The Negative Side of All Positive Preaching
In recent years, I have attended many gospel meetings in which a verse was read at the beginning of the lesson ... followed by 20 minutes of after dinner stories, and one final verse at the invitation. Now, they may not have preached any error,... but brethren is it enough to just not preach error? Sometimes my children are disappointed when they are told they cannot watch a TV show. They ask "what's wrong with it?" We tell them that is not the question. Iinstead we should ask, what is right about it? Is it wholesome enough to watch? John said "If anyone comes to you and does NOT BRING this doctrine..." (1 John 10). John did not say if they don't preach error ... but rather if they fail to preach the truth! There can be a difference in preaching truth, and preaching THE truth. So many sermons offered today contain truth ... but they also contain nothing that a good denominational fellow would disagree with. Some churches have asked preachers to work with them who held unscriptural positions, after being assured, "But I won't preach it!" First of all, no preacher has the right to refuse to teach any Bible subject. Second, no church has the right to tell a preacher he cannot preach what he believes. He should be allowed to preach it, and if it is error, then it must be exposed and dealt with. Third, and this is where so many seem to misunderstand, it is not enough that he does not preach error, he must preach truth ... all of it. Certainly no one can preach all the truth in a meeting, but over a course of time one must. Paul said he did not fail to teach all that was needed to the Ephesian church, Acts 20:20, nor did he fail to declare the whole counsel of God, vs 27.
There is a grave danger facing the church of our Lord today, more subtle than that of false teaching. After all, when one clearly teaches false doctrine we can deal with it, expose it and mark it for what it is. But, with the Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) type of preaching and writing of today, it is more difficult to identify the error. I say it is dangerous, for it slouches toward error, rather than promoting it or denouncing it. It tolerates and sets up a church for error by failing to prepare a church for it. It allows for churches to slowly drift (Hebrews 2:1). It creates an atmosphere in which error cannot be fought. With the AIDS virus, one generally will not die of the disease itself. It suppresses the immune system, so the body cannot fight other diseases that come along. The body no longer is able to fight, because the ability to recognize and fight an invading host has been compromised. How much more dangerous to the body of Christ is compromise in preaching ? This impotent preaching has taken away the ability to recognize error in advance and fight it. Brother Irvin Lee said in Things Which Make For Peace, "Only error will thrive under the wet blanket of 'no controversy allowed.' "
Many preachers we are hearing in pulpits today sound more like Dale Carnagie instructors than gospel preachers. Robert Schuller has extolled the virtues of positive preaching for decades. In Dennis Voskuil's book, Mountains Into Goldmines, the author explains Schuller's theology saying he "Tells people exactly what they want to hear in the manner which pleases them most. He doesn't insult people by telling them they are sinners." (pg. 68). He teaches that the church must create a "non-controversial image" to grow. "The possibility preacher must therefore be a positive preacher---inoffensive, uplifting, and affirming," (pg. 43). Schuller believes Jesus was the greatest possibility thinker of the ages, "Positive and non-judgemental. Jesus never called any person a sinner!" Jesus would never preach, "You are sinners, Repent and be baptized" (pg. 104). The truth, however, is more accurately found in Alexander Campbell's observation that "Jesus drew His sword at the Jordan and threw away it's scabbard."
A part of the problem lies with the idol of reputation. The preacher finds his ego stroked and his wallet lined as he preaches what the crowds want to hear and is complimented as to "how sweet it is." And since he is not a "trouble maker" he is deemed safe and sanitary for gospel meetings. Yes, Proverbs does teach us that we should seek to have a good name (Proverbs 22:1), but we want a reputation according to the world's terms, not God's, when we seek it thusly.
It is not all the preachers fault, members and elders share in the blame. There is a cause and effect situation here ... supply and demand. Sometimes elders want to fill the pews, pack the building and of course, you have to pay for that edifice somehow! And whenever there are itching ears to be found, there will be willing ticklers readily available (2 Timothy 4:3). Consider Balaam "the mercenary prophet." If there had been business cards then, his would surely have said "Balaam, prophet for hire ... have divination fee, will travel." Notice how Peter describes him in 2 Peter 2:15, "They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor who loved the wages of unrighteousness." Peter did not say Balaam loved unrighteousness, but rather the wages of it. He who serves God for wages will serve the devil for higher bid!
