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The Dire Need for Doctrine (part 1)

Preaching a theology that sustains our hearers

This is part one of a two-part series.

Preaching Today: To help govern our conversation a bit, could you define doctrine for us?

Wayne Shaw: I'm going to skip the complex explanations that my seminary professor gave me regarding the difference between doctrine, theology, and dogma, and offer a definition that is quite Pauline: Doctrine is that body of Christian teachings that make the church the church and the Christian a growing Christian.

Not to treat doctrine seriously is certainly getting it wrong.

The answer is probably tucked away in that helpful definition, but tell us why you feel the preacher should preach doctrine.

For me, the deep questions of life are theological, and the answers are theological. Philosophy can raise the basic questions, but only a word from outside—theology—can adequately answer them. As preachers, we need a theology of preaching to sustain ourselves, and we need a theology to preach to sustain our hearers. That's why preaching doctrine is so important.

So I would answer the question with a couple of questions of my own. What else is there to preach? Why not preach doctrine? I'm not trying to be cute with that. I'm simply saying that if we answer those questions, it's probably the clue as to why doctrine isn't being preached more often.

You just mentioned that there's not enough doctrinal preaching going on in our ecclesial circles today. Do you think preachers are intimidated by the idea of it? Are they afraid of getting it wrong?

Doctrinal statements are nearly always abstractions that rise out of concrete situations. The further up the ladder of abstraction they go, the more remote they seem. The more remote they are, the more they are in danger of getting labeled as some "social construct" or ideas of the writer or code words for rallying the troops around the particular flag that the speaker has in mind.

So one of the more intimidating things is that whenever the preacher has to deal with lofty, abstract ideas, people immediately begin asking, "And who are you to say such things?"

Right. And you also asked, "Are preachers afraid of getting doctrine wrong?" I would say not to treat doctrine seriously is certainly getting it wrong.

What do you think, then, is most often getting preached in place of doctrine?

Pop psychology, pop culture, and personal values—with a sprinkling of humor and salt and a few scattered verses from the Bible.

I think it's the preacher's attempt at being popular. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be popular, as long as the sermons have size and substance to them. Strong, healthy doctrine is the only way to get both of those.

Are there any other challenges we have to overcome as we're dealing with doctrinal preaching?

Probably the ones we have to overcome the most are the sermons we have heard that purport to be doctrinal and the way doctrines have been handled in the past.

The preachers who have tried doctrinal preaching in the past often preach sermons as though they're doctrinal lectures stood up on their hind legs. They're taken from a book or from college notes, with the smell of the lamp on them. They're not related to life.

It's what someone called "a two-pocket universe"—carrying our doctrines around in one pocket and then living out of the other one. That has to be corrected if doctrinal preaching is to be helpful at all.

And how can preachers overcome the intimidating nature of doctrinal preaching?

Simply commit yourself to preaching doctrine. Out of that resolute commitment, then, there will be the motivation to really want to do it well.

My other suggestion is to use good models. Learn from preachers who preach doctrine well. James S. Stewart of Edinburgh has certainly taught me the most in this area. His second book of sermons is entitled The Strong Name. It was taken from St. Patrick's statement, "I bind myself today to the strong name of the Trinity." The book is full of doctrinal sermons. Stewart rarely preached a biblical sermon that didn't have a doctrine at its core, and it almost always throbs with life and power. For example, his sermon in Revelation 19:6, "The Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth." God's sovereignty is at the center of life, and Stewart says it means nothing less than the liberation of life, the doom of sin, and the comfort of sorrow. There will always be a need for preaching like that!

I remember a statement you once made about baptism. So many will ask, "Do I have to do this?" I remember you turning that question into the statement, "No—you get to." I wonder—would you argue the same with preaching doctrine? It's not just that you have to as a preacher; it's that you get to?

Exactly. If we're going to form a Christian community into what the Bible calls the church, we're going to have to deal with the major tenets biblically—what we're to believe and what we're to do. In other words, "What marks us as Christians? What marks us as a community of faith?" If we don't know that faith, then we're just joining another organization. That's how serious it is to me.

You've just given us another layer of the power of doctrinal preaching—what better way to stir community, than by way of a doctrinal ceiling that brings us together?

Yes. But it has to be a mixture—a tension between the dark line in God's face and the more positive side. If it's not uplifting—if it's just what I call "homiletical nagging"—then culture's current view of doctrine has a point. Homiletical nagging is when the preacher only looks at a particular brotherhood's specifics or his own pet peeves that he comes to again and again. These sermons often don't have any gospel in them. They're not proclamation. Many of them are not necessarily biblical! They just happen to be the culture of the church at the current moment.

Let's move into the mechanics of doctrinal preaching. How often should a preacher preach doctrine? Should they work a little bit of doctrinal teaching into every sermon? Should they preach one doctrine-heavy sermon a month? One series a year?

Preach doctrine all the time, preach it well, and preach it with variety.

I'm convinced only planned preaching will get at what we're talking about here. Now, you have to be sure that you don't have too many heavy sermons in a row. Again, you have to avoid what I call "the smell of the lamp." Don't let your sermons become a series of lofty, academic lectures, but don't let that stop you from preaching doctrine all the time.

As for the question of variety, Andrew W. Blackwood talked about direct doctrinal preaching and indirect doctrinal preaching. I believe the Bible uses the indirect method more than the direct method, but both are important. Let me see if I can give you an example or two of actual sermons or teachings from the Bible.

With all the emphasis today on narrative preaching, we need to remind ourselves that the people involved in the first century did not really understand what had taken place at Calvary until Pentecost, when Peter stood up with the eleven and proclaimed what had just taken place. Direct doctrinal treatment was given to the mightiest of all mighty acts of God. It had to be explained; it had to be articulated.

As for a more indirect approach, consider Romans 6. Paul confronts Christians who are sinning and excusing it because of God's grace. Here is a very practical, existential need in the church at Rome that needs to be met. To do so, Paul revisits their baptism, showing them that they have been buried and raised to new life in Christ. They shouldn't dare act like that never happened. All the while, Paul is also indirectly cementing the doctrine of the work of Christ. It's classic doctrinal teaching in an indirect fashion.

The early church and its leaders preached doctrine all the time, preached it well, and with variety—directly and indirectly. It goes without saying that we ought to do the same even today!

In part two of this two-part series, Shaw offers more insight into the mechanics of doctrinal preaching.

Dr. Wayne Shaw is Dean Emeritus for Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois, and author of Designing the Sermon (National Bicentennial Committee, 1975).

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