Ron Halbrook's Rejoinder
Editor's Note: Brother Ron Halbrook emailed an article by Tom Roberts, which first appeared in Watchman in June of 1998, to many individuals this past August. His email led to an exchange on what constitutes an appropriate tone in preaching and a defense of the gospel. This is brother Halbrook's contribution to the discussion.
Thanks for your thoughts. I am not offended by your remarks but am thankful that you are concerned enough about me to write. I am always open to consider anything you wish to offer. I do not dismiss criticism out of hand, nor do the men I know and work with, though your post implies we do. As you have spoken frankly w/o bitterness, I will try to do the same. We speak as friends, not enemies: "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend" (Prov. 27:17) . Just as you hoped I would not dismiss your concerns w/o giving them thought, I hope you will not be guilty of the same.
FIRST, let's consider the issue of "positive" and "negative" preaching and teaching.
Ironically, your post is what men call "negative" in protesting what you regard as negative. It has the tone and content of a "watchdog" message in that you identify and protest things which you think need to be corrected. This always has been a valid function and duty of God's people (Ezek. 3; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; 1 Pet. 5:8). You probably did not stop to think or worry about whether your message would be perceived as so-called negative or positive, or whether you might be labeled as a watchdog, but you simply addressed a need as you see it. So it is with what those you criticize preach and write. We are little concerned about how people perceive what we say, but our focus in on "speaking the truth in love" so as to please God not man (Eph. 4:15; Gal. 1:10).
Consider that "positive" and "negative" are human concepts, constructs, and grids imposed on Scripture. We need to quit worrying about such human concepts of our preaching and simply "declare...all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). The huge cultural push for the "positive mental attitude" has forced us to address this issue. The PMA approach to everything has hit our society top to bottom, stem to stern, center to circumference.
My college background is in history (M.A., Vanderbilt University). Historians write about the historical and social roots of this mentality. It is rooted in enlightenment rationalism with its abundant confidence in the powers and potential of man, and in eastern religions and their concepts of pantheism. The former played a significant role in the early history of our country and the latter exerted itself especially beginning in the 1890's. The latter postulates that God is everywhere and in everything, and everything is God, and therefore the unlimited potential of God is in me. Western culture mixed this concept with secular marketing, motivational, and psychological philosophies, especially in the 1950' s - 60's and thereafter. This mentality develops in cultures which experience material prosperity, not in cultures which experience poverty. Materialism leaves people spiritually empty and searching for "something more," but they want to hear a message of optimism and not rebuke of sin and error, not repentance, not self-denial and self-discipline.
For more info on some of the history of this current in our society, read Donald Meyer's THE POSITIVE THINKERS: RELIGION AS POP PSYCHOLOGY FROM MARY BAKER EDDY TO ORAL ROBERTS. The author is a historian, not a theologian.
This mental conditioning makes people increasingly uncomfortable with the message of the Bible, and they find ways to "reprogram" the Bible to say what they are thinking (this is man making God in his own image). From this mentality comes all the talk about "positive" and "negative" themes in the Bible and in our preaching. I do concern myself with preaching "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), and applying the medicine where the sore is (Jer. 8:22; 2 Tim. 2:15), but I try to dismiss from my concerns whether people conditioned by our ungodly culture will label what I preach as "positive" or "negative."
Consider how the preaching of Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Immerser, Jesus, and Paul would be judged in terms of this positive-negative grid. They would all be judged way out of balance on the negative side! No preacher preached more lessons on hell than Jesus (check concordance). Yes, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about the reward in heaven, but his first mention of it is in the beatitudes which require men to empty and humble themselves in deepest penitence and which talk about suffering persecution in standing for righteousness (a rather negative way to frame comments on heaven, don't you think?). Yes, in John 13-17 Jesus taught about heaven, but it is all interwoven with how God's people will be hated, persecuted, and despised, even as Jesus was (this is not the American way to present a "positive," "upbeat" theme).
More babies died in ancient times by far than today, more people died without medical help then than now, there were more destitute widows than today. So, in these terms, there were more people hurting then than now, but not one New Testament letter was written to deal with that theme. Does that mean the Lord ignored this need and that we should ignore it? No, it means all such needs are addressed by the gospel in a way which is far different from modern America's obsessive-compulsive "positive" complex and modern religion's fascination with the positive mental attitude. The promises of heaven, teaching on prayer, and discussions of the blessings of fellowship with God in the Bible constantly are interwoven with plain, direct, bold, and even severe warnings about Satan, sin, error, apostasy, the need for repentance, and the reality of hell.
That should be the model for our preaching today. Where will we find more comforting material than in the Psalms, and, yet, they too are interwoven in the same way. Consider the very first Psalm as an example. Out of the six verses, four refer directly to "the ungodly" and one verse alludes to them, and yet where can we find a more uplifting passage of Scripture? For such a "positive" message, its "negative" elements and tone violate our cultural conditioning. Again, we need to purge from our minds any concern about how such teaching fits the positive-negative grid.
