Is There Room for Doubt in The Pulpit?

By Adam Brown –

“If you don’t believe it, don’t preach it.”

This statement seems reasonable. Necessary even. It does not seem possible for a preacher of God’s Word to authentically or effectively fulfill his assignment to feed Christ’s sheep if he does not believe what he is preaching.

The old adage regarding comprehension, “If it’s a mist in the pulpit, it’ll be a fog in the pews,” might be leveraged to say something about faith: “If there’s doubt in the pulpit, it’ll become disbelief in the pews.” Indeed, there is something that rings true about this.

John Stott comments on the power of sincerity of faith in the pulpit:

A friend once met [David Hume] hurrying along a London street and asked him where he was going. Hume replied that he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. ‘But surely, ‘his friend asked in astonishment, ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?’ ‘No, I don’t’ answered Hume, ‘but he does.’

John Stott, Between Two Worlds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. 270

Stott’s point is that sincerity of faith is not only a basic requirement for preaching, it is an attractive asset as well.

But. . . What if the preacher has doubts? Here are three thoughts about doubt in the pulpit.

1. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Unavoidable

Some men are given the gift of faith to such a measure that there is no room for doubt. These men can be tremendous treasures to the church, instilling hope and confidence in those who sit under their preaching. These men can also be tremendous tyrants to the church, ruthless in their inability to sympathize with the failings of the weak.

Most Christians―most preachers even―have some doubts. Most of us can join the distraught father in his prayer, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” as he pleads with Jesus to exorcise a demon from his son (Mark 9:14–29).

The assumption that absolute certainty, perfect clarity, and unblemished obedience is required before a man can stand up to proclaim the Word of God would leave pulpits empty everywhere.

Moreover, a pinch of doubt is a powerful tonic against prideful and needlessly dogmatic preaching.

2. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Pastoral

There are degrees to doubt. At some point, doubt becomes a liability to the preaching of God’s Word. To guard against unqualified preaching, Paul wrote to Titus in Crete:

He [the prospective elder and preacher] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Titus 1:9

Doubt regarding the primary doctrines of the gospel―such as the Trinity, the Person and work of Christ, justification by grace through faith, the infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word, among others― makes it impossible to fulfill this mandate.

Up to the point of elder disqualification, however, the public declaration of doubt might serve a very pastoral purpose.

In 1 Timothy 4:11–16, Paul instructs the young preacher in Ephesus to devote himself to the ministry of the Word. In the middle of this stunning string of exhortations, the apostle writes, “. . . so that all may see your progress. . .” What kind of progress does Paul have in mind? Is it merely mechanical and homiletical? Or, might this progress have something to do with intellectual comprehension, doctrinal confidence, and personal progressive sanctification?

In the context of the local church, members are to watch the spiritual development of their preachers over time. This includes the flourishing of faith and conviction, as well as the maturation of personal holiness.

But how will this progress be seen if the preacher hides behind the pulpit, pretending to possess a level of doubtless conviction that is not actual?

By carefully exposing personal doubts and struggles, a preacher is able to create space in the church for sincere theological discourse that enhances transparency and vulnerability of fellowship in and around the Word of God. These conditions are a spiritual greenhouse for growth.

3. Some Doubt in The Pulpit is Necessary

Last Sunday I preached about the treasures of justification that are given to us through the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1–5).

I challenged the church with this exhortation, “The greatest treasures in all of reality are not found in any earthly wealth, but between the covers of this Book, the Bible” (paraphrased).

Then, I asked the church if they believed that. In spite of various nods and visual affirmations, I offered a pastoral rebuke, saying, “I don’t think that you do.” Immediately thereafter, I very purposefully revealed my own doubt, saying, “And, I don’t know if I do either.”

On one level, I most definitely do believe that the greatest treasures in all of reality are found in the written promises of God. Neither I, nor most of the people in our church, have any intellectual doubt about it.

On a deeper level, however, our lives do not readily demonstrate this belief. By taking an inventory of how we spend our time and money, it is fair to suggest that we seek worldly treasures more than we seek after the kingdom of God. That was my point. Our belief is real, but it is shallow. It is not transforming our behaviour the way it would if we truly, deeply, believed it. When put to scrutiny, a real and present Doubt is revealed in us.

It would be hypocritical and insincere―not to mention spiritually abusive― of me to rebuke the church for their deep-level-doubt without including myself in this analysis also.

Thus, revealing some doubt in the pulpit was necessary if I was to issue the rebuke and if I wanted to lead our church in pursuit of the greater treasures. By exposing my own doubt, I intended to establish a tone that would edify the church by helping us to develop a deeper conviction and desire to believe with action.

Is There Room for Doubt in The Pulpit?

Yes.

So long as doubt does not undermine the very essence of the gospel, an admission of doubt in the public preaching of the Word can be used by God to help a church to discover greater intimacy with Him and with one another.

Doubt, properly handled, is an essential tool in the kit of an effective preacher.

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