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preaching article The Arrogance of Preaching

The Arrogance of Preaching

based on 2 ratings
Feb 14, 2011

Preaching appears arrogant to people overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. That subjective humans could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not that God took the initiative to reveal himself. Perspective becomes an asset as the preacher bears witness to God in the flesh.

Is there anything as arrogant as a preacher? While perhaps not up there with trash talking point guards or raving third world despots, preachers still are perceived as pompous in the mind of the average citizen. Preachers are too sure of themselves in a world where no one takes anything for granted and where no one is certain of anything. “Don’t preach at me,” people say when they want to be particularly cutting.

Preachers are always telling people what to believe and what to do with their lives, implying that they have some privileged access to the truth. In postmodern times, such a claim is unforgivable. Surely it is arrogance to claim to know what is best for others and to be willing to proclaim these things to people en masse.

During the 1997 Canadian federal election, national news columnist Peter C. Newman found a particularly scathing way to criticize Reform party leader Preston Manning. Manning is “a preacher, not a politician,” Newman said (Newman 1997, 51). The implication was obvious. Preachers are by nature intolerant, impatient, and arrogant. Preachers are “know-it-alls,” dangerous to the citizenry of an enlightened and pluralized public.

Better Times

How things have changed! Preachers were once respected as key sources in the common search for objective truth. Ever since Descartes, optimism reigned as people pursued final answers to ultimate issues. No question seemed large enough to withstand the assault of human reason. If the answer wasn’t known it was only a matter of time. Every mystery could be solved by application of the formidable powers of the human mind. The scientific method was hailed as the tool which could unlock the very secrets of God.

In this context preachers thundered. Giants of the pulpit like Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody came to prominence, commanding the attention of thousands who heard in them the voice of God. Even country preachers, often the most educated persons in town, were powerful voices in the community power structure. Consensus was forming around biblical values in the constant pursuit of meaning. The Bible was seen as a book of wisdom and a repository of truth. Expositors who examined the Scriptures with scientific diligence offered people what they sought—a true word from God himself.

Loss of Confidence

Over time, however, such optimism faded. A purely objective sense of truth proved elusive. The more humanity learned, the less it seemed was known. For every question that was solved, multiple new conundrums were uncovered. The harder people pursued the goal of ultimate truth the more distant it appeared.

The world is much less certain today. The neat order of the past has come undone and people sense a need to hedge their bets. New voices daily challenge the consensus, leaving people feeling squeezed. Never before have individuals had to handle so much information in so little time. Technology ensures that the amount of information offered increases as fast as the available response time decreases. The first casualty is confidence (Oden 1990, 46). Ideas that once seemed beyond question are now up for grabs. New alternatives to formerly unquestioned convictions raise doubt among people used to a much firmer footing. Judgment is reserved for the time being as people find themselves unwilling to choose among a multiplicity of options.

Preaching suffers. Prophetic pulpiteers shouting “thus saith the Lord” appear as caricatures of a newly unwanted dogmatism. The confidence of these preachers doesn’t match the people’s own experience. Preachers arrogantly deny the obvious complexity. They are caught out of their time, anachronisms dangerous to the fragile psyche of a world which has lost its confidence.

The Problem of Perspective

Or so it is assumed. In fact, many preachers struggle with the same lack of confidence as the people in the pew. Choosing among the variety of worldviews available in a multi-cultural context would require some favored vantage point from which objective evaluations could be made. Unfortunately, such an exalted viewpoint is denied.

Even preachers are bound captive to their perspective and many of them know it. Every idea or event is evaluated through the grid of experience, education, conviction, and bias that necessarily forms around an individual in life. The preacher must function within the limits of time and space, experiencing life one moment at a time, one place at a time. Such restrictions seriously limit point of view. Simply stated, people are finite. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton put the problem well:

How is it possible to judge the worldview of another person or group of people to be wrong when we realize that we have no privileged, universal access to truth and so can only pass judgment from the perspective of our own worldview? (Middleton and Walsh 1995, 30)

In the early hours after the death of the Princess of Wales, blame was fixed squarely on the paparazzi who had hounded Diana. The public was merciless in its condemnation of tabloid press photographers. Days later, blame shifted to the driver of the Princess’s Mercedes, who had been seriously impaired by alcohol and drugs. A week or two later, blame shifted again. Paint scratches on the Mercedes suggested that another car might have caused the tragedy. It soon became apparent that no one really knew what had happened in that tunnel. The only ones positioned properly to know the facts were dead, or in the case of the bodyguard, incapacitated. Determining the objective truth in this affair, so important to the public, proved unlikely due to the lack of anyone with the entire perspective.

