As I move around church life, I often have a familiar discussion with pastors. As we discuss their congregation, their leadership, and their preaching, a particular question arises – how can I address [fill in the blank with a controversial issue or topic]?
OK, honest enough question. However, I must first determine what they are really asking. There are at least two possibilities. On the one hand, they could mean “what is the wisest way to address this thorny issue as I preach the Scripture and lead our church?” On the other hand, they could mean “how can I preach on this controversial issue, avoid the controversy, and pay no costs as the pastor?” The first question intrigues me, while the second one frustrates me.
Whatever the inquiring pastor means, I usually have a consistent reply – the preacher that instructs a congregation through the controversial terrain of contemporary American society (and church life) must be characterized by a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and be empowered by the Holy Spirit with righteous courage to declare biblical truth.
What do I really believe about the Bible?
Do I agree with historic Christian confessions which have stated that the Scriptures are the Christ-follower’s rule [standard] for faith [beliefs about God and His purposes] and practice [standards for a godly life]? Or, do I value the Bible, but fail to ascribe priority or exclusivity to it as a source? This question is vital as the preacher seeks to wade through controversial waters in the ebb and flow of congregational life. No matter whom you, where you are, faithful Christ-honoring ministry is wrought with controversy as the Lord does His sanctifying and perfecting work in His people, and as His people are a prophetic witness to the surrounding society.
The society around Christians – whether the U.S., Kenya, China, or Egypt – is always changing. One element of that change is moral and ethical challenge to God’s commands in Scripture. Whether addressing issues of sexuality, racism, greed, materialism, justice, mercy, modesty, abortion, esteem, etc., many faithful Christians (and observers) will be tuned in to the teaching coming from so-called Christian pulpits. Will our pulpits make a clear sound (1 Corinthians 14:8) so that Christ’s people can prepare for the spiritual warfare that surrounds us? Or, will our pulpits engage in muddy, confusing, non-committed, postmodern-word-games, like much of our popular media, academia, and entertainment outlets? A commitment to biblical truth is often tested in the midst of controversy, when Scripture is “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). May Christ’s preacher be found faithful!
Am I courageous in my preaching?
“Be strong, and of a good courage” is a familiar phrase in the Old Testament. God instructs His people through Moses; Moses instructs Joshua; Joshua instructs God’s people; and David, Israel’s greatest king, instructs the nation (Deut 31:6-7; Joshua 10:26; 1 Chronicles28:20). There is a righteous courage required of Christ’s followers if they will be faithful witness in a surrounding culture that is characterized by fallenness, sin, and outright rebellion against God and godly authority. Jesus instructs His disciples to await the empowering of the Holy Spirit before they go out as His witnesses in the Acts 1:4-8. Certainly, the courage that is necessary for faithful witness by all of God’s people is also necessary for those that publically speak for Christ uttering, “Thus saith the Lord!” So, it is helpful for the preacher to analyze whether his preaching preparation and proclamation is characterized by courage or fear.
Let me quickly note, when I speak of courage, I mean that which is granted by the Holy Spirit – not merely the volume of one’s voice, nor the firmness of one’s personality, nor any conjured-up machismo. Some of the most courageous voices in the history of the Christian church have been characterized by humility. Two examples: in 1845, as my denomination was being founded, in his narrative, Frederick Douglass courageously wrote, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Wow, that was a tremendously controversial assessment in Douglass’ antebellum days. In 1969, Baptist statesman Wayne Dehoney wrote Baptists See Black – a book detailing the efforts of white Southern Baptist pastors in the south to recognize the equality and dignity of blacks seeking to attend, and in some cases join, their churches during the 1950s and 60s.
Both of these examples display the counter-cultural courage that is needed to faithful proclaim, preach, and teach the truth of the Bible in challenging ethical and moral settings. As we wrestle with the many issues in our congregations and surrounding society, may we preachers reflect a genuine commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Additionally, may we, like Peter (Acts4:8), be filled with Christ’s Spirit and demonstrate righteous courage as we preach.