Preaching to an effeminate age (I)...
Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?” (Matthew 22:15-18)
(Tim: this is first in a series, with the second, here) A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend who taught theology at a respected evangelical seminary. We were discussing the response of some Christian leaders to being confronted over their abuse of Scripture. I expressed my conviction that the leaders’ commitment to turn from their sin was only pragmatic, and that in time they would proceed to do the very thing they had just promised not to do.
My friend was astounded that I could think these men capable of deception. He went on to tell me why he thought I was susceptible to such uncharitable thoughts: “Your problem, Tim, is that you spent too many years in the mainline denomination with other pastors who weren’t even Christians. But now, you’re back in the evangelical world and these men we’re working with are believers. You should never accuse another believer of lying.”
The scribes and Pharisees were the leaders of the true church in Jesus’ time, but Jesus called them “hypocrites” and He did it publicly—over and over again. A hypocrite is a dishonest man who says one thing but does another.
“But that’s Jesus,” my friend might respond. “You’re not Jesus. He knew the scribes' and Pharisees’ hearts, but we never know another man’s heart. Only God knows what’s inside a man.”
Well, true enough. That’s why God will preside over the final judgment. But are preachers of God’s Word really forbidden to diagnose and rebuke sin in their listeners’ hearts? Is this the sort of preaching we see in the New Testament?
Since my friend said these things, I’ve thought about them a lot and have come to believe he was expressing one of the more insidious aspects of the betrayal in Bible-believing churches, today, of an Apostolic teaching and preaching ministry. We claim Christian love forbids our thinking anything but the best about another believer, but this is simply quitting the field in the face of the aggressive relativism of our time.
The New Testament records endless rebukes, warnings, and exhortations given by the Apostles to the souls under their care, and some of them are so explicit that 2,000 years later we still know the names of those rebuked as well as the sin they fell into. Take, for instance, the Apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Apostle Peter.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy… (Galatians 2:11-13)
What was the Apostle Peter’s sin?
He switched places at the dinner table—that’s all.
But really, switching places at the dinner table was no sin unless one knew his reasons for doing so and those reasons were sinful.
If my friend were reading this, he’d get very uncomfortable at this point. Why?
Because the only thing objectively verifiable in this confrontation in the Galatian church was that Peter had eaten with the Gentiles before the Judaizers arrived, whereas after they arrived he withdrew, holding himself aloof. Only God could infallibly know what motivated Peter to make this change, so was it any man’s business to judge his heart? Such judgments were unlikely to be accurate, right? And certainly they were not charitable.
Was the Apostle Paul unloving when he judged Peter to have made the change out of fear of persecution at the Judaizers’ hands? Was he uncharitable when he accused Peter of “hypocrisy?” Was he a sinner when he recorded in a letter intended to be read, publicly, that in this matter Peter “stood condemned?”
“Ah yes, but he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” my friend might respond. “That’s how he knew these things. But today, preachers are fallible and should never make such accusations.”
So Jesus did it all the time, the Apostles did it all the time, but we’re never to do it? We’re to hold to the doctrine of the Apostles, but never their method? We’re to preach what they preached, but never in the way they preached it?
Take such willful blindness and cowardice into the pulpit and most of the sermons preached by the great fathers of the church would vanish. Poof! They’re gone.
The sermons and letters of the New Testament, as well as the sermons preached by fathers of the Church down through history, have all had this in common: they are quite specific in naming the sins of their congregation and calling men back to the holiness without which no man will see God. And they do it without apology, as if their life and the lives of the sheep in their flock depended upon it. They preach “as a dying man to dying men.”
Giving in to our culture’s relativism can take many forms. No one would get very far in a typical Bible-believing church today by standing up in the middle of the sermon and saying, “You’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine. Each to his own.” Something more sophisticated is needed.
On the one hand, mainline liberal and emergent churches do it by direct denial of the Word of God. Doctrine after doctrine is tossed on the ash heap of history as they speak of the fresh revelations they have received and the new thing the Holy Spirit is doing in our time. They are, after all, progressive; they are emergent—as a chrysalis emerging from the slime of hidebound traditions and authoritarianism. So we see many of these churches ordaining sodomites; others calling women as pastors; still others referring to abortion as “an act of faithfulness before God.”
On the other hand, those of us in evangelical, Bible-believing churches have our own ways of giving in to the spirit of the age—ways that are indirect, and therefore more devious.
Our preachers studiously avoid calling any particular time, place, or person to repentance. Remember the hullabaloo when some of our preachers said 9/11 and Katrina were God’s call to repentance?
We take great care to avoid calling men to repentance, and it’s all done under the guise of the preacher admitting his own human fallibility; or worse, we claim the high moral ground by speaking of the necessity of exercising charity, always thinking and expecting the best of others.
