Sadness, shock, anger, disappointment, frustration, and despair. Such feelings are not uncommon in our streets and suburbs. Of course, there is much for us to enjoy, and opportunities abound for most people across Melbourne, and yet more and more data suggest that a cavity exists in many lives and it is only growing with time.
In the extraordinary musical, Les Miserables, Fantine sings a song that haunts. The words tell her story. It is a story of lingering hope. It is a story of desperate hope that fades. It is a story that too many of our neighbours and friends resonate with, and perhaps even yourself.
I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I prayed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hopes apart
And they turn your dreams to shame
And still I dream he’d come to me
That we would live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream, I dreamed
In our search for hope, we are often urged to look inside ourselves or to carry on and push through barriers. On other occasions, we are encouraged to hold onto relationships or careers as though these can secure contentment and peace. What happens when these things fall apart or fail? What happens when we reach all our goals, only to discover that they cannot fulfil the burden we placed upon them?
Easter really does give us the answer. Maybe that sounds a little too Christian for you; an unimaginative and prosaic offering. I don’t mean the long weekend or colourfully wrapped chocolate bunnies and eggs. I’m referring to the historic events that took place just outside Jerusalem about 2000 years ago. Even today, with all our latest gadgets and knowledge, the world hasn’t overcome the irresistible story of God who gave his life for hopeless and helpless people.
Over Easter, my church is exploring (as will churches across Melbourne) the good news story that never dies or fades or disappoints. On that cross, the darkest dark fell upon the Son of God in the place of a sinful world. On the Sunday morning, a light more brilliant than the dawning of the sun pierced history and continues to shed light on millions of lives across the world.
Our Bible text for Easter Sunday this year includes these breathtaking words from John’s Gospel,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:16-21)
Notice, how God is described as recognising there is something not right in the world. Also, note how these verses assume God doesn’t agree with every want and desire and activity we pour our lives into; it’s as though we’re not the standard for righteousness. At the same time, there is a profound love spoken and expressed.
A lot of Aussies have given up on Church. Millions have discounted Christianity. When we’re being honest we can understand why this is sometimes the case, given the horrors uncovered in some church buildings and lives of clergy. At the same time, most churches aren’t playing games of pretension and hypocrisy, but they are filled with ordinary people who are convinced by the power and goodness of the God who has loved the world.
Many of our dreams cannot be and some ought not to be. But life cannot kill the greatest dream: God is forgiving. Jesus has paid the ransom.
Why not visit a church this Easter? Perhaps open a Bible and read the Easter story for yourself (Mark chs. 14-16; John chs. 18-21)*
* You can read the Bible online for free. https://www.biblegateway.com/ is one of many great websites that allow us to search and read any part of the Bible)
Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, following an internal investigation. He was found to have breached the church’s code of conduct with incidents involving two women over the past 10 years.
Concerns have been levelled at Hillsong over what is perceived to be a long standing lack of transparency and even an unwillingness to deal with erring leaders. One senses that the Board is now trying to set the record straight but even yesterday’s press release fails the mark. As many are noting, it is inappropriate to announce the resignation of a pastor found guilty of mistreating women and in the same letter, praise the man.
“Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades.”
I suspect it was unintentional but the fact is, this one sentence diminishes the seriousness of the offences against the two women and it fails to acknowledge the damage now caused to the public reputation of the Gospel due to Houston’s behaviour.
If you are staggered and angry by Brian Houston’s behaviour toward these women and the excuses offered by Hillsong (medication and alcohol), you are right to feel this way. If this raises further suspicions and causes you to ask if there are more stories hiding and may be uncovered, that reaction is pretty natural. If this latest Hillsong revelation is causing you to lose trust in churches and their leaders, I understand. If you’re wondering, is church a safe place for women, again the question is understandable. It is reprehensible that any person should mistreat another no matter the setting; how much worse though when the man is considered a pastor over Christ’s Church. It should never be.
Having said that, this is not an anti-Brian Houston post. Neither am I here to throw rhetorical rocks at Hillsong. I rarely speak about Hillsong, especially in the public domain. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have never been a fan of Hillsong. There have been serious question marks over their ‘brand’ of Christianity for more than 30 years. The thing is, Hillsong isn’t alone in admitting to sinful and failed leaders. There are examples appearing in all kinds of churches. There are failed church leaders who once oversaw churches and organisations that are fairly aligned with my own theological convictions. Whether it is Mark Driscoll, Jonathan Fletcher or Ravi Zacharias, and many names that never reach public attention, bullying, abuse, sexual sin, and unfaithfulness is a contagion that crosses denomination lines and churches, and societies. Hillsong has become a popular football for media pundits to kick around, but a quick look in our own backyard may reveal that we also have serious issues with inappropriate and even wicked leaders.
Houston has fallen, let us be careful lest we follow him.
What are we going to do about the growing number of errant and disqualified leaders? On the one hand, the Bible warns us that such figures will arise and control and damage churches and people’s lives. On the other hand, the Bible also expects leaders to be godly and faithful and humble and servant-hearted.
Last year we decided that our first sermon series for Mentone Baptist Church in 2022 would be First Timothy. This letter written by the Apostle Paul is concerned with right and godly leadership over the church. As an example, last Sunday I was preaching on chapter 3, a fearful passage for any preacher given it outlines qualifications for church overseers (pastors) and deacons. I am not mentioning this in order to convey some hubristic sense of godliness, as though Mentone is holding the high bar perfectly and without shakes and knocks. Rather, as we revisited these important Scriptures, I am reminded of how high God’s bar is for those desiring to serve as church leaders.
