Sunday, January 29, 2017

Balanced Preaching

We tend to like the idea of balance. Eat a balanced breakfast. Maintain a healthy work/life balance. Balance your checkbook. Balance your budget. Maintain a balance of power in the Middle East. Balance is desirable.

As preachers, we ought to recognize the power of our words and exercise extra caution in how we use them, since "we who teach will be judged with greater strictness," and "if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man." We don't want people to misconstrue what we're teaching and pursue unwise or unbiblical paths because we failed to narrow the scope of application, so we try to give examples or warnings to balance out what we're saying. How many times have you or someone you've learned under said something like this:
"Now, this passage doesn't teach that we should all sell everything we own..." 
"When James says 'faith without works is dead,' we need to remember what Paul wrote in Romans..." 
"Please don't go up to your boss and quit your job tomorrow..." 
"You better not get in an argument with your spouse on the way home today because 'Pastor said that you have to...'" 
"I'm not telling you to..."
Part of faithfully handling the word of truth is ensuring that we clarify to our listeners what we mean. Providing counterpoints or putting limits on the scope of application to balance our message is not a sign of poor speaking skills because the Bible offers us many examples of this same practice. Consider:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Jesus, Matthew 5:17 
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world." Paul, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

"I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth." John, 1 John 2:21.
As good as the practice of balance is in our preaching, we must not always be balanced. Yes, I'm saying we need balance in our use of balance. Here's what I mean. Sometimes a passage is intentionally extreme in order to confound, amaze, and make an emphatic point. Consider Matthew 5:29,
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
If you check the rest of the context, you won't find Jesus balancing this statement. He doesn't say, "Now, I don't mean that you should literally gouge out your eyes..." He doesn't say, "I'm not telling you to gouge out your spouse's eye because you know it's been leading them to sin..." Why not? For one, he can reasonably assume no one is going to actually gouge out their or someone else's eyes. Secondly, it would so "balance" his statement as to negate its power.

I have two distinct memories of preaching about faith and works in James. The first time I preached it, I was careful to explain the difference between Paul's use of the word "justification" in Romans and Jame's use in the second chapter of his letter. As sermons go, it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't powerful either. The second time I preached on that passage I explained what James meant by justification without mentioning Paul, then I said something like, "Instead of focusing on perceived differences between James and Paul, we ought to consider the similarities between James and Jesus," and then brought up Luke 13:6-9 to hammer the point home that true faith proves itself through action. It was a lot more powerful message than the first sermon.

Pastors and others who teach the Bible should take care how they handle the word of God. Balance is a good thing, but it's not ultimate. Sometimes we need to avoid balance to remain faithful to the words of Scripture and hammer its truth home. 

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