Expository Teaching or Greek Oratory?

"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, "That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, And from north to east; They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, But shall not find it." (Amos 8:11-12)

Introduction: In thousands of churches across our land Sunday morning services seem to run on autopilot. In his book Pagan Christianity, Frank Viola discusses the various features of traditional Protestant worship services showing that much of what we do on Sunday mornings is not biblical at all but has pagan roots. Below is a discussion drawn from Chapter Two of Pagan Christianity. Viola suggest that lots of preaching today is actually a form of Greek oratory and not what God intended for us to receive as sound teaching and instruction in the Word of God.

(Noted added January 2008. Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna has been revised and updated and is available from Tyndale Press, 2008).

A wonderful example of clear and effective Bible teaching is found in Nehemiah, in the teaching of Ezra the scribe. Is not Ezra's example the way things ought to be done today?

Ezra's Example of Teaching: The return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem after their 70-year captivity is a neglected subject of study among many Christians today. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Esther and Zechariah are back in the "clean pages" of most family Bibles. But these books are rich in content and very relevant to the times in which we live.

The walls were Jerusalem were competed some 141 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. In the autumn of 445 BC the people gathered to hear Ezra teaching and explain the five books of Moses. Ezra taught for 5 or 6 hours per day! It's clear that Ezra's purpose was to fully inform the current generation of Jews living in their own land what the God of Israel expected of them. Every new generation has to be taught all over again what Paul calls "the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:27)

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. [That would probably include teenage children, perhaps even children as young as 8 or 9 years of age.] He read it aloud from daybreak till noon [Let's hear no more criticism of long services!] as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3)

Ray Stedman explains what went on:

Notice that this seems to be a spontaneous gathering. These people come "as one man." No invitations were sent out. No public notice was given. People were hungry for answers to their problems, for guidelines from the word from God, and with one accord they gathered in this great square before the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the priest to bring the Law of the LORD and to read it to them. This would undoubtedly be the entire Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This indicates the tremendous desire of these people for truth. They listened, while standing, from daybreak until noon! Certainly this long attention indicates how deeply they were aware of their ignorance about life and how much they needed answers from God. They were simply crying out for the word.

Notice that the date of this great assembly was the "first day of the seventh month" on the Hebrew calendar, which would be October 8th in 445 B.C. Notice also that Ezra the priest, the author of the book of Ezra, appears for the first time in the book of Nehemiah. Thirteen years earlier he had led a return from Persia to rebuild the temple and to teach the Law of God. Apparently he had been occupied in that task all through the time of rebuilding of the wall. But now when the people have finished their work, they are desperate to hear from the Word of God so they sent for Ezra to lead them in this.

Mark also that they gathered before the "Water Gate." You remember from Nehemiah Chapter 3 that this gate was the symbol of the Word of God -- the water of the Word. This is surely an appropriate place for this gathering to assemble. As I have already pointed out, the congregation included not only men and women but also children who were able to understand.

It seems to me that we have come to such a time as this again. The prophet Amos predicted that there would come a famine in the world for the Word of God (Amos 8:11). People would actually be starving for answers to the problems of life. Surely we have come to just such a time in our own century. I find everywhere a deep hunger among non-churched people to hear the Word of God. Wherever it is taught with any degree of understanding, they are immediately attracted to it When the word is opened up, people begin to understand themselves. This is the great thing about Scripture. When you know God you begin to understand yourself, because you are made in the image of God. These people in Jerusalem were soon growing in self-knowledge as they began to hunger for the Word of God. The great tragedy of our day is how few churches seem to understand this power of Scripture. Across the country and around the world there are thousands of churches in which there is little life. The services are dull and dreary because the Word of God is not central.

The next verses demonstrate the centrality of the word in this gathering.

Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Misael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. [You need a seminary education to pronounce these names!] Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:4-6)

Clearly this is an eyewitness account of this moving assembly. I have often wondered if this has set the pattern for worship in some of the churches of Scotland. They, too, have high pulpits, at times with 20 or 30 steps leading up to them. I have preached in some of these, and it is a remarkable thing to look out at a congregation spread out below you like that. They have a ceremony there that is unique. An officer in the Church of Scotland (he is called the Beadle) comes marching down the aisle with an open Bible in his hand and all the people stand up. As he places the Bible on the pulpit they say, "Amen! Amen!." They probably learned that from this account in Nehemiah.

Then we learn how careful these people were to make clear what the meaning of Scripture is:

The Levites -- Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Masseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah [God never forgets a name!] -- instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:7-8)

What a marvelously clear statement of how a church service ought to be conducted! The primary business of Christians is to understand the Word of God so as to think God's thoughts after him -- to learn to think like God. Some of the scholars have suggested that the Levites were translating from the Hebrew language to Aramaic. But these languages are very similar. I do not think there would be much trouble in that respect. What they are doing, I believe, and some scholars feel is the case, is that they were breaking into small groups where people could ask questions and have them answered. They would listen to the reading of Ezra from the high pulpit and then they would gather in small groups and the Levites would spread out among the great congregation and give an explanation of the passage. Then people would ask questions about it and discuss it. It seemed an excellent way to instruct them so they clearly understood what the Word of God meant. It is not only important to know what the Scripture says, it is even more important to know what it means! In Verse 9 there follows a description of the impact of this upon those who heard.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9)

