If much thought is given to the pre-service prayers in the consistory room, these prayers can be very helpful and encouraging to the minister. During a couple periods of my ministry, one elder rarely failed to include in his prayer the phrase “without fear or favor.” The phrase was used in the context of a petition for the minister’s preaching. The elder prayed God to enable me to preach without fear or favor. It is an important expression, the significance of which every minister should pay attention to.
“Without fear or favor” is the literal translation of an old Latin expression that forms the title of this editorial.1 If one performs an act or makes a decision sine timore aut favore he does so impartially. That is, without fearing those who may oppose his decision or action— thus making his life difficult; and without any attempt to curry the favor of those who may profit him if they like what he does. Decisions are made without fearing opponents or favoring friends. Actions are taken on the basis of principle, not pragmatism. “Without fear or favor.”
This faithful elder was seeking God’s blessing upon my ministry of preaching, I paraphrase, something like this: “God of the church, strengthen our pastor to preach truth without regard to men’s faces”—another expression he often used, if I am not mistaken. The brother realized—and rightly so— that the lives of the people of God can have a negative effect on the gospel preaching in the congregation.
Preaching changes lives… but lives change preaching
That preaching changes lives almost goes without saying among Bible-believing Christians. But that lives change preaching is true as well, and that is my concern.
Reformed Christians have no doubt that preaching changes lives. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit works faith by the preaching, and Dordt’s Canons teach that grace to live godly is “conferred by admonitions.” Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. The students at seminary hear nothing if they do not hear the reality that preaching is God’s chief means of grace. Because the Word of God is powerful, and because the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, the preaching of the Word of God is powerful to transform lives.
What we may fail to realize is that the reverse is true, too: lives can transform preaching. And not for the better. Evil in the lives of members of the church can have such an effect on the preaching that the preaching deteriorates on account of it.
This damaging effect of the people’s lives on gospel preaching is explained from the weakness of the minister. As more and more members walk in a particular sin, the minister may fear to expose the sin. If the prevalent sins that should be exposed are those of the wealthy or powerful—who have shown material favors to the preacher—the pressure on him becomes even greater. Fear and favor.
“A massive alienation of members”
Fear and favor play into many aspects of the Christian life. In a recent radio commentary, Eric Metaxas, the Christian social commentator and well-known biographer of Bonhoeffer, expressed dismay that the culture wars did not include a battle against divorce and remarriage. Evangelical Christian leaders were willing—even in public, he said—to denounce and oppose almost all our culture’s sins. They would combat abortion and homosexuality. They were bold to oppose pornography and resisted sex education in the schools. But their deafening silence on the greatest evil in our culture—divorce—was shocking and scandalous.
Metaxas was reflecting on an interview that Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY), had with a sociologist, a scholar of American evangelicalism. When Mohler asked the sociologist for an explanation of the evangelical silence on divorce, he was told that if Christian organizations like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition would speak about the evil of divorce, they “risked a massive alienation of members.” That is, fear of man determined what they would say and what they would never say. Favor is the other side of the same coin, of course, since the alienated members, once they were offended, would no longer send in their support checks.
Likewise, when certain sins take hold in the lives of church members, unless radical measures are taken, sermons will change. To put it bluntly, evil in the lives of the people muffles the message. The minister fears the response of so many members who have come to embrace a certain fault. Timore et favore. Fear and favor.
In the PRC?
It will be to our peril if we underestimate the power of fear and favor in the ministries of even the most faithful and determined preachers. Fear and favor are terrible powers. Add to this the dynamic that sinful natures blind men to their own faults and failures. That is, unless someone shows them plainly, the preacher may well not be aware of his lack. Culpably unaware, indeed, but unaware. We all have our blindspots. PRC preachers as much as any.
