in rebellion against God. From this we can extrapolate that John is affirming that God loves everyone.” The Prophet cuts through all this indirect speech by simply announcing: “God loves you.” This is performative speech: it performs, or makes real, what it says.
Consider another example: Many pastors or preachers will say to an individual or congregation in grief, “God suffers with us.” On what basis does the preacher presume to make such an audacious statement? There is no verse in the Bible that says this. And yet, many preachers have had no compunction making this announcement. Why? Because they are extrapolating from many things said about God in scripture and combining that with their own spiritual experience and intuition. This is what the Prophet does.
Among conservatives, a prophet is often thought of as someone who foretells the future; among liberals, a prophet is often thought of as a social justice activist. Neither is quite correct. Prophets may focus on personal morality, social justice, or the future we’re headed for; they may be perceived as liberal, conservative, or something else. But what ties them all together is that they dare to announce what God may be doing or may be wanting now in our world.
Perhaps preachers are reluctant to adopt the Prophet identity because they are thinking of Old Testament prophets who experienced extraordinary visions, spoke for God in first person singular, and whose words became scripture. But the apostle Paul offers a broader understanding of prophecy. He says that “those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Paul urges everyone to cultivate this gift, and assumes that every little house church has more than two or three prophets (14:27).
Paul does not consider prophecy as infallible. It is imperfect and temporary (13:8-9); therefore, it must always be tested and discerned by the listeners. This makes the congregation a prophetic community since everyone is involved in the discernment of what God is truly saying to the congregation today.
The Bible itself consists largely of prophetic preaching. This is what Jesus does; this is what his disciples do; this is what the Pauline and Petrine and Johannine epistles do; this is what the New Testament calls the community of faith to do.
The Prophet identity assumes that God’s Word is breathed into scripture so that the Bible’s themes are foundational for guiding faith. The Prophet’s authority comes from combining biblical themes with experience, intuition, and spiritual imagination. The sermon is not focused on exegesis (though this is still evident); rather, the focus is on an announcement of God’s Word for the congregation today. The Prophet’s authority, though, is tested by, and shared with, the congregation.
The strengths of this approach include immediacy, relevance and courageous speech. In addition, when the congregation is an active participant in discernment, it avoids being top-down. The Prophet potentially opens up the pulpit to all the prophets in the midst of the congregation.
Unfortunately, the Prophet easily becomes too presumptuous. The human tendency, when speaking for God, is to think one is never wrong and to take oneself too seriously. The Prophet needs a good dose of humility and self-deprecating humor to counteract this tendency. In addition, the best Prophet is grounded in the skills and study evident in the Bible Teacher.
This survey of five preaching identities reveals that all of them have strengths and are useful for the vitality of the church. Preaching should probably make use of all of these identities for the well-rounded nurture of the congregation and for engaging the many types of listeners. In addressing the sensitivities of a postmodern society, the Storyteller and the Witness are the most dialogical and reliant on persuasion rather than pronouncements.
But the health of the church depends on more than simply appealing to postmodernism. The Prophet identity is likely the best long-term nurturing approach because it conforms more closely to how scripture itself operates. To maximize its effectiveness, it should probably combine the dialogical and persuasive elements of the Storyteller and the Witness, and the understanding of scripture and theology found in the Bible Teacher.
[A version of this article appeared in The Mennonite (July 2014).]
In many American churches, the Sunday closest to the 4th of July is a patriotic service. The national anthem or another patriotic hymn is sung while the American flag is marched down the center aisle. Many churches do this, or something similar, because they believe democracy is the form of government God specially favors. Democracy is a kind of kingdom of God on earth, and the United States has been chosen by God for spreading democracy everywhere.
Those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition tend to be a little skeptical of this view. We do not identify any national government with the kingdom of God, so our allegiance to national governments has careful parameters. Most of our congregations do not sing patriotic hymns during worship services or display the American flag in the sanctuary.
But Mennonites are sometimes a little too dismissive of our government, so let me take a moment to defend democracy.
