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Pride and the Power of the Pulpit; Preaching; Jeremiah Wright; Accountability; Preaching

Pride and the Power of the Pulpit

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at Thank you.

The Power of the Pulpit

Part 1 of series: Pride and the Power of the Pulpit
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It seems like everybody’s talking about preaching these days. To be more specific, everybody’s talking about one particular preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fifteen minutes of fame derive both from his association with Barack Obama and from his tendency to make outlandish statements in the pulpit.

Most of the commentary on Rev. Wright has focused on the implications of his preaching for the presidential candidacy of Obama. At the moment, these implications are not happy ones for the Obama campaign. The front page of today’s New York Times features a survey that shows plummeting confidence in Obama and growing support for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Much of this is attributed to the impact of the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

I don’t propose to weigh in on these issues because they are beyond my field of expertise. I don’t know all that much about presidential politics. But I do know something about preaching. Not only have I heard hundreds upon hundreds of sermons in my life, but also I have preached hundreds upon hundreds of sermons as a pastor for over twenty years. So I want to comment on some of the issues raised by Rev. Wright’s preaching. These issues can be summed up in the title “Pride and the Power of the Pulpit.”

As most of my blog readers know, last September I finished my sixteen-year-plus tenure as the Senior Pastor and primary preacher of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California, where I preached well over six-hundred individual sermons (including repetition, that was more than eighteen-hundred sermons). I don’t do much preaching in my new role as the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge. Since September, I’ve spoken often to various groups (retreats, conferences, seminars), but I’ve only preached three sermons (six times in total, with repetitions).

lego church pulpitLast weekend I preached for the first time in my new church, a church in which I am active along with my family, but not as a pastor. When I got up into the pulpit for the first time in that church, I was struck by how much higher I was than the people. I was peering down upon them as they were gazing up at me. By virtue of the sanctuary design, I was in a position of considerable implicit power. (Photo: The pulpit in Amy Hughes’ legendary “Lego Church.”)

As I preached, I was impressed by the fact that communication flowed in one direction. I talked; they listened. Of course that’s almost always the way it happens in preaching, but I used to take this for granted because I was so accustomed to it. Now, since I do more teaching of an interactive nature, when I was preaching I sensed the absence of feedback. (Ironically, given the recent prominence of Rev. Wright, the black church is one setting in which the congregation often speaks back to the preacher. Usually these are words of encouragement, though when I once preached in a black church, I heard one woman who kept on praying, “Help him, Jesus!”)

At the end of my sermon in my home church, there wasn’t a time for Q & A. I had the last word. There was no corporate conversation about anything I had said, no opportunity for people to ask questions or to challenge my assertions. I said it. They were to believe it. And that settled it. Or that’s the way it felt, at any rate. As I greeted people after the service, they had the opportunity to share their responses to my preaching. By tradition and politeness, these were mostly of the “Nice sermon, pastor” genre. If anybody was unhappy with what I had said, they had the decency to keep it to themselves.

Now what I’ve just described isn’t unusual. It’s the norm in the vast majority of churches throughout this country. Preachers preach and parishioners listen. That’s the way we do church. In this equation, the preacher is given unusual power, the power of physical elevation over the congregation, the power to have people listen with extraordinary attention, the power to say whatever the preacher wants without being challenged or questioned, the power to speak without having to listen to othersa. (Yes, yes, I know that good preaching actually requires several kinds of listening. But the preacher is not expected to listen to the congregation in the context of the typical worship service.)

You might think I’m leading up to a critique of this preaching power equation. Actually, I’m not, at least not necessarily. I believe that preaching with power can be one of the greatest things in the world. Indeed, it can be a way for a pastor to serve people, not to mention God. I also believe that preaching of God’s truth comes with God’s own power, the power of the Holy Spirit at work in both preacher and congregation. I think this is fantastic.

The point I’m making right now is simply that the preacher has been given a great deal of power by virtue of position, authority, tradition, and the willingness of the congregation to listen to a sermon. This power can be a wonderful thing. But it can easily be abused. One kind of abuse happens when the preacher gets caught up in the pride of preaching. I’ll talk about this in my next post in this series.

The Pride of the Pulpit

Part 2 of series: Pride and the Power of the Pulpit
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In my first post in this series, I talked about the power of the pulpit. The preacher who stands in the pulpit (or, as is increasingly common today, on the stage) has been given an extraordinary amount of power. There are few other places in contemporary where people will sit attentively and listen to someone speak without expecting to ask questions or raise objections. (Perhaps some classrooms and lecture halls have a similar dynamic. So do courtrooms.)