Someday, PRC preachers may keep silent about the sin of homosexuality. God forbid it to be so, but could it be out of fear of PRC members? Someday, PRC preachers may keep silent about the evils of Roman Catholicism, Islam, Pentecostalism, or other heresies and damnable errors. As the days become more evil, will it be out of fear of PRC members involved in these errors or who have relatives in them? Someday, PRC preachers may shrink back from saying that the Lord hates divorce. Will it be so because the minister fears offending the increasing number of divorced members among us? Someday, PRC preachers may stop short of saying that God forbids the remarriage of a divorced person as long as his spouse still lives. Could this hesitation appear because members of the church have made it plain to him that they will not disapprove this sin in others?
Or favor. Will favor cause a man to preach to the choir, as they say, exposing all the sins that the influential members of his congregation love to censure, so that these influential members will wink at his failures to expose their own sins? Will favor cause the pulpit to highlight the heresies that the preacher’s supporters have read about and oppose, but smooth over the faults that are presently doing damage in the congregation?
A sinful silence
No preachers and no pulpits are impervious to the influences of the lives of the people. I was reminded of that, too, when I opened the new Perspectives in Covenant Education magazine last week. I was saddened to read a passing comment— made only in passing, since no reflection on it was given—about how frequently teachers today hear children talk openly about TV shows and movies they have watched. What has changed? I asked myself. What happened to the pulpit’s condemnation of drama and the pulpit’s exposure as evil of the content of most television and movies?
What happened is not that the church changed her position that drama is wrong and that most programming— in both content and philosophy of life—is evil. More likely, the people have so adopted this mode of entertainment that the preacher either fears to speak of it, or has given up in frustration. Have the lives of the people influenced the pulpit?
More than a few times in recent years, members of the churches have asked me about the church’s view of mothers working outside of the home. They have said that the pulpit formerly and with regularity reminded young mothers of their biblical calling to be “keepers at home,” so that the “word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:5). According to some, this sound has been muted in the churches. If indeed this note has been missing, we preachers (and elders) may ask ourselves whether fear or favor are in play. Are there enough women employed outside of their homes that ministers do not dare, for fear of waking a sleeping dog?
Nothing is simple, but Sabbath observance may be another good illustration. By “nothing is simple” I mean to acknowledge that the church must neither be legalistic about Sabbath-keeping nor fail to recognize the allowances Reformed Christianity has always made for works of mercy and works of necessity on the Lord’s Day. Having said that, however, since we are always inclined to slip and the evil one is always inclined to push us to slip, we can ask whether the pulpit may become more reserved about applying the fourth commandment than in the past? Does it hesitate because, here also, the pulpit recognizes the changes in the lives of the members and fears repercussions? Are businessmen, travelers, business owners, vacationers, job-seekers, and others, fudging on Sabbath requirements?
If we find ourselves cheering for the examples I have given, let us remind ourselves that in our blind spots there are likely as many and worse sins that need to be exposed and repented of. This editorial will have failed in its purpose if it allows any of us to settle on our lees. What is necessary is self-evaluation. With what sins am I allowing myself to become comfortable?
The longer there is silence, or a muted sound, on a particular weakness in the congregation, the more difficult it will become ever to speak about it again. The easier it will be simply to abandon this particular aspect of the Christian faith or life.
All the parties involved must pull together to keep the church from this sad end. Ministers must be bold. Indeed wise, careful, and patient, but also bold. Let the fear and favor of God, not man, govern what and how he speaks. And the favor of God upon the congregation that is sanctified by bold preaching will be all the reward any faithful minister needs, even if he loses favor of some men.
Elders will help the ministers to be fearless. They can begin by praying for their ministers to be bold… and wise. To preach without fear or favor.
And we who sit in the pew will take heed to the words spoken, object to them if they are applications improperly made, and follow them if they are truth.
Next editorial, D.V., I will try to spell out more fully these responsibilities of ministers, elders, and members.
In the meantime: Whom do I fear? Whose favor do I seek?
1 Some may know the phrase better from the old hymn, “In the Hour of Trial”: “In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me, Lest by base denial, I depart from Thee; When Thou seest me waver, With a look recall, Nor for fear or favor Suffer me to fall.”