“The Christian pulpit is not a throne—
Do not lord it over the people.
It is not a judgment bar—
Do not condemn.
It is not an auction stall—
Do not buy or sell.
It is not a theatrical stage—
Do not perform.
But it is God’s table for hungry souls,
Sin-sick hearts, and burden bearers.
Your ministry’s highest service as requested by the great Master Shepherd is ‘Feed My Sheep.’”
This verse was taken from the door leading to the pulpit of one of our churches in Johannesburg. Although used in Ministry some years ago, we felt it was arresting enough to use once more, especially because of a criticism which had been made the week the verse had been drawn to our attention.
A gathering of friends graced our home one Sabbath afternoon. We had all been to church that day—some nearby, some farther afield—and we were comparing notes on the services. In our church we had had a good sermon, and we said so.
Then one of our visitors observed, “We had another scolding, as usual!” We will not repeat more, except to say that if people should not talk publicly in that way, neither should we preachers provide the temptation for them to do so.
It is true that the man of God must “reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” but that is only part of the apostolic admonition. These things are to be done “with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2). In the Revised Standard Version, the words are rendered as “be unfailing in patience and in teaching.”
Not a throne
The pulpit is not a place from which the minister dispenses orders and incessantly reproves either the faithful or the unfaithful. If pastors would fill their sermons with the teaching (didache) of Christ, the reproof would go silently home to the heart of the hearer through the compelling power of truth. Cracking the whip, haranguing the people, and denunciatory speech aimed at everything and everybody cheapens the pulpit and disgusts the people. It is a povertystricken pulpit where the preacher’s only weapon is a whip. These habits can be cured if a minister will think, study, and preach the great and positive themes of the Word of God, of which the Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end.
Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), a Scottish preacher and theologian, was the brilliant pastor of a Scottish church when he was only 23 years old. His small congregation loved him but could not understand why, after a hard week’s work, they came to church only to hear the marvelous young preacher thundering away against all kinds of sins as though the members had spent the week in open shame. This went on from 1803–1811, and then a sudden change occurred. Chalmers ceased to thunder against the grosser crimes and against the iniquities of Napoleon; instead, he always had something fresh to say about the love of God, about the cross of Christ, and about the way of salvation.1 Chalmers explained that in 1811, he was converted after eight years of what has been called “whiplash preaching.” He carried into a wider ministry of preaching, teaching, and writing the lessons thus learned among the humble Scottish cottagers, where the last four years of his preaching produced many a trophy of redeeming grace.
John Bunyan (1628–1688) was once a “whiplash” preacher and says: “I went for the space of two years crying out against men’s sins and their fearful state because of them. After which the Lord came in upon my own soul with peace and comfort through Christ. He gave me many sweet discoveries of blessed grace through Him. Wherefore now I altered my preaching and did much labor to hold forth Christ in all His offices, relations, and benefits unto the world. After this, God led me into something of the mystery of the union with Christ.”2
We have long had before us such admonition as the following: “It is natural for some to be sharp and dictatorial, to lord it over God’s heritage; and because of this manifestation of these attributes, precious souls have been lost to the cause.”3
Perhaps some of us need to drop the whip, and, abasing ourselves at the foot of the cross, learn anew that love is Christ’s most potent weapon, that truth as it is in Him is the great sanctifier of the soul (John 17:17-20), and the Holy Spirit is the greatest corrector of wrong (16:8) and the one guide into all truth (verse 13). No, the pulpit is not a throne!
Not a judgment bar
The pulpit is not a judgment bar before which any and every question of human controversy can be decided. Failure to grasp this will find the preacher in deep water. A minister does not know everything and is not expected to. The Bible does not answer all human problems; It is a textbook of the science of salvation, and not a vade mecum to every question under the sun.
How often preachers have allowed themselves to be drawn into political controversy to the detriment of their success as pastors and evangelists! Christian workers of all classes should not be drawn “into debate or controversy on political or other questions.”4 To counsel and advise on great moral issues before the public is one thing; to press a certain solution dogmatically and publicly is quite another.
