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The Unchanging Grounds of Our Authority

Just who do you think you are telling others what to do, what to believe? In any culture, in any age, we will preach with confidence when we correctly understand where our authority comes from.

PreachingToday.com: When we think about preaching with authority, what are the key questions we need to answer?

John Koessler: The first question is, do I have authority to preach? Second, where do you locate a sermon's authority? Third, is this notion of authority outdated?

The first question—Do I have authority to preach?—is being asked on both sides of the pulpit. The listener wants to know, Why should I listen to this guy? But the preacher today is also asking that question. We really are in an age where there is a lot of challenge to authority. As a result, there has been a shift away from the idea of authoritative preaching. With the younger generation, there is discomfort with preaching from a position of authority, and so now you have talk about approaching hearers with a more humble orientation in a conversational model of preaching.

If we decide that preaching does have authority, then the second question comes into play: where does that authority come from? Traditionally there have been three places that people have located authority. One is in the preacher's office. You should listen to preachers because they are the authorized teachers of the church. This idea is especially prominent in the Catholic church.

Things shifted during the Reformation. For Luther and Calvin, the authority is located in the message itself. Why should you listen to the preacher? Because the preacher preaches the gospel. If the preacher's message does not conform to the gospel, then you don't have to listen to the preacher.

In the modern era you have a loss of confidence in the text. The location of authority is in the experience of the listener. That's where we are today. You see this, though, decades ago in a figure like Harry Emerson Fosdick, who said that the main objective of the preacher is to address some particular need or problem in the life of the audience. When listeners identify with the problem and see that the preacher is addressing it, that gives the preacher authority. It's a pragmatic approach.

So authority is based in the listener's experience of the message? If the message works for them, it has authority. If it doesn't work, even if the person up front is preaching the Word of God, listeners don't regard the message as having authority.

You hear the third question—should we even care about authority today?—in the Emergent conversation. They're not approaching the audience from the point of view of dogmatism. It's not proclamation, it's conversation.

The Emergent group aren't the only ones to have approached it from that point of view, though. Decades ago Fred Craddock wrote the book As One Without Authority. He argues for a different model of preaching, moving away from a deductive, proclamatory approach, to a more inductive, audience-focused approach. You try to draw the audience into an experience. The weight is placed on the experience of the listener, and that's what validates the preaching.

How do listeners think about the question of the preacher's authority?

Listeners don't have an inner debate on it; they just tune out. With those hearing you for the first time you probably have about a four-minute window at the beginning of the message when the listener is making a judgment about whether you have credibility. It's not a question of Where did he go to school? or Is his theology straight? The listener's assessment is often rooted in ethos, the sense they have of the person who's up there preaching. It is very experiential. They're gauging the preacher by nonverbals and by the issues the preacher is raising.

The apostle Paul does not just tell them the message; he tries to win them over.

Well, that happens every time we preach; people make judgments about it. So for the listener, that question is a question of validity. For the preacher, it's a question of confidence. Where is the basis of my confidence to stand before these people and address the most intimate issues of their lives? You know, let's say here's a couple that they've been in a committed, non-married relationship for seven to ten years. They happen to wander in and in the course of my sermon I say, "If you are living together outside of the covenant of marriage, what you're doing is wrong; you need to change." Well, where do I get off doing that? That's really a question of authority. Where's the basis for my being able to address them. Not just in the moral issues of their lives, but on eternal questions. For me to say, "You're going to heaven; you're going to hell," that really is a question of authority.

The authority of preaching is always derived authority. It's never innate to the person. There's this issue of position. How do I think of myself as a preacher? Well, I think of myself as somebody who was commissioned by God, somebody who is commissioned by the church. That gives me a certain level of confidence. But the validity of that comes from the message, the fact that what I am preaching is the Word of God.

But preaching is not just about what is said. It's tempting for me as a preacher to stand before the audience and say, "Look, I'm here on God's behalf. Doesn't matter whether you like it; doesn't matter whether you like me. The only thing that matters is what God has said, so deal with it." There's a certain personality type that seems to go along with that. It's sort of appealing.

But the truth of the matter is if I don't have any concern for the audience, they're going to reject what I say. Preaching isn't only a matter of what is said, it is also a matter of how it is heard. So I do have to ask myself, How does what I'm saying impact the listener? Am I addressing the questions they came with today, the needs they have, the objections that arise in their minds as they listen to me declare the Word? If I don't speak to any of that, I'm not going to be able to preach with authority.

