Pastors should ‘not indulge themselves in loose, extemporary harangues, nor serve God with that which costs them naught.’ In other words, pastors should not act like angry jerks nor simply play to the gallery. Rather, they should be guided by the content, tone, balance, and emphases of the Word of God. Persuasive preaching is neither the needlessly polemical rants of Kierkegard’s self-serving sectarian, nor is it the blandly affirmative pieties of the pastor who just wants to be liked.
When I was preaching week by week to the same congregation, one of my fundamental convictions was that I needed to keep politics out of the pulpit. Perhaps I should express that more precisely: I needed to keep party politics out of the pulpit. I was—and still am—convinced that how an individual votes at the ballot box should be shaped and informed by their Christian character as nurtured through Word, sacrament, and worship in the community of the church. But I am also convinced that the pastor’s first task is to point people to things above; and not to anathematize anyone in his congregation because of matters of earthly politics.
Of course, that is easier said than done, particularly in an era such as ours where the pre-political has been all but abolished and everything—even the color of icing on cakes—has been turned into an acrimonious political warzone. Rejecting the transcendent and seeing nothing beyond the material, we have allowed the trivia of the present to take center stage and become both the battlegrounds and the weapons of a total cultural war of all against all. In such a world, I suspect that any application one is likely to draw from the biblical text and any illustration one might choose to use are likely to run the risk of offending somebody somewhere. That is the nature of things in out tribalized world.
According to new research by the Barna organization, nowhere are pastors feeling the pressure on this point more than on matters surrounding the ethics of sexuality and of reproduction. Summarizing the research, Barna says the following:
Interestingly, the discussions in which pastors feel limited and pressured mirror each other. They are not only afraid of offending some in their congregation, but also pressured by others to speak up on those very same topics. These hot-button issues run parallel with some of the most significant religious freedom issues of our day, including those related to the LGBT community, same-sex marriage rights, abortion, sexual morality and politics.
This is most worrying. It is no surprise that LGBT matters are among the things pastors are most wary of addressing. The cultural tide is flowing fast against biblical convictions on these issues. And while the strange politics of the last few years have perhaps provided something of a hiatus in the speed at which the legal situation has been becoming increasingly hostile, we all know that those who criticize the new orthodoxies of identity thereby risk their public reputations. But that is surely no reason to avoid them. The stakes are simply too high and, Mayor Pete Buttigieg notwithstanding, the current politics of sexual identity are lethal to biblical Christianity. At its heart, the sexual revolution is not about sex; it is actually about what constitutes the human person and for what purpose, if any, humans exist. And to fail to make that criticism is to fail to assert a biblical anthropology and thus fatally to undermine the message of the gospel: that God in Christ triumphs over our fallenness; he does not simply affirm us in rebellion.