Plain, manger-like preaching...

In response to the final couple paragraphs dealing with preaching and rhetoric in my post, Worship wars: musicians, pulpiteers, and aesthetics, my dear brother, Ken Pierce, wrote:

I am not sure that it's fair to characterize men who have a different pulpit presence than personal presence as having displaced God's glory with their own.

It's rough around the edges, but my concern about this matter is so deep that I'm willing to take my lumps with this response.

It's not simply a "different pulpit presence" I'm aiming my criticisms at, but a different man. If the Apostle Paul went from talk around the table to writing one of his letters to preaching, no one would have been struck by the change in his personality, illustrations, or vocabulary. He wasn't a commoner while eating and a patrician while writing and preaching. And this is not at all to say that life should be lived at a monotone. It may well be that occasions are rare for a father to lift his voice at home or at potlucks, but if he doesn't make some radical alteration in his tone when he speaks of death, Heaven, and Hell, his tone will belie his message.

Clearly I didn't express myself very well since I agree with much you've written, and yet...

Don't you see the danger of turning the pulpit into a stage by employing rhetorical devices, illustrations, vocabulary, and affectations that detract from the foolishness and simplicity of the Gospel? Is this really no danger at all?

We've all seen women so painted on the face they've made themselves hideous. Gilded lilies.

I'm going to go out on a limb, here, but I think this issue is critically important for a recovery of the authority and power of God in evangelical and reformed pulpits. Comparisons are odious, but I would choose Peter, Stephen, Paul, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Lloyd-Jones, and MacArthur any day of the week over John Doe, Joe Schmo, and the Reverend Doctor J. Wright Holiday.

Why? Because when I finish reading or listening to the men in the first list, the principle thing I'm left with is not the breadth of their reading or the depth of their learning, but the power, authority, justice, and mercy of our Heavenly Father. The messenger has not become the message...

Many years ago, I was considering taking a staff position under J. Wright Holiday, so I listened to a number of his sermons. Afterwards, I was left with the same thought I have when we sit talking together at Banner of Truth: this man is patrician, through and through; elegant, well-bred, worthy of the good souls of tall-steeple Fifteenth Presbyterian Church granting him an audience. If I golfed, I'd want him in the foursome--and paying. When I finish reading some of these men's sermons, I think, "What a pathetic excuse for a preacher I am, that I can't come up with one percent of the illustrations and rhetorical devices that permeate their sermons!" Funny thing, though: I've never had such thoughts after listening to MacArthur, after reading Edwards, Luther, Paul, Calvin, or Peter.

Are the arts and sophistry really no danger at all in our late day?

If we diligently mark the world, we shall find that it is governed merely by its conceited opinions; sophistry, hypocrisy, and tyranny rule it; the upright, pure and clear divine Word must be their handmaid, and by them controlled. Therefore, let us beware of sophistry, which consists not only in a double tongue, in twisting words, which may be construed any way, but also blossoms and flourishes in all arts and vocations, and will likewise have room and place in religion, where it has usurped a fine, fictitious color.

Nothing is more pernicious than sophistry; we are by nature prone to believe lies rather than truth. Few people know what an evil sophistry is; Plato, the heathen writer, made thereof a wonderful definition. For my part, I compare it with a lie, which, like a snowball, the more it is rolled the greater it becomes.

Therefore, I approve not of such as pervert everything, undervaluing and finding fault with other men's opinions, though they be good and sound. I like not brains that can dispute on both sides, and yet conclude nothing certain. Such sophistications are mere crafty and subtle inventions and contrivances, to cozen and deceive people.

But I love an honest and well affected mind, that seeks after truth simply and plainly, and goes not about with fantasies and cheating tricks. -Martin Luther, Table Talk

Now allowing for a certain difference in personality between us, and that my temptations and sins make me envious and blind in a way that my readers may have escaped, it still seems to me that what I'm getting at here can't all be chaff. There must have been something about the super-apostles the Apostle Paul dealt with at Corinth that demeaned Paul and made them seem more worthy of the quite-sophisticated audience of Corinthians they wooed away from our Lord.

Another way of putting this is to ask whether the Word of God is warning us of a danger that no longer exists, or holding out a virtue that's become obsolete? Where in the evangelical and reformed pulpit are the foolish, the weak, the base and despised, the things that are not? Rather, have we not all become wise and strong and patrician and respected--things and men that certainly ARE?

Who or what does God nullify through our pulpit ministries? Only mainline liberals?

