Last week one day I was reviewing some of the audio sermons available in the archive of my Center for Excellence in Preaching website. One sermon I listened to was preached by my friend Tom Long at the Worship Symposium some years ago and in which, at one point, Tom singled out a very troubling comment and line of thought that was expressed by Joel Osteen in his book Your Best Life Now. Afterwards, I remember Tom coming in for some criticism from some of the other people and pastors at the conference. Some felt it was just wrong to attack or criticize in a sermon someone who professes to be a fellow Christian.
But I don't need to recall just my friend's experience in this regard--I've had my fair share of similar commentary. In one sermon years ago, I was talking about the damage that hypocrisy causes to the Christian life and to the wider church. This was right at the time when some new Nixon White House audio tapes were made public in which Dr. Billy Graham was heard making clearly anti-Semitic remarks to the President. The remarks were at odds with more public things Graham had said about the Jews such that his comments recorded in private (and in secret) were clearly an instance of hypocrisy, of saying one thing in public and completely opposite things in private. So I used this as an unhappy illustration of hypocrisy in my sermon. But after that sermon I was assailed at the church door--and in a letter again the next day--by a man from my church who said I had besmirched a great man in that sermon. "You should never criticize a fellow Christian in a sermon" he said. Over the years a few others said similar things when I singled out dreadfully arrogant and judgmental public comments by Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson (particularly following 9/11).
"If you can't say something nice" the old bromide has it, "then don't say anything at all." And let's admit that preaching should not be a time in which a primary thing that happens is the preacher beats up on anyone and everyone he or she does not like. As it is, there is too much preaching that happens in which the sermon reads more like a diatribe against secular society, the ACLU, liberals, or anyone else whose lifestyle or viewpoints are different from the views of that particular congregation. Preaching is supposed to be Good News, not Bad News; it is supposed to leave people with the hope and joy that come from seeing God's grace in action not with the smug satisfaction that comes from giving your opponents in the world a really good tongue lashing.
True enough. But does this mean that a preacher may never single out people--including Christian people--whose views or statements represent heresy, bad teaching, or some other potentially injurious way by which to present the Christian faith? Are there any lines or boundaries to be observed in this regard?
Well, I suppose one line that the preacher should not cross would be reporting a private conversation with a fellow Christian and then holding up that person--perhaps by name--in some illustrative way in a sermon. And probably we'd all agree that it is unfair (and itself worthy of critique) to hold up caricatures of another person's views or a too-simple caricature of the teachings of a whole denomination or tradition within the wider church. It certainly would do no one any good for the preacher to criticize fellow preachers in the area in case conversations with such local colleagues had revealed political or doctrinal disagreements.
But what about fellow Christians who put their views out there for all to see? What about people who write books (including books that sell very well and so influence potentially many) that state incorrect or troubling views? What about the people who promote those views on television or in newspaper interviews or on websites? What about the church across town--past which many people from one's own congregation drive multiple times each week--whose church sign slogans are ugly broadsides against gays or some other groups? When such views are publicly aired by the persons in question--and so publicly promoted and defended and disseminated--would it not in fact be a kind of homiletical malpractice if the preacher failed to countenance--if not counteract--ideas that had the potential to lead his or her own congregation astray? Didn't even Jesus call out the Pharisees again and again in a similar way? (And notice: fellow religious people--or those who professed to have God on their side--were just about the only people Jesus mentioned in his teachings. You never find Jesus, for instance, singling out for scathing critique the Caesar or Herod or Pilate.)
As with so much else involved in preaching, great thoughtfulness is called for in case a specific person is mentioned in a negative light in a sermon. Maybe we preachers always need to hedge just a bit with caveats about not necessarily questioning the author's sincerity or not making any final assessments on the other person's faith. Certainly if the person whose views are mentioned subsequently apologized, that fact should at the very least be mentioned and just possibly such a retraction might mean it is no longer necessary to mention that view (or at least the person who expressed that view) at all.
The Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament make it clear that as the early church matured a bit and as it encountered more and more conflicting views from the surrounding culture, there was a high premium placed on sound teaching. Timothy and Titus are repeatedly urged by Paul to promote good doctrine and sound (literally "healthy") teaching in their sermons. Doing so inevitably had to involve mentioning sound teaching's opposites now and then, including perhaps those who promoted those opposing views.
Preaching should mostly be about saying something nice, but not at the cost of saying nothing at all in case the soundness of the faith is threatened.