Friday, April 1, 2011

Message and Method

There are many things to consider when trying to find a church home. Is there a plurality of elders? Do the people seem to genuinely love one another? Not to mention the practical logistical questions related to location, children’s programs etc. The list goes on and on but of all these questions the biggest one most people are concerned with is “do they teach from the bible?” This is a very important question because it goes to the heart of the message and priorities of the church in question. Unfortunately it is not as easy a question to answer as we might assume. Virtually all evangelical churches claim to teach from the bible and claim to have a commitment to the scripture as the authority for all doctrine and spiritual matters. In most of these churches there is no shortage of the use of scripture but the mere use of the scripture is not a guarantee that the church is biblically based in its teaching.

I recall once being present when a person challenged a particular preacher saying that his messages were not sufficiently biblical. Over the next few days the preacher examined the messages that he had given over the previous month or so and counted up the number of biblical references that were made. He returned the next week and explained that he had looked into the matter and that on average his sermons contained X number of biblical references (I don’t recall the exact number but it was fairly high) and that he was quite satisfied that his teaching was biblical and that the criticism was baseless. Unfortunately many false teachers also use the scripture as the basis for heresy and simply using biblical verses doesn’t mean that one is teaching under the authority of the Word of God.

If listening for biblical references is not enough to make the evaluation then how are we to know if a church is truly “teaching from the bible” with only a visit or two? Unfortunately there is no full proof litmus test. One cannot truly know what the commitments of a particular body of believers are until you have spent a period of time examining their teaching and actions against the Word. There is, however, something we can look for that will give a good indication of a church’s commitment to the bible. Look past the message to the method. The way the Word is handled will often tell you more about a particular church’s view of the scriptures more quickly than simply evaluating the messages. I suggest that there are four things in particular to look for.

  1. Is there a commitment to expository preaching through complete books?

There is nothing wrong with the preaching of topical sermons per se but if the sermons are always topical or “produced” it is something to be cautious about. The Word of God is not supplemental to the preaching ministry of the church. The Word of God is the power of God unto salvation and it is the Word of God that the Spirit uses to literally transform the mind of the believers. As Paul wrote to Timothy “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” The bible provides everything necessary for the salvation and the sanctification of the believer. Through the working of the Holy Spirit there is power in the Word itself. A church with a commitment to expository preaching is demonstrating that they are under the authority of the bible and want their preaching to follow the emphasis, organization, and topics that the Lord has provided in His Word and which He has assured will be sufficient to "equip us for every good work".

  1. Do the classes study the scriptures directly?

I cannot tell how many times I have been invited to a bible study only to find out that what is actually being studied is some other book about the bible rather than the bible itself. The use of commentaries, theologies, or other Christian literature in the gatherings of the congregation should be supplemental. These other books are not to serve as the primary focus of communal study because they are not authoritative. What you would hope to see is that the normal approach is for the teachers to lead the classes through whole books of scripture. At times a topical class might be profitable (I am teaching one now) but even then it should be biblical and exegetical in its foundation. If the bible isn’t the foundation of what the church is studying then it may be a sign that they have a weak commitment to biblical teaching.

  1. Do the teachers teach how to study?

As another teacher told me about a week ago “the difference between teaching and preaching is that the preacher is serving up a fish dinner whereas the teacher is showing the class how to catch, clean, and prepare the fish”. The authority for all biblical teaching is the text rather than the teacher so it is very important that teachers show the students how they are coming to their conclusions. Teaching points should never stand apart from an explanation of how they are derived from the text. Second, the teacher should be explaining this in such a way as to aid the students in their own personal bible study. Sharing how to examine the grammatical, structural, contextual, and historical elements of a text is essential to the bible teacher because the fundamental calling is not to give answers but to lead others into the text. This is why the New Testament says both that teachers are a gift to the church and also that believers have no need for any man to teach them. The teaching that comes in a bible study should not be from “any man” but from the Holy Spirit Himself as expressed in the scriptures. The “teacher” should be simply a guide helping the student to understand what God Himself has taught. If the teacher isn’t teaching the class how to study for themselves and how the conclusions are formed it may be an indication that the scriptures are being used as a supplement to teaching rather than as its foundation.

  1. Is biblical teaching expressed in the worship services and other functions?

There are basic things that are taught in the scriptures about which there is no doubt. We are to worship God, we are to pray for one another, and we are to evangelize. Another thing to look for is evidence of biblical influence on the methods used for those activities. Few people ever examine the worship music doctrinally but the songs that a church uses can sometimes tell you a lot about their focus. Furthermore, do they sometimes come to together corporately to pray rather than listening to a single lead speaker pray? There are lots of things that influence church scheduling but are biblical imperatives like prayer and evangelism part of those schedules? A true commitment to biblical teaching involves not only learning the Truth but also providing for the expression of those truths in discipleship.

There are lots of things to take into consideration when choosing a church. When trying to determine if the churches you may be visiting are teaching from the bible it may be more helpful to look at the methods or ways in which the bible is used in the life of the church rather than simply trying to form a conclusion from the messages. Obviously if the messages are not biblical you don’t want to stay but just because there are bible verses tacked onto or woven throughout a message doesn’t mean that it is a church that has a commitment to or reverence for the Word of God. If you happen to be looking for a church I pray that this post is helpful to you and also that the Lord would guide you in your search.

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