Is the Christian pulpit a proper place to call out what a preacher may deem the theological errors of others? This is a question that deserves due and careful consideration, and I will try to make a small start on such consideration here. But first it should be noted that a culture-war mentality has crept into the church. Some of us are merely aware that attacks and accusations against various people are happening in sermons in some churches these days. Others of us have been asked to look at and assess examples of this. Still others have perhaps heard such sermons firsthand. Whether this counts as a trend in the church today is uncertain, but it is troubling. So what should we preachers think about all this?
An initial thought is that, all things being equal, the Christian pulpit is first and foremost a place from which to herald and proclaim the Good News, not a place to dwell on bad news. The main Greek verbs in the New Testament that get translated as “to preach” are literally a giving of Good News, the evangel (euaggelizein), and a heralding of Good News (kerussein). Yes, en route to proclaiming what Frederick Buechner once termed “the sheltering word” of the gospel, we may need to speak first about the bad news of our sinfulness, which has blown the roof from over our heads. We become more eager to hear a sheltering word when we are aware of our lack of shelter. So we must of course speak of sin in the pulpit or else we proclaim a Bonhoeffer-esque “cheap grace”—a gospel robbed of its punch. As John Calvin and many other Reformed theologians knew, the light of the gospel shines more brightly when seen against the dark background of our depravity and fallenness.
Beyond this, however, if the people to whom we preach are exposed to ideas that are popular in their culture or even in some church circles, how do we respond when we deem such ideas to be off the mark theologically or on a trajectory to what Paul in Galatians 1 calls a different or false gospel that is, therefore, no gospel at all? At times we may deem it necessary to deal with such false notions in a sermon.
Still, the wise and thoughtful preacher will weigh even these matters carefully. Not every false or loopy idea that floats around deserves air time in a sermon. When we run across false or mistaken ideologies of various kinds, it is good to ask: How many folks in my congregation are actually getting exposed to this? How many are likely to fall for these worldviews or ideas? What is the tipping point that makes calling out such things a pastoral necessity?
But what about naming names in sermons? What about calling out other pastors, theologians, and the like in ways that directly (or indirectly) identify them specifically? Again, wise is the preacher who thinks long and hard about all this. Before doing this, what kinds of questions or considerations are properly on the preacher’s mind and heart? A few thoughts:
First, determine whether the person in question is a well-known figure whose statements are very public. Some of us recall that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, several high-profile pastors—
people with their own TV programs and people famous enough to be dogged by reporters and asked questions—proclaimed the theory that 9/11 was divine retribution for America due to its many sins in areas ranging from abortion to acceptance of homosexuality. It seems reasonable to assert that famous individuals who declare or publish statements that make the headlines in the news could be named in a sermon in case a given preacher felt the need to give an equally public correction to specious theology.
Even so, we need to speak the truth in love. Insofar as it is possible, we seek to disagree with the stated position of a high-profile person without going further than is needed. We need not wholly dismiss these fellow believers or consign them to a category of someone doomed to eternal judgment or some other such summary dismissal of them as people. After all, they are folks seeking to be fellow disciples of Christ. It is not easy, but we can dislike someone’s theological conclusion while still seeking to love that person. How might we convey that clearly in a sermon?
Second, is the person in question someone with whom the preacher could easily have an in-person conversation before referring to them in a sermon? Some of the more famous people alluded to above are likely inaccessible to the average preacher. But other times the people in question are easy to connect with. Maybe we knew them years ago. Maybe they live nearby, or maybe they would answer an email and be glad to have a conversation. If so, the prudent and wise preacher would set up that meeting to explore on a personal, collegial level whatever matter is at hand.
Would such conversations resolve everything and eliminate the need for the preacher to call out the subject in a sermon? Maybe. Maybe not. But odds are that a personal connection would powerfully nuance any disagreement with that person. Unless such a personal encounter went very, very badly, having a one-on-one meeting would almost certainly make it far easier to speak of the other person with love in a sermon, even when signaling disagreement with that person’s ideas.
In a column in The New York Times in November 2023, David Brooks noted that we live in brutalizing times and that the danger for all of us is to be coarsened by such an atmosphere. Some of this coarsening has shown up in the rhetoric of the culture wars, wherein it is not enough to disagree with an opponent. We must hate them. We must not just win a rhetorical debate over them; we must fully destroy them and their reputations.
If or when this kind of coarseness toward others creeps into a Christian pulpit, the longer-term results—if not the shorter-term results—will lead nowhere uplifting and nowhere in service to the pulpit’s first and best calling: to herald and proclaim the Good News in Christ Jesus our Lord. And if that happens repeatedly, it could be that the congregation might lose its way in following Christ, perhaps even more than those whose alleged lostness was deemed worthy of a public excoriation in the first place.