Preachers and Leaders 3: Preaching as congregational leadership: a venerable history

preachers-and-leaders-310-190Background: This post is part 3 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:

Preaching as congregational leadership: a venerable history

We have seen that the speech of congregational leaders, often aptly described as ‘shepherds’, is a key means by which the truth of God’s word was guarded, learned and obeyed among congregations in the first century.

Christians of course continued to gather after the first century. After very little time and following a practice that began almost as soon as they were received, the New Testament documents were collected and read among these congregations (see Col 4:16). Nevertheless, even with the documents of the New Testament available to them, Christians still saw an obvious need for congregational leaders—shepherds who had the solemn responsibility for teaching the truth of God’s word to their congregations. The most obvious public way in which they discharged this solemn responsibility was by preaching sermons.

John Chrysostom, for example, introduces his discussion about the ministry of the word in book four of his Six Books on the Priesthood by alluding to Ephesians 5:26-27, stressing the great responsibility that lies on those entrusted with the church’s care:

For the Church of Christ is Christ’s own Body, according to St Paul, and the man who is entrusted with it must train it to perfect health and incredible beauty, by unremitting vigilance to prevent the slightest spot or wrinkle or other blemish of that sort from marring its grace and loveliness.1

The way in which church leaders discharge their responsibility towards Christ’s body is by preaching the truth of Scripture, which is a continuation of the apostolic ministry. Speaking of Paul’s letters in particular, Chrysostom writes:

For by the use of them even today the presidents educate and train the pure Virgin whom Paul himself espoused to Christ, and lead her on to spiritual beauty. By them also they ward off the diseases which attack her, and preserve the good health she enjoys.2

Chrysostom goes on to apply the solemn injunctions to Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 2:24, 3:14-17; Titus 1:7-9), which include the language of ‘teaching’, directly to the ministry of preaching.3

Augustine, too, sees preaching as a ministry that is of vital importance for the health of the church. In the first three books of his De Doctrina Christiana (‘On Christian teaching’), Augustine stresses the importance of right scriptural interpretation, and explains how such interpretation should be conducted. In book four, where he finally turns to discuss the art of preaching itself, he is not content to describe preaching simply as the explanation and application of a scriptural passage. Rather, he describes the preacher as playing a vital role in preserving the truth of the Christian faith within his congregation:

So the interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures, the defender of the true faith and vanquisher of error, must communicate what is good and eradicate what is bad, and in the same process of speaking must win over the antagonistic, rouse the apathetic, and make clear to those who are not conversant with the matter under discussion what they should expect.4

The Reformation in Europe, along with the invention of the printing press, witnessed an exponential increase in the availability of the Bible to ordinary congregation members. Nevertheless, the magisterial Reformers still stressed the need for shepherd-teachers to guard the truth of God’s word through preaching. For Calvin, the ‘pastors’ (‘shepherds’) were those individuals in the Christian community charged with the responsibility for continuing the apostolic commission within individual congregations. The key task of the pastor, alongside rightly administering the sacraments, was to preach, to teach, to instruct, acting directly in line with the ministry of the apostles:

From these [1 Cor 4:1 and Titus 1:9] and similar passages which frequently occur, we may infer that in the office of the pastors also there are these two particular functions: to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments. The manner of teaching not only consists in public discourses, but also has to do with private admonitions [cf. Acts 20:20-21, 31]… Yet it is not my present intention to set forth in detail the gifts of the good pastor, but only to indicate what those who call themselves pastors should profess. That is, they have been set over the church not to have a sinecure but, by the doctrine of Christ to instruct the people to true godliness, to administer the sacred mysteries and to keep and exercise upright discipline… Finally, what the apostles performed for the whole world [i.e. to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments], each pastor ought to perform for his own flock, to which he is assigned.5

The Ordinal of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is emphatic about the importance of the pastoral preaching ministry:

And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Book of Common Prayer (1662 Version, Everyman Publishers, London, 1999), 518.

In the Ordinal, the biblical language relating to the weighty responsibility of Christian leaders, as bearers and preservers of the apostolic word, is applied here directly to the Anglican ‘priest’. His teaching role is a solemn responsibility, and is a (if not the) fundamental component of his ministry. Three of the eight questions addressed to him relate to the office of teaching.6 He is ordained to be a “Dispenser of the Word of God”, then symbolically receives a Bible with the words, “Take thou Authority to preach the Word of God, and to minister the holy Sacraments in the Congregation, where thou shalt be lawfully appointed thereunto”. So, as Robinson observes, in the Ordinal “The oversight of the church, the measure of ‘ruling well’, the task of building and protecting and nurturing, are all related to the teaching role”.7 True ‘teaching’—that is, the private admonition and public preaching outlined in the Anglican Ordinal—is seen to be the authoritative exposition and application of scriptural and apostolic truth within the congregation.

The English theologian and pastor William Perkins (1558-1602), along with others from the Elizabethan Puritan movement, was fond of using the term ‘prophesying’ to refer to sermons—indeed, Perkins titled his influential tract on preaching The Art of Prophesying.8 The use of this specific biblical term, however, was not intended to imply that Perkins was advocating a new or different understanding of the nature of preaching.9 Preaching, for Perkins and his colleagues, was still understood as the serious responsibility of the congregational leader, whose task was to “teach” his congregation comprehensively from the Bible and to drive away false doctrine. The term ‘prophecy’ in fact serves to highlight the responsibility and authority attached to this particular form of speech. The preface to Perkins’ tract includes the following words:

The dignity of the gift of preaching is like that of a lady helped into and carried along in a chariot, while other gifts of speech and learning stand by like maidservants, conscious of her superiority.

