- Sean Cole
Shepherding the Flock to Live Under the Authority of the Word
We may wonder which is intrinsically more important for the pastor—preaching or leading. Charles Jefferson says, “We sometimes hear it said of a minister: ‘He is a good pastor, but he cannot preach.’ The sentence is self-contradictory. No man can be a good pastor who cannot preach, any more than a man can be a good shepherd and still fail to feed his flock.” Biblically, the case can be made that preaching serves as the primary task of a pastor. John Owen says, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.” Effective pastoring means leading through preaching, and conversely, preaching through leading. The overall efficacy of a congregation in fulfilling its mission rises and falls on godly pastoral leadership combined with faithful expository preaching. The pastor as the shepherd of the flock leads the people forward, stretching them and calling them to embrace God’s mission, and he does this principally through expository preaching.
One primary goal of leading through expository preaching is to shepherd the congregation to live under the authority of the Word to dictate the mission of the church. However, pastors today find themselves in a culture that disdains any outside authority dictating how to live or what to believe. A lack of authoritative expository preaching inevitably leads to the congregation’s lack of obedience and confusion about the mission of the church. John McArthur laments, “Evangelical preaching ought to reflect our conviction that God’s Word is infallible and inerrant. Too often it does not. In fact, there is a discernible trend in contemporary evangelicalism away from biblical preaching and a drift toward an experience-centered, pragmatic, topical approach in the pulpit.” An impotent pulpit reflects impotent leadership, which results in an impotent church.
An impotent pulpit produces unbiblical theology and practices that creep into the fabric of the church’s ethos when congregations do not live under the authority of God’s Word. Churches can elevate their sacred traditions above the clear teachings of Scripture where unbiblical core values can become embedded in the life of a congregation leading to toxicity and division. A church can be tempted to adopt man-centered pragmatic techniques instead of relying on biblical principles to foster church growth. This lack of authoritative expository leadership can also result in biblical illiteracy—or even more hazardous—an abandonment of trust in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.
Practically, when congregations devalue living under the authority of God’s Word, they may not have a clear understanding of the pastor’s role in shepherding the church to fulfill its mission. Faithful and consistent expository preaching allows the pastor to lead the congregation away from these pitfalls into a more robust obedience to Christ and his plan for the church to fulfill the Great Commission.
Shepherding the church to live under the authority of the Word requires the pastor to lead the charge in embracing and elevating the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The doctrine of the nature of Scripture must inform the definition and practice of expository preaching. When pastors practice expository preaching that remains faithful to the written text, the Scripture inherently provides propositional truth (2 Tim 3:16-17) along with the living and active ability to penetrate the souls of the hearers (Heb 4:12).
The key for the preacher is to remain as faithful to the text as possible as he preaches expositionally (2 Tim 4:2) in order to unleash the Bible’s inherent authority and potency (Isaiah 55:10-11). God has mandated to the church the highest responsibility of proclaiming the truth of God without compromise. Gregg Allison urges, “The church must proclaim—clearly, urgently, persuasively—the Word of God without confusion, without change, without compromise—as its first order of business.” Through his expository preaching, the pastor sets the pace for the church’s commitment to the authority of the Scripture to form their life together as a fellowship.
Expository preaching consistently exposes people to God’s authoritative voice in the text, and not the selfish whims or authority of the pastor. Faithfulness to the Scriptures demonstrates the inherent authority of the Bible, not the “pseudo-authority” of the pastor’s opinions. Therefore, a pastor can lead the people successfully because they submit to God’s voice, not his own. Thus, the pastor’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the people actually hear God’s voice, not his own voice; which is accomplished through expository preaching. J. I. Packer says, “The preacher’s aim will be to stand under Scripture, not over it, and to allow it, so to speak, to talk through him, delivering what is not so much his message as its own. . . . Scripture itself must do all the talking, and the preacher’s task is simply to ‘set the Bible in motion.’” When pastors lead by “setting the Bible in motion” the congregation becomes empowered to advance in embracing their mission because it sees this mission as God’s mandate, not the pastor’s personal agenda.
