“This doctrine has the potential to hurt people. I think that you should seriously consider changing it.”
The challenge was made at a recent meeting of local ministers during a discussion of a topic involving a number of sensitive pastoral issues. The person who made the challenge was aware of the biblical and theological reasons for the evangelical position but was concerned that there was potential to be easily misheard or misunderstood by some to the extent that faith could be critically harmed.
It would be very hard to be a teacher of Scripture without being aware that the preached Word can sometimes be very hard for certain people to hear. Preaching on the barrenness of women like Sarah or Hannah, for example, as couples who have longed for years to receive the blessing of children is something that must be undertaken with the greatest sensitivity. Also, the task of bringing the message of the Bible to a culture that is increasingly drifting from its Christian heritage brings a whole new set of preaching challenges. Much of what Scripture has to say about God, life, sin, and so forth have become so far removed from contemporary views that expressing them aloud can invite accusations of being deliberately offensive or harmful. The temptation to minimise or accommodate the truth of God out of a good concern to be pastoral and sensitive is always present, yet he faithful preacher will understand this temptation for the spiritual trap that it is
However, it isn’t sufficient to simply resist an inclination. There must be something positive to hold onto to anchor our teaching approach and pastoral concern. It is critical, therefore, that the pastor remembers the following as he teaches the Scriptures:
True doctrine which is both accurately taught and appropriately applied can never cause pastoral harm.
This statement is very bold, to be sure. Nevertheless, without confidence in this it would be impossible for the preacher to say anything at all without the fear of the sheep being lost.
It is important, however, to reflect carefully on a number of points:
- The doctrine taught must be true It must not only derive from Scripture but also take into account the entirety of God’s revelation rather than isolated verses or passages. In this way it is assured to come from God and not from the World. Jesus warned about the consequences of teaching not based on God’s Word but merely on human regulation (Matt 15:8-9) as well as the reality that false teachers would be found in the church (Matt 24:24). It was a reality that even those in the apostolic age had to contend with (2 Cor 11:12-13; 2 Pet 2:1-3). False doctrine has the power to cause great harm to many, and thus the remedy the Bible gives is for church leaders to ensure that good doctrine is taught in order to safeguard the faith of leaders and laity (1 Tim 4:16; Tit 1:9)
- True doctrine must be taught accurately. It is possible to hold to true doctrine and either do a poor job of explaining it or leave out points crucial to a full understanding. In such cases it would be possible for harm to be caused. Of course, no preacher (apart from Jesus) is perfect and there is only so much that can be said in an average sermon. Yet it is still possible, after a few appropriate caveats, to teach accurately what any passage says about God and his gospel in a manner that the congregation may understand. This is not to say that all true doctrine that is taught accurately will be easy for anybody to accept. Many who initially followed Jesus turned away when confronted with the reality of his call on them (Jn 6:60-66). But this turning away was not the result of the teaching itself but of hearts who were not willing to hear. It is a hard reality of pastoral ministry that not all will find God’s Word pleasurable to hear or be willing to accept it, but in these cases the fault lies not with the preacher but on the one who does not accept Jesus (Lk 10:16).
- True doctrine must be applied to suit differing congregations and individual circumstances. A gathering of mature saints will need to hear God’s word applied to their lives in a different manner to a youth group of mostly new converts. Part of the richness of the gospel is that it has relevance for anyone – there is not just one type of ideal disciple or discipleship path. It is the reason why the apostle Paul gave instructions to church leaders to apply the teachings of the gospel in ways appropriate to various individuals (e.g. Tit 2). The danger is that the preacher may either fail to exegete his congregation appropriately and thus insist on an application of the passage which is unhelpful for either the context or the individuals, or propose a practical application that does not logically or theologically flow from true doctrine. Practical and ethical application are areas which have not been typically strong points for evangelicals and it is at this point that perhaps extra care should be taken.
While dangers may be present (and no preacher is ever perfect) it is necessary for the preacher to have confidence as they come to teach the difficult passages in particular. If a preacher fears the harm that they might do more than have trust in the good that God is doing through them he cannot sustain his task long. Too often it seems the former situation dominates, thus leading preachers to avoid difficult topics or taking a stand on matters of principle for fear of harm that they may cause. Preachers of God’s Word must have the confidence that if what they teach is true, if it is explained carefully, and applied appropriately then that teaching of itself cannot cause harm to the flock of God.
The Word of God has the power to heal, restore, encourage, empower, rebuke, and direct the Church. God, in his wisdom, has left this Word in the care of the teachers of the Church for the good of all. That goodness cannot be fully realised if preachers and teachers do not have the confidence that the task which they undertake is fundamentally good, that God means good for all even through the challenging passages of the Word, and that the Sheep are primarily in his care not ours. True doctrine must never be compromised or changed out of pastoral concerns as real pastoral care cannot flow from watered-down teaching. Our teaching methods can always use improving and our applications may need more nuance, but sacrificing biblical truth can never have a loving justification.