Modern infomercials often promise one thing and deliver another. They, like the snake-oil peddlers of old, present their product as the answer to a particular problem, but are often completely useless in addressing the issue. We usually realize that we have been deceived all too late. Our time and money is gone, and we are the same weight, of the same intelligence, and with the same problems we had before we ever heard of the product. These are the modern sugar-filled elixirs, replacing much needed medicine, and giving us an immediate and deceptive boost of energy, so that we keep coming back for more. So my question to you today is, Is your pastor a doctor or a "Snake Oil" salesman?
I long ago stopped asking people if their church preaches the Bible. The reason I stopped asking was twofold. The first is that no church I've ever attended claimed that they didn't teach the Bible there. Everyone claims to teach the Bible, and since most people get their ideas of what the church does from what it officially claims to do, they are not likely to disagree with the church. The second, which is related to the first, is that the vast majority of people don't know what it means to sit under a ministry where the Bible is taught to them, so they are completely incapable of identifying when in fact they are in a ministry that doesn't, in fact, preach the Scripture.
So let's just briefly make this distinction: Either the Bible is taught when the message(s) the Bible teaches are taught to the congregation, or the Bible is used when a foreign message(s) to the Bible is taught to the congregation under the pretense that the Bible is actually being taught.
In other words, the open Bible at the pulpit or in the hands of the preacher is simply a platform of authority the preacher uses to teach the message(s) the Bible teaches or his own message(s). The Scripture gives him authority in the eyes of the congregation, but he may use that authority to preach himself rather than Christ. He may use that authority to preach his culture, rather than God's transforming, counter-cultural truth. You may get Paul's theology or you may get Schleiermacher's theology using the words of Paul. You may get Matthew's Gospel or you may get Jung's psychology using the words of Matthew's Gospel. You may get the proverbs of Solomon or you may get the politics of one of the major news organizations using the proverbs of Solomon. My point is that there is a vast difference, as different as they could be, between teaching the Word of God and using the Word of God to teach yourself (i.e., your own ideas).
In the latter, Scripture is simply a prop one uses to gather the crowd around him. He gains their trust and a hearing by quoting from it. He causes everyone to think that he is giving them divine direction by merely holding it as he pontificates on various matters that are important to him, but he doesn't teach those things that are important to God, as he isn't really teaching God's words but his own.
I'm split on what to think about the congregations who sit under such preaching, and they are legion, simply because I want to say that they don't know better. They just have never sat under an actual minister who teaches the Bible, so to them, their pastor, although clear to those who know better, is teaching the Bible. So a part of me has great compassion for the congregations as they, as sheep, while supposedly having a shepherd, are without one. On the other hand, people often choose to sit under those who do not really teach the Scripture because they like it. They don't like those churches that teach the Scripture, not because they choose an unbiblical church over a biblical one consciously, but because their hearts are in rebellion against God and they feel convicted/judged by the preacher when he preaches the Bible.
This leads us to the understanding that most people sit under a ministry that merely uses the Bible because they don't want to change. They don't want to feel that their lives are being lived out contrary to the Word of God. They then choose ministers who will preach things that are consistent with what they already believe (i.e., cultural ideas, whether religious or not, shared by the masses). In other words, they will seek out what tickles rather than what hurts their ears. Paul writes of this very thing in Second Timothy 4:3-4:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but [wanting] to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.
The term "myth" here refers to an entertaining story, something that delights the senses. In other words, it's sugar-filled elixir. It's snake oil. It stands in the place of medicine. It makes you feel better for the moment, but has no real substance to bring about a solution to the real problem at hand. You may walk out of the sermon each week with a smile on your face, thinking it was the best thing you've ever heard, but you're as sick as you were when you walked in. You've just been duped to think that your pastor's human remedies are curing you when, in fact, they are doing nothing but keeping you from seeking out the true cure.
Because of this, pastors, as teachers, have a greater responsibility in the matter. Whereas I might be conflicted at what to think of the congregations (whether to feel compassion or be angry with them), I am not conflicted with what to think about these "pastors." They are shysters, peddling themselves--arrogant, self-exalting men, who would rather you follow them than Christ. They are always seeking to accumulate disciples for themselves rather than for God. Thus, they preach themselves rather than Christ. They use the authority of the position and the pulpit, which is given for the purpose of exalting God through the proclamation of His Word, to proclaim their own ideas, their own cultural musings. Like the Pharisees who replaced the Scripture with their own man-made teachings, these shall receive the greater condemnation.
But if you are a layman who just wants to follow the Lord and learn from Him through the faithful teaching of the Scripture, how do you know which is which? I mean, both types of pastors are going to make claims about the Bible, both are going to read or quote from it, and both are going to make cultural applications from what is taught, so how do you know?
