Listeners and Pulpit Integrity

Listeners can sense a lack of integrity like dogs can sense when someone isn’t a canine fan.  People long for the preacher to have a deep sense of consistency about them.  And it isn’t just the big and obvious issues like consistency in the preacher’s private life or relational issues.  Integrity comes into play in smaller things too.

For example –

1. Do you read Hebrew, young man?  That’s what I wrote in my notes after hearing a younger preacher say, “A careful reading would say this . . .”  It’s interesting how many of the preachers with no training in biblical languages seem so quick to make reference to them.  “This is a present continuous tense . . . Paul used a genitive so that means . . . the original word here is better translated . . . “  I could go on.  There is almost no good reason to make references to the original languages.  And if you aren’t trained, there are even more reasons not to try.  Take onboard what the commentaries say, but don’t imply knowledge you don’t have.  (An even bigger concern here is how credulous many listeners are . . . many actually don’t spot it.)

2. If you read this book every week for twenty-five years, you would begin to see . . .  I still find myself wondering if the preacher who said that had really read John’s gospel over 1300 times when he made that remark.  It certainly undermined his credibility because it didn’t feel real.  That’s the issue when integrity comes into question by what we say.  Don’t imply that you have a shortcut to special knowledge (the same could be said of claims of direct revelation during preparation).

3. Is that really your angst that is firing now?  Every now and then you will hear a preacher that seems to get worked up about something, but somehow it feels fake.  It’s like a smile that doesn’t wrinkle around the eyes.  It feels forced.  Some preachers seem to convey a conviction about things that perhaps aren’t really convictions yet.  That’s ok, just don’t pretend they are.  It really undermines perceived integrity when your angst feels hollow and learned.

4. Personalised illustrations. Using someone else’s illustration is common fare in preaching.  Pretending that actually happened to you, when it didn’t, is a lie.

5. Lifted sermons.  Using someone else’s illustration is common fare in preaching.  Being influenced by another preacher’s explanation of a text is good.  Having your wording marked by theirs is unavoidable at times.  But preaching a lifted sermon as if it were your own, well, what do you think that says about integrity?

Other ways we can undermine our integrity while preaching?

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7 thoughts on “Listeners and Pulpit Integrity

  1. I’ve found it is not a good idea to be the hero of my own illustrations very often. If an illustration is going to make someone look good, it’s generally better to find it in others. Otherwise, I quickly start to sound like I’m preaching about me rather than the Lord. On the flip side of that, false humility is deadly, too. Both of these just sound self-focused and fake.

    However, I want to somewhat take issue with you on the original languages, Peter. There’s a reason learning the languages has been considered a vital part of ministry training for centuries. I absolutely agree that making reference to them when you don’t know what you are talking about damages credibility. I’ve done it myself, unfortunately, and been dismayed when I actually learned something. But I don’t see how that applies when you’ve studied the languages.

    Knowledge of the original languages is extremely valuable in Bible study and sheds light on many passages that isn’t obvious in the translation from which you preach. Either you don’t shed that light for your listeners, or you cite another translation (which is just appealing to the original in a different way), or you risk your hearers think you are just making stuff up, because it isn’t at all clear in the translation in front of them. They may not know the Greek, but at least you are telling them where you got what you are saying, and they can go research it in commentaries to check you out.

    Perhaps an example might help. In I Peter 1, the KJV translators took the fifth word of verse 1 (“elect”) and put it at the beginning of verse 2. They did that for a reason (to keep the logical connection to foreknowledge), but it changes the emphasis. God chose us to be strangers. The pilgrim nature of our life on this earth was all part of God’s plan from the very beginning — it is no accident or surprise. That sets the tone for the whole book.

    My listeners may not need to know what the Greek word is, but if I’m going to temporarily drag “elect” back into verse 1 to communicate that emphasis, don’t I need to give a reason for doing so?

    • Thanks for the comment, Jon. I agree wholeheartedly with the training in original languages that has been going on for centuries. I think most modern Bible schools have compromised and lost too much by letting language study slip. I have studied both and affirm their value without reservation for exegesis (actually, my one reservation would be that people need to have enough to really know what they are doing, ie. more than just a year or eighteen months of Greek).

      Now there are two issues here – one is reference to languages when people haven’t got a decent level of competence (my stand is a firm “please don’t“). The other is for those who do know what they are doing with the languages. I maintain, controversially in some circles, that there is almost no reason to make direct reference when preaching. In my view the benefits gained in terms of credibility need to be weighed against the negative side effects of inclusion. For example, loss of trust in English translations, loss of sense of competence for personal Bible study, etc. Most explanations that make reference to the Greek that I have heard could easily have been communicated without.

