Our church — well, actually it’s Jesus’ church — is building a new structure. The new sanctuary will be ready sometime this spring. Recently, we got to walk through the shell that will one day be a thriving place of worship. In a way, it was like taking our own little “Fantastic Voyage” through the “Inner Space” of our future sanctuary. It’s exciting to see what is and to think about what will be.
One of the things that I wanted to know is where the pulpit will go. In a day and age when many churches are abandoning the pulpit for a music stand or a bar stool, our church isn’t going to go there. And, I’m glad.
There’s more to a pulpit than a link to the past. Pulpits aren’t about tradition. They’re not about the “way we’ve always done it.” Pulpits are about building the church on the Word of God.
As we look to and learn from church history, we learn much about the value of the pulpit. In the Medieval period, the Catholic Church slowly but surely moved the pulpit aside. Visit a Catholic church today and you’ll see what I mean. The pulpit will be off to the side of the “platform.” The reason for this shift being that in Catholic theology the sacraments, most notably the Eucharist, take center stage. They are the focus of worship both spiritually and physically. The homily is second to all else.
With the Protestant Reformation came renewed interest in the pulpit ministry of the church. With a new legion of pastors, not priests, came a renewed desire to explain and live out the Word of God. The preaching and teaching of the Bible reclaimed center stage, if not in location at least in practice.
Some Protestants, however, wanted to communicate more than with their mouths. Some, like the Presbyterians, moved the pulpit back to foreground. They put the pulpit dead center at the front of the sanctuary. In case the message wasn’t clear enough, they raised the pulpit above the church floor, not just a few feet like many modern pulpits but 6, 8, 10 feet above the floor. This wasn’t to elevate the pastor’s position; it was to elevate the Word’s position in the church. The Bible and its exposition became the focus of worship. They came to hear from God, not just to give Him their opinion. After all, it’s God’s church. We ought to be following God’s directions.
As exciting as church history is, and as informative as it can be, church history is descriptive not prescriptive. That is to say, we can see what they did. We can admire what they did. But, we don’t have to do what they did. However, in this case, what the Protestants did was right and, better yet, it was biblical.
While we can reject the example of history, we cannot reject the authority of Scripture. You see, what the Protestant Reformers did in elevating the pulpit was more than practical or symbolic. It was scriptural.
Nehemiah describes the covenant renewal ceremony in Jerusalem after the exiles began to return and rebuild Zion. There, as they admitted their dependence upon their Suzerain, their Sovereign King, with whom they were united in covenant, Ezra set out to explain the basis and the obligations of that covenant. To do so, Nehehiah 8 tells us, the people built a platform in the center of the city so that all gathered could see the speaker. More than that, they also built a podium – a pulpit — from which Ezra read and explained the Word of God. To shield the people of God from future sin, Ezra elevated the Word of God spiritually and physically. That’s biblical.
I love the pulpit. I cringe when I don’t see one in a church when I enter. What message, I ask, is this church communicating to its people? What role does the Bible take when the drum kit is center stage? That may not be what the church believes, but that is the message they’re sending when there is no pulpit and the instruments occupy the place of honor physically.
When I preach I want a pulpit. I want to hide behind the Word of God. I have nothing to say but God has much to say. Maybe the casual observer misses it, but even my stage manner is centers around the pulpit. When I read from the Bible, I stand behind the pulpit. When I explain the meaning of the text, I’m at the pulpit. I do this not because I’m tied to my notes but because I want to be tied to the Bible. When I offer an illustration or a little pastoral “aside” I step away from the pulpit to illustrate the fact that these thoughts are coming from the fallible speaker not the infallible Word. When I’m ready to talk about the next phrase or thought in the text, I go back to the pulpit. The key in all this is not to say that I can’t preach while holding my Bible in hand, but that I stand entirely in the shadow of God’s mighty Word. I’m anchored, spiritually and physically, to the Word.
Pastors and preachers, don’t give us your opinions. Don’t give us a pep talk. Don’t give us a lecture about 10 ways to improve our parenthood. Give us the life-changing and life-sustaining Word of God. And, give us a pulpit to remind us that the Word of God takes center stage in our worship.
Peter Beck (Ph.D. Southern Seminary) is assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina and a former Senior Pastor. Dr. Beck also writes at his Website, Living to God.
Original publication date: February 16, 2009