I often hear it said that the previous generation of Southern Baptists has won "the battle for the Bible." What this usually means is that the question of inerrancy has been settled. Now, it is said, we can move on to other things — like bringing our evangelism into the 21st century. W. A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, and others achieved the first Reformation. Now, some say we need "another Reformation" that brings our mission strategy up to date.
I agree that our evangelistic methods should be brought up to date. But the statement that "the battle for the Bible is over" is dangerously wrong on two accounts. First, anyone who thinks the question of inerrancy is "settled" is simply not keeping up with trends developing among evangelicalism. Voices calling for "balance" in this issue, by which they mean we must learn to balance the truth in our Bibles with the errors, are as loud as ever.
Brian McLaren, a popular spokesman of the "emergent church," argues that inerrancy is no longer a core doctrine for "post-evangelicals." Orthodoxy must be generous, he says — generous enough to tolerate those who don't hold beliefs on things like inerrancy. McLaren and other "emergents" do not intend to pit themselves against the Bible, by any means. But one does not have to look too deeply in this new language to recognize the same old lies that confronted previous generations of Southern Baptists. This is not new, emerging thought, but re-emerging liberalism under a new name. And in the words of a great Southern Baptist, "A skunk by any other name still stinks."
Our Enemy's first offensive was to ask, "Has God said?" We can be sure that this is a front he will never relinquish. Convincing us to see inerrancy as a question of the past is simply a first step in getting us to tolerate the denigration of the Bible in our pulpits. My generation will certainly have to continue this battle for the Bible, as will every generation that follows us.
But perhaps even more significantly, to say that "the battle for the Bible has been won" overlooks the fact that the preaching of the Bible seems less fashionable than ever — especially among younger evangelicals. Much of the literature implies that what is most-needed to change our culture is not the preaching of the Word, but "acts of service" to our community.
For example, Brian McLaren, commenting on The Passion movie, says that our culture has heard enough sermons, Gospel presentations, and seen enough movies about Jesus. McLaren chides evangelicals for being so hopeful that a presentation of the Gospel, like The Passion, would convert hearers and viewers. What they need to see, he says, is "not a movie about Jesus, but a movement of people living like Jesus." Or, as the oft-repeated maxim attributed to Francis of Assisi goes, "Preach the Gospel; when necessary use words." One gets the impression from much of the emerging literature that soup kitchens, art, liturgy, criticizing evangelicalism, and drinking beer are much more essential for reaching our culture than is the preaching of the Word. (To note, McLaren and others have not suggested that we cease preaching altogether, but their shift of emphasis toward acts of service implies they see it as the more-needed thing.)
Now, I'd be among the first to say that legalism, rigid traditionalism, banal Christian pop-culture, and works-less Christianity have impeded our ability to speak with authority. Failing to serve our community has missed the point of one of Jesus' two great commandments: to love our neighbor. And in today's world, loving our neighbor often takes the form of political action and social justice movements. Over 2,000 verses in Scripture deal with our responsibility to the poor. James says that if our words of peace are not accompanied by actions that bring peace then the sincerity of our faith is in question. Paul said if we don't have love, everything else we do is noisy clatter.
However, can you really ever "preach the Gospel without words?" Are acts of service more persuasive to the world than the preaching of the Gospel?
The example of Jesus and the Apostles would suggest that preaching the Gospel is the greatest and most-needed act of service for the community. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out in his classic work Preaching and Preachers, the primary work of Jesus and the Apostles was preaching.
It is true that Jesus did many miracles, but they were properly called "signs" — signs that pointed people to His preaching. For example, when Jesus fed the five thousand in John 6, the crowd thought that they had found a Man who could alleviate world hunger. So, they tried by force to make Him King. He responded like one running from a temptation, retreating to a mountaintop alone (v. 15). After a brief time away, He came back preaching (v. 22).
Jesus repeatedly avoided getting entangled in social justice issues. He dismissed the question of unfair taxation with a simple answer and with seeming disinterest (Mark 12:17). And in Luke 12:14, Jesus responded to a legitimate social justice complaint ("Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."), with "Friend, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?" He then preached against the sin of greed (vs. 16-21). His main task, as He saw it, was to preach the Kingdom, not to settle world hunger and social justice issues. He taught people to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, after which all other things (including justice, prosperity, etc) would be added to them.
The Apostles did as they had learned from Jesus. Acts records their preaching ministry, not their social efforts. For example, when the Holy Spirit fell on the Apostles in Acts 2, they began to preach the mighty deeds of God. After Peter and John's healing of the lame man in Acts 3, when the crowd is understandably excited about the healing powers of these men, Peter responds by preaching the necessity for repentance and faith in the resurrection of Jesus.
Acts 4 notes it was the Apostles' preaching that was "spoken against everywhere." When the Holy Spirit fell on them in answer to their prayers, the result was boldness to preach in His name (Acts 4:31). When the persecution increased to the point they were scattered, Acts notes that they went everywhere preaching (Acts 8:4-5).
In Acts 6, the Apostles were confronted with a legitimate social need, the neglect of church widows. Lloyd-Jones notes that you can probably hear someone in the early church saying, "Why go on preaching when people are starving and in need and are suffering?" The Apostles saw to it that some in the church were appointed to meet this need, but they themselves would not succumb to any temptation that pulled them away from their primary means of serving the community — preaching the Word.
The epistles describe the church primarily as the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), not as a social justice center, a culture repository, or a political action committee. And Paul counseled Timothy, the archetype for young pastors, to be devoted to teaching. "Watch it carefully," Paul said, because "it is your teaching that saves your hearers." Likewise in 2 Timothy he charged Timothy to be devoted to the things he had heard from Paul (2:2), and to give himself to preaching the Word in all places, at all times (4:3).
There is a theological reason for this emphasis on preaching. The spoken Word is God's creative force in the world. With His Word God brought forth creation from disorder (Genesis 1:2). The Apostle John describes Jesus as the Word incarnated with the power of re-creation (John 1:1). Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and calmed the storms through the power of His spoken Word. Paul describes the written Word as the very breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16). James described it as an implanted seed which can save the soul. Do we really think an act of service on our part could substitute for this creative power of God?
We should repent where we have not loved our neighbors by turning a deaf ear to their suffering and the injustice that has afflicted them. But let us not commit an even more egregious error by failing to recognize that the primary way we love and serve our neighbors is by preaching the Gospel to them. A quick historical survey will show that every great awakening in our country has arisen from our preaching. Do we desire an awakening in our culture? We should preach — everywhere and at all times. As the awakening wrought by preaching occurs, social justice will follow. This has been borne out repeatedly in history.
Perhaps what is most difficult for us in this is that the world will never applaud us for this as they do for more tangible acts of service to the poor. We must come to grips with the fact that we will never be featured as heroes on a CBS special because of our preaching. But the reason they do not see our preaching as love is because they do not understand the judgment our world is under. We must free ourselves from our love of the praise of men, and be prepared, like the Apostles, to be "spoken of against everywhere" and to be considered the off-scouring of the earth.
Because we love our world, we must preach the Gospel in all places and at all times. And it is always necessary to use words. Our love for our neighbor means we must give him bread, but our understanding of his condition means we must preach the true Bread of Life to him. The battle for the Bible is not over — it is the essence of the battle for men's souls.
J.D. Greear, 31, has been pastor of the Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, for more than three years. The church, which has grown from 390 to 1,550 in average attendance, is located between the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Duke University.