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.

"Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story."

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.

Make It Biblical

As obvious as this seems, pastors find themselves in a divisive church situation because they use loaded theological jargon rather than the language of Scripture. The problem is not so much that a pastor teaches unbiblical doctrine, but that he uses extra-biblical language. If a church accepts the inerrancy of Scripture, then the pastor’s task is always to show what the Word of God, and not a theological system, actually says. 

If a pastor preaches a system, relies on theological insider language, or employs faddish expressions he is far more likely to create needless controversy. A parishioner can pack the word theologically and incorrectly or, at the very least, differently than the preacher intended the word—and find 100 websites that confirm him in his wrongheaded understanding of what the pastor meant and warn him against such “heresy” that some author warns is part of a satanic plot.

For example, some members of my church have come from denominations that warned them about the dangers of “once saved always saved” because it grants permission to believers to pray the sinner’s prayer and then live as they want with no regard for sanctification. While our church does not hide our belief that a person who is genuinely regenerate and born again by the Holy Spirit can never be unborn and ultimately lost, we also do not believe that a person can simply pray a prayer or walk an aisle and live for the flesh with no change from before salvation and go to heaven. 

My best move as a pastor, therefore, is to avoid any terminology that implies something other than I mean to my congregation and to default to a strictly biblical vocabulary. I can talk about being born again to never be unborn or rejected. I can show them in the Scripture that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. I can point them to Paul’s confident word even to the Corinthians, with all of their sin and disobedience, that Jesus Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8). I can explain clearly and decisively that once one becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17) becoming an old creation again is impossible. I can show passages about perseverance in faith and holiness and deal honestly with warning passages because I do not reduce the issue to one banal buzzword or facile phrase but rather strive to say precisely what the Bible actually says.

Make It Personal

Doctrine, even the most controversial doctrine, does not exist in as antiseptic quarantined ecclesiastical space but in the grit and grime of life and spiritual struggles. The pastor who preaches a sermon on the doctrine of Christ’s humanity which merely describes the hypostatic union and its role in church history will face yawns or, worse yet, divisiveness from the armchair theologians in the church. 

"Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world."

When a pastor relates theology to the lives of listeners, when he connects doctrine and duty, then congregants more readily catch the consequence and significance of the teaching. Just as the writer to the Hebrews relates that Christ’s humanity makes him a faithful high priest who actually feels our weaknesses, so the wise pastor will always show the practical aspects of doctrine. Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world.

More than that, however, a pastor needs to make it personal in relation to Christ. All true doctrine ultimately finds its expression in the person and the work of Jesus. When a pastor shows how the doctrine in view relates to Christ and a proper understanding of it leads us to follow him, doctrine comes alive.

Make It Proportional

Pastors sometimes make the mistake of preaching what they love or what they are most passionate about to the exclusion of the rest of God’s revelation in the Bible. One can find a lot of passages in the Scripture about social justice, for instance, but to preach those texts exclusively without the balance of justification, prayer, or evangelism a church would soon begin to list dangerously toward a social gospel that only makes the world a better place from which to go to hell. 

Expository preaching that systematically goes through books from both testaments, from multiple genres, and with a balance between law and grace is the best steady diet for a congregation. Expositional series through major sections of Scripture help both the pastor and the congregation gain a strategic grasp of the metanarrative of Scripture. One cannot adequately appreciate the whole without a knowledge of the parts, but the inverse is equally true. 

Some churches and denominations focus on specific doctrines above and to the exclusion of all others. Churches and ministries will define themselves by their obeisance to those specific things, even while they tend to ignore themes and theological movements that are much more pronounced throughout the Bible. It might be footwashing, women’s hairstyles, missions methodologies, or some other minutiae, but they nonetheless strain at gnats and swallow camels. The best doctrinal preaching refuses to ride a hobby horse and deals with the grand sweep of God’s Word.

Make it Loving

"The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel."

Nothing should be more obvious, but 1 Corinthians 13 is for preachers as well as practitioners of glossolalia. Without love, no doctrine will matter. The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel. 

