We come to one of the most sacrosanct church practices of all: the sermon.
Remove the sermon and the Protestant order of worship becomes in large part a songfest. Remove the sermon and attendance at
the Sunday morning service is doomed to drop.
The sermon is the bedrock of the Protestant liturgy. For five hundred years,
it has functioned like clock-work. Every Sunday morning, the pastor steps up to his pulpit and delivers an inspirational oration
to a passive, pew-warming audience.
So central is the sermon that it is the very reason many Christians go to
church. In fact, the entire service is often judged by the quality of the sermon. Ask a person how church was last Sunday
and you will most likely get a description of the message. In short, the contemporary Christian mind-set often equates the
sermon with Sunday morning worship. But it does not end there.
Remove the sermon and you have eliminated the most important source of spiritual
nourishment for countless numbers of believers (so it is thought). Yet the stunning reality is that today's sermon has no
root in Scripture. Rather, it was borrowed from pagan culture, nursed and adopted into the Christian faith. But there is more.
The sermon actually detracts from the very purpose for which YAHUAH designed the assembly gathering. And it has very little
to do with genuine spiritual growth.
THE SERMON AND THE BIBLE
Doubtlessly, someone reading the previous few paragraphs will retort: "People
preached all throughout the Bible. Of course the sermon is scriptural!"
Granted, the Scriptures do record men and women preaching. However, there
is a world of difference between the Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching described in the Scripture and the contemporary
sermon. This difference is virtually always overlooked because we have been unwittingly conditioned to read our modern-day
practices back into the Scripture. So we mistakenly embrace today's pulpiteerism as being biblical. Let's unfold that a bit.
The present day Christian sermon has the following features:
- It is a regular occurrence—delivered faithfully
from the pulpit at least once a week.
- It is delivered by the same person—most typically the pastor
or an ordained guest speaker.
- It is delivered to a passive audience—essentially it is a monologue.
It is a cultivated form of speech—possessing a specific structure.It typically contains an introduction,
three to five points, and a conclusion.
Contrast this with the kind of preaching mentioned in the Bible. In the Tanach
(Old Testament), men of YAHUAH preached and taught. But their speaking did not map to the contemporary sermon. Here are the
features of Tanach preaching and teaching:
- Active participation and interruptions by the audience were common.
- Prophets and priests spoke extemporaneously and out of a present burden,
rather than from a set script.
- There is no indication that the Tanach prophets or priests gave
regular speeches to YAHUAH's people. Instead, the nature of Tanach preaching was sporadic, fluid, and open for audience
Come now to the Re-Newed Covenant (New Testament). The Master Yahushua did
not preach a regular sermon to the same audience. His preaching and teach-ing took many different forms. And He delivered
His messages to many different audiences. (Of course, He concentrated most of His teaching
on His disciples. Yet the messages He brought to them were consistently spontaneous and informal.)
Following the same pattern, the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts possessed
the following features:
- It was sporadic.
- It was delivered on special occasions in order to deal with specific problems.
- It was extemporaneous and without rhetorical structure.
- It was most often dialogical (meaning it included feedback and interruptions
from the audience) rather than monological (a one-way discourse).
In like manner, the Re-Newed Covenant (New Testament) letters show that the ministry of YAHUAH's Word came from the entire
assembly in their regular gatherings." From Romans 12:6-8, 15:14, 1 Corinthians 14:26, and Colossians 3:16, we see that it
included teaching, exhortation, prophecy, singing and admonishment. This "every-member" functioning was also conversational
(1 Corinthians 14:29) and marked by interruptions (1 Corinthians 14:30). Equally so, the exhortations of the local elders
were normally impromptu.
In short, the contemporary sermon delivered for Christian consumption
is foreign to both the Tanach (Old Testament) and the Re-newed Covenant (New Testament). There is nothing in Scripture
to indicate its existence in the early Messianic gatherings."
The spontaneous and non rhetorica I character of the apostolic messages delivered
in Acts is evident upon close inspection. See for instance Acts 2:14-35, 7:1-53, 17:22-34.
WHERE DID THE CHRISTIAN SERMON COME FROM?