One of the by-products of the computer age is a new vocabulary. Phrases like "user friendly" and "DOS command line" are frequently used. We live in a "user friendly" day and age, and many think churches should be "user friendly" as well. People don't like that old "command line." Preachers are frequently asked to keep up with these user friendly times. This type of attitude is reflected in a statement an elder once said to me, "We need more pep-rallies and less sermonizing. What we need are some feel good sermons." Now, we all like twinkies once in a while, but a body cannot remain healthy on a steady diet of the sugary sweet stuff.
The denominations have already been there. In Newsweek, May of 1990, there was an article entitled "A Child Shall lead Them." The article discussed the Church Growth Movement---what to look for in a minister. Their "experts" judged a minister's success not in faithfulness to the gospel, but whether he could keep people coming and giving. Are we suffering from a trickle down of this type of performance driven thinking? After all, that's the way secular employers rate their employees and salesmen. Perhaps that is why so much preaching has turned into a performance! By such standards, Noah and Ezekiel would surely be considered as failures, while Absolam would be a success! Have you noticed how often a preacher's support either is continued or not based upon the numbers he puts into his monthly report? So the pay-check is kept dangling in front of him to motivated him to "perform." Ads of churches looking for preachers sometimes state "This work has a potential for X number of conversions per year." Now, is the preacher not going to feel pressured to preach so as not to lose members, and baptize people who may not be ready for baptism to "perform" in order to keep his job? Thus, we see the spirit of Balaam at work. Numbers do not necessarily show the whole picture regarding how faithfully the preacher is doing his job. In one church, the preacher worked hard and no conversions resulted, while in another, conversions fell into his lap with no real effort on his part and he baptized 18 in two years! Now, by that standard, where was the preacher working harder? The same Newsweek article then praised the new Mega-church movement. One such church was the Second Baptist Church of Houston which boasts of 17,000 members. The preacher said they have banished hellfire and damnation and that they are more for things, than they are against things.
Some think Christianity is the same as "getting-alongness", but Christianity inheres controversy. It is a sad state of affairs when preachers are expected to have better manners than their Lord! Billy Sunday was once told, "Brother Sunday, you need to lighten up. Your preaching rubs the cat the wrong way." Mr. Sunday replied, "Then let the cat turn around. The way he is facing now he is going to hell." To be sure, it is better to be called cruel for being kind than to be called kind for being cruel, for it is not kind to fail to warn! Paul asked "Have I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?" (Galatians 4:10). Sometimes kindness DEMANDS that we do things that would not be considered as kind in other circumstances. To knock a child to the ground would seem unkind, but not if it is to prevent him from being run over. We are now being told that the preacher should be politically correct and preach to the change of the times, as if the Bible is not a relevant book. One preacher wrote, "From 100 years ago, until about 20 years ago, American society was basically religious ... this being the case, what needed to be preached was doctrinal purity--a return to proper doctrine and worship. Today, the issues have changed ... being correct about the worship of the corporate church and certain doctrinal matters is far from people's minds, and frankly, rightly so." Yet another bulletin stated that Jesus sought to make people comfortable, rather than confront them with their sins, and used the woman at the well as the example. The claim is that if Jesus had corrected her, that it would have created an "image problem" of being hard hearted and closed minded, and that it would have "been obnoxious" and "alienated the entire city." Amazing, considering Jesus said "You have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband" (John 4:18).
Books like Cogdill's The New Testament Church are frequently ridiculed today. Instead, humanistic and denominational self help and motivational books such as those by Swindoll, Dobson, etc., are quoted from pulpits and recommended to members as "must reads".
"PMA" is a relatively new title for what is actually an old problem. The Jews at the time of Isaiah asked for smooth things to be taught (Isaiah 30:10). Years ago the term "soft preaching" was used instead. Frankly, I really don't even like to hear the terms "positive preaching" or "negative preaching" for it infers there can be two different types of preaching that can be pleasing to God. The truth of the matter is, there is only Gospel Preaching ... and it must contain both positive and negative aspects! The New Testament is replete with examples of both positive and negative being emphasized. Paul said, "Let him that stole, steal no longer, but rather let him labor...." (Ephesians 4:28) and again "Putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth..." (4:25). A Christian who once owned a battery factory told me "you cannot have a positive flow without negative grounding." i.e., the law said "Thou shalt NOT commit adultery." Now, is that positive or negative? BOTH, for while forbidding and naming sin, the thrust is to Love your wife and keep to her ... Positive! When you turn OFF a light switch, you have also turned ON the dark!