Are preachers any different? They trumpet their interpretation of the world as they see it, locked in the prison of their perspective. Fixed in space and time, are they any more able to speak about truth objectively? At best, they offer an educated guess. Yet a guess in the guise of a prescription abuses the people who must listen and live from within the strictures of their own vantage point.

God has Spoken

The postmodernists are partly right. Man’s best reason could never conceive nor communicate the nature and will of God. Humanity could not imagine the objective truth about God. The best of human scholarship is not able to nullify the fact of man’s finitude and fallenness. Even the idea that truth is objective, that it is separate and independent, scuttles the idea that man could discover it independently. Everything man touches is stained by his fingerprints. The moment one apprehends the truth, its objectivity is compromised.

Except that God has spoken. Were the quest to know the truth solely the expression of human initiative and endeavor the enterprise would be doomed. The good news is that ultimately, this is God’s project. God made it his purpose to make himself known to man. It is through his self-revelation that man discovers the truth that could never be known outside of God’s own initiative. By revealing himself, God overcame the objective/subjective distinction, allowing humans locked in time and space the privilege to know the truth and be set free by it.

Certainly, the preacher must work from within the confines of his or her perspective. This limitation is not fatal. John Carey, in his anthology, Eye-Witness to History, describes the difficulty inherent in the process of journalism.

It is an axiom of modern critical theory that there are no accessible ‘realities,’ only texts that relate to another inter-textually. But even if he believes this, the good reporter must do everything in his power to counteract it, struggling to isolate the singularities that will make his account real for his readers—not just something written, but something seen. (Carey 1987, xxxii)

It can be helpful, in fact, to view the task of preaching as a kind of journalism. The preacher is a correspondent, describing the activity and message of God as personally seen and heard. Far from rejecting the preacher’s subjective nature in pursuit of an esoteric objectivity, the preacher revels in his or her subjectivity. The preacher is an eye-witness, a participant in the earthy interplay of truth in the trenches. The preacher describes not what could never be known but what has been experienced firsthand. Not content to point to disembodied truths which lie pristine and out of reach, the preacher describes that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched (1 John 1:1).

This witness inherent in preaching both acknowledges and overcomes the problem of perspective. Preaching revels in it. Authority is not bound by the restraints of the preacher’s perspective but is released by it. (Long 1989, 44) God has stepped into space and time, permitting his perception by preacher and people. In preaching, then, the ultimate becomes accessible.

A Disheveled Preaching

This is the kind of preaching that will play with postmoderns. It is a disheveled kind of preaching that is willing to mess with the mysteries and struggle with the sticking points. It is an exciting brand of preaching that will not abide the tidy triteness of disembodied messages. This kind of preaching will not be content to offer a sermon under glass, safe and unassailable. Rather, this preaching is unafraid to listen to God and to wrestle with the implications of the message that results.

Preaching might appear arrogant to those who are overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. The idea that a preacher could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not for the fact that God has spoken. God has taken the initiative to reveal himself in real time to the questions and concerns of preacher and people. Perspective is an asset as the preacher bears witness to the God who is present.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.” In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, 928-43. Translated by Ladislaw Matekja and I. R. Titunik. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Caputo, John D. “The Good News about Alterity: Derrida and Theology.” Faith and Philosophy 10 (October 1993): 453-70.
Carey, John, ed. Eye-Witness to History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Fant, Clyde E. Preaching for Today. 2d ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.

Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

Madison, G. B. The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity: Figures and Themes. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Middleton, J. Richard & Brian J. Walsh. Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.

Newman, Peter C. “In Television Debates the Only Rule is to Win.” Macleans, May 26, 1997, 51.

Oden, Thomas C. After Modernity . . . What?: Agenda for Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1990.



