“It’s just your opinion, man!”
Many an argument, whether valid or otherwise, has been dismissed with those words. This week I’ve been pondering to what extent might a sermon be dismissed with those words. There are boundary issues with sermons, and I’m not sure there is any definitive way of resolving them.
Some of these issues, of course, are clear-cut. We all know what the pulpit is for–proclaiming the Gospel. Sadly, I suspect we have all seen or know of examples where the pulpit is misused. Where a pastor uses the authority of the pulpit to advance a personal agenda. I’ve even seen the authority of the pulpit coopted to advance a personal vendetta. When that happens, it is a sobering reminder of the power of sin to corrupt even the most sacred of places.
Such egregious abuses, however, are rare. The issue with which I wrestle is the effort to separate Scriptural truth from personal viewpoint.
This is certainly nothing new in the Christian world. Read 1 Corinthians 7 for a fascinating example of a preacher trying to make that distinction. In that chapter, Paul makes some proclamations that he asserts as being a word from the Lord. At the same time, he is forced to deal with some issues that lie outside any clear divine directive. “To the rest I say–I and not the Lord–that if . . . ” (1 Corinthians 7:12)
The irony of this is that this verse puts strict literalists in a conundrum. The word that comes directly from God’s lips is that these words which come directly from God’s lips are in fact an opinion that does not come directly from God’s lips.
For the working preacher, separating truth from opinion is a process that can never be permanently resolved. For we are called by our congregation to interpret scripture, to bring to the congregation a report on what the Bible has to say to this congregation in this time and place. Interpretation is, by definition, an opinion. In other words, at least part of the function of the sermon is to give an opinion.
We preachers try to resolve the truth/opinion tension by opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit can speak through us. I believe firmly in that process and would not dare to step into the pulpit without asking for the Spirit to speak the truth through me. Nonetheless, in a sinful world, appealing to the Spirit does not automatically mean that everything that comes out of my mouth is more truth than opinion.
I welcome input from anyone in how to establish and maintain boundaries between truth and opinion in preaching. For the present, my way of dealing with the matter is the following:
1. Respect the pulpit as a sacred place where the Gospel is proclaimed and only the Gospel is proclaimed. Reject the temptation to use its authority to advance my own agenda, even if I believe my agenda is beneficial to my congregation.
2. Maintain dialogue with God through prayer during the course of sermon preparation.
3. Recognize that all sermons are experiential and interpretive to some degree and that this is necessary and not sinful.
4. Continuously match what I am saying against the core truths contained in Scripture.
5. In confession and forgiveness, ask God’s forgiveness for sins unknowingly committed, specifically focusing on the possibility that my own opinions have overshadowed the truth.
Lord, sanctify us in the truth. Your word is truth. Amen.