I suspect, one of our issues isn’t that churches think too much of the Bible, but that we think too little of Scripture. Our problem isn’t too much faith in God, but that we don’t really believe what God says. We are quite proficient at pointing the Bible at other people but less willing to let God address our own lives.
A Church cannot survive on the personality or prowess of the pastor(s). The health and future of any church runs far deeper than any individual’s desire or demand to lead.
Desire is one thing. 1 Timothy 3:1 indicates that “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task”. However, desire alone is inadequate. Our broader culture might believe that we should pursue what we feel. We mustn’t let any ceiling prevent us from realising our desires. Paul notes that pastoring is a noble task, however, desire is not enough. Desire is necessarily coupled with qualifications and these are qualifications that must be recognised in the candidate by the church.
In the case of 1 Timothy ch.3, there are 13 qualifications. The list isn’t designed to be comprehensive, for there are more attributes and responsibilities explored in other parts of the New Testament. However, these 13 are non-negotiable and must form part of the resume for any who are suited for pastoral ministry. For anyone interested in an explanation of the qualifications, you can listen to the sermon I gave last Sunday (or read a good commentary). For the sake of brevity, I will just state each qualification here:
the overseer is to be above reproach,
faithful to his wife,
able to teach,
not given to drunkenness,
not violent but gentle,
not a lover of money.
He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.
He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
Over the last 5 -10 years, the broader culture has resurrected the question of character. Does a politician’s private life matter when it comes to public office? Can we ignore a leader’s personal sins so long as we approve of their politics? Whether it is the case of Barnaby Joyce or Donald Trump or Tim Payne, our aspiring neo-puritan age is indicating that character does in fact matter…at least in those cases where leaders fall foul of the culture’s milieu.
The Bible has always said that character matters in our leaders. Godliness is important in all our lives, and especially those who are appointed to lead.
As one way of getting around the problem I recently heard an old adage repeated: the way we avoid bad leadership is by having no leaders in the church. In order to fulfil some egalitarian dream of the church, everyone should have an equal say and role. Perhaps that sounds appealing to you, but of course, that model of church contradicts the pattern laid out in Scripture and it’s also irresponsible. What ends up happening is that those with personality and power end up leading by default.
In addition to those essential qualities presented in 1 Timothy ch.3, I want to suggest these further 7 points that I believe will help churches in protecting the congregation and helping leaders from falling into grievous sin. Of course, no system is perfect, and any process can be misused, but any Christian Church must recognise how high the stakes are. At hand are things of greater consequence than we can grasp. It is not only the question of character that the Bible emphasises, it is the gravity of the pastor’s work. It is of such weight that we should hesitate before raising our hands for the job or before accepting a nominee.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
May I humbly present this offering, as I reflect on our own church and the near impossible task of shepherding the people who belong to God and have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ:
Don’t be a pastor. Of course churches need pastors, both those training formally at theological college and those raised from within the congregation. It is ok to slow down. It is okay to realise that this isn’t for you. It is okay to say no.
Insist on character. Churches, don’t sacrifice character.
Establish a plurality of leadership. The New Testament’s vision for healthy churches is not a solo pastor but of a plurality of elders and plurality of deacons who are accountable not only to each other but also to the church membership.
Insist upon clear accountability structures that are readily observed.
Insist upon a fair and accessible grievance process for everyone in the church.
Pray for those who lead.
Build a culture of transparency and trust. It is worthwhile quoting Paul’s letter once again. In the chapter following the qualifications for elders and deacons, Paul urges Timothy to lead by showing and sharing his life as well as his teaching. Paul comprehended the value and importance of transparency and trust, and he also understood saw the goal to which this pastoral oversight is pointing,
“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers”.
The idea that God has new things to say and that the Holy Spirit speaks to people outside of Scripture is a common understanding among some religious circles. The ‘Holy Spirit said to me’ has become a popular belief particularly among pentecostal and progressive Christians. Stories of the Spirit speaking offer powerful testimonies, albeit ones that cannot be verified. The claim is often used to justify ideas and decisions we want to make. After all, how can we say no to an idea if the Spirit has spoken?! This is, however, a misleading and dangerous notion. This view of the Spirit and God’s speech is one that ignores the Spirit’s own testimony through Scripture and it is one that often leads to all manner of pastoral issues.
Indeed, when we have a dodgy doctrine of the Bible we shouldn’t be surprised if we take a wrong turn on all kinds of theological and ethical issues.
Before I turn to the Bible I want to clarify a few potential pushbacks.
What I’m not saying
I’m not for a moment suggesting that we only listen to Scripture and that other voices are unimportant. It is an act of love and respect that we listen to and understand the culture around us. We value people by appreciating the questions and fears and longings they feel and express. It’s for this reason, that people matter, that it’s vital Christians don’t go around playing God and claiming authoritative words from God.
Let me also preface, I am not pretending that the culture we live in doesn’t influence how we read the Bible. The conversation however is not a dialectical one where we come to the truth by listening to both the Bible and the voices of today. Rather the Holy Spirit sanctifies God‘s people so that we understand and embrace more of what God has spoken. His word will increasingly draw us into conformity with his Son and not with the standards of our cultural moment.
I am not denying the active work of God’s Spirit in the lives of God’s people. The Spirit illumines the words of God so that we may understand, believe and obey them. The Spirit ministers to our hearts, and affects joy, peace, and love, perseverance. The Spirit unites us to Christ and with each other. The Spirit does not however speak new words or words that contradict Holy Scripture.
