I recently heard a sermon that reminded me of the need for more educated pastors in America. One of the frustrations I have had attending various churches over the years is that many pastors do not seem to spend very much time preparing their sermons. Many pastors today seem to concentrate on the literal, common-sense, reading of scripture without showing evidence of any deep, contextual knowledge on a particular subject. A message I recently heard on Romans 13:1-7 reminded me of this problem.
Wanting to salvage a previously poorly-worded sermon in which he offended certain people in the congregation with Democratic political leanings, the pastor who I heard tried to offer a balanced perspective on religion and government from Roman 13, arguing that God has made allowances for current forms of government to exist and so we have an obligation to pray for our elected officials to enact legislation wisely. So far so good. But then he added the curious comment that Christians must be subservient to the current political administration since it has been put in place by God. From his reading of Romans 13, he suggested that Paul did not want the church to be affiliated with the radical zealots of the land who were advocating armed resistance against Caesar and his government.
As a religious historian, I couldn't help but wonder what this pastor thought about the Glorious Revolution, when English Whigs invited William and Mary to invade the country and replace James II. Or better yet, what might he think about the American Revolution, in which Christian patriots rallied the nation to rebel against George III? These are complicated questions that deserve serious thought that is based on research and a proper understanding of the biblical context.
As every historian knows, history is complex, making it especially unwise to use simplistic arguments that utilize scripture passages out of context to make a point that fits one's agenda. Yet religious pundits use this methodology quite regularly. I do not envy today's pastors who carry the burden of delivering weekly relevant messages that intend to offer truth from a biblical perspective. But if you are called to the ministry, I pray that you would commit to lifelong study of the Bible that entails reading beyond a commentary by Chuck Swindoll.
One of the reasons why Paul's message in Romans 17 at the Areopagus was effective had to do with his understanding of Greek philosophy. He had read the works of the Stoics and other philosophers and so could relate with his audience and offer them a message that made sense in that particular environment. How foolish it would have been if Paul had delivered a sermon from a strictly Jewish perspective to a Gentile audience. Paul knew, not only the Bible, but also was well-versed in the philosophy and culture of his day.
Puritan ministers in England and America prided themselves on their knowledge of scripture in addition to reading the latest philosophical, theological, and scientific works. They studied the deists and other early Enlightenment authors in order to understand how they might offer a counter-voice to the prevailing heterodox theories that were permeating the Atlantic world. While I do not agree with the hermeneutics of all their messages, I can appreciate the Puritan commitment to spend multiple hours in the week studying the relevant literature at that time. I wonder what would happen if American pastors read works of literature, history, theology, and philosophy as well as a range of opinions in biblical studies. Perhaps we would hear sermons that we could trust as coming from someone who carefully weighed all the relevant information before offering an application.