12 Rules for Preaching on Contentious Issues

How should pastors and Christian leaders talk about issues on which the Church is divided, or where there are strong tensions within our culture?  For example, how should a pastor speak about political issues like cash benefits for poor families?  Or, how should a church leader speak about cultural hot-potatoes like Homosexuality?  And what about theological positions upon which the church has been historically divided like Pacifism?

Here are my 12 Rules in no particular order:

1) Maintain Unity:
We must create and maintain space in our fellowship for faithful people who disagree as a matter of conscience.  Whether we affirm the views or not, we must repeatedly affirm the people who say them and their right to be at the table.  (Galatians 2:11-21 and other 'unity' passages may not be speaking directly about the contentious theological and cultural issues of our day, but the principles apply.)

2) Embrace Mystery:
We must create space for a healthy amount of tension and cognitive dissonance around contentious issues.  We must be willing to declare that there are truths to be held in tension.  We must acknowledge that there are mysteries to be embraced and not understood.  (Romans 11:33-36 Paul's Doxology makes clear that we can never plumb the depths of God's whole truth.)

3) Speak with the Church:
We should, as forthrightly as possible, distinguish between a) statements that are merely our opinions, b) statements that are minority opinions within the scope of the historical church, c) statements that are majority opinions, and d) statements that are simply quotations from Scripture.  (1Corinthians 7:10-12 is perhaps one of the most interesting verses in Scripture, especially for those of us who hold Scripture to be inspired.)

4) Speak Clearly:
We must speak as honestly and transparently as possible.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 Paul did not preach with a pretentious message or manner, neither should we.)

5) Maintain Focus:
We must continue to point at 'heart issues' in our teaching.  The most important thing is sincere discipleship unto Jesus; desiring God, yearning for righteousness, hoping for justice, longing to bless our 'enemies.'  This means that our preaching is not primarily about 'informing the mind,' but rather 'forming the will.'  (Matthew 22:34-40 Jesus instructs us to 'love God' with our whole being, not simply with our mind.)

6) Speak to the Whole Person:
We must understand the pastoral ramifications of what we are about to say in the actual lives of the people we are teaching.  We must understand how it will effect other issues; their view of God, or of Scripture; their relationship to the Church, or to others.  We must understand the 'hidden curriculum;' the unintended message that people will hear.  We must understand 'the question behind the question.'  (Matthew 19:1-12 Jesus explains Moses' teaching on divorce as motivated by this pastoral sensitivity.)

7) Speak Humbly:
We must acknowledge our own fallibility as teachers, (James 3:13-18 requires that wisdom be humble) as well as our own failings as human beings. (1 John 1:8-10 requires our acknowledgement of our own sinfulness.)

8) Don't be a Jerk:
We must recognize that 'truth' is not the primary rubric for Christian speech.  (John 13:35 The defining marker of our lives is to be 'love' and not 'truth.')

9) Speak Blessing:
We must love those to whom we are speaking.  Christian love (agape) is a resolute commitment to work for the blessedness of the object of that love.  We must speak from exactly this posture.  This means that we must speak 'love' and not necessarily 'kindness,' but we must also speak 'love' and not necessarily 'correctness.'

10) Be Prophetic:
We must be led by the Spirit.  Sometimes people need to be shocked, sometimes wooed, sometimes chastened, sometimes healed; the Spirit of God desires to effect change in the hearts and lives of our hearers, not merely to inform them.

11) Be Responsible:
We must stick around to deal with the consequences of what has been said, or at least we must make some avenue for follow up to be possible.  (John 21:15-19 records Jesus simultaneously rebuking and restoring Peter, our teaching should be equally responsible.)

12) Trust God:
We must be willing to step out in faith (remember, Faith is spelled R.I.S.K.), our own faith journey requires us to trust God in our speaking.  We cannot preach from fear, pride, or any other false motive.  We must trust Him.


Joshua Hopping said...

Good list to me.

Ramon Mayo said...

This is amazing and great and did I say amazing. I wish I would have had this during my first month of preaching when I stood up for women in the pulpit. On Easter sunday. Yep. Sure did. Could have gone a lot better.

Steven Schenk said...

Ouch, that must have been fun!

As they say, the resurrection doesn't come before the crucifixion...

steven hamilton said...

So much wisdom here...I love you man!!