One of the common jeremiads often heard proclaimed in pulpits warns against the dangers of “soft” preaching. Quite frequently this concern is discussed in terms of 2 Timothy 4:1-4:
I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.
“Soft” preaching is then associated with these teachers who tell those with “itching ears” what they want to hear and thus depart from the faith. Sometimes such “soft” preaching is defined as “all positive” preaching; many times it is negatively defined as preaching without discussing “hard” issues. Those “hard” issues tend to be defined in terms of matters of doctrinal distinctiveness: emphasis on the proper plan of salvation, proper functioning in the assemblies, and/or proper church organization and functioning. These days, “soft” preaching is extended to included unwillingness to preach against abortion, homosexuality, or other hot-button cultural and social issues.
These concerns are legitimate. One road to large churches and equally large church treasuries is paved with soothing self-help messages masquerading as preaching. Moralistic therapeutic deism, the belief in a god who is out there with some standards that are easily relaxed, who wants people to be happy and to have high self-esteem, and who will save all good people, is quite prevalent in our age, and is promoted vigorously with a “Christian” veneer. Meanwhile, the people of God remain tempted to dispense with that which makes them distinctive so as to be like everyone else. Israel wanted a king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:1-22), and served other gods like the other nations (2 Kings 17:7-23). Some early Christians minimized the resurrection and promoted doctrines more consistent with Hellenistic philosophy than the apostolic Gospel (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 Timothy 2:17-19, 2 John 1:7-11). Today many among liberal Protestants have fully embraced cultural norms in terms of science, gender roles, and embrace of homosexuality; even among Evangelicals gender roles have become a major issue of contention. Meanwhile, many within churches of Christ have come to see themselves as just another Christian path and thus grant legitimacy to many facets of Evangelicalism at least and other Christian groups as well at most. Proclamation regarding God’s plan of salvation, the proper way to edify and encourage in the assembly, and the authorized organization and work of the local congregation according to the New Testament is not appreciated in some places. We do well to show concern about these trends and to continue to preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Nevertheless, we also do well to consider whether it is advisable or wise to define “soft” and “hard” preaching so strictly and with such a limited application. Neither “soft preaching” nor “hard preaching” are Biblical terms. When Paul wrote to Timothy, the immediate dangers were for Jewish Christians to “turn aside” to listen to a gospel emphasizing Judaism and its cultural traditions (reflected in the “Ebionite” sect) and for Gentile Christians to “turn aside” to listen to a gospel conforming to Hellenistic philosophies and an anti-Semitic bias (reflected in Marcionism, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the various Gnostic sects). These “gospels” would accommodate the listeners’ existing biases and grew into the heresies which were opposed so virulently during the first four hundred years of Christianity.
Yet this very example provides a cautionary tale: while early Christians were so fixed on opposing these heresies, changes were introduced in church organization (a bishop over the elders in a local congregation with Ignatius), and the very arguments used to defend the faith and to oppose heretics would become the basis of false doctrines: the appeal to Christians’ old covenant heritage in Israel in order to gain legitimacy led to Judaizing tendencies in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; appealing to unbroken lines of authority figures in the church in Rome to show that “orthodox” Christianity predated the “heresies” and thus was more legitimate would eventually be used to justify Roman Catholic claims to legitimacy despite the fact that what the church in Rome taught in the first century is vastly different from what the Roman Catholic church taught in 600 CE, 1000 CE, 1500 CE, and today.
These early Christians were very concerned about the promotion of heresy and zealously defended their faith in Christ. Yet while they stood firm on many aspects of the faith and vigorously defended them, they let other aspects of the faith slide. Unforeseen consequences involving incremental changes in church organization and the inferences drawn from arguments defending the faith would eventually overwhelm the good which had been done in the defense of the faith.
