The church of Jesus Christ is His body, bride, temple, army, flock, and family. It is a vibrant community sometimes referred to among Christians as a great ship traversing the stormy seas of life where Satan, like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, threatens to derail and destroy its designated mission to seek and save the lost. Preachers are divinely appointed pilots of this ship, and the congregation is the anointed crew. There’s perhaps no greater privilege or responsibility than to be called to be a leader of this great ship. While the Bible provides some challenging requirements for Christian leadership, Ellen G. White noted that “the Lord does not leave the ship one moment to be steered by ignorant pilots.”1
When it comes to preaching as an essential, central, spiritual leadership dimension, “what is needed today is not a new gospel but men and women who can restate the gospel of the Son of God in terms that will reach the very heart of our problems. Today, people are flinging the truth overboard along with the terms. Why should we not become workers who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth to our own people? The majority of orthodox ministers are hopelessly useless, and the unorthodox seem to be the only ones who are used. We need men and women who are saturated with the truth of God who can restate the old truth in terms that appeal to our day.”2
For spiritual leaders, there are times when deconstruction is helpful to create reconstruction of a new life in the Word. Familiarity with a theology of preaching (1) helps the preacher decide what significance should be attached to research, sermon preparation, and delivery; (2) shows that the methodology of “how” to preach, under which most preachers are trained, seldom, if ever, answers the question, “How can or will they preach and lead unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15a); (3) clarifies for the preacher what leadership does for theology and vice versa, so that sermons are not endless methodological rules and formulas or rhetorical gymnastics; and (4) “theology’s exposition of the faith and its openness to the world corresponds with preaching’s dual responsibility to the word and the world.”3
There are “major issues within a theology of preaching, including the authority [or leadership] responsibilities of the preacher, the relationship of the Bible to preaching, and the historical, social, and liturgical contexts of preaching.”4 Additionally, expectations of leadership in preaching range from proclaiming the Word of God, to liberating the oppressed, to providing pastoral counseling on a group scale. Although this range is broad, some experts suggest three major groupings: (1) preaching principally is to play a role in the sanctification of the people of faith; (2) preaching’s primary role is in the justification of human beings before God;5 and (3) good preachers are also good leaders, although the reverse is seldom expected. David M. Greenhaw suggests that “the office of the preacher is ideally preserved for those who are capable of careful and faithful interpretation of the traditions of the church. He or she is to have enough training and character to promote a fitting Christian style of life, to explicate the sources of the Christian faith and apply them meaningfully to the present setting.”6 Preachers who are called to these responsibilities are also expected to be human and holy, but tend to be either human or holy. Both extremes are detrimental to potential spiritual leadership and the growth of a congregation.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN AND HOLY
Jesus calls us to follow Him, and He was human and holy: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are” (human) and “yet without sin” (holy). Being human, “Jesus did not die a death with dignity but a death endured, screaming to a God who did not answer. Jesus paid the price. He became utterly poor. In this total renunciation, Jesus professed what it means to be human. He endured our lot. He came to us where we really were and stood with us, struggling with His whole heart to have us say yes to our innate poverty.”7 But it’s not a material poverty; it’s a poverty of spirit (Matt. 5:3) that drives one to total dependence on God. “How does this poverty of spiritism [sic] reflect itself in day-to-day living?” asked Brennan Manning. He answers with an invaluable description of a great leader: “In conversation, the poor man always leaves the other person feeling, ‘My life has been enriched by talking with you.’ And it has. He is not all exhaust and no intake. He doesn’t impose himself on another; he doesn’t overwhelm him with his wealth of insights; he doesn’t try to convert him by concussion with one sledgehammer blow of the Bible after another. He listens well because he realizes he is poor and has much to learn from others. His poverty enables him to enter the existential world of the other, even when he cannot identify with the world. Being poor, he knows how to receive and can express appreciation and gratitude for the slightest gift.”8 To be holy is one of God’s commands (Lev. 11:44). Because holiness is to the spiritual life what breathing is to the physical life, it wasn’t a principle to be observed only by Moses and the Israelites during their exodus, for this injunction is repeated in 1 Peter 1:1, 15.
Despite these biblical admonitions for holiness, some who claim Christianity as their faith and leadership as their gift have little or no concept of what it means to “be holy.” In fact, a survey conducted by the Barna Research Group found the idea of holiness baffling to most church-attending Americans—both preachers and congregants. It concluded that they were and remain confused, if not daunted, by the concept.9
The biggest challenge to practicing holiness is “self.” Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he/she must deny [say no to, absolutely repudiate] self and take up his/ her cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34, amplification mine). According to A. W. Tozer, this “self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by instruction. As well try to instruct leprosy out of our system. There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us” because “self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the Reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace, and gain strength by its efforts. To tell the truth,” he emphasized, “it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible Conference than in a tavern. Our very state of longing after God may afford it an excellent condition under which to thrive.”10 However, “let us beware of tinkering with our inner life in hope ourselves to rend the veil. God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust. We must confess, forsake, repudiate the self-life, and then reckon it crucified.”11 Two practices for the repudiation of the self-life can be named among Christian leaders.
