The Controversialist Preacher

Over the years I’ve been challenged by people to preach on a number of topics. One woman felt that I should address the clear biblical call for couples to not use contraception. A man felt that I should address the oh-so-clear biblical call for women to not work outside the home.

Preachers face an intriguing challenge. If we are going to do the job we must of bringing the message and power of the ancient text into the lives of modern people then we will need to address the issues that are pertinent and pressing to those people. And yet, in doing this we must be faithful to the priorities and emphases of the ancient text. It can be a hard balance to achieve.

The pressure to be relevant can lead some of us to speak things that the Bible does not speak. I have what I think are fairly clear views which are, I think, biblically informed on both contraception and the proper role and responsibilities of women (and men, for that matter). I will address these in their proper context. But the danger we face and must avoid is when addressing controversial issues that we do not say more or less with greater or lesser emphasis than the Bible itself.

This past week, I sat with two others, two whose political views differ from my own, whose religious convictions differ from one another, and whose life experiences, priorities, and perspectives differ from mine and each other. We discussed race, religion, politics, history, and urban planning. I was enriched by this. Having such conversations informs me, gives me insight into how others think, and helps me to sort through in my own mind what may or may not be clear in Scripture.

Such conversations are good, and developing strong convictions is important. But the way these convictions make it into sermons where the preacher presumes to speak with the authority of God is another matter.

Though the preacher ought not be silent on the subjects with which the rest of the world is aflame, we must at the same time treat those subjects with care. We do not want to confuse our opinions with the biblical truth which must inform those opinions.

We must first speak with great clarity the central Christian truths (which, if rightly presented, often cut through both sides of a controversial subject). Secondly, we must speak with great charity on secondary matters, taking great care not to elevate these less than clear secondary matters to primary status.

John Stott’s counsel is wise:

Our task as preachers, then, is neither to avoid all areas of controversy, nor to supply slick answers to complex questions in order to save people the bother of thinking. Either way is to treat them like children who are unable to think for themselves, and to condemn them to perpetual immaturity. Instead, it is our responsibility to teach them with clarity and conviction the plain truths of Scripture, in order to help them develop a Christian mind, and to encourage them to think with it about the great problems of the day, and so to grow into maturity in Christ. (Between Two Worlds, page 173)

This is why preachers should study, read widely, and preach theologically. When we preach, we are not in the business in giving out all the answers. We are seeking to inculcate a Christian way of thinking.