the weblog of Alan Knox

When good motives go bad: Further thinking about the pulpit and other churchy type stuff

Posted by on Jan 27, 2010 in blog links, community, discipleship, elders, office | 24 comments

Recently, my good friend Lew wrote an interesting post called “Words Not Found in Scripture – Pulpit.” (By the way, this post is part of a series in which he traces words/concepts that are not found in Scripture. If you haven’t read it yet, then you should.)

Lew begins his post like this:

What is said and done behind a pulpit is serious business to the average churcher. Sometimes you might hear someone say, “Can you believe what he said behind the pulpit?” Another may believe that the pulpit is a ministry that is “absolutely essential to the vitality and health of the church as a whole. ” Some even believe that a pulpit shows our dependence on God and his Scriptures. I could go on and on about what people see the pulpit as; or believe what the pulpit means.

Lew then points out that the term “pulpit” is not found in the New Testament at all. Because of Lew’s post, I started thinking about things that are started for good reasons, but end up harming the church… or, if not harming, at least hindering the church’s maturity.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Are you saying that ‘the pulpit’ may harm the church or hinder the church’s maturity?” Well, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Let me explain.

Now the pulpit is ancient. It originally referred to a stage for actors, then eventually began to refer to a podium used by speakers. In the Reformation, the pulpit took on a different significance… not a different purpose, but a different significance. Pulpits and podiums had been standard furniture in church buildings for centuries, and people stood behind those podiums to read from Scripture and to present sermons. But, the Reformers decided to de-emphasize the Eucharist and emphasize the Scriptures. Thus, they began to put more and more significance on “the pulpit” and less and less significance on “the altar.”

Good motives, right? I mean, it’s good for people to think about the importance of Scripture. But, something began to happen.

People began to lose sight of the fact that “the pulpit” was meant to point to the Scriptures, and began to see “the pulpit” as something that almost stands on its own. Christians began to argue about what kind of language could be used “in the pulpit” (and they still argue this point), completely missing the fact that the passages of Scripture used to argue against coarse language “in pulpit” actually said nothing about “the pulpit.”

Similarly, others began to find authority “in the pulpit” such that only certain people were allowed to speak from “behind the pulpit.” Once again, the passages of Scripture used to defend this line of thinking did not mention a pulpit or any type of furniture. “The pulpit” became so important for some that the thought (and God-forbid the practice) of removing the pulpit meant a slide toward atheism.

Soon, “the pulpit” began to replace the Scriptures instead of pointing to the Scriptures. (Obviously, this didn’t happen for all believers.) Even the fact that pulpits seem to be irreplaceable and necessary to our understanding of the church shows just how far this line of thinking has progressed. “The pulpit” no longer points to the Scriptures, but has replaced the Scriptures.

When the reformers began to focus attention on “the pulpit,” they had good motives, but I think the outcome has actually worked to harm the church by hindering the church’s growth and discipleship.

The same thing could be said of church buildings, pews (or chairs) in rows, choirs, baptistries, etc. As with the pulpit (the piece of furniture), none of these things are evil in and of themselves. However, without recognizing it, things that we use for good reasons can actually work against the edification of the church.

So, should we stop using podiums? Maybe, maybe not. Should we stop sitting in pews or chairs lined up in rows? Maybe, maybe not. Should we stop using baptistries? Maybe, maybe not.

How do people view these things? Are they distracting the church? Are they causing believers to misunderstand who they are in Christ and their responsibilities in Christ? Are we willing to take a close look at the things that we consider to be indispensable? Are we willing to change if we find these things are actually hampering the church in their life together?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-27-2010

    we actually don’t have a “pulpit” per se, there’s a music stand on which our homilist can put his/her notes for the homily but that’s about it.
    and we don’t sit in rows or pews, we’re in a semi-circle so we can see one another. it’s related to our view of community and worshipping and gathering together.
    i like it that way.

  2. 1-27-2010

    I like that SFW

  3. 1-27-2010

    We began to make changes in the “furniture” also when we noticed that the furniture was not conducive to our understanding of who we are in Christ and our responsibilities to one another when we gather together. However, we made the changes very slowly and not without resistance. Tradition and habit are both very hard to break.


