The polemic element is of course important and it has its very definite place; it is good for the people. But I’m warning now against the danger of too much polemic. And I think this will be the danger when most of you begin. You’ve been struggling with rival theories and heresies and things of this description, and your mind is naturally full of this. But I say be careful that you don’t have too much of this. Why? Well the people, the bulk of the people to start with are probably not interested. A large number of them don’t even understand. Remember that, there are such people. Now I’m saying there’s a place for it; I’m saying that there mustn’t be too much. And of course you’ve always got a certain number in the congregation who are too interested in polemics and it’s very bad for them of all the people. They’re the people who will travel miles in order to hear a slashing attack on a man, on a theory, or all the rest of it. And as you know, men who are always polemical generally get a good hearing and generally get good collections also. But this is a real snare. Now I’m so concerned about this because I’ve seen good men ruined in this way, and I’ve seen good ministers ruined. I’ve seen great preachers ruined, I think, by this.
Shall I tell you about a discussion I once had with one of them, but I’m not going to mention his name? But he was one of the greatest of these polemical preachers, and I had the privilege of spending the day with him many years ago, and we got on to this theme, we got on to it through his asking me a question.
He said “Do you read Joseph Parker?” (This was a great preacher in London until about nineteen hundred and one, and he published great volumes of sermons, The People’s Bible.) He said, “Do you read Joseph Parker?”
I said, “No I read very little of Joseph Parker,” and he was amazed at this.
He said “I read Joseph Parker every Sunday morning, always, always read Joseph Parker before I go to church on Sunday morning. He puts me right you know, Joseph Parker. Old Parker,” he said, “was wonderful, I can’t tell you how I enjoy reading old Parker making mincemeat of those modernists of his age and liberals.”
Which gave me my opportunity. I said, “Well you know,” I said, “I must confess that doesn’t appeal to me. What exactly did Joseph Parker achieve after he’d made mincemeat of these people?” Well that set us off and we had this great discussion, and I remember now it went on for the whole day. But I only remember three points of the discussion which I’m repeating to you because I trust they’ll be of some help to you.
He at one point said to me, “Now but look here,” he said (I was suggesting to him, I was trying to appeal to him that he was ruining his great ministry by having these tirades every Sunday night in particular, either on some teaching, it was very often Roman Catholicism, or even on some persons; they were brilliantly done, but I was trying to suggest to him it was ruining his ministry) But he said, “You’re unscriptural.” He said, “Let me remind you,” he said, “that the Apostle Paul tell us in Galatians 2, that when Peter went astray the apostle withstood him to the face.” He said, “That’s all I’m doing, I’m doing what Paul did. Surely this is right!”
To which I replied, I said, “Yes, I know that Paul does this, that he did that,” but I said, “I am interested in the result. I noticed that the result of Paul’s dealing with Peter and tackling him face to face at Antioch was that he persuaded Peter that he was wrong and won him to his position. And Peter later on in life expresses his great admiration of the Apostle Paul and his writings. Can you say the same about the people whom you attack?”
And of course he could only get up and walk away from me for a while. If you can win people to the truth, and to see your position by your polemics, alright, but be very careful that you do so, and that you don’t end by antagonizing these men still more, and antagonizing a number of others at the same time.
Well then I remember later on in the discussion, a second argument came up. He said “Look here,” he said, “I put this to you as a medical man.” He said “Now here you are, here’s a surgeon, and there’s a patient he’s got a growth in his system. If that growth is allowed to go on growing it’ll kill that man. There’s only one hope for him. That growth has got to be extirpated; it’s got to be removed by a surgical operation.” He said, “The surgeon doesn’t want to operate, but to save that man’s life he’s got to do it. He’s got to get the cancer out of the man’s system and body.” He said, “That’s precisely my position.” He said, “I don’t want to do this sort of thing,” but he said, “I’ve got to. This cancer has come into the church and it’s got to be removed, it’s got to be extirpated. What was my reply to that?”
Well I had to think quickly, but the reply to me was an obvious one. I said, “You know, you’ve chosen an unfortunate illustration. Perhaps I know more about surgeons than you do.” I said, “There is such a thing as developing ‘the surgical mentality,’ and it’s a thing one’s got to be very wary of.” I said, “If you are ever really taken very ill, never accept the verdict of a surgeon alone, always check it, either by your general practitioner, or by some physician. Why do I say this? I’ll tell you why I said this, the surgeon tends to develop the surgical mentality and outlook, and unconsciously the moment he looks at a patient he tends to think in terms of operation – Take it out! Take it out! Now this is actual fact, this is actual fact and I’ve always told people never submit to the opinion of a surgeon alone, always check it.” So I said, “Would you tell me that you can say honestly that you are quite free from this surgical mentality? Haven’t you rather got into the way now of immediately wanting to operate, as it were, and you’re doing it constantly?” And again you see, he was in some kind of a difficulty.
But then I remember the third argument. He said, “Well listen to this,” he said, “this surely will prove it to you.” He said “Every time I indulge in what you call one of these ‘exceptional tirades’ of mine,” (and they were tirades; he would attack people by name and say the most scurrilous things about them) he said, “every time I do this which you say is so harmful,” he said, “you know the result? The circulation of my viewpoint simply rockets up! What do you say to that?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “What I have to say to that is this: I’ve noticed always, whenever there are two dogs fighting, a crowd always gathers.” And I think it is the answer. There are people who enjoy this. I’m not surprised the circulation goes up. You attack things and appeal for money, you’ll always get people to support you. But it’s negative, it’s destructive, there’s no question about it. So I say be careful of too much polemics. You see this particular man I’m talking about, he ended his life almost in isolation, and his church had gone down to about a handful, from having been a great church.
I knew another man who imitated the man about whom I’ve been speaking, and while he was alive and able to indulge in these polemics, he died and within about three months his church was almost empty. These people used to gather together from everywhere to hear this, and it appealed to the flesh, and they enjoyed it, but he hadn’t been building up a church. You can’t build up a church on polemics. You can’t build up a church on apologetics even, still less on polemics. You’ve got to give the people positive truth.
But again to be perfectly fair, let me say that must be aware of too little polemics. There are some people that like to have the reputation of nice men and it’s said of them they’re never negative and they like to say that about themselves. Never negative, always positive. It’s humbug. Its sheer humbug and hypocrisy. The Scripture has a polemical element, and it must be present in our preaching. We’ve got to warn our people and we’ve got to guide them. But you mustn’t let yourself develop this idea that you are the defender of the truth, and you’re always doing it, and you’re always attacking people on points of view. It becomes negative, and there’s no life in it, and it certainly will ruin the life of your church, you won’t be building up your people.
ed. note: The preceding is my own transcription (so if it’s botched a bit, I’m to blame!) from a most enjoyable and helpful series of lectures Dr. Lloyd-Jones gave at Westminster seminary, graciously posted on YouTube, and can be found here. I recommend all 18 sessions, but found this little nugget beginning around the 39:00 mark of the 13th session to be the most impactful and helpful minutes of the whole series. I have conflicted feelings about the current crop of ultra-combative young “Reformed” (a title claimed by so many I fear it’s rapidly losing its meaning) polemicists. On the one hand, I find myself in general doctrinal agreement with these intense young brothers, yet I am deeply troubled by the general lack of gentleness or broken hearted ministry. Lloyd-Jones in these few minutes helped my troubled spirit find expression for its angst, and gave me some very useful counsel in polemic situations. This is a true gem, in my view. -jr