Why were they weeping? It was because the effect of the Word of God is to show us what is wrong with our lives, what is creating the ruin and the disaster around us. As they listened to the reading of the Scriptures they saw that the cause of their destitution and ruin lay in their own thoughts and attitudes. They saw the beauty of God and the ugliness of man. This is always the ministry of Scripture to the human heart. They saw that the evil in society came from the pride and arrogance of their own lives. God always lays the weakness and folly of the world at the church's door, for it is we who ought to be instructing the people. When the church does not understand itself then folly reigns in society. This is exactly what Jesus stated in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7:

"What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly." (Mark 7:20-22)

All these things come from within. But until you hear the word you do not realize that. That is what made these people weep. They saw their own complicity with evil. I have been noticing recently that some of the secular commentators of our day are growing extremely frightened and disturbed about the conditions of life in America. For example, Richard Reeves, a New York columnist, wrote recently:

I can barely stomach the newspapers here in my hometown. In the tabloids, day after day, the first four or five pages are routinely filled with stories of parents beating or starving their children to death, of children plotting to kill their parents, of people being killed by random gunshots, of people chopping up other people, of cyanide being put in yogurt at the supermarkets.

America, I think, is out of control in some very weird ways. I don't know how bad it really is or exactly why it is happening. There are obviously many, many reasons, beginning with the unrelenting pressure of living in an open and competitive society... I don't know the answer to any of this. I suspect that things will get worse before they get better.

Observe the mood of bewilderment there, the lack of understanding of why things are going wrong. Richard Estrada, who writes in the Dallas Morning News, describes something very similar, and then comments:

More than anything else, this ugly social breakdown threatens to desensitize us as a nation. Wild West shoot-outs that kill innocent bystanders have become commonplace. Drug dealers and gang members have taken to using children as murderers. Executions of entire families by drug dealers are not unknown. Sweeps of whole communities by police bent on stopping the killing are now routine in Los Angeles.

Numbed by it all, we as a people, shrug our shoulders. Something is disastrously amiss. This is not the America most of us grew up to revere...We are demeaned as a people by this retrogression. We are less and less civilized.

Those words are not written by Christian writers. Those are the thoughts of secular commentators who see the results of rejecting the wisdom of God but they do not know to explain it. They do not know the cause of the terrible evil they chronicle. It is only when you open the Book of God that you learn the reason for these kinds of conditions. We learn from the Scriptures that as individuals, and as a nation, we have turned our backs on God's ways and wisdom. We have ignored his laws. We have missed the glory of his plan. We have messed up the beautiful world that he gave us. When we see the sad results and hear them poured into our ears continually by the media, it makes us weep, doesn't it? It makes us sorrow for all the fine young people who are being destroyed by these terrible practices.

Of all that is happening today, the most frightening thing is the lack of a sense of sin in society. People are doing terrible things -- murdering one another, raping one another, hurting each other right and left -- but they do not feel they are doing anything wrong. They have no sense of the wrongness of it. That is what the Word of God is given to correct. It awakens afresh an awareness of what is causing the wrong. But though weeping is necessary and important, it is not the final message God has for us. To show this Nehemiah and Ezra speak up and correct the people.

Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 8:10-12)

What a powerful statement of the effect of the Word of God! When people understand it, it brings joy. "The joy of the LORD is your strength." What a great word for grieving people who see the evil in their lives and the lives of those around them, and mourn over what it has produced! The word that brings joy is that of forgiveness. God can forgive! He does and he will restore. That is what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted," (Matthew 5:4). I don't think you will ever be comforted until you learn to mourn. When you see the hurt, pain, and despair which sin can produce and you grieve over it, then you are ready for the comfort of forgiveness. That hurt is what is reflected in the prayer requests in our bulletin this morning, listing all those painful things that people have asked us to pray about. If we mourn over them, then we shall be comforted. We shall realize, as this passage so beautifully states, "the joy of the LORD is your strength."

What does "the joy of the LORD" mean? It is the fact that God has found a solution to these problems of sin. He has found a way back to sensible, sober, wise, helpful, wholesome living. How? By learning to think like he thinks. Begin to see the world from his point of view. Listen no longer to the clamoring voices of the media. Do not take your philosophy of life from what people are saying or the advice others are giving. Listen to the Word of God. That is the answer. It will heal your life. "You sent your word and healed them," writes the psalmist (Psalm 107:20). The ministry of the Word of God is to heal us and create in us a desire to share that healing with others.

Notice how Nehemiah urges the people to send portions of food to those who had nothing prepared. This is invariably the result in those who find their lives beginning to be healed by the Word of God. They start thinking of others who are hurting and want to share with them what they have learned. That way of health is dramatically demonstrated for us in the closing verses of this chapter. God had anticipated the need of these people. Centuries before, he had provided a most remarkable visual aid to remind them of the truth that would keep them from further destruction.

