Why I avoid publishing sermon titles
Some churches love to publish sermon titles. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this practice. It can be a great way to give order and structure to a preaching series. But I have to admit that I dislike them. Here's why:
- they are restrictive in terms of passage. It sometimes happens that you have to break into a series. Perhaps a young guy dies in the church. Perhaps a game-changing vote happens in Parliament. Both occurred this week as it happens. Or what happens when, after careful study, you realise that your unit of Scripture must be two preaching units to do justice to it. What do you do with your series then? Now, I realise that this depends on the nature of the church you are in. If you are sharing a preaching ministry with a team and you are preaching occasionally, it's harder to be flexible about this – but most of us are not in that kind of rarified ministry. Publish your titles and you're in danger of publishing a straightjacket.
- more importantly perhaps, unless you've really studied the book hard, there is a real danger you'll get the titles unhelpfully wrong. I'm preaching Matthew 21.12-17 in 10 days time and my title is a given, "A house of prayer" – only, after studying, I've come to realise that this is not what the passage is about. My theme sentence, for what it is worth, is "Jesus as Messiah, exercises kingly authority in his temple house." Prayer is incidental here (please don't take that the wrong way!). No doubt the title was given in good faith. But I will have to do some backtracking when I come to preach it.
That's why I avoid publishing sermon titles.
Five things not to say this Sunday
Many of us and people in our churches will have been praying about Tuesday’s vote on so-called gay marriage in the House of Commons. The Government’s success in the vote, and the sometimes empty arguments advanced, will have left many of us feeling a little cold, low and disappointed – not just physically, but spiritually too. As preachers, we will have the pulpit on Sunday, so what must we say? Plenty. But I would like specifically to suggest five things we must not say, despite the temptation.
1. Our God is not sovereign
None of us would say this, of course, but might some of our people think it? How can the God we worship and adore possibly be sovereign and allow this vote to have gone through? If ever there were a time for a Mount Carmel type intervention, wasn’t this it? Surely the only reasonable deduction (and one that opponents might well make) is that God is not sovereign? The answer to this regular struggle is always the same. Look to the cross. For at the cross, God wonderfully and sovereignly shows that he is in control of the most wicked and evil events (Acts 2.23). Pastorally, the answer to those struggling with the sovereignty of God is always to take them to Calvary.
2. Our prayers have not worked
“Worked?” What do you mean by that? No doubt some people will be feeling that their prayers (and efforts) have been in vain. We prayed a lot. But our prayers did not work. The idea of prayers “working” is not unbiblical (see James 5.16). But neither it is the whole Bible picture on prayer, nor even the main focus. Prayer is not about getting things primarily. Prayer is an expression of dependence on a sovereign God and humbly submitting to his will. I would suggest that the sentiment, “our prayers have not worked” probably means we and our churches have the wrong view of prayer.
3. Our nation will be judged
So, the rubicon has been crossed. Our nation is now ripe for judgement and surely judgement will come. This is easy to express, but harder to justify biblically. First of all, I don’t think we – as New Covenant Ministers – have the same authority as the Old Testament prophets to call down judgement. Second, everything God does is judgement. He is the Judge and all his sovereign acts are judgements. He is already judging. Third, our nation (if that is the right category) has been ripe for judgement for many centuries. But God, in his good grace, has held back. Despite Tuesday’s vote, that may still continue. Fourth, it depends upon your view of kingdom, but there is certainly a compelling argument to say that this side of the cross, there are only two nations – “my people” and “not my people”. Nations, as we understand them, may be less significant than we think (I realise not everyone will have this view, but you must admit that the whole situation is rather nuanced). So, announcements of national judgement from the pulpit are definitely out. Rather, we should announce judgement in the apostolic way: judgement is coming and everyone should be prepared – Heb 9.27.
4. Our teaching on marriage is rendered impotent
Now marriage looks like being redefined in unbiblical terms, it will be impossible for the church to say anything about it. Nonsense. Proper marriage is and always will be a continued picture of Christ and the church. At its best, biblically understood, it is and always will be a foundational building block of church life and, in God’s grace, non-Christian society. True, it’s going to be harder to make those points now we have to caveat what we say. But I still think marriage is a remarkably positive thing for the church to be speaking about, not least to our own people.
