Willimon on Barth: on pissing off your congregation

by Kim on June 25, 2010

To be a preacher is to be called to love God more than our congregations.

“Barth underscores the way in which faithful preachers exist in a rather ambiguous, potentially contentious relationship to their congregations. The congregation is the Body of Christ, that gathering whom God has convened to hear the royal proclamation, but the congregation is full of the same incomprehension, cowardice, disbelief, and rebellion that is found in any human gathering when it is assaulted by the Word. We preachers meet no resistance to the Word that was not first encountered in our own hearts. As Barth might put it, the church is just as full of ‘religion’ and therefore full of idolatry and credulity, resistance and artful dodging of the Word. Though the church may say that it wants to hear the Word of God … the church lies. Perhaps resistance to the Word is even more pronounced in the church … Church therefore tends to be not only training in discipleship but also in various techniques of avoiding the Word of God.

“Although Barth speaks of preaching as an ecclesiastical activity … preaching is prior to and superior even to the church. Preaching is the peculiar speech of the church, but it is not authorized or dependent upon the church and therefore may often be experienced as against the church, in order to be for the church. The words of the sermon are not a congregationally derived Word; that Word comes from God to the church. Preachers must be willing to risk conflict, resistance, and rejection by the church in order to be faithful to the church’s peculiar vocation: joyful subservience to the Word. Preachers are to serve the Word, not to be aquiescent to the congregation. In a day when pastoral care for and caring about the needs of the congregation has virtually overwhelmed much of Christian ministry, Barth reminds us that the best and most loving service that we clergy can render to our people is utter subservience to the Word.

William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), pp. 244-45.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Dyfed 06.25.10 at 11:40 am

What a great quote!

It puts me in a bit of a quandry though: as someone who is travelling away from the theological certainties of conservative church and yet still ministering in that stream. How long can I hold back from preaching my new perspective? And when I finally jump into the deep end, will that stream still want to hear my preaching or could it start to change with me?

I know what the co-author of the Barmen Declaration would say!

2

Kim 06.25.10 at 2:47 pm

I think he’d refer you to II Corinthians 6:2 - and Luke 4:29.
Blessings, Dyfed, as you open up the Word to your people!
Pax,
Kim

3

tortoise 06.25.10 at 2:55 pm

Yes. Oh man, yes.

How often have I heard someone remark that such-and-such a person “preached very acceptably”. It’s always tempting to respond “Oh well, better luck next time.”

4

John Meunier 06.25.10 at 3:12 pm

Classic Willimon. I found the book you took it from very interesting.

5

Pam 06.26.10 at 3:14 am

“To be a preacher is to be called to love God more than our congregations..” Um, yes, but I would hope the congregation would run a very close second (maybe a photo finish being required). I would also hope that someone who deeply loves God would also deeply love the congregation enough to connect on more than a preaching level. Tell me the Word, sure, but out of faith, hope and love I know which one I’ll choose.

6

dh 06.26.10 at 5:05 am

However, Pam, “Without Faith it is impossibile to please God.” It is for love that the pastor speaks the truth of God’s Word. I think many times the congregation shouldn’t desire to feel “comfortable” but “desire the true milk of the Word”. However, the pastor will be held accountible for leading the congregation astry. So there is a balance.

Dyfed, maybe you need not move away from the theological certainties? Since we know that is the truth of God’s Word maybe you need to heed the congregations truth of following God in “Spirit and Truth”?

Dyfed, I will continue to pray for you as you are tempted to water down the Truth of God’s certainties in His Word.

7

Pam 06.26.10 at 8:19 am

Thanks, dh, for the reply. You and I just may experience “church” in a different way! btw, don’t forget spell-check is available on most computers.

8

Tony Buglass 06.26.10 at 8:11 pm

DH, there is a big difference between ‘moving away from the theological certainties of conservative church” and watering down God’s word. It might just be that those theological certainties are more certain than the word of God allows, and that the pastor needs to challenge false certainties. Just like Jesus challenged the legalism of the pharisees.

