I’m attending a required introductory course on preaching this semester at my seminary.  One of its requirements was to make a first pass at a theology of preaching.  I have many reservations about the traditional way christians have sermonized (to cite a couple of examples, it perpetuates a power differential in the church that Jesus seems to have abolished in his death and it is traditionally monologic, making need dialogue difficult as we try to discern what God is doing in our times).  But I think this essay tries to bring preaching back into the common life of the church.  I draw heavily on 1 Corinthians 14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4–all passages dealing heavily with how christians are to live together.

I’m posting this here in hopes to start some dialogue about the practice of being christian together in all the interpersonal and unavoidably primitively institutional implications this practice entails.  Read on, then, but be forewarned that this text is a bit long. (Note:  I’m having trouble getting my footnotes to format correctly here; please be advised that not every thought nor all the research is original to me.  If you’d like to know to whom credit is due, contact me and I can provide that information.  Or consult the bibliography at the end.)


The task of situating preaching within theology is the task of asking where preaching fits within the life of the church. Theology is the church’s reflection on its own life in Christ: What does it mean to be living to God in the Spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? The answers we develop to this question comprise theology.

How then does preaching fit within our life together in Christ? This question might set us adrift in the flow of ever-changing historical particularities, blown about by marketing, innovation, and the spirit of our times, were it not for the church’s mooring in revelatory history and the constant guidance of the Spirit. The church holds to three fixed points by which it can evaluate its current heading. The first two are moments in revelatory history; the third is the record of this story. The church must orient its reflection primarily by the event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The very existence of the church is tied inseparably to a concrete set of events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And the course and character of the church is irrevocably set by what Jesus did and underwent. Its mission, its identity are fixed by its progenitor. More directly, but at a secondary level of importance, the early church stands as a second fixed arbiter of what life at church must approximate. These generations after Pentecost lived continuing revelation as the Holy Spirit communicated to them what life in the new age inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection would look like. The local communities that sprang up as those sent out by the Spirit became the forebears from which today’s church is genetically descended. The life and shape of these communities set fixed points from which and against which all subsequent generations developed—today’s churches are necessarily in some relationship of approximation, elaboration, or criticism to the early church. Third, scripture provides a qualitatively different point from which the church can guage itself. While Jesus and, especially, the early church stand at a historical remove from the church’s contemporary existence, scripture has progressed with the church throughout its development. To shift metaphor, perhaps scripture is less a fixed point on the church’s horizon and more a sextant that travels with the church by which it can guage its position, its fidelity to the course set at its point of departure. Scripture relates how God revealed himself in Jesus and to the early church, providing a collection of authoritative construals of these events. On the basis of scripture, the church can locate itself in relation to Jesus and its earliest forebears.

Locating preaching theologically amounts to situating it with reference to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and to the practice and understanding of the early church. At heart, this is establishing preaching’s place in the life of the church. This summary assumes that the common-life and practice of the church stands in continuity the community founded through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and initiated at Pentecost. To find the place of preaching, we must take up scripture and look through it to the fixed points of Jesus and the early church. Where doe preaching fit within the life of the early church? This first inquiry will require a close scrutiny of how the New Testament texts depicts preaching and then a projection of the place preaching held within the common-life of the early church communities. A second inquiry moves us into what is perhaps properly theological (in a traditional sense) terrain. Here we must investigate in what ways preaching (as discerned in the life of the early church through the scriptural evidence) is itself founded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Only once this theological footwork has been completed can we chart the precise position and heading of preaching in today’s church.

I. Preaching in the New Testament

There is no single word to indicate preaching in the NT. Preaching, as an English concept, encapsulates many uses of a wide variety of terms. The more important include khruvssw, kataggevllw,and eujaggelivzw. While each of these terms falls in some part within the semantic sphere of preaching, examining individual uses of the terms sheds more light on the unique and varied ways the NT presents preaching.

