Gaffes and the Pulpit

This post must begin with a worldview-rocking truth statement. Preachers are in fact human. They may not seem to be, for various reasons, but they are. It may also be that some people do not think they want them to be human. In reality, it is best for you that they are human, but that is a different tangent to the scope of our theme.

I realize that humanity can be plead sometimes as an excuse or a contrivance to escape accountability. Neither of these should be the case for the human preacher. On the other hand though, his humanity should gain him some room, particularly in regard to gaffes, or mistakes.

Allow me first to clarify. By mistakes, I am not meaning going into doctrinal error, e.g. changing his mind about the deity of Christ, etc. I am also not referring to the preacher falling into some sin or immorality. No, I am only referring to honest, plain mistakes and particularly those made while preaching. Hence the term gaffe.

Pulpit gaffes are of a few different kinds. Here are a few descriptions.

  • Tongue-Tied—sometimes the mouth moves faster than the brain and words get jumbled up or mispronounced
  • Memory Lapse—sometimes the preacher forgets why he started telling a particular story or giving a certain illustration. Sometimes he gives a quote or paraphrases a verse and cannot remember who said it.
  • Mistakes—sometimes giving the wrong book, chapter, or verse reference or mixing up the characters or facts in Bible stories. There may be times when the preacher is trying to add up or subtract portions of time while preaching and may get the wrong answer.

You should have an idea of the sort of thing we are talking about. And that leads to the obvious question, Why talk about it? This topic may seem hardly worthy of a blog post and especially since we are considering relatively minor goofs that everyone makes from time to time. Well, I have seen people react in harsh and strange ways toward a preacher over these trivial slip-ups. I have also seen some church members form an ad hoc quorum over such a gaffe and discuss it with one another until they were all worked up about it. Finally, one of them approached the preacher to ask about it and found out that is was simply a mistake.

So, the point of this post is to help us handle this issue when we are sitting in the pew and witness a pulpit gaffe first-hand. First, give the benefit of the doubt to the preacher and let it go. Again, I am not talking about him denying the Trinity or such, but he may give the wrong reference or say a phrase backward. He may mistakenly say Elijah was swallowed by a great fish. You probably knew what he meant or could find the reference yourself with a little work. Second, in case the first option fails, simply go to him and ask him about it. This will cut down on the possibility of starting gossip and you may also have a good chuckle with him. As a preacher, I would much rather someone come to me to ask than go to someone else and say, “Did you hear what he said?”

Pride and the Pulpit

Any preacher who really believes something, and preaches it like he believes it, has likely been charged with pride or arrogance. Certainly, preachers can be guilty of arrogance and real pride is a reproach upon any ministry. However, some folks are quick and often to charge preachers with having too much pride. One preacher told me, “You always think the preacher is arrogant when he preaches something you disagree with.” Unfortunately, there is much truth in that statement.

I once sat and listened to two preachers discussing a biblical subject. They had opposing views. The first man presented his case and the second responded with Scripture after Scripture. The first man would press and the second would quote verse after verse. The first man referenced a few verses, but the second quoted and referenced them in abundance. The second man’s demeanor was humble, yet his defense was bold. The conversation ended when after a long chain of verses was presented by the second man to prove his position, the first man responded, “Well, that’s just human reasoning.” He probably also later charged that preacher with arrogance.

So, I am thinking now about the false charge—the charge that is leveled against the man who preaches the Word with boldness. In the first place, when a man is called of God to preach His Word, he does not have his own choice about how to go about it. Paul asked for prayer from his fellow believers that in preaching, “I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19-20). It was Paul’s boldness in preaching that caused some in Corinth to charge him with pride.

The truth of God’s Word ought to be preached boldly. The specimens of preaching in the Bible reveal boldness in the delivery. If a man is convinced of truth, he ought to preach it boldly. If he is not convinced, he ought not to preach at all. Usually though, bold preaching will be met with charges of arrogance against the preacher.

In part, this is a function of postmodern thought in today’s society. We have moral relativism that doubts everything and the only thing they are sure of is that they cannot be sure of anything. It is an offence to the age for a man to proclaim truth as the truth. If only the preacher would preach truth as a possibility, he would find a broader audience and a better hearing from modern man. Christ did not pander to relativists when He boldly proclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6 Emphasis Added).

Another reason for the false charge of pride in the pulpit is the reality of pride in the pew. When truth is preached boldly, sin is reproved and rebuked, and man’s pride is offended. It is much easier to hear a sermon when it applies practically to everyone else. Oftentimes, those who are the quickest and loudest to charge the preacher with pride, are trying to cover up their own pride that cannot admit of their own wrong doctrine or practice. They typically cannot produce any biblical evidence that the substance of the preaching is in error and must avert their own embarrassment by accusing the preacher of being prideful.

It is our response to reproof that reveals whether we are scorners or wise, “Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Proverbs 9:8). The fact is, even if the preacher is prideful, that does not relieve our responsibility and accountability to God and His Word. Pride must be rooted out of the preacher’s heart as well as the congregant’s, but often men hide behind this charge so they do not have to face their own problems and deal with them. A wise man will receive a reproof, regardless of where it comes from. How do you think they got to be wise? “He that regardeth reproof shall be honoured” (Proverbs 13:18). “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9).

It is a terrible thing for a man to preach with pride. However, in the end, the hearer will not be accountable before God for the amount of pride in the preacher. But, they will be accountable for what they heard and how they obeyed.