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Preaching Difficult Doctrines (Without Splitting the Church!)

Preaching Difficult Doctrines (Without Splitting the Church!)

The history of Christianity and of any denomination is a narrative of spats, splits and schisms. Many churches and most denominations were born not of an intentional tactic to reach more people but as a reaction to a personal or doctrinal conflict. Doctrine does not have to be divisive, however, if a pastor will employ a few basic strategies as he teaches the Word.

Make It Textual

Christians will never understand doctrine apart from a grasp of the warp and woof of Scripture. A steady diet of exposition teaches both the metanarrative of the Bible as well as the underlying truths. Narrative passages were “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11) and as examples to us. They generally hold some sanctifying truth to emulate or some sin to avoid, but even the behaviors exhibited in the text fit within a doctrinal framework that reflects the character and the will of God.

The fourth chapter of Jonah, for instance, is fascinating and has an incredible narrative appeal. One might expect that chapter three concludes the story. After initially defying the Lord, Jonah undergoes God’s chastisement in the belly of a great fish, cries out for deliverance, relents and goes to Nineveh where he delivers a message of judgment and the people repent and turn to God. Nothing could fit Aristotle’s analysis of drama better than that: exposition, complication, climax, reversal and denouement. Jonah is a prophet (exposition), he refuses to obey God (complication), he is swallowed by a whale (climax), he cries out to God and goes to Nineveh (reversal), and as a result of his preaching the people repent (denouement).

The fourth chapter is completely unexpected and does not seem to fit. Just when we thought the tension was resolved we are taken to an unanticipated destination: the very heart of God. The prophet who received God’s mercy pouts like an impetuous spoiled child because God has shown mercy to undeserving Babylonians. God exposes Jonah’s ridiculous and misplaced affections and then exposes his own heart, naked and raw and bleeding, for the people of Nineveh. If God destroyed Nineveh for their sin, even though justified, he would also destroy children and people of diminished mental capacity who “do not know their right hand from their left.” He even cares about the innocent animals (Jonah 4:11).

This unexpected turn after what one might expect is the end of the story is a “zone of turbulence,” a rhetorical device that directs the reader’s attention and drives home the main point of the text by dropping something entirely unexpected into the narrative, something that does not at first seem to fit. A preacher must never preach merely the event, but must make clear the meaning of the event. The book of Jonah ends with an intimate glimpse into God’s heart of mercy and how he thinks about his creatures. That is not narrative for the sake of a good story alone. That is doctrine revealed in a beautiful narrative form. Only a heart like this would send his son to die for his people. The God who spared Jonah and the people of Nineveh did not spare his own son but freely gave him up.

Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story. Stories often raise questions like, “Why would God do that?” or “How can someone who claims to know God behave like that?” Good preachers answer those questions even as they preach the pericope within the metanarrative.

Similarly, didactic passages such as the epistles also reveal truths about Christ, about man, about salvation, and other categories of theology. The doctrinal content may be much nearer the surface and therefore easier to mine, but connection to other passages and doctrine still demands careful exposition and correlation. Faithful teaching of doctrine always begins with the text, not a system. If you want to avoid dissension and division in the church, always point to the Scripture as the authoritative source of doctrine.

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Dr. Hershael W. York is the Senior Pastor of the Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky and the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Dr. York is co-author with Bert Decker of Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), a book that guides Christians in effective communication, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003), named one of Preaching magazine’s best books of 2003. Preaching Today has included him among North America’s most effective preachers. His articles have appeared in many journals and magazines, and he is a popular conference speaker in the US, Europe, and South America. He holds a B.A. in English and Classical Civilizations from the University of Kentucky, where he also earned a Master of Arts in Classical Languages. He received a Master of Divinity and also a Doctor of Philosophy in Greek and New Testament from the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.