The Preacher’s Greatest Temptation

In the Sunday, August 9, 2009, “Parade” magazine, movie celeb Brad Pitt is talking about his life with Angelina Jolie. They are all the rage of the tabloids, they appear to be in love, they live together but are unmarried, and they’re the parents of five children, three of them adopted from various countries.

Wherever they live–in France, in L.A., and in New Orleans–Pitt says he tries to get involved in helping the needy. In New Orleans, his organization is leading the way in innovative techniques for building new homes for those devastated by Katrina.

And yet, this couple is a favorite target for anyone with a soapbox and a sermon, it would appear.

Pitt says, “I resent people telling others how to live! It drives me mental!”

“Just the other night,” he says, “I heard this TV reverend say that Angie and I were setting a bad example because we were living out of wedlock, and people should not be duped by us! It made me laugh!”

He might have laughed, but he was angry. “What d–n right does anyone have to tell someone else how to live if they’re not hurting anyone?”

Those of us in the ministry know exactly what was happening with that preacher, I surmise. He was making a point, a biblical one, no doubt, about the sanctity of marriage or the importance of obeying the teachings of scripture in one’s personal life. He thought of Brad and Angie and threw that in to make his point.

A few years ago it was Elizabeth Taylor and her–how many, eight?–multiple marriages. In the 1990s, it was President Bill Clinton and his philandering ways. It was Michael Jackson, it was Marilyn Monroe, it was Madonna. In the 1940s it was Errol Flynn and the usual Hollywood crowd.

It’s cheap preaching.

On the surface this kind of direct, in-your-face sermonizing seems biblical since the Bible has so much to say on the subject of marital fidelity and purity of mind and body. The Old Testament prophets seem to have come down hard on the rulers of their day–the only kind of celebrities they had–and spared no guns.

But those prophets exercised a kind of caution absent with a lot of today’s preachers.

Check out the preaching of Amos, the blisteringly strong 8th century B.C. prophet, who is the role model for every modern would-be prophet. Amos was careful to deal with the big picture and not to accuse individuals by name. Well, okay, other than the head priest of Israel, a character named Amaziah who asked for everything Amos handed him. (Read Amos 7:10ff for that story.)

There’s something self-righteous and hypocritical within some of us–maybe all of us; I’m not sure–that cries out for the preacher to “let those other people have it!”

I still cringe at the memory of the preacher who stood at a public gathering in the Washington, D.C., area and opened with a stale joke, “As Elizabeth Taylor said to her eighth husband, ‘I’ll not keep you long.'” In the audience was Virginia Senator John Warner, the eighth (or whatever number) husband of Elizabeth Taylor.

An incredibly deep hurt, no doubt, and for what? absolutely nothing. The preacher was just trying to be cute.

Let’s see if I can say this and be kind and gracious about it: the preacher who stands in his pulpit and attacks modern celebrities by name for their sins is a coward.

If he is addressing the sinners in person, and decides to talk with them about their behavior, that’s another story. (We think of John the Baptist confronting Herod Antipas for taking his brother’s wife. The story is recorded in Matthew 14, among other places. It was courageous, it was bold, it got him arrested, and eventually beheaded. Was it the right thing to do? We’ll leave that to the Lord and John.)

“I preach against sin,” some man of God responds.

No problem there. But let’s see you address the sins of your audience, not those out in La-La-Land. Those are too easy targets. The ones in the pews pay your salary, and in too many cases, buy your silence.

“I follow the example of the Apostle Paul,” another says.

If you do, great. But let’s look at what Paul did, or more precisely, what he did not do.

The time is Paul’s third missionary journey, the place is Ephesus, and the setting is a mob scene. So many people have been responding to the gospel message of Paul and his team that the makers and sellers of figurines depicting the goddess Artemis (Diana) are losing business, a major tourist industry in Ephesus. What we have here is a riot scene brought on by the chamber of commerce! The town’s commercial leaders want to protect local industry and attacking these upstart Christians seems to be the way to do it.

It took the town clerk to quieten the disturbance. How he did it and what he said is what we find most instructive.

