You Must Be Above Reproach
I had hoped to write one article on this important subject. Then I hoped to write two articles, then three. Well, it looks like this series may run for a while. There is simply too much I need to say.
In Part 1 of this series, I provided what I believe is a biblical definition of a “man of God.” In Part 2, I addressed why it is so very important for open-air preachers to strive for and to exhibit the spiritual qualities of and elder, as well as why a standard for qualifications must be developed in the open-air preaching subculture. In the third installment of this series, I will address what I anticipate will be two of the more common objections to my thesis. I will also address the first of what I believe should be the qualifications for a man to serve Christ as an open-air preacher. He must be a man above reproach.
Before I put forth what I believe is a biblical and non-legalistic standard for the character and maturity of open-air preachers, allow me to first answer a couple anticipated objections. Sadly, these objections will most often (not always) come from men who are too prideful to look in the mirror and ask the question: “Am I spiritually qualified to serve Christ as a herald.”
1. Who are you to set the standard, Tony?
It’s not for me to set the standard for the qualifications to serve Christ as an open-air preacher. In fact, I’m not setting the standard. I believe God already has. And again, I also believe in the God-given authority of the local church to determine its own standards for its open-air preachers.
While what we see in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 specifically pertain to the man who aspires to serve Christ and one of His local assemblies as an elder, it is to this high standard for godliness and spiritual maturity that every Christian man should aspire. These passages provide the best and most succinct barometer for gauging whether or not a man, any man, is truly a man of God and is equipped to serve Christ as a servant-leader.
Here is where so many ministries, especially para-church ministries run aground and run afoul. They don’t apply the leadership guidelines in the Pastoral Epistles to the leadership structure of their ministries. What standard is left? Where do ministry leaders go for guidance in establishing leadership qualifications? They turn to the fallible wisdom of man.
Open-air preachers do the same thing. They turn to their own wisdom, or the wisdom of other open-air preachers who may not apply the Pastoral Epistle standard for leadership to themselves, in determining whether or not they are spiritually qualified to preach in the open-air. Their self-determined standards might include:
- I feel called to open-air preach.
- I want to open-air preach.
- I like to open-air preach.
- I’ve watched countless videos of open-air preachers.
- I’ve attended open-air preaching training conferences and events.
- I study apologetics.
- I study theology.
- I’m attending (or have graduated from) seminary.
- Others have told me I’m good at it.
- I want to see lost people saved.
- I want to glorify Christ.
- I can’t get my pastors/elders to do it.
- No one else in my community is doing it.
- I’m a Christian (nuff said).
Please, do not take the above list as parody. It is not. I’ve heard all of these reasons and more from men who believe they are qualified to open-air preach. For years, I affirmed the above as adequate qualifications, as I hurried men to get on the box. I was wrong.
None of the reasons in the above list are necessarily bad, per se, but they are a far cry from substantive qualifications for engaging in the public communication of God’s Word and proclamation of His glorious gospel. “I feel.” “I want.” “I like.” These are all subjective expressions that may or may not have any real bearing on whether or not a man is truly called and equipped to open-air preach.
2. Well, I don’t think you’re qualified to open-air preach, Tony!
First I’ll answer the objection and then I will show how fallacious the objection is.
For me to say, “Well, I think you’re wrong. I believe I am qualified to open-air preach,” would be a contrarian move on my part—an assertion contrary to my own thesis. This is part of my point. Open-air preachers should not be qualifying themselves to open-air preach. That is the role of the church! It’s not my role to qualify me or anyone else. It’s not the role of any para-church ministry (including my own) to qualify open-air preachers. It’s not the role of authors to qualify open-air preachers. It is the role of the church—the body of believers, the pastors/elders of the open-air preacher’s own local assembly.
Sadly, for many years now, the open-air preaching subculture, while albeit unintended by most open-air preachers, has subverted an undermined the authority of the local church—open-air preachers qualifying other open-air preachers and basing “the laying on of hands” (so to speak) on observable talent and desire in the prospective preacher, instead of applying any real biblical standard for what makes a “man of God.” The open-air preaching subculture has also erred, on many occasions, by affirming one’s ability to open-air preach, without knowing anything, let alone considering, the man’s life at home, at work, or at church.
As to my qualifications to open-air preach, I will not turn to my abilities, experience, or what friends and other evangelistic ministries say about me. I will simply offer this. From 2002-2011, I was a member of a church where, for a time, I served as an elder. The elders of the church affirmed the call of God on my life and, through the laying on of hands, commissioned me to serve the church as an evangelist. More recently, after 18 months of close examination of my life and ministry, the elders of my present church have affirmed the call of God on my life to serve Him as an open-air preacher. They have given their blessing for me to continue preaching the gospel in the open-air, as I have for the last nine years.
