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The Place of Pastoral Wisdom in Application (Part 2)

To what extent should sermon application be guided by personal experience, observation, and common sense?

This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

Would you say we have been looking at basically two categories of authority—the definite or the maybe?

Ramesh Richard wrote a series of articles in Bibliotheca Sacra about application. He said within certain texts there are statements we can directly apply. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." There are other passages we can draw implications out of, and there are still other passages that the best we can do is extrapolate.

With "Thou shalt not commit adultery," the direct application is easy. Don't commit adultery. An implication of that would be the sanctity of marriage. In other words, work on your marriage—that's a legitimate application of the passage—work on your marriage to make sure it's fulfilling and you don't wander physically or emotionally or spiritually. If I were to make the application, "Never go out to a lunch or dinner with a person of the opposite sex alone," that would be an extrapolation. It may be wisdom. It may be a good policy. But it isn't an absolute. It would probably be wise not to be in a setting where you could easily compromise yourself or your reputation.

We call into question our own integrity when we don't acknowledge the source of the authority for what we are saying.

Suppose you are presenting a message that gives biblical advice about what to do after you've been divorced. What kind of guardrails do we need to keep on the application?

There is a place for the pastor, even on Sunday morning, to stand up and say, "I'm not going to preach a sermon. I'm going to address an issue many of you face—the issue of how to go on from here after a divorce. I don't even have a text today, but I just want to share with you some things I think are going to be helpful to you." I wouldn't have a problem with doing that. I'd have more of a problem with saying, "My text today is" and then stretching the text to make it cover my topic.

There's a place to say to a congregation, "I'm just going to share some wisdom. It's biblical wisdom, but from a lot of texts. It's orthodox. I think it's wise. But I'm not saying it is, 'Thus saith the Lord.' This is from my years of counseling and experience."

Take1 Timothy 4:16, for example. Paul tells Timothy "Give attention to yourself." Paul had just talked about not letting people look down on his youth. Be an example in love, faith, and purity. When he says, "Give attention to yourself," the idea is, give attention to your doctrine and to your godly behavior.

Someone could use that text to springboard into how a pastor needs to give attention to himself so he can have credibility—things like how he dresses, grooms himself, polishes his shoes, or washes his car before he drives to the church on Sunday morning—all of those things may be good advice out of the experience of the pastor. They probably have a place in a seminary chapel setting for people who are preparing for ministry. But you don't need a text for that. To choose a text makes it appear that Since I have a text, this is what God is saying to you today. It gives the advice the same level of authority or ethos as the instructions, Don't commit adultery; Walk in the way of the law of the Lord; Trust Jesus by faith, not works, for salvation. We call into question our own integrity when we don't acknowledge the source of the authority for what we are saying. Sometimes it's just me, the preacher, or me, the dad.

I tell my kids, "There are a lot of things I won't go to the wall on, but let me tell you the things I will go to the wall on. They're in the Bible, and I can give you chapter and verse, in context. There are some other things—curfew, what kind of clothes you wear, how you decorate your body, pierced ears, tattoos, those things—I won't go to the wall on those, because I don't have a level of authority that allows me to do it." Somewhere in the sermon, the speaker has the responsibility of making clear what authority is behind what he's saying.

How often do you do that?

For those people who hear me on a regular basis, I will share my pastoral wisdom with them from time to time. If I'm preaching one shot, I'm careful not to get off on the pastoral wisdom side too much, because I probably don't have the ethos to do that. But if it's people to whom I'm speaking frequently, every so often I let them know the rules (as explained above), or I will use some phrases so they will know, This is an absolute. That, on the other hand, is a little more tentative.

A lot of opinion passes for what people call topical preaching, and that has given topical preaching a bad name. Topical preaching can be and should be expository preaching. Topical preaching should be more than proof-texting, more than finding a word there that applies to some other word here, more than a situation taken out of context or that is irrelevant to our day. There's danger in that.

When you have the long lists of things related to a felt need—Here are eight ways to get back on track after a divorce—and then pick a passage for each one of those, the messages usually are not expository topical preaching, but good pastoral wisdom. You don't need a text to say that. My preference would be we don't even pretend that this text teaches that—unless it clearly does.

Let's not try to say that God is saying something when it's just me saying it.

That's right. Let's not pretend God is saying it unless we can get into the text and demonstrate God is saying that.

Timothy S. Warren is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary and ministers to adults at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas.

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