“When John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees comting to where he was baptizing, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?'” — Matthew 3:7
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” — Matthew 12:34
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” — Matthew 23:33
I’ve always thought that preaching against things can be too easy. It can galvanize an emotional response in a congregation by misdirecting emotion against earthly evil instead of directing it toward the love of Christ. It is the rhetoric of every charlatan, alarmist, conspiracy theorist, and rabble-rouser. Further, our political culture is increasingly marked by shrill, frequent denunciation, especially as a major election draws near, and the character of the Church’s public teaching ought to differ in tone and not just in content. Preachers should avoid drawing a congregation along by the cords of its worst self.
But we can go wrong by not preaching against things, too. Most preachers are cowards — and I include myself in that category. Preaching only the positive aspects of the Gospel, ironically, keeps us from committing our whole selves to its clear ramifications in the life of our congregation. We can actually teach moral complacency by the example of our choices in the pulpit. After all, holding up a stark standard of good and bad means that we preachers would need to uphold that same standard in our own behavior — and we prefer to be as morally lazy as anyone else. We choose the broad and well-traveled sermon path of talking about God’s love and letting him sort out the ethics: not a path, interestingly enough, ever chosen by a biblical preacher.
Why do we need to preach against things as much as we need to preach the Gospel positively?
- There are internal boundaries; and preachers need to be clear about them. For instance, preaching against adultery draws a clear boundary between right and wrong within the Christian community, a boundary that helps enforce biblical standards of behavior but which also provides a useful opportunity for expressing the boundary-crossing mercy of Jesus. A congregation that has never heard the sin of adultery — not necessarily the persons of adulterers — specifically denounced from the pulpit may not learn how bad it really is from the few times we sing the Decalogue during Lent or from the stray Gospel reading on the topic in our three-year lectionary cycle. This is especially true when pop culture and internal rationalization can convince us that biblical boundaries don’t apply to us any more.
- Christians do actually stand against things. There is evil, and we cannot compromise with it. We do well to heed the insight of the civil rights movement that silence is complicity. It is a perilous but necessary prayer question for a preacher to ask: “Where, O God, am I complicit in my congregation’s sins? Where are our blind spots?”
- Preachers need to be trained in a willingness to risk people’s displeasure. To take your employment in your hands and denounce a congregation’s favorite sin is an experience every preacher ought to have. It forges us into little John the Baptists who rely not on people but on God to take care of us when we honor his calling and his word.
- There is abundant biblical precedent for preaching against evil. Jesus did it. John the Baptist did it. Peter’s sermons in Acts are not shy about denunciation. Jeremiah, God’s mouthpiece at a rather unpleasant juncture in salvation history, did little else. The biblical prophets and apostles were not afraid to give the proclamation of God’s word its proper edginess.
- Repentance is absolutely necessary. Blessed is the preacher who can risk provoking anger in order to provoke repentance. Hitting the congregation too closely for comfort may mean we have to endure some blowback: but the spiritually wise congregation will actually desire this kind of challenge and miss it when it’s not there. Without a pointed challenge here and there, we never truly repent. And if we never repent, we never actually leave our sins behind, and that is a frightening prospect indeed.
- It can improve our preaching style. Great rhetoricians and preachers mix positive proclamation and negative denunciation; they manage the two in a seamless flow that heightens meaning by contrast. They pound on the pulpit one moment and raise their hands in ecstasy the next. If we as preachers can’t generate emotion in our own hearts about the Gospel and against those things which stand against it, we must ask what we think we are doing behind the pulpit in the first place. Why would we want to preach God’s word if we do not feel passionately about it? And about the abrogation of it?
I’m not suggesting that negativity is a magic cure-all for dull sermons or dying churches. Negativity in the pulpit can be dangerous and counterproductive. Preachers who are pastors are rightly hesitant to use negative rhetoric because we consider it our job before God to weld his people together, not split them apart; and we know the positive power of encouragement over time. Negativity is very easily misunderstood and therefore is always an unstable element in a sermon — we can’t be sure it communicates what we want communicated. And preaching against something can overwhelm or distract from the Gospel message in a sermon.
Preaching is like handling dynamite: it can do great good, cause great harm, and can possibly blow up in your face. It would be safer — though far less productive — to avoid denouncing anything. But that’s not the example we have in Christ, and it’s not the Gospel to which we are called.
The featured image is “And I say unto you” (2014) by Neil Moralee. It is licensed under Creative Commons.