Now preachers have no more innate knowledge of the outline of the body of Christ or the needs and functions of any particular cell at any particular moment than I do. So I hope that when they enter their quiet inner rooms to study, they are in deep communion with the Lord Jesus. For only direct revelation—through the Bible, of course, the spiritual DNA, if you will—can give them that accurate timely sermon apart from the aforementioned knowledge that they lack.
It’s not too hard to imagine that a preacher—who goes through this intense process of preparation, delivers the sermon the Lord has given him, and then sees actual obedient results in his congregation—might mistake the content of that particular sermon for a universal truth of the Bible. So if I return to my three hypothetical preachers, studying the laundry list of Solomon’s wealth and power from three different perspectives, and I imagine that each of them has received his sermon with its application from the Lord who is able to make him stand, and that each has delivered those sermons and each has seen obedient results in his own congregation, and each has mistaken the content of his particular sermon for a universal truth of the Bible; and then I imagine that these three meet in public and eagerly discuss this wonderful thing the Lord has done for them and through them, I begin to get a taste of what I will call the preachers’ dilemma.
I make my living recording educational sessions at conferences. In the old days that meant audio cassette recorders. I ran hundreds of feet of cable from a table in the hallway into the various rooms where sessions were to be presented. Then I sat at that table of cassette recorders monitoring when sessions began and ended, that record levels were good, that the cassettes kept turning and recording audio (not a given with this particular method of recording), and I flipped the tapes over before they ran out on one side or replaced them with new tapes when full. To stave off boredom I would leave the volume control of a session that sounded interesting up louder than the rest and listen, as I monitored the others with my eyes roving over meters and tape mechanisms.
Recording the Evangelical Theological Society meeting one year I came upon two simultaneous sessions that sounded interesting. One was positioned to the left on the table in front of me, the other to the right. I decided to listen to both, since both speakers were presenting on the same passage of scripture. Both speakers presented the universal truth of the passage in question, two different, diametrically opposed universal truths. I was troubled. So troubled, in fact, that when conference attendees passed by between sessions and started up a conversation with the “CIA operative bugging all their conversations” or “the guy getting really smart really fast listening to all those Bible lessons at once,” I shared my troubled thoughts. And every passerby who heard my troubled thoughts was saddened and troubled by them, too.
None of this is particularly troubling to one who has encountered these things but has little interest in Jesus or the Bible. Such a one scoffs at my naiveté, “Come on? It’s the Bible, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.” But none of us, not me, not the passersby who heard my troubled thoughts, not the speaker in the session on the left side of my recording table, nor the speaker in the session on the right side of my recording table, set out to make the Bible say whatever he wanted it to say.
Our interest, the mutual desire that binds us together—the tape guy and the passersby and speakers at the conference, Bible students and teachers, pastors, preachers and professional theologians—was to understand the Bible, what it really says, what God intends to communicate to us, and through that study and understanding come to know God and share in the eternal life Jesus defined for, and promised to, his disciples. Now this is eternal life, Jesus prayed for his disciples, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ,whom you sent.” What is troubling is how such good intentions pursued in such good faith can turn out so badly so often that people with little or no interest in the outcome and only a casual acquaintance with the phenomena can conclude so easily that the Bible means whatever the preacher wants it to mean.
So I’ll return to my three hypothetical preachers and imagine them sitting at lunch together. Each is bursting to tell the wonderful thing the Lord has done for him and through him. Each is convinced he should find more understanding and comradeship with the other two men dining with him than with any other human beings on the planet. And each is sorely disappointed. Each tries reasoning with the other, but to no avail. At that point each has two basic options: 1) to part company, troubled, disappointed and confused, agreeing to disagree; or, 2) if one has particularly strong commitments to the universal applicability of the absolute truth of his individual experience, he curses the others and their congregations with condemnation to fiery destruction.
Application two of my would-be sermon is that I should forgive preachers this minor fault, like a speck of dirt in the eye, and beg their forgiveness as well as the forgiveness of every person on this planet for the plank in my own. You see, I cause these problems. Not alone; I am a member, the least member perhaps, of a class of people with a philosophical bent of mind. I am the true believer in universal absolutes. And I and those like me are they who goad preachers into intellectual straightjackets of our own devising by holding them up to public ridicule if they don’t jump through our hoops and pay homage to our intellectual prowess, our systems of theology, our autopsy reports and our post-mortems of autopsy reports.
So do I mean to say that all systems of theology are wrong? Yes…and no.