Abuses of the Pulpit
Daniel H. King
Preachers are among the most privileged people in the world in one sense of the word-they have the exalted honor of standing before the children of men and the people of the Most High as heralds of the good tidings of Christ. Indeed, it is a wonderful thing to be an ambassador of the Lord Jesus, but it is also a task which encompasses many grave responsibilities, not the least of which is seeing to it that we do not abuse our privilege. Yet all of us know of cases where it has been abused. Perhaps we have been guilty of it personally. Moreover, no preacher who has been very long in the harness will try to tell you that it is easy to avoid. Any man who prepares and delivers two or more sermons a week, holds a few meetings every year and teaches various classes will admit that he has made his mistakes-or else he is being dishonest or simply has not grown any in his knowledge of the scriptures. He understands full-well the meaning of the statement of James regarding the teacher of the Word: "Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgement. For in many things we all stumble. If any stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also" (Jas. 3:1, 2). Though we realize and admit our imperfections, yet our goal as preachers as with all Christians, should ever be the perfection and virtue of our Master (Phil. 3:12, 13). It is thus wise to examine with caution our preaching (2 Cor. 13:5), both in content and in delivery, so as to ascertain that it does not fit into the categories which are to follow. For, if it does it is an abuse of the privilege delegated to us as stewards of God.
1. The pulpit is abused when used to teach false doctrine, human philosophy, or the traditions of men. In the denominational world we see on every hand the abuse of the pulpit through the promotion and perpetuation of the false doctrines of their various founders. Reformation heroes are raised by them to a level above the Son of God and venerated for their doctrines of "Justification By Faith Alone," "Perseverance of the Saints," etc. Imperceptive hearers marvel at the courage of these great men of antiquity and derive consolation from their comforting doctrines. But the problem is that these are no more than just that-human doctrines. They are false and cannot save (Matt. 15:9). As well, the false doctrines of those who have been members of the body of Christ but have "gone out from us" and "departed from the faith" are just as human and just as devoid of saving power as those which the denominations promulgate (Gal. 1:8-9). Premillenialism and Neo-Pentecostalism are good examples of this point. They are, in fact, the same erroneous teachings espoused by evil workers all over the land. And divine blessings and promises are not attached to human doctrines.
In addition, every generation has its human philosophies which vie with the truth of the gospel for the minds of men and women. Materialism, atheism, agnosticism, antinomianism, existentialism, occultism, communism, and super-patriotism are among those that currently are at work to capture the hearts of the masses. Sometimes these "isms" infest the preachers and thence the pulpits. When this happens, the purpose of God has been thwarted and the cause of Christ hindered-for the pulpit is not to be the sounding-board of human philosophy (Col. 2:8).
In this same category there are the traditions of men. The Catholic Church is the best example that we can bring to mind of where traditionalism has "gone to seed." Sprinkling for baptism, holy water, bead counting, Mariolatry, extreme unction, popery, and a multitude of other incredible dogmas find their only possible authority in the supposed sacredness of the traditions of men. Even most of the sectarians are loud in their protests against the fallacious and insane practices. But the same things exist in these other human religions and have even surfaced occasionally in the church of Christ. Often we hear arguments like this: "David Lipscomb accepted contributions to the college from church treasuries, so we can do it today," or "Congregations have been supporting this benevolent society for forty years, so they should certainly continue their practice." The plain and simple truth is that the authority of human tradition is no authority at all. We must have a "thus saith the Lord" instead of a "thus with human tradition" (Col. 2:8; 3:17). Without it we are no better off than the Catholic priest or the sectarian clergyman.
2. The pulpit is abused when used to promote personal opinions. There has always been a tendency for a few to assume an exact correlation between what God likes and dislikes and what they prefer or are displeased with. At this point we speak of a form of religious demagoguery, i.e. the pushing of personal opinions and preferences from the pulpit. Now, admittedly, it is a hard temptation to overcome in many instances, but preachers should refrain from expressing convictions about politics, labor unions, service in the armed forces or police departments, customs, styles in clothing and hair, etc. When a law has not been given by God, a preacher is no less than a dictator when he gives people the impression that one exists. Many preachers have ruined their credibility by preaching that it is wrong for the hair on a man's head to touch his collar or cover his ears. Some have publicly opposed to wearing of sideburns, mustaches, and beards when they know that a scripture could not be found that prohibits any of these. And what is more, most of the young people at whom they point their remarks know this. What possible respect can they have for a preacher who in one breath condemns the doctrines of men and in the next tries to force one on them? It is sometimes a wonder to me that there are any young people at all in the congregations where some men preach.
