The gospels tell us that already very early in Jesus’ public ministry, his teachings and his sermons made quite a splash. Mark 1, for instance, shows Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Suddenly a demon-possessed man shrieks in ways that must have pierced the gizzards and blanched the faces of everyone there. Jesus dramatically casts out the demon, yet remarkably, when the service is over, the first thing the people say is not, “Wow! Wasn’t that exorcism something!” No, they say, “What’s this: a new teaching, and with authority!”
I don’t know about you, but if I were ever in church some Sunday and a demon got evicted from someone who had interrupted the service with blood-curdling screams, I suspect that after the service while walking back to my car I would be unlikely to say to someone, “Good sermon this morning, eh?” Yet Jesus’ teachings were so stunning that they were what people talked about later.
Of course, the opponents of Jesus seized on this authority issue too. “By whose authority do you teach all this stuff?” they asked Jesus. My Calvin Seminary colleague Gary Burge once pointed out that in Jewish circles it was always important for a new rabbi to establish his credentials by pointing to the authority of the rabbi who had taught him. If you could not appeal to the authority of another, previously authorized rabbi, your work was suspect and could be rejected. Jesus had no such rabbinic backing. Some people sensed his authority was coming directly from God, but the only other figure in Israel’s history for whom that had been true was Moses. Was Jesus greater than Moses? Apparently so.
Preachers today are also de facto challenged on their authority to preach. But a half-century or so ago that wasn’t the case. For a long time, preachers in most traditions were seen as authorities by virtue of their ordination. A bevy of people stood behind the pastor as the ones who authorized this person to preach. There were some duly appointed theological faculty at a seminary somewhere. There were church officials at various levels—congregations, classes, sessions, presbyteries, boards—who had vetted a given pastor and vested him or her with authority to preach. By the time even a newly minted pastor arrived at a congregation, people took this person’s authority for granted. It was very much a top-down view.
But as Fred Craddock noted in his landmark 1970 book on preaching, As One Without Authority, that all changed after the social earthquakes of the 1960s. The bumper-sticker slogans of the ’60s partially tell the tale: “Never Trust Anyone Over 30,” and “Question Authority.” Suddenly, even pastors had to earn the authority to preach from the congregation. Authority could not be asserted top-down, from the pulpit to the pews. Rather, it needed to be earned in the space between the pulpit and the pews. Pastors now must meet people at eye level to prove that they are genuine, that they are fellow disciples on the journey, and that they are, in a word now so vitally important to millennials, authentic.
Yet despite this new cultural dynamic, is there still a sense of a God-generated authority that imbues all true preachers of the Word? In some traditions congregations responded to a sermon with “Thus saith the Lord.” Does anyone dare assert that today? And if it still has some traction in the preaching life of the church, how should both pastors and parishioners understand such a seemingly bold claim? Where does the “saith” of the Lord stop or start in preaching?
This is a tricky question. On the one hand, few people would want to eliminate any sense of the living presence of God emanating from the preacher’s sermon, animated and applied by the Holy Spirit (see my article in Reformed Worship 135 on the Spirit in preaching). On the other hand, it would be a foolish preacher who, upon hearing someone’s issues or disagreements with some portion of a sermon, would say, “Look, thus saith the Lord, so your issue is with God, not me. You criticize my sermon at your spiritual peril.” My hunch is that a pastor who regularly took this posture would soon find that he was beloved by both remaining members of his congregation.
Is there a sweet spot of balance to be discerned here? Perhaps. Certainly this much can be affirmed: If the pastor does her homework in exegeting the Scriptures well, and if the true meaning of a given text gets proclaimed in a sermon as a result, then at least that much of the sermon can be said to have the authority of the true Word of the Lord. If a sermon is then criticized by someone after the service, and if, upon further conversation, it can truly be determined that what this critic is disagreeing with is the Bible itself, then that is the hearer’s spiritual problem to be dealt with pastorally. Then this person’s argument may really be with the Lord after all.
But even sermons that accurately reflect God’s Word from a given Bible passage could conceivably contain applications of that Word that could properly be open to scrutiny. It’s probable that there are multiple ways to suggest what a certain passage implies for people’s lives in the coming week. And it’s also possible for a pastor to get something wrong in this regard. Maybe the pastor suggests that there is only one legitimate, biblical way to approach a given social or political issue when there are multiple ways to be biblically faithful. A pastor ought not dismiss getting something wrong—say, by not adequately sketching the full picture of a given issue or topic—by rote appeals to “Thus saith the Lord!”
Having the humility to admit we don’t always get things right in our preaching—and to humbly accept correction when it is truly warranted—is surely part of that authenticity by which congregations now grant a given pastor additional authority. Yes, there is the backing of God and of God’s church. The preacher is ordained, set aside, and anointed for a sacred task. No one should impugn the divine authority that lies behind all faithful preaching. But modeling the humility of Christ when mistakes are made or when something is misapplied or misstated in a sermon will actually further bolster a pastor’s authority in a community of God’s people.
If we preachers can consistently work hard to ensure our sermons are solidly based on Scripture, and humbly admit when we have made mistakes in application, then by the Spirit of God we might find our own congregations saying, “What is this? Solid teaching and preaching from our pastor—and with authority!” None of us is greater than Moses, and certainly we are not greater than Jesus. But by the Holy Spirit, Jesus stands behind us when we preach his Word faithfully. When that happens, wonderful and surprising things will occur.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.