The Problem with Polemical Preaching

There are many ways to impair a sermon and muffle a ministry. Unsuspecting pastors have been doing it for centuries. One such way is by means of polemics. Polemics, strictly speaking, is a strongly written or verbal argument against another position. Polemical preaching then would be a sermon that goes after a particular practice or doctrine held by another person or institution.

LLoyd-JonesMartyn Lloyd-Jones called polemical preaching “thorny.” On the one hand, preachers can go wrong by being too weak, not adequately refuting the error of those who contradict sound doctrine (Titus 1:9, 2:15). On the other hand a preacher can become consumed with calling everyone and everything out. We now have ministries, churches, even websites that seem to build their identity on their reaction to error. After all, we live in a time that some have called the most undiscerning period in history, which means some preachers will undertake polemical preaching and ministry. But defending truth against error is only one part of faithful preaching. The question is not whether there is a place for polemical preaching but whether someone can do too much of it.

Some would say no. In fact, Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) interacted with them in his classic book Preaching and Preachers. In his chapter “What to Avoid” he speaks of a day-long conversation with a well-known preacher. MLJ talks about how he, unlike his friend, tended to avoid and rather dislike the type of preaching that “made mincemeat” of other preachers. In what follows I interact with and summarize MLJ’s points. They remain fresh for us today.

We want to win people, not destroy them.

Proponents of this type of preaching will often point out that even Paul opposed Peter in Galatians 2. Lloyd-Jones relays his response to this argument:

Yes I know that Paul tells that he had done that, but . . . I am interested in the result. I notice that the result of Paul’s dealing with Peter, his attacking him to the face at Antioch, was that he persuaded Peter that he was wrong and won him to his position. I note that Peter later on in life in his second epistle expresses his great admiration of the apostle Paul and his writings. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?

Sometimes this type of preaching can get away from the goal of restoration and holiness. In the name of discernment, we could unwittingly preach in such a way that is unbecoming of the gospel. Seeking life change takes thoughtfulness and care.

Be careful that you are not knife-happy.

As a trained medical doctor, MLJ responded to the concern that preachers must recognize and remove cancer in the church. Just like a surgeon needs to quickly remove cancer from the body, the act of preaching should remove cancer from the church.

MLJ deftly replied: “There is such a thing as developing a ‘surgical mentality,’ or becoming what is described as ‘knife-happy.'” Before having surgery you would be wise to talk with your general doctor and not to the surgeon alone. You should not be surprised that a surgeon might well, like to do surgery.

Sure, aberrant teaching and living needs to be excised from the church. At the same time the pastor should be careful that he is not becoming “knife-happy” in his preaching. There are other ways to treat such ailments in the body than simply having surgery (such as counseling, discipleship, writing, prayer meetings, and so on).

While conflict draws crowds it does not build churches.

MLJ’s friend later appealed to the fact that such preaching increases his popularity and influence. We see this trend in our day as well. I could write 10 articles on my blog about the glory of Christ and see little excitement. However, if I were to write about a particular conflict or controversial subject or figure, the traffic skyrockets. MLJ would say to us, “I have noticed always that whenever there are two dogs fighting that a crowd always gathers. There are people who always enjoy a fight so I am not surprised that your circulation goes up.”

People will flock to conflict; we feed upon it in our flesh. But a crowd does not necessarily indicate actual gospel growth. In fact, ministries and pulpits built upon polemics tend to become more and more popular even as they narrow. Eventually, though, they alienate everyone else. This is the sad story that MLJ tells of the pastor in this conversation. He ends up “in isolation, and his church, from having been a great church was reduced in size and influence.”

While a pastor cannot and should not avoid polemics in his preaching he must not be characterized by them (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:4). There is a such thing as too much. This is a subjective line, to be sure. It is difficult to discern. However, in view of his goal of presenting every man complete in Christ (Col. 1:28), the pastor will prayerfully, thoughtfully, and tactfully pick his battles and how they should be waged. In this process he will aim to stay clear of the polemical vortex that tempts his flesh and undermines his preaching.

