Should you separate the message from its messenger?

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Maybe I’m too cynical for my own good.

I’ve been wrestling with an article written by one of America’s more abrasive mega-church leaders on how the best pastors, like the best athletes, are the ones who aren’t afraid to take a hit. Taken on its own, it’s certainly a fair enough encouragement. But at the same time, whenever I see the name of this person show up on a blog or on Twitter or…  well, anywhere for that matter, it’s rarely in connection with anything godly or virtuous (though perhaps that simply means I’m following the wrong people).

And this brings me to my struggle: should we separate a half-decent encouragement from its author’s ministry? More pointedly, is this even possible—can our content stand alone, or do we need to pay more careful attention to the context from which the message stems?

When I think about pastors embroiled in controversy, I can think of no better example than the apostle Paul. Wherever he went, he was dogged by groups of false teachers determined to subvert his teaching and turn people away from his message. In Corinth, so-called super apostles questioned his ministry and turned the people away from Paul. And being maligned, Paul—though he called himself a fool for doing so—defended himself (2 Corinthians 10-11).

But what was strong about his defence was what he ultimately pointed to. He didn’t simply encourage the Corinthians to look at the fruit of his ministry, though he could have. He didn’t tell them to consider his teaching. He told them to look at how he conducted himself in ministry—his humble disposition and his refraining from taking financial support from them so that it would not be a stumbling block.

You could look at Paul himself—not the results of his work, but the man—and discern whether or not the criticism he faced was valid.

I’ll be honest: I don’t see that with a lot of modern church leaders. There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to open their lives, and to ask people to verify for themselves. To test the messenger, as well as the message. Instead, when controversy comes, it seems most often to be met with claims of unjust criticism.

And this is where the struggle comes in for me. Even when the message is fine taken on its own, how much should the author’s own baggage factor into how we interpret it? I tend to struggle to be able to easily separate the two. When I read warnings of unjust criticism from those whose names only ever come up in the context of controversy, to me, it seems a bit disingenuous.

But should it? Is it fair to wonder what prompted an author’s words, or to potentially second-guess them—or is it a sign that I, as a reader, am simply too cynical?

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

Reader interactions

2 Replies to “Should you separate the message from its messenger?”

  1. Frodo Baggins July 31, 2015 at 4:21 am

    Well written, I struggle with the same issue myself, one way to remain completely gullible is to divorce the message from its messenger. That’s like learning honesty lessons from a thief!

  2. I heard a well-known pastor talk about how much he loves movies and sees everything out there. I don’t go to the movies because I do have an idea what is out there. How can I listen to this pastor’s messages knowing what he is feeding on?

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