      This all needs to be thought through in light of the audience. In a classroom setting I will freely refer to the Greek when teaching. In a pulpit I generally avoid it. If I were speaking to a gathering of trained church leaders then I might make direct reference, but for a normal mixed audience I typically avoid it. I think there is a hierarchy of ways to refer to something like you mention:

      1. It is possible to correct errors in translations simply and subtly by stating it correctly (sometimes we over explain where not necessary)
      2. Explain it without creating a scene over the translation (with KJV I would simply quote a modern translation and make a passing reference to “could be translated as…”, “is generally now translated as…” or “better translated as…” since people need to know the KJV is not the perfect standard in translation).
      3. If necessary refer to “in the original language” and correct it.
      4. If necessary refer to “in the Greek” and correct it.
      5. If necessary cite the Greek directly and correct it. (I seldom see the need to get this far down the scale and I view this as an exceptional situation.)

      I absolutely affirm the use of original language study in preparation. I just don’t think the benefits are as clear cut as some people think when it comes to references in the pulpit. I’m wide open to discussion on this though.

      • Thanks, Peter.

        I agree on protecting trust in English translations. In fact, I just spent a week writing about how much we’re supposed to — in 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Paul told Timothy to trust and use a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In general, the translators were a lot smarter than me :), and that goes for the KJV as well, so I’m not into “correcting” too much.

        Sounds like I’m much more “aggressive” than you in using Greek, though (not as much with Hebrew, because I’m not as proficient there), where I think that the English language just doesn’t lend itself to a translation that conveys everything the Greek was telling us. The grammatical structure of Romans 12:10-12 is stark in contrast to everything Paul has written previously in Romans, and our translation only hints at that. I see no reason to avoid mentioning it.

        I fully agree with your points that we can often teach what the original language says without directly referring to it. I also agree with your point that audience matters.

        Perhaps I’m more of a teacher than a preacher. I love to explain things, and explain why….

      • Thanks Jon. I agree that there should be real hesitancy when it comes to “correcting” translations. I don’t know who is more aggressive in using Greek. Certainly in the study I am a strong advocate, but see the overt references to it doing more harm than good in many instances in the pulpit. One of my profs once made the comment that your Greek is like your underwear – it’s very important to use it, but don’t let it show. Again, with sections like the Romans one you mention, I would err toward telling people that Paul’s writing is markedly different from what’s gone before (they have to take my word for that as well as for a reference to grammatical constructions in the Greek, but it does less to convince them that they are incapable of reading the Bible for themselves).

        I love to teach too, but see the preaching ministry as having a greater goal than education. Since preaching aims for transformation, and since a big part of that will come from listeners being in their Bibles for themselves, I think those trained in original languages should think beyond whether adding force to their explanation means it is automatically worth flashing the Koine.

        Let’s keep interacting on this and other issues, I appreciate your input brother.

      • Thanks, Peter. It’s a good challenge, I probably need to watch how often I spout something about the original languages.

        Sort of a tangent (because I’m a tangential kind of guy, I guess). Biblical teaching aims for transformation, too, right? Otherwise, we aren’t teaching it truely.

        I’m sure we agree that, whether preaching or teaching, references to languages, grammar, etc, which don’t ultimately tie in to exhortation (to think or act rightly) are just showing off.

        I don’t know if I mentioned it previously, but I managed to somehow never get a homiletics course (though I did get some quality in-church training). Several times in the last couple of months I’ve been glad I ran across your site.

        Lord bless.

      • Thanks Jon. It’s funny how we default to distinguishing preaching from lecturing as if the latter were supposed to be boring, or obtuse, or inaccessible. You are right, good Bible teaching in the classroom should be truly transformative, as well as informational/educational. I suppose there is a difference of sorts there, but I tend to view the difference in the listeners. In a classroom, I will have time to work through confusion and issues. In a church setting, people are at all different levels and the ones that really misunderstand something will typically not be the people who come up and ask questions. That is why I would be hesitant about things like Greek quotes in a preaching setting – some will come up and shake our hands vigorously, while others will slip away increasingly convinced that they could never see that in their Bibles (and so will leave them shut until next Sunday when they can “hear the expert” again).

        I think you put your finger on something with the showing off comment – there is more flesh in Christian preaching than any of us like to admit.

        Thanks for your gracious comments re the site. You are not alone in missing out on good homiletics training at Bible school. Sadly too many colleges are not able to get a homiletics specialist and make do with someone out of subject area or someone out of their usual ministry zone – like a pastor explaining what he does to a group of students. For me it was in homiletics classes with teachers like Gene Curtis at Multnomah that so many other subjects seem to click into place. To then study with Haddon Robinson was just a blessing beyond words. I’m really encouraged that you find this site in some way helpful.

        Warmly, Peter

  2. Peter, your point #3 reminds me of a story Doug Wilson often relates, about the preacher whose sermon manuscript had a marginal note in one place that prompted: ARGUMENT WEAK, SHOUT HERE.

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