Last week, a group of friends of mine had a discussion about certain street preachers who frequent the U.C. campus. The majority of the group spoke against them because of their offensiveness and ineffectiveness and because their message drives people further away from the truth and causes them to sin. I have never heard these particular preachers preach, so I cannot judge them one way or the other, but I took the opposite view, partly for the sake of argument, partly because I think that most preaching goes too far in the opposite extreme, and partly because I’m just plain ornery. There were two specific points mentioned about the preachers that the group found objectionable. They told specific people that they had committed certain sins and that they wore T-shirts which said “Repent Pervert”. (There may have been others which I don’t remember.) I will get to these objections later, but first I want to clarify my position.
It is wrong to rejoice in the fact that other people are going to hell. It is wrong to tell people that they are going to hell without explaining the reason why. (The reason is that they have committed sins which greatly offend God.) Those who preach just to be seen by men have received their reward in full. Accusing people of committing sins, not knowing that the accusation is true, is slander, which is a sin. It is also wrong to present God as only being a God of wrath, and leaving out the part about his goodness and loving nature. If these preachers are doing any of these things, then I totally agree that they are doing more harm than good.
But, on the other hand, if the only objection is that they exposed sinful sexual behavior for the filthy and shameful thing that it is, then I do not agree. This was done over and over throughout both the Old and New Testaments. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with preaching about hell either. Jesus did it. How can anyone understand the significance of the death of Jesus if they aren’t convinced that it saves people from shame and hell? If saving people from hell is one of the most important reasons for witnessing to someone, isn’t it being disingenuous to leave that out of the message? In his sermon on the mount, Jesus preached about both sexual sin and hell, but did not mention either his own death on the cross or being the Son of God. On many occasions Jesus actually told his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (e.g. Matthew 16:20) or about him dying on the cross because the people weren’t ready for this message yet. This is also why Jesus had a forerunner who preached a message of repentance first.
Someone said that Jesus only preached that way to the religious leaders. I do not agree with that argument. Jesus often preached more harshly to “teachers of the law”, scribes, “experts in the law” and Pharisees, but they are not the only ones he preached convicting messages to. (Not all Pharisees were “religious leaders”.) Jesus preached against sexual sins and warned of hell several times in sermons addressed to general audiences.
I don’t agree with the argument that the “Repent Pervert” T-shirt is wrong because it would drive people away from the truth or that no one would ever come to Christ because of such a statement. I guess I’m just weird. I am actually attracted by provocative statements such as this. Even if I know that I disagree with someone’s point of view, I tend to want to listen them more if they display some evidence that they are passionate about what they believe in.
I pointed out that after Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” (John 6:53, KJV), many no longer followed him (John 6:66). Also, Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. Jesus could have had more followers if he had attended a “Developing Interpersonal Relationships” seminar, but that isn’t the point. There are lot passages which teach that it is better to fail at making a true convert than to succeed at making a false one. The Canaanite woman said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs.” (Mark 7:28, KJV) This beautiful expression of humility would never have happened if Jesus hadn’t called her a dog.
Quoting Matthew 18:6 (or Mark 9:42 or Luke 17:2), one person said that this type of preaching would cause people to sin. But these passages refer to “offending one of these little ones that believe in me”, not causing adult unbelievers to sin, which is what we were talking about. The same principle applies to a certain extent, but how does wearing a “Repent Pervert” T-shirt cause someone to sin? In order for this argument to be valid, you must give a Biblical proof of this or at least give an example of an instance in which this actually happened to someone. Even if making a statement about how God abhors sin causes someone to sin, this does not count as “causing someone to sin” in the sense Jesus was talking about. For Paul said:
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead…But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.”
Romans 7:7-13 (KJV)
I am assuming that no one believes that street preaching itself is wrong, but only the manner in which these particular preachers were addressing their listeners. (I think someone said that it is better to speak to someone you know in a one-on-one conversation. This may be better in some situations for some Christians, but there are many, many, examples of preachers addressing large crowds of people probably not known to the speaker in the Bible. So why not do it today?) I also want to point out that there is nothing wrong with showmanship in street preaching. Some preachers may do this to draw attention to themselves, but it can be done with pure motives and draw attention to Christ in way that is not sinful. Ezekiel laid siege to a brick, laid on his left side for 390 days, laid on his right side for 40 days, and baked bread over cow’s dung to send the people God’s message (Ezekiel 4). Ezekiel was only responsible for delivering the message, not for people accepting it.
Finally, I will address the point made about pointing out certain people in the crowd and saying that they had committed a certain sin (or was committing it). Generally this would be wrong because you couldn’t know that someone had committed that sin if you don’t know them. But if, for example, a young woman in the crowd was scantily dressed, then it would be entirely appropriate to call her a fornicator. This is a much more clearly appropriate instance in which you should criticize someone for causing someone else to sin. Jesus said:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Matthew 5:27-30 (KJV)
In defense of the group, I would have to say that I tend to lean more the style of the Way of the Master than the preachers we were talking about. Instead of telling people they are sinners and telling them to repent, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort ask you if you have committed certain sins and then ask you how you think God (being just) will judge you. But this is a relatively subtle point and is not an absolute rule by any means. I also like Paul Washer.
In conclusion, I believe that the majority of preachers unnecessarily avoid controversial topics and effective teaching methods because they are so afraid of offending people. There are far fewer who are preaching a message which is too harsh. There is nothing wrong with preaching against sexual sins or about hell in a provocative manner. You shouldn’t worry for offensiveness about whether a message would drive someone further away from God if that is the only reason. The number of people who respond positively to a message in the short run is not the true measure of its success. Showmanship can be used in a beneficial way when preaching the gospel. You can’t fault someone for pointing out someone else’s sin if it is done in a loving manner and the sin actually happened.
Psalms 2:11 (KJV)
Psalms 147:11 (KJV)
Proverbs 1:7 (KJV)
“That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD: Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.”
Isaiah 30:9-11 (KJV)
Acts 24:25 (KJV)
2 Corinthians 7:15 (KJV)
Philippians 2:12 (KJV)