What Exactly Does 'Freedom of the Pulpit' Mean?

(Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash)

Marshall Ramsey, editorial cartoonist for our Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, told recently of his conversation with a colleague on another newspaper. They were lamenting the rapidly dwindling number of editorial cartoonists. Marshall said, "When I got into this profession, there were less than 200 full-time editorial cartoonists. I'm not sure what an accurate count is today, but I've heard it's a couple dozen."

As newspapers go the way of dinosaurs—my friends say we who still depend on them for our news are the real dinosaurs!—they keep cutting back on staff. Editorial cartoonists seem to have been some of the first to go.

Anyway, the two cartoonists were concerned over something that had just happened to a buddy on the staff of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Post-Gazette. He'd been fired because his cartoons were "too critical of the president of the United States," according to his publisher.

Marshall notes, "Saying an editorial cartoonist is too critical of a politician is the worst reason to fire an editorial cartoonist ever. Critical editorial cartoons are as American as mom, apple pie and Ben Franklin (he is credited with the first American one)."

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So, how are things in Jackson between Marshall and the Clarion-Ledger, we wonder. In his 21 years here, he says, "I've never taken an idea from an editor (or anyone else). I have taken suggestions that might make the cartoon better or might make me realize I've done something really stupid. That's how editors edit. The ideas are mine."

His editors at the Clarion-Ledger, he says, do not want a cartoon they agreed with. "They wanted the best cartoon I could draw."

Okay, fine. That started me thinking.

What is the basis, I wonder, for an editorial cartoonist being free to draw as he pleases and expect the newspaper to publish it? Is that part of the First Amendment, something the rest of us have overlooked? Clearly, Marshall and his friends see the cartoonist's independence as an inalienable right. And I can see why they would love it. Who wouldn't?

I'm a cartoonist, although not what you would call an editorial cartoonist. I rarely take positions on politics—denominational or any other kind—in these drawings. And even if I did, no editor would run it. Editors of Baptist weeklies know they are responsible to a) a board of directors and b) to the church people in their state conventions who read their stuff. If an editor ran cartoons or wrote editorials that regularly offended half his readership, he would be looking for a job.

No editor of a religious newspaper or magazine that I've ever heard of thinks he has the freedom to write/publish what he/she pleases. He has a certain latitude and flexibility for his views to be expressed, but mostly, the editor is hired to do a job.

We will grant that secular newspapers have a constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, and we love that. But even so, we laymen have trouble imagining an editor hiring a guy to come on staff and draw for the paper and the artist insisting that he will draw what he wants to and no one can tell him what to do. No other employee of the company has that much freedom, I'm betting.

I love editorial cartoonists, and over the years have numbered several among my friends, but I find this mind-boggling.

It reminds me of the so-called "academic freedom" which is supposedly the right of every college and university professor. Where does this right come from? Certainly not the Constitution. I'm just wondering where the idea originated and why professors claim it as a sacred right.

LSU terminated a professor just a few years ago for excessive profanity and crudity in the classroom. Students brutalized by that teacher would register their complaints with parents, other faculty and the administration. Eventually, the college board got involved. They had a hearing for the professor, played a tape of her spouting the offensive lessons, I believe, and then proceeded to fire her. Most citizens cheered. But as might be expected, many of her colleagues hollered to high heaven. What right did the college board have interfering in what goes on in the classroom? they wanted to know.

The rest of us shake our heads and wonder what planet these people live on. Don't they know an employee is accountable to the employer? Where else on planet Earth can you get a job and then do as you please without a proper accountability to those who hired you?

And that brings us to pastors. Is there such a thing as "freedom of the pulpit?" Can pastors preach anything they please without being held accountable? Or are they obligated to preach what their constituency wants to hear? To preach sermons of a particular type and subject and content? Preach the party line? Stay with the lectionary?

Different denominations would probably have their answers to this. Here is my take on the subject.

I'm a Southern Baptist pastor. We have something called The Baptist Faith and Message, a summary of basic doctrines we believe and hold dear. While no pastor preaches that as such, if he strayed from it too severely he might find his job in jeopardy. (That said, many Baptists may take issue with a few of the statements in the BFM. But presumably not the primary doctrines.)

A pastor of a Southern Baptist church would find that the church's leadership does indeed have certain expectations concerning his preaching:

—Do not preach your personal opinion. The exception might be when you are giving several interpretations of a controversial issue or passage, and at the end express your opinion. We even have precedent for this. More than once, the apostle Paul would say, "I don't have a word from God on this, but my opinion is ..." (See 1 Cor. 7:12, 25 and 2 Cor. 8:8).

—Do not preach yourself. "We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). Over 56 years of ministry, I have heard a few awful sermons and preached several. But my candidate for the worst sermon of all came in a mega-church. The young pastor—clearly in love with himself, his image and his voice—told story after story about himself. At one point, he paused and said, "O God, I'm making myself look so bad." Not one time—not once—was the name of Jesus mentioned in the sermon until the very closing. I said to friends who belonged there, "You cannot leave this church fast enough to suit me!" That the young pastor's ruling board puts up with this speaks poorly of them.

—Do not preach your doubts. One Sunday morning when I was the director of missions for churches in Southeast Louisiana (five parishes in and around metro New Orleans), I dropped in on a church where the pastor was planning to do just this, to preach a passage of Scripture and tell why he had a problem with it and explain what this says about the rest of the Word. But my sudden appearance seemed to discombobulate him. The sermon was the worst hodgepodge of utterances I had ever heard. (I'm betting that pastor would agree.) He explained and apologized and back-tracked and was constantly flustered. His efforts went on for a solid hour, twice the normal time for his sermons. He even forgot to take the offering that morning! I imagine if that pastor learned anything that day, it was to keep his doubts to himself. Psalm 73 has a good word on that, particularly verse 15.

—Do not preach other people's sermons. You can milk many cows, the saying goes, but each of us must make our own butter. However, when a pastor lifts a sermon verbatim from another preacher, our people invariably feel betrayed. The people of God expect their pastor to study the Word, to know the Word and to receive God's message from the Holy Spirit. Jeremiah 23:18, 22 speaks to this.

We expect our pastors to...

—preach the Bible, not some book they read the other day. Use the book for an illustration, yes. Cite some passage in it, okay. But preach the Word.

—preach the doctrines we most hold dear. This would include the deity of Christ, the atonement, His sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection, the Trinity, the inspiration of holy Scripture, the Second Coming and salvation by grace through faith. If a pastor has a problem with any of those, most of our churches would have a problem with him.

When I pastored in Charlotte, North Carolina, a neighboring Southern Baptist pastor announced to his congregation one Sunday that he had come to have a problem with Baptist doctrine and would be transitioning to another denomination, I forget which. "For the next four Sundays," he said, "I will bring sermons on the doctrines I have most trouble with and tell you why I no longer believe them." That evening the deacons announced to him he would have to preach those sermons somewhere else; he was through there.

They did the right thing. The pastor had mistakenly thought he had the freedom to preach anything he pleased.

—Do not go to seed on one doctrine, one theme, or one part of the Word. Preach "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27b).

We read of the believers at Berea, that they were "more noble (fair-minded) than (believers) in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, daily examining the Scriptures, to find out if these things were so" (Acts 17:11).

The pastor—any pastor of any denomination—is blessed when his people bring their copies of God's Word to church with them and do as the Bereans did.

It'll make him a better preacher, among other things.

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books and trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.

This article originally appeared at joemckeever.com.

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