By Mike Willis
In recent months, considerable interest has been manifested on the subjects of “positive” and “negative” preaching. I have been reading in preparation for some future writing on the positive thinking philosophy circulated by Norman Vincent Peale, Mary Baker Eddy, Oral Roberts, and many others. I am more concerned at the present with the growing tendency to label preachers as exclusively “positive” or “negative,” creating factions among brethren. Some churches and preachers only invite “positive preachers” for their meetings, consider “negative preachers” as useless, and write like they have discovered something in the Bible which none of our forefathers before us could see. On the other hand, some brethren complain that “negative preachers” only invite “negative preachers” for their meetings, look at “positive preachers” with suspicion, and leave the impression on “positive preachers” that the gospel must be preached in an abrasive manner.
Surely an improvement in attitude toward our comparative abilities in preaching the gospel will help ease some tensions among us and toward that end this article is written.
The Church As The Body Of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul develops the theme that the church is the body of Christ. He was faced with the problem in Corinth of men with differing spiritual gifts who were unable to work together. Those with the gift of tongue-speaking apparently thought that they had the most important spiritual gift and all others were relatively useless when compared to them. In overcoming this problem, Paul compared the dissension in the body of Christ to a physical body in which the ear and eye were competing with one another. Just because the eye cannot hear is no reason to conclude that it is not a part of the body and just because the foot cannot see is no reason to conclude that it is not a part of the body. He said, “. . the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7). Every spiritual gift was given to the entire body for what it could contribute to the overall functioning of the body. There is a need which every member fills. This lesson needs to be learned today just as certainly as it needed to be learned in Corinth in the first century.
We do not have the same abilities and interests in all areas of activity. Each of us has greater abilities in one area than another. Each of us differs in approach, style, and technique. Each preacher has different interests as to methods such as writing articles, radio or TV work, home studies, correspondence lessons, pulpit preaching, debates, charts, intensive classes, and the like – all devoted to spreading the truth and fighting sin. As each of us develops his abilities and pursues his interests, he contributes something to the overall functioning of the body of Christ as long as he preaches nothing but the gospel of Christ.
This truth needs to be applied to the discussion on “positive” and “negative” preaching. Some among us have greater abilities to move an audience, exhort to obedience, encourage to faithfulness, stir our hope of heaven, and otherwise do many works often associated with “positive” preaching. I pray that every man who is blessed with these talents will use them to the praise and glory of God. Others among us have greater abilities to meet denominational preachers in debate, to call brethren’s attention to error being preached among us, to write articles unmasking the claims and doctrines of false teachers, and otherwise do many works sometimes associated with “negative” preaching. I pray that every man who is blessed with these talents will use them to the praise and glory of God. Each of us should try to develop some degree in all of these areas as we have the opportunity, but even then we cannot all be equal in degree or effectiveness in every way.
Brethren, we need each other! Gospel preachers of a bygone era understood our mutual dependence upon each other in these areas. On some occasions, they worked together in meetings. One man who was particularly skilled in instructing in the gospel would preach the sermon; another brother who was skilled in exhortation would offer the invitation. The instructor did not consider the exhorter soft and neither did the exhorter consider the instructor contentious. They worked together as a team.
However, problems arise when brethren do not consider themselves working together on the same team and to the glory of the same God. Here are some occasions when problems arise:
1. When “positive” preachers lack appreciation for “negative” preachers. Some “positive” preachers are leaving an impression that there is no room in the kingdom of God for debaters who defend the gospel against denominational error. They criticize as unchristian conduct the work of Roy Cogdill in fighting institutionalism, Foy E. Wallace in fighting premillennialism, and the host of brethren who opposed missionary societies and instrumental music in worship.
If there be any “positive” preachers among us with this attitude, I pray that they will consider where the church would be had there not been men such as Roy Cogdill and papers such as Gospel Guardian, Truth Magazine, and Searching The Scriptures opposing institutionalism. Where would the church have been had there not been a Foy E. Wallace and Bible Banner opposing premillennialism? These false doctrines would have done more severe damage to the church than they did and many pulpits now occupied by “positive” preachers would have been under the control of liberal brethren and closed to faithful preachers. The only way we can avoid falling into the same errors today is to continue teaching on these themes. We must be positive toward the divine pattern of truth and negative toward every depature from the faith.
I am thankful for the work of men such as Benjamin Franklin and David Lipscomb who fought and opposed church support of missionary societies. I am thankful for M. C. Kurfees’ work in opposing instrumental music in worship. I am thankful for the work of Foy E. Wallace, Jr. in opposing premillennialism. I am thankful for the work of Roy E. Cogdill in opposing the sponsoring church arrangement, church support of colleges and orphan homes, and church supported recreation. We owe these men a debt of gratitude for passing down the unblemished gospel to this generation and we owe it to the Lord to preach the truth on such matters today. Those who know the works of these men recognize that these men were not lopsided in their preaching. They preached many “positive” sermons to develop Christian character, to convert the lost, and to bring the erring to repentance. That same thrust is needed now!
There are men among us today with exceptional abilities in these same areas. James Adams, Larry Hafley, Ron Halbrook, Robert Welch, Marshall Patton, and many other men have demonstrated through the years a deep understanding of the word of God in calling to our attention dangerous doctrines which threaten the church. Yet I can personally testify that these men work to preach sermons which emphasize the need for strong Christian character, work to baptize alien sinners, labor to stir up enthusiasm in local churches, and otherwise do many things generally associated with “positive” preaching.