The Holy Spirit and the Bible
Allow me to demonstrate my point from the Bible.
The suggestion that God’s Spirit is revealing new truths beyond the Bible goes against the grain of what we learn about the Spirit’s role in revealing God and his plan of salvation. John 14-17 is one of the Bible’s most important sections for giving us a doctrine of Scripture. In these chapters, Jesus teaches his disciples extensively about the work of the Holy Spirit. Please note the following:
The Holy Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son (14:26; 15:26–27; 16:7).
He is the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26-27). Already in John’s Gospel the truth has been defined as Jesus (14:6) and the Father’s words are defined as truth (17:7). As the Spirit of truth his representation of God and God’s purposes are true. He does not lie.
The Holy Spirit has a speaking role. He is, however, not a free agent doing and saying whatever he pleases, but as the One sent from the Father and the Son his mission is tied to theirs (16:13–15). Jesus makes this very clear to his disciples.
The content of the Holy Spirit’s speech is Jesus: ‘the Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (14:26); ‘the Spirit of truth…will testify about me’ (15:27).
Most scholars agree that in 14:26 and 16:13–15 Jesus is addressing his apostles, rather than the Church at large. After all, when Jesus says, the ‘Holy Spirit…will remind you of all that I have said to you’, this must be addressed to the apostles who were with Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Thus, Jesus is not saying that the Spirit will teach us new things, he is teaching his apostles that the Holy Spirit will help them remember, understand and apply Jesus’ teachings. In other words, the Holy Spirit is pointing back to Jesus. On three occasions John shows his readers this divine’ remembering in action (2:22; 7:39 12:16).
6. The Spirit’s words to the disciples become what we know as the apostolic message, the New Testament Scriptures. In John 17:6–19 Jesus prays for his disciples, that as men who had been sanctified by the truth, and as Jesus had been sent by the Father, so Jesus sends his disciples into the world. This prayer is immediately followed up by a prayer for all future believers, those ‘who will believe in me through their message’ (17:20). To summarise: God’s revelation comes from the Father and from the Son, it is mediated by the Spirit, to the apostles, about the Son, who in turn are sent into the world. There is no hint that the Holy Spirit will speak words beyond the apostles or in addition to the full revelation of God in Christ.
In my view, this is game, set and match. Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit and Scripture in John 14-17 gives clarity as to the how, what, and why of the Spirit teaching.
One of the corollaries accompanying the view that the Spirit speaks new words today is the belief that the Bible isn’t sufficient. But is this the way Jesus and the Apostles describe the Bible? Let’s explore,
Jesus consistently taught that the entire Old Testament (for the New Testament had not yet been written) ought to be considered as the words of God, and accordingly trusted and obeyed.
For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus establishes his Scriptural hermeneutic, saying,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17-18)
This statement is important for at least these two reasons: First, Jesus explicates one of the chief purposes of the Old Testament Scriptures. “Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament (from Genesis to Malachi), and with clarity, he explains their ultimate design, which is to prepare for and point people to himself. Jesus is not dismissing the fact that there is much to learn about God, the world, and ourselves through reading the Old Testament. In its pages, God reveals his character and Being, his justice and mercy, his righteousness and kindness, his power and his gentleness. We uncover human nature, spoken of without our masks and artificial moral colouring: people are presented in all their glory, worth, and depravity. In addition, historians, anthropologists, and linguists gain knowledge about the ancient world through reading this most unique of texts. Jesus, however, announces that the Old Testament is a word of promise, a divine plan that was awaiting fulfilment, and with his coming, the plan was being realised.
Second, not only is all Scripture full of divine purpose, it is also authoritative. Jesus states that every letter and brushstroke is considered true, important and abiding. The smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet is yod, a tiny inverted comma-like flick of the pen. The least stroke of a pen is more difficult to identify with precision, although scholars have suggested several plausible candidates, including the letter waw, an ornamental stroke known as a “crown”, or even a hendiadys. Jesus’ point is nonetheless clear; not even the tiniest drops of ink on the page will be erased from Scripture but will remain until everything is accomplished.
Those listening to Jesus are left with no doubt that he has the highest regard for all the Scriptures, as the very words of God and words that remain authoritative. These words are to be interpreted in light of Christ but still hold continuing relevance and jurisdiction.
In summary, the Old Testament is true and purposeful, not losing its significance but finding fulfilment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is important for all kinds of contemporary issues surrounding racism, sexuality and gender.
Lest one thinks Matthew 5:17-18 is an isolated statement and we don’t need to take it that seriously, following his death and resurrection, Jesus once again explained the gravity of those events to his disciples by opening the Scriptures, again proving the link between the Old Testament promises and himself.
“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)
Jesus not only connects the Old Testament with himself but also the New Testament. This is unsurprising in many ways, given that the life of Jesus dominates the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the remaining 23 books expound on the living reality and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus himself possibly never wrote a word with ink and papyri, and yet the authors of the New Testament were not independent biographers and theologians. They wrote not only about but under the direction of the Word become flesh.
Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, it is clear that the Apostles did not veer from Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures, and their own writings confirm Jesus’ foretelling of the work of the Holy Spirit who would enable them to retell God’s final revelation who is Jesus Christ.
For example, the Apostle Paul insists of Scripture,
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
The words of Scripture come from the breath of God. The relationship between God and the Bible is akin to one’s mouth and breath. Every word was expired from the mouth of God, and every word is useful. None is to be erased or excused, but all are useful for life and doctrine.