Since I am an occasional preacher, you may find it odd for me to talk about the power of the pulpit. Am I boasting? Am I puffed up with my own authority? I hope not. I’m talking this way not because I’m too big for my pastoral britches, but because I think both preachers and congregations would be better off by acknowledging the power of the pulpit. Only then will we be able to evaluate truly whether this power is being well-used or not.

peter parker uncle benPreachers, it seems to me, would do well to heed the advice that Uncle Ben gave to Peter Parker in the first Spider-Man film. Without realizing the full implications of what he was saying, since he didn’t know that his nephew had super powers, Uncle Ben said to Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Here’s a line worth remembering for every preacher: “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Ironically, only thirteen seconds later, Uncle Ben added, “I don’t mean to lecture and I don’t mean to preach.”) (Photo: Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben and Tobey Maguire as Peter Park in Spider-Man [2002])

But there are also risks in having power, and for preachers, one of these is pride. Getting up into a pulpit, looking down on a congregation, having people listen attentively without interrupting or questioning, being told “Nice sermon” again and again . . . all of this can go to the head of the preacher, greatly enlarging it. One can begin to think: Wow! I guess I really am something special. My ideas are pretty darn good. I’m pretty hot. Of course most preachers wouldn’t actually articulate such things since they are telltale signs of sinful pride. But thoughts like these can haunt a preacher’s consciousness, and they can lead to irresponsible preaching.

What do I mean by irresponsible? Several things, actually. A preacher is, first and foremost, responsible to pass on the truth of God faithfully and accurately. This requires lots of careful study of Scripture. But preachers who are overly impressed with themselves will tend to cut corners in their preparation.

Preachers are also responsible to speak authoritatively about that which is revealed in Scripture, but more hesitantly about applications and implications that are not clearly implied in Scripture. For example, as a preacher I could speak strongly in calling my congregation to love their neighbor, since this command is repeated several times throughout the Bible. Yet if I were to apply this command to a specific situation, say, loving the neighbor who abuses alcohol, I would need to be more tentative in my instructions. Sometimes love means confronting someone directly. Sometimes love requires patience in waiting for an opportune moment. Etc. etc. If I were applying the biblical call to love to the political arena, I would need to be similarly circumspect. Does love demand a tax-driven, government-run welfare state to care for the poor? Perhaps. Or does love point in the direction of economic development in a free enterprise model? Perhaps.

It’s at this point that preachers often let their pride overcome their good judgment. They get so caught up in the power they have as preachers that they overstep the rightful bounds of their authority. In my opinion, this is surely true of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who, as a preacher, should not have been preaching that the U.S. Government invented HIV “as a means of genocide against people of color.” Even if he actually believes this theory, he should not have preached it as gospel truth.

But it’s not just Rev. Wright who let his pride run away with him. I’ve heard conservative Christian preachers on television speak with extraordinary boldness and certainty about how the United States should relate to the nation of Israel. I understand that they think they can derive this from Scripture, but they should at least realize they are drawing distant implications from the biblical text.

Pride can lead preachers to speak far beyond, not only biblical teaching, but also their own expertise. I’ve heard preachers, for example, bash psychology as unchristian. What they have said about psychology, however, reveals a very scanty and superficial understanding of the subject. Their concerns about certain kinds or practices of psychology may be on target. But their generalizations and blanket condemnations are, in my view, irresponsible. They really don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’re too puffed up to realize it.

The pride of the pulpit relates, I think, to the lack of accountability for preachers. For the most part, preachers can get away with saying almost anything in their churches. This, I think is a problem. I’ll have more to say about it in my next post in this series.

Accountability: An Antidote to Pulpit Pride

Part 3 of series: Pride and the Power of the Pulpit
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In my last post in this series I suggested that pride can lead preachers to be irresponsible in their communication. We who preach can easily get caught up in the emotional rush of having people look up to us (literally), hanging on our every word (not literally). This can lead us to say things in preaching that, truly, we ought not to say. Such prideful irresponsibility has been recently illustrated by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But preachers left, right, and in-between can get snared in the web of pulpit pride.

What will help us to remain free of this snare? In general, sinful pride disappears when we look truly at who we are and who God is. When we see ourselves as sinners saved by grace, when we regard our abilities and opportunities as gifts from God, when we own our personal limitations, and when we glimpse the wonder and majesty of God, it's hard to be prideful. Humility before the Lord leads to humility before people, including ourselves. Any preacher too puffed up by pride needs, in my opinion, to come humbly before God.

But there's more that can help a preacher whose pride leads to irresponsible sermonizing. I'm thinking of accountability. We preachers need to be held accountable for what we say (and don't say). Curiously enough, on this basic point I agree with Jeremiah Wright. In his Q&A at the National Press Club, Rev. Wright actually used the word "accountable" with respect to pastors and their communication. Here's what he said:

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls -- Huffington, whoever's doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they are pastors. They have a different person to whom they're accountable. As I said, whether he [Obama] gets elected or not, I'm still going to have to be answerable to God, November 5th and January 21st. That's what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for office.