On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths" -- as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. (Nehemiah 8:13-17)

This is the Feast of Tabernacles, a reminder that they were called as a people out of Egypt. Their departure was sudden and precipitous. They were not even to sit down when they ate the Passover meal. They had to eat it standing, with their staffs in their hands, dressed in traveling clothes, ready to leave. They went out at a word of command, and left Egypt in one night. When they got into the desert, one day's journey out, and night fell, where were they to find shelter? Moses had been told by God that they were to collect boughs and limbs of trees, etc., and build booths for shelter. Then God ordained that they were to do this once every year. Even though later they had homes to dwell in, they were to build these booths and live in them for seven days. This was to teach them that they were always pilgrims and strangers on the earth. This world was not their home. All the great blessings of life would not necessarily be found in this present time but were waiting for them in glory. Therefore they did not need to be distressed if they did not have everything that those around them were trying to get in this life. This is how the old gospel hymn puts it:

This world is not my home.
I'm just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue.

The angels beckon me
from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
in this world anymore.

That is the truth that will deliver us from the pressures of the times. We must hold things lightly. We must not think that houses, cars, money and material gain is all that important. Even if we lack these things, the great treasures of our life remain untouched. To strive constantly to gain what everyone else has is a mistake. God teaches us to hold these things lightly. We must never forget that we are in the world but not of it. We are never to settle down here for good. I love the way C. S. Lewis has put it: "Our kind heavenly Father has provided many wonderful inns for us along our journey, but he takes special care to see that we never mistake any of them for home." We are pilgrims and strangers, passing through this world. We are involved in it, deeply sometimes, but we are never to see ourselves as a part of it. What will enable us to remember that? Verse 18 gives us the answer:

Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly. (Nehemiah 8:18)

Every day they read the Scripture. Every day they saturated themselves in the thinking of God. That is what makes for realism: When you think like God thinks, you are thinking realistically. You are beginning to see yourself the way you really are. You are seeing your children, your home and your nation the way they really are. For the first time you are able to divest yourself of the illusions and delusions of a mistaken, confused world. You are beginning to work toward wholeness, healing, and strengthening of the things that abide

If the churches of this land saw the Bible in that light, and listened attentively and eagerly to what it was saying, and learned how to conduct their lives according to the wisdom of this Word, do you think our world would be in the condition that it is today? I am sure your answer is "No." We desperately need the wisdom of the Word to instruct us how to live. --from Expository Messages in Nehemiah, by Ray C. Stedman [1989].

Frank Viola discusses preaching styles today:

The Sermon: Protestantism's Most Sacred Cow

Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. - Will Durant .

We now come to one of the most sacrosanct church practices of all: The sermon. Remove the sermon, and the Protestant order of worship becomes nothing more than a songfest. Remove the sermon; and attendance at the Sunday morning service is doomed to drop down to single digits.

The sermon is the bedrock of the Protestant liturgy. For 500 years, it has functioned like clockwork. Every Sunday morning, the pastor climbs into his pulpit and delivers an inspirational oration to a passive, pew-warming audience. So central is the sermon that it is the very reason why most Christians go to church. In fact, the entire service is typically judged by the quality of the sermon. Ask a person how church was last Sunday and you will invariably get a description of the sermon. It sounds like this:

Question: "How was church last week?"

Answer: "Oh; it was wonderful. Pastor Peckman spoke about the. importance of giving seed-faith offerings to increase our income; it was really great. It inspired me to offer my entire paycheck next week."

In short, the modern Christian mindset equates the sermon with Sunday morning worship. But it does not end there.

Most Christians are addicted to the sermon. They come to church with an empty bucket expecting the preacher to fill it up with a "feel-good" message. For the typical Christian, the sermon is the chief means of spiritual sustenance. It ranks above prayer, reading the Scriptures, and fellowship with other believers. And if we are dead-level honest, it even ranks above fellowship with Jesus Christ (at least in practice)! Remove the sermon and you have eliminated the most important source of spiritual nourishment for most believers (so it is thought). Yet the stunning reality is that the sermon has no root in Scripture! Rather, it was borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith. That is a startling statement, is it not? But there is more. The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which God designed the church gathering. And it has very little to do with genuine spiritual growth. I will prove these words in this chapter.

The Sermon and the Bible

Doubtlessly, someone reading what I have just written will retort: "People preached all throughout the Bible. Of course the sermon is Scriptural!"

Granted, the Scriptures do record men and women preaching. However, there is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired. preaching described in the Bible and the modern sermon. This difference is virtually always overlooked because we have been unwittingly conditioned to read our modem-day practices back into the Scripture. So we mistakenly embrace today's pulpiteerism as being Biblical. Let me unfold that a bit. The modern Christian sermon has the following features;

It is a regular occurrence--delivered faithfully from the pulpit at least once a week.

It is delivered by the same person-typically the pastor.

It is delivered to a passive audience; it is essentially a monologue.

It is a cultivated form of speech, possessing a specific structure.

It typically contains an introduction, three to five points, and a conclusion.

Contrast this with the kind of preaching mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, men of God preached and taught. But their speaking did not map to the modern sermon. Here are the features of Old Testament preaching and teaching:

Active participation and interruptions by the audience were common.

They spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden, rather than from a set script.

There is no indication that Old Testament prophets or priests gave regular speeches to God's people. Instead, the nature of Old Testament preaching was sporadic, fluid, and open for audience participation. Preaching in the ancient synagogue followed a similar pattern.

Come now to the NT. The Lord Jesus did not preach a regular sermon to the same audience.' His preaching and teaching took many different forms. And He delivered His messages to many different audiences. (Of course, He concentrated most of His teaching on His disciples. Yet the messages He brought to them were consistently spontaneous and informal.) Following the same pattern, the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts possessed the following features:

It was sporadic.

