A Short Response to John Piper on Stuttering

October 15, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Leaky Jar, Preaching

Let’s be clear up-front: I am not one of those people who is generally antagonistic to John Piper. While I have not yet read any of his books, I generally appreciate his tweets and blog posts (at least those that I come across). With that said, two tweets of his have particularly irked me today:

John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
Preachers, beware whom you hear. Academic stuttering, and the ubiquitous “um” and “ah” do not make for prophetic utterance.
John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
The prophets give no evidence of ever using “um” or “ah”. These are weak, learned fillers and can be unlearned for Christ.

Although I want to be charitable, I am having a hard time understanding what could be behind these tweets (side note: if you have an idea or agree with Piper, please drop me a note below). The best motivation I can conceive of is a desire to see the Gospel proclaimed as clearly as possible, but this good desire should not be universalized or lifted to the position of the highest priority for one very important reason.

The Power of the Gospel is Made Manifest in Human Weakness

While it is important for preachers to hone their rhetorical skills for clear delivery of God’s word, Scripture consistently emphasizes the power of the Gospel itself rather than the importance of the preacher (except, of course, for the necessity of a preacher).

In the Parable of the Sower, it is the seed of the Gospel that holds the power to grow and bear fruit, not the skill of the sower. Likewise, in the Parables of the Mustard Tree and the Leaven, it is the power of the Gospel itself that is emphasized with no mention of a preacher at all, let alone oratorical ability.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes this statement,

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Here we find Paul claiming to have intentionally avoided eloquence and rhetorical flair when proclaiming the Gospel so that the Corinthians would not mistake the messenger for the message and that their faith may be nothing but a result of the Holy Spirit at work.

Similarly, when Moses was called by God to be His prophet, he objected because of his rhetorical inability (and possible speech impediment) but failed to change God’s mind:

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

Now, one might argue that God relented by allowing Aaron who was a gifted speaker to be Moses’ mouthpiece, but note that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Moses for claiming that he could not serve as God’s prophet because of a stutter.

Finally, let us return to Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

Here, Paul emphasizes that the Gospel’s glory is made manifest by shining in the midst of our own mortal imperfection. When a congregation hears the Word of God proclaimed and is transformed by that Word despite the preacher’s own flaws and imperfections, it is evident that the Holy Spirit must be at work, not the pathos of a rhetorician.

So, should preachers constantly seek to improve their preaching for the sake of clarity? Of course. Should they feel guilty for their rhetorical imperfections? Should young people sensing a call to the preaching ministry abdicate their calling because they are not a capable speaker? Of course not. To say otherwise is to emphasize the work of humans over the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.