Rev. Wright is certainly correct in saying that preachers are "accountable" or "answerable" to God. (For what it's worth, I'd prefer to vote for politicians who believed that they too were answerable to God for what they said and did in their political lives.)

Ultimately, we preachers won't know how we measure up until we stand before the Lord. But, it the meanwhile, God has given the Christian community the responsibility for discerning the truthfulness and goodness of what Christians, including preachers, say. In one of Paul's letters in the New Testament we read:

Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil. (1 Thes 5:19-22, NLT, 2nd ed)

Though this passage doesn't mention preaching per se, it does speak of prophesying, which is fairly close to preaching. Both have to do with speaking God's word to people. When one claims to speak on behalf of God, the congregation of gathered Christians is not expected merely to listen submissively. On the contrary, they are to "test everything that is said" (v. 21). If it's good, they should hang onto it. If it's evil, they should avoid it.

Even though our church context today is quite different from the small, house-church setting in early Christianity, the principle of accountability remains applicable. That which is spoken in church, even by prophets and preachers, should be tested by the community. If preachers know that their words will be weighed carefully by those to whom they preach, then they'll tend to be more careful. Moreover, they may be kept from the pride that often accompanies a sense of invulnerable authority.

So how might this work in practice? Much will depend on the size of the church. A house church would have much more options than a megachurch. Can you imagine what it might be like if the American Idol judges weighed in after your pastor's next sermon?

Randy: Look, dude, check it out. Ya know, that really worked for me, man. That sermon was outstanding. It was da bomb!

Paula: I'm so proud of you because you're really being yourself with us. Plus, you look great today. I just love you and can't say anything bad about you because I never say anything bad about anybody, except Simon.

Simon: I've got to be honest with you, pastor. I came to hear the word of God today. But what I got was more like the baby talk of demons. You just didn't do your homework this week. Frankly, your sermon was a nightmare! If I were you, I'd pack my bags.

This sounds like fun, but I wouldn't suggest it. Rather, I think the evaluation of a preacher's truthfulness needs to be done by mature Christians who, by virtue of their theological depth and personal holiness, could be trusted to provide wise, godly counsel to a preacher. In many churches, this sort of input could come from elders. In other cases, preachers might be well-served by input from folks outside of their own congregation. I've often thought that preachers should be in accountability groups with other preachers, groups in which they evaluate one another's preaching. But I must confess that I've never taken the step of forming such a group, though I've been in several pastoral accountability groups.

What I'm suggesting about holding preachers accountable does in fact happen in many churches. There were times during my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church when one of my elders would talk to me about something I had preached. In a respectful way, the elder wanted to be sure what I had said was consistent with Scripture. On a couple of occasions I realized that I hadn't been sufficiently clear in my preaching, and I took a few moments the next week to clarify what I had said. If I began to preach something that was not supported in Scripture, or if my applications drifted too far into personal opinion, I'm quite sure my elders would have brought such things to my attention and expected me to correct them.

Please understand that I'm not suggesting that preachers get some sort of report card every week. Moreover, there are sure times when we preachers need to be forgiven for minor pecadillos. But if we preach things that are much in doubt and hardly based on Scripture, and especially if there's a pattern of such communications, then we need to be held accountable.

I have no idea if anything like this ever happened in Trinity United Church of Christ, where Jeremiah Wright was Senior Pastor for 36 years. It's hard for me to believe that all of his congregation, especially church leader, bought into some of the wilder things Rev. Wright preached. Perhaps some folks tried to hold him accountable. If so, it appears not to have had much of an impact.

What I've been saying in this post might raise questions or even trigger frustrations for some readers. I've said that leaders in a church ought to hold their preachers accountable to preach God's truth accurately. But what if you're not one of the key leaders in a church? What if your pastor preaches things that seem to you not to be true? What should you do? I'll try to answer these questions in my next post in this series.

What Should You Do If Your Preacher Falls Prey to Pulplit Pride?

Part 4 of series: Pride and the Power of the Pulpit
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As I wrap up this series on Pride and the Power of the Pulpit, I want to speak practically to those who find themselves in a situation not unlike that of Barack Obama. What should you do if your preacher gets puffed up with pulpit pride and begins to speak irresponsibly? Should you just sit there and take it out of loyalty or inertia? Should you leave the church? Or ???? (Photo: I'm preaching at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I hope without pulpit pride.)