Having answered the objection, allow me to explain why it is fallacious. The objection employs not one, but several logical fallacies.
Ad hominem – The objection addresses the character of the author and not the argument the author is making. What one thinks about me does not invalidate the argument I’m making.
Non-Sequitur – The objection does not logically follow from the premise or the conclusion. “Tony isn’t qualified to preach. Therefore there is no need for qualifications for open-air preachers.”
Red Herring – The objection introduces a topic not related to the subject at hand. Whether or not I’m qualified to open-air preach has nothing to do with whether or not open-air preachers should be spiritually qualified to open-air preach.
Avoiding the Issue – The objector does not address the points of the argument.
Having thus explained why a biblical standard for the qualifications of an open-air preacher are necessary, and having addressed what I believe will be two of the more common objections to my assertion, let’s take another look at Paul’s inscripturated qualifications for a pastor/elder—qualifications to which any man of God, any open-air preacher should aspire.
That to Which the Open-Air Preacher Should Aspire
I am indebted to my friends Pastor Paul Kaiser, Justin Edwards, Pastor Joseph Jaco, Reverend Josh Williamson, Pastor Jon Speed and others who have helped me to think through and process the subject I have undertaken. It’s good to have brothers (and I’m blessed with many of them) with whom I can sharpen theological iron. There is a general consensus among us that there will be individual street preachers and some evangelistic ministries that might not be pleased with me, with what I’ve written thus far, and with what I am about and have yet to write.
Ignoring the risk of being redundant, it is very important I reiterate something before I put forth a list of qualifications for the open-air preacher. It is the responsibility of the local church to determine the standards by which the church will call men to open-air preach. Different local churches may, based on the hermeneutic they apply to their study and interpretation of God’s Word, and/or based on the particular confession of Christian faith to which they ascribe, apply exceptions to the rules (qualifications) put forth by the apostle Paul in the Pastoral Epistles. Here are a few examples:
- One church may deem a man qualified to serve as an elder/pastor who has a divorce in is past, depending, of course, on the circumstances surrounding that divorce. Another church may not all any man who has any kind of divorce in his past to serve as an elder/pastor.
- One church may require elders to be married men. Another church may not.
- One church may require all of the prospective elder’s/pastor’s children to be saved. Another church may not.
- One church may specify that no man under a certain age or who has been a Christian for less than a prescribed number of years can serve as an elder/pastor. Another church may interpret the term “new convert” differently.
- One church may define “able to teach” as a man who can exposit a text of Scripture from the pulpit. Another church may see a man leading a Sunday school class or mid-week Bible study as meeting the “able to teach” qualification.
More examples could be shared, of course. Suffice to say, so long as the church is following the Word of God’s litmus test for spiritual qualifications, it is well-within the legitimate purview of each local assembly to nuance the application of these biblical standards, so long as the church does not intentionally misinterpret or misapply any biblical standard in order to create a legalistic, unbiblical standard that satisfies the little Pharisee in all of us.
With that, here is the first of what I believe should be the spiritual and character qualifications of the open-air preacher. According to 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the man of God is:
Above reproach – no charge of immorality or holding to false doctrine can be made against him.
Immorality. How many open-air preachers are getting on the box day in and day out and then returning home, booting up their computer, and surfing porn sites? How many open-air preachers, with raised voice and an open Bible in their hands, are telling people it is sin to look with lust, while thinking about getting to their hidden magazine stash when they get home? How many open-air preachers rail against the evils of fornication and adultery that are secretly sleeping with their girlfriends?
You protest. “I can’t think of a single street preacher who does things like that!”
I can. I’ve prohibited at least two young men from open-air preaching with me because of their struggle with pornography. I love these young men. They are my friends. But, at present, they are unfit to preach the gospel in the open-air. They are not above reproach.
Make no mistake. Pornography is not the only sexual sin in which some open-air preachers are engaged. Some men who are unqualified to open-air preach, and who likely should not be engaged in evangelism on the streets at all, are men who always seem to be engaging women in conversation. And it’s not just the unmarried preachers. Some street preachers are flirts.
I recall leading a team at one large-scale outreach. There was a man assigned to my team—a man whom I had never met prior to the event. Whenever I lead a team of evangelists, one of my standing orders is that the team sticks together. If I have ladies on my team, they don’t even go to the restroom without at least one other lady with them or a couple of men escorting them. I also require the men to stick close to the team, and they’re not allowed to wander off by themselves. The reason: physical protection and accountability.
The man in question (a married man) never seemed to be around. Every time I looked for him, he was gone. On those rare occasions when I did see him, he was engaged in conversation with a woman. His proximity to the woman, his body language and the look in his eyes told me, “He’s hitting on her. He’s trying to pick her up.”