This Pauline paragraph also points to the way Scripture is authoritative and relevant for future generations of Christians, specifically in this case, Timothy. Words that were then centuries old remain useful to second-generation Christians. In other words, the Scriptures continue to hold their truth, crossing generations and cultures, nations and languages.
Hebrews ch3 provides us with a really clear example of the relationship between Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s voice, and today.
“So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness,
9where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”
The author of Hebrews confirms that the Holy Spirit speaks and he chooses a present active verb to suggest the continuing relevance of this speech. And notice the words the Holy Spirit speaks: Psalm 95. And notice the warning of the Spirit words which are Psalm 95, don’t harden your hearts to his words.
In his excellent book, ‘Hearing God’s words, Peter Adam, quoting Calvin, says,
“For Calvin, ‘Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit’. Moses, for example, ‘wrote his five books, not onlyunder the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but as if God himself had suggested them out of his own mouth’. The words of SCripture do not come from the pleasure of men ‘but are dictated by the Holy Spirit’. Amos ‘possessed the discerning of the Holy Spirit’ and Ezekiel ‘only spoke from the mouth of God, as the organ of the ‘Spirit’.
“God not only caused the Scriptures to be written originally, but also sends the Spirit to bring those same words deep into the hearts of believers.” (Adam)
“For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines.” (Calvin)
Wrongful claims about the Holy Spirit are unnecessary, misleading, and dangerous
The view that the Holy Spirit is speaking new words today cannot be sustained in light of the Spirit given word that is the Bible. What it does do is create a host of problems.
It undermines people‘s confidence in the Bible
It subjectivises the way God speaks.
It collapses revelation into illumination.
It inevitably suggests the Holy Spirit is a contrarian who gives contradictory words to different groups of believers. Which words are true? Which words are we to listen to?
It is often used to justify ethics and decisions that are clearly contrary to the what God does say in his word.
God hasn’t given us a dodgy word that needs supplementation or revision. The issue isn’t that we need ‘new’ words from God, but that we often don’t press close to God in his sufficient word: reading, trusting and obeying.
Is God in a habit of having to correct himself? Is God a contradictory God? Are we to believe that the Holy Spirit is communicating new ideas that reject parts of the Bible?
Heterodox ideas throughout history have often come about because people have either added to or subtracted from God‘s Word. It’s the serpent on repeat, did God really say? It’s like building your case for or against vaccines based on the personal opinions of vociferous social media voices rather than medical experts. And sometimes, churches have adopted the letter of the word but lost the heart of what God is saying, and in doing so they cause many to stumble.
If we want to know what God thinks, open the Bible and read it; not plucking verses out of their context but reading it as we ought, in context, understanding genre, recognising that all Scripture is preparing for and fulfilled by and is about Jesus Christ.
A classic example of this arose during Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had adopted a revisionist view of marriage and one day approached Jesus with the aim of entrapping him by their new understandings. Jesus’ response wasn’t to reinvent human sexuality and the nature of marriage. Instead, Jesus pointed people back to the Scriptures and affirmed God’s purpose in marriage. Not only that, Jesus defined (in accord with Scripture) that any sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman are considered porneia.
The wonder of God’s word is that it doesn’t leave us with pronouncements of judgment for all the ways we reject and break his good word. God’s Gospel word is that he loves to forgive and reconcile. This isn’t because righteousness becomes unimportant or fluid. Rather, the Scriptures show us that the God of absolute goodness and holiness is also the God of extreme mercy. This is where we find true inclusion and acceptance; God not excusing or endorsing human attitudes and behaviour, but in Christ God forgiving and restoring us no matter who we are and what we have done. We don’t need to find new words to add to this final one.
Some of this piece is taken from an essay and a lecture that I gave some years ago
I’ve been asked by a number of pastors what Mentone‘s plan is for returning to church later this year. Our church elders recently put together a document and they’ve given me permission to share it here, in the hope that it may be of some value to others. I stress, it is important to read the entire document and not remove one statement from the context of others.
We have tried to convey the complexity of issues that lay before churches in Victoria. We are not suggesting that this is the only path forward for churches. We appreciate that churches will land on these issues in slightly different ways. This is Mentone Baptist’s direction and the theological framework that is underpinning our decisions. In light of the fact that the COVID-19 situation is fluid (and as we state in the document), some aspects of the plan may change in the event of new information and updates. We pray that the Lord grants ongoing wisdom and patience to the churches across our State as we navigate this difficult season.
Statement by the Elders of Mentone Baptist Church regarding the return to church and vaccines
We realise that the topic of vaccine mandates and church is a contentious issue, with strongly held opinions in the community and including among Christians. The Elders have sought advice, discussed at length, and prayed over our position. Here is what we think.
We outline 5 principles in this document which together serve to frame the position we are taking in relation to church and vaccines. As you will see, forming a view is not a matter of using one Bible verse or singling out one issue. Rather, there are multiple issues and many theological strands that together help us formulate the conclusions we have arrived at. Also, it is not the case that we prioritise one of these convictions over the others, but that we hold all 5 together.
We appreciate that each church will be required to carefully consider these issues and some may arrive at slightly different conclusions. We are not pretending that the subject is easy and neither are we claiming to have infallible insight. We are nonetheless persuaded that the direction we have settled on is wise and godly. We also understand that if the rules change we may need to reassess the decisions we have made. As men who love the Lord Jesus and uphold the authority of Scripture and are committed to the health and future of Mentone Baptist Church, we commit this plan to you.
