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.

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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?