Friday, February 01, 2008

Home Sick . . . and Getting Sicker

I felt as though I was getting over my flu-like symptoms until I started listening to a talk (that's described as a sermon and purports to have a biblical text) on tattoos. This talk reminded me of how fundamentalism has sowed the seeds of its own destruction.

In fundamentalist institutions, godly Bible professors teach their students how to exposit the biblical text faithfully and preach it skillfully. Their students then leave class to attend chapel services. There, they are reminded that if they want to hear the kind of preaching they've been taught, they'll have to look elsewhere.

And they do.


Chris Anderson said...


I don't doubt that what you're saying is true, Ben--that what is taught in class and what is heard in chapel are sometimes two very different things.

On the other hand, I think your answer is a bit simplistic in this way: I'm not at all convinced that what is being preached in the average fundamental pulpit is more likely to be bad than what is being preached in the average "other" pulpit. Both conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism have their "bright lights" as far as sound preachers go, but both also have their share of hacks. Take the SBC. I'm glad for Dever, but he's certainly not a fair representative of the rest of the convention, or anything close to a majority of it. The same could be said for Piper and other exceptional preachers.

Make sense? I think average (or below average) fundamental pastors are often compared to Piper, Mac and others rather than with average (or below average) evangelical pastors.

Of course, I'm not wanting to excuse poor preaching--anywhere.

Ben said...


You're right, to a point.

First, I'm not suggesting that the SBC isn't sowing the seeds of its own demise as well. When places like SBTS and SEBTS teach biblical exposition and tolerate other things in their pulpit, they're headed down the same road. But then, I think there's a bit of a difference in that the leadership of those institutions provide good models themselves.

Second, I'm not contrasting fundamentalist pulpits with evangelical pulpits as much as I'm contrasting fundamentalist pulpits with fundamentalist classrooms.

Third, the people who have the most credibility will be those individuals who only allow into their pulpits and thereby lift up as examples those whose preaching model is consistent with their own. That includes some fundamentalists and some evangelicals, but certainly not all who display a good model themselves.

Ben said...

P.S. At some point, the "yeah, but everyone else has the same problems" defense begins to ring a bit hollow from a movement that claims to be the authentic contemporary manifestation of historic biblical Christianity.

Chris Anderson said...

Come on, Ben. You know I'm not saying that. I went out of my way to make that clear. I'm not defending fundamentalism at all; just questioning your conclusion. To say that people are leaving fundamentalism because there is better preaching elsewhere is hard to prove in light of the condition of broad evangelicalism. That's all.

Of course, if anyone should excel at preaching, it's fundamentalists, and the loose way with which many professing fundies handle the Scriptures is indeed a travesty. No argument there.

Ben said...


People don't leave fundamentalism because they want to be an "evangelical." They leave because they find certain things in a particular non-fundamentalist church/institution (or narrow sliver of them) that they've never found in fundamentalist churches and institutions. Preaching is often one of those things. Sometimes it's the primary thing.

I can't imagine there's any more valid reason to deny that than to deny that the PCA has grown substantially due to the superiority of its preaching over most SBC preaching.

And again, my post focuses primarily on fundamentalist institutions. So some people leave not only because they hear bad preaching, but also because they were taught to expect something better.

tenjuices said...

I really agree with Ben on this one at least on the classroom and chapels being opposites. SEBTS had some of the most entertaining non-expository preachers you ever heard. And I think that was the problem. The example was "Be entertaining in some unique way and attract a large crowd" as opposed to "preach the text alone." I quit going it was such a sham and I know many who did so as well. We could never figure it out.

Chris Anderson said...

Ben, for the record, I've certainly spoken with many who grew up in fundamentalism and ended up at a PCA church or (occasionally) an SBC church because of the quality of the preaching.

Josh said...

In my experience SBTS has largely avoided bad preaching in chapel. Of course, Dr. Mohler preaches almost half the time and when he doesn't usually another faculty member or a distinguished visitor does (this semester both Millard Erickson and Graeme Goldsworthy are on the schedule). The riskiest chapels are the half-dozen or so reserved for various SBC pastors but in my time here even most of those have been very good.

However my chapel experience in college fits Ben's description precisely. I never understood why poor preaching was endorsed as excellent and obvious jerks were sometimes lauded as men of God and role models for us all while the Bible professors were relegated to the seats.

Dave said...

Let me begin by conceding a basic point, namely that too often the pulpits in many educational institutions are out of step with what is taught in the exegetical and homiletical classes.

But, if your basic point about sowing the seeds of one's own destruction is serious (vs. hyperbole), then what we really face is the eventual self-destruction of not only fundamentalism. I think Chris's points on this matter, then, whether you believe they are ancillary to your post or not.

As to your basic point, it seems very uncharitable both to the broader range of men who serve in pulpits around our nation and to the specific man which triggered your comment.

Regarding the former, I wonder how many well-known preachers of by-gone days preach acceptably according to the way that modern exposition is taught--Spurgeon would be butchered for many of his sermons! Frankly, some of the men that you'd think are great expositors, I find to be a better form of topical/doctrinal preacher. Sometimes I wonder if we aren't trapped in a form of presentism that views the way we say preaching should be done as the one right way to preach. There's nothing like a consensus on what the perfect expository sermon should look like.

Ben, I haven't listened to the sermon that triggered your comment, but I hope no one ever listens to one sermon or lesson of yours and draws such harsh conclusions. I'm glad you left things somewhat veiled, but you could have made the point without anything that would indict someone like this.

Again, I wonder if we should blame the demise of the Metropolitan Tabernacle on the seeds of destruction sown by some of Spurgeon's sermons? In my mind, that would be a shallow assessment. The whole body of his ministry and preaching would need to be considered, and a measure of grace extended to one of the Lord's servants. We're not talking about apostasy here; we're talking about a man making an argument from a text that you find weak and unacceptable.

