The Pulpit is No Platform for Having a Dig at Someone
Are the pulpit and sermons the place for handing out reprimands, calling to order people or groups of people who embrace certain opinions or conduct themselves in ways not commonly accepted as normal among the majority in the congregation? Is it acceptable to address these things in a way that is more or less recognizable to most people? Do the preaching of the gospel on Sunday offer room to correct specific people who are known to have different views of faith and religious practices, also regarding the way of the church life? I would have delayed addressing this question, were it not for witnessing this myself recently while listening to a sermon. It did not actually deal with correcting of persons, but more with denouncing outdated notions of how faith is experienced, which are still part and parcel of a segment within the Reformed churches. It spurred me on to put pen to paper, even though it is a difficult topic.
Does it occur often? The fact that there is a Dutch expression “de preekstoel is geen steekstoel” (meaning more or less: the pulpit is no place for having a dig at someone) already proves that there always have been, and still are preachers who could not and cannot resist the temptation to use their position of having a “captive” audience in order to address wayward people, to subtly, or not so subtly, address their sinful behaviour. They take the opportunity to point out wrong ideas of others, or to press home their personal point of view, speak about specific sins, aberrations, and shortcomings within the congregation, while the audience is left in no doubt as to what or whom he is talking about. It certainly happens but I have the feeling that it occurs less frequently than some want us to believe. Thankfully most ministers are well aware of the importance and their high position when they bring the holy gospel to their congregations. They know the boundary between where their words should be received as the Word of God and when it simply represents a human’s opinion. However, there are cases when the pulpit is used in a way that is definitely unacceptable.
From the questions I received I will try to address some cases where the pulpit might have been abused, while doing it in a manner that avoids recognition of particular local situations.
Alluding to Specific Situations
When there are escalating tensions that slowly become more difficult to deal with in a congregation (which can occur in every church), then quite often this has an impact on the preaching on Sunday, in the sense that the effort is made to bring things back under control, to settle the unholy unrest, to prevent more angry eruptions, through the Word of God; in short, to show the congregation the way of the gospel. That is not a bad thing; it is actually good, as long as it is done in a careful manner.
The preacher will have to keep in mind that there may be guests among the regular members, for whom the gospel is equally intended. They may not even realize that the minister is talking about specific situations in the local church, but in this way sometimes things have been made public to outsiders through the preaching. This does not help to heal rifts within the congregation, but rather damage the image of the Christ’s church.
So caution is necessary, but it is also necessary to correct and admonish certain negative developments within the congregation. When we read the letters of the apostles, we can conclude that this was also done in the first Christian congregations. It becomes more difficult when there are tensions in a local congregation in which the local pastor and/or council is involved; when power blocs have been formed within the congregation, each of which wants to see their goals implemented, and where church councils and pastors have to make choices. Then it becomes very tempting to use the preaching as a vehicle to pointedly rebuke behaviours, reproach certain viewpoints, and convey — clearly or more covertly — which “party” the preacher favours. Then the preaching of the Word becomes a vehicle to put his own opinion on the congregation as being the truth. The worst scenario is when the conflict within the congregation has to do with the minister himself; when there is a collapse of trust between the servant and the congregation. We can find many instances in the history of the church, where a preacher, rightly or not, has tried to exonerate or justify himself by way of the preaching, with the Holy Scriptures in hand, or to show the wrongdoing of the opposing party and thus put spiritual pressure on them, without the listeners having opportunity to reply. Often the spoken word was reinforced by requesting the singing of militant songs in which the opposition was prayerfully encouraged to be subdued by heavy weaponry and violence. Even to this day this excessive way of underhanded preaching occasionally occurs among the churches. Incomprehensible but true.
Of course, there are a lot softer ways. It happens often that congregants criticize the preaching either during their home visit or directly with their pastor and then hear about it during the sermon, often without clear argumentation. In the personal discussion there was no agreement; there might even have been irritation with each other. However, you do not reach a solution quicker by using the preaching to convince members that you are right, even if the critical churchgoers were spiritually completely wrong.
Within the congregation there can be constant nagging to push for change but also a whining persistence to stay with the more traditional ways. If no solution is found through the normal visits of office-bearers in the congregation, it may happen that the preaching will say the last word about it, by making the naggers and whiners understand that they would be better off trying to seek their ecclesiastical happiness elsewhere. It may also happen that when these people are on their way leaving the church, a last word is called to them from the pulpit.
We also see this phenomenon when developments and events that take place within other churches are being criticized. A while ago I listened to a sermon which certainly contained worthwhile elements in explaining the Word, but was in danger of losing some of its power, when the preacher found it necessary to label the notions of misery, salvation, and thankfulness in preaching and faith experience as fossilized religious systems, while clearly referring to a meeting where these concepts had been addressed. Of course, there is the danger of a fossilized belief system. But one can be right and at the same time wrong when things are said in reaction to something. When you hear things like that, the question ought to be: when was it said, what was the context, and is this relevant for the spiritual edification of the congregation?
Our motto is: no political preaching and no voting advice from the pulpit. But it is also a fact that when people vote differently and advocate for another political party than what the majority of the congregation deems to be the right one, insidious comments and reprimands come from the pulpit — even insinuating that this person by definition could be excluded from a special office in church. We could cite a lot more examples.
Preaching is: thus says the Lord. That speaking is to give direction, encourage, and admonish. When there are spiritual developments and inclinations within the congregation that are worrisome and dangerous, the preaching will have to address those dangers. The Word will have to be used to point out why the congregation has to heed correction and amend their ways. We think here of fundamental spiritual distortions. Sometimes individuals and cases of lesser importance are mentioned in the sermon in such a blatant way that everyone can know who or what is being addressed, causing many to think that this is especially for that person. That should not happen!
We believe that God the Lord is among his people during the meetings of the congregation on Sunday. Christ wants to be there with his Spirit in order to give guidance to the speaker as well as the listener. Both activities require sensitivity and awareness of their responsibility. This is also the task of the elders as they are entrusted with the oversight of the preaching.