Preachers and Leaders 1: A separation of preaching and leadership?

preachers-and-leaders-310-190Background: This post is part 1 of an essay called “Preachers and Leaders”. I am seeking to demonstrate that preaching sermons should be understood as an act of responsible congregational shepherd-leadership. I argue that preaching is the public component of the speech of a congregational shepherd-leader to the congregation under his care, by which he ensures that the truth handed down in the Scriptures is learned and obeyed by that congregation, in light of the congregation’s particular circumstances.

WSB-cover-thumbnailIn this essay, I am responding to a recent trend to separate preaching from congregational leadership, which I believe is biblically and historically unwarranted. One example of this trend appears in recent debates among “complementarians” about women and preaching–hence the essay has been published in the book Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne, eds., Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014). However, the issues addressed in the essay are broader than the particular debate about gender. My essay appears here with the kind permission of the publisher.

Here are the sections of the essay which appear on the site so far:

A separation of preaching and leadership

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The apostle Paul to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:20-21, 26-28)

Among the many important issues and questions that have been raised during recent debates about women and preaching, one that has received perhaps too little attention is this: What exactly is this thing we call a ‘sermon’ or ‘preaching’?

To properly answer this question, it is not enough to describe the sermon’s form—that it is an extended monologue usually involving the explanation, illustration and application of a biblical text. This is rather like Socrates’ attempt to answer the question “What is a man?” by answering “A featherless biped”. It is true of course, but not adequate—as Diogenes pointed out by bringing a plucked chicken into Plato’s academy and declaring, “Look, I’ve brought you a man!”

To understand ‘preaching’, we also need to account for what for is going on within the congregation when the sermon is preached. We need to explain who is preaching, what the preacher’s relationship is to the hearers, and what purpose the preacher has for the congregation. These questions are vital to consider, because there is an assumption that often lies behind the arguments made by those who claim the label ‘complementarian’ and who also wish to promote the practice of women preaching to mixed congregations.1 This assumption is that preaching and congregational leadership are two distinct activities or categories, and can be separated from one another in practice.

This assumption often comes to light in statements about the nature of preaching itself. Modern preaching, some argue, should not be understood as an act involving authority or leadership. Rather, preaching should be understood simply as a timely exhortation made by a Christian person to a group of other Christians on the basis of a safe, fixed and authoritative body of scriptural/apostolic truth. According to this account of preaching, the Christian congregation already has the authoritative truth in their hands (in the form of the Bible). Thus it would be wrong to think of the preacher as an authoritative teacher whose job is to ensure that his congregation learns and obeys this truth. Rather, the preacher’s job is simply to comment on the truth, to exhort us to listen to it afresh, and to apply it to our lives.2 In other words, the preacher’s relationship to the congregation should not be understood primarily in terms of leadership or authority; rather, preaching should be understood primarily as an act of mutual encouragement—and the words of the preacher should be judged and assessed by the congregation accordingly.

This view of preaching can be seen as a radical development of the convictions that lie behind the rise of ‘expository preaching’. The aim of ‘expository preaching’ is, quite rightly, to ensure that the default form of a sermon is the explanation and application of a particular Bible passage.3 This stems from a high view of Scripture as the supreme authority for Christian faith and conduct. By ensuring that the preacher is grounded in the inspired text, the expository preaching model rightly links the authority of the preacher with the prior authority of the word of God.4 This is a commendable—indeed, a vital—call. Sometimes, however, a further move is made. The Scriptures, it is claimed, must be seen not just as the supreme authority but as the only relevant authority when it comes to preaching. Any notion that there may be some leadership authority attached to the preacher himself is seen as inconsequential or irrelevant. For example, JI Packer writes:

When you teach from the Bible, in any situation at all, what you are saying to people is, ‘Look, I am trying to tell you what it says. I speak as to wise men and women. You have your Bibles. You follow along. You judge what I say.’ No claim to personal authority with regard to the substance of the message is being made at all.5

More recently, John Dickson has claimed that any ‘authority’ that may exist in the act of preaching only exists in the sense that any word spoken by one of God’s people through the Spirit carries a dimension of authority.6 For Dickson, the modern activity of preaching is comparable to ancient “exhortation” (Rom 12:8) and/or to the prophecy that we read about in 1 Corinthians 14, which was conducted by both men and women, and was routinely weighed and assessed against the authoritative oral tradition of apostolic truth. Those who exhorted and prophesied in the first century were not responsible for guarding the apostolic message itself. Rather, Dickson claims, this task was the exclusive domain of special authoritative ‘teachers’, guardians of the oral tradition,7 whose role has now been made redundant by the writing and canonization of the New Testament documents.8 Thus modern preachers are not responsible for guarding the truth of Scripture. Rather:

The words of the modern preacher are more like a commentary on Scripture and an application of Scripture… Evangelicals rightly train their congregations to weigh what the preacher says, and in this there is an implicit admission of the difference the canonization process has made to church life and of the fact that sermons are, in this sense at least, similar to the “weighed prophecies” of 1 Corinthians 14.9

