We pastors have a dreadful curse. The curse weakens a bit with age and maturity, but I suspect it never dies. It flares up when we hear pastors speak at conferences, when we have guest preachers fill our pulpits certain Sundays, or when we download well-known brothers’ online sermons to our desktops. When we ride the pine and another pitcher gets the playing time, the curse kicks in—and we criticize.

Sometimes these criticisms ricochet in our minds for a while, eventually losing momentum. They live; they die…cognitive compost. Other times we voice our concerns, pummeling fellow pastors so our naïve congregants will not be swept away by false teaching.

We must be very careful here. Certainly there are times to be critical, but often our criticism isn’t cricket. In this brief article, I want us to consider an important question: When is it appropriate to criticize another pastor’s sermon? My goal is not to provide a definitive list of offences that call for criticism and occasions that do not, but to introduce three broad categories for consideration.

Heresy
Heresy always requires rebuke and correction. If I hear a sermon that contains heresy, I have a responsibility to criticize the false message and provide sound instruction in its place (Titus 1:9). However, heresy must be defined carefully. We should begin by differentiating cults and heresies. A cult is organized by a system of religious devotion that is directed at a particular figure or object. Buddhism, for example, is a cult; it is a religious system of contemplation in which followers are expected to rise through different levels of consciousness until finally reaching the goal of nirvana. As Christians, we must affirm that all religious systems of the world are false and those who follow these paths will suffer eternal punishment (John 14:6).

The primary difference between cults and heresies is that heresy is false teaching that claims to be Christian teaching—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The followers of the different world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.) are not heretics because they do not claim to be Christian. A heretic is someone who poses as a Christian but denies some fundamental truth of the Christian faith.

To spot a heretic, then, we must be familiar with the fundamentals of the faith. This is where the creeds, systematic statements of the content of Christianity, are invaluable. Consider the Apostles’ Creed, the oldest and simplest creed of the Christian church:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
And born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
Amen.

This is an affirmation of the basic beliefs that unite Christians throughout the world, and there is never room for tolerance and understanding when a pseudo-Christian pastor denies any of these tenets. It is always necessary for us to confront heresy, and sometimes this criticism will need to be public and personal, as Paul demonstrated by calling out Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20).

Denominational Divisions
Some traditions within Christianity do not regularly use the creeds, which can lead some to the assumption that denominational statements of faith are meant to serve as the boundaries of orthodoxy (right belief) for all believers. There is nothing wrong with a Southern Baptist being familiar with the Baptist Faith and Message or a Presbyterian studying the Westminster Confession. In fact, this should be encouraged, but we have to keep our denominational distinctives in proper perspective.

An analogy might help us accomplish this. If we think of domestic life, then we may say the creeds define the house in which all Christians live.

Denominational statements define the rooms within this house. Baptists have their room: It’s full of water, but holds no wine. Presbyterians have their room: There are many elders and some who are elect. Anglicans have a room: They all like being on the same page in worship, and you never have to worry about the clergy dressing down too much. Pentecostals have their room: It’s loud. The point is we all compose one family—the family of God.

Preachers sometimes forget this. We are quick to criticize the clergyman down the road for his unbiblical position on church polity. Ecumenism begins in our pulpits, and if we pastors continue treating our denominational distinctives as the fortification of the Christian faith, we never will see the saints unite. There should be no interpulpit criticism when it comes to in-house issues such as church government or polity. Rather than criticizing, we need to live in a spirit of humility and display a bit of theological hospitality.

Homiletical Hodgepodge
In this third category we find an enormous heap of differences of opinion, many of which are not theological at all. Here we find questions such as:
• What version of the Bible is best for preaching?
• What is the proper length of a sermon?
• Should a pastor be conversational or more formal in delivery?
• Should a pastor preach from a manuscript or memorize the sermon?
• Should a pastor sit or stand while preaching?
• How many illustrations should a pastor have in the sermon?
• Should a man wear a robe, a tie or a casual shirt while preaching?

We have no good reason to criticize a brother when it comes to these matters of preference. The apostle Paul is clear: The content of my sermon must be the Word (2 Tim. 4:2), but the Bible has relatively little to say about the form of a sermon. So, we should not go beyond an insistence on faithful proclamation.
Additionally, when we turn these matters of preference into tenets, we confuse our congregants. We argue about every little thing, and the result is that they cannot articulate what is essential. In many of our Christian churches today, a guest preacher can preach Buddhism and nobody notices; but if his attire is inappropriate, all hell breaks loose! This is a serious problem that must be remedied.

Homiletical hodgepodge belongs in the pile of things indifferent. You may think things such as dress code are worth a fight, but these are trivial matters. Who knows, you may forget to pick up your suit at the dry cleaner one weekend and have to wear the Hawaiian shirt in the back of your closet. Heaven forbid.

My closing call is simple: Let us curb our interpulpit criticism and come together for the sake of the gospel. Charles Spurgeon once said, “The pulpit is the Thermopylae of Christendom: there the fight will be lost or won.” Spartans don’t squabble; they stand together at the hot gates. So let us set aside our petty preaching preferences. Let us remember the various branches of the church are all connected to the One True Vine. Let us link arms and contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. As our pulpits unite, the gospel will spread to all people.

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