Khruvssw is the most common term for preaching in the NT (though it only beats out eujaggelivzw by eight occurrences, 62-54). The semantic force of khruvssw is proclaim, but it is nuanced by its syntactic need for an object, for something that is proclaimed. Khruvssw prefers not to stand as an absolute. This syntactic characteristic places emphasis more on the act of proclaiming than on the content of what is proclaimed. Preach, then, is perhaps too strong a translation for khruvssw, as preach carries with it a connotation of the character of its content—such as its importance, the adamance with which it is believed, or its divine origin. At the same time, the place of khruvssw nearer the act end of the spectrum than that of content lays unique stress on the differing contents supplied at various places in the text. To;n lovgon, to; rJh:ma th:V pivstewV, th;n basileivaV tou: qeou:, to; eujaggevlion, metavnoian, bavptisma, Cristo;n =Ihsou:n are among some of the possible contents of khruvssw. BAGD notes that khruvssw may also be followed with direct or indirect discourse as the content (cf. Mk 5.20; Mt 3.1f.).

kataggevllw bears many similarities in usage to khruvssw. It too is a verb which demands a content, and it never appears in the NT in the absolute. Its semantic force is also very similar to khruvssw, with a basic semantic force of making something publicly known, announcing it. One should not make too much of the differences between this word and khruvssw. Though they undoubtedly possess different sets of connotations, they appear to function quite similarly in both Acts (where the uses of kataggevllw outnumber those of khruvssw) and in Paul.

Eujaggelivzw presents a significant departure from the other preaching verbs in the NT. Whereas khruvsswand kataggevllw both fell nearer the act-oriented end of the verbal spectrum, eujaggelivzw exhibits more emphasis on the content of the verb. While the former two verbs nearly demand some statement (or at least implication) of content, eujaggelivzw occurs frequently without indication of what specifically is proclaimed. This renders a precise understanding of the semantic force of the verb very important, for other syntactic clues as to the content and manner of proclamation are subsumed into the verb itself in many cases. The situation is further complicated by the fact that this verb appears at various stages of a transition from a general, public (occasionally political) meaning to a tighter technical meaning in the church throughout the NT. Liddell-Scott provides bring good news as a gloss for the generic meaning of eujaggelivzw. The NT attests that this use was still common in the first century in 1 Thes 3.6, where Timothy brings a good report concerning the faith and love of the Thessalonian believers: eujaggelisamevnon hJmi:n th;n pivstin kai; ajgavphn uJmw:n. But increasingly during the period encompassing the composition of the NT, eujaggelivzw restricts in scope to mean primarily the proclamation of the eujaggevlion. While in most instances, the gloss preach the gospel may be used for the verb, this may occasionally blur the thrust of the text. Happily, the text often supplies what eujaggelivzw is communicating. Surprisingly, this content is only very rarely the generic eujaggevlion; in fact, eujaggevlion more often occurs with khruvssw than with eujaggelivzw by a margin of 5:1. What, then, is proclaimed as good news? th;n basileivan tou: qeou:, Cristovn =Ihsou:n, to;n lovgon, eijrhvnhn dia; =Ihsou: Cristou:, th;n ajnavstasin, th;n pivstin.

While a number of other verbs in the NT touch upon the semantic sphere of preaching, including diaggevllw, diamartuvromai, parrhsiavzomai, and, on occasion, lalevw,–and given the fact that a number of texts may conceptually address preaching without using a verb that falls within that sphere, two basic characteristics of preaching in the NT are quietly emerging from the analysis thus far. First, the content of preaching (perhaps better termed proclamation) is consistently focuses on any one of a closely-connected bundle of themes centred on the change Jesus inaugurates in the world. This bundle of themes might be summed up in Jesus’ own declaration: Peplhvrwtai oJ karo;V kai; h[ggiken hJ basileiva tou: qeou:` metanoei:te kai; pisteuvete ejn tw/: eujaggelivw/. Second, the context of proclamation in the NT appears to extra-ecclesial. It is evangelistic. Proclamation, at least as represented by these verbs, does not occur within the church in the NT.

This does not help us in locating preaching theologically, in charting its place in the life of the church—at least not in the way we currently understand preaching. Today we understand preaching primarily as exhortation of believers and instruction in basic truths that should inform and shape our lives. Proclamation in the NT does not correspond to this activity. But that is not to say that nothing in the NT resembles it. Acts 20.7 points the way forward: “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul began to speak to the people, and because he intended to leave the next day, he extended his message until midnight.” This text offers us a valuable insight into the life of a first century church through Acts story of Paul’s layover in Troas. Here we come upon one of the scattered NT evidences of something akin to preaching in the life of the first century church. While the terms in this passage offer no real insight into how Paul’s address fit in the normal life of the community, the passage as a whole sticks up like the point of an arrowhead, attesting to a forgotten history.

