Why Preachers Fail Doctrinally

Since at least the days of Hymenaeus and Alexander, some preachers have lost their moorings doctrinally and suffered shipwreck concerning the faith (1 Tim. 1:18-20). Sometimes this accompanies or attempts to justify a moral failure, but often the doctrinal digression stands alone. Leaving the truth often occurs early in a preacher’s ministry when—while still young and impressionable—he struggles to adjust to the work, begins to receive confusing (and often negative) feedback, and soon realizes just how much he does not know. However, significant numbers of seasoned proclaimers veer off course as well, startling old friends with the extent of their heresy. Therefore, neither age nor experience can explain this phenomenon on its own. Likewise, doctrinal failures cut across the spectrum of educational institutions. No preaching school or university is immune to the problem. All who have trained preachers for any length of time have sorrowed over a beloved pupil gone astray. The blight remains, and the solution has proven elusive.

Preaching is a very personal profession. The very nature of the work demands not only personal discipline but also an investment of one’s person and personality, which is why preaching has been described as the merging of the word of God with the personality of a man. The inherent challenge for the preacher consists of constantly submitting his life and personality to God’s word in the process (1 Pet. 4:11). However, a preacher can only do this if he really knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin. Many preachers admire a mentor or teacher so much that they attempt to imitate that man’s style and personality in their preaching rather than incorporating themselves into their sermon through personal spiritual development. Preachers can have preacher-itis too!  But this creates a disconnect that ultimately induces a type of identity crisis. After some time they must come to grips with the disparity between the style and message they have imitated and how they see themselves. The crisis may come from introspection, the death of the mentor, or having someone else point out their inconsistency, but it typically terminates in spiritual distancing from their mentor as a means of establishing a more independent preaching identity. Many realize they have been repeating the positions of their mentor without having truly studied them (Acts 17:11). Embarrassed by this realization, they open themselves to broader ideas and conclusions while often being ill-equipped to evaluate them (Heb. 5:12).

This reveals yet another issue. If men have simply accepted the conclusions of a mentor without understanding the thought process behind those conclusions, they remain extremely vulnerable to doctrinal instability (Eph. 4:14). Without sufficient exegetical skills and critical thinking skills, a man lies at the mercy of the next strong personality willing to provide guidance or to the musings of whatever commentary or book of the moment that comes highly recommended. Preachers who continue to study God’s word as their source will grow frustrated with simplistic, canned answers memorized in school and begin looking for something more. Wanting to go deeper, while lacking both the skills to do so on their own and the discernment to detect the difference between depth and digression, they can easily fall prey to concepts that surpass their own experience and scholarship because they they do not know how to evaluate new ideas, having lost their attachment to core aspects of truth in their search for greater knowledge.

In a related manner, some preachers become too reliant on outside reading as a core part of their study habits. They do not possess a sufficient biblical filter (sometimes because they were using tradition rather than scripture as their filter in the first place) to recognize subtle but significant problems because they are passive learners whose preaching comes from reporting others’ ideas rather than studying to discover truth on their own. Through such reading and the social circles that often develop around it, many preachers are introduced to ideas for the first time—thinking no one has considered them previously. Thus, enamored with the new bright, shiny object they just discovered, they learn things from uninspired sources but fail to grow spiritually, deceiving themselves into having more confidence than what is warranted (1 Jn. 4:1). Chasing significance, they may attempt to fill a void inside themselves, longing for depth but not knowing how or where to find it. As a result, they settle for what is different, finding excitement and purpose in the controversial all while having neglected the sublime.

We must acknowledge that the reasons why preachers fail doctrinally are probably legion, the motivations possibly so subtle as to escape the preacher himself, and the paths undertaken of great variety. After all, every preacher comes to the pulpit from a very different background and with very different abilities, and the doctrinal failures can be just as distinctive. However, while every preacher’s story has its own peculiarities, the underlying challenges for preachers have a great deal of overlap and do not differ greatly in principle (Ecc. 1:9).  Similar issues emerge in other types of work, but the implications for a preacher are far more devastating (2 Pet. 2:1-3). Therefore, while acknowledging that the scope of the problem requires far more attention than the musings of one preacher, it deserves time and consideration so that we might better prepare ourselves to recognize the dangers in ourselves and others and perhaps prevent a personal tragedy (Psa. 119:15; 1 Tim. 4:15-16).

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