The earliest recorded Christian source for regular sermonizing is found
during the late second century. Clement of Alexandria lamented the fact that sermons did so little
to change Christians.
Yet despite its recognized failure, the sermon became a standard practice
among believers by the fourth century.
This raises a thorny question. If the first-century Christians were not noted for their sermonizing, from whom did the
post apostolic Christians pick it up? The answer is telling: The Christian sermon was borrowed from the pagan pool of Greek
To find the headwaters of the sermon, we must go back to the fifth century
BC and a group of wandering teachers called sophists.The sophists are credited for inventing rhetoric (the art of persuasive
speaking). They recruited disciples and demanded payment for delivering their orations.
The sophists were expert debaters. They were masters at using emotional
appeals, physical appearance, and clever language to "sell" their arguments. In time, the style, form, and oratorical skill
of thesophists became more prized than their accuracy. This spawned a class of men who became masters
of fine phrases, "cultivating style for style's sake." The truths they preached were abstract rather than truths that were
practiced in their own lives. They were experts at imitating form rather than substance.
The sophists identified themselves by the special clothing they wore. Some
of them had a fixed residence where they gave regular sermons to the same audience. Others traveled to deliver their pol-ished
orations. (They made a good deal of money when they did.)
The first recorded Christian sermon is contained in the so-called Second
Letter of Clement dated between AD 100 and AD150.
We get our words sophistry and sophistical
from the sophists. Sophistry refers to specious and fallacious (bogus)
reasoning used to persuade (Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom, 57). The Greeks celebrated the orator's
style and form over the accuracy of the content of his sermon. Thus a good orator could use his sermon to sway his audience
to believe what he knew to be false. To the Greek mind, winning an argument was a greater virtue than distilling truth. Unfortunately,
an element of sophistry has never left the Christian fold.
Sometimes the Greek orator would enter his speaking forum "already robed in
his pulpit-gown." He would then mount the steps to his professional chair to sit before he brought his sermon.
To make his points, he would quote Homer's verses. (Some orators studied Homer so well that they could repeat him by heart.)
So spellbinding was the sophist that he would often incite his audience to clap their hands during his discourse. If his speaking
was very well received, some would call his sermon "inspired."
The sophists were the most distinguished men of their time. Some even lived at public expense. Others had public statues
erected in their honor.
About a century later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC)
gave to rhetoric the three-point speech. "A whole," said Aristotle, "must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In time, Greek orators implemented Aristotle's three-point principle
into their discourses.
The Greeks were intoxicated with rhetoric.' So the sophists fared well. When
the Romans took over Greece, they too became obsessed with rhetoric. Consequently, Greco-Roman culture developed an insatiable
appetite for hearing someone give an eloquent oration. This was so fashionable that a "sermonette" from a professional philosopher
after dinner was a regular form of entertainment.
The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed rhetoric as one of the greatest forms
of art. Accordingly, the orators in the Roman Empire were lauded with the same glamorous status that Americans assign to movie
stars and professional athletes. They were the shining stars of their day.
Orators could bring a crowd to a frenzy simply by their powerful speaking skills. Teachers of rhetoric, the leading science
of the era, were the pride of every major city." The orators they produced
were given celebrity status. In short, the Greeks and Romans were addicted to the pagan sermon—just as many contemporary
Christians are addicted to the "Christian" sermon.
THE ARRIVAL OF ANOTHER POLLUTED STREAM
How did the Greek sermon find its way into the Christian church?Around the
third century a vacuum was created when mutual ministry faded from the body of Christ." At this time the last of the traveling
Christian workers who spoke out of a prophetic burden and spontaneous conviction left the pages of church history. To fill
their absence, the clergy began to emerge. Open meetings began to die out, and church gatherings became more and more liturgical.
The "assembly meeting" was devolving into a "service."
As a hierarchical structure began to take root, the idea of a "reli-gious
specialist" emerged. In the face of these changes, the functioning Christians had trouble fitting into this evolving ecclesiastical
structure.' There was no place for them to exercise their gifts. By the fourth century, the church had become fully institutionalized.
As this was happening, many pagan orators and philosophers were becoming Christians.