So, it is not always enough simply to say what we should do, we also must emphasize what we must not do.
We are hearing "You got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don't mess with mister in between" being applied to preaching. The problem is, when one looks at the sermons recorded in the New Testament, MOST were negative and uncomplimentary. Many churches are now openly admitting that while they do not want a preacher who actually preaches error, neither do they want one that will openly specify and condemn sin. Just preach in generalities. Preach against immodesty, but do not give examples of what immodesty includes. The claim is often made that you can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar ... that is fine if it is flies you want, but I was under the impression we were after the conversions of the souls of men! Yes, with such preaching you might baptize individuals ... but you may also do so without actually convicting them!
In recent years, there has been a shift in the emphasis of preaching. In a seminar and training opportunity for preachers a few years ago (hosted by several non-institutional preachers) "Maslows hierarchy of needs" was placed on an overhead chart and referred to as what our message should address. These are the so called "felt needs" of the physiological, safety/security, love/affection, self esteem, and self actualization. This is the same approach I was taught among the liberals as the "whole man concept." Supposedly, the gospel appeals to and fulfills man's "self-esteem" and "ego needs." Yet, Jesus said in Luke 9:23, "If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me." We are told that the gospel will take care of our "interpersonal relationships." But, fact is, in becoming a Christian one might experience problems within their family they never dreamed of! (Matthew 10:21-37). The problem is, man's biggest needs are the one he often doesn't feel ... such as salvation from sin, Romans 1:16. Instead, sermon titles like "The Incredible Worth of People" and lessons on "different personality types" are being preached. One wonders what it would take for them to condemn a social gospel.
True, there must be balanced preaching. We do not want someone with a morbid fascination of the derogatory and the controversial filling our pulpits with a sadistic gleam in their eyes. BUT, what the Bible calls balance is (1) Reprove (2) Rebuke (3) Exhort (2 Timothy 4:1). That sounds exactly two-thirds "negative" to me. Jeremiah, in his call to the prophetic office was instructed to "root out and to pull down. To destroy and to throw down. To build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:10). Notice that he had to tear down before he could build up! Farmers know that fields must be cleared of stumps and rocks before they can plant!
This type of preaching has generally been promoted amidst controversy. Preachers who called for a "sane and patient approach" to dealing with the instrument, the society, premillenialism, institutionalism, etc., ended up in error for the most part, when the divisions came. Papers too experimented with this kind of approach , and when apostasies came, they also were swept away in the error, i.e.. The Christian Standard, Christian Leader, etc. One then has to wonder about the future, as similar attitudes are expressed today. Christianity Magazine editors wrote that they will face "The most controversial questions the Bible raises" while avoiding the language of "contemporary controversy." (January 1984, pg. 5).
Ahab said concerning the bold prophet Micaiah, "There is still one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil." (1Kings 22:8). Problem was, the negative message preached by Micaiah was the only one that could save. The 400 prophets speaking positive things to the king were not what was needed, helpful, or true. Ahab had a problem handling truth in preaching. Only shortly before had he accused Elijah as being a trouble maker (18:17) when in fact Ahab was the one creating the problem. Thus, is it the preachers and churches who still adhere to the whole counsel that are creating the problems, or those who contend for a positive only gospel? Brethren, churches must demand preachers who will preach the whole counsel, and preachers must demand churches respect the whole counsel. Some preachers may be fired as a result of standing for the whole counsel ... and some churches may need to fire some to be able to receive the whole counsel.
In 1858, a denominational preacher named Tyng was preacher throughout New England. He was known for being a rather fiery preacher. He would end his lessons by saying "I would rather lose my right arm up to the trunk than to ever fall short of delivering God's message." As events would happen, he was in the country watching a wheat harvest, and his arm was caught in a threshing machine ... torn and mangled from his body. He would die within days from loss of blood and infection that set in. In his dying words, he told his fellow preacher friend, George Duffield, "Let us all stand up for Jesus." Duffield was so moved by his dying words, that the next Sunday, he preached a sermon from Ephesians 6:14, "..stand therefore...". In the conclusion of the sermon, he read six stanzas of a poem which he had written. Later, music was added to the words, and became the song which we frequently sing:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross. Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
e-mail this author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Return to Watchman Front Page
return to January 1998 index page