Hopefully this example can show us the dangers of single-minded focus on particular issues to the detriment of others and putting too much faith in our arguments versus the explicit message of the New Testament. Strict definitions of what comprises “soft” and “hard” preaching can contribute to this focus and thus its inherent danger: if “hard” preaching involves proclaiming the distinctive aspects of our faith, and we constantly emphasize those distinctive aspects in our preaching and teaching, and everyone is affirmed in those distinctive matters, we can be lulled into complacency, convinced that we are “holding firm” to the faith. Meanwhile, other, less addressed, issues may creep into the church and lead to ungodliness. If the preacher dares to preach on these new challenges, he might find the audience has developed hardened hearts on the issue. Or perhaps Christians make bad or unintended inferences from arguments to defend the truth or use those arguments in unintended ways and begin promoting distorted doctrines. In such circumstances, “hard” preaching has become “soft” preaching, what was once derided as “soft” preaching proves necessary as “hard” preaching, and false doctrine has sprouted from previous attempts to advance the truth.
Paul wisely did not specifically mention which lusts people would want satisfied, which myths they would accept, and what precisely these teachers would teach: specific identification would lead to apathy and complacency in terms of other issues! There are all sorts of ways in which people develop itching ears and seek teachers to satisfy their desires. Yes, it is true that some people seek teachers to talk only about positive matters and focus only on how to be good people, and want little to do with doctrine and the distinctive truths of New Testament Christianity. Yet those very issues could themselves become “soft” preaching for a group who has itching ears to feel content that they adhere to the true doctrines of New Testament Christianity but want little to do with those parts of the Gospel that demand changes in their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
“Soft” preaching as preaching designed to make everybody feel better about themselves as they are without any demand for repentance has no place among the people of God (cf. Matthew 4:17, Luke 6:26, 1 Timothy 6:3-10). The preaching of the Gospel of Christ is always designed to convict the hearer of their condition before God and should always exhort toward faith, repentance, and godliness; it should always be “hard” in the sense of challenging and faithful to the standard of God’s holiness (Matthew 4:17, Acts 2:37-38, 2 Timothy 4:1-4, Hebrews 4:12, 1 Peter 1:13-16). We should be wary of fixed definitions beyond these which focus upon certain aspects of the Gospel over others, for the danger always exists that the issues deemed “hard” preaching today prove to be “soft” matters tomorrow, and matters we take for granted today are considered as “hard” preaching tomorrow. Instead, we do better to proclaim the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The whole counsel of God includes the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity yet constantly reinforces the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth as the centerpiece of the faith and the basis of its standard of the righteous and holy life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, John 2:1-6, Jude 1:3). Doctrine and praxis are to complement each other, not stand in contrast. The whole counsel of God involves positive encouragement of commendable thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as exhortation away from ungodly and unholy thoughts, feelings, and actions (Galatians 5:17-24). The whole counsel of God demands believers to speak truth to society today without romanticizing an illusory past (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:10). The whole counsel of God demands the recognition of the distinction between what God actually said and the arguments we use to defend that truth, and to never allow the latter to be used or misused to contradict the former.
We humans like to quantify things, and the more objective the quantification, the better. On account of this Christians have always been tempted to quantify “soft” vs. “hard” preaching, or “sound” vs. “unsound” doctrines, on the basis of certain, easily quantifiable beliefs, doctrines, or practices. As Christians, we should certainly affirm sound doctrine and encourage preaching and teaching on the distinctive doctrines of New Testament Christianity. Yet we must always be wary about limited definitions of “soft”/”hard” preaching or “sound” doctrine. Focus on certain doctrines to the neglect of others is not healthy, or sound, at all; what constitutes “soft” preaching for “itching ears” in one context may prove to be “hard” preaching in others, and what constitutes “hard” preaching to some may actually be “soft” preaching for “itching ears.” After all, whoever actually, consciously believes they are departing from the truth and holding firm to myths because of their itching ears? Paul does not suggest that this problem only exists “out there”; his very concern is that it will become true of those “among us,” “right here”! Let us continually check our ears to see whether they itch to hear certain things over others or whether they are always ready to listen to the truth of God in Christ Jesus no matter how much that truth may ask of us, and seek to proclaim the whole counsel of God!