Preaching to an effeminate age (I)...

Error message

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.”

Really? Never?

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?

How convenient.

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.

Why not?

Because it massages men’s egoes. It “captures weak women,

burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses….”[5]

Like the false prophets of old, it says “‘Peace, peace.’ But there is no

peace.”[6]

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.”[7]

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!"


[1] Hebrews

12:14

[2] Richard

Baxter

[4] E.g. Acts

2:22-24; 4:8-12; 7:51-54

[5] 2Timothy 3:6

[6] Jeremiah

6:14

[7] New Yorker, February 14, 1994, p.

74