by Johnathan Pritchett
Graduate Student, Biola University
SBCToday contributing writer
The buzz phrase “Christ-centered” is all the rage these days. This is especially true with regard to preaching. We often hear it asked, “Is your preaching Christ-centered?” I tend to wince when I hear that. Even the most outspoken people talking about being “Christ-centered” have cheapened the phrase to the point where wincing is about the only option left. I know that sounds bad, but it really can't be helped. It is like how everyone claims their theological position, on just about every theological issue, is “biblical.” But I will set that one aside for another time perhaps, or not.
Here are a couple of reasons why I tend to wince at hearing someone bloviate about being “Christ-centered” in preaching, or whatever.
First, some preachers are really bad about trying to be “Christ-centered” to the point where they strain mightily to make some passage in Esther point straight to the cross. Good preachers don't have this problem, and can transition to Christ from anywhere in Scripture, and then from there, point to the cross as the entry point that makes any application from any text possible. The problem here with bad “Christ-centered” preaching is that the usual approach is that Christ-centered only means “cross-centered,” or so it seems from listening to the crowd that aims to always be “Christ-centered.” We hear a lot of tacked on “cross-centered” stuff, again, usually connected in forced ways, but very little on anything about Christ other than what happened on the cross. The proper way, as stated above, is to point to Christ and from Christ to the cross. Bypassing Christ is the root of the problem with all the bad, supposedly “Christ-centered” preaching out there. This isn't a rant against “Christ-centered” preaching, as some complaints about it have arisen. I totally affirm “Christ-centered” preaching. I affirm “Christ-centered” everything. The problem is that “Christ-centered” doesn't actually end up being Christ-centered, but only cross-centered.
Yes, I realize that making an issue of only speaking about Jesus as it relates to the cross seems odd to say the least, perhaps even offensive to some, but, oh well. I think it is warranted.
Sadly, too few preachers, even the ones who claim to be “Christ-centered” the most, can do “Christ-centered” preaching today as well as preachers of times past. I am reminded of Paris Reidhead's famous “Ten Shekels and a Shirt” sermon from Judges 17. This transition to Christ was so fluid, and didn't seem strained or forced in the least. It also was a transition to Christ first, and then from Christ to the cross of Christ. It avoids the common mistake made today that “Christ-centered” only means “cross-centered,” where Christ is bypassed almost completely, except for Jesus on the cross.
The second reason I tend to wince at claims of preachers or churches being “Christ-centered” anything, be it preaching, ministry, missions, or whatever, is that people seem to be unaware of what Christ actually taught, and who He is, other than the One who died for sins and rose again. Well, Matthew 7:1 tends to be a popular teaching of Jesus currently; but that is about it, except in liberal circles that see only social outreach and none of that hell stuff Jesus talked about quite a lot, actually. In any case, especially in evangelical circles, it is almost as if everything Jesus said was a footnote to the cross, and the cross was a footnote to Pauline theology. Sure, some people are informed with regard to theology (many aren't though), but that isn't the same thing as knowing Jesus' teaching and commands and following Him by taking up a cross. I have even heard people from the more extreme end of Dispensationalism claim that much of Jesus' teachings are non-applicable to the Church and are relegated to the Old Covenant.
This all strikes me as being quite odd. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into all the theological nitty-gritty with those who would want to argue the point, from whatever position, Dispensationalism or otherwise, but suffice it to say that, after He went to the cross, died for our sins, and rose again, Jesus said the following:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, HCSB).
As I have said in the past, that word “everything” appears to be comprehensive. However one shakes out the Gospel teaching in their theological system, one thing is certain: Jesus seemed to think that His teaching and commands were important for the nations. It is one thing to claim being “Christ-centered,” but quite another to actually be “Christ-centered.”
1. Being “Christ-centered” is not strictly being “cross-centered” in our preaching, teaching, discipleship, etc. 1 Corinthians 2:2 offers no rebuttal, because Paul says “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (emphasis added). It is also worth noting in this Epistle that Paul assumes Jesus' teaching should be common knowledge between them (1 Cor. 7:10-12), since he appeals to Jesus' teaching tradition (Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12).
2. Being “Christ-centered” means that discipleship in the Church begins with Jesus' birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and teachings from the Gospels, and not some systematic theology book, not a devotional book or reading program, or some Reformation era catechism, or even the book of Romans.
3. Being “Christ-centered” has hands and feet, and is not just head knowledge. The disciples learned while doing. After Jesus ascended, they taught while doing. We read in Acts that the Church learned while doing. To be “Christ-centered” is both head and heart, which involves active hands and feet. James' Epistle is a great exposition on many of Jesus' teachings, and says as much.
Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He is our King. He proclaimed a Kingdom, and then went to the cross to make the Kingdom He inaugurated possible. Kingdom and cross go together like Jesus' death and resurrection go together. He is our Passover. He is our High Priest. He intercedes for us. He is the God-man, the only mediator between God and man. The “everything” He taught, He did; and what He wants us to observe is important. It is He who is with us always, and not simply the Pauline Epistles, theological or devotional books, reading programs, contemporary Christian music on the iPhone, etc. He is the chief theologian of Scripture, of both the Old and New Testaments. While the rest of Scripture is there because Jesus didn't tell us everything we needed to know; nonetheless it remains the case that we are to know and obey everything He taught and commanded. That we do so is why He calls us “friends,” by the way (John 15:14).
I think many preachers are really good about being “cross-centered,” and that is indeed a good thing. However, I think it is necessary to become more “Christ-centered” in the fullest sense though, which includes, but is not limited to the cross. I think it is also time for the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole to be “Christ-centered” as well, and not just the preachers. That means that every Christian's discipleship begins with Christ, who He is, what He taught, and what He has done, beginning with the four Gospels -- if for no other reason, then just because He says so. That should be enough.