Chapter 178

You Had to Bring It Up

Every faithful preacher must sometimes raise controversy

I have twice passed out cards to my congregation with the following words: "I would like to hear a sermon no longer than ____ minutes on the subject: What the Bible has to say about ____." Self-appointed comics took advantage of this. One fellow said he'd like to hear a sermon no longer than five minutes on what the Bible says about God.

But many times people request the tough issues. People want to know if the Bible's message can stand up to modern pressures. I want to assure them it can.

It would be easier if we could preach a lifetime without ever touching on sin, morality, sexuality, lifestyle, or any number of other adrenalin inducers. Controversy makes preaching a more difficult proposition. But, as any pastor knows, a congregation needs the spicier issues if for no other reason than that God fills his Word with just such fare. However, a crisis is not inevitable. We can preach controversial topics without picking a fight.

Turn the heat off and the light on

We need to credit people with enough maturity to handle the balanced presentation of an issue. Over the years I've addressed the role of women, eternal security, Spirit baptism, various issues of sexuality, and the church and politics. I've concluded that what's crucial is not so much the topic as the method.

When diving into an area of controversy, I don't expect total agreement. That's why there's a dispute in the first place. People's belief systems are complex. Much more is at stake than the particular issue at hand. I recognize from the start that I'm probably not going to change anyone's mind.

Thus, I try to broaden thinking rather than change it. Although people probably won't budge from their position, they may at least acknowledge the other side. That's progress. Maybe, over the years, they will change. Maybe not. In any event, I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "Once a mind has been stretched by a new idea, it never returns to its original shape."

When I try to change people, however, I only add heat and dim the light. For instance, I have strong feelings about the way the talents of women have been wasted in the church. So I must be careful when I talk on the subject. People often say I feel this way because of the wife I have. I usually answer, "Has it ever occurred to you that I may have the wife I do because I feel this way?" That doesn't always go over too well!

Preaching out of anger may feel good at the time, especially when we've built up a good head of steam. But in the long run, it doesn't accomplish what we're after.

I also have to point out that I was at the same church for nearly 25 years. That gave me a level of credibility that a fresh seminary graduate doesn't have. I would think carefully before I preached controversial themes in my first few years at a church. It's a matter of sensing the needs and maturity of the congregation. But I never provoke controversy just for the sake of controversy.

Drumming up a controversial topic is not hard. Currently American Christians are debating the relationship between church and state. Some Christians believe the state is working its way into church matters and trying to take away freedoms. Others insist believers must be more politically active. The issue of abortion is a prime example: the extent to which the church should be challenging the state on its laws concerning abortion is highly controversial. In many instances, people's spirituality is measured by their level of involvement on this issue.

Recently I addressed this in a message on the church and politics. I opened by saying that the politics of many Christians are often more determined by economics than theology. I pointed out that we live in a particular country in a particular socioeconomic group and that people living in other countries in widely differing socioeconomic groups may look at the Scripture differently.

I gave an example: If we live in a comfortable, upper middle-class suburb in the Midwest, then we probably don't spend much time in the Old Testament where it talks about God's concern for the poor. But if we had grown up in an impoverished Asian or African country, we would. If we lived under a totalitarian regime or right-wing dictatorship, then it's quite possible we would be interested in what the Bible says about liberty.

To further provide context, I mapped out the historical background, from the days of the early church when the state controlled the church to the modern period where the church and state live in an uneasy relationship. I concluded that the church and the state should be separate but mutually respectful and influential. I also concluded the church should encourage individual Christians to recognize the limitations of participatory democracy and to exercise their Christian citizenship responsibly in a less-than-ideal situation. I gave specific ways they could do this.

I could tell I had touched a nerve that Sunday by the debate stirred in our congregation. Our church is filled with thoughtful people unafraid to debate controversial topics. In fact, that's one way I gauge the impact of my sermons: Does it generate discussion? Discussion is an indicator that the lights have been turned on.

Do your homework

Few controversies in the church are new. Whenever I touch on eternal security, I remind folks that if Whitefield and Wesley struggled with this for a lifetime, I'm not likely to end the debate in a thirty-five-minute sermon. However, if I prepare well, I at least can give them an overview of the issues involved. A preacher who handles controversial subjects must do adequate research.

To prepare for a recent sermon on values, I read A Question of Values, a book that delineated three ways people arrive at a system of values. One is the individualistic approach—the it's-nobody's-business-what-I-do approach. The second is what society thinks—for example, the Supreme Court's debate over defining pornography. It finally decided that pornography is that which offends local community standards. The third way is based on the assumption of a sovereign Lord in whose character and nature reside absolute values.

In addition to A Question of Values, I also found helpful Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart. Since in the last few years a tremendous amount of material on this subject has been published—in Time, Newsweek, and the Atlantic Monthly—there was no shortage of resources. Preaching effectively on controversial issues requires a lot of spadework.

Touch the funny bone

Humor is a tension-reliever, though you always run the risk of offending someone. Still, I like the odds, so I occasionally weave lighter stories and quips into a controversial sermon.

I recently preached on a passage that preachers either harp on or avoid: " 'Therefore come out from them and be separate,' says the Lord" (2 Corinthians 6:17). I spoke on the issue of separation. "What Paul meant," I said, "is that identification is clearly wrong—but that isolation is totally counterproductive." I explained how Christians often develop sub-cultures that determine what is and isn't appropriate separation.