2. When negative preachers equate exhorters with soft preaching. If there be any “negative” preachers among us who have no appreciation for those men who can exhort us to greater work and more faithful service, they need to realize the contribution which exhorters have made to the gospel of Christ.
Walter Scott was one restoration preacher who was renown for his ability to touch the hearts of those to whom he preached. N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons were preached to over 5000 people each night in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Those who heard him preach still talk about his ability to hold an audience’s attention. Through the years, several men have been so effective in gospel meeting work that they were able to give all of their time to holding meetings. These men have done the cause of Christ a great service in kindling again the waning flames of faith in the hearts of erring Christians, in persuading alien sinners to be baptized, and in encouraging faithful Christians to persevere.
Those who know these men and their works know that these men were not afraid to preach against premillennialism, instrumental music in worship, and church support of the missionary society (or other evils of their day). These men had a healthly respect for the debaters and editors of their day who joined the battle against the evils confronting them. These men who differed in talents and relative abilities stood shoulder to shoulderfor the truth and against sin and digression – just as the apostles did – just as we should do today.
There are men with similar talents in our own day. I am thankful for the work of men such as Granville Tyler, Dee Bowman, Johnie Edwards, Irven Lee, Aude McKee and others. Their names are synonymous with positive preaching – exhortation and encourgement. I respect and admire their abilities to create enthusiasm in a local church and to cause numerical growth. They have greater talents in these areas than I have. Nevertheless, I have seen work from each of these men which demonstrates their recognition of the need to stand against any innovations which threaten the church.
3. When neglect is given to either kind of preaching. Robert E. Welch called our attention to what will occur if positive preaching is done to the neglect of negative preaching, when he wrote the following:
A great number of us, who fought against the onslaught of institutionalism among the churches a few decades ago, yet live and remember what it took to keep the institutions out. A few have forgotten the fight that was made and have decided to go “positive” and make love to the brethren who digressed. And a host of younger men have come on the preaching scene who have not had such experience and have decided that such preaching is not profitable, and have turned to preaching the kind of pap which any sickly little denominational pastor turns out. Barclay’s comments are more effective than Paul’s they think. About the only “negative” preaching and writing they do is against those who openly condemn sin, doctrinal error and false practice. . . .
Positive preaching is desirable and necessary. But if we expect Christians and the churches to be built up in spiritual strength we are going to have to mix it with negative preaching against sin, error and every false way. Neither do we need “specialists” in the preaching and writing field. We do not need some who will specialize on the positive, while others accentuate the negative. When that is done the hearers will choose, and you can be sure who the popular ones will be (2 Timothy 4:3,4). They will take only the “positive” papers and have only the “positive” preachers, leaving the negatives ones with no audience. It will kill the churches. Let all preachers recognize that it is their duty to preach the word, reprove, rebuke and exhort (“The Power of Positive Preaching,” Faith and Facts [October 1986], pp. 15-16).
The danger which brother Welch describes is manifest among our liberal brethren. Many liberal churches have been fed a steady diet of positive preaching for twenty or more years. They have raised a generation which sees no difference in the Lord’s church and denominations and now they are ready to join hands in fellowship with at least one denomination, the independent Christian Churches. If the positive preaching movement becomes accepted among us, it will produce the same result in time. We have no patience or respect for anyone who peddles compromise, denominationalism, or human philosophies under the cloak of “positive” preaching!
On the other hand, if preaching becomes so negative that the positive aspects of the gospel are neglected, damage will also be done. Christian character will be viewed only as “thou shalt not.” A man will be judged to be sound if he is against instrumental music in worship, church support of human institutions, church sponsored recreation, dancing, social drinking, etc. He might never learn his obligations to grow in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, perseverance, and other graces. If preaching which is exclusively negative becomes the norm, a contentious spirit might develop among brethren. Wrangling over judgmental matters might become commonplace, destroying the Lord’s church.
A Call For Balance
These matters should remind each of us of the great need of balance in our work. The need of the moment will determine the kind of preaching we should be doing. There is a place for the strong rebukes of I and 2 Corinthians and Galatians. There is a place for the encouragement of Philippians. There is a place for the disciplined instruction of Romans. A faithful preacher will try to preach that portion of the word of God which is needed at any given moment of time. To the very best of our ability, each of us should strive to preach “all the counsel of God” without becoming exclusively “positive” or “negative” (Acts 20:27). We may excel in one area or another, but we should always appreciate the complementary efforts of brethren who excell in an area where we do not. Also, each of us should constantly aim for a better balance of the two emphases in our own preaching. This is the challenge of a lifetime!
However, there is no room for backslapping preachers who only preach what is non-offensive. This kind of preacher will not preach what is needed in a local congregation; he will only preach what makes and keeps him popular. Paul said, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1: 10). Backslapping preachers – mere men pleasers who refuse to speak to the needs of the audience – cannot be the Lord’s servants.
May the Lord give us the wisdom to see the needs of the churches with which we labor. May He give us the moral courage to preach what is needed whenever and wherever it is needed. And may the Lord show us our need for one another – to be able to appreciate the significant contribution which each of us makes and to love one another for his unique contribution to the Lord’s work.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 24, pp. 738, 750-751
December 18, 1986