As people's convictions grow stronger in the constant battle between God and Satan, truth and error, the spirit of man grows stronger in faith. As his faith grows stronger, man is endowed with God's grace and strength to meet all the sorrows and heartaches of this world. One of the greatest texts on this theme is 2 Cor. 12:7-10, interwoven with Paul's devastating rebuke of false teachers and brethren who were influenced by them at Corinth.
SECOND, please consider another thought. Truth Magazine (do you read it?) is filled with articles emphasizing the blessings we have in Christ and also warning about sin and error, unlike other publications you mention which you regard as out of balance.
The preaching of Tom Roberts, myself, and others reflects this same biblical balance. We do not claim perfection in attaining that goal, but we are committed to the Bible model of preaching rather than modern concepts. I offer the following factual information not for boasting nor to seek any man's approval, but so that you may consider facts about which you obviously are unaware. Your comments show that you do not know the heart nor preaching of Tom, myself, or other brethren with whom we work, but I hope in God's providence we might become better acquainted and understand each other better.
Here are my recent sermon topics here at the Hebron Lane Church of Christ in Shepherdsville, KY where I live: "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be," "Preaching the Gospel VS Marketing the Message" (2 lessons), "Modest Dress Through the Ages," "The Danger of Murmuring," "Overcoming Sin" (3 lessons), "Giving God the Strength of Youth," "True Worship VS False Worship," "The Urgency of Preaching Christ in the Philippines," "Until Christ be Formed in You (Gal. 4:19-20)," "The Nobility of Work," "How We See & Treat Others" (2 lessons), "How the Lord's Supper Unites Us," "I Praise You, Brethren (1 Cor. 11:2)," "To the Pure, All Things Are Pure (Tit. 1:15)," and "God's Work of Saving Souls (Lk. 19:10)."
Checking the index for the 2001 Truth Magazine, I see I wrote 13 articles with the same mixture of topics and passages reflected in my sermons.
You mentioned people needing guidance after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack and implied we do not concern ourselves with such themes. On the very day of the attack, Tuesday, Sept. 11, a brother and myself went immediately to the local Red Cross and waited 7 hours to give blood. He gave. I was excluded at the last minute because of my travel and preaching in the Philippine Islands (malaria risk). On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I called the elders and suggested we dismiss all classes and unite in the auditorium for prayers and a lesson I hastily prepared entitled "God Still Rules in Times of National Tragedy." On Sunday, Sept. 16, I preached 2 lessons entitled "America Must Repent or Perish (Lk. 13:1-9)." On Oct. 28, having expanded my remarks of Sept. 12, I preached 2 lessons entitled "God Still Rules in Times of National Tragedy." The Dec. 6, 2001 Truth Magazine is a special theme issue, "America Under Attack," in which my article "God Still Rules in Times of National Tragedy" appears in the editorial column. I have been preaching this lesson in gospel meetings.
In gospel meetings (I hold 10-12 each year), other frequently used topics include "The Message of the Bible: Salvation in Jesus Christ," "The Patience of God (2 Pet. 3)," "All Spiritual Blessings in Christ (Eph. 1)," "The Blood of Christ, and Baptism," "On to Canaan OR Back to Egypt," "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage," "Parents, Hold Fast," "Trends Pointing Toward a New Apostasy," "Giving God the Strength of Youth," "Modest Dress Through the Ages," "Lovest Thou Me More than These? (Jn. 21:15-19)", and "The Sufficient Grace of God (2 Cor. 12:7-10)."
You have been receiving forwarded articles from me only a short time. I send such things only occasionally because I know brethren get overwhelmed by too much e-mail, but what I have sent within the last year reflects my concern for the biblical balance of the whole counsel of God. More articles not fewer like Tom Roberts' "Your Preaching Offends Me" are needed because our culture in so saturated with the PMA mentality. This article expresses love for God, for the truth which saves, and for the souls of men. I have received notes of appreciation from people who are hurting for several reasons, including one young preacher who recently had the courage to leave liberalism and who was nearly crushed by the bitter, underhanded attacks of his "loving, liberal, positive" brethren.
THIRD, I hope you will not be offended by my being frank, as you were frank, but I am not impressed by the efforts of the loving, liberal, positive brethren whom you commend for helping the hurting (though you avow disagreement with their extreme liberalism). I came out of that background as a young man. I learned by experience that their professions of "love for the hurting masses" is a sham, it is superficial, it is a veneer. They say, "Peace and love," where there is no true peace and love. There is not an iota of difference between what they are doing to "comfort the hurting" and what false teachers in Jeremiah's time did to comfort people with their soothing reassurances of "peace, peace." "They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14). The real need of people's souls is the "balm" of truth, not platitudes and pop psychology about how to have a "positive mental attitude" (Jer. 8:22).
When people wake up in eternity lost and realize they have been deceived, they will face a hundred fold the hurt they faced in this world (Mk. 9:43-48). The blind leaders who misled them there will be with them there, but will no longer be able to "comfort the hurting" with their "positive, loving" messages (Matt. 15:13-14).
