The Need for Polemical Preaching

Erik Raymond has an interesting post up at The Gospel Coalition entitled The Problem with Polemical Preaching. Although his opening lines suggest that polemic preaching impairs sermons and muffles ministries, he actually concludes that there is a legitimate place for it within one’s ministry as long as one does not become characterized by it. He draws counsel from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the matter that is mainly helpful and which all of us who preach regularly should consider.

I’d like, though, to toss out a few ideas to place along side of Raymond’s concerns, some of which differ slightly and some of which simply complement them.

Pauline Call for Polemics
I think that there is greater biblical warrant for polemical preaching than Raymond’s post suggests. It seems clear that Paul considered the ability to engage in polemical preaching to be a qualification for elders, based on his instruction to Titus, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Paul goes on to say that these false teachers must be silenced and sharply rebuked (vv. 11, 13). If it is a qualification, doesn’t that mean our ministries must be characterized by it to some degree?

Win? Hopefully. Warn? Absolutely.
I’m not sure, either, that narrowing the outcome of polemical preaching to winning or losing your opponents is helpful. What about third parties who are listening to the preaching? Perhaps I’m off on this, but most of the polemical preaching that I’ve heard (and engaged in) isn’t exclusively aimed at winning over the “opponent” as much as refuting their position in order to protect others from their errors. Should we desire to win those who teach error back to the truth? Certainly, but they are usually not even present to hear the polemical sermon. For the sake of those being influenced by error, polemical preaching is a necessary activity that can help congregations grow to maturity “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).

Most pastors use polemical sermons to tackle errors that threaten their own congregations, not to confront false teachers directly. Even well-known preachers who engage in polemics in a conference are usually only addressing the ideas of their “opponent” rather than the person. A sermon isn’t a debate; it is a declaration. There is no need to assume that all polemic preaching is grumpy. It is quite possible to be winsomely polemical. But, I’d quickly add, that OT prophets and our Lord seemed not to think that being bitingly polemical was somehow sinful (cf. 1 Kings 19, Isaiah 44, and Matthew 23).

Let’s Balance Our Polemics and Our Assessment
I share Raymond’s concern about imbalance on this point. I have seen men hurt their ministries by creating a culture of criticism within their congregations, and once you unleash that beast, you can never satisfy its thirst for blood. Yet, I’ve also seen men who would never challenge or oppose error and therefore failed in one of their basic pastoral responsibilities, resulting in great harm to God’s people. The easy answer, I believe, is to do systematic exposition of the biblical text since that allows the Scriptures to control your preaching. When it confronts, you confront. Where it is under attack, you expose the weakness of the attacks.

Let’s be careful, though, of drawing faulty conclusions about how polemical other preachers are. It seems to me that the picture is easily distorted by the fact that polemical issues tend to generate a lot more attention than normal pastoral preaching. If I may risk an example, let’s consider John MacArthur’s ministry. My guess is that many readers of the TGC blog might think someone like MacArthur fits the bill of Raymond’s concerns, especially in light of the Strange Fire conference brouhaha. Is MacArthur a polemical preacher? Definitely at times. Most of his decades of preaching ministry, though, has been devoted to the chapter by chapter exposition of God’s Word from the pulpit of Grace Community Church.

The polemical side has shown itself, it seems to me, when he is addressing issues outside of Grace that threaten, in his mind, the health of evangelicalism. The only reason people even hear him speak at that point is precisely because of some threat to biblical truth that needs to be confronted. Since that is all some people hear, they might wrongly conclude that he is mainly (or exclusively) a polemical preacher. That would be a very shallow conclusion.

From a personal standpoint, I have experienced the tension this produces. Because of my connection to DBTS, I’ll get asked to speak at conferences that focuses on some issue and am assigned (or chose) an issue to address for the conference. If all anybody ever heard of my preaching was in that kind of context, they would be inclined to think I’m a polemical preacher. But if they showed up Sunday after Sunday at Inter-City Baptist Church, they’d have a very different picture as we walk through books of the Bible (currently, the Gospel of John).

My point? All faithful pastors must engage in polemics as they faithfully preach the Word. Some men, with access to a megaphone outside of their own congregation, will need to speak regularly about issues that matter and do so polemically. While that may be only a fraction of their overall preaching ministry, it may be the only part that most people see. As for me, I’m thankful that God puts watchmen on the walls. They have helped me. I hope they never stop sounding warnings about danger simply because they might be labeled as polemical preachers.


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