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The Danger of Reductionism in Preaching

November 09, 2016

As a recovering addict of overstatement, I want to be careful in the words I choose to warn fellow ministers about the danger of reductionism in our preaching and teaching. Dictionary.com defines reductionism as: “The practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, especially to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting it.” Few things discourage young Christians, or those considering the faith, more than an over simplification of the many complex issues current residents of this planet are grappling with.

Can You Emphasize a Theme Too Much?
Reductionism is where you make a main thing into the only thing or make a partial thing the whole thing. To be sure, effective preaching does not demand we untie every knot of human depravity, and main gospel themes should always punctuate biblical sermons. However, at the end of a difficult message on an important subject, we don’t assist the Holy Spirit in applying the Word by jumping to the conclusion: “It all comes down to the cross.” Yes, the cross—yes, the cross lifted and central, and God forbid that I should glory in anything other than the cross. And yes, Jesus Christ crucified and risen at the center of our faith and every sermon. YES! Those are sentences that affirm the gospel as the main truth about Christianity.

We do not advance cross centrality by reducing the main thing to the only thing.

However, we do not advance cross centrality by reducing the main thing to the only thing. The cross is not the only message in the Bible, and it is therefore not the only thing God wants us to preach. Roles in marriage, instruction on conflict resolution, patterns of behavior that God affirms or condemns, the importance of grief in loss, the reality of emotional cycles, the importance of selfless service to a King and a kingdom, and why that matters, are just a few of the many biblical messages that cannot be neglected. Asking the cross to epitomize and carry the application for all biblical content makes the cross smaller not larger, because that degree of emphasis is not actually biblical—it’s reductionism! We are guilty of reductionism when we force main biblical themes onto all subjects or preach only a preferred portion of God’s Word on a complex subject.

We’ve All Made This Mistake
Let’s say you have been teaching on marriage and a particular couple who really needs help sees you pull up from your sermon on roles in marriage by ending with: “It all comes down to the cross.” Really? The guy who’s cheating on his wife, because she has been defrauding him sexually for years, because he’s verbally abusive, because she’s unappreciative, because he got her pregnant and she feels immense regret and unresolved guilt, because he won’t discuss it meaningfully or go for counseling as she frequently pleads, because she embarrassed and shamed him in front of the last counselor, because he was lying to the counselor and saying things were much better than they actually were, because . . . “It all comes down to the cross”? Really?

Why Is Reductionism Such a Hard Problem to Correct?
Why then are we frequently guilty of reductionism in many forms? As pastors, in our efforts to persuade we easily lose sight of the ‘reasonable man’ and what he knows about the totality of God’s Word. When we’re not careful, we slip into arguments that inflame the passions of those who are less familiar with the Bible but never seem to tire of punchy, overly-simplistic sermon conclusions. The biblically reductionistic sermon arouses passion in the false clarity achieved by over simplification, but runs the risk ‘private interpretation’ (2 Peter 1:20) by ignoring the many passages of scripture that contradict the reductionistic simplification.

Money: A Common Example of Reductionism in Preaching.
Few subjects are as consistently distorted by reductionism on all sides as preaching on money. If your text is Ecclesiastes 10:19 by itself, you can preach money as the ‘answer to all things.’ Add in a couple of verses like Proverbs 10:22, “The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” Next, make a couple of biblical terms like “favor” and “blessing” synonymous with money (which they are not) and blammo! Before you know it, you are falling fast into a prosperity theology (a fairly obvious error) that promises things God doesn’t, fails to reckon with the serious biblical warnings about materialism, and pushes your people into “many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). Prosperity theology may be fertilized and grown by the sin of materialism, but it germinates in the soil of reductionistic preaching to people who don’t know their Bibles.

More subtle, because it is not equally dangerous, is the increasingly common ‘poverty theology sermon.’ Here the pastor is not typically looking at an urban-poor church that seeks biblical insight on financial freedom. In poverty preaching the pastor is more frequently standing before a suburban congregation that is already sinking in the morass of materialism. Further, because the most common New Testament teaching on money is to warn of its danger, the pastor is on solid ground, provided he doesn’t stay there exclusively and never preach anything else about money.

A single message or even a series on “Jesus is our treasure, give it all away, love of money is evil, run for the hills” is no doubt needed to get the attention of hardened hearts. However, an exclusive diet of this message paints the biblical portrait of money with a single color—when the palette available scripturally is a kaleidoscope. It overlooks the New Testament teaching on stewardship (1 Corinthians 4:2), shrewdness (Luke 16:8), providing for your own (1 Timothy 5:8), and our Master Jesus’ insistence that He get a return on His investment (Matthew 25:14-30). Poverty theology may be fertilized and grown by the sin of fear, but it germinates in the soil of reductionistic preaching to people who are apparently not aware that a much fuller view of money flows from the pages of God’s revelation on the subject.

Don’t Over Correct
Now don’t get all fired up and run in the opposite direction. It would be reductionistic of me not to add that the opposite error is equivocation, where we can’t stand firmly on any truth without running to the other side of every subject. To be sure, equivocation can be as damaging to a message as reductionism. Pastors who circle endlessly, gathering up perceived objections and interpretive options, are damaging the power of simple proclamation. Concern that people will misunderstand because I didn’t tie up every lose end damages the impact in preaching by limiting clarity. So let’s not over correct and run to obfuscation as our new wrap up this weekend, okay?

Let’s just be careful about reductionism. Praise God for the main things—the gospel, the cross, Christ as Lord—but remember those are not the only things in the Bible. Reductionism may make you popular, but it won’t make you faithful. Let’s preach every passage just as it is written, without equivocation. But let’s be sure over time we are preaching the whole counsel of God, not indoctrinating our people into little sectarian backwaters that favor our preferred emphasis. We can do better than that for our people and for the Lord, and we must.

 

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