What form of government does God want people to live under? This question is embedded in Israel’s sacred story, and part of that story goes like this:
God used Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery and bring them to Mount Sinai where God gave them a set of laws. These laws formed the basis for a new government. That government was a theocracy. In other words, religion ran the government, and the laws were based on loyalty to the God of Israel.
Most nations at that time were theocracies; but one aspect of Israel’s theocracy made it unique: it did not have a king. The Israelites did not give their allegiance to a king, but—ideally—to God alone. There was no central government, only a loose confederation of tribes. Leadership was in the hands of local elders, priests, prophets, and—in the case of war—judges.
So how well did this form of government work out? According to the Book of Judges, not very well. Because there was no centralized authority or standing army, Israel was constantly vulnerable to attack and domination by other nations. Various judges had success in battle, trusting in God’s intervention, but the victories were local and temporary. Envy, competition, and violence among the tribes and between towns were frequent. Women and the vulnerable suffered horribly. Leadership was often corrupt or deeply flawed. The Book of Judges paints a picture of existence that was nasty, brutish and short.
After a couple of hundred years of decentralized, local leadership, the tribes of Israel said, “Enough!” and demanded a king. The prophet Samuel tried to warn them of the consequences:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11-18 NRSV)
In other words, having a king with centralized power will result in a military-industrial complex, a draft, loss of freedoms, heavy taxation and confiscation. Nevertheless, this looked a lot better than their present circumstances, so the Israelites proceeded to create a monarchy: a king with centralized power that would be passed on to the eldest legitimate son.
So how well did this form of government work out? According to Israel’s sacred story, not very well. Saul, the first king, turned out to be mentally ill. David, the next king, was highly effective, but he abused his power to commit adultery and murder, and his eldest son led a civil war against him. Solomon, the next king, attained the throne by murdering the competition. He brought wealth into Israel, but at the cost of the importation of foreign gods and the implementation of oppressive labor. His reign was so controversial that, after his death, the nation split into two—the north and the south—each with its own monarchy. The two lines of kings were generally worse than the ones who came before them. Eventually both kingdoms were destroyed by invading empires, their kings assassinated or imprisoned, and their sons murdered.
But around the time Israel collapsed and became a dream, far away in Greece, in the city of Athens, people were creating a new form of government called democracy. Citizens voted for their leaders, and leaders served limited terms. The system was not ideal: women, slaves and lower classes could not vote. Nevertheless, democracy was a revolutionary idea.
Which form of national government would you prefer to live under today: a decentralized theocracy, a monarchy, or a democracy? Despite never making an appearance in the Bible, I would pick democracy. Nowhere in the Bible do people vote, or leaders serve for designated terms. Even Jesus never promoted democracy. Jesus never asked his disciples, “Raise your hands if you think we should go to Capernaum,” or “Who is in favor of Judas being our treasurer?” Despite the lack of democracy in the Bible, I think it is a better form of national government than any that we see in the Bible.
This does not mean democracy is ideal; in fact, it also has serious drawbacks. Let’s look at some of the defects of American-style democracy. Money has tremendous influence over elections and legislation. Those with the most money can hire the most lobbyists, afford the most lawyers, file the most lawsuits, pull the most strings, fund the most candidates, and block or support the most legislation. The super-rich can fund their own campaigns or set up their children in politics, creating a political aristocracy. American democracy is dominated by a wealthy elite.
Another problem with democracy is that the majority rules. This certainly sounds like a fair principle, but it means the minority gets shut out. In American democracy we have a winner-takes-all approach. If a candidate wins an election by the slimmest percentile, he or she wins everything, and the other candidate—who received almost the same number of votes—gets nothing. So the majority has the power to impose its will on even a sizeable minority.
Democracy is also often unstable. This is not so much true in the U.S. as it is in many other countries. Democracy sometimes leads to more crime and more social instability. Consider Russia, which in the 1990s became a democracy. But high unemployment, organized crime, and other social problems have caused the country to move toward a dictatorship. Consider Egypt which recently became a democracy, but mass protests and a financial crisis led the military to depose the elected president. Consider Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—all democracies, and all highly dysfunctional.
