In historic Protestant articles of religion, confessions of faith and catechetical questions on the Church, the “preaching of the pure Word of God” is identified as the first mark of the Church. While other marks are inevitably mentioned, such as the “due administration of the sacraments” and the “community rightly ordered,” priority is given to proclamation. The purpose is not to minimize the importance of sacraments or church discipline, both of which are necessary for the Church to be the Church, but to recognize the Church as the community distinguished principally by the preaching of the Gospel. From a Protestant perspective, preaching is the primary channel through which the Holy Spirit works to bring the Church into being and through which her existence is sustained.
The priority of proclamation is one of the fundamental differences Protestantism has with other forms of Christianity. While the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church also recognize preaching, sacraments, and order as distinguishing marks of the Church, they order them differently in their respective understandings. The Roman Catholic Church, on one hand, emphasizes the “community rightly ordered.” The Church is primarily distinguished by its appointed bishop, who is in an ordered relationship with the papacy in Rome. Without a bishop connecting a local congregation to the Pope and without a local church being properly related to the larger Church in Rome, the status of the local church as a part of the true Church is called into question. The Eastern Orthodox Church, on the other hand, focuses on the sacraments, particularly the celebration of the Eucharist, as the defining mark. The sacraments are the primary means of God’s grace, calling the Church into being and sustaining her existence. Without the sacraments, there is no Church of Jesus Christ.
Preaching is the primary channel through which the Holy Spirit works to bring the Church into being and through which her existence is sustained.
Specifically, the Wesleyan tradition as seen in The United Methodist Church’s Article of Religion and Confession of Faith on the Church places “preaching the pure Word of God” as the first mark of the true Church. The Article of Religion, which comes directly from the Anglican tradition states, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached …” and the Confession of Faith, which comes from the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, declares the church to be “the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached…” While each recognizes the importance of sacrament and ecclesial discipline, priority is given to proclamation.
This primacy of proclamation found in Protestantism, and more particularly in the Wesleyan tradition as seen in The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards, is grounded in the clear teaching of the New Testament. There is no Church of Jesus Christ and there is no mission of the Church apart from the preaching of the “pure word of God.” Proclamation can not be divorced from the Church’s nature and mission. The Word of God brings the Church into existence, sustains the Church, and forms the primary mission of the Church in the world. In order to see this more clearly, we will examine the New Testament teaching on proclamation. To begin, we will see the priority and place of preaching in the ministry of Jesus; then, we will examine the purpose of proclamation in the New Testament Church and conclude with application to our contemporary context in the Wesleyan tradition.
I. The Priority and Purpose of Proclamation in the Ministry of Jesus
As described in the Gospel texts, the earthly ministry of Jesus is defined by activity. Christ healed, drove out demons, performed miracles, confronted injustice, appointed disciples, forgave sins, exercised authority over the law, and showed compassion on the needy. However, Jesus identified proclamation of the Kingdom of God as his primary task. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus declared, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38). In his home synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus appropriated the words of Isaiah to define his ministry as a call to “proclaim good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for prisoners…and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). This is corroborated by Matthew who begins his description of Jesus’ public ministry with the declaration, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Mt. 4:17). As such, Jesus’ miracles are portrayed in the Gospels as powerful signs of the Kingdom he proclaimed. His healings and exorcisms are recognized as works of compassion, the first fruits of the presence of the Kingdom of God he proclaimed in the world. The Gospel writers place the whole body of Jesus’ public ministry within the larger context of, and in relationship to, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus identified proclamation of the Kingdom of God as his primary task.
While the Gospels portray Jesus’ primary mission in public ministry as proclamation, they make clear that Jesus himself is the key to the Kingdom. There is no Kingdom of God apart from Jesus Christ. Through his presence, his ministry, and particularly his preaching, Christ initiates and mediates the Kingdom of God (Mt. 12:28, Luke 11:20; 17:20-21). The intimate relationship between Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed is manifested in multiple ways throughout the Gospels. Implicitly, this is seen in the authority exercised by Jesus in the establishment of the Kingdom. In every account of the Kingdom of God breaking into the present order, in healings, exorcisms, and the declaration of the forgiveness of sins, Jesus worked by his own authority, in his own name, not in the name of another (Mt. 8:28-34; Mk 2:1-12; Luke 7:47-49; 15:1-2). In his preaching on the Kingdom, Jesus declared, “I say to you,” and did not appeal to the more traditional prophetic utterance “thus says the Lord” (Mt. 5:21-44). Furthermore, he exercised authority over the written law by setting aside its stipulations on such matters as retribution, divorce, food, and the Sabbath (Mt. 5:21-48; Mk. 2:23-28; 3:1-5; 7:15, 19). Most glaringly, he preached a new relationship with God that would be brought about through his own life, a new relationship that would put aside the Temple in Jerusalem, the central place of Jewish religious life (Mk. 11:15-17, 27-33). Explicitly, the relationship between Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed is seen in his definitive declarations, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), and “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever go hungry. And no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty (John 6:35). Jesus’ testimony of Himself was an essential part of his proclamation of the Kingdom.
Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as already “here” through his presence, his ministry, and his preaching, as well as to come in the future. His proclamation of the Kingdom had a “now” and “not yet” aspect to it (Mt. 4:17; 6:10; Mk. 1:15; 9:1; Lk. 11:2). In the present, he saw his ministry and proclamation as the climax of God’s present purposes for Israel and the means through which the reign of God in the world was initiated. In the future, he saw himself as being the central authority in bringing others into the final consummation of the kingdom at the end of time. He taught that a person’s place in the future kingdom was directly related to that individual’s relationship and standing with himself in the present life (Mt. 10:32-33; 12:32; Lk. 12:8-9).
In summary, Jesus primarily saw the task of his public ministry as proclamation of the Kingdom of God. All his other work was to illustrate and mediate the Kingdom he proclaimed. This was the purpose of his preaching. His proclamation was the primary means by which the Kingdom was inaugurated in the world, the means through which the reign of God broke into human existence and people experienced signs of the kingdom. However, Jesus was not simply a messenger, but was himself the key to the kingdom of God in the present life and in the future age to come. The Gospels make clear that there is no experience of the Kingdom apart from Jesus’ work of proclamation and the authority Jesus himself exercised in God’s reign.