You see all three of these aspects of authority reflected in Paul's preaching. There's a positional location for his authority in that he preaches as an apostle, a commissioned messenger of Jesus Christ.

There's a story about George Whitefield preaching to a crowd, and he notices a man up front who is starting to doze off. Whitefield slams down his Bible, and the guy jerks awake, and Whitefield says, "Oh, I woke you? Good. I meant to, because I come in the name of the Lord of Hosts, and I demand a hearing."

Second, for Paul the nature of the message is critical, so he warns the Galatians, "If anybody comes to you and preaches a different gospel, let him be cursed." For him, the validity of the message is also in the nature of the message: does it agree with what God has said? This is the prophetic test of preaching. If you think about the preacher standing in the tradition of the prophets, God's Old Testament people were told to test everything that the prophets said, and if a prophet said anything that disagreed with God's revealed Word, they were to reject it.

Third, Paul has a deep interest in his listeners. You see it in the way he is in a kind of dialogue with those to whom he is writing. He will raise their questions—"Some of you will say"—and then he'll answer them. You see it in those moments when he exposes his heart and talks about his own concerns. Paul does not just tell them the message; he tries to win them over. You see this particularly in the Corinthian letters where there is this deep anxiety over the way the Corinthians are hearing and perceiving him. It's important to him as a preacher to have an eye on the way his audience is listening to him.

Paul knew he had authority, yet clearly he had persuasion in mind.

Today as we're trying to sort through this subject of authority in preaching, we have a tendency to move to extremes. One extreme is to say: people don't relate to authority today, and besides, who am I to stand up and tell people what they should think or do. So I'm just going to share my experience. I'm going to tell you what it looks like from where I'm standing, and we'll have a conversation about this.

That's one extreme. The other extreme is the attitude that I'm saying what I'm saying because I'm right, and if you disagree with me, well, you can come up and apologize later, because I agree with God. It doesn't matter what you think about what I say or who I am, because this is what God says, and you just need to come to terms with that.

The problem with both of those extremes is you have great potential to miss a large part of your audience.

The reformers had it right. Their understanding was that the preacher's authority comes from the Word, and because it comes from the Word they can stand before anybody. We can stand before kings, we can stand before the common laborer, and we can make statements about what God expects. Not because of who we are or our role in the life of the church, but because we are presenting what God has said.

To what extent does a preacher's authority come from showing that we're human? When you stand before your students, many of them probably will give you more respect because of what you've shared in your memoir Stranger in the House of God than in the book you edited The Handbook on Preaching.

People grant preachers authority often based on what they know of their experience. Again it's a matter of ethos. "What kind of person is this that I should listen to him?" In sermons from thirty years ago there was little personal sharing done by the preacher. If there was, it often portrayed the preacher in a parental role where they were setting a good example. For the preacher to stand up and expose a flaw is contemporary.

It's important to the audience, but it can also be a trap if the sermon becomes an exercise in narcissism in which I'm primarily talking about myself. There needs to be some balance. The model is the Apostle Paul. You see his transparency in what he says about his own fears and past experience. He describes his movement from Judaism to faith in Christ and how wrong he was before that move. At the same time he's not afraid to stand on his calling as someone who's authorized to speak for Christ.

The modern audience doesn't want to hear just a doctrinal construct in the message. They want to know something about the preacher, and particularly they want to see the humanness of the preacher. But—this may be just a personal thing—I'm getting tired of hearing self-absorbed preaching. It seems we have swung too far in that direction. We have this genre of preaching where the center of the message is the preacher. All the illustrations revolve around personal experiences the preacher has had. It has a self-absorbed quality to it that I find myself reacting against. I would like to see the pendulum swing more to the middle. In my own preaching I'm probably more reserved in my use of personal illustrations than I was 10 years ago.

The experiential model of authority also has an element of what I would call not so much pragmatism but dynamism. It is similar to Karl Barth's approach to preaching. For him the validating element in the sermon is what God does with it. It's not even so much the biblical text. The authority is in what God does as the preacher declares the biblical text, and the Holy Spirit comes and makes it the Word of God to the listener. How do I know this is authoritative? Because of what God did as I was listening to it. This is a factor in the way people listen to sermons today.

The two tests of authority for the audience today are, (1) Is the preacher saying anything that applies to where I am? and (2) did I experience God while the preacher was speaking?

