Does the Holiness of the Preacher Really Matter?

There’s just something about Stephen. He possesses the most important preaching characteristics. Acts 6:10 states “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he (Stephen) spoke.” The content of Stephen’s preaching (“wisdom”) and his character (“Spirit”) became a brick wall for the enemies of the Christian movement. Stephen demonstrates that when sermonic content and the preacher’s character are congruent with Christ, preaching is hard to “withstand.” Most of us would agree, I think, that wise sermonic content is a necessity for Christian proclamation. However, I wonder if the Church has forgotten the other side of the Stephen-coin, that the Christ-congruent character of the preacher is just as important as Christ-congruent content.

Do I sound a bit like a Donatist? The Donatists of the 4th century put too much emphasis on the character of the clergy. They believed that if the priest administering the sacrament of Communion was a spiritual weakling, then the sacrament would not be efficacious for the recipient. Augustine was among the chief opponents of the Donatists. He asserted that the grace of God comes through the sacrament regardless of the spiritual state of the person serving the sacrament. This historical controversy begs some pressing contemporary questions? If we over-emphasize the person of the preacher might we become homiletic donatists? Do we really want to suggest that the preacher’s character has significant bearing on the effectiveness of the sermon? Can a preacher’s sinfulness really inhibit the power of God that comes through the preaching event?

Clearly, we need to avoid extreme homiletic donatism. But, we must be just as suspicious of homiletic docetism. Docetism was a heretical belief of the 2nd century that denied the physicality of Christ. Docetism under-emphasized the humanity, or personhood, of Christ. Homiletic docetism, then, is an extreme neglect of the person of the preacher. A homiletic docetic thinks preaching is entirely dependent on divinity and that humanity, or the preacher, doesn’t matter at all to the dynamics of preaching. As long as God shows up through the preaching, nothing else matters-not even the preacher!

It seems to me that, somehow, the Church must live between the extremes of homiletic donatism, an over-emphasis of the preacher’s character, and homiletic docetism, a complete denial of the importance of the preacher. For some reason, God has decided to do his best work through a combination, a wedding together, of divinity with humanity. The Bible is the divine word through the humanity of its authors. The Incarnation is the act of divinity coming through humanity. And the sermon, as far as I can tell, is another example of our gracious God’s willingness to come to us through us, divine truth bursting through a human agent we call preacher. Stephen proves that when a good sermon, full of divine “wisdom,” comes through a good preacher, full of the “Spirit,” that the homiletic sparks fly!

So, what do you think? Are you more prone to be a homiletic donatist who is so enamored with the holiness of the preacher that the sovereign power of God through preaching is ignored? Or, are you more likely to struggle with a homiletic docetism that ignores the role and person of the preacher in the preaching event? Does your theological tradition lead you toward one of these homiletic heresies? Most importantly, how can you avoid both extremes through your development and delivery of sermons?

You are invited to the Festival on Preaching!
The human hunger for life-giving, hope-inducing, and identity-shaping good news has never been more intense. Yet the complexities of preaching today are more significant than ever. The Festival on Preaching is designed to inspire and equip preachers to meet these challenges and maximize the opportunities of preaching today. On May 20-21, Wesley Seminary and College Wesleyan Church are co-hosting what we pray will be a significant investment in your preaching ministry. For more information and to register click on the following link: Festival on Preaching.

The $25 registration fee is waived for Wesley Seminary students!

  • johannarugh

    Dr. Lucetti, enjoyed your article. I wish I could attend the Festival on Preaching! Please let me know if they will be recording the sessions, I will be thrilled to know that it is a possibility. Blessings!