  4. 1-27-2010

    For the persecuted French, during the reformation, the pulpits were so indispensable that they made some which could be converted into grain barrels, so as to be able to camouflage them and hide them. They also made some portable ones, so that when they met in the fields, they would have a pulpit there to preach from.
    The early American Baptists also had their traditions. In “Fifty Years Among the Baptist,” David Benedict makes some interesting comments on pulpits. Time and space keep me from recounting all he has to say on the topic as it relates to Baptist in the early 1800s. A few comments are interesting, though.
    First, the pulpit at that time still had a practical use. One of its “indispensable” features was a “sounding-board overhead,” probably to help with the propagation of sound.
    Second, he shares an anecdotal conversation with a “young preacher, who had left the law for the ministry.” Here he explain that the gentleman, as a lawyer, wanted “a clear space between us [viz. he and the jury], that I might watch their eyes and their countenance, to see what effect my arguments had on their minds.” As a preacher he wanted “but a simple platform and nothing in front of it … [so] I can move about, and talk to my hearers, …” So even back then, there were people, that were not pro pulpit.

  5. 1-27-2010


    Very interesting… but I thought baptists had always been baptists like baptists today are baptists…

    Didn’t Jesus and John the Baptist sing Fanny Crosby hymns together?


  6. 1-28-2010

    In my very humble (and some would say very wrong!) opinion, I think that anything pointing to the Scriptures is misguided. Everything we do and say should point to Jesus. The Reformers missed that terribly, I think, which is why the Reformers felt no qualms in persecuting those who chose to focus on Jesus in their fellowship.

    I do think the pulpit does more to harm the body than it could ever do for the good of the body. In fact, I’m not certain that I can think of any positive result that could come from its existence.

  7. 1-28-2010


    I’m not sure that the reformers set out to persecute specifically those whose fellowship focused on Jesus instead of Scripture, as much as those who did not agree with them. I am also not sure the free church would deny focusing on Scripture. It is Scripture that directed them to their beliefs and it is for what they believed the NT taught that they were willing to die.

  8. 1-28-2010

    I think the Anabaptist had a HUGE inclination towards both scripture and the interpretation of scripture. They were known for having a great memory to recite the scripture and not only that would debate vigurously from the scripture. They would also teach and empower “laymen” to use and teach the scripture instructing the church frequently and were fond of having bible studies throughout (underground). I don’t believe we can seperate Jesus and the Scripture, for the scriptures are the testimony of Jesus and we find him there from what is proclaimed of Him and then He moves inside to help us get a personal relatioship with Him and I also believe to help us understand and apply the scriptures. God chose to communicate His will, purpose and words and instruct the church through the scriptures. I

  9. 1-29-2010

    I sort of misspoke due to writing rapidly and multi-tasking, and I want to apologize for the misunderstanding about what I wrote.

    My impression of the Reformers is that scripture became the focus over and above what scripture actually taught. The focus on justification by faith, while I believe accurate, seemed to take priority over any other truth, especially those that relate to the body of Christ.

    Hence, the elevation of the pulpit created a veneration of the scripture that, to this day, serves to hinder the body of Christ from fully understanding its relationship to Christ.

    We actually hear terminology, when referring to scripture, such as “living, breathing word of God”, “life and truth itself”, etc. One need only think for a minute about the implication of that to recognize that viewing scripture in this way usurps the rightful position and being of Jesus himself. Who is the Word of God according to John? Jesus. Who said that he himself was “the…truth and the life”? Jesus.

    I would differ with Lionel’s closing sentence that “God chose to communicate His will, purpose and words and instruct the church through the scriptures.” According to Jesus, he was going to send the Holy Spirit to do that very thing. I believe that God did not “choose” to communicate in this way (i.e., scripture), but that we have codified it as such. I honestly believe (especially if we avoid the anachronistic impression that believers have always had “the scriptures” available to them) that the New Testament itself indicates that God’s chosen method of communication is through the body itself in relationship with one another.

    I do stand by my statement that Jesus is to be the focus of everything we do and say. And if my belief allows me to persecute and kill others for their belief, I have proven myself to have some other motive besides Jesus, whether that be scripture or some other focus.

