Let’s get some definitions out there:
pulpit |ˈpoŏlˌpit; ˈpəl-; -pət| (noun)
a raised platform or lectern in a church or chapel from which the preacher delivers a sermon.
soapbox |ˈsōpˌbäks| (noun)
a box or crate used as a makeshift stand by a public speaker : [as adj. ] a soapbox orator.
• figurative- a thing that provides an opportunity for someone to air their views publicly
Now, let’s see how the two go together.They don’t. Here’s why.
The Soapbox Temptation
When a pastor stands in a pulpit, he usually has an audience–ranging from a handful of people to several thousand people. It’s quite a privilege and a big responsibility. For the next fifteen, twenty, thirty or fifty minutes, he will tell the people something. What’s he going to tell them? It’s only natural that the pastor is going to talk about things that are important to him. Without a right view of preaching, however, the speaker may reduce his pulpit to a platform for airing personal opinions, pet peeves, theological hobby horses or other things–even good things. The opportunity to preach and to speak to a number of listeners is not an opportunity to vent one’s own opinion. It is an opportunity to soberly fulfill one’s God-given task–to faithfully preach the Word, God’s Word, the Bible (2 Tim 4:1-2).
What is Preaching, Anyway?
At the risk of seeming too simplistic, one of the best antidotes to the temptation to be a soapbox pulpiteer is to recover a right view of preaching. In Mark Dever’s book, What Is a Healthy Church?, he writes, “The most obvious place to begin building a healthy church is to call Christians to listen to God’s Word. God’s Word is the source of all life and health. It’s what feeds, develops, and preserves a church’s understanding of the gospel itself” (63). It’s pretty basic. People need to hear God’s Word, not your words. Dever goes on, “An expositional preacher’s authority begins and ends with Scripture. Even as Old Testament Prophets and New Testament apostles were given not just a commission to go and speak, but to speak a particular message, so Christian preachers today have authority to speak from God so long as they speak his words” (64). The temptation to stand on one’s soapbox should be stymied by a commitment to explain God’s Word, verse-by-verse. The starting point in right preaching is not to ask, “What can I say about this text?” The starting point is to ask, “What does the text say?” Then, tell others about it.
Yes, It’s So Easy to Use the Pulpit as a Soapbox
Right preaching is easy to define. But it’s hard to do. Soapboxing is a whole lot easier. It tends to come more naturally. Here are where some preachers go astray on their personal soapboxes:
- Political issues. Ranting and raving about politics has long been a major soapbox temptation. Hey, if you have a pulpit, why not stump for your favorite candidate? After all, Christians are supposed to be involved in politics, right? Be careful. Are you preaching the word, or politicking? Hear how Tim Keller, an influential pastor in Manhattan, deals with the politics issue. And if you are a Christian who may be enamored of Glen Beck’s patriotism, fine. But keep these important points in mind.
- Sin issues. Homosexuality, abortion, the GLBT agenda, racism, and social injustice are huge problems. They are problems of truly biblical proportions. A faithful preacher will be intentional in the way that he addresses these crucial issues. If you think you are being tactful by avoiding the homosexuality topic, or the issue of abortion, you’re not being tactful. You’re being wrong. God’s Word addresses them! But the knife edge goes both ways. Some preachers find a way to fit an anti-homosexual harangue into every sermon. This goes beyond faithfulness to God’s Word. This goes into soapboxing. And that is a dangerous place to be, because it falls short of faithful, systematic, Bible preaching. Address the issues, especially when they receive the limelight in culture or the news. But be careful that you’re not feeding your people a steady diet of the things you’re fed up with. Be sure that you’re feeding your people with a steady diet of God’s Word.
- Culture issues. There is no question that we live in a wicked and depraved world. The signs of the fall are apparent, even in our own lives. Sin is rampant, and the culture is degraded, seemingly beyond recovery. But is this situation a legitimate justification to rant about the wicked culture every time we step into the pulpit. No. The antidote to a wicked culture is grace. Wicked culture is comprised of wicked people, and since “all have sinned,” then all need to be saved by grace. Preach the gospel. Preach the Word.
- Standards issues. Although some preachers and movements may give lip service to the centrality of the Word, their preaching may sometimes slip into a declaration of standards. Whether its hair length, women’s attire, musical styles, biblical translations, movie-going, alcoholic beverages, or any other issue, these preachers find a way to wedge their personal standards into every sermon, and every time they rise to the pulpit. Is this healthy? The way to answer that question is by asking another question: Is it the Bible? It’s true that pastors should faithfully apply the Word of God to situations, but it does not follow that they should constantly preach their standards whenever they can. Christians should have standards, no doubt. A good Christian may even have high standards, but that’s not why they are a good Christian. A good Christian is a growing Christian–loving God, following God, and seeking forgiveness for sins. Do not allow your adherence to standards to trump your commitment to the purity of biblical preaching and biblical application.
“But,” you may plead, “can’t I ever address issues?” Of course. The Bible is full of issues. Listen to John Piper on this issue: “The dominant note of preaching [should] be the freedom of God’s sovereign grace, the unifying theme be the zeal that God has for his own glory, the grand object of preaching be the infinite and inexhaustible being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere of preaching be the holiness of God. Then when preaching takes up the ordinary things of life–family, job, leisure, friendships, or the crises of our day–AIDS, divorce, addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, hunger, and worst of all, unreached peoples of the world, these matters are not only taken up. They are taken all the way up into God” (The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 20).