Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

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