When I was preaching week by week to the same congregation, one of my fundamental convictions was that I needed to keep politics out of the pulpit. Perhaps I should express that more precisely: I needed to keep party politics out of the pulpit. I was—and still am—convinced that how an individual votes at the ballot box should be shaped and informed by their Christian character as nurtured through Word, sacrament, and worship in the community of the church. But I am also convinced that the pastor’s first task is to point people to things above; and not to anathematize anyone in his congregation because of matters of earthly politics.
Of course, that is easier said than done, particularly in an era such as ours where the pre-political has been all but abolished and everything—even the color of icing on cakes—has been turned into an acrimonious political warzone. Rejecting the transcendent and seeing nothing beyond the material, we have allowed the trivia of the present to take center stage and become both the battlegrounds and the weapons of a total cultural war of all against all. In such a world, I suspect that any application one is likely to draw from the biblical text and any illustration one might choose to use are likely to run the risk of offending somebody somewhere. That is the nature of things in out tribalized world.
According to new research by the Barna organization, nowhere are pastors feeling the pressure on this point more than on matters surrounding the ethics of sexuality and of reproduction. Summarizing the research, Barna says the following:
Interestingly, the discussions in which pastors feel limited and pressured mirror each other. They are not only afraid of offending some in their congregation, but also pressured by others to speak up on those very same topics. These hot-button issues run parallel with some of the most significant religious freedom issues of our day, including those related to the LGBT community, same-sex marriage rights, abortion, sexual morality and politics.
This is most worrying. It is no surprise that LGBT matters are among the things pastors are most wary of addressing. The cultural tide is flowing fast against biblical convictions on these issues. And while the strange politics of the last few years have perhaps provided something of a hiatus in the speed at which the legal situation has been becoming increasingly hostile, we all know that those who criticize the new orthodoxies of identity thereby risk their public reputations. But that is surely no reason to avoid them. The stakes are simply too high and, Mayor Pete Buttigieg notwithstanding, the current politics of sexual identity are lethal to biblical Christianity. At its heart, the sexual revolution is not about sex; it is actually about what constitutes the human person and for what purpose, if any, humans exist. And to fail to make that criticism is to fail to assert a biblical anthropology and thus fatally to undermine the message of the gospel: that God in Christ triumphs over our fallenness; he does not simply affirm us in rebellion.
Yet more worrying than the specific examples cited by Barna is the more general point: pastors are frightened of offending their congregants. In part, this is a function of choice: the West, especially America, has for centuries offered a religious marketplace where churches effectively compete for customers, a mindset reinforced by the wider consumerist ethos of the post-World War II economies. And that means awareness of what the consumers will find attractive and what they will not tolerate is critical to the business of church. How many pastors have found many congregants more concerned about ‘the programs’ offered for young people than the quality of preaching or the reverence of worship?
When this market mentality comes to grip the preaching ministry, it can only end in disaster. The minister who preaches with half an eye to not offending the young people, or the members with deep pockets, or the person whose daughter had an abortion, then the temptation to avoid preaching the whole counsel of God is likely to become overwhelming. The danger to which the Barna research points is not so much the death of orthodoxy via its outright rejection but rather via careful curated silence on particular issues.
Yet the situation is further complicated by the fact that pandering can take many forms. The minister who makes it his stock in trade to launch polemic after polemic against this or that perceived cultural outrage is not necessarily being courageous. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard speaks of the sectarian temptation. This is the way in which certain people revel in their reputations as principled hardliners, railing against some idea or other. Thus, outspoken opposition at a gathering of Southern Baptists might not actually jeopardize one’s career but rather enhance it. The high profile conservative leader may risk nothing by declaiming against transgenderism before an adoring audience; the unknown public school teacher may risk everything by using what is considered the wrong pronoun in conversation with a student.
So what is the solution to the problem Barna highlights? It is at least threefold. First, ministers and indeed Christians as a whole need to understand that it is not their task to be popular. Most people like to be liked; but that desire must be subordinated to the imperatives of truth. We are called first and foremost to faithfulness to God, not to conformity to the canons of this age.
Second, preachers must preach the whole counsel of God—not just the easy texts that everyone loves, but the hard texts that strike against the idols of this age as well as the idols of the churches to which we belong. God is not gay, but he is not Republican either. We forget that at our peril.
Third, Christians need to take their membership vows to churches seriously. The church is not a social club or a supermarket; it is the Bride of Christ. We will be offended by some of the things we hear from the pulpit. When we are, the question should not be ‘Well, where can we worship where we won’t hear that kind of thing again?’ but rather ‘Let’s search the Scriptures and see if these things are so.’
As a postscript, I had occasions recently to read the PCA Book of Church Order—not a habit of mine, to be honest, but I was impressed by Chapter Fifty Three, ‘The Preaching of the Word.’ Paragraph 53.3 reads as follows:
Preaching requires much study, meditation, and prayer, and ministers should prepare their sermons with care, and not indulge themselves in loose, extemporary harangues, nor serve God with that which costs them naught. They should, however, keep to the simplicity of the Gospel, and express themselves in language that can be understood by all. They should also by their lives adorn the Gospel which they preach, and be examples to believers in word and deed.
Pastors should ‘not indulge themselves in loose, extemporary harangues, nor serve God with that which costs them naught.’ In other words, pastors should not act like angry jerks nor simply play to the gallery. Rather, they should be guided by the content, tone, balance, and emphases of the Word of God. Persuasive preaching is neither the needlessly polemical rants of Kierkegard’s self-serving sectarian, nor is it the blandly affirmative pieties of the pastor who just wants to be liked. It is hard on error but rejoices in the positive truth of the gospel; it puts down heresy while yet lovingly building up the congregation. If we preached sermons like that for the congregation, rather than making a sales pitch for the customer base, then Barna’s research would have come to very different conclusions.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.