“Preaching Truth to Power”

Categories: Sermons

A few days ago, Jared Saltz posted a link to a monologue by newscaster Chris Hayes.   In the monologue, Hayes called out his bosses at NBC for failing to support Ronan Farrow’s investigation of Harvey Weinstein because Weinstein was powerful and had many friends.   It’s easy to “take a stand” when doing so will cost you nothing.   It’s hard to do so when you know there’s a price tag attached.

This is every bit as much an issue for preachers as it is for journalists.   There is a temptation to rail on from the pulpit about the abuses of X denomination, or about Y sin that no one in attendance practices.   However, when it comes to the spiritual problems that you know the brethren actually have, you’re silent about those.   

Preaching like that is extremely popular.   All of us love to hear about the things we’re doing right and somebody else is doing wrong.   However, it probably makes the preacher in question a false prophet, even if he’s only lying by omission.

By contrast, addressing problems in the congregation have is a fraught exercise.  People who believe that you are "preaching at them", whether correctly or not, are likely to get mad at you about it.  Indeed, if they are powerful enough, you might find yourself looking for someplace else to preach! The example of David in 2 Samuel 12 is easy for Christians to praise but difficult to emulate.  It's much easier for brethren to walk the path of Ahab in 1 Kings 18, and preachers know it.

It might seem, then, like the right answer for preachers is to burn their bridges every three years and move on, but I don't think that's necessarily correct either.  Yes, preachers are called to proclaim, but we also are called to persuade.  Preachers who focus on proclamation at the expense of persuasion are speaking truth, but they may well be missing out on speaking truth in love.  That doesn't glorify God either, and it is likely to intensify the preacher's usual struggles with cynicism and self-righteousness.

Perhaps we can define the work of the preacher with the congregation as earning the right to speak hard truths.  As much as I grind my teeth at the progressive rhetoric of "safe spaces", it is nonetheless true that people won't listen unless they feel safe.  They have to believe that you are convinced of their value before they will hear a critique of their behavior from you.  You aren't the one who gets to decide whether you are speaking the truth in love.  They are.

Among the preachers whom I most admire are those who have worked for decades with the same congregation.  Such longevity is nearly always proof of getting the truth-in-love balance right.  A church deprived of the truth for a long time will dissolve or apostatize.   A church exposed to loveless truth will run off the proclaimer.  It’s not surprising, then, that these long-time preachers nearly always end up serving as elders too, revealing a knack for navigating relationships both in their families and in the congregation.

Sometimes preachers are faced with Pilate’s-hall moments, in which either they boldly proclaim the truth or they do not, and they suffer the consequences either way.  May such men choose to honor Christ, whatever the cost!  May we also be wise, though, in preparing the way for the gospel, in serving our brethren with selfless love.  That way, when the time comes for us to preach hard truths, they will accept them rather than rejecting both them and us.