5. Our vote cannot go to anyone who voted for gay marriage
Tempting though this response is, I think it is also wrong. Not only is it legally dubious for ministers to tell church members how to vote, politics is a whole lot more complicated than one issue, however important the issue is. The chances are Christians may well be faced at the next election with candidates from all parties who would have voted the same way. Do we just abstain? I don’t think so. I don’t have a candidate who agrees with everything I do, so voting is a judgement about prioritising and choosing which issues are the most important. Significant though the vote was, nothing that happened on Tuesday changes that.
More positively, as plenty of online Christians have expressed, the whole debate has shown how needy the country is when it comes to the gospel. The ground may be hard, but those who are called to sow must sow. We must pray. We must cast ourselves on God for gospel work and gospel success because truly, if you did not see it before, you must see now that transformed and redeemed lives are the only hope for our nation and our communities.
So, brother, preach the gospel – in season and out of season.
I'm just involved at the moment in a preaching series on Romans at church. This Sunday I've got Romans 2.17-29 as a passage. It's not been easy preparing. Understanding the passage, this time around, was a fairly straightforward part of preparation. Getting to a message was much, much harder. That's partly because of the nature of Paul's argument – and partly because our church isn't filled with Jewish people. That's where the prayerful skill of the preacher comes in -turning this passage into a Christian message. Preaching is not simply explaining the passage and then (at best) giving one or two application pointers. I am proclaiming Christ to unbelievers and believers alike in a way that is faithful to the passage and runs with the thrust and direction of the text.
That is where our Teaching series come in. There are plenty of commentaries I could be reading on Romans. And have. There are plenty of books of sermons I could be reading. And haven't (I find reading other people's sermons not very helpful for preparation). But our teaching series takes the Bible preacher or teacher between the two. And that's what I do need. Christopher's volumes on Romans are immensely helpful.
John Chapman’s memorial service
There's a UK based memorial service for John Chapman (Chappo) coming up soon. It's St Helen's Bishopsgate on Friday 1 March at 3pm and is a good opportunity for those who have been grateful to God for this man of God to acknowledge that together.
The truth, but not the whole truth
As a local church pastor, I was constantly asked why our church was not in Churches Together (which in our large village consisted of a middle-of-the-road Anglican church and a large Catholic church). The answer is simple – because we do not share the essential truths of the gospel. That's not to say there is not orthodoxy in those other places. There is truth, but there is not the whole truth. The same issue came up recently with Sister Wendy explaining some piece of artwork: 'isn't it wonderful how she tells the gospel?' Er, no.
Here's the principle explained mathematically:
some orthodoxy plus some orthodoxy does not equal orthodoxy
In other words, you can say some true things about God (and Sister Wendy did) but that is not the gospel. It is not the full truth. We need to rejoice when any truth is affirmed, but we need to be cautious about acclaiming it as full truth. We are so desperate to hear Christian truth that we tend to get carried away, whether it is a Christian reference in a political speech, or a bishop's sermon at a royal wedding, or even a Monarch's Christmas speech.
And it's important because when we endorse anything less than the full gospel as if it were the full gospel we dilute the truth and lead people astray. It's that serious. I don't just teach the flock by my active instruction, I do so by my indirect (and sometimes silent) endorsement.
A Cornhiller remembered
Today is the thanksgiving service for Phil Nicolls, a Cornhiller from 2007 to 2009. This young father and husband was taken home to glory by our Sovereign Lord just recently, after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. He had been serving at Banstead Baptist Church and was due to take up a position with CWR shortly. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Josie and their daughters, Sophie, Faith & Isabel. We praise God for a loving church which will support them and care for them in this terribly difficult time. Paul Adams, the senior pastor at Banstead, writes "His ministry, supported and shared by Josia, has touched so many lives and we thank God for the life and service of our dear brother."
