I’ve heard many, many comments and criticisms among pastors who accuse other pastors of “watering down the Gospel” or teaching life lessons rather than teaching the Word. Some insist that other denominations or less traditional churches are “leading sheep astray”  because they aren’t teaching “right doctrine” or “the truth”. How would they know that, I wonder?

They are all using the same Bible.

It’s true that some pastors use the Bible to make their point without sufficient regard for how their point really holds up in view of the whole Word of God. But they are using the Bible nonetheless.  So how will the average seeker, or Christian, who is trying to discern if they are in a “good church”, know if they are living under healthy and wise teaching?

One church we visited had a pastor who marched back and forth across the stage with a Bible open in his hands. He walked slightly bent and carried the Bible with his arms outstretched before him as he crossed the stage from side to side. It literally created the impression that man was chasing after the Word of God. Clever.

Except his teaching was far from sound. He had cobbled together two separate fragments of scripture that didn’t actually share a common context, in order to support his message. In short, the scriptures did not mean what he purported they did.

His thesis was okay and his message was benign, but he had deliberately misused the scriptures to make his case. He had used only the first half of a sentence at the beginning of scripture because it fit his proposition, but the second half of the sentence that followed in the text revealed the scripture was talking about something else entirely.  A good teacher would never do that. One would have to have read their Bible enough to have noticed that particular red flag. I wondered how many in the room had. The auditorium was filled with more than 500 people. Most of them seemed to be listening.

At least once every five minutes the pastor would ask if he could get an “Amen!” His audience cheerfully complied. I grew frustrated. He knew how to use his body and his vocal inflections to capture the attention of his audience, but is it possible he didn’t know how to use the Bible? Doubtful. I imagine that he knew full well that he had misused the passages when he was preparing his message.

To my knowledge, this pastor hadn’t “watered down the Gospel” or even adulterated Christian doctrine. But any pastor who would use the Bible the way he did is not a leader I would encourage anyone to follow.

“You can teach Biblically or you can teach textually. Biblically is when I start in this particular text – and everything I say is true; it’s true somewhere in the Bible, but it’s not what this text is about. This text has not driven my sermon, I’ve driven my sermon. And when I’ve driven my sermon you’re getting me instead of getting what the Spirit Himself inspired. I think the driving goal in preaching is to let the Bible be the Bible. Let the Bible tell me how to interpret the Bible, how to preach the Bible how to apply the Bible, and how to illustrate the Bible… and I feel wholly inadequate to do that. That’s just the truth. If the Spirit of God doesn’t lead me in that, then I am not adequate to do that. If He gives gifts, they are sufficient, they are not my gifts, they are His gifts. But I think to come to a text and say, this is what this text is about; this is what the text says about what it’s about and this is how this text says it. How can I preach in a way that reflects that? How can I help our people see that so they are actually understanding this text? I think a lot of times when you have a sermon that really grips your heart the reason is, (if you thought of the text as this river), it’s right in the heart of the river and you are being carried along by the flow of the river and you’re getting the power the Spirit inspired this text to have.  That meaning is being communicated right now. There is Spiritual power in that. When your teaching is not in the flow of the Spirit, it’s kind of like you drifted off and you’re on the bank of a creek.  You’re still a little bit wet but your feet are kind of just sitting in the water because the stuff you’re saying is somewhere in the Bible but it’s not in the full force of this text. There’s a major difference in those two approaches.”

“The irony is that a lot of the time, our hesitancy to preach textually is we think it’s going to be boring or it’s not going to be relevant or I’m not going to be very original if I do that, or I’m not going to be creative enough …but what I find is that when you die to that stuff God resurrects that stuff… I find that if you come to a text, and you let the text tell you what to say, it makes you original because you’re going to say things you never would have said! You’re going to have thoughts you never would have had because He’s revealing them to you.  He is teaching you and there is a wealth of relevance.”

 If we really believe that God has given us His Word to reveal Himself to us, to tell us what to think about how He’s acted in history and to tell us what that means for us and what He’s doing in us now, and how we should be living as He lives in us, there is nothing more relevant than that. To say don’t teach textually because people need to know how to manage their money, how to raise their kids and how to have a good marriage and all those things…I say you can’t know those things apart from knowing who God is. When you know who God is, and when you’re meeting Him in His Word and He is revealing Himself to you, HE defines how you manage your money, how you raise your kids, and how you improve your marriage… It’s not that you do practical application OR theology. It’s that you either do practical application in the context of theology or you just do practical application because you have poor theology. It’s always poor if it’s separated from who God is…” Pastor Andy Hale, First Baptist Church, Mt. Juliet, TN

We have to look deeper than the surface. We cannot go by the sign in front or even the cross on the steeple. Not even the presence of the Bible in the hands of a pastor is enough. People have been preaching bad doctrine for as long as there has been scripture. The only safeguard is to avail ourselves of learning for ourselves what is in the Bible and praying to God for the wisdom to understand it. That doesn’t mean we won’t ever need help discerning or learning from a good teacher, but it will prime you for recognizing bad teaching when you hear it.

I may not enjoy dry, boring pastors, but I’d sit through a hundred hours of boring before I would give five minutes to a pastor who plays fast and loose with scripture to make his or her point.

“Test everything. Hold on to what is good.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21

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