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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Naming Names From the Pulpit

Before we get started let me make something clear:

  • This is not written with anyone in mind, rather my purpose in most of these posts are to share pastoral theology insights I have had for the benefit of other pastors, lay leaders, seminarians and other members of the body of Christ. 

In seminary one common theme professors told us was, "Don't preach against people in the pulpit." Or, "Don't name names from the pulpit." Or, "Don't write sermons with individuals in mind." You get the point I'm sure. Since becoming a pastor this has been a theme of advice that I continue to receive.

I agree. And I disagree.

A sermon should not be written with one or several individuals in mind. One should not "preach against" people from the pulpit. That is pretty much the extent of what I agree.

I disagree however that names should not be named from the pulpit. If the situation warrants a sermon, then why not name names? I prayerfully plan out the entire year's worth of sermons at the start of the year. I know the Spirit is at work in my planning because so often as the text/date approach something in the church or community or world at large arises that fits into the text so well I couldn't have planned it if I tried.  If a situation arises, good or bad and the text addresses it--why not make the point clear?

These conclusions I have reached through reading the Scripture so let's look at a few passages to consider the point I am trying to make:

Point #1: Paul's letters were intended to be read out loud

In 1st Thessalonians 5.27 Paul writes, "I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers." Paul's intention in writing the letter was to have it read before the entire body of believers. This was not a private letter intended for the leadership of the church, or for Paul's good friend, but for all.  

1st Thessalonians is not the only place this instruction shows up. Paul also gives similar instructions to the church in Colossae. Colossians 4.16: "And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea." This passage sheds even more light on the concept of the letters being read out loud because Paul is not only encouraging the letter to be read to the Colossian church but to then have it shared with the church of Laodicea as well. 

A former professor of mine writes, "But Paul’s charge that they “read it to all the brothers and sisters” suggests that he expected it to be read to the whole church together as part of a gathering. Letters were not so much read as they were heard. Paul’s letter would have served as a sermon, read out loud, allowing him to “be there with them” even though he was absent."  

So Paul's letters were intended to be read out loud to a gathering of the church and acted in much the same way as sermons do today in the church. 

Points #2 Paul was not afraid to name names

In one of the most famous of Paul's letters, the letter to the Philippians, Paul names names. The letter is much beloved because of his numerous references to joy and of course, the famous Christological hymn of 2.6-11. The circumstance for Paul writing the letter is generally believed to be two-fold: he is responding to the Philippians for their timely gift they gave him. But he takes advantage of the opportunity to address an issue of division within the Philippian church. Suddenly, he calls out Euodia and Syntyche in 4.2 to get along! Imagine how they must have felt, as they suddenly hear their names read out loud, as they hear their names being called out. 

So a letter (sermon) read out loud to the gathered body, calls out certain individuals and names their problem: disagreement; then proceeds to urge them to work it out. 

Points #3 Paul's letters were considered Scripture

Another argument against the practice of addressing individuals in a sermon is, "That is not how the Word of God should be used or proclaimed." 

Peter, perhaps revealing his more common roots makes an observation about Paul's letters in his second letter being "hard to understand." But Peter also makes a telling comment about the authority of Paul's letters in 2nd Peter 3.15-16: "And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,  as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures." The ignorant are twisting the words of Paul's letters, as they do the other Scriptures. Other is the key word there: Paul's letters and the other Scriptures. Paul's letters were considered Scripture by his peers.

And of course we consider his writings to be Scripture now. So the argument, "that is not how the Word of God  should be used or proclaimed" really makes no sense.  

Objections to this train of thought naturally arise: isn't this arrogant? Who are you to name names from the pulpit? 

Paul gives us another valuable lesson about the way he handled speaking the truth in love (Eph 4.15). Paul was always honest. He held nothing back because he was on fire for the Lord and the proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, he opposed Cephas (Peter) to his face (Galatians 2.11). When the Galatians were acting like fools, he let them know they were acting like fools (3.1). Yet, he was never boastful but always recognized the grace of God in all he did (1st Corinthians 15.10). And he was honest about his own flaws (Romans 7.7-11, 2nd Corinthians 12.7-10). Paul was concerned enough about his own weaknesses, and humble enough to be honest, that he continually practiced self-discipline (1st Corinthians 9.26-27). 

So we as preachers must be humble. We must be honest about ourselves and our lies. Paul names one sin (Romans 7.7) but I'm sure, was guilty of others. We don't need to open the doors of our lives and say to everyone, "here's my brokenness" yet we ought not to hide it as if we were ashamed. The Lord already knows and his opinion matters far more greatly than anyone else in this world (1st Corinthians 4.3-4). So we must be humble, honest and on fire for the gospel.

I have always been amazed by a prayer request Paul makes in his Ephesian epistle. Paul asks for the words to proclaim the mystery of the gospel boldly, as he ought to do (Eph 6.19-20). This request is made while he is a prisoner for the sake of the gospel!  We must be on fire for the gospel of God's grace and always seeking to have the courage to proclaim it, no matter the circumstances (Acts 16.25-34), no matter our past mistakes (Galatians 1.13). And if someone is living out of line with the gospel (Galatians 2.14), then we must have the courage to say so, even if it happens to be from the pulpit.