Harshness in the Pulpit?
Tony Cooke

Here is a question for every minister to consider:

How does a minister operate in boldness and authority without being harsh or abusive? How does a pastor balance being a strong leader and still walking in love toward the flock?

There are different sides to this issue, but here are three powerful quotes that warn against preachers being too harsh.

“Your mission is to evangelize, not to curse. Prove yourself to be an evangelist, not a tyrannical legislator. Men want to be led, not driven.”

– Johannes Oecolampadius (Protestant Reformer writing to William Farel)

“People prefer to follow those who help them, not those who intimidate them.”

– C. Gene Wilkes

“Even an old hog has enough sense to quit coming to the trough, if every time they show up to eat, they get hit over the head with a two-by-four.”

– Kenneth E. Hagin

As insightful and helpful statements as these are, I also realize that preachers are to operate with authority, firmness, and boldness. 

Paul Rebuking Peter

In reflecting on this, I thought of Paul rebuking Peter publicly in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). Perhaps Paul’s overtness here was based on the fact that so many could have been led astray from the truth of the gospel (it wasn’t just because Paul didn’t like Peter or because Paul had a temper problem).

Paul’s Gentleness

In contrast, Paul told the church at Thessalonica, “We were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 NKJV).

Some may have read the initial question and thought of “the other side of the issue.” This other side is reflected in a question I received decades ago when I was teaching at RBTC. A graduate came up to me at an alumni event and said, “Tony, when I was at Rhema, we were regularly warned not to be one of those pastors who beat the flock, but I don’t remember being cautioned about those congregations that eat their pastor for lunch.”

The truth is, we are not to be harsh, unkind, and uncaring toward the people of God, but neither are we called to be doormats, punching bags, or piñatas. We are called to be strong leaders who deeply care for the people, and who speak the truth in love. 

Oswald Sanders recognized that “one size doesn’t fit all” for how ministers address people. He write: “Sometimes Paul was kindly and paternal… Often he was brotherly… Sometimes he used stinging sarcasm in the hope of bringing his spiritual siblings to a better state of mind.”

Amazing Insights from John Wesley

In 1786, when John Wesley was 83 years old, he wrote the following letter to a fellow minister who needed to make several adjustments in the way he was treating people. 

Dear ______________,

You know I love you. Ever since I have known you, I have not neglected to show you my love when it was in my power to do so. And you know I esteem you for your zeal and work, for your love of discipline, and for the gifts God has given you; particularly your quickness of comprehension, and readiness of utterance; especially in prayer. 

Therefore, I am jealous over you, lest you should lose any of the things you have gained, and not receive a full reward, and the more so, because I fear you are lacking in other respects. And who will venture to tell you so? You will scarce know how to receive it from me unless you lift your heart up to God. If you will do this, I will tell you my concerns. 

I fear you think more highly of yourself than you ought to think. Do you not think too highly of your own understanding? Of your gifts, particularly in preaching? As though you were the very best preacher in the organization? Of your own importance? As if the work of God depends wholly or mostly on you? And of your own popularity? Which, to my surprise, I have found far less than I expected.

Is not all of this due to your lack of brotherly love? I fear there is something unloving in your spirit; something not only of roughness, but of harshness, even of sourness. Are you not also extremely open to prejudice? Whenever you are prejudiced, you become bitter, stubborn, and unmerciful. It is only natural, then, when people become prejudiced against you.

I am afraid your lack of love toward your neighbors is a result of your lack of love toward God, and from a lack of thankfulness. I have sometimes heard you speak in a manner that made me tremble. You lack stability in your temper and are generally too high or too low. Are not all of your passions too lively? Your anger in particular? Is it not too soon raised, and are you not too impulsive, causing you to be violent and boisterous, coming down too hard on all before you?

Now, lift up your heart to God, or you will be angry at me. But I must go a little farther. I fear you are greatly lacking in controlling your tongue. You are not precise in relating facts. I have observed it myself. You are inclined to exaggerate; to enlarge a little beyond the facts. If others observe this, you cannot imagine how it will affect your reputation.

And I fear you are lacking in another respect—that you are loose with your tongue when you are angry. Your language then is not only sharp, but rough, and in poor taste. When this happens, the people will not tolerate it. They will not take this kind of speech from you or from me.

I am not aware of any record as to how the recipient of this letter responded, but there is much we can learn from Wesley’s approach. He opened the letter with love and affirmation, but he also was honest, direct, and specific. May God give us wisdom as leaders to speak the truth in love, and also give us humility and grace to receive godly correction if and when we need it.


1 Wesley’s usage of “prejudice” here is not the sense in which we often use it today (with racial or ethnic connotations). He likely meant that this minister was given to disliking people and having an antagonistic attitude toward them.