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Theology on Rocky Ground

Posted Tuesday, January 24, 2006 by Brian Beers

In many churches today you can find a pastoral infatuation with “application.” They are disenchanted with “doctrine.” The goal is to preach the Scriptures in a way that is relevant to the congregation. The overly-academic sermon is considered boorish, and people must be able to take something home with them

The “doctrine” of such churches is that doctrine is not relevant to folks living Godly lives. Their effort then is to take Scripture and refine it into high quality fertilizer. People are emerging from these churches incapable of benefiting from Scripture. We need to remember the connections between doctrine and daily life. The fact that most people don’t remember the connection does not mean that it has vanished.

Doctrine is how we make decisions.

When you choose to slow down to 64mph, it is because you believe that those flashing lights could cost you $184, not to mention an afternoon in traffic court. When you don’t go back for thirds, it is because you believe that eating less can bring you within 20% of your ideal body weight. We make decisions based on what we believe.

I must credit my pastor’s wife with lodging this permanently in my memory. She once reacted incredulously to someone’s statement that they wished they would live that they believed. She is simply interpreting James 2:17 “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Perhaps we should draw a stronger connection in the comparison in verse 26, “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” You can’t wrest this from the text, but unless a body is without a spirit, its actions spring from belief. Bottom line: I live what I believe.

So if we live according to doctrine, these churches have not enabled Christians to live without doctrine. They have given them doctrine without Scripture.

This year at our house, my wife would like our lawn to be healthy. She really does. How many of you wives asked for manure for Christmas? Mine did. She didn’t feel she had to have it at Christmas time. She knew I wouldn’t do anything with it until about March, but she does want it on our lawn. You may be asking yourself, “Doesn’t this man know about Weed-n-Feed? It gives you a thicker, greener lawn” Yes. Yes, I do know about Weed-n-Feed, but my wife wants a healthy lawn. Not just one that looks healthy. This difference is key, and the principles of a healthy and not-so-healthy lawn apply to theology and doctrine as well.

Five years ago the man who owned our home had a marvelously lush yard. This is on the testimony of the neighbors. For two years another family owned the home, and when we bought it, the lawn was moss. Had the lawn actually been healthy, it would not be so dire now. The lawn required constant attention to be green. The lawn was kept green by plenty of water the application of high-quality fertilizers. Once the fertilizers washed away, the lawn faded. I could repeat this technique and receive the same gratifying rush of grass springing up all over my yard.

Preaching is the same as lawn-care. It is difficult to draw people along into the joys of studying Scripture. Especially when the possibility of quick results can be realized with a little effort on a Saturday afternoon.

Matthew, in chapter 13:3-9, records the parable of the sower.

3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.  4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.  5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,  6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.  7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

I make the connection based on verses 5 and 6. The immediate springing up is a pastor’s instant gratification. People respond well to eloquently applied Scripture. A man may hear a powerful sermon and immediately go out to perform good deeds. But character is not formed through excitement. The root of the problem in verse 5 and in much of what passes as theology today is “they had no depth of soil.” Doctrine without an intimate connection to Scripture leaves us withering when we ought to be thriving.

It has been said many times, "Do your exegesis in your study, not in the pulpit." But where is it that our hearers are supposed to learn good exegesis? Is it not through the preaching of the Scriptures? Of course it is. I went to 4 years of Bible college. I crammed three years of seminary into seven. My wife had two years of Bible college, a few courses from the seminary, but her attentiveness to actually perceive the Scriptures amazes me. Her training was sitting week after week under the tutelage of a Godly pastor who rightly handled the word of truth. Hers was not accredited by any academic institution, but she grew up hearing this man teach the doctrines of Scripture from Scripture.