The pulpit must of necessity be a place where controversial issues are dealt with. In a certain sense, the main issues of Christianity are controversial. Sin, atonement, redemption, the deity and nature of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the eschatology of Scripture— these are issues from which we must not—dare not—shrink. Here is a warning word from the famous W. H. Griffith Thomas: “We have to take care that we are not mere controversialists, for this type of man is one of the most unlovely, unspiritual, and objectionable of beings. We must not wage war for the love of it, but if we find it necessary to wage it, we must do so in love.”5
The very nature of our role as Adventist preachers with an unpopular message can easily cause us to become denunciatory, controversial, and condemnatory. So many issues that contradict God’s Word must be opposed, and the faith must be delivered, defended, and commended to the saints. We have to preach so that the arrows of the Word reach human hearts, and we must preach in the divine pattern of Christ: “Every time He addressed the people, whether His audience was large or small, His words took saving effect upon the soul of someone. No message that fell from His lips was lost. Every word He spoke placed a new responsibility upon those who heard. And today the ministers who, in sincerity, are giving the last message of mercy to the world, relying on God for strength, need not fear that their efforts will be in vain.”6
We must make God’s pulpit heaven’s trysting place for needy sinners instead of a judgment bar that metes out nothing except condemnation.
Not a theatrical stage
Under pressure to fill the church, preachers have sometimes resorted to novel expedients. The preacher who titled his sermon “How a Man Sinned by Having His Hair Cut” had a unique way to introduce Samson, but was it dignified? Did it add to the attractiveness of the church? Did it draw others besides the curious?
No one likes to listen to preachers who stand unmoved and lifeless as statues while they preach. How can men be on fire with a message impregnated with life-and-death issues and be statuesque, unemotional, unmoved, and unmoving? But when emotion and sensationalism run riot, then the pulpit degenerates into a theater. “Surely the house of God is not a theatre, or a concert hall, where it becomes the great object of the proprietor to fill the building, and make it pay.”7
“In this age of extravagance and outward show, when men think it is necessary to make a display to gain success, God’s chosen messengers are to show the fallacy of spending needlessly for effect. As they labor with simplicity, humility, and graceful dignity, avoiding everything of a theatrical nature, their work will make a lasting impression for good.”8
A table for hungry souls
One of the great failures in pulpit ministry today is seen in the quality of its sermons. In too many cases, they cry out to heaven that preachers—Adventist and non-Adventist alike—are not studying the life-giving Word. Just as surely as this continues, the enemy will come in like a devastating flood and sweep away the faith of many. Many persons who remain in churches served mainly by non-biblical preaching become weak in their faith and are often easy prey for non-biblical teaching. We must “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) or it will languish.
The table the Lord has prepared for His people is His will revealed through the Bible. God’s people can feast on that Word in two ways—through private study or in public worship. A small number do both, but preachers know that private Bible study is almost nonexistent. In a group of Christian college students, 73 percent recently admitted they have never prayed with either one of their parents, and it is almost certain that the same confession applies to Bible study. It therefore remains for the preacher to help by his sermons, studies, and interviews to try to fill this terrifying vacuum in the lives of his people.
“The minds of men must be called to the Scriptures as the most effective agency in the salvation of souls, and the ministry of the Word is the great educational force to produce this result.”9
The pulpit must become the Lord’s table around which the hungry church family gathers, and it must here be fed, inspired, and built up in the “most holy faith” (Jude 20). Here the Holy Word must be dispensed and the holy Christ exalted.
“The whole Bible is a manifestation of Christ, and the Saviour desired to fix the faith of His followers on the Word.”10
Preachers who make the sermon hour a feast of good scriptural things for the hungry soul can make the pulpit a dispensary of redeeming grace for hungry souls, and a place from which the Redeemer’s welcome voice can be heard from week to week.
“Father of mercies, in Thy Word, / What endless glory shines!
For ever be Thy name adored, / For these celestial lines.
Here the Redeemer’s welcome voice / Spreads heavenly peace around,
And life and everlasting joys / Attend the blissful sound.”11
1. Charles L. Goodell, Cyclopedia of Evangelism, pp. 133, 136.
2. Ibid., pp. 136, 137.
3. Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 223; cf. pp. 280, 302.
4. White, Testimonies to the Church, vol. 6, p. 122.
5. W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Work of the Ministry, p. 150.
6. White, Gospel Workers, pp. 150, 151.
7. Joseph Gowan, Homiletics, p. 157.
8. Gospel Workers, p. 346.
9. Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 288.
10. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 390.
11. Anne Steele.
H. W. Lowe Former Managing Editor, The Ministry