Once in a while, a pastor has to make a tough call.
Do you speak out on a controversial issue or not?
Yes, you could come down hard on the latest political correctness issue dividing the country and enraging both halves.
You could address the racial matter driving the liberals crazy and inflaming the conservatives to near-incineration.
You could take a public stand on what your community is experiencing, knowing that many on both sides of the issue are upset with the others.
Some will insist you should take a stand.
They speak of having the courage of one’s convictions, of how the Old Testament prophets never feared public opinion and that you can become a champion for this noble cause.
You aren’t a coward, are you? They will cite the Joshua passage: “Be strong and of good courage.”
The other side warns you against getting involved. You're a pastor of a church; you have constituents on both sides of this issue; the church doesn’t need any more enemies; and you have bigger fish to fry.
You are a gospel preacher, aren’t you? They will cite the Pauline command: “Preach the word.”
What to do?
I will not be telling you, that’s for sure.
That’s the role of the Holy Spirit within you. Ask Him.
If you are a Martin Luther King Jr., you will speak up. You end up taking major steps toward changing the culture of this country and improving the lives of countless millions. But you pay for it with your own murder at the age of 39.
That’s a huge price to pay. We are confident Dr. King would say it was a small price to pay for what it achieved.
In all likelihood, Pastor, you and I will not be gunned down for addressing community issues from the pulpit. We will not be burned in effigy or be the cause of protest rallies or be hauled off to jail.
But taking a public stand on issues will cost you nonetheless.
Abortion divides this country. So does capital punishment and Obamacare. The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case is the most recent public event to divide society. It’s reminiscent of the Rodney King affair in Los Angeles some years back, or the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-1990s.
Your community will have issues arise with racial and economic and spiritual angles. You will have deep feelings about some of the events—compassion for those who were hurt, concern for those being victimized, anger over statements made by principals, disagreement with editorials in your newspaper and disgust over the self-seeking rants of the glory-seekers.
And you will consider using your “bully pulpit” to vent.
Should you do this?
Here are some questions to ask before you decide to address these controversial issues from the Lord’s pulpit:
1. Is it your pulpit or the Lord’s? If yours, do as you please. If it’s the Lord’s, then ask Him. Just because you feel strongly about something does not automatically make it fair game for a sermon. “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord ” (2 Cor. 4:5).
When a pastor friend got involved in a project that turned out to be divisive, he made the front page of the local paper. At a quickly called meeting of the deacons, he was asked to explain his participation in the matter. He said, “I was not acting as pastor of this church but as a private citizen.” They wasted no time informing him that he was not a private citizen, that his name was on the sign in front of the church building, and that everything he did reflected on the Lord’s work through this church.
It was a painful but necessary lesson for that pastor.
2. Is there a biblical, spiritual and moral aspect to the issue? Does Scripture speak clearly to what’s happening that Christians should be of one mind regarding their position? And do others of your conservative, Bible-believing group agree? To be sure, God’s Word addresses almost every subject conceivable, either explicitly or implicitly. So, one must take great care here.
3. What does your spouse say? I changed “wife” to “spouse” since a few of our readers are of the female persuasion and serve as pastors of churches. Now, I have no idea whether God has gifted the husbands of women preachers with sensitivities for what she should or should not preach in the same way He seems to have gifted the wives of us male preachers with that uniqueness. But personally, my wife is the first one I would ask. Her instincts are far superior to mine in knowing whether a subject is off limits.
Oh, and my rule is this: If she is even in doubt, the answer is, “No. Don’t do it.”
4. Is your congregation of one mind or divided? Will your sermon further unite them or completely alienate some good people? And if it will alienate many, the next question becomes …
5. What is your goal here—to unite or simply to vent? The unity of the Lord’s church is of great importance to HIm. (See Ephesians 4 and John 17.) Believers should not take this lightly.
If your purpose in speaking publicly on a controversial matter is to “let them know where you stand,” nothing good is going to come of this.
Simply stated, Pastor, no one cares where you stand. You are a messenger of the living God sent to proclaim His good news concerning Jesus Christ. Even if the community awards you certain prestige or a high level of respect, its citizens and its leadership do not stand in the wings awaiting your pronouncements on every issue. (In fact, they may resent that you got involved in something outside your field. That does not mean you should not speak up. It just means that doing so is going to cost you, and you should not do so impulsively or thoughtlessly.)
In our state, the governor appoints members of an ethics commission to keep watch over the doings of the various agencies and to rule on matters brought before it. The provost of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Steve Lemke, is a member of this august panel.
Recently, when the newspaper announced that a member had resigned and the governor would be appointing his replacement, the thought hit me, “What would you do if they called you?” Answer: Run like crazy. No normal person would want such a responsibility. (Provosts are not normal, believe me. Smiley-face goes here.) The burdens for getting it right, the ramifications if you get it wrong, the complexity of these issues and my own human fallibility all cry out that I am not qualified to sit in judgment on such matters.
Before addressing such matters from the pulpit, Pastor, you might want to tell yourself the same thing. You are messing with the fine china of human lives here. Be careful.
6. What will it cost you in terms of your ministry? Once again, we’re not saying not to speak out or not to take a public stand on some key issue. We are suggesting that you count the cost—a good biblical consideration. Will you be branded in the community unfairly? Will outsiders conclude your church is one way or the other, and will that be detrimental or beneficial?
I once wrote a letter to the editor concerning something the local rabbi, an acquaintance from the ministerial association, had written with which I profoundly disagreed. I edited the letter carefully and was certain that my sentiments were Christlike and sound and not further divisive. On the whole, the letter was well-received, but one result was surprising. I began getting letters from anti-Semites thanking me for putting the rabbi in his place. It became obvious that the local manifestation of the KKK thought I was identifying with them.
After that, I kept my mouth shut on that matter.
7. When you stand before the Lord, will you be pleased or ashamed of your actions? That’s another way of asking, “Will the Lord be pleased or ashamed of what you did in addressing or keeping silent on that issue?”
Paul’s words to the Colossians applies to a thousand aspects to our lives, and particularly to this: “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
And remember one thing, Pastor: Yes, it will require courage for you to take an unpopular public stand on some important issue. But it may require just as much courage for you to resist those pressuring you to speak out when the Spirit within you counsels otherwise.
Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looks like timidity and surrender (such as when our Lord went to the cross), and at other times it takes the form of harsh action (like when He grabbed a whip and cleansed the temple).
Let the Spirit lead you, and you will be all right.
Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.