9

Pam 06.27.10 at 4:30 am

Some further thoughts:
“The words of the sermon are not a congregationally derived Word, that Word comes from God to the church”. Through whom? A fellow human being who puts his/her interpretation upon the Word. An interpretation direct from God, or an interpretation fashioned by ideological leanings, the theologians he/she admires, the age at which he/she were toilet trained?

10

DaveW 06.27.10 at 8:47 am

Pam,

“the age at which he/she were toilet trained?”

Now that is below the belt. :-)

11

Pam 06.27.10 at 10:44 am

Haven’t had much to do with psychologists, Dave?:)

12

PamBG 06.27.10 at 8:26 pm

To me, the serious point is that ministers need to be able to stand up for the truth even if it means being unpopular and pissing off the congregation. But we often seem to make the value about pissing off other people on the basis that those who are true followers of Jesus will be opposed by other people. Pissing off the congregation just for the sake of it is simply adolescent.

13

Pam 06.28.10 at 3:07 am

Wise as always, Pam.

14

dh 06.28.10 at 4:14 pm

Well, the view I have of Scripture is not “legalism” or based on “theologians that I like” but what Scripture specifically says. When Scripture specifically says how becomes a Christian or specifically states what sin is then to say Scripture says otherwise is doing a dis-service to God’s Word.

PamBG, I ttally agree. What I have found from my experience is that pastors do stand up for Truth even if it means being unpopular when the congregation is attempting to let culture dictate what God’s Word says as opposed to what God says in His Word. What is sad today is that congregations aren’t desriring the “true milk of the Word”. They don’t want to hear Salvation messages, conviction of sin messages, etc. They want people to say “I’m okay no matter what I do, believe, etc.” when Scripture says “Without Faith it is impossible to please God”.

Tony, Scriture IS more certain than uncertain. That isn’t legalism. What Jesus challenged the Pharisee’s was their unbelief that Jesus was God. If they understood that Jesus was fully God then the rest would have been easier for them. Nicodemus was a perfect example. He stated that he believed that Jesus was God and while he had some difficulties with what Jesus said to him (John 3), his heart ws more open to Christ by having that initial Belief.

Legalism is going beyond what Scripture specifically says. Scripture never told the Pharisee’s to tithe mint and herbs but they said it was sin to not do that. Scripture DOES state specifically what is sin and how one much Believe to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but when pastors and/or the congregation state otherwise because in the natural it appears harsh when in fact it is truth then that is where the “watering down” observation is made to come to light.

15

Pam 06.28.10 at 11:07 pm

dh, I have faith that the God of my bible loves both of us. I have hope that we will enjoy one another’s company one day. And I love your passion about what you believe.:)

16

PamBG 06.29.10 at 12:43 am

What I have found from my experience is that pastors do stand up for Truth even if it means being unpopular when the congregation is attempting to let culture dictate what God’s Word says as opposed to what God says in His Word. What is sad today is that congregations aren’t desriring the “true milk of the Word”. They don’t want to hear Salvation messages, conviction of sin messages, etc. They want people to say “I’m okay no matter what I do, believe, etc.” when Scripture says “Without Faith it is impossible to please God”.

DH, It’s funny. My pastor now is preaching all of the above. He’s telling the congregation that we are doing Christianity wrong but he’s not telling us how to do it right. He’s telling us that we should pray more but he’s not modeling good prayer to us nor is he giving us any suggestions as to how we might improve our prayer life. He’s telling us that we’re bad but he’s not telling us about forgiveness nor do we pray in church to ask God to forgive us.

You are right. I don’t want to hear “You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad” and not hear anything about God’s grace and mercy and how God wants to heal me.

NONE OF THIS IS GOOD NEWS!

