22 January 2013

A balanced look at "balance"

by Dan Phillips

Might as well warn you at the outset, this post on "balance" may make for frustrating reading...on-balance. [Pause, for laughter to die down. Two...and one...and...] On the one hand, I'm going to lament the whole thing; on the other, there's no way around grappling with it.

There's a kind of "balance" that is to be heartily despised. This is the "balance" desperately yearned for by the precious and the dainty elitocrats of blogdom and elsewhere. These tender souls ever have an eye to their (and their readers'!) psychic blood pressure. Nothing is to be allowed to elevate it — well, nothing that our culture doesn't also despise. Certainly not false teaching, not heresy, not compromise, not shameful excrescences that obscure the Cross or the word thereof.

So one must be nuanced and careful and all that, and not say anything too forceful or direct or (Heaven forfend!) cornering about implications of the inerrancy and a real-live, robust embrace of the sufficiency of Scripture and completion of the Canon. One mustn't make too much of the implications of a plain-sense reading of Genesis 1—3, or of rejecting same. One mustn't put the same expectations of a pastor of 10,000 that one would of a pastor of 100. Big church = special relaxed-rate rules.

To be sure, one must be "balanced."

That sort of anxiety about "balance" is, I say, execrable and to be avoided at all costs by folks to whom Galatians 1:10 and 6:14 mean anything much.

But on the other hand, there are balances in life that are just unavoidable, aren't there? They're balances that come not from trying to avoid the imperatives and implications of Scripture (see above), but from trying to implement them.

For instance: as a pastor who tries to care about Scripture, the imperatives of Titus 1:9 (which I tried to develop at some length) necessarily weigh on me. God holds me accountable both "to exhort by healthy doctrine, and to reprove those who contradict." Not either. Both, with the assumed overarching context.

So if all I do is weave the generalities and billowy grandeurs of "sound doctrine" in such a way as to exalt the emotions but have no bearing on real life, I've failed. That is, if all I do is wax eloquent on the concepts of God's immensity, His aseity, His immutability; of the theory of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture; of the idea of the church as an ideal — and if I never "put shoe leather" on any of those concepts, I've failed. I must exhort by healthy doctrine, which renders a Greek word that always has the nuance of urging to action of some sort, whether intellectual or physical action.

Shorter: if my indicative never bears an imperative, I've failed. If my hearers seldom leave a sermon with a "therefore" weighing heavily on them, I've failed. If no urgency reaches from pulpit to pew, I've failed. If there is never a specificity to my preaching, such as makes spouses and friends and churchgoers and the like shift uncomfortably, and such as sends them to God in prayer and to their Bibles in study and to their day-planners in changes of daily agenda — I've failed.

But not all welcome this necessary attempt to discharge my charge. For my part, there is a danger in trying to be too specific; for my hearers' part, there could be the temptation to resent any specificity. Many would gladly sit through any sermon whose charges sail safely overhead; hence the appeal, for many, of the megachurch. It's so easy to hide in a crowd.

This is also the matrix of the line, "Okay, now you've stopped preaching and started meddling."

And the trouble is, there is such a thing as meddling — being too specific in application, ceasing to make valid applications of Scripture and starting instead to chase down hobby-horses.

For instance, I don't enjoy it when I notice a gum-chewer. There, I've confessed it. It's a bovine sort of action that's distracting to me.

But that's it: I don't love it. So? So nothing! That's it. It's a personal preference, and that's all it is. It wouldn't be fair for me to rail on the "evils" of gum-chewing in church in the name of making specific application. That would be silly, petulant, and peevish. If folks want to chew gum, the God's honest truth of it is that I'm just glad they're there to hear the Word, chewing and all. I deal. Plus my short-sightedness helps. (For that reason, I have no idea whether anyone in the church I serve chews gum during the service.)

But are there other things that might be worth a mention in a sermon now and again, behaviors not specifically targeted by any verse? Such as chronic and intentional lateness? Does one veer far away from such specificities? If the goal is urging folks to maturity and service (Heb. 5:11-14), even to the point or provocation (Heb. 10:24), are such matters worth a mention or two now and again?

Stepping back, then, the Scylla here is gauzy generality that never hits home, and the Charybdis is petulant fault-finding that never seems content or happy.

Balance. Sigh.

Then there's the other imperative Paul mentioned in Titus 1:9, "to reprove those who contradict." If I never deal with error in preaching, specifically and clearly, I am failing. If I never warn against, expose, and rebuke false teaching, I am failing. So on the one hand and very clearly, anyone who tries for an exclusively positive ministry is being unfaithful to the pastoral "call."

But on the other, if all one ever does is rant and rail and warn and moan about False Teachers, if in effect They loom larger in the pulpit than the cross and the Gospel and the grace of God — and the blessed persons of the Trinity — then one has equally erred. A ministry of denunciation is no less unbalanced than a ministry of marshmallow evanjellybeanicalism. Both fail God and God's people.

Yet there are hearers, once again, who would object to any attempt to do either. Focus on the positive, and you're not talking about the menace of ____ enough. Occasionally warn against the menace of ____, and you're harping on a hobby-horse. It's a constant weight to any pastor.

