By Dick Blackford
As if we needed another controversy, we seem to have found one over whether our preaching should be positive or negative. Some would “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” while others would “accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive.” We seem to be creatures of extremes. Before one hastily decides to “line up” on one side or the other, perhaps a closer look at the situation would be helpful.
There is no question that there are numerous negative statements in the Bible. The ones usually cited are: Jeremiah 1: 10; 2 Timothy 4:2; Matthew 6 and 23. If this was all the Bible said on the subject, brethren would be right to accentuate the negative over the positive. It is true that one must clear ground before he can lay a foundation. But what of the builder who does nothing but clear ground and never gets around to building? The ability to manufacture controversies and then feel that our forte deserves issue status, and to keep internal strife going on in the brotherhood, should not necessarily be equated with soundness or with evangelism. As with Nehemiah, there is a time to rise up and build! There is a difference in having a “mind to work” and “a mind to fight” (2 Tim. 2:14). He was willing to fight if necessary, but did not put fighting ahead of working (4:17,18,6).
Jesus’ most successful work was with the common people (Mk. 12:37). Regarding His encounters with the religious leaders, Jesus said, “Let them alone. They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Mt. 15:14). He could have spent His full time attacking these leaders, but He did not. There may be a lesson here for us. The only known religious leader who became a follower was Nicodemus, and he remained a secret disciple until after Christ’s death. Far better results came by befriending a common person and telling him the good news. It is often that way today.
There is no question that Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees and met them with harsh denunciations (Mt. 6:23). But this was not the “rule” in His dealings with people, in general (Jn. 4; Mk. 17:21, etc.). Accentuating only the negative statements presents a distorted view of the gospel. I fear that the term “anti’ has become more than a label some have fixed upon us. When “anti” becomes a disposition or characteristic, then we are out of balance.
In spite of some preachers out of the past who would tell an audience that “anybody who can see through a ladder can see through that,” and “if you can’t understand that you can get in at the fool’s gate,” these kinds of remarks are not what made them great. And they don’t make one great today. We should be thankful when anyone comes to hear the gospel, instead of deliberately insulting them and then accusing them of having a bad attitude. We should be trying to attract rather than repel people to the gospel. And when brethren cannot conduct an orderly, brotherly discussion of a question without first dipping their pens in the well of insulting sarcasm and treating every man as though he were a Pharisee, then something is wrong. It is time to clean up our act.
It Makes A Difference How You Say It!
Some have actually said it makes no difference how you say it, as long as you get the job done. I have heard brethren say that you have to make people angry before you can convert them, as though the Bible taught that somewhere. God forbid! “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). It must make a difference. We are to “walk in wisdom toward them that are without” (Col. 4:15), instead of needlessly increasing their prejudices against the gospel. In so doing, we are opposing ourselves. Peter said we should “be ready always to give an answer … with meekness and fear,” not with arrogance and insults (1 Pet. 3:15). Notice the word always in both of these Scriptures. That sounds like it is to be the rule, while the harsh denunciations are the exception. Even the reproving and rebuking are to be done with longsuffering, not with venom (2 Tim. 4:2). The few specific cases of dissension among the apostles are lacking in the attitude of “biting and devouring one another” (Gal. 5:15, e.g., Gal. 2:11-14). Jesus taught the disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Mt. 10:16). We often get that backwards. Paul “became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Yet Paul was no hypocrite. (There does seem to be a difference in the treatment of the religious leaders and treatment of the brethren, members of the same family.)
If one gets mad at our sincere efforts to teach, it should be in spite of the rule (Col. 4:6, 1 Pet. 3:15), not because we have established a rule that you have to make people mad. These passages and others (1 Cor. 13) teach tact and courtesy. How many of us have used the illustration of the man who got mad at the preacher who preached a scorching sermon and told him he was “going straight to hell” (do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200, etc.), but did not get mad at another preacher who also informed him of his eternal destiny? “The difference,” said the man, “is that although the second preacher told me I was going to hell, he didn’t delight in it!” (What I have said about negative preaching should not be interpreted as eliminating “plainness of speech” or “speaking with all boldness.” I am discussing the matter of balance and attitude.)
The Bible is basically a positive book. Giving is a positive act, and the Bible is a book on giving. It is difficult to find more positive acts than God’s creation, the gift of His Son, the resurrection of Christ, and the promise of His return. “Gospel” means good news. Remember? Probably nobody knows for sure how many positive and negative statements are in the New Testament. I suspect it is tilted toward the positive. Norman Vincent Peale has pointed out many of those statements, but the Scriptures do not fit the Peale or Pollyanna mold because they also contain many negative statements. Brethren who would eliminate the negative and forbid a forthright approach have an imbalance as do those who seek the opposite extreme. In the past, such offers as “we practice an open pulpit and are willing to hear both sides,” “truth has nothing to fear when given an equal balance,” or “we will grant equal space to those who disagree,” were familiar, encouraging signs and causes of admiration. They had a unique sound which distinguished us from the denominations.
A few years ago I wrote a rebuttal to an article in the bulletin of a conservative church. Among the reasons for refusing to print it were: it was too negative and too direct. Other brethren received similar treatment. Examples like these and brotherhood papers which print only solicited material and limit reader feedback to “150 words or less,” are trends toward eliminating the negative and amount to “quarantine by degrees.” Any emphasis on the positive that removes the militancy of the gospel is not scriptural. Christianity is an aggressive, militant religion (2 Cor. 10:4-6; Eph. 6:10-17).
We need balance in our message as well in our methods. Stressing issues, minus biblical attitudes (lowliness, forbearance, tenderheartedness, etc., Col. 2:12,13) makes for a “Christianity” of academics, minus the spirit and heart-an imbalanced Christian. Even if one “knows all mysteries and knowledge . . . and has not love, ” he is nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). Christianity is more than doing. It is also being. Let’s restore both. A respected commentator once said, “Grubbing up false doctrines and unscriptural practices is as essential as grubbing up noxious growths in the field, but a farmer can impoverish himself by putting in all his time grubbing. And the man who puts all his time in opposing false doctrine will impoverish his character. . . The gentler graces must be built around the framework, or the person will be harsh and unattractive” (R.L. Whiteside).
If the fact that most of our writing (probably 90%) is designed to reach a few thousand members while the rest (10%) is designed to reach over 4Y2 billion people in the world, is not a valid concern, then what would be? What’s wrong with that concern? This is the greatest imbalance of all. There is nothing wrong with being “weary of controversy” if one has this sordid situation in mind.
If we are going to eliminate anything, let us eliminate these two extremes which seek to eliminate each other. Let us have balance in our preaching.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 21, pp. 655, 661
November 1, 1984