Ben said...


I made a similar, though not identical, admission about failures in my own preaching last week. So no, I wouldn't want to be judged on one sermon. I've heard good ones before from the person in question, which made this one quite a surprise. I would say more positive things, but they would only make his identity more obvious.

But the broader point here isn't about what is an acceptable form of preaching. The point in its most narrow form is that when one part of an institution teaches that only one basic approach is appropriate (as both independent Baptist and Southern Baptist institutions I've attended unashamedly did) and then another part spotlights something completely different as the ideal, that is a problem.

I realize that we have all sorts of questions to answer in relationship to how preachers in the NT handled OT texts. I agree that Spurgeon was not a good model of expository preaching as it's taught today. I wouldn't even argue that John MacArthur fits that mold consistently. But I'm not sure any of those men opened themselves up to charges of inconsistency in the way that some do when they seem to have a conclusion they want to reach and do what it takes to reach it.

On this point, I'd encourage any who are interested to track down Tim Jordan's sermon from Leadership Conference 2 or 3 years ago. I think it was called "Speaking the Truth in Love."

Ben said...


That is good news. I take that as a good sign of ongoing reformation.

Keith said...

Ben makes the very good point that saying one thing but doing another(lecturing about one thing while putting a different thing in the spotlight) leads to dissilusionment. Immediately fundamentalism gets defended with that highest of defenses, "Well, they do it too."

Dave said...

If your argument is that people are leaving one group for another for some specific reason, yet the evidence is that the other group is no different than the first group, isn't that germane? It's not a defense of the first group, it's pointing out a hole in the argument.

Ben said...

That is certainly not the argument I'm making. Perhaps if you would point out what I said that seems to imply it, I could clarify.

Dave and Chris,

Are you intending to defend the places where these sorts of internal inconsistencies exist or merely undermine critical thought about them?

Chris Anderson said...


I acknowledged your basic point in the very first sentence I posted:

I don't doubt that what you're saying is true, Ben--that what is taught in class and what is heard in chapel are sometimes two very different things.

I also made another post saying that yes, I know of guys who have left fundamental churches for PCA churches because of the preaching.

However, I also noted what I think is a weakness in your argument. I think your conclusion that guys have learned that if they want good preaching they'll have to find it elsewhere is simplistic. Why that would be interpreted as circling the wagons is beyond me.

If what you're looking for is "critical thought," I'm surprised you're so frustrated by it. Disagree all you want, and point out where we're wrong, but don't complain just because your ideas aren't met with a bunch of attaboys.

Dave said...

Ben, you wrote, "There, they are reminded that if they want to hear the kind of preaching they've been taught, they'll have to look elsewhere."

Chris properly, in my mind, responded with, "I'm not at all convinced that what is being preached in the average fundamental pulpit is more likely to be bad than what is being preached in the average "other" pulpit."

That's why I believe that Chris's point is that the "looking elsewhere" to which you allude must confront the problem that the evangelical "elsewhere" has the same problem.

You claim that you are not contrasting the respective pulpits, yet this seems contradicted by the fact that your original point included the "looking elsewhere" comment--does this not clearly imply some kind of comparison, i.e., somewhere else where the problem doesn't exist?

You seem to want your cake and eat it too.

Keith said...

Seems like he's saying they'll have to look somewhere other than chapel. So, unless he's wrong about chapel, his point stands.

Also, he doesn't say that they will find what they're looking for in "evangelicalism". Seems like that boogeyman was introduced by others.

He's just saying that it's self-destructive to teach people to desire something that you also don't provide. It's self-destructive to teach people to think a certain way and then object to them following through on the implications of that teaching. Such truth applies to everyone everywhere.

Of course it's true that every group has bad preachers and teachers and that every group has inconsistencies. So what? Is it not true that the inconsistencies result in problems?

Dave said...


It'd be helpful for you to clarify if you were saying what Keith interpreted you as saying, i.e., don't look for it in chapel and you had something bigger or more non-descript in mind than evangelicalism.

Ryan DeBarr said...

That Josh fellow has no idea what he's talking about. What does he know about young men who leave Fundamentalism for evangelicalism?

He's a Buckeyes fan.

Ben said...

Dave wrote:
"You claim that you are not contrasting the respective pulpits, yet this seems contradicted by the fact that your original point included the "looking elsewhere" comment--does this not clearly imply some kind of comparison, i.e., somewhere else where the problem doesn't exist?"

I'm clearly making a point about the kinds of fundamentalists institutions where this kind of inconsistency is appallingly obvious and has been for years. I'm not sure how I'm being pigeonholed as having suggested that evangelicalism is or should be where people will look for something better. Anyone who reads this comment thread can see that it's certainly not I who wants to make this a fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism discussion. It seems as though it's being assumed that I'm saying things I certainly never said.

Now, I certainly did say that there are other "somewheres" than fundamentalists institutions. But those other somewheres need not be evangelical somewheres, and certainly need not be the average "other" pulpit, whatever that is.

Ben said...


Thank you for your straightforward reading of me. It reassures me that I'm actually communicating what I'm intending to communicate. We may argue till we're blue in the face on some issues, but I'm grateful for your engagement.

Ben said...


On your last question, what Keith understands me to be saying is precisely what I was saying in the initial post. It's also the contrast I was intending to clarify in my response to Chris' first comment.

Dave said...

Wow. I didn't see that coming.

I guess I never would have thought that fundamentalism sowing "the seeds of its own destruction" referred to students looking for good preaching outside of chapel, yet not outside of fundamentalism.

I stand corrected.