Sometimes I have had tough doctrinal conversations with church members who disagree with me. If I remind them that I have a PhD in New Testament, that I know the biblical languages, and that I have been a seminary professor for twenty years and in ministry for nearly forty, they are not impressed or moved one bit—nor should they be. If I lovingly thank them for taking the time to meet with me, remind them that above all else I want to honor Christ and His Word, and tell them that I love them even if we don’t reach agreement, they tend to be much more open to what I teach. Even if they don’t see things my way in the end, they usually still leave as my friends and Christian brothers and sisters. Would Jesus have it any other way?

How to Follow a Long-Tenured Pastor

Following a pastor who has run well and gone the distance is only a problem for those who lack the character or the stamina to do the same. Taking the baton of leadership from someone who has served the church for twenty years or more is certainly not without daunting challenges and discouraging obstacles, but the advantages of stability—even when “stability” has morphed into apparent intransigence—are usually preferable to following a rapid succession of pastors who did not stay long enough to lead the people in any meaningful sense of the word. 

    In 1990 at only 30 years old I was called to be the third pastor of the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. My two predecessors had served for fifty and twenty-three years respectively. One of them, Clarence Walker, was legendary. Both Jerry Falwell and W. A. Criswell told me about his impact on their lives. My immediate predecessor, Ross Range, was the quintessential pastor, a dignified and refined man who mowed his yard wearing a tie. 

    The church I now serve, Buck Run, has a very different history, one marked by a long succession of very short pastorates with one notable exception: my immediate predecessor, Dr. Bob Jackson. He served the church twice for a total of two decades (his last tenure was thirteen years) and under his expert leadership the church exploded with growth and grace, morphing from a sleepy rural church on the banks of the Elkhorn Creek to one of Kentucky’s most vibrant and missional congregations. He led Buck Run to found the Romanian American Mission, which today has planted over 400 churches and continues to impact Europe. His emphasis on prayer and evangelism led Thom Rainer to include a chapter, “The Miracle Called Buck Run” in his book on church growth, Eating the Elephant. When Dr. Jackson resigned, many members grieved his departure, even years later.

    I am acquainted with the ups and downs, the blessings and not-so-blessings (curses is too strong a word!) of following long-tenured legendary pastors. While I have benefitted from the stability and unity that it brings, I have faced the monolithic intransigence it fosters as well. Here’s what I have learned.


The Two Great Challenges

    You aren’t him. Furthermore, you are never going to be him. You don’t have his abilities, convictions, wisdom, skills—you can simply fill in the blank here. In fact, church members will do this for you. I lost count of how many times someone looked me in the eye with no intent to hurt or discourage but flatly stated something like, “Now I think you’re really good at __________ , but when it comes to _________ , you’re no (Clarence Walker, Ross Range, Bob Jackson).

    Everything in a man wants to defend himself at this point, to point out one’s own strengths and value added, but the best move is simply and humbly to plead guilty. “I aspire to be as great a pastor as my predecessor. He certainly sets the bar very high. Would you commit to pray for me that the Lord might, for His glory, make me the best shepherd that I can be to His flock? I desperately want to be.”

    If the goal were to be more loved or revered than the previous pastor, one might have a tough and trying tenure, but the objective is faithfulness, and that lies completely in one’s own control. I do not have to be revered, applauded, or appreciated to be faithful. I simply have to submit to God’s will. The example of my predecessor, even the humiliation of constant reminders that I am not him, motivate me to cast myself on Christ and beg the Holy Spirit to help me be faithful. 

    Preferences become convictions. The longer a pastor stays and does things a particular way, the less congregations distinguish between biblical mandates and pastoral quirks. Consequently, some members will be prepared to defend the practice to the death when a new pastor suggests an alternative. Children’s ministries, worship styles, Sunday School practices, altar calls, and even the way the offering is received might become sources of tension and division he will encounter. 

    Since longevity and faithfulness were the source of the last pastor’s credibility, any new pastor would be naïve to think he can make significant changes without enough time to establish them. Some problems—even some people—must be outlived or outlasted. No pastor gets a shortcut to character or credibility because they are forged in the furnace of life and experience.


