Irresponsible Preaching

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Bob remembers clearly the moment during his pastor’s sermon on the evils of gambling when the preacher stepped over the line. The preacher was earnest and clearly well meaning. He clutched his Bible as he spoke, as if its visible presence substantiated the truths of his lesson. The moment occurred while he was deep into describing how the sin of gambling is one of the principal ways the devil takes hold of the soul of a man to devour him.

Gambling parlors, we were told, were dens of iniquity to be avoided at all costs. A young person then, Bob had no idea where he might go to gamble, let alone why it would be a parlor. Slot machines, roulette wheels, cards and the other paraphernalia of gambling were lifted up one by one in the sermon and properly vilified as the means of traducing men away from their godly commitment to provide for their families.

Then came the moment when the preacher singled out the evils of dice.

Something about dice clearly transfixed this man. Dice were not just used for immoral purposes; they were “evil in and of themselves.” To hold dice in your hands was to actually be in the grip of evil.

Brash teenager that he was when he heard this sermon, Bob waited for the greeting line to thin out. With his friends watching and with all the impertinence of youth, he shook the pastor’s hand and asked, “Pastor, if dice are evil in and of themselves, is it evil to play Monopoly?”

The pastor paled; he loved to play Monopoly with his family. Yet, the implications of the sermonic claim had been challenged. What most people present had experienced as simple, down home, country-style preaching, carried away in naming and warning parishioners to avoid the temptations of sin, had been called out. In his effort to underscore his point about temptation, the pastor had engaged in the preacherly practice of over-reaching to make a point. It was hardly irresponsible behavior. But right there, in the greeting line, is where the true sermonic misstep occurred.

“I’ll never play Monopoly again.”

It was as if Bob had caught him in an unknowing sin. Having become aware of it, his only option was to forswear now and forever any recourse to its seductions. That was the moment the preacher stepped through the looking glass. Both he and Bob knew there was nothing wrong with Monopoly dice. But rather than back off of a simple sermonic embellishment, rather than risk appearing to be an unreliable interpreter of God’s Word, he dogmatically reified his claim: all dice are evil. He had been pushed to a pastoral precipice and chose to step off the edge rather than allow his reliability as a faithful interpreter of God’s truth to be placed in peril.

Of course, the irony is whatever faith Bob and the other watching teenagers had placed in their preacher’s interpretive office was dispelled that day. His unwillingness to back off of a patently absurd claim made him appear unreliable in their eyes.

Is This Really a Problem?

Bob’s story is hardly an isolated instance of watching a preacher misstep. Some cases are more egregious than others, but there is no end to the stories that can be told of preachers who misstep and misspeak in matters of faith. We as preachers ourselves would be the first to admit that in our thirty years of preaching, we can recall many occasions when we realized, in hindsight, that we stepped over a line. So when does a misstep become irresponsible?

Most parishioners are more forgiving than brash teenagers. They overlook the occasional missteps on the part of their pastor who has demonstrated his or her care in so many other ways. Just as in friendships and marriage, missteps on the part of one person in a relationship are instances of normal human failings and idiosyncrasies. We all experience these regularly, forgive them, forget them, or simply see them as minor and sometimes even endearing flaws in the people we love. But when missteps become a pattern that gains prominence in a person’s behavior, they often lead to irresponsible practice. In the pulpit this tendency can lead to what we call irresponsible preaching—a situation in which our trust in the minister should be called into question.

Needed: A Practical Ethics of Preaching

Most preachers do not set out to misspeak or to preach irresponsibly. Nevertheless, irresponsible preaching represents an ethical failure by the minister. In part it occurs when the braking system that should keep such failures from occurring is somehow ineffective or absent. It also occurs when preachers fail to either identify or at least truly make their own some criterion of responsible pulpit practice. These need to be practices that both honor God and honor the preacher’s listeners.

What matters from this viewpoint is not the fateful decision to engage in some unethical or less than responsible activity. In our experience preachers rarely face the yawning chasm of a do or die ethical choice in preaching. Rather, irresponsible preaching happens because a minister discovers that unthinking mistakes did not raise any dust. Going down this pathway, what we term a misstep may actually be quite well received by a congregation. What started as a misstep eventually becomes justified as the preacher’s acceptable norm of practice, and the seed of irresponsible preaching is born. It is the sum of steps that create a practice, whether for good or ill.

Six Vices of Preaching

Concern for responsible and irresponsible use of the rhetorical resources of ethos (character or persona), pathos (emotional appeal), and logos (reasoning) draws attention to the moral dimension of communicative practice.  They can provide a virtue ethics of responsible and irresponsible preaching when juxtaposed to the two biblical measures of reliability for listeners and faithfulness to the gospel. The result produces a typology of six vices and six corresponding virtues for preaching practice.

Our Irresponsible Preaching Typology claims that failures of in-authenticity, greed, and exploitation represent a lack of reliability for listeners. Failures of self-absorption, pandering, and self-righteousness represent a lack of faithfulness to the gospel.

Each of these failures is one of what we call the Six Deadly Sins of Preaching, making the preacher into a Pretender, an Egoist, a Manipulator, a Panderer, a Demagogue, or a Despot.

Irresponsible Preaching Typology


Failed Ethos

Failed Pathos

Failed Logos

Lack of Reliability for Listeners

The Pretender

The Sin of In-authenticity


The Manipulator

The Sin of Greed


The Demagogue

The Sin of Exploitation


Lack of Faithfulness to the Gospel


The Egoist

The Sin of Self-absorption

The Panderer

The Sin of Trendiness


The Despot

The Sin of Self-Righteousness


Our Responsible Preaching Typology provides a counterproposal of virtues preachers should practice in order to be reliable for listeners by responding to the call to be genuine, to exercise self-control, and to woo a reasoned reception of the message preached. Similarly they should respond to the call to be selfless, to be honest to God, and to reveal the ineffability of God as practices that serve faithfulness to the gospel.

Responsible Preaching Typology

Responsible Ethos

Responsible Pathos

Responsible Logos

Reliability for Listeners


The Call to be Genuine


The Call to Exercise Self-Control


The Call to Woo a Reasoned Reception

Faithfulness to the Gospel



The Call to be Selfless


The Call to be Honest to God

A ‘Namer of God’

The Call to Reveal an Ineffable God


These virtues of pulpit practice form each chapter that follows as a preacher’s vocational calling to become more Authentic, Careful, Courteous, Humble, Passionate, and a ‘Namer of God.’

We as preachers must begin to recognize the potential sins, and the lines in the sands of preaching, so that we will be faithful to God, to the gospel, and to the people to whom God has called us to serve.



This article is excerpted from the authors' forthcoming book, The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching: Becoming Responsible for the Faith We Proclaim, coming May 1, 2012.

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