Let's remember where Jesus was born, and whom God chose as His mother.

I admonish every pious Christian that he take not offence at the plain, unvarnished manner of speech of the Bible. Let him reflect that what may seem trivial and vulgar to him, emanates from the high majesty, power, and wisdom of God. The Bible is the book that makes fools of the wise of this world; it is only understood by the plain and simple hearted. Esteem this book as the precious fountain that can never be exhausted. In it thou findest the swaddling-clothes and the manger whither the angels directed the poor, simple shepherds; they seem poor and mean, but dear and precious is the treasure that lies therein. -Martin Luther, Table Talk

* * *

After writing this, I called Pastor Stephen Baker to run it by him and he had some helpful comments I asked him to write up as a postscript. Here they are:

Ken Pierce wrote:
I am not sure that it's fair to characterize men who have a different pulpit presence than personal presence as having displaced God's glory with their own. I can think of examples of good men who, while very approachable in person, are regal pulpiteers. They are not putting on an act, it is simply that public discourse has a different timbre than personal discourse.

For instance, Billy Graham's nephew was a professor of mine in college. He said that Billy in person is soft-spoken and genial, but his pulpit presence was far more statesmanlike. In our own tradition, I think in this regard of John R. de Witt. Now, no mistake about it, de Witt is regal in person, but affable and friendly. But, in the pulpit, he is a lion.

I have been told myself, and not in a critical way, that my pulpit presence indicates that I am there on a divine mission, while in person, I am fairly quiet, reserved, and hopefully approachable. I don't seek to put on airs, but I do speak to groups of people in a different way than I speak to my child at bedtime.

I wonder if your thinking here isn't more the spirit of the age--pastor as 'regular guy,' etc? I think the glory of God demands from us a certain skill in oration--not cleverness of speech, certainly, but urgency, vibrancy, and a certain amount of Jeremiah-like 'barking!' unlike the dumb dogs that occupy so many mainline pulpits today.


There is another way of looking at preachers' tendency to be different in the pulpit than they are in person. Mr. Pierce assumes that it is appropriate for a pastor to be "a lion" in the pulpit. He assumes that it is good for a pastor to be urgent and vibrant in the pulpit. He assumes that it is good for a pastor to see himself as "on a divine mission" while in the pulpit. I agree with all of that.

But what makes us think that this vibrancy, this sense of authority and urgency, should be left in the pulpit when the pastor pronounces the benediction?

Mr. Pierce's other assumption is that a good pastor--while "barking" in the pulpit--should be quiet, reserved, approachable, genial, and friendly in person. This is the genuine pastor-as-regular-guy mentality that permeates evangelical churches every bit as much as mainline ones today. Evangelicals expect our pastors to be bold in the pulpit. We expect them to bark. We expect them to speak out against the evils of Hollywood and Liberalism and Gay Marriage and Alcohol and Gambling and even Planned Parenthood. But all of that is safe. Preachers are willing to say hard things as long as they are hiding behind the insulation of the pulpit. After all, it is what we pay them to do: make us feel bold because our pastor is willing to be bold in the pulpit.

It all changes, though, in the narthex. Outside the pulpit, we pay our pastors to be nice. Reserved. Approachable. Genial. We would never expect them to be lions with us in person. It would violate all propriety for our pastors to "bark" at us at the potluck. As Richard Baxter says in The Reformed Pastor,

They will give you leave to preach against their sins, and to talk as much as you will for godliness in the pulpit, if you will but let them alone afterwards, and be friendly and merry with them when you have done, and talk as they do, and live as they, and be indifferent with them in your conversation. For they take the pulpit to be but a stage; a place where preachers must show themselves, and play their parts; where you have liberty for an hour to say what you list; and what you say they regard not, if you show them not, by saying it personally to their faces, that you were in good earnest, and did indeed mean them.

Of course, pulpit boldness without in-person boldness is not bold at all. It is tremendously safe. It gives a pastor what he wants: a soothed conscience without the discomfort of "meddling."

So is it appropriate for a pastor to be authoritative in the pulpit? Is it appropriate for him to be urgent and intense and vibrant and bold? Absolutely. But only if he is all of these things in person. Anything else, as Baxter says, turns the pulpit into a stage and the preacher into a play actor.




