Sunday, March 6, 2016

Attention Preacher – Are You Standing between God and His People? Step Aside.

Several years ago, a speaker at Simpson University (one of the three authors of The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, but I don’t remember which it was and the tired end of a long day) was asked following his presentation what he defined as religious fundamentalism. I recall recoiling at his definition which, in essence, was that fundamentalism comprised those who held to a literal interpretation of the text they view as holy. I recoiled for two reasons. First, that while I am a Biblical inerranticist, and as such I do hold to a literal interpretation of the text, I cannot consider myself a Christian Fundamentalist as defined in the series of publications from the early-20th Century that were called and collated together as The Fundamentals. Second, that in accepting those Fundamentals, their adherents are not, in fact, holding to a literal interpretation of the text they (and I) consider to be holy. Specifically, they hold to The Fundamentals, which are a compilation of what other people have said is a literal interpretation of the text…and that interpretation is not literal, nor even faithful to the text in question. This pattern of believing what someone else has said they do (and you should) believe continues well beyond Fundamentalism, even today.

This all came to mind as I read E.M. Bounds’ second chapter in Power through Prayer, “Our Sufficiency Is of God.” He writes (in the masculine-intensive grammar of 1913), “The life-giving preacher is a man of God, whose heart is ever athirst for God, whose soul is ever following hard after God, whose eye is single to God, and in whom by the power of God’s Spirit the flesh and the world have been crucified and his ministry is like the generous flood of a life-giving river.” (Bounds, The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds, 10) What does such a servant of Christ and others offer to those seeking God? Bounds urges us beyond mere exegesis, creativity, and the application of our own intellect, however necessary these may be. In fact, even where these are in evidence, he warns of “the death-dealing element (that) lies back of the words, back of the sermon, back of the occasion, back of the manner, back of the action. The great hindrance is in the preacher himself.”

This one I would recommend.
If God has no grandchildren (i.e., each of us must be rightly related to God through Christ), then it is also true that God has no interpreters (except Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, both of whom I hold to be God). The work of God’s servant is to stimulate others to enter into and deepen their direct conversation with God Himself. The calling is not to gather crowds to hear what that servant filters onto the hearers second-hand. Shockingly, many seem to forget that where there is no direct conversation with God, there can be no claim to an actual relationship. Those who stand between God and His congregation, whether in the confessional that so many Protestants reject, or from the pulpits, lecterns, and Christian Education curricula that historically span the hundreds of division among Christendom, cannot save those who rely upon such servants as their mediators.

Bounds notes especially the self-esteem and self-ability that often elevate professional servants of God beyond the common experience of Christians. If what we offer is a second-hand, buffered relationship with God, whether we are making the gospel simpler, easier, more exciting, less demanding, or in any other way more palatable and/or less challenging (however popular their messages and well-populated their religious organizations), then what we are preaching is not fundamental to the faith, and only arguably might be considered the gospel at all.

Yes, we proclaim the word through preaching and practice. But we only do so authentically to the extent that we bring others into their own direct contact and conversation with God. Doing otherwise robs them of that relationship we pretend to offer, and strongly suggests that we ourselves have no concept whatsoever of entering into that conversation ourselves, especially if we are relying on others who have previously simplified, de-thorned, softened, or otherwise adulterated the teachings of that text we claim to hold holy.

To close with Bounds (again apologizing as I must for the cultural context of just over a century ago), “Crucified preaching only can give life. Crucified preaching can come only from a crucified man.”

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