by Carl Trueman
While my online reading is generally confined to British newspapers, a friend brought to my attention this morning that Tim Challies had kindly linked to my post on transformationalism from earlier this week. Said friend was disturbed not by the link but one of the thread comments which recounted a “true story” of how I had served as an interim pastor at an OPC congregation and had regularly lambasted Tim Keller from the pulpit. Given that I have never served as an interim pastor at any church and have, to my knowledge, never mentioned Tim Keller from any pulpit anywhere, and indeed, hardly ever mentioned him in print or in private conversation, I fear there is someone out there pretending to be me. I cannot even withdraw or clarify my comments. As Newman said to Kingsley, ” Mean it! I maintain I never said it.”
Nevertheless, the anecdote about my sinister Redeemerphobic Doppelganger did lead me to reflect on the informal rules I use in the pulpit when it comes to what we might describe as polemics. When and how should a preacher engage in polemic in the pulpit?
First, we need to understand that warning people about false teaching is a necessary part of the pastoral and homiletic task.
Second, ministries built mainly on polemics build polemical congregations and attract only the angry and the disillusioned.
Third, before engaging in pulpit polemics, we need to ask: does a fair application of the text to the congregation at this point in time demand a polemic? Here we need to take into account what the text itself says. If the topic you wish to polemicise about is not in the text, allow the text to discipline you at this point and leave it out. The text is there to stop you jumping on your hobby horse.
Fourth, is the topic one which is actually disturbing some or all of the congregation, or likely to be coming their way soon? There is no point in polemicising against buying excessive numbers of Ferraris for personal entertainment if nobody in the congregation drives anything better than a Camry.
Fifth, is the topic of relevance to your denomination? Sometimes there are hot topics in specific denominational groups of which one can assume some, or many, of the local people will be aware. The Federal Vision, for example, was a major issue in the PCA a few years ago and it was necessary for many ministers to address that. I have never preached on it because I was never aware of it being significant in the local congregation.
Sixth, remember that the world of theology and theologians is different to the world of the congregation. Open theism might be a huge issue of academic debate at some point; but unless it is impacting the congregation, there is no point in raising it. More likely the people in the pew need to be reminded of what Jesus has done for them and how, exhausted and beaten down by the world as they might be, they can rest in him.
Seventh, do you need to name a name or can you simply critique the problematic concept? My rule of thumb when it comes to fellow Christians is generally to critique the concept and not name any individual. This is particularly important when it comes, for example, to other ministers of good standing. My goal is to warn people about bad theology, not to cast other ministers in a negative light. Sometimes naming a name is important; most of the time it is unnecessary or counter-productive.
Eighth, when you name a name, remember the Ninth Commandment. Even those with whom you disagree — indeed, even heretics — deserve to have their views accurately represented.
Bitterness in the pulpit breeds bitterness in the pew.
And if you hear me trashing Tim Keller from the pulpit this weekend, phone the police — the man is guilty of impersonating a church officer. He might be dangerous.
[Carl Trueman is Professor Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the Philadelphia area. He regularly Blogs at REFORMATION 21 where this first appeared. His most recent book is THE CREEDAL IMPERATIVE from Crossway, 2012.]