Leading through expository preaching means more than just adopting a wooden methodology. It also involves a holistic mind-set where the pastor consistently exposes people to God’s authoritative voice in the text, so that over time, people obey God and fulfill his mission. Pastors who faithfully and systematically expose their people to God’s Word demonstrate the biblical basis for many of the values expressed, ministries adopted, and decisions made in the church. The rationale for the mission, vision, and values comes from the Scriptures’ authority, not from personal opinion or preference. This type of expository leadership guards the church from relying on man-centered traditions and selfish agendas to establish the foundation for the church’s identity and ministries.
Authoritative expository preaching helps create a culture where the congregation can also avoid self-deception. As a result, the church can become discerning about adopting unbiblical attitudes and practices. Packer again contends, “The authentic authority of the pulpit is the authority, not of the preacher’s eloquence, experience, or expertise, but of God speaking in Scripture through what he says as he explains and applies his text.” This explanation and application of Scripture frees a pastor to exercise authentic godly leadership because he does not have to perform, entertain, or rely upon his personality to motivate the congregation to obedience. He simply explains and applies the text as his authority.
The Word becomes what actually shapes and motivates the church to fulfill its mission when pastors affirm inerrancy and inspiration by preaching the authoritative Scripture with clarity and conviction. D. A. Carson says expository preaching “gives confidence to the preacher and authorizes the sermon. If you are faithful to the text, you are certain your message is God’s message. Regardless of what is going on in the church—whether it is growing or whether people like you—you know you are proclaiming God’s truth. This is wonderfully freeing.”
Shepherd leadership aims at shaping and orienting God’s people to embrace his mission. Expository preaching enables the pastor to expose people to God’s Word, which will transform their thinking and provide a solid foundation for why the church exists and how it should fulfill its mission. Expository preaching liberates the pastor to lead the church from the inherent authority of the Scriptures. In doing so he can boldly challenge, confront, and correct the deficiencies and sins in his flock. Instead of ignoring problems or abdicating his role as a shepherd, leading by expository preaching emboldens the pastor to address the true needs and weaknesses of his congregations with a sense of authority. Timothy Keller cautions, “Unless your understanding of the Bible—and your confidence in its inspiration and authority—are deep and comprehensive, you will not be able to do the hard work necessary to understand and present it convincingly. Your lack of conviction will show up in your public teaching, blunting its impact. Instead of proclaiming, warning, and inviting, you will be sharing, musing, and conjecturing.”
When a pastor leads his people through expository preaching to live under the authority of the Word, he becomes supernaturally empowered to proclaim like a herald, energized to teach like a sage, emboldened to plead like a father, and enabled to exhort like a shepherd. The pastor’s spiritual leadership authority is not innate, but derives from the authority resident in the text of Scripture. His task becomes the consistent preaching of that text in order to expose his people to God’s voice as a means to lead them to obedience in fulfilling their mission.
Sean Cole has served as the Lead Pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Sterling, CO, for the past eleven years. He has a Doctor of Ministry in Expository Preaching from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Masters of Divinity from the Rocky Mountain Campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as an adjunct professor of Old and New Testament, Systematic Theology, Church History, and Biblical Interpretation at Colorado Christian University. He served two terms as the President of the Colorado Baptist General Convention. He hosts a podcast called “Understanding Christianity.” He has been married to his wife Dawn for the past 22 years and has two boys, Aidan and Zachary.
Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd (Hong Kong: Living Books for All, 1980), 63-64.
John Owen, Works, XVI:74, quoted in J. I. Packer in A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 283.
John McArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching,” in Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, ed. John MacArthur and The Master’s Seminary Faculty (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2005), 17.
Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 435.
J. I. Packer, “Preaching as Biblical Interpretation,” in Inerrancy and Common Sense, ed. Roger R. and J. Ramsey Michaels (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980), 203.
J. I. Packer, Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996), 164.
D. A. Carson, “Accept No Substitutes,” Leadership Magazine, Summer 1996, 88.
Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 33.