17

dh 06.29.10 at 4:01 pm

PamBG, I’m sorry that your pastor you say is not doing it right. However, the fact of the matter is that we all are sinners and we all are “bad”. There is a balance God’s mercy and Grace doesn’t allow for us to continue in sin: “What shall we say then shall we continue to sin that Grace may abound? God forbid. How are we who are dead to sin live any longer in it.” (Romans)

I agree repentence is important for pastors to preach. However, i one doesn’t believe they are a sinner or believes things are okay when Scripture says they are sin then you can see why pastors are trying to help the congregation focus on the fact that we are sinners first and when that is understood what to do about it. So it IS the Good News. It isn’t good news to say to a child who is putting hi hand on a stove “Grace and mercy” when the child is going to be burned. The Good News is to take the childs hand away from the stove, state why it is wrong to place a hand on the stove and THEN Grace and Mercy of saying “let me comfort your hand” so that it is better like a paren saying “it will be all better now”.

I think if one truly listens to pastors they will see repentence, grace and mercy. I know no church that focus’s solely on sin without repentence, Grace and mercy. What is the alter call about? That is a call to repentence and if one is an unbeliever a call for one to ask for Grace and Mercy. I think you are reacting outright to the “your bad, your bad”. Maybe the Scripture “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” doesn’t fit within your paradign but that doesn’t diminish the truth of who we are until we ask Christ into our hearts with repentence and once a Believer ask for repentence for ongoing will of God follower of Christ.

18

dh 06.29.10 at 4:01 pm

So you see that IS the Good News. It actually is bad news to let people think they are okay when some are “dead in their tresspass of sin”.

19

PamBG 06.30.10 at 12:47 am

It isn’t good news to say to a child who is putting hi hand on a stove “Grace and mercy” when the child is going to be burned.

When a child is burning his hand on the stove, you run over and remove his hand from the stove and then you put his hand under cold water and give him a hug.

You don’t scream “That’s not what a stove is for you stupid, bad child!” and then, when he’s removed his own hand, come over and spank him.

If pastors can’t tell us what TO do because they apparently don’t have a clue, then I’m not going to listen to them when they tell me what not to do. (That doesn’t mean I’m going to commit sins. It means that I’m going to suspect that the pastor hasn’t got a clue as to how the Christian faith can be constructive rather than punitive.)

20

PamBG 06.30.10 at 12:49 am

It actually is bad news to let people think they are okay when some are “dead in their tresspass of sin”.

Helping people to heal their spiritual life by giving them the spiritual wherewithal to heal isn’t even remotely anything like saying “You’re OK, no matter what you do.”

Telling people that they are bad and offering them no way out of being bad isn’t remotely like good news.

21

dh 06.30.10 at 3:08 pm

Pam, I know no pastor who doesn’t state what God says as a way out of being bad. I know no pastor (other than the growing attempt to change to culture) that doesn’t mention repentence and/or the plan mentioned in God’s Word to be child of God.

Statin the Good News of the answer “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” IS Good News. To inherit eternal life includes repentence which IS Good News. As a Believer, repentence of sin and turning away from sin IS Good News. I know no pastor in the circles I’m around that don’t include these and solely mention we are bad with no mention of how to change.

“If pastors can’t tell us what TO do because they apparently don’t have a clue” Pastors DO tell what to do that is what the plan of Salvation and repentence of sin is all about. I know no pastor who doesn’ mention that.

“You don’t scream “That’s not what a stove is for you stupid, bad child!” and then, when he’s removed his own hand, come over and spank him.”

Well sometimes for the child to understand the severity of the situation I wouldn’t spank him but I would slap his hand so he knows that it is wrong. Then I bandage the hand and hug him. Many times the child will desire to do it again and that is an attitude of rebellion that must be disciplined for.

Many people inthe congregation have attitudes of rebellion. They know what sin is do it and don’t care. Some truly have soft hearts and that is where repentence comes in. So I guess this b3egs the question: “What does one do to correct a person or congregation or pastor who is in rebellion to God’s Word when one loves all of these people as a Believer?”

22

PamBG 07.01.10 at 1:23 am

I wouldn’t spank him but I would slap his hand so he knows that it is wrong.