It was delivered on special occasions in order to deal with specific problems.

It was extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure.

It was most often dialogical (meaning it included feedback and interruptions from the audience) rather than monological (a one-way discourse),"

In like manner, the NT letters show that the ministry of God's Word came from the entire church in their regular gatherings." This "every-member" functioning was also conversational and marked by interruptions." Equally so, the exhortations of the local elders were normally impromptu."

In a word, the modern sermon delivered for Christian consumption is foreign to both Old and New Testaments. There is absolutely nothing in Scripture to indicate its existence in the early Christian gatherings."

Where Did the Christian Sermon Come From?

The earliest recorded Christian source for regular sermonizing is found during the late second century." Clement of Alexandria (150-215) lamented the fact that sermons did so little to change Christians." Yet despite its recognized failure, the sermon became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century.

This raises a thorny question. If the first-century Christians were not noted for their sermonizing, from whom did the post-apostolic Christians pick up the sermon? The answer is telling: The Christian sermon was borrowed straight from the pagan pool of Greek culture!

To find the headwaters of the sermon, we must go back to the fifth century B.C. with a group of wandering teachers called sophists. The sophists are credited for inventing rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking). They recruited disciples and demanded payment for delivering their orations.

The sophists were expert debaters. They were masters at using emotional appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to "sell" their arguments." In time, the style, form, and oratorical skill of the sophists became more prized than their accuracy." This spawned a class of men who became masters of fine phrases, "cultivating style for style's sake." The truths they preached were abstract rather than truths that were practiced in their own lives. They were experts at imitating form rather than substance."

The sophists identified themselves by the special clothing they wore. Some of them had a fixed residence where they gave regular sermons to the same audience. Others traveled to deliver their polished orations."(They made a good deal of money when they did.)" Sometimes the Greek orator would enter his speaking forum "already robed in his pulpit-gown." He would then mount the steps to his professional chair to sit before he brought his sermon.

To make his points, he would quote Homer's verses. (Some orators studied Homer so well that they could repeat him by heart.) So spell-binding was the sophist, that he would often incite his audience to clap their hands during his discourse. If his speaking was very well received, some would call his sermon "inspired."

The sophists were the most distinguished men of their time. So much so that some lived at public expense. Others had public statues erected in their honor. (Does all this not remind you of many modem-day preachers?)

About a century later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) gave to rhetoric the three-point speech. "A whole," Aristotle, "must have a beginning, a middle, and an end." In time, Greek orators implemented Aristotle's three-point principle into their discourses.

The Greeks were intoxicated with rhetoric. So the sophists faired well. When Rome took over Greece, the Romans fell under the Greek spell of being obsessed with rhetoric." Consequently, Greco-Roman culture developed an insatiable lust to hear someone give an eloquent oration. This was so fashionable that a "sermonette" From a professional philosopher after dinner was a regular form of entertainment.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed rhetoric as one of the greatest forms of art. Accordingly, the orators in the Roman. Empire were lauded with the same glamorous status that Americans assign to movie stars and professional athletes. They were the shining stars of their day. Orators could bring a crowd to a frenzy simply by their powerful speaking skills. Teachers of rhetoric, the leading science of the era, were the pride of every major city. The orators they produced were given celebrity status. In short, the Greeks and Romans were addicted to the pagan sermon-just like many modern Christians are addicted to the "Christian" sermon.

The Arrival of a Polluted Stream

How did the Greek sermon find its way into the Christian church? Around the third century a vacuum was created when mutual ministry faded from the Body of Christ. At this time the traveling worker who spoke out of a spontaneous burden left the pages of church history. To fill his absence, the clergy-caste began to emerge. Open meetings began to die out, and church gatherings became more and more liturgical.

During the third century, the clergy-laity distinction was widening at breakneck speed. A hierarchical structure began to take root, and there grew up the idea of the "religious specialist." In the face of these changes, the functioning Christian had trouble fitting into this evolving ecclesiastical structure." There was no place for him to exercise his gifts. By the fourth century, the church had become fully institutionalized and the functioning of God's people froze.

As this was happening, many pagan orators were becoming Christians. As a result, pagan philosophical ideas unwittingly made their way into the Christian community" Some of the new converts at this time happened to be former pagan philosophers and orators" Regrettably, many of these men became the theologians of the early Christian church. They are known as the "church fathers," and some of their writings are still with us.

Thus the pagan notion of a trained professional speaker who delivers orations for a fee moved straight into the Christian bloodstream. Note that the concept of the "paid teaching specialist" did not come from Judaism. It came from Greece. It was the custom of Jewish rabbis to take up a trade so as to not charge a fee for their teaching.

The upshot of the story is that these former pagan orators (now turned Christian) began to use their Greco-Roman oratorical skills for Christian purposes. They would sit in their official chair and "expound the sacred text of Scripture, just as the sophist would supply an exegesis of the near-sacred text of Homer... " If you compare a third-century pagan sermon with a sermon given by one of the church fathers, you will find both the structure and the phraseology to be shockingly similar.