To illustrate, I told the story of the Dutch elders who sent people to check on the moral condition of the American church. The observers were horrified. They reported to the Dutch elders that American women wore makeup and wore expensive clothes. The Americans also drove big cars, had carpets in the sanctuaries, and had a piano as well as an organ. It was obvious to the Dutch the tremendous amount of money Americans were expending on themselves. And as the old Dutch elders heard this report, some of them burst into tears—and the tears ran down their cigars into their beer.

One time that story backfired on me, however. Several people said, "Those Dutch elders couldn't be Christians because they smoked and drank. You're not suggesting they really were Christians, are you?"

Other times, though, humor has served me well. In the sermon I mentioned on church and politics, I ended it by saying, "The church playing politics is not unlike Michael Jordan playing baseball." That time, everyone laughed.

Give balanced treatment

When I preach on a disputed topic, I think it's only fair to present more than one side. I don't mean setting up a straw man only to knock him down, but trying to present both sides with honesty and empathy.

Often, after outlining both sides of the issue, I can present what I feel is a biblical point of view. Other times I can't. In that case I challenge people to come to their own conclusion. I have to remind myself that these people believe the Bible. If I present what it says, then Scripture remains the authority over us all, and we all have to wrestle with the implications. If I set up myself as the authority, then they wrestle with me.

I preached on Ephesians 5, with particular reference to the phrase, "Wives, submit to your husbands." I struggled to prepare for the message, because in some extreme instances men abuse their wives and rationalize it based on this verse. And many women find any talk of submission distasteful.

So to be balanced, I first pointed out that in Ephesians 5:22, the Greek word 'submit' is not there. Paul uses ellipses; the phrase is dependent on the previous verse, which says, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Literally, then, the passage reads, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands," which means it is appropriate to add submit in verse 22, but inappropriate to separate verse 22 from verse 21. Grammatically, you can't do that.

"Whatever it means that wives should submit to their husbands," I said, "it cannot be divorced from two other kinds of submission—both people submitted to the Lord, and both submitted to each other. Now that puts it into an entirely different context." Careful exegesis helped me give what I believe is a more balanced view on the controversial issue of submission.

Consider pastoral needs

Whenever I preach a controversial topic, I try to keep in mind that more than theory is at stake. Real people in my congregation are struggling with the implications. Some have had abortions. Some are confused about homosexual desires. Some are alcoholics. I can't just leave the issue "out there." I have to think through the situation well enough that I can suggest a sensible course of action.

When I spoke on God's plan for marriage, I took into consideration the couples in the congregation who were living together out of wedlock. I could have told them it's simply not God's will. But I realized some of these couples have overextended themselves financially. They can save several hundred dollars each month by doubling up. In that case, they need to hear that the church will help them locate inexpensive housing.

Sure, they should separate anyway. But if I can communicate to them that I understand their situation, they're more likely to change.

I also try to remember that behind topics such as abortion, divorce, or child abuse is an enormous amount of pain. I must be sensitive to people's experiences without blasting them with the truth. It took a while to learn this.

When I started addressing touchy subjects, the issue of abortion was causing a great deal of turmoil. It seemed everyone in the church was discussing it. Although our members were in basic agreement, some were confused about the details and proper biblical response. I decided it was time to confront the issue, however controversial it might be.

So I studied the appropriate passages, read the current literature, and delivered what I thought was an inspiring message on the sanctity of life. I felt fine about it until I heard the honest reservations of a good friend. "You know," he said, "by the law of averages, you probably spoke to three or four unmarried women who were contemplating abortion." Then he said, "I feel that what you said this morning would only add to their dilemma."

I had powerfully challenged them to make the right choice but failed to show sensitivity to their painful situation and the shame they probably felt. I'd offered no help in dealing with the heavy responsibilities of carrying a baby full term. It was a vivid reminder of how easy it is to wound people with the truth. The truth can be cutting, but we don't have to be.

Seize the opportunity

I don't want to give the impression I announce controversial topics every month. If I did, I'd be guilty of sensationalism. I don't want my sermons to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of supermarket tabloids. Most of the time, I deal with controversial issues while preaching on some other subject.

When I did a series on the Israelites' settling of Canaan, we came to the passage in Deuteronomy that speaks of the sins of the fathers being passed down to the children. I saw this as a beautiful opportunity to address the trend in some church circles where parents are blamed for their children's faults, and where people fail to take responsibility for their sin. When I preached on that topic, no one came expecting a controversial sermon, but they got one nonetheless.

I once preached a sermon based on Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, which speaks of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. I had to address the controversy over musical styles in worship.

"In the sixteenth century," I said, "Zwingli would not allow any music. Luther had to have music but said it must be simple. Calvin said that only psalms should be sung but used modern music that was disparagingly called 'The Geneva jingles.'
"In the seventeenth century, Pietists said that there ought to be singing, but it needed to be unaccompanied. In the eighteenth century, Christians had orchestras, but no violins, because they were called 'the Devil's fiddle.' In the nineteenth century, the organ came in and began to push the orchestra out.
"then William Booth came along and said, 'Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?' so he started brass bands. The Scandinavians came over to America and brought guitars. In the twentieth century, the youth culture brought rock; from the South, we got folk music; the charismatics began to emphasize praise songs; and from Britain we got the celebration marches.
"So what is your position on what is appropriate for worship music? Is it based on your theology or is it based on taste?"

Certainly preaching on controversial topics carries a risk. However, I've learned that if I ignore controversial issues, I also ignore a timely opportunity to argue for the relevance of Christianity. And that's an opportunity I don't want to miss.