Whether you preach expositorily through books of the Bible, thematically, or topically, you will eventually be faced with a controversial subject that has to be addressed. It might be political (gay marriage, abortion, immigration) or it might be theological (the extent of the atonement, eschatology, tithing). Whether convenient or not, ready or not, subjects like these are unavoidable in the long run.
Many a pastor has been run out of town on a rail for taking a certain position on a controversial subject. Some churches will not call a pastor who’s position on a controversial subject does not align with the church’s historical belief on it.
“Woe unto you, Amillennialist pastor, who seeks to convert the Dispensationalist church!”
Is it possible to take firm stands on controversial subjects without roiling the entire congregation or without being harsh to those who disagree? I think it is. Here are five keys that have helped me.
Present multiple points of view fairly.
If you are preaching a series on the “End Times” or “Last Days,” do more than present your view alone, regardless of how convinced you are of its truth. We do our people a disservice when we refuse to admit that other faithful followers of Jesus hold differing orthodox interpretations.
Why preach an 8-part series that attempts to identify every possible interpretation of apocalyptic imagery? I present the strengths and weaknesses of the major eschatological views, then explain why and how I arrived at a conclusion. You will preach or teach the view you hold and your people’s biblical knowledge is deepened by exposure to the others.
Do not denigrate a view simply because I do not hold it.
In some circles you have not started preaching until you are criticizing someone or something, usually loudly. The pulpit can become the pastor’s own echo chamber, where our own thoughts confirm themselves. Since preaching is not debate, we do not often hear opposing views. We’re right because we’re right, right?
It is always proper to call a lie a lie and to denounce falsehood. But, even then we do well to remember how many of our own views have changed through the years. One pastor friend laughs about things he used to preach against that he now understands were preferences.
Try to introduce an different angle.
Even when preaching on the hottest of topics—abortion and gay marriage, for instance—it is possible and helpful to introduce different angles from which to view the matter. When talking about the sanctity of life and abortion, we can mention how generational poverty or areas dominated by gang violence can affect a mother’s decision. Many women subject themselves to the abortion process under extreme duress from a husband or boyfriend. Without shedding our biblical convictions we can help our people understand that context does matter.
If preaching or teaching on creation, don’t only quote theologians. Don’t use “atheist scientists” as scapegoats. It might help to remind our congregations the scientific revolution was birthed largely from scientists who were Christians, and that many scientists today—in all fields—are committed believers. Quoting from astronomers, biologists, and engineers who are followers of Jesus brings an point of view theologians do not always provide.
Do not be dogmatic where the Bible is not dogmatic.
Some have a tendency to inscribe laws directly over grace. Whether they are uncomfortable with grace and feel the need to hem-it-in with rules, I do not know. But, being dogmatic where the scripture is not dogmatic leads to legalism if it isn’t legalism by definition.
When building a house carpenters assemble things that need to remain stationary—like walls—and things that need to move—like doors. To fix things in place a carpenter will use screws or nails. To allow a door to move the carpenter needs hinges. The wall won’t stay in place without nails and the door will not move without hinges.
Our temptation regarding scripture is to hammer nails where God has placed hinges. It is obvious not everything is a hinge. A house of doors belongs in a carnival, not in your neighborhood. Passages like Romans 14:1-12, Galatians 5:1, and 1 Corinthians 10:23-30 make it clear behavioral convictions differ between Christians and that God alone is our judge.
(The flip side is the temptation to put hinges where God has hammered nails, but that’s a post for another day.)
Be open when sharing your opinion.
“Where the Bible speaks, speak. Where the Bible is silent, be silent.”
That is so much easier said than done. After hours of prayer, study, pouring over commentaries, and researching the original languages, we come to the pulpit confident. We’ve arrived at the truth!
Sometimes, yes. But sometimes we have merely reached an even more solidly entrenched point of view, right or wrong.
Year ago I read in Ezekiel a warning against the false prophets “saying, ‘This is what the Lord God says,’ when the Lord has not spoken” (22:28). Since then I have tried diligently to separate my best attempt to interpret and apply God’s word from my personal opinions. Whether 100% successful or not I don’t know, but people seem to appreciate the effort.
Careful preaching is not cowardly preaching.
A cowardly pastor will avoid controversial subjects altogether, a bad pastor will succumb to the spirit of the age on every controversial subject, and the legalistic pastor will try to corral the grace God has lavished on his people. Approaching controversial subjects carefully, thoughtfully, and thoroughly is not cowardly; it is wise. Let us seek wisdom that we might better teach our flocks how to think biblically in complex times.
Is there anything you’ve found that positively affects your preaching on controversial subjects or hot topics?
Be on the lookout for the new podcast from Lifeway Pastors launching in mid-March. More details later.