How could you say that, Tony? How can you be so judgmental?
I’m a man. Let’s move on.
It got to the point where it became so obvious, I asked one of the ladies on my team to stand next to the man as he talked to a woman, in order to try to give the appearance he was above reproach, even though he seemed not to care, one way or another. I was not surprised to learn that there were “difficulties” in the man’s marriage. As far as I know, he is no longer open-air preaching.
While no open-air preacher is perfect (I know I am not), contrary to what the Pelagian street preachers and their followers would like people to believe about their own perceived righteousness, the open-air preacher must be a man who is morally above reproach. The open-air preacher must be a man who pursues, who strives for sexual purity.
To any man who open-air preaches: if you are battling any form of sexual sin, until such time as you have brought that area of your life under submission to the Word and the will of God, get off the box. Stop preaching. Go to your pastors/elders, not to your fellow open-air preachers, and seek counsel and accountability. Let them help you to determine when/if you should get back up on the box. Your relationship with Jesus Christ is far, far more important than your desire to preach the gospel in the open-air.
The open-air preacher who is above reproach is also a man of doctrinal purity.
Who is monitoring the doctrinal purity of the open-air preacher if not his pastors/elders? Is it other open-air preachers? I’ve seen where that leads. Some open-air preachers who once were respected in the open-air preaching subculture are now fully Pelagian in their theology. As such they believe a different gospel and worship a different Jesus (Galatians 1:6-9). They are nomads (Hebrews 10:25). They are apostate (Hebrews 6:4-7; 10:26-31). They have become a law unto themselves and have shown themselves to have been false converts all along.
But it is easy to point a finger at the Pelagian open-air preachers. Their theology, coupled with their often unbiblical behavior toward Christians and non-Christians alike, make them easy, reasonable, and justifiable targets. But a lack of doctrinal purity and precision is not limited to the heretic street preacher.
In stressful situations, people resort to what they know. They revert to what they have been taught. This is why law enforcement, firefighters, and military personnel train incessantly. They train so often and so intensely that they are able to react quickly and correctly in the face of dangerous and rapidly changing situations. They literally develop forms of muscle memory that enable them to make the right moves and counter-moves without seeming to think about it.
Police officers know what to do when they are called to an active shooter on a school campus because they have trained for that moment. Firefighters know how to calmly and safely search a building filled with intense heat and smoke so dark they can’t see their hand in front of their face because they have trained for that moment. The Marine doesn’t panic when his weapon jams in the middle of a firefight because he has trained for that moment. It’s amazing how God created the human brain with the capacity to learn to control every part of the human body in times of unimaginable stress.
Christians develop theological muscle memory—good, bad, and ugly. Apply a little stress to a Christian, as I often do with professing Christian by way of a scenario called “Three Minutes to Live,” and they will revert to what they know. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Ask the typical professing Christian, when they least expect it, to articulate the gospel and more often than not you will hear something like: “Just ask Jesus into your heart. Don’t you want to go to heaven? Just pray this prayer and really mean it and you’ll be okay. God loves you and he wants you to go to heaven.”
Even with a modicum of stress, the Christian will revert to what he knows, what he has been taught, what he really believes. Sadly, far too many Christians are in churches where the gospel is not preached; sound, expositional sermons are replaced with stories about the pastor’s week and message series based on personalized license plates or the latest pagan offering from Hollywood.
All is not lost. God’s people, those who are truly saved, will eventually crawl through the desert of wasted time in man-centered churches led by evangelical celebrities instead of shepherds until they find an oasis of sound teaching, true shepherding, and community based on the Bible not current marketing trends and worldly-minded demographics.
Many of today’s open-air preachers have, as part of their testimony, time spent in bad churches. They may still be in bad churches. But, by God’s grace, He has allowed them to discover the solid teaching of men like John MacArthur, Steve Lawson, Paul Washer, R.C. Sproul, and others. Some have been brought out of false conversion to true conversion through the teaching of men like these. They are growing theologically. They are maturing in their faith. And somewhere along the way, they’ve heard of this strange band of Christians known as “open-air preachers.”
These same Christians are zealous to share the gospel with others, now that they know what the gospel is and what it truly means. They may not be new converts, but to them the public communication of the gospel is brand new.
“I want to be a firefighter.” Great! Here’s your turnouts, helmet, axe, and hose. Go get ‘em!
“I want to be a police officer.” Great! Here’s your uniform, gun, badge, and keys to a patrol car. Go get ‘em!
“I want to be a Marine.” Great! Here’s your boots, rifle, and sack. Go get ‘em!
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The fact that someone wants to be a firefighter, a police officer, or a Marine, in and of itself, doesn’t qualify the person to serve in any of those capacities. What’s lacking? Training; ability; proof of competency.