So a new style of communication was being birthed in the Christian church--a style that emphasized polished rhetoric, sophisticated grammar, flowery eloquence, and monologue. It was a style that was designed to entertain and show off the speaker's oratorical skills. It was Greco-Roman rhetoric. And only those who were trained in it were allowed to address the assembly!" (Sound familiar?)

One scholar put it this way: The original proclamation of the Christian message was a two-way conversation but when the oratorical schools of the Western world laid hold of the Christian message, they mode Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation. The greatness of the orator took the place of the astounding event of Jesus Christ. And the dialog between speaker and listener faded into a monologue.

In a word, the Greco-Roman sermon replaced prophesying, open sharing, and Spirit-inspired teaching." The sermon became the elitist privilege of church officials, particularly the bishops." Such people had to be educated in the schools of rhetoric to learn how to speak. Without such education, a Christian was not permitted to speak to God's people.

As early as the third century, Christians called their sermons by the same name that Greek orators called their discourses. They called them homilies. Today, one can take a seminary course called homiletics to learn how to preach. Homiletics is considered a "science, applying rules of rhetoric, which go back to Greece and Rome."

Put another way, neither homilies (sermons) nor homiletics (the art of sermonizing) have a Christian origin. They were stolen from the pagans. A polluted stream made its entrance into the Christian faith and poisoned its waters. And that stream flows just as strongly today as it did in the fourth century.

Chrysostom and Augustine

John Chrysostom (347-407) was one of the greatest Christian orators of his day. (Chrysostom means "golden-mouthed.") Never had Constantinople heard "sermons so powerful, brilliant, and frank" as those preached by Chrysostom. Chrysostom's preaching was so compelling that people would sometimes shove their way toward the front to hear him better.

Naturally endowed with the orator's gift of gab, Chrysostom learned how to speak under the leading sophist of the fourth century, Libanius. Chrysostom' s pulpit eloquence was unsurpassed. So powerful were his orations that his sermons would often get interrupted by congregational applause. Chrysostom once gave a sermon condemning the applause as unfitting in God's house. But after he finished preaching it, the congregation loved the sermon so much they applauded. This story illustrates the untamable power of Greek rhetoric.

We can credit both Chrysostom and Augustine (354-430), a former professor of rhetoric, for making pulpit oratory part and parcel of the Christian faith. In Chrysostom, the Greek sermon reached its zenith. The Greek sermon style indulged in rhetorical brilliance, the quoting of poems, and focused on impressing the audience. Chrysostom emphasized that "the preacher must toil long on his sermons in order to gain the power of eloquence."

In Augustine, the Latin sermon reached its heights." The Latin sermon style was more down to earth than the Greek style. It focused on the "common man" and was directed to a simpler moral point. Zwingli took John Chrysostom as his model in preaching, while Luther took Augustine as his model. Both Latin and Greek styles included a verse-by-verse commentary form as well as a paraphrasing form.

Even so, Chrysostom and Augustine stood in the lineage of the Greek sophists. They gave us polished Christian rhetoric. They gave us the "Christian" sermon. Biblical in content, but Greek in style.

The Reformers, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening

During medieval times, the Eucharist dominated the Roman Catholic Mass, and preaching took a backseat. But with the coming of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the sermon was again given prominence in the worship service." Luther improperly conceived the church to be the gathering of the people who listen to the Word of God being spoken to them. For this reason, he once called the church building a Mundhaus (mouth or speech-house)!

Taking his cue from Luther, John Calvin (1509-1564) argued that the preacher is the "mouth of God."" (Ironically, both men vehemently railed against the idea that the Pope was the Vicar of Christ.) It is not surprising that many of the Reformers had studied rhetoric and were deeply influenced by the Greco-Roman sermons of Augustine, Chrysostom, Origen, and Gregory the Great.

Thus the flaws of the church fathers were reduplicated by the Reformers and the Protestant subcultures that were created by them, This was especially true of the Puritans. In fact, the modern evangelical preaching tradition finds its most recent roots in the Puritan movement of the 17th century and the Great Awakening of the 18th century.

The Puritans borrowed their preaching style from Calvin. What was that style? It was the systematic exposition of Scripture. It was a style taken from the early church fathers and which became popular during the Renaissance. Renaissance scholars would provide a sentence-by-sentence commentary on a writing from classical antiquity. Calvin was a master at this form. Before his conversion, he employed this style on a commentary by the pagan author Seneca. When he was converted and turned to sermonizing, he applied the same analytical style to the Bible.

Following the path of their father John Calvin, the Puritans centered all their church services around a systematic teaching of the Bible. As they sought to Protestantize England (purifying it from the flaws of Anglicanism), the Puritans centered all of their church services around highly structured, methodical, logical, verse-by-verse expositions of Scripture. Their stress was that Protestantism was a religion of "the Book."" (Ironically, "the Book" knows nothing of a sermon!)

The Puritans also invented a form of preaching called "plain-style." This style was rooted in the memorization of sermon notes. Their dividing, sub-dividing, and analyzing of a Biblical text raised the sermon to a fine science." This form is still used today by countless pastors. In addition, the Puritans gave us the one-hour sermon, the practice of congregants taking notes on the sermon, the tidy four-part sermon outline, and pastor's use of crib notes while delivering his oration.