Winston Churchill said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. He also said democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the other forms that have been tried. I tend to agree with him.
The Bible never came up with the idea of democracy, but it did come up with two concepts that are essential for good government. The first concept is this: Good government must protect the vulnerable. Leviticus 19 provides a sampling of laws reflecting this concern:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God….
You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor….
You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10, 13-15, 32-34)
The U.S. has, in some ways, incorporated this concept of protecting the vulnerable in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution, as originally written, did not have the Bill of Rights, but James Madison pushed for its inclusion, because without something like a Bill of Rights, democracy can be just as oppressive as any other form of government.
The second concept essential for good government comes from Jesus:
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25b-27)
Jesus is saying that in pagan national governments, power is centralized; the ruler imposes his or her rule through coercion and the threat of force. The resources of the nation are also centralized, and the ruler can divvy out those resources to whomever he or she wishes, and is praised for doing so. But this is not how Jesus wants his disciples to operate. Instead of leading from the top, they are to lead from the bottom. Leaders are servants. They do not have coercive power, privileges or perks. They do not hand out benefits from a position of superiority. Instead, leaders simply serve and do what is best for others.
I do not know whether it is possible for a national government to operate like that, but it is how the government of Jesus’ disciples—the church—is supposed to be run.
Most American churches have borrowed the concepts of democracy. We often vote for our leaders and chairpersons, and make decisions with a show of hands. But many churches have gone beyond democracy to something closer to the way of Jesus. Instead of holding elections in which two candidates vie for a church position, fostering a system of winners and losers, many churches have a system of congregational discernment resulting in a slate of recommended leaders, all of whom are affirmed together by the congregation. Instead of majority-rule votes, which inevitably cause consternation for the minority, many congregations do not move ahead with a decision until they have reached a consensus. In churches that are seeking to follow Jesus’ way, leaders are not given special privileges or prestige; instead, all are treated as equals, and leaders serve for the purpose of benefiting the congregation, not themselves. Jesus tells us this is our form of government.
I am glad the U.S. is a democracy, and I am glad I live in the U.S. But it is not the kingdom of God. As a Christian I call on the government to live up to its Bill of Rights and to do an ever-better job of protecting the vulnerable. As a Christian I call on the government to use as little violence and coercion as possible, and I suggest that the best way to lead is to serve others. But as a Christian I call on the church—not the United States—to truly be God’s government in this world.
[A version of this article appeared in Journal of Preachers (Pentecost 2011).]
A reasonable case can be made that the apostle Paul was a weak preacher. Some of his cultured contemporaries within the church gave his speaking skills low marks. They conceded that he wrote weighty and strong letters, but claimed that “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul did not disagree with this assessment and admitted that he was “untrained in speech” (2 Corinthians 11:6).
In a predominantly oral culture that insisted upon a strong presence and oratory excellence for speakers who wished to be taken seriously, Paul was apparently at a disadvantage. We do not know what his physical or verbal defects may have been. Perhaps he was unattractive or had a physical deformity or disability. Perhaps he spoke with a lisp and his voice cracked. Perhaps he lacked quotations from the classical poets and mangled rhetorical rules. Perhaps, as in his letters, he had a tendency to speak in convoluted sentences and make contradictory statements. Even a source sympathetic to Paul allowed that he sometimes didn’t know when to stop talking. On one occasion his preaching put a young man to sleep—who subsequently fell out a third story window (Acts 20:7-9). Whatever Paul’s particular preaching limitations were, they appear to have been an obstacle in his ministry.
But Paul turned the tables on his critics by reframing his own preaching limitations as an advantage: “[Christ sent me] to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Ironically, if he were to speak with eloquent wisdom, he would be undermining the power of the good news. Paul claims that eloquent wisdom is antithetical to the message God has given him. To use eloquent wisdom would be to use a medium that conflicts with the message because the message itself is contrary to human wisdom and skill.