Yet all a man (or woman) has to do is say, “I’m a Christian and I want to open-air preach.” And the open-air preaching subculture says, “Great. Grab a box. Get an amp. Bibles are optional. Go get ‘em!” So, Christians climb atop a box, stepstool, or park bench, and off they go. They’re nervous, and rightly so. Then, they open their mouths.
Recently, I heard an open-air preacher say (paraphrase), “Jesus is coming back. He’s coming back to get what he wants. And he wants you. And if you don’t give him what he wants, then you will go to hell.”
The man goes to a fine church and sits under solid, biblical teaching. But what he said was patently unbiblical. In those short, four sentences there is enough theological error to write a book about it.
I don’t question the man’s heart or his motives. And if I had time (he soon left) to point out the theological errors he had spoken to 50+ lost people within the sound of his voice, he probably would have given himself a face-palm.
So what’s the problem?
The man shouldn’t be open-air preaching, at least not yet. “Why? Because of a slip of the tongue? You’ve admitted, Tony, that there have been times when you’ve said the wrong thing and had to correct yourself?”
Yes. I’ve made mistakes, as all seasoned open-air preachers do. And I often recognize them as they come out of my mouth, which gives me the opportunity to correct them, right then and there. The man to whom I am referring did not correct himself. He did not see his error. Or worse, he really believed what he was saying.
Someone likely said to him some time ago, “Oh, you want to open-air preach? Good on ya! Go preach!” Or, he watch some videos of open-air preaching, read a book or two on the subject, and decided on his own to go preach. He’s like the man who wants to be a firefighter, so someone handed him turnouts, an axe, and a hose. He’s like the man who wants to be a police officer, so someone handed him a uniform, a gun, a badge, and keys to a patrol car. He’s like the man who wants to be a Marine, so someone handed him a pair of boots, a rifle, and a sack.
And he’s out there on the streets, preaching. Much of what he’s saying is true. I’m sure he’s out there because he truly wants to serve Christ and see the lost come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. While he knows what he’s saying, to a certain extent he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He lacks doctrinal precision. He lacks training.
“But, Tony; isn’t the best way to learn how to open-air preach by open-air preaching?”
No. Open-air preaching should be the culmination of a learning process, not the beginning of one. It should be a process that is overseen by pastors/elders of the prospective preacher’s church. What that process looks like and how long it should take is up to the prospective preacher’s pastors/elders to determine. It’s not the job, responsibility, or privilege of the open-air preaching subculture to train and send open-air preachers. This is the role of the church!
I am not calling for the disbanding of open-air preaching ministries (although some of them should simply drift away). I am not calling for the end of open-air preaching conferences (although I think there are too many). But the open-air preaching subculture must come to know its place. Every open-air preacher must be a serving, loving member of a local assembly of believers. Every open-air preacher must live in submission to his pastors/elders and live accountable to them and his Christian brethren. Again, the open-air preaching subculture, with all of its para-church ministries and conferences, has absolutely no ecclesiastic authority—none; not a speck.
At this point (if not long ago), some of you might be thinking, “Tony has snapped. He’s blown a gasket. He’s one can short of a six-pack. How is someone supposed to learn how to open-air preach if he doesn’t open-air preach?” I know some of you are thinking this, because some of you have lost sight of the most important thing. This is how far off track segments of the open-air preaching subculture have strayed.
The most important thing is not having more men, even gifted men, out on the streets heralding the gospel. The most important thing is not helping a man do what he believes God has called him to do—to preach the gospel in the open-air. The most important thing is reaching the lost for the glory of Christ and to guard the purity of His gospel as we (open-air preachers) proclaim it! The most important thing is not a man’s desire to be an open-air preacher. The most important thing is the gospel it is presumed he will preach.
To be above reproach is to be a man of doctrinal proficiency and purity—not an open-air preacher who shoots from the hip, hoping the next analogy, turn of a phrase, or word picture will stick to the mind of the unbeliever better than Jell-O on a wall. The open-air preacher need not be a seminarian to be above reproach when it comes to the public communication of God’s Word. But he must be doctrinally sound. The gospel is simply far too important, far too precious to present it with anything less than the best doctrinal clarity.
To be above reproach is the spiritual character trait that is the foundation for the rest of the character traits that follow. A man who is not above reproach would be hard-pressed to show, with any credibility, that he possesses and maintains the other qualifications in the list. If a man is not above reproach, either morally or doctrinally, he is not qualified to serve Christ as an open-air preacher.
In Part 4, we will look at several more of the spiritual qualifications to which every open-air preacher should aspire.
Tony has preached in many churches across the United States and in Canada.He has served as the keynote speaker at several different conferences. Tony is serving the Lord as an itinerant preacher and open-air evangelist.
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