By Ron Halbrook
The habits and customs associates with burying the dead vary from culture to culture and country to country. The range of differences includes superstitious rites and drunken feasts – everything on the spectrum from serious and pious to silly and pernicious. We live in a culture which permits, but does not dictate, funerals centered around devotion to God – prayers, sacred songs, and Bible teaching. Christians and gospel preachers should not hesitate or be ashamed to use this wonderful opportunity for proclaiming the gospel of Christ in its purity and simplicity.
The use of such a format is not specified in Scripture, but is authorized by every passage that mandates gospel preaching, beginning with Matthew 28:18-20 and on down the line. The habits of a culture and the setting of a society modify the format of opportunities for preaching Christ. But the context of the gospel is settled in the heavens and not subject to change. The facts, commands, and promises of the gospel are the same for every culture and society – for all men!
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mk. 16:15-16).
Opportunities which once existed in synagogues and public forums for gospel preaching shifted in another time and place to open fields, brush arbors, and school houses – then to the town square – now to public media like newspapers, radio, and television. Formal debates as we know them involve unique features – such as bringing false teachers into meeting houses built for preaching the truth. No principle is violated; it is a format for accomplishing the victory of truth and the harvest of souls. The Bible authorizes gospel preaching – even debates with formal propositions, moderators, bed-sheet charts, overhead transparencies, and the like – but does not specify those details. If the habits and customs of a people open the door to gospel preaching on the occasion of a wedding, a baby’s birth, or the solemn burial of the dead, we are authorized to utilize that door.
Some brethren have scruples and wood agree we can use the funeral opportunity for gospel preaching only if we do so outside of, and away from, the meeting house. “That is to be used only for the Lord’s work.” Yes, and what is gospel preaching if it is not the Lord’s work? We can go to where the people are to do this work, as Paul “preached Christ in synagogues” (Acts 9:20). Or, we can open our meetings to “those that are . . . .unbelievers” so that they can come to where we are (1 Cor. 14:23). And it does not change the case whether we meet under a tree, in the personal dwelling place of a member, or in a meeting house built “for the Lord’s work.”
If a people had the habit of calling upon God for guidance when a new baby entered the family, we could go to a family or invite the family into our meeting house in order to preach Christ to them. This has nothing to do with infant baptism or infant membership in the church, and is used merely to illustrate. Where the family brought the baby in arms or not, would not change the case – whether the couple to be married “dressed up” for the occasion or not, would not change the case – whether the grieving people brought the casket with the dead in it, with or without flowers on the casket, would not change the case. From the vantage point of God’s people, the point and the purpose is to preach the gospel of Christ, to reach the lost, to do the Lord’s work!
To use such occasions and formats for preaching God’s Word does not mean the church can build hospitals for babies to be born in, for engaged couples to obtain blood tests, or for dead people to be pronounced “dead.” The church is not authorized to build court rooms and to pay the salaries of civil judges to settle the legal ramifications of birth, marriage, and death. there is no authority and this is no argument in favor of the church conducting day care centers, newly wed showers, or embalming services. We do have authority for local churches to use every possible format, arrangement, and opportunity for gospel preaching.
Brethren, let’s not hesitate to preach the gospel of Christ, both in arrangements by which people come to us and in arrangement by which we go to them. Funerals open wide the door to preach the great themes of the gospel – the certainly of death, the sinfulness of sin, judgment ot come, the universal need of a Savior, the terms of pardon, the resurrection, and the hope of heaven through the forgiveness in Christ Jesus! What we preach, not the place where we preach it, is the vital thing.
David Lipscomb (1831-1917) was asked about “Funeral Preaching” and responded in the Gospel Advocate, IX, 9 (28 Feb. 1867):173-74. In reprinting his article, we have italicized some of his words for emphasis. He beautifully painted the opportunities we may have in peaching Christ when death has come to someone’s door. Let us be stirred to show genuine sympathy to our fellow man and to realize the highest degree of kindness we can bestow upon him “is to teach him the truth, and to direct him to the path appointed and marked out by God, to lead mortals to heaven.”
FUNERAL PREACHING David Lipscomb
Brother Lipscomb: – We hear very often, in this country, of our brethren preaching funerals. Now, when I joined the church it was the understanding that we were required to believe nothing but that which was taught plainly in the New Testament, nor require any thing else of others. I have searched diligently for command or example for it, and have failed to find any. I may be blinded. Will some brother who preaches funerals tell us the chapter and verse, that we may no longer grope in darkness?
Yours in the one hope,
We certainly find no authority for preaching funerals in the Bible. But we do find authority to preach the Gospel the word of ffe, in season and out of season, in other words, to be always ready to preach the word of life to dying men. The Christian must stand ever ready, watching and anxious whenever occasion offers to point his dying fellow creatures to the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, and to impress upon them a proper conception of the uncertainty and nothingness of life; of the certainty of death, judgment to come, and the awful weight and importance of eternity. This work can often be done effectually when death has come close to our own doors, snapt as under the tender tendrils of affection that entwine themselves around our own heart strings, and have taken from earth the dear idols of our hearts. In death, the death of a parent, brother, sister, child, or friend, God gives us a lesson on these subjects of the uncertainty of all things earthly, the certainty of death, and of the necessity on the part of men to be prepared to pass the Jordan of death and enter the glorious home of the spirits of the just made perfect, rather than to be consigned to the dark abodes of death, to the eternal companionship of the Devil and his furies.
God in death teaches this lesson, but man in his mad career after the mammon of this world, in his vain search after happiness in the gratification of his appetites and passions, fails to read the lessons. Surely there is no harm, can be none, in the Christian man pointing him to this lesson, and impressing it upon his heart, while it is softened by sorrow, and is opened, perhaps has been ruthlessly torn open’ by the unrelenting hand of death. The Christian may then “in season” improve the lesson of God’s teaching, and pour into the torn and lacerated heart the healing oil of hope, that is found in a confiding trust in Jesus, the anointed Savior. But when men preach something else beside the Gospel, when they teach that salvation can be gained otherwise than through a full and an entire acceptance of Christ in a submission to all of his appointments, evil is done. That this is frequently done in the discourses preached at the death of individuals is true. It is equally true, that the same thing is done on divers other occasions. There is no more sin in making such an impression at the death of an individual than at other times. Such preaching is wrong, evil in its tendency and exceedingly sinful at funerals or any other times. The man that will cater to the prejudices and preach to please the friends of the deceased rather to please God, will preach to please man rather than God at other times, and is unworthy to speak in the name of Christ.
The great need is, men who love the truth better than they love popular favor, who had rather please God than man; who feel that the highest degree of kindness they can bestow upon their fellow man, is to teach him the truth, and to direct him to the path appointed and marked out by God, to lead mortals to heaven. Such men will preach the truth on all occasions in the love of it. Such an one that has confidence and trust in God, and true Christian love for his fellow men, can preach without evil influence or sin in the presence of the living and the dead, at a birth or a death, and he will always honor God and benefit his fellow man in preaching. But when a man preaches anything else than Christ and Him crucified, than justification, through humbly following Christ in His appointments, walking in the ways He has marked out for us, that man does evil, and is guilty of cruelly leading men down to endless death. Such preachers, and such preaching, should be discountenanced. Such preachers are unworthy to preach at funerals or away from them. Men of faith, who love the truth; men of courage, who can tell the truth; men of devotion, who can suffer for the truth, are the great crying needs of the church and the world.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 5, pp. 139-140
March 1, 1984