“Two-Thirds Negative”?

By Larry Ray Hafley

From Good News (July 9, 2000), the bulletin of the Timberland Drive church in Lufkin, Texas, we extract the following comment on 1 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” 

Convince, rebuke, exhort. I have heard some preachers say this means a man’s preaching should be two-thirds negative and one-third positive. This charge is not a mathematical equation. The context shows the preacher is to address the people’s needs, regardless of how his message is received. Convince them when they need it; rebuke them when they need it; exhort them when they need it. You can’t measure preaching in terms of mathematics, but you can certainly measure it in terms of need (Taken from Common Sense Preaching, Dee Bowman). 

Brother Bowman is correct! Preaching is indeed about the specific need of one’s audience. That is why Peter did not denounce idolatry in Acts 2; it is why Paul did not speak against binding circumcision in his Athenian address in Acts 17. Preaching to an audience’s need explains the tone and tenor of Stephen in Acts 7 and the thread and theme of Paul in Acts 13.

Like brother Bowman, I, too, have “heard some preachers” speak of the “two-thirds, one third” equation. However, when that mathematical measure has been cited, it has not been used to say that an audience’s needs should be ignored. Those who speak of preaching that is “two-thirds negative” generally are refuting the idea that we need to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” 

It is in that context, using 2 Timothy 4:2, that we often speak of preaching that is “two-thirds negative and one-third positive.” “I have heard some preachers say” it is too much like the rustic, ruffian spirit of pioneer preachers when we name names (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) and identify denominational doctrines. We have been encouraged to take a less “polemic” approach and not to be “adversarial” and “controversial” in our appeal to truth. I have heard “some preachers say” these things as they (quite negatively, I might add) decry and deride “negative preaching” as that which causes people to “tune out” and “turn us off.” 

When such advice has been given, I, like brother Bowman, “have heard some preachers” show that “two-thirds” of 2 Timothy 4:2 is, “negative,” while only “one third” of it is positive. They form this mathematical equation, not to downplay meeting an audience’s need, but to show that they do greatly err who say that our speech and our preaching must be “positive” and “not negative.” 

The same is true of Jeremiah 1:10. “See I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant.”

When need requires we must “root out . . . pull down       . . . destroy, and . . . throw down.” There is a time “to build, and to plant,” “a time to break down, and a time to build up” (Eccl. 3:3). 

It is only when we hear “some preachers say” that “speaking the truth in love” means that we must avoid “negative preaching,” that we hear preachers rightly observe that “two-thirds” of Jeremiah 1:10 is “negative,” while “one-third” is “positive.” It is only when preaching that roots out, pulls down, destroys, and throws down is castigated as being harmful and contrary to the spirit of godly gospel preaching that we hear “some preachers” speak of the “two-thirds, one-third” equation. 

Preaching that reproves, rebukes, roots out, pulls down, destroys, and throws down is as much needed as is that which builds, plants, and exhorts. If not, God would not have so instructed his holy apostles and prophets. 

(Surely, no one will make comments on this article that are two-thirds negative. If they disagree with it, perhaps they can address my need in a positive fashion.)

4626 Osage, Baytown, Texas 77521

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 20  p5  October 17, 2000