A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Pastors, Theology, Politics, and Controversy #3

The Venues for Controversial Discussions in the Church, Part 1-- Preaching

Should a pastor take politics into the pulpit? There are certainly different points of view on this and all sides have good points to make. Of course, in one sense, all pastors take politics into the pulpit. When the Lordship of Jesus Christ is affirmed, it is a political claim that all earthly authorities, including those in charge of the nations, are provisional. Those who assert that the Gospel is nonpolitical deeply misunderstand the nature of what God is doing in this world as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The earthly powers that be cannot require absolute and unqualified obedience of their subjects; and when they do they foolishly attempt to stand in the place of the risen Christ. Sooner or later they, like the rest of us, will give an account of such pretentious behavior.

Moreover, it is possible in most congregations to hit upon social issues, but in a non-controversial way. I have never met a Christian who does not believe that the poor should be fed. The controversy starts when people begin to get specific on how the poor should be fed. What is the role of the government, and what is the role of the private sector?

Nevertheless, when one speaks of preaching politics in the pulpit, one usually refers to the preacher's address of specific and contentious issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and capital punishment. Is it important to address such matters in the sermon or are such things better left for alternative venues?

My answer is that it depends. First, there are politically activist churches-- some politically conservative, others politically progressive-- where it is expected that the pastor will address matters important to the politically like-minded constituency. To be sure, those pastors in such congregations preach on much more than the politically divisive issues of the day, but it is not uncommon for the preacher to wade into contemporary political matters. Indeed, when one attends these politically active churches, one should assume that sooner or later, the political sermon will be delivered.

Because of their political activism, these congregations tend to attract people whose politics is more monolithic than the average congregation. Politically conservative churches will likely not attract very many progressives and politically progressive churches will not find political conservatives beating down the church doors to get in to worship. In other words, the pastors of these churches can pull off the political sermon because their activist history has brought the like-minded together with those who differ greatly wandering away in search of other congregations. Such political preaching, while important to these congregations, is not truly prophetic in the biblical sense; in actuality it is more of a "preaching to the choir." But it is an indispensable narrative for understanding the history of particular churches.

But what about those churches that are not politically active, where its membership constitutes people whose politics are quite diverse? Is there a place for politics in the pulpits of those congregations?

My answer to this is a qualified yes. How the issues are approached is singularly important. In many churches, the problem with politically controversial preaching in the pulpit is that during the sermon, the congregation is truly a captive audience. There is no opportunity for response or for offering an opposing point of view. The politically controversial sermon can feel more like the pastor force-feeding a particular point of view rather than offering a perspective on an important matter and its relationship to the Gospel.

So, if a pastor feels the need to offer such a sermon, here is my advice (for what it's worth) on how to go about proclaiming politics from the pulpit:

First, do not blind-side a congregation out of the blue with a sermon on abortion or gay marriage. The congregation should know ahead of time that on such-and-such a Sunday, the pastor is going to address a particular controversial matter from the pulpit. It is also a good idea to have a discussion with the church leadership ahead of time on why the pastor feels so led to offer such a sermon or sermons. Letting the folks know ahead of time what is going to happen, allows for people to be prepared as they enter the sanctuary that day.

Second, make sure some kind of venue is established that allows for the congregation to dialogue and respond. Can the topic being address also be discussed in the Sunday school classes that morning? What about providing for informal gatherings after the sermon, either on Sunday or at other times during the week? Can a bulletin board or discussion forum be established online for congregants to dialogue with the pastor? The point here is to give an outlet for those who want to continue the discussion particularly for those who may not embrace the pastor's position on the matter. I have found that most people will be willing to listen and to entertain opposing points of view if the approach to the issue is not threatening. More than a few pastors get themselves in trouble when addressing controversial matters, not so much because of the substance of their viewpoint, but on account of the posture of how they address the matter.

Third, pastors should make it clear that faithful and reasonable people disagree on political matters. This does not mean that what people believe about abortion or capital punishment is irrelevant. Agreeing to disagree should not be interpreted to mean that one view is as good as the next. But, since all of us see through a glass darkly on this side of perfection (1 Corinthians 13:12), strong convictions spoken with genuine humility can create a context where faithful believers with different points of view can learn from one another and perhaps think about matters a little differently. The pastor should emulate this civil context in the tone of the sermon and in how she responds to those who disagree.

I must say that I do not bring politics into the pulpit in this way. I personally think preaching can be more profoundly prophetic when the sermon is devoted to the deep and profound things of Christian faith that does more than echo the politics of the Republican and Democratic Parties. It is my view that the typical political sermon today undermines the prophetic witness of the Scriptures. But for those who desire to address these matters form the pulpit, it can be done in a beneficial way if the pastor is intentional in how she goes about it.

Let me state again from a previous post in this series-- the church should not ignore controversial issues-- the question is how they are addressed. I prefer other venues to the pulpit. I will offer some thoughts on those venues in the next post.
Previous Posts in the Series:


John Meunier said...

Allan, your advice about letting people know is surely wise, but I also wonder if doesn't point to a problem.

The point of letting people know that your going to be preaching about controversy X next Sunday is so that they come ready to hear you talk about that. In other words, it orients the sermon - and maybe their whole attitude during worship - to whatever controversy X might be.

I guess this in some ways is no different than preaching at a wedding or funeral. Everyone comes to those expecting certain people to be at the center of the day.

But the idea still makes me unsettled.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You make a good point. Ideally, people should come ready to hear the gospel and to consider the message. But it seems to me that this is the trade off in our context if one wants to delve into the area of controversial issues.

One thing I failed to mention is the possibility if one were going to do a sermon series on controversial issues, preparatory materials presented ahead of time before the sermon might also be beneficial. I suppose what I am saying to pastors is "If you are going to go there, make the most of it and turn it into something where the congregation can have an opportunity to think about what it means to be a Christian in the rough and tumble of life."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these posts, Allan. I have just finished reading all three. Your spirit and honesty are exemplary and I hope to emulate that going forward.

Daniel said...

Allan, good post. It seems to me that because certain (most?) political issues are so contentious, due in part to cable news, talk radio and the blogosphere, having a chance for feedback is really important. A sermon does not lend itself to feedback as readily as a Sunday school class.

I guess I see the Sunday morning sermon as being tied into specific worship of God. When the sermon gets into a political issue the connection is being made that "genuine worship or service of God looks like this ..."

Do you see the danger here? I may believe abortion is evil or the death penalty is just but when it is coupled with the Sunday sermon there seems no room for disagreement.

I really agree with your three points of advice, especially "the typical political sermon today undermines the prophetic witness of the Scriptures." And that the pastor models civility.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Allan, good questions. I think it depends a great deal on the issue. However, in general I would probably hit the broad strokes and raise questions in sermons (God commands us to care for the poor, how should our community do that?) and invite deeper discussion in small groups.

It is always important for seminary-educated pastors to remember that we, though we are preachers of the word, are not the God who gives that word. We should keep a healthy humility knowing that those less (formally) educated lay members who may disagree with us on some issue, may also have a deeper insight from the Spirit. God works through whatever vessels he chooses.

I say that because at clergy gatherings I sometimes hear pastors speak of their disagreements with lay people over political issues with just a bit of condescension. And there is something spiritually wrong and unhealthy in that.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I say that because at clergy gatherings I sometimes hear pastors speak of their disagreements with lay people over political issues with just a bit of condescension. And there is something spiritually wrong and unhealthy in that.

Good point. I have been part of those same gatherings.