  10. 1-29-2010


    How do I know who Jesus is apart from the scripture? For example would I follow the Jesus of the 5th Century Christians and how they expressed Him through sword and power? How would I as a Christian know that Jesus instructed us to use the power under to influence. If all the bibles were burned, then how would I know about Christ and how would I communicate Him to others? Not trying to debate, I just don’t understand that logic

  11. 1-29-2010

    I would also add that the Holy Spirit chose to codify by Paul writing to churches. For example Paul was convinced that the Church at Galatia had been born of the Spirit; however, he had to write them (hopefully it was the Spirit who instructed Him to do so) to instruct them further and so with the other 13 letters He wrote.

  12. 1-29-2010

    Lionel, I appreciate the sincere dialogue. And I should clarify that I don’t even assume to have all of the answers. This is just where I am right now! ;)

    I think John gives us some indication in his first epistle that personal testimony to Jesus was the method by which others learned of Jesus. He writes to people he knew and testifies of Jesus so that they would know him, too. That’s why I mentioned relationship. A “viral” gospel, perhaps.

    Your question about how we would know Jesus without the Bible, though, falls into the very trap I pointed about in anachronistically thinking that believers of all time had the Bible at their disposal to learn of Jesus. In fact, some would even understand books such as Mark to be a compilation of oral testimonies (many would say Mark records Peter’s testimony of Jesus). But instead of continuing the relational practice of personally testifying to Jesus and learning of him from community, we confidently sing, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

    Can we learn factually about Jesus’ life through the writings preserved for us? Absolutely. But is that the only way one could learn of Jesus? How did Paul himself learn of Jesus? To say that our belief and faith in Jesus requires the Bible in order to even exist is to miss the point. And to then see that same Bible as the way in which God communicates his will and purpose with us further misses the point.

    If what you are saying is true, then why did Jesus promise to send the Holy Spirit? Why did he himself not prophecy about a book that was to come? I realize that can be possibly construed as an argument from silence, but it is a glaring silence, in my opinion, if Jesus fully intended for us to have a book to know him. There are no prophecies that even hint at a collection of writings that would be our source of revelation about the Father.

    Furthermore, we have to ask the question of how well Christianity (or I should probably more accurately say Christendom) has fared by claiming scripture as its source of life and faith. One of the oft-referenced problems with Protestantism is the splintering of the body of Christ through interpretation of scripture. So, does focus on scripture serve to unify the body? Far from it. But I guarantee you that any body that focuses on the Spirit of Christ and allows him to rule in their midst will remain unified and a glowing testimony to the life that the Spirit brings.

    I do not know (in the deepest sense of the word) that Jesus loves me because I read it in the Bible. I know he loves me because I have personally experienced his love in my life and I testify to that very thing.

  13. 1-29-2010

    I’ve enjoyed the dialogue as well. The questions that you are asking here (both of you) are part of the reasons that I have wanted to study the writings of the earliest Christians (outside of the New Testament). Somehow they managed to live and thrive and grow without a codified New Testament. I’m certainly not questioning the importance of the New Testament (or the Old Testament), but I do think that we should consider the purpose of these writings and how we use them today.


  14. 1-29-2010

    I’m certainly not questioning the importance of the New Testament (or the Old Testament), but I do think that we should consider the purpose of these writings and how we use them today.

    I understand what you’re saying here, Alan, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Considering the purpose may, in fact, lead to seeing “importance” in a whole different light.

    And certainly considering how we use the writings today is a very, very important task to take on. I would continue to contend, in my thinking, that the way western Christendom uses the writings today does not lead to any freedom or life in Christ. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    The scripture actually becomes a weapon that we wield against brothers and sisters in order to tear them down. Sometimes in history, that weapon has literally manifested as a physical sword, and the “tearing down” of each other literally resulted in physical murder. We cannot afford to look lightly at that or assume that it doesn’t provide solid commentary on the lack of life present in such actions.

    As Jesus said so clearly with reference to the Hebrew scriptures, “You search them, thinking that in them is life. But they point to me.”

  15. 1-29-2010


    I believe the Apostles he sent talk about the “scriptures” or at least writings of others. Peter affirms Paul’s writings. Jesus didn’t talk to us much about the church or how she should function but His apostles did.


    When you say “codefied” new testament I would agree, but even the earliest Christians had circulating letters correct? Not to mention, Paul seems to instruct the Colossians to pass his letter to them on right?

  16. 1-29-2010

    Lionel, I’m not denying the historical fact that they wrote letters. Peter does reference the writings of Paul, you are correct. But when the New Testament refers to “scriptures” (with the possible exception of the not-entirely-clear Petrine reference to Pauline writings), it is referring to the Old Testament.