1. We believe the in-person gathering of the church is essential
We believe that Church is an essential service, both for the spiritual and social wellbeing of Christians and for the spiritual and social health of society.
People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”
Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom, Youtube, and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another.
The Scriptures exhort believers to meet regularly and not to give up this practice,
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Without diminishing the Biblical principle of in-person gathering, it is worth pointing out lessons from history. In times of plague and emergency, Churches were adaptable and took reasonable measures for the common good. For example, when the Spanish Flu struck North America in 1918, churches closed for several months. In the 16th Century, while there was little understanding about the way disease spread, Christian leaders including Martin Luther and John Calvin adapted their ministry practices during outbreaks of the plague.
In a letter Martin Luther wrote,
“Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”
“If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination (Leviticus 13–14), we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine.”
Restraints on freedom to gather for public worship must be reasonable and temporary. We believe that current limitations on church gatherings qualify as reasonable and short term, although we are concerned about the increasing toll this is taking on peoples’ mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing. Subsequently, we accept there is an argument for reevaluating the current restrictions imposed on Melbournians. When we believe the Government is acting unfairly and unreasonably toward Churches, we will ask for correction.
2. We believe we have a duty of care toward others
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)
We want church to be safe for everyone and we want everyone to have opportunity to hear the Gospel and for all God’s people to gather as Church. Among these goals are competing tensions and we need wisdom for navigating these.
The Elders accept the broad consensus in the medical community that the COVID-19 vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and we encourage people to be vaccinated. This is a way we can show consideration toward others. While we encourage people to be vaccinated, we also understand that a few cannot for medical reasons and others may express concerns. It is important for us to love those who have come to different conclusions.
We also don’t want to do anything that will discredit the Gospel and unnecessarily cause anyone to think ill of Christ and his Church. At a time where Christianity has lost social credibility through important issues such as abuse, are our actions adorning the Gospel or confusing the Gospel or conflating the Gospel with other worldviews and political agendas? Serving the wellbeing of our community and city is an important way of demonstrating the love of Christ.
3. We believe obeying the Government is a matter of godliness
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-5)
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2)
The two exceptions to this principle of obedience are 1. where Government policy directly violates Holy Scripture, and 2. where a Government mandate is manifestly unjust.
4. We believe the conscience has an important although not supreme role in determining what is right and good
We are mindful of the conscience and believe we should tread cautiously before acting against ones conscience. However, the conscience is not infallible. We mustn’t assume that strong feelings equal right feelings. We mustn’t assume that an issue must be primary or essential because people hold strong views or feel strongly about it. As Jonathan Leeman says (Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule: 2016),
“Christians no doubt possess a duty to be faithful to their consciences, yet I would argue that they possess a higher duty to be right. After all, consciences in the Bible can be misguided and must be instructed.”
There is a mistaken view of the conscience that has taken hold in some quarters, and that is, the conscience should never be violated and thus whatever I think about public health measures should only be enforceable where I agree with those measures. Jonathan Leeman is once again helpful,
“First, government is very much in the business of binding whole persons, including their consciences. […] God established governments in Genesis 9 precisely because humanity’s consciences had become unbound. A person might be conscientiously convicted that a nation’s immigration laws are unfair, but he or she is still obligated to obey them, even while simultaneously working to change them. His or her conscientious objection is no measure of the law’s legitimacy. An act of disobedience by the Christian can only be justified by demonstrating that the law is not just or right, not simply that one has a conscientious objection to it.”
“Luther’s celebrated parry against usurpatious princes and priests, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe,” makes for good Protestant sermon fodder, but a theology of authority and submission is a bit more complex. God does in fact authorize various individuals and institutions to place burdens on the conscience. When a parent instructs a child to go to bed, the child should feel conscience bound to obey. So with a prince and subject or an elder and church member in their areas of jurisdiction.”
Professor Patrick Parkinson (Academic Law Dean at the University of Queensland and Chair of Freedom for Faith) explains why the argument from conscience is not always legitimate,
“If I object to taking a vaccine because I am worried about side-effects, or because I am concerned that it is insufficiently tested, I am not objecting on moral or conscientious grounds. I am making a decision based upon my assessment of the risks versus the benefits to myself on medical grounds. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that such a judgment is a religious one. The Bible gives us no guidance whatsoever on the medical efficacy or benefit of a new vaccine. A religious person who has an objection to a vaccine does not have a religious objection by reason only of the fact that he or she happens to be religious.
‘A religious person who has a non-religious objection to vaccination is absolutely entitled to refuse a violation of his or her bodily integrity; but this does not mean that governments and employers are not justified in imposing restrictions to protect others, so long as the restrictions are reasonable.”
In other words, we believe that coercing the conscience is fraught with problems, however not every argument against taking the COVID-19 vaccines can be attributed to the conscience.
5. We believe keeping the unity of the body of Christ is of paramount importance
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
At Mentone Baptist Church we will not divide the church with endless controversies (Titus 3:9-11) and/or over disputable matters. Christians who repeatedly introduce topics to the Christian community which are both divisive and of tertiary importance (such as the debates around covid), and refuse to stop doing so are guilty of dividing the church. People are free to have these discussions in their own time with others who wish to participate. But it is inappropriate to hash these discussions out in Bible study chat groups or church zoom meetings.
We will not treat with antipathy those who cannot be vaccinated or those who hold reasonable grounds for not getting vaccinated. We want to show grace and peace toward all.