And what is that message? That the Messiah, God’s savior of humanity, was stripped and crucified by humanity—but it is through this weakness that God’s power saves us. This scandalous and absurd message cannot be conveyed through conventional wisdom, nor can this good news of God working through weakness be proclaimed with tools of strength. Instead, Paul’s own weak presence and contemptible speech embodies the very news he is preaching. Whatever his critics found offensive or laughable about his speaking abilities is what made Paul uniquely suited for his message: an absurd message from an absurd speaker; a message of apparent weakness delivered by a weak man. He is the proper medium for this message.
As a pastor who takes a keen interest in skillful preaching, I find Paul’s dissing of eloquent wisdom distressing. I cringe when he rails against the wise, the scribes, and the debaters of his age, claiming that God has made them into fools (1Corinthians 1:20), since I am among that educated elite. But I also find his perspective clarifying, because we who preach Christ may be in danger of losing our way as we pursue effective preaching.
For instance, have we, for the sake of our own ego, dressed ourselves in symbols of power and education before mounting the pulpit? Have we, for the sake of popular entertainment, relied on skits, movie snippets, and creative PowerPoint presentations? Have we, for the sake of comfort and success, made the Christian message reasonable and respectable? If so, we have emptied the cross of its power. The news that God overcomes the powers and principalities of the world through an ultimate act of humiliation and sacrifice runs counter to our slick sermons. Today’s eloquent wisdom of being cute, funny, conventional and sentimental turns the ugly cross of Christ into a pretty necklace. We do not need to be handsome, well-dressed, or smart. We need to embody in our lives and in our message the audaciousness that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
I wonder what Paul would think of the homiletics courses taught in our seminaries today. Students are often graded by the quality of their exegesis, illustrations, voice projection and eye contact (and whether they came to class on time and helped out the professor). Awards are sometimes given to the students who exhibit the most verbal panache. I think Paul would say we missed the point. He would demand just two things from preaching students: be in Christ, and preach Christ crucified. Whether one has training in rhetoric is irrelevant if the preacher isn’t living in the Spirit and conforming to our self-emptying Lord. Indeed, skillful rhetoric and cutting-edge technology undermine the authentic good news if we are confusing ear-tickling and eye-candy with God’s upside-down way of overcoming human rebellion.
But cannot eloquence and skillful rhetoric serve the message of God’s powerful weakness and wise foolishness revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ? Yes. When Paul rejects eloquent wisdom he is exaggerating a bit for (paradoxically) rhetorical effect. Paul may claim he is “untrained in speech,” but the evidence of his letters proves that he was capable of putting words together in ways that will ring throughout history. How many preachers can equal the rhetorical power of Philippians 4, Romans 8, or 1 Corinthians 13? No one has ever claimed that the soaring eloquence of these passages emptied the cross of its power. Paul is not against being eloquent; he is against prideful presentations of human skill and wisdom that run counter to God’s foolishness revealed in the cross. The crucified Christ is served by oral eloquence if it articulates the spiritual eloquence of God’s humility and subversive ways.
So the preacher cannot use Paul as an excuse for being ill-prepared, sloppy, or lazy. We must choose our words, images, and rhetorical structures carefully. We want to maximize the listener’s involvement in Christ’s good news, not our world’s vision of power and success. Even so, the preacher’s honesty counts more than eloquence, and humility counts more than knowledge. Our very imperfections may be the cracks through which the good news is made most real.
Barnabas, Paul’s missionary partner, was once mistaken for Zeus. Almost certainly he was more powerful and distinguished looking than Paul, yet Paul did all of the talking (Acts 14:12). This may have been because Paul’s testimony of how he went from being a church-destroyer to a church-builder was more dramatic. Or it may have been because Paul could speak with the authority of having received astonishing visions. Or it may have been simply because Paul liked preaching more than Barnabas did. Whatever the reason Paul did most of the talking, it is probably fortunate that he did, because through his weak presence and contemptible speech something profound about the good news was conveyed. God chose what is weak and lowly to shame the strong and proud.
If, in our own preaching of the crucified Christ, we are accused of being a weak preacher, we may have received our most valuable encouragement.