Church History, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology

The Dallas Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliot, and the Pulpit in America

“I want to say I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.” – Ezekiel Elliot

***

Ezekiel Elliot’s self-deprecating honesty after the Dallas Cowboys were humiliated by the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football (Elliot had in mind his two fumbles on back-to-back drives in the first and second quarters) is a confession many evangelical preachers should consider adopting.

There is much talk today about the weakness of the American church in the face of an increasingly militant secularism. It seems self-evident that the modern megachurch movement has left American evangelicals doctrinally impoverished and generally confused on what constitutes the biblical gospel (notwithstanding helpful exceptions to this rule). This, of course, leaves the Church vulnerable to an encroaching worldliness. And while there are many reasons thoughtful Christians can point to for this unfortunate state of the church, the primary culprit is the pulpit.

As David Gordon observed in his provocative book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, “many ordained people simply can’t preach.” Gordon made this argument back in 2009. However, given the acceleration of trends in the culture generally and in  evangelicalism specifically, his thesis is still more relevant today. 1For an excellent overview of Gordon’s work and to see how he measured good preaching, please see this review. As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. If Johnny can’t preach, we shouldn’t be surprised that the church in the main is spiritually weak.

Long before Gordon made this observation about the American church, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was making it in his native Wales. In 1925 Lloyd-Jones gave an address that took up themes that would occupy much of his ministry in the years to come, not least of which was the state of the pulpit. He set out to explain what were some of the causes of the degeneration of the country. For Lloyd-Jones the pulpit, among other things, was to blame:

Preaching today – again please note the glorious exceptions – has become a profession which is often taken up because of the glut in the other professions. I have already referred to the method adopted in the choice of ministers and we are reaping what we have sown. It is not at all surprising that many of our chapels are half-empty, for it is almost impossible to determine what some of our preachers believe. Another great abomination is the advent of the preacher-politician, that moral-mule who is so much in evidence these days. The harm done to Welsh public life by these monstrosities is incalculable. Their very appearance in public is a jeer at Christianity. Is it surprising that the things I have already mentioned are so flagrant with all these Judases so much in evidence? We get endless sermons on psychology, but amazingly few on Christianity. Our preachers are afraid to preach on the doctrine of the atonement and on predestination. The great cardinal principles of our belief are scarcely ever mentioned, indeed there is a movement on foot to amend them so as to bring them up-to-date. How on earth can you talk of bringing these eternal truths up-to-date? They are not only up-to-date, they are and will be ahead of the times to all eternity. 2Cited in Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899 – 1981 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 52. MLJ would develop this theme about the importance of the pulpit in a series of lectures in the United States at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1969. These lectures would become the book Preaching and Preachers.

What was true with the Welsh pulpit in 1925 could be said about the American pulpit today. Should we be surprised that our churches are weak when “it is almost impossible to determine what some of our preachers believe”? How can our churches be strong when “the great cardinal principles of our belief are scarcely ever mentioned”? And where there are “preacher-politicians” there will not be prophets of the Lord heralding God’s revelation. As it did in Lloyd-Jones’ day, this monstrosity makes for a weak church in our day.

The pulpit must be reformed if we would see our churches strengthened. The reformation of the pulpit will mean not less, but more Bible and theology. The church must reclaim the exposition of the Bible rather than “talks” on Sunday mornings consisting of pop-psychology, self-help advice, or mere moralism. To ground this conviction in the Bible, consider Romans 16:25-27:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

In this benediction the apostle makes it clear that God’s strength comes “according to [the] gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” And we find this gospel of Jesus Christ in the “prophetic writings.” Given this, every preacher worthy of the name must make the exposition of the Scriptures the main thing in corporate worship. This will make for strong Christians and strong churches able to withstand the increasing secularism of our time.

The strength of the church begins with the pulpit and with preachers willing to say, “I’m sorry and this one is on me. I need to be better.” Let’s forget the fumbles and take up the Scriptures for the glory of God and the strengthening of his church.

Notes

1 For an excellent overview of Gordon’s work and to see how he measured good preaching, please see this review.
2 Cited in Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899 – 1981 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 52. MLJ would develop this theme about the importance of the pulpit in a series of lectures in the United States at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1969. These lectures would become the book Preaching and Preachers.
Filed under: Church History, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.