The Two Great Benefits

    Stability means predictability. Long-tenured pastorates usually indicate a stable church family. A pastor typically does not have new crises that threaten his position arise after about ten years. Through the years of his ministry those who opposed him left or changed, and every new member came in at least partly because they resonated with him. The effect is that over the course of years, the congregation coalesces behind the pastor’s leadership and enjoys great unity.

    While a new pastor certainly will feel the pressure of change and even of possibly disappointing all those people, he also has a church with established patterns and habits that make them predictable. Whatever challenges follow a long and successful tenure, they aren’t as bad as those presented by the church that cycled through 10 pastors in 20 years. Those churches grow accustomed to instability. They typically place far more trust in key lay leaders than in any pastor because so many pastors come and go while a key leader or two seem constant and dependable. That kind of congregation may even see those lay leaders as their protectors from pastoral overreach and vicissitudes. 

    While one can always find exceptions, the general result is that the steadiness of a church accustomed to a long pastorate is easier to lead than the instability of one that has cycled through multiple short tenures. In the strength and consistency of the former, a pastor will at least get the opportunity to build bonds and relationships in a congregation that knows what long-term commitment looks like.  


    They know how to overlook faults. Like any lasting committed relationship, the bonds between a pastor and a congregation work best when they love one another across their differences and disappointments. Frankly, the necessary skill is even more stark than that. People in happy relationships that endure acquire the ability not even to notice one another’s faults. Pastors will find that true in church life as in marriage, otherwise, no pastor could last long because all men have great flaws. 

    Following a pastor who stayed at a church a long time means, at the very least, that this church learned how to follow a man in spite of himself and his weaknesses. Greater still, they may have learned to love him so much that they didn’t notice or dwell on his flaws. If they have done that for one man of God, perhaps they can learn to do it for another.  

The Two Great Moves

    Never criticize your predecessor. If he went insane one night and slaughtered a local herd of goats with a machete, you brag on his ability to sharpen a blade. That may be an overstatement, but the point of the hyperbole is to drive home a hard and fast rule: just don’t criticize him at all. Find the good things that you can say about him and say those things even if they are small. Do not be fooled by the church members who feel comfortable criticizing him to you. They will still think you petty and insecure if you join in. Just don’t do it. Ever. You gain nothing and lose a great deal.

    Even if a predecessor did much worthy of criticism, anyone who follows him should leave that to the Lord and others to judge. No successive pastor ever had to suffer criticism because he was not critical enough. A man with a lengthy tenure did enough right things that he survived all the business meetings, crises, funerals, deacon elections, and church splits for a long time. Do not discount that. Even if his tenure ended in shame and sin, speak only of your commitment to purity and transparency, but never in contrast to him. Everyone either already knows the truth about him, thus you need not say it, or they believe him to be better than he is, and you only anger and frustrate them when you say it. 

    If you are blessed to follow a man who was faithful and honorable and whose service ended well, then thank God for him, honor him, bless him, and speak well of him openly and often. I have been blessed to follow men of character and distinction in my pastorates, and I have taken every opportunity to praise them sincerely, thank God for them, and invite them back for special occasions. Even after the death of Dr. Jackson, when we dedicated our new campus 13 years after he left, I publicly thanked God for him and made sure that his widow and family were present to receive our gratitude and honor and to witness the continuing fruit of his ministry. Honoring my predecessors has never taken anything from my leadership. To the contrary, it has added value and leadership currency. The people who were loyal to my predecessors did not see me as an interloper trying to deprive their beloved pastor of his legacy, but as a fellow admirer and a grateful servant happy to build on the great foundation that they laid. They easily and quickly gave me that same loyalty and respect because I gave them permission to keep loving the man who had shepherded their hearts faithfully. I learned long ago that people have a great capacity to love and I don’t even have to be their favorite pastor so long as I am a faithful pastor.


    Stay a long time and be faithful. Every time I had someone give me the “you’re no Bob Jackson” speech, I knew that if I would just be faithful to love the people, preach the Word, and point people to Christ, the day would come in which someone looks at my successor and says, “You know, you’re a good guy, and we like you, but you’re no Hershael York.” In all candor, I take no solace that anyone might ever be compared unfavorably to me, but I understand human nature well enough to know that will happen if I am a faithful shepherd who walks through life with the precious people God has entrusted to my care. After a few years of preaching the Word, loving the people, and shepherding hearts, I have earned trust and leadership collateral, and, I pray, so will my successor. So I end where I began: following a pastor who has run well and gone the distance is only a problem for those who lack the character or the stamina to do the same.