Another influence, the Great Awakening, is responsible for the kind of preaching that was common in early Methodist churches and is still used in modem Pentecostal churches. Strong outbursts of emotion, screaming, running up and down the platform, are all carry-overs from this tradition. Summing up the origin of the modem sermon, we can say the following: Christianity had taken Greco-Roman rhetoric, baptized it, and wrapped it in swaddling clothes. The Greek homily made its way into the Christian church around the second century, and reached its height in the pulpit orators of the fourth century-namely Chrysostom and Augustine.

The Christian sermon took a backseat from the fifth century till the Reformation, when it became encased and enshrined as the central focus of the Protestant worship service. Yet for 500 years, most Christians have never questioned its origin or its effectiveness.

How Sermonizing Harms the Church

Though revered for five centuries, the conventional sermon has contributed to the malfunction of the church in a number of ways.

First, the sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the church service. As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst. The sermon turns the church into a preaching station. The congregation degenerates into a group of muted spectators who watch a performance. There is no room for interrupting or questioning the preacher while he is delivering his discourse. The sermon freezes and imprisons the functioning of the Body of Christ. It fosters a docile priesthood by allowing hand-waving" pulpiteers to dominate the church gathering week after week.

Second, the sermon stalemates spiritual growth. Because it is a one-way affair, it blunts curiosity and produces passivity. The sermon lames the church from functioning. It suffocates mutual ministry. It smothers open participation. This causes the spiritual growth of God's people to take a nose dive.

As Christians, we must function if we will grow. We do not grow by sitting like a pillar of salt as one man preaches us under the pew week after week. In fact, one of the goals of NT-styled preaching and teaching is to get you to function. It is to encourage you to open your mouth in the church meeting. The conventional sermon hinders this very process.

Third, the sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy mentality. It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist--the only one having anything worthy to say. Everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian--a silent pew-warmer. (While this is not usually voiced, it is the reality.)

How can the pastor learn from the other members of the Body of Christ when they are muted? How can the church learn from the pastor when its members cannot ask him questions during his oration?" How can the brothers and sisters lean! from one another if they are gagged from speaking in the meetings?

The sermon makes "church" both distant and impersonal. It deprives the pastor of receiving spiritual sustenance from the church. And it deprives the church of receiving spiritual nourishment from one another. For these reasons, the sermon is One of the biggest roadblocks to a functioning priesthood!" Fourth, rather than equipping the saints, the sermon desk ills them, It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about "equipping the saints for the work of the ministry," the truth is that preaching sermons equips no one for spiritual service!

[Note: While many pastors talk about "equipping the saints" and "liberating the laity," promises to free the flaccid laity and equip the church for ministry virtually always prove to be empty. So long as the pastor is still dominating the church service by his sermonics, God's people are nor free to function. Therefore, "equipping the saints" is typically empty rhetoric. (F.V.)]

In reality, God's people are just as addicted to hearing sermons as preachers are addicted to preaching them. (I am aware that some Christians do not appreciate being preached under the table every week. But most seem to enjoy it.) By contrast, NT-styled preaching and teaching equips the church so that it can function without the presence of a clergyman.

Fifth, the modem sermon is completely impractical. Most preachers are experts at that which they have never experienced. Whether it be abstract/theoretical, devotional/inspirational, demanding/compelling, or entertaining/amusing, the sermon fails to put the hearers into a direct, practical experience of what has been preached. Thus the typical sermon is a swimming lesson on dry land! It lacks any practical value. Much is preached, but nothing ever lands. Most of it is aimed at the frontal lobe. Modern pulpiteerism fails to get beyond merely disseminating information to the role of equipping believers for both experiencing and utilizing that which they have heard.

In this regard, the sermon mirrors its true father--Greco-Roman rhetoric. Greco-Roman rhetoric was bathed in abstraction. It "involved forms designed to entertain and display genius rather than instruct or develop talents in others. ". The modem polished sermon can warm the heart, inspire the will, and stimulate the mind. But it rarely if ever shows the team how to leave the huddle!

In all of these ways, the sermon fails to promote spiritual growth. Instead, it intensifies the impoverishment of the church. The sermon acts like a momentary stimulant. Its effects are short-lived at best. Let us be honest. There are scores of Christians who have been sermonized for decades, and they are still babes in Christ. We Christians are not transformed by hearing sermons. We arc transformed by regular encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who minister, therefore, are called to make their ministry intensely practical. They are called to not only reveal Christ, but to show their hearers how to experience, !mow, follow, and serve Him. If a preacher cannot bring his hearers into a living spiritual experience of that which he is ministering, the results of his message will be short-lived. Therefore, the church needs less pulpiteers and more spiritual facilitators. It is in dire need of those who can proclaim Christ and know how to deploy God's people to experience Him who has been preached.

We need a restoration of the first-century practice of mutual exhortation and mutual ministry. For the NT hinges spiritual transformation upon these two things. Granted, the gift of teaching is present in the church. But teaching is to come from all the believers as well as from those who are specially gifted to teach. We move far outside of Biblical bounds when we allow teaching to take the form of a conventional sermon and relegate it to a class of professional orators.

Wrapping It Up

The pulpit sermon is not the equivalent of the preaching that is found in the Scriptures. It cannot be found in the Judaism of the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, or the life of the primitive church. What is more, Paul told his Greek converts that he refused to be influenced by the communication patterns of his pagan contemporaries.