Ah, I see. So you think that him just having burnt his hand is not sufficient to tell him that he’s done something bad?

A question: Do you think that anyone ever needs to hear the message that God loves them? And why do you think that “people like me” (theological liberals) don’t think we’re sinners? What is it that you are afraid we’re going to get up to?

23

dh 07.01.10 at 3:34 am

I’m not saying that in the absolute case. Some children even after being told and having burnt their hand still have an attitude of rebellion and still attempt to put their hand on the stove. I think my response shows compassion by stating “hugging, soothing the wound, etc.” However, punishment is sometimes needed in those specific instances where a rebellious attitude and attempt to do this multiple times is evident. I know no parent who wouldn’t discipline the child if not in the case of a stove but in other cases where a rebellious nature is present. “Even Scripture says “Whom He loves He chastens.” God loves in multiple way but they are all love nonetheless. Sometime the love of God is liek “wake up calls” other times God’s love is the “still small voice”. However, we mustn’t solely accept one kind of love He shows us and therefore reject the love of God in those times. Does that make sense?

Pam, we all need to hear the message that God loves them but that doesn’t mean that God overlooks our sin without us having an attitude of repentence. Scripture says “Whom God loves He chastens.” Sometimes love is like a Lamb and other times love is like a Lion but in both case it is love nonetheless. To reject the love of God because it is like an attitude of a Lion is just as much rejcting love as a person who reject love that is like a Lamb.

God accepts us as sinners when we repent of our sin. “If My people shall humble themselves and pray and seak My face then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.” A covenent is a two way street not a one way street.

What I’m afraid of is for people to deceive people into thinking that those who reject Christ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven when God’s Word says otherwise. “If you confess Me before men I will confess you before My Father in heaven. If you deny Me before men I will deny you before My Father in heaven.” “He that has the Son has life. He that has not the son has not life.” What I’m afraid of is that people will be lead astray into thinking no repentence is necessary or no confession is needed when in fact it is for one to receive eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

24

dh 07.01.10 at 3:39 am

I see more in todays culture rejecting out of hand any “wake up call” type love. I believe if John the Baptist were alive today speaking the message “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” that even fewer would come to the knowledge of Christ because they would think that John the Baptist was too “hostile” or “harsh” when in fact John the baptist loved the people enough to state what people needed to do to get right before God.

At trhe same rime I know many people who while they spoke the Truth didn’t speak the Truth in love. However, just because some people spoke the truth without love doen’t mean we need to respond by rejecting the truth outright just because an apparent outward appearance for one might just be rejecting a John the Baptisy in their midst.

25

PamBG 07.01.10 at 11:10 am

DH, your enthusiasm to heap condemnation on people who are already hurting strikes me as precisely “failing to speak the Truth in love”. I “get” that you don’t think that this is your motivation, but I’m fairly certain that omitting the message of God’s love on the grounds that people already think they are loved too much is probably experienced by most people as “speaking the Truth in an attempt to punish and control”.

26

dh 07.01.10 at 3:44 pm

Pam, I don’t have an “enthusiasm to heap condemnation on people already hurting”. Pam you totally didn’t read my posts and totally focused on certain sentences. I mentioned “hugging, comfort, etc., etc” How is that “enthusiasm to heap condemnation”?

Pam, be honest, do you believe that there are people who have rebellious hearts and hard hearts? Doesn’t Scripture say “Whom He loves He chastens.” just as must as “a soft answer turns away wrath.”?

If I gave a view that focuses solely on the “lion” and not the “lamb” I’m sorry. However, please reread my posts and you will see that I DO or at least am trying to show how God shows love in multiple ways. ‘m sorry that people share the Gospel with anger and not love thereby making people reject out-of-hand the truth aka “People can be right and wrong at the same time.” I do not attempt to “punish and control”.

