Preaching: Paramount in the New Testament
Preaching is given a prominent place in the New Testament. Ephesians 4:11-16 tells us that it is the ministry of the word that fuels the life of the church. Sound doctrine is the means through which God provides the unity, stability, and maturity of the body of Christ. The Lord Jesus’ thrice-repeated command to Peter was to feed His sheep (John 21:15–17). When the Apostles were going off the scene, they entrusted the charge of feeding the flock to the elders of local churches (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1–4). The only qualification for an elder aside from Christ-like character and a desire for the work is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Paul’s charge to Timothy in his final letter is unmistakable: “Preach the word: be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul similarly charged Titus, adding that when he declared the word, he was to “exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15, emphasis added).
Rome’s Exclusive Right to Interpret
Biblical churches put a high premium on the preaching of God’s word, and believe that when the man of God preaches God’s word to God’s people, he does so with authority. But many churches, and especially those that practice expository preaching, claim that the man of God not only heralds God’s word with authority, but that he possesses the capacity to explain it in a way that goes beyond the ability of the typical Christian. Thus, the faithful and accurate preaching of the word helps the Christian grow spiritually in a way that is entirely unique from any other form of communication.
So how does this claim differ from that of the Roman Catholic Church, which asserts that the Church alone has the sole prerogative and authority to interpret Scripture? Here is the official word from Rome on this issue:
…no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures… (Council of Trent, Session 4)
The Roman Catholic view of authority concerning the interpretation of Scripture is that no individual believer is able (or permitted) to interpret the Scriptures, but must rely entirely upon the official interpretation of the Church. This means that even priests must teach only the official Catholic interpretation on any given text of Scripture.
Evangelicals and Catholics…Divided
The fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals on this issue (and many others) is one of authority. The Roman Catholic Church holds that the Scriptures as well as the tradition of the Church are the dual authorities over doctrine and practice. Evangelicals, on the other hand, hold that Scripture is the sole authority. This was the foundational issue that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. Out of the five “Sola” statements that summarized the Reformation movement, the foremost of them was Sola Scriptura: “Scripture Alone.”
Biblical churches believe that Scripture is the sole authority because that is precisely what the Bible claims for itself (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:16–17; 1 Peter 1:20–21). As the very word of God, Scripture comes with the authority and sufficiency of God, and therefore Scripture is not subject to the interpretation of any man or body, but rather Scripture interprets itself. The Reformers codified this first rule of interpretation as analogia scriptura, the “anology” or “harmony” of Scripture. This is why Rome is wrong to say that an individual believer is not able or permitted to interpret Scripture, and that this right and privilege is reserved solely for the Church.
“The fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals is one of authority. The Roman Catholic Church holds that the Scriptures as well as the tradition of the Church are the dual authorities. Evangelicals, on the other hand, hold to Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the sole authority.”
In fact, Scripture itself blatantly contradicts this fallacy in passages such as 1 John 2:20, which speaks of the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit. Genuine believers are guided into truth by the Spirit, and they are also protected from error. When a genuine believer who humbly and diligently applies himself to Bible study, he is able to interpret Scripture to the degree of his own maturity and understanding, and to the degree the Spirit has provided illumination. In fact, the Bereans were commended for “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things [the things Paul and Silas were teaching] were so” (Acts 17:11).
The Preacher’s Authority & Special Ability to Interpret
So what do Bible-believing evangelicals mean when we say that the man of God preaches the word of God with authority and with the capacity to explain it in a way that goes beyond the ability of the typical Christian?
For one, by authority, we mean that his preaching carries not his authority, but the very authority of God, insomuch as his preaching is faithful to the text of Scripture. For this very reason, it is right to emphasize expository preaching, which is the reading, explaining, and applying of a text of Scripture in its grammatical, historical, and biblical context.
For two, when we talk about the preacher’s ability to explain Scripture in a way that goes beyond that of the typical Christian, we are simply speaking of the spiritual gift of teaching. This spiritual gift is not limited to the preacher (or “elder”), but, as we’ve noted elsewhere, it is the only ability he must possess, while all other qualifications have to do with his character.
That preacher’s have this special ability is indisputably clear. 1 Timothy 5:17 speaks of those elders who labor in preaching and teaching, and in Ephesians 4:11, Paul calls the office of elder the “shepherd-teacher” (see footnote in the ESV for correct rendering). As we noted at the beginning of this article, that passage goes on to explain that it is the ministry of the word—which came through the written word of the apostles and prophets in the form of the Scriptures, and is now heralded by evangelists and explained and applied in the local church by shepherd-teachers—which is the lifeblood of the church. It is the ministry of the word of God, faithfully and accurately preached, that produces unity, maturity, stability, and growth in the individual lives of God’s people, as well as in their corporate fellowship.
“When we talk about the preacher’s authority, we mean that his preaching carries not his authority, but the very authority of God, insomuch as his preaching is faithful to the text of Scripture. When we talk about his ability to explain Scripture in a way that goes beyond that of the typical Christian, we are simply speaking of the spiritual gift of teaching.”
Preaching is paramount for the life and growth of the church, and it is the responsibility of local churches to ensure that their shepherds are biblically qualified and gifted. When this is the case, God’s people can rejoice that they are being faithfully fed His authoritative and sufficient word in the very way He has ordained.