We will affirm the Gospel together and that we are one in Christ Jesus. We will encourage each other with this Gospel and not allow other matters to distract or destroy the fellowship we enjoy together in Christ.
We encourage anyone who has concerns to speak with one of the Elders. We encourage anyone who has concerns about vaccines to speak with their GP.
Mentone’s roadmap for returning to Church:
The Victorian Government has announced the roadmap to recovery. We understand that the pathway is subject to unforeseen changing circumstances, but nonetheless it is useful to have this clarity.
Our 5 governing principles are each important but as the Victorian plan indicates, putting these into practice is not always straightforward. We maintain the essential nature of the public gathering of church, our duty of care toward others (both inside and outside the church), the need to obey Government, the role of conscience, and God’s command to maintain the unity of the Church.
In light of these 5 principles, our goal is to return to a single service and with everyone meeting in the same room (auditorium) as soon as possible. We recognise that this aim will come about in stages over a period of time. For the sake of public witness and public health we should exercise patience and grace.
Below are key dates and the Church activities that can recommence as per Government guidelines:
Victorian Government Roadmap” ‘Place of worship’
From October 26
Growth Groups and prayer meetings can recommence outdoors (on church property). If there are persons in a Growth Group who are unvaccinated, we encourage the entire group to continue meeting online rather than divide the group. Youth Group may restart, with the discretion of leaders.
If fully vaccinated, with medical exemption, and u16: Meetings must be outside, DQ4, 50 cap. Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.
From November 5th
In addition to the above, and depending on latest health advice, we intend to return to in-person gatherings on Nov. 7th. If meeting indoors we will need to meet over 2 services. For those unable to attend we will provide online access.
Fully vaccinated: Indoors DQ4 and 150 cap, outdoors DQ2 500 cap. Or, Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.
From November 19
Note: all dates are indicative and may change
The Government rules currently require proof of vaccination for entry into a place of worship to operate with appropriate numbers. As such, those who are unvaccinated (apart from those with a medical exemption and underage children) will be excluded from indoor and main gatherings in the short term.
We have concerns about this. As Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel has said,
“Churches have a responsibility to minister to all, regardless of immunisation status…We want everybody to be safe at church, but we also want to make sure we minister to everybody.”
Hence, we will comply with Government restrictions so long as they are reasonable, fair and temporary. For both stages of reopening (October 26th and November 5th), the Victorian Government is mandating double vaccination for people wanting to attend any events, restaurants, and churches. Therefore, this is not discrimination against Churches. In fact, whereas other public events and spaces are not permitted to include unvaccinated people at all, the Government have made provision for unvaccinated people to gather for a religious service, so long as it is outdoors and with a maximum of 20 persons. We are not comfortable in keeping anyone from our main gatherings, even for a limited period of time, but the rules do indicate that the Government is accommodating religious Victorians.
Many of us may disagree with aspects of the Government’s plan or share concerns, but that is not sufficient reason to disobey. Once the vaccination rates hits the required target on or around November 19th, we anticipate that Australia’s National Plan will remove the barriers between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. If this is the situation, we are prepared to endure 2 weeks of this less than ideal situation. To signal our unity in Christ, for Sundays Nov 7 and 14, we will refrain from the Lord’s Supper. In addition, rather than speaking of church we will use the language of ‘public gathering’.
We believe it is incumbent upon both the Federal and State Governments to confirm with adequate time the date when unvaccinated Victorians can mingle unhindered with vaccinated Victorians. If it becomes clear that these arrangements are going to extend beyond November 19th, we will appeal to the proper authorities and we will discuss with the church what the wise and godly course of action will be.
We recognise that these arrangements are less than ideal; it is the nature of a pandemic. We are very conscious of the fact that while the majority of people agree to being vaccinated, we understand that others have concerns. We are also aware that we have a duty of care toward those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and we want to be able to confirm with visitors that we are a safe space for them. Each member is important to the whole body and we do not want to live in an environment where some are excluded. Again, we encourage people to be vaccinated if not for their own wellbeing, then doing so out of love for others. The Elders are happy to address any moral or theological concerns, but we ask that you speak to your GP for any medically related issues.
Brothers and sisters, let’s “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. (Ephesians 4:3)
The world famous operatic tenor, Andrea Bocelli, performed a live concert over Easter at Milan’s Cathedral. The performance was given the apt name, “music for hope.” Many millions of people have already watched the stunning combination performance.
What grabbed my attention was the final song, ‘Amazing Grace’. This Christian hymn offers great encouragement & hope, more than we perhaps realise at first.
What is the message of Amazing Grace?
Who wrote this most popular hymn and why?
I offer an explanation here in this short podcast.
A mural has appeared in Melbourne’s famous Hosier Lane. I’m not sure whether it’s commemorating or celebrating the egging of Senator Fraser Anning, but it’s there and no doubt it’ll gain national if not international attention by tomorrow morning.
It was only last night that I realised that this incident took place just up the road from where I live and from where my church is located. Frankly, I felt sickened that in my neighbourhood an event took place which is being described as an extreme right-wing political meeting.
Photograph V.T Rudd
The egging was a 17-year-old boy’s response to Senator Anning’s comments about Friday’s terrorist attack in Christchurch, where 50 Muslims were murdered as they prayed in two separate Mosques. Senator Anning suggested,
“The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand… The entire religion of Islam is simply the violent ideology of a sixth century despot masquerading as a religious leader.”
He then had the audacity to misread and misapply the Bible as a proof text. Dr Andrew Moody has written a helpful article which explains what Jesus is saying, as opposed to the message Anning is communicating.