Let me give just a few guidelines. I ultimately believe that it is the Holy Spirit who draws His people away from the snake oil and into genuine teaching ministries, and that comes about first by convicting the individual that he or she is not presently under one, but if you are looking, here's what you generally can look for (I say "generally" because these are just some possibilities to consider):
1. Has the present ministry you are under given you a greater understanding of the Bible's message(s)? If I ask you what the theology of Matthew is, can you tell me? If I ask you what the message of Genesis is, do you know it? Of course, this will depend upon how long you have sat under that ministry and what biblical books your pastor has covered thus far, but my point is that you ought to know what a book is teaching if you've actually been taught the book. Now, this could be failure on your part to listen, so there is some accountability on your part as well.
2. Do you have a greater understanding of historic Christianity after the sermon than you had before it was preached? Have you actually learned something about the theology and ethics of Christianity that is consistent with what Christians have believed for the past 2,000 years? If what you're learning looks much different than what Christians have always been learning, there might be a problem.
3. And this is an important one. Do you feel convicted by the Word of God, most of the time, to change your thinking and your lifestyle? About 85% of the Scripture is meant to show us the holiness of God through law (that which condemns the rebellious man and gives direction to the saved). This shows us how far we are away from Him and our need to believe the gospel and align our lives with His Word. If you are not convicted, you are not being taught the Bible.
4. Do you feel comforted, after being convicted, by the gospel of Christ and His presence with you? Is Christ actually being preached? Is He the answer to all of the questions and convictions, or are you being given a seven step list of how to implement what is taught to obtain a better marriage, financial success, or save the environment? Christ and Him crucified is the key to all of Scripture. It is the destination of the Scriptural journey. If it isn't, you are not being taught the Bible.
5. Look for a pastor who teaches through the biblical books. This doesn't guarantee that you will be taught the Word of God, since I've seen plenty of pastors still use expository preaching to teach whatever they wanted, but it does provide some controls over the preaching if your pastor is honest. It often forces him to teach what he doesn't want to, what is counter-cultural to himself and to others, and to force himself to think more deeply about the rest of the book that he may not have as much of a problem with. In other words, the larger text provides the greater context both for him and for the congregation to see each individual text within it more clearly. This is merely an opportunity though. Both parties need to pay attention for this to occur.
6. Look for a pastor who is mindful of his own presuppositions. When we are unaware of our presuppositions, we are less likely to know when we are preaching the Bible or ourselves. If your pastor is aware of his own, and is committed to preaching the Word of God (some are aware of their presupps and are not committed, so buyer beware), then he will likely be able to note the source of what he is saying better. As Horton wisely states: "To make a stand, we have to know three things: our biblical faith, our own time, and the differences between the two" (We Believe, 9). Find a pastor who knows the differences between his own preferences and ideas and what the Word of God is teaching.
7. Look for a pastor who doesn't talk about himself all of the time. Allison and I used to watch Joel Osteen quite a bit, and not only were his sermons all the same message, they were all about him as the example to follow in life. Run away at lightening speed from pastors who use the pulpit to talk about themselves, their lives, what they like all the time, as this is a person who will not be able to humble himself to teach someone else, let alone God. He wants you to know and like him. His main goal is not to bring you into the presence of Christ each week by becoming a mere empty vessel through whom Christ can speak. Obviously, all preachers can only relate the Scripture to their experience in application, but I'm talking about the actual teaching portion of the sermon. The text, not the pastor, ought to be in your minds when he preaches the Bible. If it's a funny joke, a cute and endearing story, or his autobiography at center stage, remove your pew warmer and proceed to the nearest exit.
8. Look for a pastor who reads or has a lot of the Scripture in his sermon, especially a lot of Scripture from one place, not just all over the place (the cults quote the Bible all over the place and out of context). So a lot of Scripture read or quoted gives more context for understanding what God is saying and less room for a pastor to take it out of context.
So that's my eight step list to greater spiritual fulfillment (just kidding of course). These are just some things you can look for. All preaching doesn't have to be expository. In our day and age, it just helps in the search. You may be under a great teaching ministry that doesn't go through the books, so guidelines 1 and 5 wouldn't necessarily apply.
But my main point is that you should always be on the lookout for a sermon that is using the Bible rather than teaching it if you really want the presence of Christ in your life. Such is the true medicine that our souls are restless for until they find rest in Him. Such is the salvation of our souls. In fact, Paul's command to Timothy, in contrast to those who teach their own interesting ideas and stories, is to "preach the word; be ready in season [and] out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (4:2). So I leave you, not with my own musings, but with the Word of God that is able to save your souls.
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned [them]; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. I solemnly charge [you] in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season [and] out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but [wanting] to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim 3:14-4:5)