Dr. Kent Anderson has been a full time pastor for eleven years in Calgary, AB, Richmond, BC, and Prince Rupert, BC. He now serves as a teacher of preachers at Northwest Baptist Seminary and the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) of Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. Learn more from Kent at his website, Preaching.org, a forum for the discussion of the many and varied intersections between preaching and culture.

Talk about it...

Mike Ingo avatar
Mike Ingo
0 days ago
Great stuff. Hitting the nail on the head. Is it any wonder why people view all of us the way they do in light of those who have perverted the Gospel for their personal gain? Jesus never backed away from telling people what they should do, but He followed His own rules too! "Do as I say and not as I do" does not work for today's listeners . . . Thank God for those who seek the truth, "Seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you."
William Hays avatar
William Hays
0 days ago
Mr Anderson, well i say this is an interesting article, and there are those who preach for personnal gain and they do give arrogance in many ways to those preachers who really seek the truth od GODs word, we remember always GODs word is the ultamate truth and truth will out last and overcome everthing, those who sit in the pew must open thier bibles not only in church but everyday at test what the preacher says and see if it holds up to GODS word. well thank you and may GOD who creasted all things provide wisdom to those who seek HIM
Myron  Heckman avatar
Myron Heckman
0 days ago
The analysis of postmodernism culture is that people today lack confidence in truth or truth claims, and act of preaching is seen as arrogant (which is separate from the question of the bad apples who preach for vanity or money). My question is if the analysis is correct - I see assertions boldly made for gay marriage, women's right to abortion, etc. Talk radio also gains a following by making confident assertions. They don't seem a bit hesitant about truth claims. So I'm wondering if we have really found the correct perspective on modern culture in postmodern theory. We may be too close to it to analyze it spot on.
Kim Peacock avatar
Kim Peacock
0 days ago
We are commanded to preach the GOOD NEWS. I am not sure how this can be "postmoderned down" without preaching just that! Are we to suggest that this may be true when it is definately true? Are we not to share what we have? Postmodernism says that "realities are plural and relative, and dependent on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist in." How are we to preach that there are no absolutes when clearly there are and this absolute is that there is only one way to salvation?
Ray Mckendry avatar
Ray Mckendry
0 days ago
Authority! It is always a question of authority as Martyn Lloyd Jones often reminded us in his preaching and writing. Thank you again and again for writing about this! This is most important and topical as I heard Brian McLaren the other day saying the kinds of things post modern thinkers say. We believe in the God of the definite article: The God of the Way and the Truth and the Life, not only a way but the way. How do we know this? By revelation from God. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed: "Thus says the Lord!" All you who preach and teach, keep believing that and keep preaching it, PLEASE!
Charles E. Ball avatar
Charles E. Ball
0 days ago
While preachers and teachers face a host of hostilities in today's pulpit, we have forgotten the simplicity of expository preaching and teaching with application. Following this form and style of preaching/teaching, no one can be accused of preaching or teaching on pet subjects, or preaching/teaching at an individual,organization, or even a mainstream denomination. Get back to the basics, let the chips fall where they may, and we please the Only Person that matters!
John Prasad avatar
John Prasad
0 days ago
Thanks for your article.A great lesson to follow our Lord Jesus,who practiced what he preached.Preachers should preach the word of god with authority and zeal.Don't preach the word for self glory,preach the truth as it is.Salvation of souls should be the main goal.Preachers we are accountable to God because we dealing with the word of God.Let us follow Jesus alone .
Brian Bass avatar
Brian Bass
0 days ago
It is very true what you say. The times are changing rapidly. The Internet not only offers mass communication but it also offers mass biblical knowledge and mass criticism of our church leaders. In the future preachers messages will be analyzed in real-time for scriptural accuracy. How many churches are recognizable by the face or name of Pastor? The pride and arrogance is brimming from them just by this appearance. The seeker does not even have to hear a word to prejudge the minister as prideful. Sometimes I think the Amish have the right idea with humility. Everyone wears the same thing. Humility is desired more than anything. In today's church's humility is put low on the list. I think in order for a pastor to really be a Godly example, he must be totally exposed and seen as a friend and not a celebrity. I'd like to see all of the mega preachers wear jeans and a t-shirt. I bet they would be surprised by who respects them after that.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.