I find Senator Anning’s comments morally repugnant. As an Australian, I wish we would be more welcoming of refugees. I spoke to someone over the weekend who works among some of the poorest and more oppressed peoples in the Middle East. They reminded me of the continued needs that thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis have, who are looking for a new home, a place that is safe and where they can raise their families without bloodshed. Also, as a Christian who is serving in a church literally down the road from Moorabbin, I find Anning’s use of Jesus’ words repellent.
Like many Australians, I understand why a 17 year old boy might be tempted to ‘egg’ the Senator when the opportunity arose. If I was 17 years old and the supermarket was close by, I might also be tempted to do likewise, but surely we don’t correct one wrong by making another, even if it a relatively harmless egg.
What has been equally sad in the midst of a grief that so many New Zealanders are experiencing this week, is to see politicians, journalists and social commentators throwing their own rhetorical eggs at each other, lobbing insults from left to right and from right to left. If tragedies like Christchurch are unable to bring communities closer together, we have drifted into an unseemly place in our society. It has reached levels where I prefer not to check my twitter feed, and where reading the opinion pages leaves one feeling more disillusioned and disappointed. I don’t think it’s because we have forgotten how to speak civilly and how to show respect by carefully listening to each other, it’s that we don’t want to, and when people do try they are often shouted down with a torrent of verbal insults. The aim of the day is to win the argument by shouting louder and making oneself appear more morally outraged than others.
A few minutes drive south from Moorabbin along Nepean Hwy and with a left hand turn into Mentone, there is a sign which has been displaying its message for 50 years. Thousands of cars drive past this sign every day, although I suspect most people take little notice; it certainly won’t gain the attention that the mural will receive. I understand why. However, the message does grab the attention of some people. At Church yesterday, a man shared his testimony before the congregation and explained how he was driving past Mentone Baptist Church a few years ago and the message on this sign stood out to him and left him wondering about his own life. He eventually started to attend the Church and he became a Christian, his life turned dramatically, and yesterday he and another young guy at Mentone were baptised down at Parkdale Beach.
The message he saw reads, “Jesus Saves”. It is simple and beautiful, its meaning is ancient and yet also current, it both repels and compels, it creates questions and gives an answer. The message is very different from the mural on Hosier Lane that is imprinting the Moorabbin incident onto the city landscape. In a couple of years time only a few people will remember the egging and by then the mural will have been painted over many times. But the good news message of Jesus Christ will still be here, not because there’s anything special about the sign at Mentone Baptist, but because He is that good. It is a message that not only stands against racism but all manner of thinking and living that deposes goodness and truth and life. It is a message that not only signals fault but speaks of an extraordinary and undeserving redemption.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
I am currently preparing for a sermon series at Mentone on the book of Jeremiah. It is a daunting task, not least because of the size of this volume; Jeremiah is the longest book in the entire Bible. More than that, the message that God speaks through his prophet is often distressing and frightening. God’s indictment of Judah and on the nations is terrifying in what it reveals about the human heart. The sheer number of words given over to spell out the charges and judgment can be overwhelming to read.
Here are 12 things that have struck me as I’ve been meditating on the book Jeremiah:
1. Disobeying or making light of God’s word is dangerous and reckless.
“‘How can you say, “We are wise,
for we have the law of the Lord,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
The wise will be put to shame;
they will be dismayed and trapped.
Since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what kind of wisdom do they have?”(Jer 8:8-9)
Refusing to accept, believe and obey God’s word led to an entire nation being destroyed, its cities made rubble and survivors sent into exile.
2. God not only uses history to achieve his purposes, but he shapes history according to his purposes.
For example, God’s orchestrates Babylon’s rise to regional power and they will become an instrument to punish Judah, and yet Babylon is not exempt from being accountable for their own actions.
3. God’s warnings about judgement are also an expression of grace.
Within lengthy passages where God expounds his pronouncements on Judah, we also find words of grace and mercy.
“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer 3:14-15)
God loves to show mercy. God longs for his people to repent and to return to him.
4. Social sins (i.e caring for the poor) are integrally connected to spiritual sin (what we think of God and his law).
“But these people have stubborn and rebellious hearts;
they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say to themselves,
‘Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives autumn and spring rains in season,
who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’
Your wrongdoings have kept these away;
your sins have deprived you of good.
“Among my people are the wicked
who lie in wait like men who snare birds
and like those who set traps to catch people.
Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.” (5:23-28)
5. Fake repentance is a thing
“In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the Lord.” (3:10)
6. God’s promise of judgement is not merely rhetorical:
“I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the Lord. It will be given into the hands of the king of Babylon, and he will destroy it with fire.” (21:10)
“In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it.” (39:1)
“Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon.The Babylonians set fire to the royal palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem.” (39:7-8)
7. God is serious about his 10 commandments
“22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward”. (Jer 7:22-24)
8. Wrath is often a slow drip rather than a sudden flood
Jeremiah’s public ministry extended for almost 40 years, and there were prophets before him and afterward, who warned God’s people about their sin and who called them to repentance.
During the latter years of Jeremiah’s ministry, 13 years separated Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Judah, and of his final defeat and destruction of Jerusalem.