Acts 20.7 is not the only text that attests to the regular common-life of the churches. Two or three other passages in Paul that give us a privileged though brief glimpse into the church of the first century and, particularly, the place of preaching within it. Romans 12.3-21 and Eph 4.7-16 provide parallel expressions of a reality of everyday life in christian community that is basic to Paul’s concept of church. In both texts, Paul sets out a list (provisional, perhaps, as evidenced the lack of correspondence between the two) of the grace gifts given to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ” (Eph 4.12). He then proceeds to flesh out the way in which these charismata are to function in the life of the church. The connection are most evident in Rom 12.9-21, where the final lines of charismatic litany in v 8 flows seamlessly into v 9: “if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy he must do so with cheerfulness. Love must be without hypocrisy.” Yet this same logic is present in Paul’s progression from Eph 4.16 to 4.17ff. The charismata must necessarily be expressed in the life of the church through holy and loving interrelationships.

Note the beginning items of each list: Romans 12.6ff. reads, “And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; if it is exhortation, he must exhort.” The Ephesians list begins, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ…. It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.” Both lists—which we have established as being immediately relevant to the daily common-life of the church—make sure to include prophecy and teaching. Ephesians adds apostles and evangelists; Romans interposes service and appends exhortation. But these common elements attest to a common way of understanding the charismata in the churches. These lists are corroborated by a similar list in the definitive NT book on church common-life, 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 12.28 reads, “And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues.” This list must be read alongside the opening of ch 12: “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.” This manifesto on church life provides the definitive context within which to understand preaching. All ministries in the church are given by the one Spirit (or by Christ as he ascends from hell in Eph 4). They are given for the building up of the church into the unity of the head which is Christ. The gifts are given to work together with order. Preachers must be understood as one of these gifts—and here gifts must be understood not as special or heightened abilities or natural dispositions but as individuals; we are each God’s gift to the church.

Yet preacher is not one of the items the Spirit gives to the church; a preacher is neither ajpovstoloV nor profhthV nor didaskaloV. Or is he? 1 Cor 14 offers a more intimate view of the common-life of the Corinthian church. A church split by celebrity factions, sexual immorality, qualms at communal meals, and the role of women in church finds its meetings disrupted by those with prophecies and those with ecstatic utterance vying for the floor. Love long ago went missing, and ordered relationships soon followed it. Into this situation Paul writes, “God is not characterized by disorder but by peace,” laying down some guidelines to establish order in their meetings.

A closer look at these meetings reveals the features that look strangely similar to preaching. In vv 22-25, Paul promotes the priority of prophecy over speaking in tongues (this perhaps echoes the place of prophecy well before tongues in the ordered list of 12.28). He writes, “So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.” Prophecy is for the in-group. It is a proper function of the life of the church together, to build them up in Christ. Paul continues a verse later, “if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all. The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’” Oh that our preaching would have this effect! While this far from establishes the identity of the function of prophecy at the church at Corinth and the function of preaching in today’s church, a basic contact has been established between our contemporary in-group concern and a similar form of in-group concern in the NT.

II. Preaching in the Life of the Early Church

Scripture serves as a telescope, faithfully and authoritatively extending our gaze from our current situation toward God’s revelatory action in history. The early church lived by means of God’s revelation. As each community struggle to bring the whole of its life into a faithful relationship with God’s revelation in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit guided them through the apostles and prophets. The apostles, those commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the gospel, planted churches throughout the known world and struggled to provide some degree of pastoral oversight to them by means of letters and visits (Acts 15.36).