First is a negative autosoterism. This is a combination of two Greek words: autos (self) and soter (salvation) or the spiritual and eternal deliverance granted by God alone (Rev. 12:10) without human participation or intervention, unlike sozo, the temporal, human, and divine partnership of deliverance from sin. It is a naturalistic religious belief that one can save oneself, based on one’s natural powers to accomplish everything God requires for salvation. Preachers who practice autosoterism, this most pernicious false religious doctrine that proposes that humans are capable of doing what only God can do, are also authoritarian leaders.
Second is the prayer of relinquishment. “We learn the Prayer of Relinquishment in the school of Gethsemane. Gaze in adoring wonder at the scene. The solitary figure etched against gnarled olive trees. The bloodlike sweat falling to the ground. The human longing: ‘Let this cup pass.’ The final relinquishment: ‘Not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:39- 46). We do well to meditate often on this unparalleled expression of relinquishment.”12 This type of prayer is a giving up of all rights to oneself to God. It “is a bona fide letting go, but it is a release with hope. We have no fatalist resignation. We are buoyed up by a confident trust in the character of God. Even when all we see are tangled threads on the backside of life’s tapestry, we know that God is good and is out to do us good always. That gives us hope to believe we are the winners, regardless of what we are being called upon to relinquish. God is inviting us deeper in and higher up. There is training in righteousness, transforming power, new joys, deeper intimacy.”13 This can be the source of strength for a spiritual leader.
HOW BEING HUMAN AND HOLY AFFECTS THE PREACHER AS A LEADER
First, the preacher should be as intense about worship as she or he is about preaching. If and when “worship lies lower down the priority list behind preaching, leadership, pastoral care, and administration . . . hubris plagues the act of preaching; rightly convinced of preaching’s importance, preachers can wrongly become self-important.”14 This trend can tempt preachers to think more highly of themselves and usurp the role of God among His people instead of plumbing the depths of Scripture to bring out the beautiful gems of wisdom to transform worshippers. According to Jeff Crittenden, Walter Brueggemann passionately declared that it captures their imagination and reshapes their experience of the world in such a way that justice, compassion, right relations, and hope abound. Crittenden also referred to Augustine’s statement that the preacher’s responsibility as leader is to educate, delight, and persuade. Affirming this, Karl Barth is reported to have said that to function legitimately as a human and holy ambassador of Christ, the preacher should have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.
Second, the preacher should show that he or she is human by preaching hope and practicing grace with loving understanding through life’s many transitions. “Preaching through transitions demands that the preachers be carefully tuned into the context of the community they are serving.”15 Times of grief and loss are some of the most difficult and dreaded responsibilities of pastoral leadership. They should be used to: (a) honor the memory of the loved one with authentic vignettes of his or her life; (b) comfort the bereaved in their loss with a homily or short sermon, not with a long evangelistic sermon to capture the minds of people who would not otherwise come to church; and (c) avoid controversial theological discourses. A good leader points to the biblical promises of Jesus Christ that death will one day be overcome (1 Cor. 15:26). While visitation and homilies are important tools, counseling and compassionate conversation also bring relief to those going through painful transitions.
Weddings are happier occasions, but they are transitions that require as much sensitivity and preparation as funerals. “The celebration and blessing of a marriage presents the preacher with a unique opportunity. The ambiguity of the marriage ceremony, in which secular and sacred elements combine, challenges the preacher’s imagination, pastoral skills, and powers of communication.”16 Weddings are also great opportunities for a spiritual leader to demonstrate that he or she is both human and holy.
Now more than ever, what we need is spiritual leadership through preaching that helps hearers make transitions “from what was toward what is emerging in their personal lives.”17
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, 42.
2 Oswald Chambers, Approved Unto God, 19.
3 Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching, 5.
5 Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 477, 478.
6 Ibid., 478.
7 Souvenirs of Solitude, 90.
9 https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna... 162-the-concept-of-holiness-baffles-most-americans.
10 The Pursuit of God, 45.
11 Ibid., 47.
12 Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, 49.
13 Ibid., 52.
14 Preaching As Worship: An Integrative Approach to Formation in Your Church, 28.
16 Ibid., 426.
17 Three Goals for Preaching in Our Context, 41, 42.
Dr. Hyveth Williams serves as Professor/Director of Homiletics and Acting Seminary Chaplain at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, where she is also founder and senior pastor of The Grace Place, a community church plant in South Bend, Indiana, USA.