  • Sam James

    Without meaning any disrespect to a very fruitful ministry, I couldn’t help but think of John McArthur while reading this article. It seems to me that in the past several years his writing and teaching ministry has been disproportionately occupied with refuting or “exposing” other ministers or books or movements.

    Contrast that with the writing ministries of John Piper or Alistair Begg. Both authors have written contra other writers at times (Piper especially). But their public ministries are characterized more by what they advance and teach positively, rather than what they are against.

    Again, I thank the Lord for the exegetical ministry of Dr. McArthur, but I think he would beneft from this article.

    • Derek

      I appreciate and see your point Sam! Never thought about that. Could it be that MacArthur saw a very dangerous shift away from the authentic gospel of Christ in these movements and ministries? I know he’s been on this charismatic deal for a long time. Thoughts?

      • malaine

        As a person who is a member of an evangelical church, and one who has been ministered to by Piper over the internet for many years, I must say my heart celebrates the clarity that is being presented by John Mac Arthur. Our large mega church is moving away from the sound proclamation of the Gospel to a more feeling orientated message. Our hearts grieve and would hope that the watchmen on the wall of our 25,000 member congregation had someone who would openingly proclaim the dangers that lie ahead in this seeker friendly,feeling are everything generation of believers. Take us back to the Word of God.

    • Greg


      I can see where you might think that based on what you see publicly.

      Are you basing this on his whole ministry, including his primary preaching ministry in his church, or just the published stuff and the broader appeals (i.e. conferences)?

      As concerns the example of MLJ, I love the section in Murray’s bio of him about his trip to Canada in the 1930s and tried to convince this polemic pastor to change his ways. A very helpful lesson for me and an example I have tried to follow.

    • Tim

      I’m not familiar with this writer so I have no idea who he was thinking about or if he was thinking about a lot of people when he wrote it.
      You’d have to ask him, obviously. But as someone extremely familiar with John MacArthur’s ministry I can tell you that he does indeed hate error and love truth but the brunt of his ministry is not built on tearing others down. His “highlight clips” are always of him accurately dissecting false teachings, but I can assure you his passion is expository preaching, not polemical preaching. That’s an unfortunate reality of MacArthur’s ministry–that people think all he does is bash other pastors. He’s willing to call out error and many (most of the Christian church) don’t like it.

      • bob

        he does indeed hate error and love truth

        So he has finally given up Dispensationalism?

        • Ryan

          Booooo. I’m not a fan of dispensationalism either, but come on.

      • http://www.OrdinaryPastor.com Erik Raymond

        Just to be clear: I was not thinking of John MacArthur when I wrote it.

    • Michael

      Sam, are you being polemical by mentioning MacArthur’s name in this way? Ironic!

  • taco

    So it is more a problem of balance in polemics than with polemics in general as the title implies.. phew. I was worried I would have to call my favorite watchblogger and report this for the next polemical post! (j/k)

  • DC

    Good stuff here. I used to be more of a polemic preacher until Christ redeemed my preaching. Why? because it’s unbelievably easy to tell everyone what they are doing wrong. ESPECIALLY if you’re a naturally critical (i like to call it “perceptive”) person. It really is easy to fall into it because one common problem with preaching is that preachers like to preach points that they want to preach, and then use the bible to support them. Polemic preaching is basically this. it’s easy to preach what you want and then google 15 verses that seem to agree with you, whether in context or not. Who cares! As long as I get my point across! Preaching too easily becomes about making pastor’s point rather than making God’s point. Making God’s point is better done through contextual preaching. And if you do contextual preaching, you will find yourself not being able to do as much polemic preaching. Unless you really start stretching stuff.