But it's also a reminder that we are mortal. Pastors often have a tendency to a Messiah-complex and part of that is to see this great trajectory of ministry laid out before us where countless people are saved under our ministry and many others built up. In fact we are no more or less than God makes us and that includes, soberingly, for how long we may minister in this life. Who knows for how long the Lord will graciously spare us? But it does bring Paul's pastoral words into focus. He knows his time is nearing an end (2 Tim 4.6). Yet he links this clear sense of demise to his charge to Timothy to 'Preach the word.' Verse 6 begins with a 'for….'
And who knows the effect that even a short faithful ministry might have had? What if, even in those few short years, the word that was sown through Phil's work and life reaped a harvest 30, 60 or even 100 times that which was sown? What a harvest that would be!
So brothers, give yourself to this exacting and God-glorifying task. We long to help you to do this well and keep going – that is our raison d'etre. And surely the untimely death of a brother servant is a reminder that we must make the most of the opportunities that God graciously gives us.
Well, I never saw that before
Isn't the great thing about reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, preparing sermon and Bible studies, the discovery of something you have read countless times over and over but which sinks in with renewed freshness, or even turns out to be something you've never seen before? Of course, it's wonderful when this is a great theme or application you missed; but with experienced preachers very often it's just a little detail here or a word/phrase there. I had that kind of experience this last weekend. I was listening to a sermon on Matthew 26. Here are the verses in question:
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the High Priest, whose name was Caiaphas and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 'But not during the festival,' they said, 'or there may be a riot among the people.'
And the detail? The enemies of Jesus were determined to kill him, only not during the festival. Jesus knew he was going to Jerusalem to die during the festival. His agenda. His timing. His plan.
OK, OK, you've seen that before, you clever thing. Perhaps I had too – but I had forgotten. Isn't the detail wonderful? There's a danger we lose our sense of awe and wonder at the Bible story – not just the grand sweep of what God is doing, but the intricate detail with which he plans all things. I feel suitably chastened and wonderfully uplifted, all at the same time.
Book review: Capital
I've just finished reading Capital by John Lanchester. It's not a Christian book, but it's the kind of book you might read in a book group. And it was only 20p (that's right 20p) on the kindle. Which is a bargain, whichever way you look at it. The book's premise is not particularly original. It follows the story of a group of people who live on the same street in London. Because the street is gentrified, there is a real mix of people who live there – from old EastEnders to city workers. It provides for a nice collection of interwoven stories. It's well written and pretty enjoyable (though not, as the Tube poster promised "outrageously funny" – were they reading the same book?). Partly because it described the kind of street I live in (though ours is not quite so upmarket), I devoured this book.
But here's my overall assessment. It's a sad book. Ultimately, even though some of the stories end well, most end unsatisfactorily. That feels appropriate because that's life. People lose jobs. People die. People get in trouble with the police. People get unfairly treated. People are unhappy. Essentially, even though, one or two stories end well, the overall feel is one of sad and unhappy life.
AS I said, it's not a Christian book, indeed there's very little that's Christian about it. But it reminded me of how good the good news is. The book portrays the people who live and work around us, even if you don't live in a city. Life is hard, sad and ultimately unrewarding. Christ is the only answer and a biblical view of life after death is the only hope. So here's the thing – this non Christian book made me want to go and talk to my neighbours about Jesus.
Lost: to do list. And there’s a reason.
Last week I lost my to-do list. I don't know where I put it, but it's gone. I feel strangely liberated – nothing to do! But then I also feel ever so slightly scared. What if I forget something that was absolutely critical. My colleague Mr Ash reminded me that I'll get reminders about anything important, so not to worry. He's probably right – I'll just enjoy the moment. My PA, however, expressed surprise that my to-do list wasn't on my iPad or computer, given that I'm such a techy "geek" (nice to have have respect).
However, there's a reason I don't have an electronic to-do list and hence a reason why I was able to lose the paper one I use. I learnt long ago that if I carry around an electronic to-do list with me I'm always looking at it and thinking about what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, what order things need to be done in, – even on days off, evenings in and so on. You can see how unhelpful that would be.