There are others who do see a role in the church today for particular individuals to responsibly guard the truth of the Scriptures for the congregation. However, they argue, this role is not fulfilled primarily by preaching. Rather, congregational authority rests in the office of the leader/elder. An example of this way of thinking can be found in a recent publication by Kathy Keller.10 Keller argues that there is a difference between “teaching” in the congregation and a more serious kind of “authoritative teaching” that occurs elsewhere (although exactly where and how Keller does not quite specify). “Teaching” in the congregation is an activity that carries little or no authority and so may be rejected by the hearers with absolutely no consequences. On the other hand, “authoritative teaching” (cf. 1 Tim 2:12), both in New Testament times and today, is the prerogative of the “body of elders” (or whatever equivalent exists in a given denomination)—that is, the group who may call people before themselves and enact serious church discipline, presumably outside the context of congregational preaching. It is this body of elders who are responsible for ensuring that scriptural truth is kept intact. Thus, although lay men and women may be involved in “teaching” in the congregation, only ordained men may enact “authoritative teaching” in the meeting of elders.11

In this essay, I will show that this effective separation of preaching and congregational leadership is biblically and historically unwarranted. I will argue that, on the contrary, preaching should be understood as the public component of the speech of a congregational leader to the congregation under his care, by which he ensures that the truth handed down in the Scriptures is learned and obeyed by that congregation, in light of the congregation’s particular circumstances.12 There is also, of course, a personal dimension to a congregational leader’s speech: a leader can and should speak directly to individuals or families within the congregation to achieve the same ends. Indeed, this personal dimension undergirds and complements the public component (cf. Paul, who taught “in public and from house to house”; Acts 20:20). In this essay, however, I will concentrate primarily on the public dimension of a congregational leader’s speech. I will argue that this public component of a congregational leader’s speech is intended to ensure that the congregation learns, obeys and holds on to the truth of God’s word. This truth, even though it now exists in an authoritative written form in the Scriptures, nevertheless needs to be guarded, learned and obeyed afresh in each generation.

It is important to note that I am using the term ‘preaching’ here, along with the noun ‘sermon’, according to contemporary usage. I am not seeking to tie the term down to one item of New Testament vocabulary, such as kērussō.13 Rather, I am seeking to show that there is a pattern that may be discerned in the New Testament and in subsequent church history, a pattern that has been expressed using varied terminology, the public aspect of which is represented today by the ‘sermon’. We shall see in the next section that the New Testament employs a constellation of words and phrases to describe the speech of a leader to those under his care—terms such as “speak [the word of God]” (Gr. laleō), “admonish” (Gr. noutheteō), “exhort” (Gr. parakaleō), “rebuke” (Gr. elengchō) and, significantly for this volume, “teach” (Gr. didaskō). I will argue that the public component of such speech is essentially what we do today when we ‘preach a sermon’ to the gathered congregation.

This post is part 1 of a series:


  1. By ‘complementarian’ I mean those who affirm differing levels of leadership, responsibility and authority for men and women in congregational life.
  2. See Peter Bolt, “Reading God’s history as our good news” in Women, Sermons and the Bible: Essays Interacting with John Dickson’s Hearing Her Voice (Peter G. Bolt and Tony Payne, eds., Sydney: Matthias Media, 2014) for a survey of different forms of this view, including those by JI Packer, Graham Cole, Gilbert Bilezekian and (most recently) John Dickson.
  3. A classic work on this subject is HW Robinson, Expository Preaching: Principles and Practice (2nd edn, IVP, Leicester, 2001, first edn 1986); cf. JRW Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1982).
  4. E.g. “The type of preaching that best carries the force of divine authority is expository preaching” (Robinson, Expository Preaching, 20).
  5. Packer, JI,‘The Challenge of Biblical Interpretation: Women’, in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Interpretation (Broadman Press, Nashville, 1988, 103-15), 114-15. Packer makes a curious allusion to 1 Corinthians 10:15 here (“I speak as to wise men and women… You judge what I say”), which seems to undermine his argument. Paul originally used these words—probably as an ironic jibe (cf. 1 Cor 4:10)—as part of a strongly worded authoritative apostolic exposition of scriptural texts and received tradition. Paul’s words clearly did carry a claim to personal authority with regard to the substance of the message!
  6. Dickson, J, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012), 4.2.
  7. Dickson, Hearing Her Voice, 2.4.
  8. Dickson, Hearing Her Voice, 4.1.
  9. Dickson, Hearing Her Voice, 4.2 (emphasis original).
  10. Keller, K, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012). See especially the sections entitled ‘1 Timothy 2:11-12’ and ‘Where Does That Leave Us Regarding the Role of Women?’.
  11. Cf. Dickson, Hearing Her Voice, introduction.
  12. By using the term ‘public’, I am not referring to speech that is necessarily advertised, broadcast or made readily available to the population at large. Rather, I am talking about the speech of the congregational leader that occurs in the context of the gathered congregation, which is ‘public’ in the sense that it occurs in an open setting where all the church is gathered together, in contrast to ‘personal’ speech in which the congregational leader speaks to individuals or households.
  13.  Thus I will not explore here the debate concerning differences between the kērussō word group and the didaskō word group.