Wow. Thanks for the interaction! I think we are probably not at odds all that much. I agree that a pastor ought to be bold in person, especially when dealing with hard headed and hearted sinners in counseling situations. His manner must never say, "There, there, it's all right. We're all human, you know." That's not the approachability I was after! I guess warmth is a better word, but then warmth should come from the pulpit, too. Yet, I admit I speak a little louder, and with a little more urgency when preaching than when ordering pizza!

I fully agree that an affected manner of speech or mannerisms (I have heard one preacher who has a plain midwestern accent in person, and sounds somewhere between Dutch and Scots while preaching --an affect.) is an affront to our call. Yet, I have been torn to shreds by men like Sinclair Ferguson who, while not a different person in the pulpit, is certainly a presence there!

I think my point is: there are different styles of preaching. Be who you are, and God will use it. He will increase, and you will decrease. Don't try to be clever, and don't try to be sentimental. Yes, there is always the danger in the preacher's heart of loving being the one "up front." Don't give in to it!

Like all things, there is probably a range of acceptability: be real without using gutter language (a growing problem), be conscious of being a divine herald without thinking yourself the Archangel Michael. And, we probably tend too much towards one or the other, depending on temperament, abilities, and the like.

So, maybe we aren't all that far apart, after all! Just wanted to bring out the other side.


I would be remiss if I did not add, the quote from Baxter made me say "Ouch!" He always does that.

Our preaching should aim for the response "What a savior" not "What a preacher..."

I am struck by the wonderful reminders of my calling:

1. when I am certain that a sermon will be effective, has great exegesis, incredible illustrations, etc., and I fall flat on my face

2. when I get into the pulpit with (literal) fear that a real stinker is about to come out because I just don't have it quite right despite all my efforts (there can be no laziness with the Word) - and God blesses HIS Word abundantly.


They used to say that Spencer Tracy was such a good actor that you couldn't see him acting. Method that draws attention to itself upstages what it's there to convey.

Tim and all,

I've been thinking much about this over the last several days. I would be curious, Tim, what has given rise to this concern. I don't see a whole lot of pulpit artistry around these days --more likely replaced with the artistry of the drama, dance, and worship teams, I'm afraid! If anything, much preaching today is banal, with notable exceptions (Piper, Begg, Ferguson, and the T4G guys)

Certainly, preaching should be "manger like." But, let's not forget that the manger scene was proclaimed by regal heralds on the hillside, and I think there is that aspect of preaching, too.

For me, the governing ideas behind preaching in the Scriptures are two poles. One is 1 Cor 1, the other is 2 Cor. 5. In 1 Cor. 1, Paul says the proclamation is foolish, not with worldly wisdom (contra the prevailing Greek influence). In 2 Cor 5, preaching is beseeching --it is a message heralded forth by royal ambassadors.

It is interesting that you remark that Paul's level of discourse did not change from his writing to his preaching. But, let's not forget his level of discourse was pretty high in his epistles, and occasionally became rhapsodic! I think, too, of his preaching on Mars Hill, which is literate, intellectual, etc. (considering his audience).

Perhaps the most crystalline example of sermonic form we have in the Scriptures is Hebrews. Whoever wrote Hebrews certainly knew how to use language, Scripture, illustration, and the like. There is a regalness about it, without a doubt.

So, manger-like, yes, but let's not forget the one born in a manger now is clothed with majesty, might, dominion, and power! Our message, then, reflects both the humble man of sorrows and the regal Christ coming to reign.

Fred, I hear exactly what you are saying. Usually on Thursday, I emerge from the study and say to my wife, "I hate my sermon." To which she replies, without fail, "Good. I was starting to get worried." Now, I worry when I LIKE my efforts! :-)

To me it is not so much the manner of the preaching, but the manner of the man that is preaching. Is there a consistency of character, an integrity, a Christ likeness that transcends the message. That must be the same in the pulpit and out of it. I think that it is what gives men like McArthur, Piper, and Ferguson credibility with others who preach and teach.
This reminds me of I Corinthians 4:19-20 when Paul says that when he comes to them he shall find out not the words of those that are arrogant, but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. As you can see in the first two chapters of I Corinthians the people in Corinth were focusing on the personalities of men and the persuasiveness of men while Paul focused on the person of Christ and the power of Christ as he was determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and therefore his message and his preaching were a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. That is what the preacher should bring to the pulpit when he preaches and it should be given added unction by the traits I mentioned above.

There is a story about a guy who asked one of the court officers in a rural county about the local lawyers. The official mentioned one: "Luckiest lawyer I ever saw."
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, he's no great shakes. But every one of his clients is in the right!"

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