Paul was certainly concerned with the “how.” “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:6). While I have not always done this well, I have always tried to be very careful about how I say what I say. This principle is morally binding, and this is where ethics come in. It is our moral duty, not only to preach truth with conviction, but to do it ethically. This means we will be concerned with how we teach, how we convict, how we warn, how we rebuke. Even when dealing with error, we are not at liberty to deal with it any way that we think is effective, especially if it means acting unethically (review 2 Tim. 2:23-26).
Preachers face special challenges because they often find themselves in public positions of tremendous influence, and the temptation to be puffed up with pride is always present. Therefore we must be all the more careful to follow the biblical standards of ethical behavior. What we might consider to be defending truth may in fact be pride gone to seed. We must sort that out through an honest look at our attitudes.
Gossip is a serious ethical issue, and preachers can be just as bad as anyone in violating God’s standards. Preachers sitting around at a “preacher’s luncheon” are tempted to talk about what this or that preacher is doing (often with some bad connotation), and before they realize it they are gossiping in epic proportions. Perhaps we feel better equipped as preachers if we can highlight the failures of other preachers.
Since the onset of the internet, gossip has entered the cyber world. Just hit the “send” button and brethren all over the world can know what Brother Mess-up is doing (we seem to have a love/hate relationship with “dirty laundry.”) I was visiting in another’s home one time when he received an email, from a preacher, that contained suspicious insinuations about two other brothers and me. I didn’t receive that email firsthand, oddly enough, and neither did the other brothers. The one who sent it didn’t contact me about it at all, though he surely could have. He apparently felt free to throw out insinuations that could affect the reputations of others, even when such an act was unnecessary. I didn’t then, nor do I now, have much use for that kind of behavior. Is something like this an ethical issue? Treat others as you want to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Are we, as preachers, doing this?
It is so easy to do and to try to justify. It’s simple, for example, to take personal correspondence and send it to others for their viewing. All we need is a little suggestion, a little innuendo, a little statement suggesting an evil suspicion. After all, we can do it in order to fight error, right? If it ends up furthering the cause of the kingdom, isn’t it justifiable? Even if it involves making private correspondence public? Remember, not even Joseph took Mary’s situation public. We can learn from that.
Yet, there goes the reputation of good men, while truth supposedly gains another self-proclaimed victory. Anyone who questions the method is automatically suspect. Question the behavior, and the reply comes: “We are maligned for preaching the truth. All we are doing is just standing up for Jesus.” That reminds me of something else I read: “But wishing to justify himself...” (cf. Luke 10:29). It’s not the preaching of truth being called into question. It is the unethical behavior. It is the method, which is just as much a part of the doctrine of Christ as are any of the doctrines we try to defend. To know that it’s the method in question, and then shift the issue to one of loving the truth is … unethical.
I recall hearing discussion about another gospel preacher. The word was out about this man: he won’t preach on certain subjects (like marriage and divorce). Yet, I knew better. I had heard him preach on the very thing he supposedly didn’t preach on! But the word was out, and the brother’s reputation was hurt. Why? Is that really gospel preaching?
It is so easy to pull a quote out of context or make much more out of a statement than what the author intended. We can make any brother say anything if we are willing to revert to partial quotes without setting the right context (much like we can with the Bible itself). Or we can take the way a preacher said something and put a spin on it that makes it seem heretical, even if that is not what was intended. One of the qualities of biblical love is to believe all things (1 Cor. 13). This includes giving others the benefit of the doubt. If someone says something that could be taken a couple of ways, don’t we often resort first to the “bad” way? In our legal system we are supposed to have a presumption of innocence. Sometimes I fear we have more a presumption of guilt among those who are supposed to give the benefit of the doubt. Then we run off telling others what Preacher Heretic said and believes without letting him explain himself or giving him the benefit of the doubt. No. We got him, and we must tell others by hook or by crook. There goes another reputation.
Am I trying to justify fellowship with error? Of course not. Those who know me know that I’m not against controversy and dealing with error (I’m attempting to do that here). But don’t we see that it is just as much error to go about our work in a way that violates basic ethical principles? It does matter how we do it.
Here is something else to remember. Whenever we say something publicly, we are putting upon listeners a very serious obligation. Hearers are to be careful how they hear. Many hearers will take what is said and not question it. After all, the preacher said it; it must be true. They don’t need to investigate; just trust the preacher. When we start naming names and calling into question reputations, we had better be careful to represent all matters accurately, and we had better make sure that those who hear are able to verify what we say through honest investigation (is it fair to talk about a person based only on hearsay?). Further we had better make certain that what we say does indeed fall under the purview of godliness and true gospel preaching. Otherwise, we are using the pulpit for our own carnal purposes rather than to glorify God. That is an unjustifiable, egregious error and will cause one to lose his soul (Jas. 3:1).