Preachers and Contradictory Advice

I arrived at my first pastoral assignment and discovered that a handful of the church men were golf enthusiasts.  My previous golf experience had been limited to a handful of outings with a friend during my college years but I committed to joining in.  During one round, I was about to drive the ball when one of the men said something like, “Pastor, I’ve noticed you have a bad slice.  I think I can help you with that…”  He proceeded to instruct me with some finer points concerning my stance, grip, and swing. When he finished his coaching, one of the other men spoke up: “Pastor, forget all that.  You don’t golf often enough to perfect your game.  Since you know that you slice the ball and end up twenty yards to the right of where you want to be, just aim about twenty yards to the left.”

These were men in my church whom I loved and respected. And they loved and respected me.  They were both well-meaning but they were giving me contradictory advice. Whose advice was I to follow?   It really put me on the spot as I didn’t want to insult either of them by adopting the advice of the other! Looking back, I think the situation was the funny: There I was, completely stressed over church men relationships while playing a game people play to relax. My anxiety and discomfort in the situation was disproportionate to the significance of the situation.

But a similar thing sometimes happens to me in a much more serious context. It’s not so funny. Namely, I get contradictory advice from my colleagues, church members, family, and friends regarding my preaching (including teaching and writing). In this instance, the difference is based not on from whom the advice is coming, but on the subject matter at hand. (I am speaking from own experiences but I don’t think I’m alone in this, so please pardon me for switching to plural pronouns.)

When certain sinful behaviors are brought up, we preachers are advised to, “preach the truth!”  We’re told, “Don’t be afraid, be bold, call a spade a spade, that is, call sin sin.” Our advisors like to remind us that John the Baptist was a hero for bravely speaking out against King Herod’s illicit relationship.  That’s speaking truth to power. We preachers are urged to be like the Old Testament prophets who regularly called out the Israelites, God’s own people, when they were sinful.  It is even pointed out to us that Jesus himself often confronted the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the religious leaders) and that he went so far as to overturn the tables in the temple, therefore, we preachers should not pander to political correctness, but rather, we should, “lay it on the line,” even if it angers people.  We preachers are advised that we need to show the world that we stand for something.

But then at other times, not so much! 

When the topic of certain other sinful behaviors arise, we preachers are given the opposite advice! We are told to, “stay in our lane,” and stick to evangelism. We should stay out of these issues and not interfere.  Even though John the Baptist was a hero for confronting King Herod, when it comes to the behavior of our own government and government leaders, we are encouraged to forget John the Baptist and keep quiet because, “Preachers should stay out of politics.”   And when the behaviors in question are found in the church, we are firmly advised that we should, “Never judge or criticize other Christians (God’s people, those in the church) lest outsiders think we are divided and we lose the chance to reach them.”  We preachers are told we should be careful not to offend anyone because keeping the peace should be our priority.    Unity in the Spirit at all costs! 

This contradictory advise would truly be a dilemma if we preachers took our marching orders from our colleagues, church members, family, and friends. But we don’t. We take our marching orders from God, via the Bible and via the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our hearts and minds. 

In my (back to the singular pronoun) junior year of college, I came to believe in my heart that God was calling me to give up the career path I had finally settled upon and become a preacher.  One night I slipped off to the dorm prayer chapel and told God that I would do his will but that I didn’t want to make a mistake with something as important as my life’s work.   I prayed, pleaded really, that he would give me some kind of assurance that it was really his voice I was hearing. I was young and immature, but wise enough to know that I shouldn’t pursue a life of vocational ministry unless it was truly a calling.   After praying, I flipped open the Bible and began to read.  It had not been part of my strategic plan, I just did it. It happened to be the following passage.  I read it and said, “Yes,” to God and never looked back:

2 Timothy 4:1-5. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

That passage became the Scriptural basis for my life’s path.  I changed majors to Religion and Philosophy, then went to Seminary for a Masters of Divinity, and have served as a pastor since 1988. This passage also continues to guide my preaching.

Clearly, the phrase, “do the work of an evangelist,” (v. 5) directs me to work to reach the lost for Christ and preach evangelistically. However, that’s not all that Paul had said. I interpret phrases like, “correct, rebuke, and encourage,” (v. 2) to be aimed at facilitating the spiritual health and growth of believers (the Church, those who are already Christians).  Apparently, it was assumed that even within the Church, correcting and rebuking would be needed at times. History has born it out to be true.

Furthermore, I believe that phrases like, “people will not put up with sound doctrine,” (v. 3) and they will, “turn their ears away from the truth,” (v. 4) are not referring to lost sinners; they never had their ears turned towards the truth in the first place. Rather, it refers to believers.  There is always the danger of Christians turning away. When that happens, if they are not corrected, they may eventually fall away completely. 

The passage also includes encouraging, (v. 2) so my preaching must include that as well.

All of these elements of preaching began with, “Preach the Word!” (v. 2) Sometimes it’s evangelistic, sometimes it’s correction and rebuke, sometimes it’s encouragement, but it must always be the Word! I try to find balance among these things. I can’t, however, pick and choose based on the advice I get from well-meaning advisors who would prefer I hit hard on some topics while remaining silent on others.

So I have some favors I’d like to ask on behalf of we preachers (back to plural).

First favor: Please understand that our messages originate from God through the Scripture and his Spirit. If you truly wonder about something, ask and the topic may show up in a sermon. However, understand, and I say this with all due respect, the topics we cover are not for you to choose.

Second favor: When you don’t like what we say, prayerfully ask yourself why you don’t like it. I want to suggest three main possibilities. 1) Make sure it is not honest guilt making you feel that way. If it is, repent. 2) Perhaps it’s a morally neutral issue and it is just a matter of a difference of opinion. If that’s the case, please understand that we preachers have the right to our opinions, too, and show us some grace. We can agree to disagree and we can do so agreeably. After all, we are commanded to love one another and bear with one another. 3) I hate even the thought of this one… Iif you are unhappy with our message because it goes against Biblical teaching, then call us out on it! Go ahead and confront us. Be angry. If we are preaching against the Bible, you ought to be angry. (But remember, as Paul taught, even in your anger, do not sin. There are right ways and wrong ways to deal with justified anger.)

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