This gradual unfolding of wrath and periods of ‘relief’ was sometimes interpreted as evidence that Jeremiah was wrong. It was not God who was lying, but Judah’s leaders and prophets,
“The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” (5:2)
9. Not every story ends with grace, judgment can be final.
“There at Riblah the king of Babylon killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes; he also killed all the officials of Judah.” (Jeremiah 52:10)
10. Leaders of God’s people must not twist or ignore God’s word.
The strongest warnings and judgments are directed toward Judah’s teachers and priests, those who claim to speak for God and yet deny him with their words and actions. Churches leaders cannot afford to trivialise, ignore, and remove words of Scripture, simply because they are unpopular or difficult.
“They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
they will be brought down when they are punished,
says the Lord.” (8:11-13)
11. Divine grace and forgiveness is more astonishing and wonderful than we can ever imagine
“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”
2 This is what the Lord says:
“The people who survive the sword
will find favor in the wilderness;
I will come to give rest to Israel.”
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
4 I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.
5 Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.
6 There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’”
7 This is what the Lord says:
“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
8 See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.
9 They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.
10 “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” (Jer 31:1-11)
12. Jesus is the promised redeemer in Jeremiah
“the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:6-13)
Yesterday while enjoying a final day of annual leave, as a family we visited another church in Melbourne, which we enjoyed. The preacher took us to Colossians 1:15-29, exhorting us from Scripture to avoid domesticating Jesus and instead capturing a vision of this Lord of creation and Lord of the Church. It was a hot day and the building didn’t have any air conditioning. Did I mention, it was hot?! The poor kids did well, although they let out the occasional groan, as a reminder to Dad and Mum that they were feeling the heat. That aside, it was a joy to hear the Bible being opened, and the truth of Jesus Christ being affirmed and expounded.
One of the highest and most humbling opportunities I have as a Christian minister is to preach God’s word. Preaching is an exciting yet fearful task. It brings immense pleasure and yet requires great earnestness.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,
“We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
According to Paul, the aim of preaching is not to mystify people or to promote a personality or to gain profit, rather it is to ‘set forth the truth plainly’.
In one of the most famous charges ever given to a pastor, Paul says to his apprentice, Timothy,
“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”(2 Timothy 4:2-3)
This is such a helpful passage for understanding the work of the preacher:
We’re told what to do: preach.
We are told what to preach: the word.
We are given a context for preaching: all the time is the season for preaching.
We are given a set of aims in preaching: to correct, rebuke and encourage those listening.
We are given instruction as to the manner in which we preach: with great patience and careful instruction.
We are not however given a method. Having said this, I believe the Bible comes closer to methodology than we at first realise, for the content and aim of the sermon must surely drive the method. Not for a moment am I suggesting that there is only one way to preach. There are several valid styles of preaching including topical, doctrinal and narrative. Even among expository preachers we discover slightly different approaches: Dick Lucas, Don Carson, Tim Keller and Phillip Jensen are all well known for their expository preaching and yet no two are alike in their preaching.
Broadly speaking, all preaching ought to be expository preaching, in the sense that the content of our sermons must come from the Bible. The authoritative, true and sufficient word that God has given to us is the Bible, and as 2 Timothy 4:2 reminds us, it is a God given mandate that our message be this word.
Evangelistic, topical and doctrinal sermons all can and ought to be exposition of Scripture. By this I don’t mean the verse by verse exegesis and application of consecutive passages, but that the point of the sermon must be grounded in and shaped by the word of God. In fact, a sermon may pool together several different Bible passages and yet teach them in such a way that they are being explained and applied correctly.
More specifically, expository preaching is an approach where the preacher takes a self-contained portion of the Bible (usually a book, which is subsequently divided into its constituent sections and then systematically preached over a number of weeks or months). He then explains and applies that passage according to the natural parameters set by the text, which includes genre of writing, the original audience, place in salvation history, its theme and tone. This may take the form of a careful verse by verse exposition, or it may cover several chapters in a single sermon with the preacher teaching and applying the main points that are contained within it.
While this method for preaching is not dictated in Scripture, it is the approach to preaching that I have found most helpful as I seek to be faithful to 2 Corinthians 4:2 and 2 Timothy 4:2.Here are 8 reasons:
Expository preaching shows that the authority lies in the word not in the preacher
It helps ensure that it is God through his word who is setting the agenda, and not the preacher or the congregation or issues around us.
Expository preaching helps me to be clear in my preaching. There is a structure and message in the text. My role isn’t to create a message, but rather the passage gives me the parameters.
I want to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. All Scripture is God-breathed and is for our benefit, so we should aim to eventually preach through the entire Bible (one very long term project!).
I want the church to value the whole Bible. Scripture is an incredibly rich book and I want people to explore all of it.
Far from creating dull or irrelevant preaching, expository preaching keeps me interested and challenged in my preaching, and it pushes my congregation There are 66 different books in the Bible written at different times in history by different authors, in more than 12 different genres, exploring hundreds of themes. The literary diversity of the Bible also helps the congregation to sustain interest in the preaching.
It helps the church to follow the preaching from week to week as they can read ahead.
It is harder for the preacher to ignore difficult and unpopular topics.
In a season where confidence in God’s word is diminishing as people read the Bible less, and the Bible is less frequently read and preached in Church, expository preaching offers a significant antidote.
There is more to preaching than method, and admittedly, there are potential dangers in preaching expositorily, but they have more to do with the preacher than the method: i.e. a lack of training, limited experience, or a preacher who takes short-cuts in their preparation. If I am aiming for my preaching to be faithful, clear, interesting, and compelling to the hearer, then expository preaching will serve me well.
The preacher’s task is immense: heaven and hell are the outcomes, life or death are on offer. Surely it is wise to pursue an approach that will help our preaching to be as faithful and clear as can be.