Tact and diplomacy have many places where they’re absolutely necessary, but the Apostolic preaching of the New Testament must be our example as we examine the work of pastors and elders today. Not only must we compare our doctrine to the Apostles’ doctrine, but also our methods to the Apostle’s methods.
In other words, if the sermons of a particular church are filled with humor, disarming anecdotes of the pastor’s home life, and extended illustrations from movies, it should be obvious to us that the church is not devoted to the Apostles’ teaching. Try to imagine the Apostle Paul preaching like that today and you’ll understand the point.
If the sermons seem lite, the theme of repentance is rare, and the pastor often fails to apply Scripture’s doctrine to our lives in such a way that we’re left gasping for breath as the benediction is given; then again, the church is not devoted to the Apostles’ teaching.
Read our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Read any of the sermons given in the book of Acts where the Apostles point the finger at their congregations, saying “You killed Him, but God raised Him from the dead.” Review any of the epistles intended to be read aloud to the congregations to whom they were addressed—the book of Galatians, for instance—and ask yourself what similarity these sermons have to the preaching you heard at the church you visited last Lord's Day, and you’ll understand the point. But if you don’t understand, go back and read them again--this time as if you’ve never heard or read them before, asking the Holy Spirit to give you new eyes and fresh understanding.
A church that is devoted to the Apostles’ teaching will not tolerate preaching that is risk averse, conflict avoiding, and indecisive. Such teaching is well-suited to our relativistic culture but it’s not Apostolic.
Because it massages men’s egoes. It “captures weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses….” Like the false prophets of old, it says “‘Peace, peace.’ But there is no peace.” It gives us “yes” and “maybe,” but never “no.” It tickles the ears of men who will no longer put up with sound doctrine, but instead appoint search committees to carefully weed out any man who would be so gauche as to thunder from the pulpit, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty, our Worthy Judge Eternal!”
A lesson from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
During the years he lived here in these United States, the great prophet against Communism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, knew the sort of man America wanted in pulpits. Still, he refused to tone himself down.
Soon after the fall of Communism, Solzhenitsyn decided to return home to Russia. During his time here in exile, he’d not been popular. Starting with his address to the A.F.L. - C.I.O. and his Harvard Commencement Address—both in the late seventies—Solzhenitsyn had turned his prophetic gift to exposing the moral complacency of his new country. And he’d done it fearlessly, not pulling his punches.
As he prepared to move home, the New Yorker sent a correspondent up to Vermont, to Solzhenitsyn’s farm, to interview him just prior to departure. Here's an excerpt from that piece:
Back in the study, I asked Solzhenitsyn about his relations with the West. He knew that things had gone wrong, but had no intention of making any apologies.
“Instead of secluding myself here and writing The Big Wheel, I suppose I could have spent time making myself likable to the West,” he said. “The only problem is that I would have had to drop my way of life and my work. And, yes, it is true, when I fought the dragon of Communist power I fought it at the highest pitch of expression. The people in the West were not accustomed to this tone of voice. In the West, one must have a balanced, calm, soft voice; one ought to make sure to doubt oneself, to suggest that one may, of course, be completely wrong. But I didn't have the time to busy myself with this. This was not my main goal.”
Solzhenitsyn’s precisely right. Here in the Western world, if a pastor’s goal is to be likable, to be given serious consideration by pulpit search committees, to not be taken to task by elders during session meetings, to have peaceful weeks in between Sunday morning performances of helpful thoughts for the week spiced with biblical erudition, he will work hard to cultivate a certain tone of voice—a balanced, calm, soft voice. He will make sure to doubt himself, to suggest he may, of course, be entirely wrong.
But hear me. Such a man is a wolf. He is a false shepherd. He is a betrayer of the Lord Who bought him with His Own blood. Such a man should be brought up on charges in his presbytery or synod, his denominational association of pastors. The dossier or personal information form of such a man should be tossed into the circular file by the secretary of every search committee. He should be tarred and feathered. He should be run out of town on a rail. He stands condemned.
If working to expose the bloodthirsty Communist empires estimated to have murdered around one hundred million souls during the twentieth century was a task of such importance that Solzhenitsyn had to “fight the dragon …at the highest pitch of expression,” what is required of men called by God to fight principalities and powers, to oppose false prophets who have arisen among us seeking to mislead many? What is required of men set apart by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and prayer to the work of rescuing the perishing and standing athwart the portals of everlasting Hell yelling “Repent!”?
Solzhenitsyn said, “I suppose I could have spent time making myself likable to the West… but I didn’t have the time to busy myself with this. This was not my main goal.”
If our eyes aren’t crusted over with cultural cataracts or clouded by the glaucoma of cloying sentimentality masquerading as Christian charity, we’ll be able to see which churches are served by pastors working hard at being likable; which pastors doubt themselves, admitting they may be wrong; which preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak with a balanced, soft, and calm voice.
And we’ll run for our lives--like Christian, covering our ears and crying out, "Life! Life! Eternal life!"