A few years ago I went to a pastors seminar where I heard Andy Paterson (previously pastor of Kensington Baptist Church in Bristol, now Missions Director for the FIEC) speaking. He said that pastors tended towards one of two sins: either overwork or laziness. We would do well, he suggested, to work out our temperament and likely sin and fight it hard. I remember the talk clearly even though it was some time ago. My predilection is overwork and carrying round a to-do list – always looking at it, thinking about it, working on it. It's all really very unhelpful.
So that's why I have a paper to-do list and hence, why it was lose-able.
What's your natural inclination? To overwork. Or to underwork? And how, under God, are you fighting that pastoral sin? Perhaps you need to go pen and paper?
Oh, and by the way, if you're expecting me to do something and it's important, would you mind sending me a gentle reminder?
Hearing her voice?
Adrian posted about the short and carefully reasoned booklet by Sydney evangelical John Dickson, in which John argues that, within the context of a complementarian understanding of gender and leadership, women ought to be allowed to give sermons. John argues that when Paul forbids a woman to “teach” in 1 Timothy 2, the activity he is prohibiting is the authoritative passing on of the apostolic traditions about Jesus, in the age before the canon of the New Testament was completed, and the New Testament was available as a written authority for churches. It is not the same as the preaching of sermons in our churches today.
John is a brother in Christ, a friend to many of us, and has been a blessing to many more through his writing and preaching ministry. He is also a careful and meticulous scholar. So when I downloaded this booklet, I hope I did so prepared to have my mind changed by the arguments in it. Lionel Windsor has given a response and John Dickson has responded to this.
I am not persuaded by John’s arguments, and I want here to offer two very brief comments. These are not based on a thorough and detailed study of the arguments. Nonetheless, I hope they may contribute to the discussions.
- My first observation is that it seems to me that, if Paul forbids women to do just this very specific, and time-limited activity, we need to come up with some theologically persuasive understanding of his reason. Why are women forbidden from this particular activity, but not from the other speaking ministries then or now? John says that, ‘When Paul refers to teaching in the technical and authoritative sense, he means not Bible exposition but preserving and repeating the apostolic deposit. While Paul was happy for women to engage in a range of public speaking activities, in 1 Timothy 2:12 he makes clear that “teaching” is a role only for certain handpicked men.’ In an endnote, John agrees that Paul’s reason for this is rooted in ‘the principle of male responsibility established at creation’. I may have missed something in John’s argument (and I hope he will forgive me if I have), but I don’t think he has given us a persuasive understanding of why Paul’s prohibition should be restricted to just this activity. The usual complementarian understanding, that Paul’s creation principle is one of male teaching responsibility and leadership in the churches of every age, seems to me to make more sense of this.
- My second point concerns John’s precision in distinguishing “teaching” (in this limited sense) from the other New Testament speaking ministries. John refers to ‘numerous public speaking ministries mentioned in the New Testament – teaching, exhorting, evangelizing, prophesying, reading, and so on’. He goes on to say that ‘Paul restricts just one of them to qualified males’. My question is whether the speaking ministries are really so clearly distinguishable. I agree with John that when Paul allows women to prophesy (1 Corinthians 11), he must be referring either to a different activity, or at least to a different context, from the teaching activity of 1 Timothy 2. Even if we do not know exactly what prophesying meant in first-century Corinth, 1 Corinthians 11 does suggest that there are circumstances in which it is a good thing for women to speak to men and women in the church ‘for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort’ (1 Corinthians 14:3). I agree with John that it would be good if this happened more than it does in some of our churches. But I doubt that each of the different speaking words refers to a precisely-definable activity, as if a speaker could say, “Now I am teaching. In the next sentence I shall be exhorting. In five minutes time I shall be evangelizing.” (I hope I am not being too mischievous in parodying it like this.) If most of the speaking words refer to different aspects of essentially the same activity, then the semantic arguments would seem to carry a lot less weight.
I remain persuaded that what we try to do in our sermons is essentially the exercise of pastoral teaching authority in our churches, and that it is consonant with Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2 that this responsibility be entrusted to male pastor-teachers in our churches.