Now maybe some of you dear folks have been reading patiently, but thinking, "Yeah, poor pastors; good thing that's not a problem for me!"

Isn't it? If you're a parent, I doubt you've been thinking that. Well, first-time expecting parents might. You may have read this or that book on parenting, and it all may look very simple to you. ABC, 123, and wham! godly child! You know exactly what you're going to do when your three-month-old gets older.

Yeah, right; good luck with that! Because the reality is that parenting is a constant battle of balance. You don't think so? Well, then: what Bible verse tells you how much "play time" is enough at any given age? How about video games?

What about music lessons and Scouting or Awanas? Your kid resists, drags his feet, doesn't want to do it. What do you do? Do you insist? Do you force? How long? Until they're 12? Until they're gone?

Because, unless you've been living under a rock, you know how this works. If you are any kind of disciplinarian, if you lean on your child to accomplish anything that he doesn't come out of the chute wanting to do, you're running a risk. When he leaves home, if he loves God, he'll look back and praise you to the heavens. He'll say, "My mom was constantly on me to do X, and I hated her for it at the time... but now I love her for it, and I am so glad that she made me!"

But if he rebels against God, that same child will say about that same parent, "All my life Mom forced me to do X and Y and Z, and I hated every minute of it, but I pretended to go along because that was the only way to have peace at home; and then, boy, as soon as I was able, I ran away as fast as I could!"

Same parent, same choices, different "reviews."

But even childish rebellion aside, what is the proper "balance"? How much do you prod and force and require; and how much do you stand back and allow and watch horrid consequences gather over your dear cherub's head? Because you know if it works out well, everyone will praise your child and nod at you with a smile.

But if it turns out horridly... everyone will "know" you were a horrid parent.

Like with pastors.

And if you're a pastor and a parent?




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Merrilee Stevenson said...

Thanks for this post; it is very timely. I have a tendency to read & listen to those who lean more towards the "petulant fault-finding" rather than the gauzy generalities that never hit home. As a result, I find myself not relating as well to those at church who also love the Lord but haven't a strong apologetic and don't even see the faults of which I might speak. It can be frustrating, and I have no desire to be a troublemaker, so I don't pursue it. But I do see a need for balance in my own life.

I was reading through Proverbs 22 today and verses 17-21 stood out to me. I need to trust in the Lord and the certainty of the words of truth as I ready my lips to correctly give an answer.

I pray that the Lord will give me wisdom to find the balance I truly need.

jmb said...

At a congregation I used to attend, there is an "elder" who wants everyone to like him. He never confronts anyone on matters of doctrine (his own are pretty bad), or on pretty much anything else. EXCEPT gum-chewing. He cannot abide it. He'll stop whatever he's doing, go to the offender, and hold out his hand until given the offending substance. I think you would agree with me that he has his priorities wrong.

DJP said...

One-star hater disagrees.

Kerry James Allen said...

"Truth lies between two extremes, and man, like a pendulum, swings either too much this way or that."

Mark Patton said...

Timely, both pastorally and parentally. Thanks

Tom Chantry said...


You'll appreciate this: I once heard a pastor try to justify preaching all of his pet peaves by taking as his passage "Love is not rude." I'm pretty sure one of his points had to do with chewing gum in the service.

Excellent point, though. There is such a thing as biblical balance. It is never accomplished by being less biblical, though, but always by being more.

Carol said...

As someone who chews gum in church, I am hereby chiding several of you. I chew gum as soon as I walk in the door of my church. I chew it furiously. The reason? It is the best thing I've found to allow me to tolerate the perfumes, deodorants, laundry detergents, and other chemicals that permeate the church as soon as it fills up with people. I choke and cough because of those chemicals. So I chew gum so I can worship at my church. I am well aware that many people despise my gum-chewing, and that does cause me some stress, but I want to attend services so I do it anyway. Please examine yourselves and see that your petty intolerance is just that, petty.

Kerry James Allen said...

Gum chewers of the world, unite! Talk about off balance, how did we get from "balance" to gum chewing?

SamWise said...

Expository preaching (though the Bible) allows the Holy Spirit to "effectively" do all the correcting and reproving? How would we know exactly what a congregation needs to hear?

CF Walther suggested pastors should preach Law (so hearers will despair of their sin) followed with Gospel (so hearers will place their only hope in Christ) in every sermon.

Some churches use a "Lectionary" (collection of scripture appointed for a Christian year or three years) so that the whole counsel of God is preached.

Otherwise, a Noble "Pastor" of some Mega-Church would "preach" (actually "sheep beat") on Ezra/Nehemiah since their big campaign budget is coming up (or an entire state needs to be converted to Church-Growthism, etc.)!? :)

Anonymous said...

"Expository preaching (though the Bible) allows the Holy Spirit to "effectively" do all the correcting and reproving?"

Yes. And the encouraging and exhorting as well.

"How would we know exactly what a congregation needs to hear?"

By preaching through the Bible. The problem with that statement is that we seem to forget that the congregation needs to hear the whole counsel of Scripture. People's needs are fickle, and subject many times to severe subjectivity. Preaching through the Bible ensures that the preacher keeps his trust in God, and does not chase after man's constantly changing approval.