If God’s Word says “whom He loves He chastens.” then how can you say that is not love? Isn’t chastening a form of punishment to help people to change fromwrong behavior toward God? Also me mentioning this does not diminish or place in lower place the importance of “a soft answer turning awa wrath” and how God loves us like a lamb as well. There is a balance and for me to focus solely on the “lion” and for you focus solely on the “lamb” are both wrong. If I gave you a different impression that was no the intent or an unequal balance that god is on these issues that also was not the intent. If yu want clarification further let me know and I will explain further.

27

PamBG 07.02.10 at 12:10 am

Pam, be honest, do you believe that there are people who have rebellious hearts and hard hearts?

Yes, I believe that those people exist. I’ve met them and I’ve probably had to deal with them in a way that you haven’t. Have you ever had someone ring your doorbell at 11:00 pm and threaten to hurt you if you don’t give them money? I have. I dealt with a sociopath at close range for three years.

What I believe about rebellion, is that we are all capable of it. What I do NOT believe about rebellion is that most people do it most of the time.

What I believe about obedience is that demanding that people repress their issues by promising condemnation if they do not repress them - which is what I see as the approach of most theological conservatives - isn’t actually the way to get people to stop sinning. It’s probably actually the single most effective way to get people TO sin. It’s no coincidence that it’s the pastors who take an uncompromising stance on adultery who are often the ones who end up having the affairs.

28

dh 07.02.10 at 6:17 pm

“It’s no coincidence that it’s the pastors who take an uncompromising stance on adultery who are often the ones who end up having the affairs.” However, whether or not pastors fall into sin or not doesn’t change the fact that they sinned or that the action is sin. Also it isn’t the stance of the person saying it but the heart of the person that leads people to do the sin. The standard uncompromising truth never changes only the people who have the problem.

I do agree that not all people fall into rebellion. However, I see a growing trend of more people being hostile to God by being rebellious. They know it is sin and yet don’t care and continue.

I also believe that having a rebellious heart or hard heart in my statement was not reference to soiciopaths, etc.

Pam, no one is asking people to repress their issues. I know no pastor in the circles we are referring to who ask people to do that. They ask people to repent and turn away from it. “If My people shall humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Hopefully in my response you can see the balance between Lion and Lamb.

I see more people sin by denying their own sin then the other way around. I think the reason people believe that taking a hard stand on sin leads people to sin is because the press is quick to show that then all of the peple who turn away from sin at the understanding that they are a sinner. One can’t turn away from sin without first recognizing they are a sinner or that they even sinned in the first place. Otherwise why would they would even feel the need to repent in the first place? This isn’t condemnation but the understanding that God desires all to come to repentence. Unfortunately not all people in a fallen world desires what God desires for people aka “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

I don’t believe true believers are capabable f rebellion without an attitude of repentence and if there appears to be one then I would question whether they were a Believer in the first place. Are we capable specifically of rebellion? yes but as Believers we can repent of that sin and turn away from that sin. For a true Believer a heart of rebellion seems impossible for rebellion is the sin of witchcraft.

29

PamBG 07.03.10 at 2:51 am

Hopefully in my response you can see the balance between Lion and Lamb.

No, I don’t.

Because whenever I plead for preaching God’s love, you feel utterly compelled to jump in and tell me all the reasons why preaching God’s love is bad.

I said I want my pastor to tell us more than simply “Pray more”. I want him to suggest ways for us to pray and to model what he considers to be good prayer. You felt compelled to jump in and give me another lesson about how the world is sinful.

We’ve been having these conversations for years, and you seem scared to death that anyone might believe that God loves them. So, no I don’t see the balance. If I say “God loves me!” you can’t even say “Hallelujah!” You feel compelled to tell me “….But God also thinks you’re a sinner.” You seem worried to death that I and others don’t think badly enough of ourselves.

And when you say things like I don’t believe true believers are capabable f rebellion without an attitude of repentence and if there appears to be one then I would question whether they were a Believer in the first place, it just sounds like you think everyone else but you and those who believe as you do is a sinner.

No, I don’t think that any of this is good news.

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