If you think that I am only railing against the mega-churches, sit back down. Just because your church is small doesn’t mean that you are credited with righteousness. Can you articulate the connection between theology and doctrine? How does angelology relate to hospital visitation? How does the doctrine of the Incarnation affect my doctrine (a.k.a. philosophy) of parenting? How does Communion alter my understanding of what it is to be human? I pose these as examples of questions to be pondered. I want us to explore doctrines and be familiar and conversant with them. If you answer these questions to settle them and move on, you have gained nothing.

It is our asking and seeking that makes us good soil, and allows Scripture to sink its roots deep into us. As Scripture grows into us, we begin to understand the connection between Scripture and doctrine. As we discern the foundation of our doctrine, we can perceive the “how” and “why” of our decisions. Scripture tempers us, we grow wise, and theology is no longer on rocky ground. It is in rich soil, bearing a rich harvest.

How can we cultivate this kind of thought in our churches? We as Christians need fellowship of with those who ask these types of questions; who long to be intimate with the truth; who delight in the contemplation. What draws you into this kind of profitable interaction? How can we recognize it and cultivate it in ourselves? How can I cultivate it even when I am sitting by myself with my Bible open in front of me?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 4:19 PM

Charlie wrote: 

Good thoughts, Brian, although if I was to say those same thoughts I don't think I would say them quite as strongly. But that's just my personality. In our church we started awhile ago devoting entire sunday school classes to theology. This quarter one of the pastors is preaching on antrhopology, and next quarter I get the easy topics related to theology proper (well, not so easy). In past years, we have done bibliology and pneumatology. I think that this is a good start, although we constantly need to bring it back around to application. I don't really like how you framed your first paragraph, since I think we rightly should emphasize application. But as I read what you wrote, we cannot sacrifice doctrine to get application. We must get application through doctrine and exegesis. I think that the problem in our circles is more that there is no application sometimes. But maybe I just don't do enough circles in our circles.


And I've found that it is easier to take care of my lawn by digging it up with heavy machinery and then ignoring it for a year. Makes everything look pretty. Kind of like green hair on a bald man. The yard is now very pretty, except for the wall we knocked down that I still haven't rebuilt yet. Someday...

Thursday, January 26, 2006 10:19 AM

Sam wrote: Charlie has opened the door which cannot be shut...or...a nice provocative post you have there


First, brother Brian, I think your generalization may be a bit unfair.  Perhaps you are speaking more from personal experience than from a broad general truth.  Or maybe I take offense because I find myself pastorally blameless on this charge.


Second, I have never heard any professor teach that we are to keep exegesis, as you are defining it, out of our sermons.  By definition, proper explanation of the text is exegesis.  They frequently do admonish us to not parse Greek and Hebrew verbs in front of the people.  There is a time and place to instruct your people in the handling of the original text, but the pulpit, I would suggest, is not the place.  That sort of instruction does not fall under Paul's command to Timothy to "preach the Word."  And certainly, we need to teach our people hermeneutics and how to handle their English translation, but again, the pulpit is not the best place to carry that out...though you could use the pulpit to tell them that they need to learn to do so, and then provide that instruction for them.


My final thought is that perhaps you are expecting the sermon component of church life to do too much.  Most churches are set up with Sunday School, Worship Service (comprised of various methods of worship - singing, dancing, poetry, etc, culminating in the reception and reaction to the message), and some mid-week well as numerous bible studies, ministries, and other growth opportunities.  The way I run my ship is by using Sunday School to edify the body through instruction.  This is typically systematic theology of some sort (looking at scripture fairly broadly), and the delivery is fairly informal and involves discussion.  I do make sure that we deal with application here, but sometimes it takes several weeks to deal with an issue/passage before we get around to applying it.  The message is typically reserved for biblical theology, where we can focus in on individual passages.  I treat it as a more prophetic event than Sunday School.  I think of myself as the prophets who studied scripture and then applied it to the circumstances in which they found themselves.  The goal of this time, for me, is to move them to a definite action as a result of the text.  For this reason I thoroughly explain the text (discussing textual issues, historic events, etc as necessary) and move them to ask the question of application, "so what?"  To try to do in-depth instruction from the pulpit might be asking the sermon to do too much.  Obviously, you can do something different with your sermon if you want, but you're going to run into problems however you do it.


