There are many ways to impair a sermon and muffle a ministry. Unsuspecting pastors have been doing it for centuries. One such way is by means of polemics. Polemics, strictly speaking, is a strongly written or verbal argument against another position. Polemical preaching then would be a sermon that goes after a particular practice or doctrine held by another person or institution.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones called polemical preaching "thorny." On the one hand, preachers can go wrong by being too weak, not adequately refuting the error of those who contradict sound doctrine (Titus 1:9, 2:15). On the other hand a preacher can become consumed with calling everyone and everything out. We now have ministries, churches, even websites that seem to build their identity on their reaction to error. After all, we live in a time that some have called the most undiscerning period in history, which means some preachers will undertake polemical preaching and ministry. But defending truth against error is only one part of faithful preaching. The question is not whether there is a place for polemical preaching but whether someone can do too much of it.
Some would say no. In fact, Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) interacted with them in his classic book Preaching and Preachers. In his chapter "What to Avoid" he speaks of a day-long conversation with a well-known preacher. MLJ talks about how he, unlike his friend, tended to avoid and rather dislike the type of preaching that "made mincemeat" of other preachers. In what follows I interact with and summarize MLJ's points. They remain fresh for us today.
We want to win people, not destroy them.
Proponents of this type of preaching will often point out that even Paul opposed Peter in Galatians 2. Lloyd-Jones relays his response to this argument:
Yes I know that Paul tells that he had done that, but . . . I am interested in the result. I notice that the result of Paul's dealing with Peter, his attacking him to the face at Antioch, was that he persuaded Peter that he was wrong and won him to his position. I note that Peter later on in life in his second epistle expresses his great admiration of the apostle Paul and his writings. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?
Sometimes this type of preaching can get away from the goal of restoration and holiness. In the name of discernment, we could unwittingly preach in such a way that is unbecoming of the gospel. Seeking life change takes thoughtfulness and care.
Be careful that you are not knife-happy.
As a trained medical doctor, MLJ responded to the concern that preachers must recognize and remove cancer in the church. Just like a surgeon needs to quickly remove cancer from the body, the act of preaching should remove cancer from the church.
MLJ deftly replied: "There is such a thing as developing a 'surgical mentality,' or becoming what is described as 'knife-happy.'" Before having surgery you would be wise to talk with your general doctor and not to the surgeon alone. You should not be surprised that a surgeon might well, like to do surgery.
Sure, aberrant teaching and living needs to be excised from the church. At the same time the pastor should be careful that he is not becoming "knife-happy" in his preaching. There are other ways to treat such ailments in the body than simply having surgery (such as counseling, discipleship, writing, prayer meetings, and so on).
While conflict draws crowds it does not build churches.
MLJ's friend later appealed to the fact that such preaching increases his popularity and influence. We see this trend in our day as well. I could write 10 articles on my blog about the glory of Christ and see little excitement. However, if I were to write about a particular conflict or controversial subject or figure, the traffic skyrockets. MLJ would say to us, "I have noticed always that whenever there are two dogs fighting that a crowd always gathers. There are people who always enjoy a fight so I am not surprised that your circulation goes up."
People will flock to conflict; we feed upon it in our flesh. But a crowd does not necessarily indicate actual gospel growth. In fact, ministries and pulpits built upon polemics tend to become more and more popular even as they narrow. Eventually, though, they alienate everyone else. This is the sad story that MLJ tells of the pastor in this conversation. He ends up "in isolation, and his church, from having been a great church was reduced in size and influence."
While a pastor cannot and should not avoid polemics in his preaching he must not be characterized by them (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:4). There is a such thing as too much. This is a subjective line, to be sure. It is difficult to discern. However, in view of his goal of presenting every man complete in Christ (Col. 1:28), the pastor will prayerfully, thoughtfully, and tactfully pick his battles and how they should be waged. In this process he will aim to stay clear of the polemical vortex that tempts his flesh and undermines his preaching.