Wednesday with Michael Spencer: On Preaching Principles

Country Church in Summer (2016)

Note from CM: Michael cared deeply about worship and preaching. Many of his posts over the years were about how the evangelical world he knew and observed had traded good preaching in for methods that compromised proclaiming the gospel of grace in favor of “relevant” messages about “Christian living” and “sin management.” Today’s post is an example of Michael’s thoughtful analysis.

• • •

One of the most popular methods used in Christian preaching and teaching today is taking a topic or text and presenting it as a list of principles.

I would like to briefly examine some of the “good” and “not so good” aspects of the practice of turning texts or topics into principles as the primary methodology for preaching.

What’s “good” about the preaching of principles?

1. The use of principles as the primary feature of sermons is an effort to increase the basic understanding of what God is saying in the Bible to his people. This is an excellent motive, and is certainly commendable.

2. Principle oriented sermons often give much of their attention to the application of the text in practical ways. Many sermons are without application, and good preaching should have “praxis” as well as explanation.

3. Breaking texts down into principles is a useful transferable communication technique. It is often possible to remember a list of principles, or at least it is easy to pass the principles on to others. Those who sit under a communicator who uses this method are likely to share what they have learned with others.

What’s “not good” about the preaching of principles?

1. Preaching principles often comes at the expense of the actual shape and language of the text. Literary genres like parables or epistles can be difficult to place in their proper literary or cultural context, and reducing the text to principles can avoid this, but the actual language and form of scripture are often compromised

2. Preaching principles can send the message that the Christian message is about “making things work.” Obviously, many texts have other purposes, and it is a further mistake to assume that “making life work” is the purpose of Christian preaching. Some hearers may keep “working the principles,” assuming they are some form of a contract with God.

3. Preaching principles puts the preacher in a very authoritative position of translating the Bible into his own words. Of course, all preachers use their own words, but the wording of principles can reinterpret or define scripture in a way that is very different from the actual meaning. Explaining a passage should help the hearers to understand the words of scripture rather than replace the words of scripture, and possibly replace the meaning of the passage.

4. The use of principles can create a response of works rather than faith. Of course, sometimes a passage is promoting works, but the message of “principles” is almost always “what you do is the point of the message.” In the Gospel, what God has done must always be kept as primary. Those devoted to preaching principles often seem to have a bias toward “works” responses, sometimes at the expense of the Gospel.

5. The nature of Biblical wisdom is a hierarchy where God is sovereign: the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Principles find their proper place in the total Biblical worldview in relation to other Biblical truths. (The Lord’s Prayer is a good example.) Many sermons present principles without adequate Biblical context, tending to produce a distortion or a complete perversion of the proper place of the principle.

19 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer: On Preaching Principles

  1. Or he became too much of an embarrassment to The Organization and The Cause and went under the bus.

    After which they announce a name change from ChEKA to OGPU to NKVD to KGB and claim they’re starting afresh.


  2. Which I why nowadays I always spell his name “Got Hard”.

    “Unspoiled young virgins… In long denim jumpers… With LOOOOOOONG…. WAAAAAAVY… HAIIIIR…”

    At least Elron’s “Commodore Assistants” uniform was boobie-bouncing bikinis.


  3. The More Calvinist than Calvin types are particularly prone to this in their “expository preaching”.

    I have heard horror stories of such preachers spending MONTHS “expositing” a single verse.


  4. Not uncommon for those who are HUGE into rule keeping to have a whacky view on authority: first you establish who is boss, then you can teach and do as you please… least for 3 or 4 decades if you are Bill G. Sad and cautionary tale. I’m amazed that none of the girls parents/loved ones didn’t take it out , physically, on Bill.


  5. speaking of ‘principles’, this news:

    The following is an excerpt from this link:

    “During the May 30, 2018, Executive Committee meeting of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) Board of Trustees, new information confirmed this morning was presented regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values.

    Deeming the information demanded immediate action and could not be deferred to a regular meeting of the Board, based on the details presented, the Executive Committee unanimously resolved to terminate Dr. Paige Patterson, effective immediately, removing all the benefits, rights and privileges provided by the May 22-23 board meeting, including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”

    so justice has come for the sake of the abused and their families . . . . Deo gratias.


