Der Über Prediger

There is no new thing under the sun.
~ Ecclesiastes 1:9

The Superman character first appeared in the early 1930s and went through a number of iterations before coming out of that decade as something recognizable today. While the canonical history of the iconic character is a diverting and fascinating study, accounts of the concept and development of the famous costume are tenuous. You know, the cape and boots and all that.

The cape can be easily accounted for, given that Superman is not gravity-bound, but rather flies through the air. The fittedness of the costume, I suppose, is necessary for good aerodynamics. Bright red boots seem inadvisable, but to each his own and all. The strongly curious choice is the briefs over the leg wear. Why is that?

Again, canonical history doesn’t give us much to go on. I have heard one apocryphal account of it. Lore has it that once upon a time Superman challenged Mr. Chuck Norris to a fight. Allegedly, Norris agreed to the contest on the terms that the loser had to wear his underwear on the outside of his pants. We will have to await critical scholarship to affirm.

In the meantime, see more insights about something off in Superman’s wardrobe. We might as easily think that he was in a hurry and got the order of things wrong. I’m unfamiliar with the strictures of wardrobe education on Krypton, but in America we recognize a certain order present in the inherent meanings of the terms underwear and outerwear. I suppose someone from another planet, who is also a fictional character, is allowed certain liberties in the dress code inaccessible to us humans.

Preachers are not Supermen

It wouldn’t make much sense to ask Superman how he runs faster than a speeding bullet, or leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It would be like asking a dog how it barks. It just does. He just does. There is no formula or step-by-step process. He just jumps over the building. You might call it a gift, or an ability, but we would usually call it a superpower.

Preachers are just ordinary Christians and ordinary men. They are to be exemplary ordinary Christians, but still, just ordinary Christians. There are only two requirements in the Bible that distinguish them. They must not be novices (1 Timothy 3:6) and they must have a gift for teaching (1 Timothy 3:2). The word for “novice” means newly come and it isn’t a blanket restriction against being young. It means they cannot be an immature, new convert. They cannot be unknowledgeable in the Scripture.

Being “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) means being skilled in teaching. It refers to a man’s ability to understand the Word of God and explain and apply it to others in order that they understand it. Paul describes it in Titus 1:9 as holding to faithful teaching, and teaching faithful truth to exhort and convince those who contradict sound teaching. Paul also described aptness to teach in his second letter to Timothy as meekly and patiently giving instruction (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

Is this gifting a skill or a superpower? That may seem a strange question to ask, but let me explain. A skill is an aptitude or an ability that can be used, trained, and grown. A superpower is a supernatural endowment. Superman has superhuman strength. He sees a bus full of passengers teetering on the edge of a cliff and he simply swoops down, picks up the bus, and sets it down on level ground safely. That’s a power not a skill. Let me illustrate it another way. If a person has aptitude in math, that means they have the ability to understand and learn difficult concepts and then apply them. Having honed their skill in math, they could be presented with a complex problem and use their skill to work through it and solve it. Contrast this with a supposed math superpower. The superpower would mean that the problem would be solved instantly just by looking at it.

The difference should be obvious. A teaching gift is not a superpower. A preacher does not just walk up to the pulpit, grab a Bible, and then deliver an excellent sermon. The root of the word for “apt to teach” is related to words that mean orderly, or systematic, instruction. Implicit in the word is the idea of labor in preparation. Paul describes this work in 1 Timothy 4 as requiring all of a man’s energies where he toils to the point of exhaustion. He instructed churches to give double pay to those who especially labored hard in this work (1 Timothy 5:17). Simply put, preaching is hard work, really hard work. Preachers are not supermen.

Plain White Cotton

Why make a point of all this? Though it may seem unnecessary, I have seen much confusion on this issue. Some people have the idea a preacher goes into the study like Moses ascending the mountain, only to emerge in like manner, not with stone tablets but with a three-point alliterated sermon, likewise written by the finger of God and given to the preacher. I’m almost convinced some preachers think that’s what is happening as well.

Sermons are not just handed to preachers for them to deliver. That would not be a teaching gift, but rather a gift of revelation. That is a crucial distinction to realize. If God is simply giving a message to a preacher to deliver, that is not a preaching gift, but it is revelation. The preacher then is a prophet delivering a “Thus saith the Lord” to the people just like Isaiah when he received special revelation to give to Ahaz. Preachers do not receive special revelation (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), but rather are tasked with expounding the complete revelation that has already been given (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-5).

Preachers perpetuate this confusion when they say things like, “God gave me this message.” If by that you mean that you have received special revelation, then do not speak it because you have immediately contradicted God’s Word. If you do not mean that you have received special revelation, then stop saying that you have. If a preacher says he had a message and only needed to find a text to preach it from, then you better check his trousers to ensure they are thoroughly on the outside. I realize some preachers are kind of like Superman in that they have the power to leap over a text in a single bound without touching it. However, if a preacher unbuttons his shirt, the only thing you should see is plain white cotton.

About Jeff Short