FOURTH, if and when you truly get to know Tom Roberts, you will learn that he has been through the fires of tragedy from his youth up. You do not know another preacher any more tested and tried by life's sorrows, yet he has maintained his faith and confidence in God. His outlook is healthy and wholesome, appreciating the blessings of life and avoiding the pitfalls of bitterness. Because of his background, his preaching addresses the needs of those who suffer with full compassion, empathy, and sympathy. Tom's life and preaching exemplify what Paul said in 2 Cor. 1:3-5, "Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." You really do need to get to know Tom better, hear more of his preaching, and read more widely from his writing through the years.
FIFTH, you labor under the impression that men such as Tom and myself have never admitted wrong. To the contrary, we both came out of the institutional error you are presently struggling to come out of, and we came out precisely because we understand the necessity for humility, godly sorrow, repentance, and bringing forth works meet for repentance (Prov. 16:18; 28:13; Matt. 5:3-12; Lk. 13:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 26:20; 2 Cor. 7:10).
I was sincere when I used to sit by the radio and listen to the Herald of Truth, but was sincerely wrong, which I had to learn and correct. We have made other corrections all along the road of life, and will continue to do so when needed, because we understand that heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people.
You say you do not see a willingness by the "watchdog" brethren to admit wrong and make correction, but in regard to institutionalism, we have humbled ourselves and paid the painful price to admit wrong and make correction. In this instance, the words of Nathan apply in regard to the failure to admit wrong and make correction, "Thou art the man" (2 Sam. 12:7).
Perhaps you will say that since I did not admit wrong regarding your criticisms of "negative" preaching and "watchdog" mentality, your charge of not admitting wrong is proven to be true. After considering your criticism (a criticism I have prayerfully considered many times before), I do not find it valid. The description you gave of the work of Tom Roberts and myself simply is not true, as I have demonstrated with hard evidence (see my sermon topics, articles, etc. above). For me to seek your approval by admitting wrong under such circumstances would be nothing but a political maneuver, a ploy, hypocrisy, and a subterfuge.
Regarding your description of our work and your charges against us, EITHER we need to admit wrong because what you said is true, OR you need to admit wrong for stating what is false. If we are wrong in this matter and refuse to admit and correct it, we are blinding ourselves to the truth and manifesting arrogance. If you are wrong in this matter and refuse to admit and correct it, you are blinding yourself to the truth and manifesting arrogance.
If my own assessment and conclusion is not satisfactory to you, I can only leave it for God to make the final judgment on the Last Day. I know this about my own heart: On the one hand, I am ready to admit wrong and change if you show from Scripture any truth I fail to teach or any sin or error I fail to oppose. On the other hand, I am not willing to apologize for any truth I preach or for exposing any sin or error, even if I am judged by men as being "too negative." "For do I now persuade [try to win the approval of] men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10).
SIXTH, could it be that the truth of Tom's article cut your conscience, which led you to seek relief by discussing such things as too much "negative" preaching and the "watchdog" mentality? I raise this question, drawing on 40 years preaching experience, because I have noticed all through the years that people guilty of things discussed in sermons often try to relieve their consciences by reacting as you did.
For instance, if I preach on the duty of faithful attendance at worship services, those who do not faithfully attend either repent or they murmur about "negative" preaching and say something like, "No one is going to boss me around," i.e., the preacher thinks he is a watchdog. Others come out and say how much the lesson helped them, and how much they needed this reminder and encouragement because of various temptations or trials they face in life. The sermon was regarded as "positive" or "negative" because of the condition of the hearer's heart, not because of the subject or content of the sermon. You may have had the same experience.
When I consider the trials and temptations I am facing, Tom's article is greatly encouraging, uplifting, and faith building to me. I have heard from others who had the same reaction.
How do we explain the opposite reactions to the truth taught so plainly in Tom's article? The answer is found in the different conditions of hearts among the readers (Matt. 13:1-23; 1 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Thess. 2:10-12). How do we explain that the preaching of Peter and Paul was viewed in opposite terms as "positive" and "negative," sometimes resulting in baptisms and sometimes in riots? The answer is found in the different conditions of hearts among the hearers.
SEVENTH, I urge you to read Tom's article again and again, and give special attention to his remarks under the heading, "A Final Suggestion." "To those who register a complaint that our preaching is too plain, too harsh, (in a word) too offensive, let me ask something of you. Since you say that you are preaching the same truth that we preach but we are faulty in our approach, and you can do it better, why not get at it? Where are the public teachings from these men that bring adulterous marriages before the bar of God's justice? Where are the places where the same truth that we teach' about fellowship with sin is being clearly declared? Where are the sermons that are showing the error of unity in diversity? Where are the sermons being taught that are saying the same truth that we are saying, but doing it in a better way?"
In other words, if you can preach the same truth we preach but in a better way, preach the word "upon the house tops" and we will give you every encouragement (Matt. 10:27). If we preach and practice the same thing, God will be pleased (1 Cor. 1:10). Unfortunately, many who say we are "too negative" never get around to addressing certain sins and errors in the "better way," but they are very critical of those who are doing so in the best way we know to do it.
In conclusion, at least one good thing has come from Tom's article. It opened a door for us to exchange these thoughts. Hopefully, this will help both of us to be better Christians and better preachers. No doubt, Tom will be encouraged to know his article is being read and thoughtfully discussed.
In Christian love, Ron Halbrook
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