The sermon is a sacred cow that was conceived in the womb of Greek rhetoric. It was born into the Christian community when ex-pagans-now-turned-Christians began to bring their oratorical styles of speaking into the church. By the third century, it became common for Christian leaders to deliver a sermon. By the fourth century it became the norm.

Christianity has absorbed its surrounding culture. When your pastor mounts his pulpit wearing his clerical costume and delivers his sacred sermon, he is playing out the role of the ancient Greek orator.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the sermon does not have a shred of Biblical merit to support its existence, it continues to be uncritically admired in the eyes of most modern Christians. It has become so entrenched in the Christian mind that most Bible believing pastors and "laymen" fail to see that they are affirming and perpetuating an unscriptural practice out of sheer tradition. The sermon has become permanently embedded in a complex organizational structure that is far removed from first-century church life.

In view of all that we have discovered about the modem sermon, consider these penetrating questions: How can a man preach a sermon on being faithful to the Word of God when he is preaching a sermon!? And how can a Christian passively sit in a pew and affirm the priesthood of all believers when he is passively sitting in a pew!? To put a finer point on it, how can you, dear Christian, claim to uphold the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura ("by the Scripture only") and still support the pulpit sermon?

As one author so eloquently put it, "The sermon is, in practice, beyond criticism. It has become an end in itself, sacred--the product of a distorted reverence for 'the tradition of the elders' . . . it seems strangely inconsistent that those who are most disposed to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, the 'supreme guide in all matters of faith and practice' are amongst the first to reject Biblical methods in favor of the 'broken cisterns' of their fathers (Jer. 2:13)." To put it another way, there is no room in the church's corral for sacred cows like the sermon! --Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Chapter 2, (less notes and references), http://www.ptmin.org.

Don't Miss: On Expository Preaching, by Ray Stedman, http://ldolphin.org/expospreach.html


1. A correspondent wrote me: Every one of your criticisms of "preaching" and "sermonising" could well have been applied to this Newsletter. Did the lack of interaction also spoil the effect of this Newsletter? Rather, the issue is only whether what is preached is "rightly dividing the Word", and not style or format. God bless.

I replied as follows: Thanks for your comments. Yes, I agree the real issue is content not style. I see not that did not come across in what I wrote.

I do think many preachers today dish out a few crumbs of bread to an audience that is actually near-starvation. Many people I know are basically Biblically illiterate these days and they need to start from scratch and get to know know the whole counsel of God. Generally they won't do this on their own which was normative 30 years ago.

Greek Oratory does not lend itself to delivering content. Preaching a few Bible verses only--week after week--does not solve the root problem of Biblical illiteracy.

More and more of the Christians I know won't go near a church anymore because the Sunday sermon drags them down and leaves them worse off than when they came.

Nancy Pearcey discusses these issues in her excellent book. She points out the importance of getting back to a Christian world view which encompasses creation, the fall, as well as redemption so that people see more of the totality of life.

The writer's response: Thanks. I think that e-mail was more well rounded than that which I read earlier. In my humble opinion, you would do well in being extremely specific about EXACTLY what is missing in the Churches you criticize and tell EXACTLY what should be done. I think you hit it on the head in speaking of the lack of foundational truth from Scripture. Yes, creation, the fall and redemption are that foundation. I would add the deity of Christ and the bodily resurrection and the method of salvation (grace, through faith) are issues which need to be stressed time and time again in any and every Church. We need to deliver the basics on a regular basis. Thanks, and God bless.

2. Eric Knickerbocker http://www.mrrena.com/contact/contact.shtml, sent me the following excellent remarks drawing on #1:

It is interesting that the commentator mentioned Viola's thoughts as applicable to the newsletter. My initial reaction was similar: not only did I think of the relative eloquence with which Viola articulated his thoughts, but I also thought of my own ministry which consists primarily of writing, and, given that I am a literature major, eloquence plays its own part in this. Yet perhaps we should do a little bit of housecleaning as well and see where it leads us.

It is not completely clear whether Viola intends the bride and body of Christ no matter where life may find its individual members from day to day or if he had the narrower sense of the formal assembly in mind. I personally felt like the latter was most often suggested, and, if we accept this as Viola's definition of "church," in writing the book, he was not conducting church per se but performing an auxiliary function (as by extension were you when you reformatted the content for the newsletter). The real crux of his argument, at least as I understood it, had less to do with the sermon and more to do with church itself. Put another way, while the sermon was the explicit topic, it was implicit to the point that Viola felt that it detracted from the Biblical conception of the assembling of believers together in a formal corporate setting.

With that out of the way as a hopeful clarification, I will speak a few words regarding y own thoughts about the matter. First, allow me to cull a brief quotation from something I have previously written and then segue from there into the topic at hand, thus providing a thesis and antithesis into the reason I personally feel Viola's thought is useful. In Holy Discontent: The "God Question" I write:

Throughout the pages of history, we see this same thing happening [that is, "the sacred meeting the grime and filth of reality"]. The nation of Israel was a nation of nomads, wanderers, homeless persons aimlessly combing the hot desert sands. We read the similarities in the literature of the people who surrounded them and see how it parallels the Bible. Doubt enters our mind and we wonder, "Did the Jewish people simply lift these stories from other cultures?" But we're looking at it all wrong. What we have is a picture of the sacred entering the flesh and blood reality of the world. We would expect a certain sameness in the Jewish people and their neighbors. They are ordinary mortals. But the other thing we would expect to find, we do: Their God is a little different than the other gods of the other peoples. Their God is really their only difference and a huge difference at that. This is the sacredness amidst the mundane reality, the fire that turns an ordinary bush into a message board of the holy.

