I attend a Bible study with business executives, and recently one man commented that in all the years he had been in business his pastor had never visited him at his office.
"It's just as well," said another. "A minister would feel out of place in my office." Since I consider myself a minister, I pressed him to explain.
We can make a wrong decision with the right motive, which is very different from making a right decision out of a wrong motive.
"Most ministers I know come across best visiting the hospital or working in the church environs. That's their turf." He went on to say he saw the world of the pastor and the world of business people as very different: "The pastor is used to working alone or with a small staff, and his interest is relationships. The world of business is a more impersonal atmosphere dominated by people who emphasize the bottom line.
"Pastors do pretty well with issues of grief and loneliness and interpersonal ethics
not stealing, coveting, fornicating, and so on," he said. "But I don't know too many pastors who address the problems of the individual's conflicting loyalties in groups and organizations."
Another man, who helps run a large construction corporation, agreed and offered an example: "A fellow owed us $500,000 when he died. He and his wife owned a house worth $150,000. The question is, do we sue the estate for the money we're due, even if it costs the woman her house as part of the payment for her husband's debt?"
He continued, "If you own the company, you can make a compassionate decision if you want to. But when you are responsible to stockholders, and your job is to collect bad debts, where is your higher loyalty? Now, you might argue, '$150,000 isn't worth it.' But suppose the house is worth $500,000; now do you go after it? Or a million? Is it ethical to go after a $500,000 house but unethical to go after a $150,000 house?"
The businessmen agreed
rarely in church do they hear anybody even mention these kinds of issues. And yet that is the common stuff of life. Tough, morally ambiguous issues are where some business people have to live out their faith.
"While the preacher talks about absolutes of right and wrong," one man said, "most of us deal with gray situations."
Another said, "My pastor talks about 'the good being an enemy of God's best,' but people in my world aren't dealing with first or second moral choices. They're down to the twelfth or thirteenth choices.
"As much as I appreciate my pastor and enjoy his sermons," the business man concluded, "it's not often that he speaks about my world."
I was dismayed by the conversation. Not everyone would agree with these businessmen; some people attend church expecting their minister to say something that will help them understand the broad issues of life a little better. But not many expect the preacher to be able to speak with insight to the particular world in which many of them live.
Sermons that talk about the hard questions
Let's face it. Life is complex. But we sometimes preach as though it were not. Here's an example from one of my sermons.
One time after I'd preached a sermon on love, a man came up and said, "You said that love means always seeking other people's highest good."
"That's fine, but my business puts me in competition with another man in this congregation. I run an efficient operation that lets me sell my product cheaper than his. What's the loving thing to do
underprice him and take some of his customers? Or should I keep my prices roughly equal?"
Before I could respond, he went on.
"But that's not the toughest part. A large corporation has just moved into town selling the same product. I'm going to have to scramble to stay in business myself. I may have to cut prices so drastically it will drive my fellow church member into bankruptcy.
"I want to love this man. We're in the same Sunday school class. I coach his kids in Little League. I want to do what's best for him. But the name of the game out there is survival," he said. "Why don't preachers talk about these kinds of things when they talk about love?"
For us to communicate with authority, we've got to step into the shoes of those Christians who are in the home and marketplace. No matter how gray the issues, we've got to be willing to say, "As a pastor, I must talk about the hard questions." In our preaching, we must recognize the complexity of the issues. How do we do that?
First, it's helpful simply to admit the tension and point it out. All truth exists in tension. God's love exists in tension with his holiness. Skillfully applying love and justice is not easy.
I believe God honors an honest try. People need to know that. Sometimes I'll point out that we will make a wrong decision with the right motive, which is very different from making a right decision out of a wrong motive. As far as I know, the Bible never calls any action, in itself, right. No action is right apart from its motive. Obviously there are some acts the Bible calls wrong: murder, lying, adultery. But it's not as easy to classify right behavior.
Jesus talks about two men who went to the temple to pray
which sounds like a good religious act
except one is justified, and the other is not. Jesus talks about people giving
and that's a good thing
except some give to be seen by others. That's not good.
So in God's economy, motive is a key factor. One of the things we preachers can say to people, with authority, is: "In these situations, it's important to handle life skillfully, to make the right decisions. But the prior and more important decision is What's motivating you? Are you willing to be God's representative in this situation? Sometimes those decisions are confusing. We need wisdom. That's what Christian friends and Christian counsel give you."
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.