It was easy for many to criticize Barack Obama for staying in Trinity United Church of Christ when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, was preaching irresponsibly. I must confess that I found his willingness to stay at the church for so many years to be perplexing, given what seems to have been Rev Wright's history of irresponsible communication. However, at the same time, I can appreciate Obama's commitment to the Trinity congregation even when its pastor was a rhetorical loose cannon. Church, after all, isn't primarily about the preacher. It's a community of people who have pledged faithfulness to each other. If you're committed to your church, then your instinct should be to remain in that church even if the pastor runs off at the mouth at times. Yes, yes, there may be a time when leaving a church is necessary. But such a decision should not be a Christian's first move when the preacher gets out of bounds.

So what should you do if your preacher says things from the pulpit that you find irresponsible?

If the offense is minor and rare, you might want simply to ignore it. Pastors say a lot of things, and deserve, in my opinion, a measure of grace and forgiveness when they mess up in relatively minor ways. If your pastor messes up every now and then, and not in major ways, then perhaps all you need to do is to pray more faithfully for your pastor.

However, even if the preacher's offense is minor and rare, if you can't let go of your negative response to it, then you should not ignore it. Unexpressed resentment or anger with your pastor will keep you from hearing God's word through that pastor's preaching.

If you can't ignore your preacher's irresponsibility, or if you have been truly offended by it, then you need to do what Jesus commands of his disciples in Matthew 18:

"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one" (Matt 18:15).

Note carefully that you're to speak to the preacher when the two of you are alone, not in the receiving line after worship, not on the patio. Note also that you are not to gossip about your concerns to others. Usually when people in church are upset with their pastor, they make sure others hear about it. Jesus says you're to go straight to the one who offended you, in this case, to your preacher. Furthermore, note that you're to be focused in your communication. "Point out the fault," and only the fault. Don't use the occasion of this discussion to bring up other frustrations with your pastor. Finally, note the point of the conversation: reconciliation. You're to seek to "regain" a healthy relationship with your pastor.

Of course there are times when one who sins against another will not listen when confronted in private. If this happens to you in your conversation with your pastor, it still isn't time to leave the church. And it still isn't right to gossip. Rather, Jesus says:

"But if you are not listened to, take one or atwo others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matt 18:16.

I'd urge you to ask one or two mature Christians, perhaps elders of the church, to join you for another conversation with the pastor. Those people will also be able to help you determine whether your offense is warranted. Once again, the intent of this conversation is reconciliation.

If that still doesn't happen, then things get tricky. Jesus says "if the offender refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church" (Matt 18:17). Most churches today have a layer of leadership that wasn't present in the time of the earliest church, a board of elders or deacons or something similar. In my opinion, your best move at this point would be to communicate in an official way with the board, probably through a letter. It will be the responsibility of the board to confront the pastor about any irresponsible preaching.

Now I realize that reality can be pretty messy. Some churches don't have boards. Some boards are under the thumb of the pastor. Some pastors will never listen to criticism. Etc. etc. etc. But, in my personal experience, as a preacher, a friend of preachers, and a listener of thousands of sermons, most preachers really want to say and do what is right. If they have been irresponsible, many will admit it and make amends. The result of this process can be a wonderful one, not only for the person offended by the preacher, but also for the preacher and the church.

So when should you leave a church because of a preacher's irresponsible preaching? I don't think there's an easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. I can imagine situations in which people decide to remain in a church where a preacher occasionally messes up for lots of godly reasons. It would be a major problem for me if those mistakes had to do with central theological issues. I could take a measure of anti-patriotic fervor in my pastor far more easily than I could stomach heresy.

Curiously enough, the sermon tidbits that got Jeremiah Wright into trouble were not theological teachings so much as social commentary. Wright wasn't denying the deity of Christ or salvation through Christ or something essential to orthodoxy. Rather, he was espousing views about the U. S. government and American society in general that were negative and, in my opinion, eccentric. It seems to me that a preacher who gets the theology right but says some kooky things about society deserves more grace than a preacher who preaches theological heresy but does so with exuberant patriotism. (I have not studied Rev. Wright's theology enough to know where he stands with respect to historic orthodoxy.)

If you decide that you need to leave a church, I'd urge you to do so with as much grace and kindness as you can muster. Throughout my years at Irvine Presbyterian Church, there were people who left the church largely because of me. That was hard for me, as you can imagine. But some who left did so in a way that honored our relationship and my pastoral role. They came to me, explained honestly why they were leaving, but without unnecessary criticism. They found things to affirm in my ministry, and I was able to return the favor. Though our parting was painful, it was healthy for all involved, including the church. Moreover, their kindness and responsibility made it so much easier when we ran into each other at Starbucks or wedding receptions.