A Pastoral Mistake
I often make the same pastoral mistake. It is not deliberate, it is often well-intentioned, sometimes it is even hopeful. It is this: to presume upon the biblical knowledge of the people to whom I speak. I do not at all mean by this to deliver a backhanded insult, appearing to confess a shortcoming of my own while really assaulting the failings of others. If I am teacher, if am called to preach the word, to be ready in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching (2Tim 4:2), then I cannot presume upon the understanding of the saints. I cannot say things, even true, biblically-based, and scripturally-sound things, and assume that everyone picks up the quotation of God’s Word or makes the connections of various texts-in-context that may be hanging in my mind. Not everyone is thinking of the chapter where that is taught, or instinctively arriving at the same point in redemptive history on the basis of what has gone before, or seeing the types and shadows fulfilled, or ticking the box of a certain conclusion in systematic theology.
I need to remember this in a variety of settings. I need to remember it when I am preaching, so that I more regularly quote the Scriptures, and—when appropriate and helpful, and probably more often than I do—to turn people to a particular portion or passage, so that they can see it for themselves. I need to remember this in teaching, publicly or more privately, when I may be discoursing on some scriptural theme or principle which I assume is evident to all, but which may be entirely in shadow for someone who has not read or understood that portion of God’s Word, or who has only just come to faith, or who has never been taught these things before. I need to remember it in church members’ meetings, when there are, perhaps, complex or thorny matters of church polity and practice to address, some of which may be alien in principle and in practice to some of the members. I need to remember it in evangelising—not that I can ask open-air listeners to look at their Bibles, or even that I can always put a Bible in front of someone with whom I am speaking more informally, but rather that I can both emphasise that I am speaking from the Bible and encourage them to check.
I need to remember all this not just for unbelievers who may never have been exposed to the Scriptures, but for both new believers and for older Christians as well. Even new believers who have been for years under the sound of the gospel, perhaps under the soundest of ministries, or who were raised by godly parents in a well-ordered home, are likely to be encountering much as if for the first time. The Spirit of Christ has opened their eyes, and they are like people who have never really read their Bibles before! To be sure, we are hoping that the new life they have will vivify the entire framework of truth which they have been taught, but there are lively perceptions and lively connections which they have not yet made, and will not without someone to guide them. And older Christians, too, for various reasons, may be marked by confusion, suspicion, or accusation. I have heard saints of many years standing assure me that the plain teaching of the Bible is wrong, or claim some obscure (or even well-known) verse, poorly interpreted and carelessly handled, as trumping the clear instruction of the more obvious portions of the truth. Some do not so much manhandle as manipulate or even mutilate a text, making it mean what they wish or expect, in danger perhaps of twisting it even to their own destruction. (Now, do I leave that hanging, or do I refer to 2 Peter 3:16, so that people know where I got that language?) Some listen to a preacher or teacher (more often than not, online) with a novel interpretation, or have perhaps come from a religious background marked by ignorance or flawed, if not false, teaching, to which they cling. Some have been bruised by bad teaching in the past. Some just don’t read or engage with their Bibles—some are scared of portions of it, or seem to have spent a lifetime with their eyes going over the page but little truth penetrating the mind. Some are (perhaps natively) marked by suspicion and aggression, quick to accuse and slow to trust, often ready to impute something ugly, perhaps because they have never heard of it or thought of it before. Often people have had little training in basic thinking and learning, or have their own particular limitations.
So perhaps you spend hours with someone almost obsessed with a weird hyper-literalistic interpretation of one verse in Revelation. You try to put it in its context in the book itself, and in the Bible as a whole, and they sit there concentrating, nodding, and then respond as if the conversation as a whole has not been happening—back to square one! Or you have a long discussion with a young believer, tracing out some sweet doctrine and its delightful consequences, only to pick it up again in a week’s time as if the first discussion never happened at all. Or you invest time in bringing the Word of God to bear, explaining and applying particular texts, demonstrating how the Scriptures carry us to certain conclusions, convictions, and actions, only to hear, “Well, I still think that…” Or you get accused of ruling with an iron fist, heavy-shepherding, or cultish behaviour, when you are simply applying the basic principles of church discipline to some open and scandalous sin. Or you find that blood is thicker than water, and everything is so clear, until it comes to my friend, my spouse, my children, my parents—as if all right reason is suspended now that those relationships have come into play, as if my beloved is the exception to every rule. Perhaps some people honestly think or wonder if I am making it all up as I go along! Every overseer of any experience will have their own bewildering stories to tell.