    Jesus actually talked quite a bit about the church, because he taught about the kingdom, and the church is a manifestation (or should be) of that kingdom as a light to the world. More importantly, Jesus talked about how we relate to the Father–a very key element in his teaching–and he never mentions that there would be a book that would serve as the foundation for such a relationship with the Father.

    Furthermore, as you pointed out, the apostles did talk about the church quite a bit, and they likewise talk about relationship, community, fellowship, etc. The letters were a means to an end–pointing them back to Jesus and the unifying Spirit of God.

    One final point about this, from scripture itself. Hebrews affirms for us that God spoke in one way in the past, but now he has spoken to us through his son. I don’t think we can afford to downplay that distinction. To the writer of Hebrews, it was a huge distinction, I think. And it should be to us, as well.

    I think it is most helpful to look at scripture’s own claims about itself, so to speak. If we wipe away the anachronistic tendencies to read “Bible” into every reference of “scripture” or “word”, we are left with little to stand on with regard to our supposed “high view” of scripture. One simply cannot justify the evangelical, Protestant focus on scripture as life and truth, etc. while simultaneously affirming the content of the very same scripture to which they claim to adhere.

  17. 1-29-2010

    …but even the earliest Christians had circulating letters correct?

    I know this question was directed at Alan, but it reminds me of another point I intended to make earlier.

    The answer is “yes”, but it is not necessarily the same set (canon) of letters that we now would call “scripture”. So it doesn’t really help defend the modern notion of scripture as having been completely set for all time at the beginning.

    When looking at history objectively, one is left having to defend literally hundreds of years wherein the body of Christ did not have a “Bible” that was clearly delineated. The decision as to what would become known as “the canon” was not made until much later, and by church leaders that you would never look up to today as role models of a faithful servant of Jesus. The need to codify certain books of the Bible came out of a political motivation and not a spiritual one.

    So we’re left trying to defend something that perhaps we shouldn’t be defending at all. Use it for what it is–records of the life of Jesus, and records of some of the issues that arose in the early church. Let it point you to Jesus. Embrace the testimony of those who wrote of their experiences, and let it encourage and spur us on to the same depth of community and deep relationship both with Jesus and with others.

    But don’t treat it as a destination in and of itself. It is not, nor can I see any way to justify that it ever was, intended by God to be so.

    May Jesus be glorified and lifted up for all to see so that he may draw them to himself!

  18. 1-29-2010


    I think we may disagree on some points, some very important ones, but none the less, I appreciate the dialogue.

  19. 1-29-2010

    Something to think about in this discussion: Paul also told the believers in Colosae to read the letter that he wrote to the Laodiceans (Col. 4:16). Of course, we don’t have that letter today, even though Paul thought it was important for the Colossians to read it.


  20. 1-29-2010

    Lionel, I guess that begs the question, then, in light of Alan’s other recent post: Would you still fellowship with me? Unless we disagree on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile us to the Father, I’m not sure what we could disagree on that would be of any true importance.

  21. 1-30-2010

    Alan, I was hoping someone else would ask you to follow up, but the conversation has died down, so I’ll ask it. What do you think about the letter to the Laodiceans? I’ve heard some say that what we have as the letter to the Ephesians is actually the letter to the Laodiceans, but that seems perhaps motivated by a desire to clean up issues of inspiration and canonicity than based on any real historical evidence.

    I’ve also heard that there are perhaps at least two other letters to the church in Corinth that we don’t have in our canon.

    What significance (on this topic of canonicity and the “proper” view/role of scripture) do you think might exist, if any?

  22. 1-30-2010


    Besides Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans (no, I don’t think this is Ephesians) and perhaps a couple of other letters to the Corinthians, I think there were probably several other letters sent back and forth between the apostles and other believers and the early churches. All of these letters were probably meant for the same purpose as the letters that we now have as part of Scripture. I’m not ready to jump into the discussion about the purpose of Scripture yet (although I have agreed with what you’ve said in that regard). Instead, I just hope that our discussion here helps people think about Scripture beyond some of the ahistorical generalizations that are usually taught.


  23. 1-30-2010

    I hope you choose to blog about this topic more someday. I’m very interested in your thoughts as you get around to discussing them.

    Thanks for hosting this discussion!

  24. 4-26-2012

    Very enjoyable read!