Those who advocate for dialogical preaching push back against the idea of authoritative preaching and say the focus should be on communal authority. Using a bowling metaphor, the preacher serves as the bumpers you put in the gutters when kids are bowling. The preacher just makes sure the church doesn't go too far right or left as the church works out its views on the truth.

Again, that gets back to where the seat of authority is. The question I would have for that view is, when you look at the New Testament and what it says about the church's responsibility with respect to what is declared, I don't see anywhere where the authority is placed in the community. The authority grows out of what God has said. Christ declares the Word, he delivers it to the apostles, the apostles deliver it to the church, and then the church has responsibility to preserve what has been handed down to them. Their role isn't to say, "Let's all get together and decide what we're going to believe about this." There's an element of tradition here, so Paul describes the church as the pillar and the foundation of the truth. Paul is saying the church upholds the truth. The church has been given this deposit of authoritative truth, and it is responsible to proclaim it, to preserve it. Paul also says the church has been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and that implies a doctrinal foundation of what the apostles and prophets are teaching. So I think that those who say the authority rests in the community have got it wrong. The responsibility rests with the community; the authority is anchored in the Word that has been given to the community.

I recall hearing one of the leading voices for dialogical preaching in a conference, and he was asked, "If you're going to engage genuinely in dialogue with people, don't you have to put everything on the table?" That is, don't you have to put every doctrine on the table and at least hold out the possibility that you could be wrong about things like the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement? As I recall, his answer was, Yes, if you're genuinely going to engage in dialogue, you have to put everything on the table and say I might be wrong about that.

I find that extremely problematic, particularly from the point of view of someone who is responsible to proclaim. In the New Testament, when you look at the various terms used to describe what happens when preaching takes place, behind the language is this implication of authoritative declaration. I'm not speaking for myself, and there's this body of truth. It's not a conversation.

Do we need to debunk the idea that a younger generation reacts negatively to someone who speaks with authority? I can think of high profile preachers who preach with a strong sense of authority who also are having a strong following among younger people. I'm thinking of Mark Driscoll in Seattle, James MacDonald in the Chicago area. How do you explain that?

Ethos is always a factor. Part of what people respond to is the person. It's very hard, almost impossible, to listen to somebody you don't like. If listeners conclude that the preacher is conceited or doesn't care about them, it's an uphill battle for the preacher. So there is an element of ethos; there are people in every generation who respond to an authoritative personality. The names I hear that a lot of our students love to listen to are James MacDonald, John Piper, Mark Driscoll. So there is a significant population responding to this proclamation model, this declarative model.

What is the difference between preaching with authority and authoritarian preaching?

Again, that goes back to ethos. Preaching with authority has to do with my confidence in the basis for my message. I am confident that I have a word from God and that the reason you have to listen to me is because this is what the Lord has said. Authoritarian preaching, on the other hand, is a personality type. That's preaching as bullying. You have to listen to me because I say you have to listen to me. Authoritarian preaching is often reflected in a dislike for the audience. One of the questions listeners unconsciously ask when they hear a preacher is, Does the preacher like me? or, If the preacher knew me, would the preacher like me? In the first few minutes of the sermon, you can sense when preachers are embittered toward their hearers. Authoritarian preaching doesn't have anything to do with authority.

If you were to hear someone that you classify as an authoritarian preacher, how would you pick out that that's what's going on there? Is there anything else that marks that out?

There's a kind of narcissism reflected in it.

It's self-serving.

Yes, it approaches the audience from a utilitarian point of view. There's something I want to gain as a result of your response to my message. The authoritarian preacher doesn't care about the legitimate questions the listener has. There's no compassion in it. Stilly, not every preacher who ignores the questions of the audience is an authoritarian preacher; some are just insensitive.

Titus 2:15 says, "These then are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you." How does that Scripture relate to us today?

It's critical. Authority has to do with the content of what Titus declares, that he is a messenger of the living God who declares God's Word. It reminds me of what Whitefield said: I come in the name of the Lord of Hosts, and I demand a hearing because of that.

Authority is an issue for both sides of the pulpit. For the audience it's a question of validity; for the preacher it's a question of confidence. I really do have to know what right I have to stand before this audience and address the most fundamental issues of their lives, to meddle, really—to stand before them and talk about their affections, values, moral decisions, their marriages, and their children. I'm telling them how to live—where do I get off doing that? Every preacher has to answer that question. The only answer is to trace back to where you get your message from. The only thing that gives me the right to do that is what I say accords with what God has said. I am declaring his Word.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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