A Tribute to Wallace York

My father, Wallace York, was a faithful husband, father, grandfather and pastor who touched many lives before his death in 2009. He pastored many people in the course of his life and, though he was only a sinner saved by God’s grace, nearly everyone who was fortunate enough to have him as a shepherd will attest that he loved the Lord, He loved God’s Word, and he really loved people.

Especially children. Any kids who were ever around my father for even just a few minutes were treated to his fake French, watching him take his thumb off, or hearing him talk like Donald Duck. He could carry on an entire conversation and sound just like Donald Duck. He even joked that his mother was a duck because she waddled when she walked. Kids absolutely loved to run to him as soon as they got to church and to plead for him to talk like Donald Duck. No matter what was going on, he always obliged. He loved children.

I miss my father every day. I miss our Sunday night phone calls telling one another what we each preached that day and how it went. I miss cheering for Kentucky Basketball with him, or commiserating over Kentucky football, or hearing the same five corny jokes that were the extent of his comedic repertoire. Every time “No Time for Sergeants” comes on TV, I yearn to see his eyes squint with laughter. I really wish he could be with me on November 13 for the first public worship service in Buck Run’s new building. I know he would be overwhelmed with joy at what God has done and his voice would choke with emotion in some expression of praise.

I have wanted to honor my dad in some tangible way and now I have the perfect venue. The indoor playground equipment for our children’s wing cost $38,000, and I think it would be appropriate and fitting for people who knew and loved my dad to help me raise that amount to honor him and to bless the children who are growing up under his son’s ministry with a place to play and expend their energy in a safe, loving, Christ-centered environment. By God’s providential grace, some of my father’s own great-grandchildren are among those who will play and be taught there.

If those who knew and loved my father will do this in his honor, we will purchase high-quality, safe play equipment that will stand in the Wallace York Play Area as a tribute to the man who taught me God’s Word and will be used to help Buck Run Baptist Church train and teach children to love the Word of God that he faithfully taught and preached for so many decades before God called him home.

I intend no pressure on anyone, only an opportunity to honor my father and bless the children whom God will bring to Buck Run. If you can give, the process is simple and easy to complete online by clicking the link below or simply by mailing your donation to Buck Run Baptist Church, 3894 Georgetown Road, Frankfort, KY 40601. Once the goal is met and we can purchase the equipment, this opportunity will disappear. We are seeking only enough to meet this goal and no more. If you feel led to be a part of it, your gift is completely tax deductible and you will receive a receipt from Buck Run Baptist Church for tax return purposes.

Thank you for your tribute to my father and your investment in our children.

Pastoral Pointer | Intentional Church Programming

Does your church merely schedule activities, or does it have a comprehensive strategy to build unity, reach the lost, and make disciples? Whether planning a church picnic or an evangelistic service, church members need to know the purpose, the goal, and the desired outcome of everything on the church calendar. Dr. York explains five levels of church planning and how to communicate it to the congregation so everyone understands and embraces the church calendar is an important ministry tool.

Pastor Well | The Pastor As Worship Leader

Most pastors understand that they are the primary teacher of the Word, but few realize that they are also the principle worship leader. No congregation will ever be focused on worship if the pastor treats it cavalierly or acts disinterested. Dr. York explains the integral relationship between preaching, which is the central act of worship, and the preacher, who is the de facto leader in worship.

View all other Pastoral Pointers HERE

Pastoral Pointer | Leading Your Church to be Welcoming

No one likes to go where they feel unwanted—especially church. How can a pastor train a congregation to welcome guests and project a warm, inviting spirit so visitors feel at  home and are more receptive to the worship and the Word? Dr. York shares some practical insights and strategies that can make the difference between a church that hopes for growth and one that actually grows.

Listen to a sermon where I coached my own church on how to do this very thing.

View all other Pastoral Pointers HERE