We read that our Christmas and Easter celebrations have pagan origins, that even our marriage ceremony with its rings and its veil can be traced back to the customs of the Greco-Roman world. We wonder, "Should we continue to observe these holidays? They do originate from pagan sources, after all." Yet we have it all wrong. Of course the holidays are going to be reflective of pagan culture. Where did Christianity grow its deepest roots if not in the Western world, pagan to its core? Yet the difference is not the dirt and grime, for we are inescapably bound to this element: we are no different than anyone else in the entire world, we are no less pagan. The difference is once again found in God. The pagan holidays, like the atheist who comes to Christ, have been revitalized, transformed, given new meaning. Yes, you could say it is the same old pagan holidays, just as you could say it is the same old atheist. But you would be overlooking the obvious difference: God.

Now then, lest we run too wild with these thoughts, we must also ask ourselves to what extent we bring glory and honor to God by adopting and transforming elements of pagan culture. It might be such a thing that while God can work and move within a given medium, it might not be the best medium for the task at hand. And the element that strikes me the most in Viola's thoughts has less to do with the sermon and more to do with the repercussions of choosing this medium for corporate worship settings. From my own experience, small group settings in which an informal atmosphere reigns often allow a level of transparency, intimacy, and connectedness rarely to be found in corporate settings. My question would be, "To what extent is the sermon responsible for this deficiency, leaving believers unsupported, unsatisfied, and missing the fullness intended by our Lord?" I am not as expressly concerned the cultural derivation of the sermon except as an interesting fact within itself. Yet even in the same breath, its origins could be important in that they might detract from a better, more Jewish way of doing things, for what honest Biblical scholar is going to argue that Jesus's epistemological foundation was not Orthodox Judaism? The Greeks were more concerned with dissecting and dividing--in a word, analysis--because they believed that reason could discern and interpret an intelligible world. Conversely, the Hebrew mentality tended to be more holistic and faith based, focusing on right orthodoxy and orthopraxy (the law and its applications). To the present day, we speak only a half-truth when we speak of the Judeo-Christian heritage of the Western world (and particularly America), for we must also admit that we have an equally strong Greco-Roman heritage. But then again, so does the Christian faith itself to large degree (excluding perhaps Eastern Orthodoxy), one of its most zealous advocates a missionary to the Gentiles well schooled not only in the Torah, but in pagan thought and philosophy. In fact, modern day missionaries are themselves often faced with difficult questions: if the new converts are polygamous, for example, is it Biblical to tell them they must divorce all but one wife? There has to be a certain amount of cultural play without losing any of the essentials and that is the heart of the problem: where do we draw the line? When has the essence evaporated leaving in its place a dry and withered form of Godliness that denies its power? While there are many things outlined unmistakably in Scripture, there are many others that come to us in the form of principles, requiring wisdom and a diligence ear to the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit to rightly discern. And Christianity is itself dynamic, for we serve a risen Lord and that relationship with Him sits at the heart of all else we do. (Sola Scriptura only works when Christ is the assumed center.)

Now certainly a sermon that does not preach truth in accordance with the Bible is not generally going to be that instrumental and effective, though I do maintain that God, being infinitely creative, is often capable of using even the most unlikely elements for His glory. But let us say that like Viola's description of Calvin, the pastor does lay out a very systematic and accurate study of the Bible. Let us say that is immensely clarifying, edifying, and has the anointing of God dripping from every syllable. Still, the question may profitably be asked, "Does this alone consist of church? Or does this factor, plus music, plus (fill in the blank) constitute church? What of fellowship, what of community, what of the talents that have been assigned the various members?" Perhaps the issue is not so much the sermon--maybe it is not even the sermon at all. But it might be. It might be that it detracts from what church was intended to be; it might be that a good thing has been elevated to too high of a standing. It might be that its cultural heritage detracts from a better way, a wiser way, a way prescribed by God. We certainly don't have to agree with Viola to find his thoughts challenging. In fact--and I say this quite apart from all considerations of Viola--sometimes plainly bad ideas can be immensely helpful in clarifying good ones. We see this evidenced in the various early controversies surrounding the question of the relative humanity and Divinity of Christ. If it weren't for those we now call heretics, our understanding of the faith would probably not be what it is today. So then, if Viola touches a nerve, it can be immensely clarifying to ask ourselves the reason why, perhaps digging around in Scripture a bit like the Bereans who were more noble than their Thessalonian neighbors. I am not going to say that I agree with everything the man says; on the other hand, I can see value in it as well. In the end, it is what it is: one man's commentary. It is certainly not canonical by any matter of means nor was it ever intended to be, just as my own thoughts presented here are in nowise intended to supplant the proper place of Scripture. I would be frankly surprised if my response elicited universal agreement though it is my hope and prayer that it in its own way it clarifying and helpful, if not by what it does say, then by what it should have said.

Posted August 24, 2004.

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