A few days ago, I got an email from a friend of mine who recently started preaching. He had been thinking about the Botham Shem Jean shooting and wondered if it should affect his message. Is it the place of a gospel preacher to condemn social injustice and cry out for change? He felt uncomfortable with the idea but wondered if his discomfort was due to his insulated status as a white man. Here’s what I told him:
Interesting question, brother! I brought Shawn in, we talked about it, and our conclusion is that your instincts are correct. Taking a side on the political controversies of the day is dangerous for a preacher and weakens his message.
Shawn and I see several main problems with taking a stand on some politically charged current event. First, the facts are generally unclear or even disputed. It's certainly tragic that an innocent black brother in Christ was shot in his own apartment, but it's not clear to me that he was shot because he was black. Similarly, I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened in the Trayvon Martin case. If you're taking a position on any events like this, you're taking a stand on uncertain ground.
Second, preaching on such events is likely to polarize the congregation. Because they are politically charged, members are likely to have strong pre-existing opinions about them, and if you express an opposite opinion, you're likely to alienate those members. I know that there are members at many congregations who would really struggle to wrap their heads around the notion that kneeling for the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, there are members at many congregations who think it's a valid way to call attention to racial injustice and would have trouble seeing the other position. No matter which side you pick, you're going to lose.
Third, calling for social change is simply not a part of the gospel. Above all, Christ is concerned with the heart of the individual. He calls the sinner to repentance. You want to preach on racism and the responsibility of the Christian to treat everyone with love, great! You should preach lessons like that. Unity in Christ is one of the great themes of Scripture. In fact, I'm preaching a lesson on the subject on Sunday. My experience is that when I condemn racism from the pulpit, it finds favor with the whole congregation, black and white alike.
However, I question the usefulness of any sermon that is aimed at people who aren't part of the congregation. Do we live in a perfectly just society? Of course not! However, reforming society is not the work of the preacher nor the work of the church. We are supposed to change the world one soul at a time, and if racism is ever going to be defeated in this country, it is going to be defeated in the hearts of individuals. We're already working on that. Why exchange the God-endorsed strategy for one that He hasn't endorsed?
Them's our thoughts, brother! Any questions?
In 2 Kings 22, we think we know the script. A good king, Josiah, succeeds a basically wicked king, Amon. Josiah orders a renovation of the temple, and during the renovation, the priest Hilkiah rediscovers the book of the Law. Josiah compares what he is doing to what he ought to be doing, tears his clothes, and repents.
Immediately, a delegation of Judahite higher-ups goes in search of Huldah the prophetess to figure out what happens next. This is where God says, “Now that you’ve repented, everything’s going to be OK.” Right?
Wrong. Instead, Huldah’s oracle is dire indeed. Despite Josiah’s reforms, Judah is still going to be destroyed. God’s people passed the point of no return during the reign of Manasseh. They have become so wicked that He can no longer tolerate them, and their defeat and exile are now inevitable. Josiah’s godliness has merely postponed the disaster until after his death.
This is important. Too much of the time, God’s people harbor a bad case of tomorrow-itis. Tomorrow is when they’re going to get their spiritual houses in order. Tomorrow is when they’re going to start reading their Bibles regularly. Tomorrow is when they’re going to lead their children to put God first in everything. Tomorrow is when they’re going to become plus members of the congregation. Tomorrow is when they’re going to talk to their neighbors about the Lord.
In response to this, gospel preachers like to point out two things. First, none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Second, for a lot of brethren, “tomorrow” never becomes today. They spend their earthly lives with a head full of good intentions that they never put into practice.
I’ve said both of those things and agree with them. However, as we see from the story of Josiah, there’s a third problem. Tomorrow may come too late. Josiah was the most righteous king that Judah ever had, but even he couldn’t reverse his nation’s spiritual decline. If he had lived 50 or 100 years earlier, he might have been able to change its course, but as Manasseh’s son, there was nothing he could do to make a long-term difference.
So too for us. Even during our lives, there will come a point where we will no longer be able to repair the ravages of spiritual neglect. That point might not be obvious. Our sixteen-year-old son may still be coming to church (because we make him), but he may already have resolved that once he leaves home, he’s never going to darken that doorway again. Two years ago, we might have changed his mind, but not now. Now, we’re just playing out the string. The same can also be true of being a plus member or leading a lost friend to Christ. Those windows can close too.
I don’t know how open the windows are, in my life or anybody else’s. I do know, though, that now is the earliest we can act. We can’t change our yesterdays, but we can change today. Today, we can start doing what we know we always should have done. The sooner we start, the less likely we are to be too late.
These are the results of the survey we distributed at the 2018 Maury County Fair. You can find the survey questions here.
Here is the survey that we distributed at the 2018 Maury County Fair.
Opinion Survey: KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL FAMILY
- I think communication is a key to successful families
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- I think expressions of love and appreciation are key to successful families
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- I think financial compatibility is key to a successful family
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- Successful families often attend church together
Strongly Disagree 1 2 3 4 5 Strongly Agree
- The greatest challenge to marriage is: (Circle your top 3)
Communication Spiritual Intimacy
This evaluation form was completed by: Husband Wife Neither
We will send you the results of the survey! Email address or phone number:
In the qualifications of the elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul lists 15 (-ish, depending on how one counts) qualities. The similar list in Titus 1:5-9 contains 16 (also -ish). However, brethren commonly take this list and reduce it down to (replace it with?) two questions. Is the man married? Are his children faithful Christians?
In practice, this spiritual shortcut easily can lead to the appointment of men who are unqualified, yet it remains powerfully appealing. Much of the appeal comes from the apparent opportunity it offers to reduce complicated judgment calls to questions that can be quantified. Is the man above reproach? Well, we could debate what that means and whether it applies for days. Does he have children who are Christians in good standing? There they are, sitting on the pews! Count ‘em!
We like simplicity. We like bright-line, black-and-white rules. Sometimes, God gives us what we like. At other times, though, he requires us to use our judgment. He presents us with a question that does not have an obvious, objective answer and asks us to think about it.
Consider, for instance, the subject of worship. I, along with everyone else who was “raised in the church”, was taught that there are five acts of worship: singing, prayer, preaching/teaching, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and giving of our means. In some ways, this list is useful, but it is hardly a comprehensive exploration of the topic. What makes preaching an act of worship and appointing elders, for instance, not an act of worship?
Additionally, it fails to capture the essence of the subject. Worship is not a series of outward behaviors that can be reduced to five items on a checklist. It is entirely possible for somebody to go through the motions, check off the checklist, and never have worshiped once. Instead, worship is an inward prostration of the heart before God. It may express itself in one of those forms or take no outward expression at all (consider, for instance, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1:9-13).
However, though checking off five items on a list is easy, seeking to worship in spirit and truth is difficult. We can’t ever say, “I have arrived as a worshiper!” because true worship isn’t an off/on yes/no thing. Instead, worship (like love, and for much the same reasons as love) is a spiritual discipline in which we grow for as long as we are alive, and growth is always uncomfortable. We also have to ask, “Where do I need to grow as a worshiper?”, and to answer the question, we must rely on our own judgment, which also makes many Christians uncomfortable.
As a result, it’s awfully tempting to retreat to the security of one wife, 2.4 children, five acts of worship, and all the other lists that appear to confirm that we’re doing a good job. However, lists are no substitute for the word of God, nor is checking off check boxes a substitute for discipleship. Instead, we must embrace the whole counsel of God, with its ambiguities, difficulties, and paradoxes, and accept that it is the path we are called to walk. It isn’t easy, nor is it safe, but it is the only path that will lead us to be conformed to the image of Christ.