As a result, pagan philosophical ideas unwittingly made their way into the Christian community. Many of these men became the
theologians and leaders of the early Christian church. They are known as the "church fathers," and some of their writings
are still with us.
Thus the pagan notion of a trained professional speaker who delivers orations
for a fee moved straight into the Christian bloodstream.
Note that the concept of the "paid teaching specialist" came from Greece,
not Hebrew. It was the custom of Hebrew teachers to take up a trade so as to not charge a fee for their teaching.
The upshot of the story is that these former pagan orators (now turned Christian)
began to use their Greco-Roman oratorical skills for Christian purposes. They would sit in their official chair and expound
the sacred text of Scripture, just as the sophist would supply an exegesis of the near sacred text of Homer. If you compare
a third century pagan sermon with a sermon given by one of the church fathers, you will find both the structure and the phraseology
to be quite similar.
So a new style of communication was being birthed in the Christian church—a
style that emphasized polished rhetoric, sophisticated grammar, flowery eloquence, and monologue. It was a style that was
designed to entertain and show off the speaker's oratorical skills. It was Greco-Roman rhetoric. And only those who were trained
in it were allowed to address the assembly! (Does any of this sound familiar?)
One scholar put it this way: "The original proclamation of the Christian
message was a two way conversation . . . but when theoratorical schools of the Western world laid hold
of the Christian message, they made Christian preaching something vastly different. Oratory tended to take the place of conversation.
The greatness of the orator took the place of the astounding event of Yahushua Moshiach. And the dialogue between speaker
and listener faded into a monologue.
In a word, the Greco-Roman sermon replaced prophesying, open sharing, and
Spirit-inspired teaching. The sermon became the elitist privilege of church
officials, particularly the bishops. Such people had to be educated in the schools of rhetoric to learn how to speak. Without
this education, a Christian was not permitted to address God's people.
As early as the third century, Christians called their sermons hom-ilies, the same term Greek orators used for their discourses. Today,one can take a seminary
course called homiletics to learn how to preach. Homiletics is considered a "science, applying rules of rhetoric, which go
back to Greece and Rome.
Put another way, neither homilies (sermons) nor homiletics (the art of sermonizing)
have a Christian origin. They were stolen from the pagans. Another polluted stream made its entrance into the Christian faith
and muddied its waters. And that stream flows just as strongly today as it did in the fourth century.
CHRYSOSTOM AND AUGUSTINE
John Chrysostom was one of the greatest Christian orators of his day.
(Chrysostom means "golden-mouthed.") Never had Constantinople heard "sermons
so powerful, brilliant, and frank" as those preached by Chrysostom. Chrysostom's preaching was so compelling
that people would sometimes shove their way toward the front to hear him better.
Naturally endowed with the orator's gift of gab, Chrysostom learned
how to speak under the leading sophist of the fourth century, Libanius. On his deathbed, Libanius (Chrysostom's pagan tutor) said that he would have been his worthiest successor "if the Christians
had not stolen him" (Hatch, Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages, 109).
So powerful were his orations that his sermons would often get inter-rupted
by congregational applause. Chrysostom once gave a sermon condemning the applause as unfitting in God's house. But the congregation
loved the sermon so much that after he finished preaching, they applauded anyway. This story illustrates the untamable power
of Greek rhetoric.
We can credit both Chrysostom and Augustine (354-430), a former professor
of rhetoric, for making pulpit oratory part and parcel of the Christian faith." In Chrysostom, the Greek sermon reached its
zenith. The Greek sermon style indulged in rhetorical brilliance, the quoting of poems, and focused on impressing the audience.
Chrysostom emphasized that "the preacher must toil long on his sermons in order to gain the power of eloquence."
In Augustine, the Latin sermon reached its heights. The Latin sermon style
was more down to earth than the Greek style. It focused on the "common man" and was directed to a simpler moral point. Zwingli
took John Chrysostom as his model in preaching, while Luther took Augustine as his model." Both Latin and Greek styles included
a verse-by-verse commentary form as well as a paraphrasing form.
Even so, Chrysostom and Augustine stood in the lineage of the Greek sophists.
They gave us polished Christian rhetoric. They gave us the "Christian" sermon: biblical in content, but Greek in style."