  6. I heard a really good sermon this last Trinity Sunday. I remember that it grabbed my attention, connected with me on a human level, the kind of sermon where the preacher stands with the rest of us before the text, and finds Jesus with us in it, as she wrestles with its meaning. Not the kind of sermon where the preacher preaches down to the congregation, as if she stood on the heights with a message to impart from above. A good sermon.

    But I couldn’t tell you much about it today, just three days later, even though I remember sitting up straight as I listened to it. The sermons, they just don’t stick with me, not even the really good ones. Maybe somewhere in my subconscious they leave and indelible deposit. And then again, maybe not.


  7. I typically attempt to get at least a psalm a day. My personal situation is somewhat difficult and the psalm tends to help carry me a bit; some orientation that someone has probably been here before me.


  8. Gothard is just one more example of how there are a lot more horses’ asses in the world than there are horses.

    I’ve read accounts of how he treated young women who came to work for him and when they returned home to their parents and told their parents, the parents refused to believe the girls.


  9. The nice thing about leading/teaching both an adult Sunday school class and a men’s group study is it forces me to read…LOL.


  10. You’d be amazed at how inventive some folks can be at extracting principles from all kinds of biblical source material. :-/


  11. Since I do enjoy theology I do read scripture regularly along with Church history and denom focus… but like everything else it ebbs and flows, sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes no time to get to it…


  12. I’m so out of touch. It’s hard to conceptualize this process. I’m more interested in a deep dive into textual and historical issues.

    Doesn’t this kind of approach (principles) tend to only engage with a certain subset of passages?


  13. I think a lot of Christians get comfortable with the once-a-week dose of the Bible, delivered on Sunday in whatever form it’s delivered. My own daily devotions tend to go in up-and-down cycles, but I think they’re beneficial in avoiding what Michael is/was talking about.

    Question: how many iMonkers read/study the Bible with any regularity? (Outside the Sunday sermon/homily)


  14. Completely agree with your last sentence.

    It’s more like you’re in a club: you go once a week, pay dues, volunteer when/if needed, get a ‘good teaching’ moment (cuz for evangelicals, it’s all about good teaching), have coffee and donuts, and go home.

    My experience has been no one remembers the Sunday teaching….but they saw friends, made judgments, opened their Bibles, and good to go for a week.

    Oh, and better go to bible study or you’re not holy enough. ( yup, use to think this! Scary, huh?)

    Love going to my Lutheran Church and hearing the gospel every week, and communion. No ‘how to’s’, no list of how to be ‘right’ and no principles for a better life.

    Just sayin’


  15. Bill Gothard was the champion of teaching Biblical principles in a systematic, highly structured format that seemingly summarized the entire Christian life in a neat and orderly outline. First do or learn 1. Then 1a and so on. I remember going to those seminars and feeling totally enriched with knowledge. It was all very sensible and clear. There was plenty of valuable insight in there but ultimately it devolved into rule keeping at the expense of grace. It took the ocean of life and turned it into a manageable creek. Ah, if only life could be so predictable and easily constrained.


  16. Over the years, I have discovered that “context” generally requires more work than I wanted to get involved with.


  17. “Many sermons present principles without adequate Biblical context, tending to produce a distortion or a complete perversion of the proper place of the principle.”

    “Context” is usually the last thing on most congregations’ (and pastors’) minds. Taking single verses as totally clear and understandable in isolation is the default American hermeneutic.


  18. Much of what I have been exposed to falls in the realm of Rick Warren’s “Forty Days of Purpose” or a similar trope. I suspected that my last preacher~pastor used canned messages from a website as his principal occupation was running the multi-campus business. Congregations seem to value tangible results that ‘God is in this’ and expanding number of campuses frequently provide the desired evidence. I sat under one minister, although he used a variety of devices, who couldn’t get the congregation to recall any of the content of his sermon after the lapse of a week. I’ve become convinced that church attendance is essentially a cultural and social affiliation, and doesn’t extend beyond the parking lot and the drive-thru at Chic-Fil-Le.


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