The Fickleness of Man

by James P. Needham

December 18, 2000

     Webster defines fickleness as "erratic changeableness, especially in affection." This seems to be a common proclivity of the human race. It manifests itself with a vengeance in the church, and has from the very beginning. Paul said to the Galatians, (Gal 1:6) "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel." I think the emphasis is on the word "soon." What surprised Paul was the "soonness" of their removal from the grace of Christ. They were fickle. This caused Paul to say, (Gal 4:11) "I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain," and "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" (Gal. 4:16). Paul was forsaken by a previous companion, Demas. (2 Tim. 2:10;Col. 4:14, Phil 1:24). Paul was forsaken by everyone while on trial in Rome (2 Tim 4:16). Jesus was betrayed into the hands of His enemies by one of his own apostles, Judas. David spoke of this in prophecy. (Psa 41:9) "Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me."

     It is absolutely amazing how soon and how quickly people can change. All preachers have experienced alienation from brethren with whom they have had the warmest and closest relationship in the past. It is appalling how insignificant incidents can make bitter enemies of former close friends. It does not matter how much good one has done in the kingdom, a simple hiccup can make it seem as nothing. Brethren who have spoken great swelling words about one's accomplishments, can cut you off at the knees on a moment's notice. They will nit pick every little incident as a basis of severe criticism. Often if they can't find something to nit pick, they will make up something.

     A sister once criticized me for reading my Bible during a preacher's sermons (a terrible sin, somehow I thought that is what we are supposed to do. How could I have been so wrong?). If my critic could discern what I was doing during the sermon, what was she doing? Watching me? Was she listening to the sermon and watching me at the same time? Could she watch me and listen to the sermon, but I can't read my Bible and listen to the sermon? I will venture to say without any inclination to boast that I could tell her more about the sermon than she could tell me about it. In most cases I know what the preacher is going to say before he says it. All at once this sister refused to shake hands with me, even though we had worked together for years. It would appear from her actions that she needs to listen to the sermons rather than watching what others do.

     During the institutional struggle, brethren often persuaded me to move to their troubled congregations in an effort to help them. One elder told me that my salvation might well depend upon whether I decided to move to help them in their time of trouble. I moved there, became a symbol of everything the liberals hated, was shamefully treated by the liberals, and once the trouble was settled, I was cast aside as nothing by the very brother who thought my salvation might depend upon whether I moved there. After a period of serious illness in which I almost lost my life, I moved to a troubled church and was able to help the brethren save it from being overcome with error. I was told several times that God had saved my life so I could come there to save that congregation. (I was embarrassed by such accolades). However, the time came when I was cast aside like a dirty shirt for the elders admitted that I had never preached error. The problem was that the truth had stepped on the wrong toes. Whether the preacher goes or stays often depends upon the political structure of the congregation. In congregations with elders there is often one who runs the show to whom the preacher must kowtow. In making a decision, an elder once took the floor and said, "I am the oldest elder here and I say so and so...."

     In congregations without elders there is usually a person who dominates the decision making process. There is often a Diotrophes type (3 Jn. 9,10), with whom the preacher must get along. Congregational bosses want the preacher to be their "water boy." He is supposed to spend more time with them than with anyone else. He is supposed to confer with them every day, maybe have coffee with him and discuss the work of the congregation. If something has been decided in the business meeting he doesn't like, he wants to plot with the preacher on ways to negate it.

     Congregations sometimes are dominated by a clique. Its members usually have been there a long time, and act like they own the church. New members are outsiders who are tolerated, but not really included. They can worship there for years and still be treated as outsiders. In almost 53 years of preaching the gospel, often under difficult circumstances, I have made many friends who have helped and encouraged me no little. On the other had I can list some brethren who once were close friends who now consider me their enemy for reasons unknown to me. This is the source of much pain and consternation. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn't, and I don't know how to fix it.

     Much of what I have discussed involves personalities and egos. Managing egos often becomes a difficult task in local churches. There are those who want to dominate; who want to be up front and to be seen. I knew of a brother who wanted to lead singing. When the elders chose a brother who could do it better, he threatened the life of the better song leader. There are others who are offended if the preacher steps on their toes, and his name becomes mud with them and they begin to lobby for his replacement. It is strange that brethren can make mistakes and stay, but one mistake and the preacher must go.

     In over 50 years as a preacher and having traveled around the world, and preached in almost every state in the union, I have a pretty good insight into what goes on in local churches and among preachers. I am sad to say that there are far too many brethren, including preachers, whose dedication to the Lord and His word is suspect. There is politics in congregations, and in the brotherhood at large. Some see the church as an opportunity to feed their own egos, and pursue their personal agenda. How I wish we all would make the Lord the center of our personal and church lives. We should assemble to worship God, and nothing else. We should humbly do our part in conducting the public service, but not try to show off, or be in competition with others. As the song says, it should be "all of Thee, and none of me." However, in some cases, the Lord has to "play second fiddle" to egocentric personalities who want to make sure that they are duly noticed and acknowledged.

     Preachers should preach the gospel and not try to be comedians, or story tellers. Their preaching should not be cute, entertaining, or deal with secular matters. A brother recently told me of attending a meeting in which the preacher spent the first 15 minutes talking about everything but the gospel. A preacher sitting beside him pointed to his Bible and asked, "Is he not going to use this?" Another told of attending an assembly where the preacher told 17 stories that were supposed to be funny. Some preachers should have been comedians, and others should have been politicians.

     Cecil Willis and I did much work together, and became fast friends. There was often banter between us just for fun. He jokingly said to me after a sermon, "Needham, you could have done worse if you'd had more time." I fear this is a true saying of some preachers I've heard, and it appears that it gets worse as time goes on. I am afraid that some preachers don't have good study habits and their lack of preparation shows up in their pulpit work. A preacher who survives by ingratiating himself with the members by flattery, is not a gospel preacher but a time server and an hireling (1 Th 2:5). We should have friendship that endures because of our common faith and love for the truth.

James P. Needham

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