What Our Preacher Meant to Say Was...
Your preacher sits down. The invitation song wraps up.
A well-meaning elder takes to the pulpit.
“What our preacher meant to say was…” he says, without actually verbalizing those particular words.
How many preachers have wanted to bury their faces in their hands at that moment, as the prophetic barb is whittled away from the sermon they’ve just delivered? The words those preachers prayerfully labored over and bravely birthed, are not only dulled, but anesthetized, so as to be easily forgotten or wrongly remembered.
“What our preacher meant to say was…”
This scene strikes of a bygone era. My elders, for example, have never offered corrective remarks like this. Instead, they focus on supporting the staff (a post for another time), and diffusing would-be critics of the preached word.
Yet the legacy of sermonic “re-interpretation” lives on in churches of Christ.
Once, I was teaching a Sunday School for young adults. We were discussing protest and violence based on Jesus’ dramatic temple-cleansing scene in John 2 (for a helpful perspective on this text, see Richard Beck’s posts here).
The first clue that corrective remarks were pending reared its head when I mistakenly said “Nuclear Power Plant” instead of “Nuclear Weapons Complex” in an example. Clearly agitated by the hypothetical scenario, a young intelligent man in the class raised his hand and snidely said, “Now, you don’t mean a Nuclear Power Plant, of course.”
A few moments later he spoke up again, trying desperately to derail the direction of the conversation. “Well, Jesus came to the Earth to save souls, and it is really anachronistic to read back into his story modern day questions about how to live.”
He didn’t really believe this. It was just an attempted trump card. In truth, he loves the Bible more than most I know, and insists with every opportunity he is given, that the Christian’s job is to model his or her life after the example of Jesus in Scripture.
I finished the class and he approached a visitor. The first thing he said was:
“I don’t agree with what our preacher said today, so don’t judge us based on that.”
The visitor, to his credit, said, “Well, I do agree with him.” And then came immediately to me in order to thank me and report on his new “friend.”
Though frustrating at the time, I look back on this scene with laughter.
Nevertheless it points to several sad realities. The first is that the impulse to correct the minister has either filtered down from church leadership over time, or been present within the rest of the congregation all along. Second, it shows no signs of stopping (remember, this was a young adult offering the correction). And third, it indicates a general mistrust of professional ministers woven into the fabric of our communities.
Certainly, some of that mistrust is warranted. Preachers have said and done some dumb things. We should not be above correction (when handled appropriately—which we will get to in a moment).
However, ultimately, “What our preacher meant to say…” remarks stem from a good theology that is applied badly.
The theology is one we hold close to our chests in Churches of Christ—the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9). I too, am committed deeply to this position.
But here is how this good theology gets applied badly:
If your minister got up on Sunday and just said what was on his/her mind, their tenure would come to an abrupt end. The church assumes that the minister, in the administration of their priestly duties, will prayerfully consider each and every word said. The church expects the minister to spend considerable time in the Word before hazarding a comment on Sunday morning. In summary, priestly communication is to be thoughtful, prayerful, and biblically grounded.
But no such standard applies to the “priestly” remarks of the congregation. These can be thoughtless, rushed, even guttural, and they are often still deemed appropriate or definitive.
This is good theology applied badly.
Jesus himself offers a helpful solution. If you have a problem with someone, presumably even with your minister, take it up with that person in private (Matt 18:15). If that doesn’t work, then you might consider some more public alternatives.
You see, the brilliant thing about the local church is its ability to function as a community of discernment. Together, the body approaches the biblical text and makes decisions about its meaning in their context. This is a process the preacher participates in, perhaps even leads, but does not dictate. Everyone should be involved.
However, it is time that our churches give thoughtful consideration to how members participate in this very theological exercise while expecting them to adhere to communal standards of respect for all, including the professional minister.
“What our preacher meant to say…” comments are simply not appropriate. The preacher said what the preacher prayed about, studied, and ultimately meant to say.
Can the same be said for what everyone else meant to say?