Preachers should try their best to keep their personal opinions about things to themselves. But if they must persist in advancing them, at least they should do people the courtesy of prefacing their remarks with a phrase akin to this one: "Now, my opinion on that is this . . ."
3. The pulpit is abused when it is used to deliver personal attacks on others. Occasions arise in the life of every gospel preacher when he is tempted to misuse his privilege in order to "get back" at others in a public way. Sometimes this occurs when a man is asked to move for one reason or another and he does not think that it is time to go. His feelings get in the way of his better judgment and he causes great harm to himself and to the church by a tirade against those that urged his dismissal, making himself a martyr in a clandestine plot. Very often this leads to a division in the church.
Or, it may take the form of an harangue directed at a particular individual or church that has (to his mind at least) wronged him or the church with which he is working. Personal pride is the awful culprit and most of us have far too much of it. So, remember, "All of you gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble" (1 Pet. 5:5). It may be that our feelings have been genuinely hurt, but the pulpit is not the place to get our revenge (or anyplace else for that matter; Rom. 12:17-21). It is better to sacrifice our own feelings in such situations than to bring unnecessary harm to the cause of Christ and limit our potential in his service.
4. The pulpit is abused when ungodly attitudes and temperaments are displayed by the preacher. Much too often we have attempted to excuse ungodly attitudes on the part of some preachers by explaining that "it is the message that hurts people's feelings." The reason that we are always tempted to explain situations like this is that this is one of the oldest tricks in the Devil's book. In a majority of cases the message is the thing that hurt their feelings. The preacher is blamed in order to escape the inevitable alternative, the admission of guilt (Gal. 4:16).
At times, however, preachers actually do speak in tones that betray anger, contempt, resentment, bitterness, hate, and so forth. There can be no excuse for a man "flying off the handle" and losing control of his senses in the way that some do. Paul wrote to the preacher Timothy and said, "The Lord's servant must not strive, but be gentle towards all, apt to teach, forbearing, in meekness correcting them that oppose themselves; if peradventure God may give them repentance unto the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24, 25). It is therefore wrong to imply that the way we say a given thing is of no real importance. It is important to the hearer-it can convince or it can cause irreparable damage-depending upon the way we say what we say. And it is important to God. Therefore, tact should be in the vocabulary of every preacher of the truth.
5. The pulpit is abused when used for entertainment. Have you ever gone to hear a preacher and left with the impression that the only Book he knew anything about was Mr. Ha Ha's Joke Book? Or, have you ever attended a gospel meeting where the gospel took a back seat to a series of "booga-bear" stories, used for the purpose of frightening the young into obedience to the invitation? If you have, then you know precisely what we are talking about. On such occasions many (except those who know what real preaching is like) go away saying, "What a wonderful speaker brother Silvertongue is," instead of "What a wonderful Savior Jesus is" (1 Cor. 2:1,2), or something similar.
I think that no one would oppose the use of an occasional humorous story or illustrative anecdote. Jesus used them often in his teaching. All students of the techniques of teaching are aware that an illustration can be "the window through which you see the point." Yet, if an illustration becomes an end within itself, instead of the means to the end of illustrating the point, then it has been carried to the extreme. Our intention as preachers is to preach the gospel (Mk. 16:15), not to entertain. We might take knowledge of the fact that even though we preachers might assume the responsibility of the comedians, they will not do our job for us. If people do not hear the gospel from those who preach, then most will probably never hear it at all; for, "how shall they hear without a preacher? " (Rom. 10:14).
6. The pulpit is abused when used for egotistical gab and braggadocio. In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians he offered as his commendation of himself the "manifestation of the truth" (4:2), and his past record of faithful service in Christ's kingdom (6:4-10). Howbeit, he only offered these so that the brethren at Corinth would have an answer for those that gloried in appearance rather than in heart (5:12). Under other circumstances humility would have forced him to be silent on such matters. Yet, every once in a while a preacher comes along chose whose work does not speak for itself, so he feels duty-bound to inform everyone as to how great he is and how magnificent his achievements have been. I remember attending a meeting held by a "big-name" liberal preacher in which the aforementioned literally overwhelmed the audience with a long list of the places that he had been and the marvelous accomplishments for which he was responsible. I hope that I was not the only one that went away that night with a sick stomach. This is an obvious abuse of the pulpit, which according to the Bible is to be used to exalt Christ and not for self-aggrandizement (Phil 2:9; 2 Cor. 10:5).