But the young churches needed much more than this—as Lk 12.12, Jn 14.26, 1 Jn 2.27 all reflect, the church’s dependency is not on human oversight and care but on the Spirit, on God’s providence. It is within this context, that of a church trying to figure out what Jesus means, what new life in him looks like within a culture dying its death in pursuit of sex and wealth, that Paul’s litanies of the charismata must be situated. God first gave the church apostles; second, he gave prophets; and third, teachers. Every gift is for the building up of the body. Use the gifts God has given your church faithfully. The apostles are the founders, the unique first set of leaders in the church. But after their brief tenures in each city, new leaders needed to arise from within the churches. Stuart Hall in Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church describes this critical transition, “The gifts of the Spirit which came upon those who believed produced other leaders and officers with different functions. We meet especially prophets and teachers.” The ongoing in-group concern of the churches was carried out by Spirit-filled prophets and Spirit-filled teachers.

These charismatic ministries functioned alongside and within a secondary responsibility structure in the churches. In 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1, Paul lays out requirements for candidates for two or three institutional offices within the church, the deacons, elders, and, possibly, overseers. Nowhere in these texts does Paul lay out what exactly these officers of the church do. “Apt to teach” occurs in 1 Tim 3.2 and teaching also is in view in Titus 1.9, but what sort of teaching is this to be? The surrounding contexts suggest that moral instruction is primarily in view (cf. 1 Tim 1.3-11and Titus 1.10-2.9). Does this foot the bill of prophet? Of teacher? Or are these to be understood as non-charismatic offices? The final option receives the best support from extra-biblical historical evidence. In Didache 10 seems to indicate that the role of elder-overseer was to officiate during the eucharistic meals. The prophets are addressed at a separate moment in the liturgy, given freedom to break from script to pray in the Spirit (Did 10.7). Hall sees yet another role for the charismatic teachers, rooted in Didache 13.2. Teachers were, he explains, “entrusted with the tradition, and were rather repetiteurs and catechists, teaching converts the kind of thing they needed to know before baptism, rather than speaking from inspiration and originally; they taught the sort of things which Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is about.” This perhaps goes beyond what the text will support, but it does point toward a picture of how these very different charismatic and institutional roles coincided in the community.

Note that in this, the prophetic role is not an institutional office but a charismatic gift to the community, something the Spirit gives as he wills. Carl Volz, in Faith and Practice in the Early Church, follows Gerd Theissen in understanding the prophets to be wandering charismatics who happened into and out of communities with some regularity.11 Didache 11 stipulates that the apostle-prophet who lingers in a community more than two nights is to be regarded as a false prophet, so perhaps there is truth to this claim. Either way, the function of prophet was not restricted to a single individual in each community; a single church might very well have two or three or more prophetic voices within it. Paul’s injunction that only two or three prophets should speak in a single service, and that one who had been talking for a while must give the floor to another prophet who had something new to say (1 Cor 14.29ff.)—these point to what appears to have been a reality of the common-life of the early church: Spirit-given exhortation of the community was not limited to an individual or a particular institutional office in each church.

The institutional hardening of the common-life of the church is quite easy to trace. Volz imagines the initial steps, the weight of responsibility shifting from the providence of the Spirit to the forethought and hard work of the elders and overseer and footwork of the deacons. He writes, “The primacy of apostles, prophets, and teachers represented a very early ministry in the church, which was bound to give way to the more stable and reliable ministry of bishops, elders, and deacons, who were resident in each church and responsible for its daily activity.”12 This institutionalization gradually hardened between the close of the first century and the middle of the second. But with Montanism—a radical rebellion against institutional authority and the growing laxity it permitted in favor a cult of the Holy Spirit—came a strong backlash, a solidifying and consolidating impulse from the orthodox church. This impulse went from meticulous to frenzied when Gnosticism became the central threat to the church in the third century. The orthodox countermeasure against this deviant teaching that claimed special knowledge into the significance of Jesus was to disprove the validity of this knowledge by showing it had not genetic connection to Jesus. The orthodox church, on the other hand, could trace a progression of institutional authorities from the time of Christ to their contemporary bishops. Not only did this vest more value and authority in the institutional powers, it also raised the episcopacy up as a rallying point for those orthodox believers. One could be sure of one’s orthodoxy because one’s bishop was orthodox.13 Amid these historical, theological, and political maneuverings, the status of prophecy and teaching as charismatic (rather than magical or natural) gifts got lost. Preaching became yet one more duty of those of first the bishop then the presbyters and then the priest, to be carried out with or without the presence of the Spirit.

