Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher

dever_9marksLet me begin my most critical post about Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by affirming something I really like about this book.  Dever places the speaking of God at the fountainhead of the life of the church.  I completely agree with him there.  Several pages in his first chapter sound just like a section in my book about the centrality of the Word of God in the life of the church.  He argues that God’s people have always been constituted as a people by the speaking of God (44).  He points out how often “the word of the Lord came” to Israel–3,000 times (45)!  He illustrates from Ezekiel how God gives life to dead things by simply speaking to them (46).  He goes on to teach that “His Word not only gives us life; it also gives us direction as it keeps molding and shaping us in the image of the God who is speaking to us” (51).  Absolutely right!  Couldn’t agree more.

But I contend that God speaks through the whole church, not just through one man.  That perpetual “guy up front” concept may have been exactly right for the Old Covenant people of God, but he is up to something else now.  I wish everyone could see this.  God told us that when the fullness of time had come, he would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just on a select few.  When he said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28), he was using what in Hebrew poetry is called a merism (also defined here).  It means every one of God’s people will have his Spirit and every one of them will become his spokesmen.  And in case you missed it, Peter announced that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled the day the church was born (Acts 2:14ff).  In the New Covenant community, everyone becomes a mouthpiece for God.

Reformed thinkers don’t see it that way, and neither does Dever.  Reformed theology tends to blend together the Old and New Covenants so that each one bleeds into the other, affecting what we see in each.  While Hebrews tells us clearly that we have NOT come to Mt. Sinai (Heb.12:18-24) but to something much better, several professors at the Reformed seminary I went to actually taught that Sinai is our best model for how worship should happen today.  For them, it is an extension of something called the “regulative principle of worship.”  God’s people gather to the feet of an elevated platform to hear him speak his demands and the people respond with “all this we will do.”  In this model, only one person is authorized to speak for God, and that’s the preacher.  That’s the model that Dever apparently adheres to, and it still makes my Baptist stomach turn.

Listen to Dever’s unqualified championing of this regulative principle in preaching:

“Permit me to suggest that the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but is actually important.  If in our preaching we stand in the place of God…then surely it is appropriate that it be one-sided…the univocal character of God’s Word comes as a monologue to us” (33).

Did a Baptist really write that sentence?  I can hardly believe it!  Where does he find support for this in the New Testament?  Surely he is back at Sinai with our Reformed friends, but he assumes this model rather than demonstrating it.  Reading the following statement, I’m certain of it:

“…there is something appropriate about us all gathering together and listening to one who is standing in the place of God, giving His Word to us as we contribute nothing to it other than hearing and heeding it” (54, emphasis mine).

Standing in the place of God?  I heard an Orthodox priest tell me the same thing once.  That’s the Orthodox/Catholic view of the role of a priest.  It shouldn’t even fit within a “Reformed” ecclesiology, but somehow it has anyway.  I’ve never understood how.

Peter said we should all speak as those speaking the very words of God (1 Pet.4:11 ).  That’s why I can’t support this notion that one guy gets to be the lone mouthpiece of God when the church assembles.

I just don’t follow this reasoning:  First he argues that the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders.  At first it is assumed that elders are synonymous with pastors (aka shepherds).  But then some distinctive singular office called “the preacher” emerges and becomes synonymous with THE pastor (suddenly singular) with no warning or explanation.  Dever says: “My main role, and the main role of any pastor, is expositional preaching” (39).  Says who?  What verse did you get that out of?  More crucially, why do you insist that this function falls only to one person in a church?  Why aren’t at least the other elders “preachers” as well?  And what happened to the rest of the members of the Body of Christ to make them suddenly passive receptacles for such a uni-directional ministry?

This is the point where Dever and I part ways, and it’s a crucial point.  Dever himself argues that the preaching of this singular individual, since it is the only way for the church to hear from God, “is far and away the most important [mark] of them all…if you get this one right, all of the others should follow.  This is the crucial mark” (39).

Well, there you have it.  It all hangs on the preacher, and he’s all alone in his role.  All the hopes and dreams for life in the church rise and fall on the capabilities of one individual.  Forgive me, I simply cannot find the priesthood of all believers in that notion.  I certainly cannot find a living, functioning Body of Christ supplying its own needs through what every joint supplies (Eph 4:15-16).  We’ve got two very different models here for how a church functions, and I don’t see any way they can mesh.  If Dever’s model is your model for how God communicates with his people, then I don’t think we’re thinking about the same thing at all.

One man cannot feed God’s people week after week, year after year without them  becoming passive receptacles.  A room full of ears sitting underneath one giant mouth.  That’s just not the Body of Christ.

Last Sunday I went to church at a local Baptist church.  For the first hour, in Sunday School, I sat quietly, listening to a lesson on the second coming.  It was taught by an intelligent woman who did a good job teaching it.  There still were a number of points I would have disagreed with if it had been really appropriate to do so, but under the circumstances, that would have been just rude and annoying.  So I sat quietly and listened.  When that hour was done, I filed into the sanctuary for another hour to hear the choir sing and the preacher preach.  When that was done, my family and I went home and put on our comfortable clothes and ate lunch.

Since actions speak louder than words, it seems to me that this setup is teaching me that I am a spectator–a passive recipient of ministry–and not a minister myself.  You can say every member is a minister until you are blue in the face.  You can preach all you want about mobilizing the “people in the pew” for mission.   But this arrangement undermines that message in the most fundamental way.  I’m sticking by my original contention that this has to change before average believers will ever come to see themselves as active participants in the mission of God in the world.

Think about it.  Isn’t it obvious?


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