7. The pulpit is abused when used to overly compliment, congratulate, or flatter the audience or individuals in it. Taken to the extreme, that in which there is nothing harmful per se can become wrong. This is the case when the pretentious charlatan takes up the torch of another and lifts it high for all to see and marvel, albeit his motives are selfish. We have all seen it happen in secular society and often read of the flatterer in the scriptures (Prov. 26:28; 29:5; etc.). But there are times when it occurs in the church.
I have heard preachers praise a church to the high heavens to such a degree that it became obvious that they were merely attempting to" insure themselves a permanent place in the hearts and pocketbooks of the hearers. Again, I have heard preachers introduce others and commend them in such a way as to cause the audience to deem them more than mere humans. Once I heard brother B. C. Goodpasture introduced to an assemblage and remember expecting at the end of the extended adulation and blandishment to see the apostle Paul or Peter rise to speak. I was duly disappointed. I do not mean that I did not hear a good speech, for I did. But the pulpit is no place for such flattering words. It conditions Christians to think of men "above that which is written" (1 Cor. 4:6).
8. The pulpit is abused when used for uncouth and unbecoming preaching. Though I must happily admit that I have never been present when such has occurred, yet I have been informed of numerous instances where preachers have uttered obscenities or curses from the pulpit. In most cases when they were called onto the carpet about this they explained that they did not intend it to be obscene or to have the meaning of a curse. This sounds good on the surface, but even if the intention was right (and if I sound skeptical, its because I am), it is certainly not expedient (1 Cor. 6:12), nor does it edify (1 Cor. 10:23), and it could cause another to stumble (Rom. 14:13). Furthermore, let preachers recognize that they do not stand above the laws of God on such matters; if anything, they will be judged more harshly for the use of unbecoming language (Jas. 3:1). The preacher should exercise the precaution of cleaning up his vocabulary while he is not in the pulpit, so as to avoid the embarrassment of "letting it slip" : "Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear" (Eph. 4:29). The preacher who uses corrupt speech owes God and the church a public apology (Jas. 5:16).
A problem closely resembling this one has its roots in the openness about sex which pervades our generation. Some preachers have not used the best judgment in treating these matters in a public way. Do not mistake what I am saying. We need to speak frankly of these things so that people will understand and know what we are talking about. But do not be fooled into thinking that a sex-education course can be taught from the pulpit. Such things should be left to the home and the parents. Of late, it often has been said of certain preachers that their sermons that deal with these subjects are embarrassing and explicit to the point of being lewd. Such brazen men should learn that there is no acceptable excuse for using the pulpit in this way.
9. The pulpit is abused when used for riding a hobby. A gentleman was once asked about his incessant preaching on attendance and contribution. He had longsince begun to sound like a broken record on the topic. It had gotten to the point that he never got into the pulpit without delivering a diatribe against those (usually not present) who were guilty of heinous sins in these particular areas. His reply was, "Until they get the message I'm going to preach it over and over." This man was a genuine hobbyist. He rode this subject as though Christianity involved only two responsibilities. The doctrine of Christ involves far more and we must ever be considerate of that reality. No doctrine or practice, be it ever so biblical or threatening, is worthy of that kind of attention, since we have the responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Failure to do so will cost the church in both the short and long run too. I know of two specific cases where this very attitude has wrecked churches and left them a smoldering ruins. It is probable that they will never recover from the ravages inflicted by men of such small minds. God will have no mercy upon those who because of their one-track minds and hobby-riding ways would thusly brutalize the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16-17). But, lest we hurriedly pass on and leave a stone unturned, we would add that taking a stand with the scriptures is bound in certain cases to lead to division. At times like this the faithful servant of the Lord has but one alternative: to contend earnestly for the faith no matter what the consequences (Jude 3). During such periods of especial danger he will find it necessary to speak of these things often (Acts 20:31; 1 Tim. 4:6; Tit. 3:1; Jude 5). This does not make him a hobby-rider, because he will have the good sense to balance his teaching so as to leave no areas of weakness which have the potential of becoming the battle-grounds of the future.
In the main this article has been negative and denunciatory. That is not because my attitude toward preachers and preaching is sarcastic but on account of the nature of my assignment. In actuality the opposite is true. My attitude is very positive and optimistic. My own opinion is that we at the moment have some of God's truest noblemen preaching among us. We also have some rascals. It is because of them and because of the fact that there is not a one of us who could not stand to improve in one way or another that these lines have been penned.
Truth Magazine XXI: 11, pp. 165-167