III. Preaching as Founded in Jesus

I have attempted in the last two section first to highlight the different rhetorical settings in which proclamation takes place, that of in-group and that of out-group, showing how the NT presents what has traditionally been understood as preaching (an in-group activity) as taking place in an out-group context. Second, I scoured the NT for evidence of an in-group activity that approximates preaching as we currently experience it in our churches. I settled on the charismatic gift of prophecy (a gift of a person to the church rather than a gift of an ability to a person) and that of teaching as most analogous to our practice today. Finally, I roughly situated the charismatic gifts of prophecy and teaching within the early church context using extra-biblical evidence (primarily the Didache) and then tracked out the upset of the balance between institutional roles and charismatic function in the first 300 years of church history. This backdrop now enables me to locate the preaching in its proper place in the church, to develop a robust theology of preaching.

It is no coincidence that I develop my theology in the section dealing with Jesus as revelation of God and founder of the church. Preaching is to be the Spirit-empowered (charismatic) reflection upon God’s revelation in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the Spirit-empowered (charismatic) exhortation to the community to be living more faithfully in the new age that Jesus’ inaugurated. Preaching, then, is fundamentally an pneumatologically-gifted, eschatological practice grounded in the christological event. To phrase this differently I will borrow Aaron Milavec’s commentary on the prophets of Didache: “The prophets [= the preachers] were the true visionaries who already lived in the age to come and who incessantly called to their comrades to follow them.” The preacher stands in the inherited the function and the concomitant Spirit-dependency of the early church prophet.

This function is grounded in christology because all of christian faith is grounded in christology. The believer believes that Jesus is God’s saving revelation to us, that Jesus truly is Christ and has been declared Lord when God raised him from the dead after an ignominious death on a cross. This event, Jesus’ death and resurrection, allows the believer to enter into God’s kingdom by removing the barrier of sin and death that formerly barred his way to the kingdom. Inasmuch as the preacher is a member of the believing community, he takes the Christ-event deep into his being, allowing it to form who he is—his thoughts, his words, his feelings, his actions. It is this event that the preacher preaches—to believers and non-believers alike. To the in-group and to those who are just visiting and to those walking by on the street. This is the greatest news in the whole of the world. But it is just part of it.

Preaching is fundamentally an eschatological practice. It is declaring the new life that Jesus has opened for us. Jesus’ living proclamation, both before and after his death, is an invitation to come into God’s kingdom—an invitation that demands repentance. The preacher speaks again that same message (living even his ministry in Christ), summoning all who hear, the in-group, the visitors, the passers-by, to live in the world as it truly is and will be, to live as if God reigns. While the preacher acknowledges and mourns the distance between then and now, but also admits that this very distance is only a shadow, a lie. For we have the down-payment of all things made new dwelling in our hearts, the Spirit. The preacher summons all people, especially the church, to live more congruently in a world where we do not need to look out for our own interests because God cares for us moreso than he does the sparrow, to live in a place where all wrongs against us are already forgiven in Christ, to live in a place where we know our true worth as humans and God’s true worth as the ground of all Being.

Preaching is a charismata in the same way that prophecy is a grace-gift from the Spirit. As such we can never presume that we are sufficient in ourselves or that we know how to speak properly or that we know what God wants to say through us. The preacher is in a place of complete insufficiency in himself and complete capability in the Spirit just as he approaches his community both with all the authority of God’s messenger and in all service and submission to his community. The Spirit is concerned with the building up of Christ’s body, and he will use the preacher as he wills (nevertheless, the spirit of the preacher is subject to the preacher). The Spirit uses the preacher to purify the community, to make it now what it is already, the pure and spotless bride of the Lamb.

This pneumatological character of preaching drives us to reflect further on the non-institutional role of the preacher. The preacher may very well be an elder, oversee, deacon, pastor, trustee, etc., but his status as the preaching gift to the community from the Spirit is not predicated nor authorized by his institutional role. Rather, he is what he is by the power and authority of the Spirit, serving those God has called into the new life stemming from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.


Hall, Stuart G. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Donctrines. SanFrancisco, CA: Harper SanFrancisco, 1978.

Milavec, Aaron, ed. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2003.

Patzia, Arthur. The Emergence of the Church: Context, Growth, Leadership & Worship . Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

Volz, Carl A. Faith and Practice in the Early Church: Foundations for Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983.


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