Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Preaching Passe?:

Many say it is. Preaching, so it is alleged, is a very poor method of communicating the Gospel. There are other and better ways to convey the message of the Gospel. Preaching is an out-moded form of communicating the Good News of salvation by grace through faith, God’s gift. At the same time, it is no secret that there is a great deal of criticism of preaching coming from the pews in many denominations. This is true not only of the more liberal, mainline churches, but of the more conservative churches in the Reformed tradition. It is no secret that there is criticism of and dissatisfaction with preaching in our own churches. Some are saying preaching in our churches “just isn’t what it used to be.” For some the preaching is too doctrinal, for others too polemical, for others too practical, for others too deep or too shallow. Some blame the seminary and others blame the preachers and others blame both for this.

Jean Shaw, in a recent issue of the Presbyterian Journal (Nov. 2, 1986), has something to say about all of this. Shaw, it must be remembered, writes from a Presbyterian perspective and this means some of what she says may not apply to us. Her point, however, is well taken:

Granted that we expect good preaching every Sunday of the year, do we see it as a priority? Would we vote for the sermon as the single most influential activity of the church? Or are we tempted to see our building as that which will appeal to the world and draw its people to a saving faith? How about all those programs designed to lure recalcitrant fish into our congregational sea? . . . Christ emphasized the message. So did Paul, who speaks over and over again about preaching and proclaiming. If the early church had programs, he must have left them in the hands of Rufus, Tryphena, and Tryphosa . . . . Paul preached. There was power in the Word. There is power in the Word today. We can easily concentrate on secondary issues, de-emphasizing preaching, and pressure our pastor to neglect his sermon preparation for all kinds of other worthwhile, but less important things. We can expect him to be present at every meeting in the church and also represent us in the community. We interrupt his studying with phone calls that could easily wait until after lunch. We peck away at the time in the worship service reserved for the sermon with all kinds of announcements and special events, and then chastise the preacher for daring to extend the time to 65 minutes . . . . Another part of our problem is the lack of conviction that preaching really is the special way in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us. We need to be refreshed with study of the many New Testament passages which speak forcibly on this subject. Without a strong Biblical defense we fall pray to all the alternatives practiced in the worship services of every church around town. We install twin quadraphonic speakers and a mixer like the Baptists. We become liturgical like the Episcopalians. We beg for “openness” like the Pentecostals . . . .

Scripture and our Reformed Confessions make clear the fact that preaching is the chief means of grace. Christ gathers, defends, and preserves His church by means of the preaching of the Word. This means: 1) Our preachers must make preaching their chief task. They must spend the time and effort week in and week out to make two good, expository sermons. 2) Consistories must insist on good preaching, and where preaching is deficient the elders must take the necessary steps to rectify the situation even to the point of formal discipline of the minister. Consistories must also see to it that the pastor has the necessary time to prepare his sermons. 3) Those in the pew must also insist on good preaching, pray for their pastors, encourage their pastors, and not burden their pastors with unnecessary interruptions or demands. 4) Professors must stress the necessity of good preaching and in all their teaching must strive to train “faithful men who are able to teach others” in the art of preaching. 5) All of us must fervently pray that God will give us men to study and prepare for the ministry of the Word. We must also fervently pray that God will preserve among us the pure, faithful preaching of the Word.

The Church in China:

Are the churches affiliated with China’s government- approved China Christian Council (CCC) authentic representatives of Protestant Christianity in that country? There is difference of opinion on this question. Christianity Today (Nov. 21, 1986) recently interviewed two “China experts” one of whom answered “yes” and the other of whom answered “no.” Ralph Covell, professor of missions at Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary and a former missionary to China was asked:

Why do you maintain the CCC authentically represents Protestantism in China? 

CCC churches stand doctrinally in the tradition of orthodox Christianity. They worship and preach the Word, and there is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. 

But aren’t they controlled by the government? 

I have seen no proof of that, and I think it’s a myth. These churches have a great deal of autonomy. Their leaders are chosen by people in various areas who meet as the church . . . . Are official churches free to carry out the mission of the church—to evangelize, for example? 

I can’t imagine how the church in China could “be the church” more than it is. But it’s not like the church in America. Remember, this is a Marxist society. Christians may not hold open-air meetings or pass out tracts. To be wise as serpents and harmless as doves seems to mean evangelizing within the limitations. There is no lack of freedom to talk with friends or family about Jesus. I visited a church in China last summer and asked the pastors, “Are you able to do evangelism?” They said, “We’ll let you judge. In 18 months we baptized 400 people.” 

But is there freedom to worship outside official churches? Aren’t those who do so subject to persecution? 

I don’t deny there is persecution. But it is a local problem, not a result of government policy. A strong leftist element remains in China from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-77. It is trying to block the innovative policies of the current leadership in the political, economic, and religious arenas. It’s not surprising that leftists give Christians a hard time . . . .

This testimony was contradicted by Jonathan Chao, founder and director of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong, who was asked:

Why do you contend the CCC is not an authentic representative of Protestantism in China? 

Most of the personnel of TSPM (Three-self Patriotic Movement, an organization that represents the official church in China to the government) and C.CC are the same. In effect, the two organizations are identical. TSPM, by its own definition, is not a church, but a Protestant political movement, organized by the government. The church submits to Christ, not the state, as its Head. 

Aren’t CCC churches autonomous? Don’t they choose their own leaders, for example?

There is not proof of that. Even CCC pastors say they were appointed, not chosen, by local Christians. 

Are CCC churches free to carry out the mission of the church? 

They are not able to function according to the Bible without interference. Official government policy permits freedom of religious belief, but this means only that people are free to worship in official churches. It does not permit voluntary evangelism outside the church building or by people other than recognized pastors. Pastors are forbidden to preach on certain doctrines, such as Creation and the second coming of Christ. If someone teaches modalism or some other heresy, there is no church court to exercise discipline . . . 

Is persecution of the unofficial church a major problem? 

Yes, especially in the countryside. In every province in central China there are evangelists in prison. I know of 21 in just one section of a province. Persecution has softened in the last few years because the government is attempting to establish a peaceful environment in order to attract foreign investment. But the government continues to scrutinize any independent Christian activity . . . .

We, of course, have no way of knowing officially or by first hand experience which of the above “experts” is correct. We are inclined to believe that Chao gives the better picture of the actual situation of the church in mainland China. Many Christians there are persecuted severely for their faith and many more are underground. They need our prayers.

A Victory in Court:

In the same issue Christianity Today reports that: “Fundamentalist Christian parents in Tennessee who objected to some of the textbooks their children were required to read in school have won their federal court case. The parents maintained the books advanced ideas contrary to Christian teaching . . . . Federal District Judge Thomas Hull ruled that the parents may allow their children to skip the reading class, provided they learn to read at home . . . .” While this is encouraging, public schools ought not be viewed as an option for Christian parents. If we are to be obedient to the Lord’s covenantal obligations we need our own parentally controlled Christian Schools.