This problem is compounded by the fact that a good number of those who attend "church," attend only the Sunday morning worship service and feel that they have done their divine duty if they keep awake for most of the homily.  The problem is not with the pastor, necessarily, but with the people.  They do not see "Church" as a series of opportunities to develop as Christians, but as an obligation to obtain cultural, familial, or divine blessing.


I agree that our people need a strong root system, but I would suggest that if your only shot at them is from the pulpit, you will never get them to that point no matter what you do with that time.  Until the Spirit changes their beliefs about "Church" they will continue to grow by limps, rather than leaps.  My approach to this problem has been to publicly explain my approach to church (including what I’ve said here), and to urge believers to take advantage of the many opportunities to grow a healthy spiritual lawn.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 3:43 PM

Mark Kernan wrote:  Brian,

You left this link on an Email earlier this summer, I have yet to post- I've never posted any list so please bear with me.

In some churches is there a propensity to remain shallow and only adress "felt needs"- Yes.  Are their pastors who drop Kittles, BAG, NIDNTT, and their favorite Theology text on their congregants- Yes.  In my baptism into fulltime ministry it has been my goal to engage theology where it is in the text AND apply it.  I have received far more feedback over theologically loaded messages than the most relational and applicational.

This is similar to a topic I was discussing with 2 other pastors this morning at coffee the topic how evaluate a sermon.  The eldest and wisest, not myself brought this important point to the table...

The best sermon is one that addresses all the "motivational" gifts of Romans 12: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, generosity, leadership and mercy.  Each of these people are in our congregation hearing the same message through their filter of giftedness.  An example would be a prophet being unhappy with the sermon because it did not clearly define sin and bomb it into oblivion; the servant asking what can I do as a result, or the teacher complaining the exegesis was to shallow or upon seeing the outline disagrees and promptly begins flipping through their text to develop a "proper" outline.

As the shephard my CALLIING & DUTY is to care for and feed the Gods sheep.  For that to ocur I need to know where they are and what they need.  You are correct my sermon cannot be about my gratification or short term apparent gains; it is about long term spiritual gains and maturity within the body. 

My humble insight would suggest your focused doctrinal concerns may have to do more with your God given giftedness. 

"When is God hollowed the most?  When our doctrines and our living are truley Christian."
Martin Luther

Thursday, February 02, 2006 3:52 PM

Charlie wrote: 

I think there is some measure of truth in the idea that it depends upon who the leader is and where their gifts lie. I heard once that if a ministry dies when its leader goes away, then the ministry was not run properly. But now I rather think that is not always the case: a ministry is largely shaped by its leader. If a new leader comes who is gifted in a different way, then perhaps that specific ministry should change or stop.

But then, maybe teaching doctrine isn't one of those ministries that should change.

Saturday, February 18, 2006 7:51 AM

Brian wrote: After a long absence

Welcome. I have been working many hours the past several weeks and so have not had opportunity to reply, but I saw your comment. Thanks for coming and participating.
I hadn't considered that my emphasis on doctrine could be the result of my giftedness. I know now that my childhood frustration with many pastors grew from the immaturity of my gifting. I do think that concern about having doctrine separated from Scripture is dangerous.People should know the basis for their doctrine.

Your communication with your congregation is a necessary part of the answer. I believe that many pastors have given up on having a congregation that knows how Scripture ought to be handled. They prach the utilitarian sermon that I railed against. Such sermons are heard in churches that have little, if any, opportunity for training inthe Scriptures.

Your church's Sunday School classes are delightful. Visiting the core doctrines in such a setting is a challenge. Application is drawing the connections between Scripture and daily life, and that must happen as well. It must also be done with integrity for heresy is more possible in the application than in the exegesis of Scripture.

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