But what else do I have apart from the Word of God in dependence on the Spirit of God? “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2Cor 10:4–5). “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will” (2Tim 2:24–26). I must preach the word, being ready in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching (2Tim 4:2).
When the pastor wants to throw in the towel, when he is ready to give up and walk away, when he is tempted to sinful frustration and despondency, when carnal shortcuts to apparent influence and effectiveness seem so attractive, this is what we must remember. Only the Scriptures bind the conscience. Even if I speak scripturally, or scriptural sense, unless I show that it is from the Word of God there is a danger that people might think that they are persuaded by me, or guided by man’s wisdom, rather than compelled by the truth. Indeed, I cannot compel anyone on my own authority—it must be the truth of God that men hear and obey. So what can I do?
First, I can set out to know my Bible better for myself. Even if my mind is not given to the memorisation of chapter and verse, I need to be able to quote and show from where in the Scriptures I am deriving my principles, precepts, promises, and practices. Even when I am giving the general sense, I need to make sure that I regularly point out, and sometimes explicitly demonstrate, from where in the Bible I am deriving my teaching. Especially when things are knotty and difficult, or especially when I am dealing with people whose character, training, experience, or circumstances are tying them in knots, I need patiently to take time to point out how the Bible is guiding us.
Second, I can encourage people to have their Bibles open in front of them when I preach. Whether that is a real book or a screen, it is good for people to see for themselves what the Bible says. One old pastor said that he liked to see his congregation like the swans drinking, dipping their heads down to take in the water and then raising them to let the water pour down their necks. So with the congregation, who should be dipping their heads to take in what is on the page in front of them, then raising their heads back to the teacher to let the truth pour into their souls.
I need to encourage the saints to read their Bibles. I can do this by equipping them with tools that will help them, individually and in families, to cover the whole of the counsel of God. I can do this by reminding them of the value of knowing the Old and New Testaments. I can do this by my own evident relish for God’s Word. I can do it by regular reading of the Scriptures, so that in the course of a few years all the people have heard the whole Old and New Testament read and explained. This might take the edge of fear off people for whom portions of their Bibles remain perpetually closed books.
But I need to do more here—I need to teach people, as much as possible, to read with understanding. I may not start a course on hermeneutics and exegesis (or, at least, I may not call it that for fear of scaring off people who have been told that they do not or cannot understand big words, or who are suspicious of anything ‘academic’ or ‘doctrinal’, or who use as an excuse that this kind of stuff is for brainiacs). But perhaps I will do that, for those who are willing and able to go a step further. Some of those taught may teach others in their turn. I also to explain the portions that are read publicly. I may need to make clear not just how I read a passage of the Bible, but why I read it that way, to show even as I tell. I need to model good exegesis in my own ministry, not always just offering my conclusions but sometimes showing my working. I need to step people through the process, perhaps in a Bible study or a private conversation, leading them gently from text to text, revealing the connections and letting them see the conclusions for themselves. I need to be ready to send them a couple of relevant passages when they are confused, and give them a couple of days to read them, and then talk to them again. I need to look them in the eye when I am preaching and teaching, and learn to recognise the blank looks that start to grip too many faces when what I thought was clear is evidently not. I must be able to adapt, to explain, to illustrate, to reiterate. I need to spend time with the young saints to help them learn how to love their Bibles like this. I need to sit down with the older believers who may seem never to have seen or heard this before, or to have forgotten it if they did. And, if none of that works, I need to hold fast, and stick to the truth which the church has recognised that God has gifted me to know, to understand, and to teach—even if I get dismissed, ignored, disdained, accused, or derided.
I am not talking here about a wooden proof-texting mentality, in which I can say nothing of substance unless I am ready to “show the verse.” I hope you can hear bits of Bible threaded through this whole article, just allusions and more explicit quotations of phrases, to give the whole the savour of scriptural scents and ideas. I am simply saying this: I am a teacher of the truth, and I cannot wander from that, but must manifest it graciously, clearly, and practically. If I am God’s servant bringing God’s rule to bear in God’s church for God’s glory and the good of his beloved children, if I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the complete salvation of sinners, if I am a man who knows and trusts the influences and operations of the Holy Spirit bringing to bear the very truth he has made known, I need to be a man of the word, and we need to be a people of the Book.
Jeremy Walker is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church.
Thumbnail Photo by Matthew Wheeler on Unsplash
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