  • Ryan

    Excellent post. As the internet blossoms and one can suddenly hear great preachers from around the world, the competition for drawing ears also intensifies, consciously or not, and too often an excess of polemical preaching is just the way people go about doing that. This is anecdotal, but personally among the different young adult ministries I’ve been a part of I’ve seen a definite increase of interest over the past five years or so in sermons that tend to use a verse or two of Scripture as a springboard to a rant about some other topic.

    I suppose this may, in part, be hereditary. As Protestants, polemical preaching and defining ourselves by what we are against is who we are. It’s in our spiritual blood. I would hazard a guess that a great many Protestant leaders have privately fancied themselves as a sort of modern-day Luther or Calvin, boldly speaking out against the heresies and false teachings of today in an act of lovingly correcting the church and ushering in some sort of New Reformation. Our faith tradition, after all, was birthed by conflict, and the heroes of Protestantism are largely dissenters and critics. I think that perhaps as a result of these and other factors, we have a tendency to glorify and romanticize polemical preaching.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com Curt Day

    There are two problems with polemic preaching today. First, those who have been baptized by a prolonged immersion into a consumer culture will have too little patience to listen to what they need to hear.

    Second, too many preachers who employ polemics in their messages also externalize sin and evil so that there is no identification with the audience and thus there is an inability and lack of desire to speak to others as they wish to be spoken to. Such preachers believe that they must destroy others to win them over.

  • DC

    Do you think there’s more room for polemics in books and blogs than in preaching? Are “critiqual” bloggers more justified in their incessant polemics than are preachers? Thoughts?

    • Ryan

      Not the authour, but I would say that there’s more room. While the role of sermons can overlap with the roles of books and blogs, ultimately they are very different things. Because the sermon is a part of the worship service and a way that we as the body of Christ come together to praise Him, I think it’s a bit more restrictive than books or blogs are in this regard. It’s a bit like how music fulfills all sorts of different roles in our lives, but not all of those roles should be a part of the Sunday service. It’s great for a guy to write a song to propose to his girlfriend, but no one would be happy about having that song get integrated into his church’s canon of worship music.

      So it is with other forms of communication. Books, and to an extent blog posts, are far more versatile in purpose than sermons, and as a result, can be a more appropriate avenue for polemics. They are certainly a more appropriate venue for polemics that have nothing to do with Scripture, which in my opinion would be an abuse of the pulpit.

  • Michael Bussen

    Points of article well spoken and taken. However, some may have a special gifting for discernment (discerning of spirits as per 1 Cor.12:10 ASV) and a calling to that kind of polemic ministry for the Church as neccesary. Perhaps that would not be best in line with a pure pastoral type of ministry in a local Church though, but maybe some kind of theologian-teaching ministry that interacts publicly with Churches through various means (publishing and radio and conference speaking, etc).

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  • http://www.redeemercommunity.net Pastor Rusty Mosley

    As a preacher, I polemically agree that too many preachers are polemical. …infact I would polemically add that the only polemic a preacher really needs to make is a polemic against his own personal sinfulness.

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  • Gabriel Powell

    One of the challenges with the matter of being characterized as a polemical preacher is the impatience of the modern ear. Some people’s only exposure to a preacher is the snippets of polemics they get through their favorite blog or website. They hear a certain amount and then characterize men like him as an overly polemical figure.

    But they are too impatient to realize that those polemics are within a larger ministry of preaching. For example, it is true that John MacArthur produces a fair amount of polemical material. But when you compare that to the week-in and week-out expositional preaching, the polemics are actually a small fraction of his ministry. It’s just that they get the most attention.

    In this day when our exposure to people is usually filtered, we need to be careful before we make character determinations.

  • http://gloryandgrace.dbts.edu Dave Doran

    FWIW, some differing and complentary thoughts at http://gloryandgrace.dbts.edu/?p=777

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Thanks Pastor Doran for your post. I think it’s a very helpful supplement or complement to Pastor Raymond’s.

      In fact, I think it’s quite good.

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