Addressing the mob, the official said, “You have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess.” (Acts 19:37)

Now, meditate on that a moment. Here we have what may be the greatest preacher in the history of Christendom and he’s ministering in a city devoted to the worship of Diana, the goddess of the Romans. And by the testimony of a leading official of Ephesus neither Paul nor his team members have spoken one word against that idol.

What a great temptation it must have been for Paul to have gotten on television, bought billboards, rented out the city auditorium, and lambasted the pagan idolatry that was choking the life out of those citizens in a wicked stranglehold. Such idol-worship gave rise to all kinds of evil and wickedness.

Yet, he didn’t do it.

It was too easy. Too cheap a shot. Unworthy of the Lord Jesus Christ whom, you surely have noticed, did not condescend to mention the behavior of Herod and Pilate and their contemporaries. He could have; He knew what they were doing. He had bigger fish to fry.

The Lord and the Apostle Paul and every faithful servant since have all stayed with the “good news of the gospel.” When they attacked sin, they either did it one-on-one in private or in broad generalities.

So, preacher of the gospel, stand tall and preach the Lord’s message. But when it comes to addressing the sins of society, stay with the bigger picture. If you feel the need to call names, do so face to face, otherwise, exercise courage and discipline and be silent.

After all, what man of God among us would not like to be the one to introduce Brad and Angelina or Madonna and Elizabeth to Christ?

Or were we just trying to win some hearty amens out of our

self-important, self-centered contributors sitting on the front row?

Pray for your pastor. The temptations to compromise come in all forms.

8 thoughts on “The Preacher’s Greatest Temptation

  1. Bro. Joe,

    There are no coincidences in God’s world. I read that same article today and normally I don’t read things about celebrities.

    I am glad to have read your perspective on this because it was another lesson I needed to learn. I’m afraid I would have made the same mistake the t.v. preacher made.

    If we are to be salt and light, we need to be as prepared as possible. (Matt 10:16)

  2. Wow, Joe! I am thankful for your words. I agree. As pastors and preachers, we have a great responsibility in proclaiming the gospel. To to quote my grandaddy, I’m thankful for your “Holy Ghost boldness”!

  3. We certainly need to preach more about sexual sins, infidelity, and living together. If we do so only for the younger generation to keep them from falling into that lifestyle. However, as you point out so well, picking on individuals by name ain’t cool. Every congregation these days has couples living together. Even small congregations of 25 or so may have two or three (I’m not naming names). You can drive them away or relate to them gently, leading them to marriage. Been there, done that.

    BTW – Amos came close to naming names when he called the society women of his day a bunch of drunken heifers – literally. The translators smooth it out a bit.

  4. Bro. Joe,

    I am truly amazed! Thank you for having the guts to say the things that you did!

    To quote an old commercial: Thanks, I needed that!

  5. Bro. Joe,

    Though I may not have realized it at the time, I think your wise and compassionate preaching during my “growing up” years must have had a big influence on the beliefs I still hold to today. Thanks!

  6. I was once embroiled in a controversy in a fundamentalist group about “militant” versus “non-militant” separation. “Militant” separatists were those who “named names” and the non-militant didn’t think that was necessary. The militant separatists often said “Paul named names, so its right for us to name names…” I was to address the issue at our conference that year and noted that when Paul “named names” about false teachers, etc., it was always in the personal letters to Timothy and Titus. When he address churches, like the Galatians or Corinthians, where there were serious problems, he chose not to name specific persons. I concluded that one could provide warnings about false teaching, immorality, and the like by speaking in fairly general terms to a wide audience. At the same time, there may be a moment when, in a more private setting, a specif person might be addressed by way of an example or warning.

    In this case, the preacher could have just as easily gotten his point across by warning us not to let the public lifestyles of celebrities set our moral agenda… Yet in a private setting say to a young couple, “just because Brad and Angelina did it doesn’t make it right…”

  7. This is such an instructive post. It would be a good read for clergy and church goers alike. If we could move away from our passion for judgment and directing other people’s lives and move toward the profound passion that Jesus showed for love, we would be so much further ahead.

    The Holy Spirit has taught me that nothing wins souls like pure love. We teach by the love that we show — not by the lectures we give. Our arrogance and our egos prevent us from “letting our lights shine” that men may see our good works and glorify THE FATHER. The Father will do the work!

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