How not to Lie in the Pulpit!

86% of statistics quoted by preachers are untrue.

Including that one. But I suspect it may have got your attention.

I’m sure I’ve made countless errors in sermons; quoted people out of context, miscommunicated someone else’s position, given an example from a field I’m not qualified to comment on, mis-attributed to G.K. Chesterton a quote that would have made him huff in disgust… all unintentionally, of course!

But a few conversations I’ve had, and sermons I’ve listened to recently, have caused me to think a little more carefully about how not to lie in sermons! And in particular with regard to word studies and the potentially-misleading nature of statistics.

We all know that stats can be used and abused in a variety of ways, and that a clever piece of spin can turn an otherwise mediocre statistic into a rhetorically powerful weapon. (Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics remains an insightful guide to the art!!) We’ve also all heard preachers make strong and evocative statements about the frequency of occurrence of a particular word and how that sheds light on his or her particular interpretation of a text. And whether we know it or not, we’ve probably all been duped by a statistic delivered in earnest, but researched in haste. 

Often I’m sure it’s misunderstanding rather than malice that causes a well-intentioned preacher to make misleading assumptions based on the frequency or paucity of a word’s occurrence. But before you next bring out a ‘the Bible says more about x than y’ stat in a sermon, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Have you checked? I’d like to think that no author of a commentary has ever lied or made a mistake in print, but I suspect it would naïve to do so. Before you reel off a statistic that you found in a book, or picked up from someone else, check and see if it’s true. I once heard a preacher claim that Genesis 5 was the only time in Scripture that Enoch was mentioned, and proceed to make quite a hefty point based on that observation. Sadly a quick search would have turned up references in Hebrews and Jude, as well as a couple of genealogies. An easy mistake to avoid.

Have you checked properly? I mean, don’t just go to the search function on a bible app and type in the word in question. You have to think about derivatives, or whether Scripture uses other words with identical meanings. Or whether your app is even any good!! Moreover, you can’t just search for a word in English and assume that you have therefore exhausted all the references in the original languages. Various translations render words in different ways, and there may be different translations of Greek or Hebrew words within the same Bible translation, that won’t be picked up by a simple English language search. Search in the original languages where possible, consult a good lexicon or ask someone with knowledge of the languages to help you.

Don’t assume that the word is used the same way every time. Before making a point about the frequency with which a particular author speaks about money, or the body, or whatever, check and see if he uses the word in the same way every time. It might be that the point you are trying to make is only made once and that the other dozen references are quite irrelevant to the subject you’re trying to address.

Don’t automatically equate frequency with importance. A word may be used a thousand times in Scripture, but it may be of relatively low importance when compared to a less frequently used word. Sometimes people will argue that a particular doctrine is of little importance compared to others because it’s only mentioned a handful of times. Well, in my opinion, the Bible only needs to say something once for it to be true. And a doctrine that is only mentioned once or twice may be just as integral as one that is repeated regularly. It does not necessarily follow that frequency equals importance.

There may be any number of reasons why one word occurs more times than another. Perhaps it’s because it’s just a commonly used word (and, the, so, said…etc). Or perhaps its frequency is due to the presence of parallel accounts. There are four gospels, for example, which drastically increases the likelihood of certain words being repeated multiple times.

Now of course I think it’s helpful to major on the things Scripture majors on and not to enlarge minuscule themes to a size they don’t deserve. For example, building a full-blown doctrine of the rapture based on the (mis)reading of a tiny handful of verses, and then putting that front and centre as a major plank in your preaching to the point where it obscures other arguably more important doctrines, would be a serious mistake! So there is much to be said for considering the relative importance and weight of doctrines. But the way we do that will not likely be by simply adding up the numbers and ranking them on an Excel spreadsheet. Hermeneutics need to get a look in!

Consider whether the frequency of a word’s appearance tells you more about the author or about God. For example, people will often say ‘Jesus had more to say about x than y.’ But this presupposes that we have records of everything Jesus said and did (which we know we don’t; John 21:25) and that the gospel authors give particular words and concepts the same amount of time and space in their retellings as Jesus did in his own ministry. But we simply can’t assume that just because Matthew gives primary place to one theme over another in his account, for example, that means Jesus did the same in the whole of his ministry. There may be particular contextual reasons why Matthew emphasises key themes, and why John leaves them out entirely. Ask what the frequency tells you about Matthew and about the needs of his audience, before you leap to more generalised statements about the word’s importance in the mind of God.

Remember that a concept may be present when a specific word is not. For example, I recently read one author who suggested that ‘guilt’ was a less frequently mentioned theme than ‘shame’ in Scripture. Now it may or may not be true that the word ‘guilt’ appears less frequently than ‘shame’ does. But I think would be unfair to say that ‘guilt’ is a lesser theme simply because the word doesn’t appear as often. The concept of guilt may be present through other terms such as justice, judgement, law, punishment, blame, etc.

Likewise, someone objected to me recently that the word ‘kingdom’ isn’t present in all of Jesus’ parables, thus it is unfair to read the majority of the parables through than lens. Well, it may be true that not all of the parables are strictly about the kingdom; certainly not all of them include the word ‘kingdom’. But might not the concept be present in the absence of the word? Might it not be alluded to through references to messianic concepts, or OT prophecies, or notions of rule, power and nation?

As C.H. Dodd says, ‘The parables represent the interpretation which our Lord offered of His own ministry’ (Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, p 147); a ministry which seemed largely about inaugurating the kingdom rule of YHWH, demonstrated through teaching, signs and the fulfillment of Scripture. As N.T. Wright comments, ‘The story which can be evoked by the phrase ‘kingdom of god’ may well be present even though the phrase itself is absent […] we must beware, therefore, of limiting our study to the strict occurrences of the word ‘kingdom’ and its obvious cognates as they occur in dictionaries and concordances. Much relevant material would thereby be omitted.’ (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p224-225)

I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be said (and for a sobering read, you should check out D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies; a book that will either help you dodge some bullets as a preacher, or scare you off preaching for life!) I’m equally sure that at some point or other I’ve been guilty of almost everything I’ve criticised above! But my appeal is simply that we think critically before deploying cheap-shot statistics that bolster our views or legitimate our preferences.

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