In keeping with this dignity, preaching has a twofold value: (1) It is instrumental in gathering the church and bringing together all of the elect; (2) It drives away the wolves from the folds of the Lord. Preaching is the flexanima, the allurer of the soul, by which our self-willed minds are subdued and changed from an ungodly and pagan lifestyle to a life of Christian faith and repentance. It is also the weapon that has shaken the foundations of ancient heresies, and also, more recently cut to pieces the sinews of the Antichrist. So, if anyone asks which spiritual gift is the “most excellent”, undoubtedly the prize must be given to prophesying.

In the extended section on ‘Use and application’, Perkins is at pains to point out that the task of the preacher (or “the minister”) is to discern the different kinds of hearers in his congregation, and to direct his preaching deliberately so that each kind of person may be “taught” certain doctrines from God’s word.10 He uses the term ‘teach’ and its cognates frequently (e.g. “Those who already believe. We must teach them…”; “…the specific doctrine which counteracts their error should be expounded and taught…”; etc.). He does so because he regards preaching as an intentional, authoritative, didactic activity undertaken by the minister toward a congregation. Thus, in section 10, Perkins refers to the following three “graces” needed by the minister (i.e. the preacher): 1) he must be “able to teach” (referring to 1 Timothy 3:2); 2) he must possess “authority”; and 3) he must have “zeal” for his preaching ministry.

Of course, in saying that preaching carries a particular weight of responsibility and authority, the Reformers and their successors by no means denied the prior and superior authority of the biblical words themselves.11 As we have already seen, congregational shepherds always speak as those under a greater shepherd, and their speech must constantly be brought into line with the enscripturated words of Jesus and his apostles. Nevertheless, the authority of Scripture does not preclude the responsibility—and consequent authority—of the preacher.

This post is part 3 of a series:


  1. J Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood (trans. Graham Neville, St Vladamir’s Seminary Press, New York, 1977), 114.
  2. Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, 123.
  3. Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, 123-4.
  4. Augustine of Hippo Regis, De Doctrina Christiana (trans. RPH Green, OECT, Clarendon, Oxford, 1995), 4.14.
  5. Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. FL Battles, 2 vols, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20 and 21, Westminster Press, Louisville, 1960), 4.3.6. It is true that Calvin also saw a distinct role for ‘teachers’—that is, experts in scriptural interpretation with a specialist responsibility to “keep doctrine whole and pure among believers”. However, Calvin believed that the pastor’s role included the task of teachers, and more besides: “But the pastoral office includes all these functions within itself” (Institutes, 4.3.4).
  6. Robinson, DWB, ‘Ordination for What?’, in PG Bolt and MD Thompson (eds), Donald Robinson Selected Works, vol. 2, Preaching God’s Word (Australian Church Record, Camperdown, NSW, 2008, 414-37), 435.
  7. Robinson, ‘Ordination for What?’, 433. Dickson makes a puzzling reference to Robinson’s article (J Dickson, Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2012, 2.4). Dickson claims that Robinson is here repeating a point he had made in his earlier Moore College lectures, which formed the germ for Dickson’s own views on the nature of ‘teaching’ as the repetition and rehearsal of the collected sayings and rulings of the apostles. However, Robinson’s words in this and other articles point in the opposite direction to that which Dickson implies. Robinson is not seeking to limit the manner of teaching to passing on the apostolic words verbatim; he is simply seeking to focus the content of the teaching on the apostolic deposit itself. In particular, he is seeking to demonstrate the way in which the Anglican Ordinal—particularly in its very high view of preaching—reflects the weight and the centrality of ‘teaching’ in the Pastoral Epistles. Robinson does observe that ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ today often has a broad range of meaning, and may refer to all sorts of things said from the pulpit regardless of their seriousness or their relationship to the apostolic deposit (428). But, as his article goes on to show, he is not happy with this state of affairs! Both words, he argues, should be reclaimed as the act of authoritatively teaching the apostolic deposit to the contemporary congregation. Indeed, Robinson is at pains to point out that ‘teaching’ is something quite different and additional to the “imparting of the fundamental traditions regarding the gospel and Christ’s words” (432). See also Robinson, DWB, ‘The Apostolic Ministry: The New Testament, The Ordinal, and the Constitution’, in PG Bolt and MD Thompson(eds), Donald Robinson Selected Works, vol. 2, Preaching God’s Word (Australian Church Record, Camperdown, NSW, 2008, 478-89) 481-3.
  8. Perkins W, The Art of Prophesying and the Calling of the Ministry (Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1996, first edn 1592).
  9. In the revised print edition of Hearing Her Voice (Dickson Publishing, Sydney, 2013), Dickson refers to Perkins’s text to provide extra support for his argument that sermons should be regarded as different from ‘teaching’. Dickson in this section of his book is claiming that ‘teaching’ and ‘prophecy’ are two distinct New Testament activities (2nd edn, 1.3). At the end of the section, Dickson notes “in passing” that Perkins and other “Puritans” in Elizabethan England called their sermons “prophesying”. Dickson apparently regards Perkins’s use of this term as evidence that “sermons have not been viewed in exactly the same way throughout all of church history”. This is a non sequitur. For Dickson’s argument to have any traction, he would need to do more than merely point to a word in the title of Perkins’s work. He would have to show that Perkins (and others) used the term ‘prophesying’ because they regarded it as something distinct from teaching. Yet Perkins clearly does not have such a distinction in mind—as we shall see, he frequently refers to “teaching” in his text on “prophesying”.
  10. Perkins, Art of Prophesying, section 7.
  11. See, for example, Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.5, 4.3.1; cf. for example P Adam, ‘The Preacher and the Sufficient Word: Presuppositions of Biblical Preaching’, in C Green and D Jackman (eds), When God’s Voice is Heard: The Power of Preaching (IVP, Leicester, 2003, first edn 1995), 27-42.