Too Hot for the Pulpit

Can pastors speak boldly and biblically on controversial topics without being called intolerant?

By Mark Hughes

When late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel managed to book embattled [former] Toronto mayor Rob Ford on his show, his producer promised, “No topic will be off limits.” The statement was symbolic of the fact that pop culture has thrown off restraint. There is no topic that producers, songwriters, comedians and others will not explore… sexuality, masturbation, rape, obesity, racism, suicide, religion, you name it.

The Church on the other hand has quietly slid into the shadows on the dicier topics, ignoring some subjects altogether. We are slowly abandoning our role of being the ‘social conscience’ of our culture. We cannot afford to let this continue, because if we won’t address these issues, nobody else will.

Throughout the centuries the pulpit has served as the bastion of morality. Fearless preachers like Martin Luther, John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon raised a standard of righteousness to their generations, sometimes at a great personal cost. History has forgotten their critics, but their names are remembered as those who ushered in spiritual and moral revival.

Conversely, there have been other dark times of moral bankruptcy when the pulpit became eerily quiet. Nazi Germany comes to mind. Pastors either bought into Hitler’s lies of biological superiority or, for fear of reprisal, remained silent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the very few that dared speak against the atrocities of the Third Reich.

At first Bonhoeffer was merely forbidden to speak publically or publish anything regarding Hitler and his regime. When he refused to refrain he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison he still would not curtail his message and was sentenced to death for leading his fellow prisoners in a church service. On April 8,1945, just 23 days before the Nazis surrendered, Bonhoeffer was executed.

I have become gravely concerned that the pulpit has once again become too quiet in the face of our own moral decay. Fewer pastors are willing to wade in on the hot button issues of our day like abortion, divorce and especially homosexuality. There are several reasons.

Firstly, our pews are no longer occupied by people who share common values.

Our audiences hold highly diverse views politically, ethically and even morally. On any given Sunday we may have a huge percentage of divorcees sitting in the pew. One word misspoken on the subject might send them packing. Our younger generation in particular no longer regards the issue of same-sex attraction as a problem. They have been raised in a culture that celebrates diverse sexual orientations and many have come to accept it or even embrace it.

Secondly, some of these subjects have now become off limits. Speaking on the subject of homosexuality can actually be considered hate speech if it is not approached in a very careful manner. Many pastors would rather avoid the subject altogether than risk stepping into the minefield that it has become.

Finally, there are certain things that pastors are now explicitly forbidden to address. Few people realize that the Canada Revenue Agency has quietly rewritten the rules of engagement for charities. Clergymen are no longer permitted to publicly oppose the positions of political candidates or parties. It is part of a CRA campaign to separate Church and state (http://www. cps-022-eng.html#N10230) but I think it is a thinly veiled attempt to silence the Church. Most contemporary issues are both political and religious. By denying us the opportunity to educate the public and our congregations on the moral positions of politicians, we have been denied our fundamental rights of freedom of speech and of religion.

In May [2014] Justin Trudeau announced that his party would not allow any pro-life candidates to run in the next federal election. The obvious question was, by disallowing pro-life candidates isn’t it unconstitutional in that it would restrict one’s rights of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the democratic right to hold political office? If memory serves, it was Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, when he was Prime Minister of Canada, who entrenched those very rights in his Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Hard to miss the irony!

Shortly after the announcement, Cardinal Thomas Collins, Toronto’s Roman Catholic archbishop, wrote an open letter to Trudeau urging him to reverse his position. He argued that, “Political authority is not limitless: it does not extend to matters of conscience and religious faith. It does not govern all aspects of life.” He further challenged the Liberal leader, “Political leaders in our day should not exclude such people of integrity, no matter how challenging they find their views… I urge you to reconsider your position.”

Trudeau didn’t blink.

What caught my attention most with this story was that the Cardinal took a great risk in calling Trudeau out. Fortunately the CRA was smarter than to take on the Catholic Church as their first test case of their new regulations, but don’t think for a moment that their passivity will remain indefinitely.

Irrespective of the risks, we cannot exit from the dialogue and then be surprised when we lose yet another moral battle. We can still speak to the hot button issues of our culture, but the day of hellfire and condemnation is long over. We need a more gracious approach. Recently I ran into an old school friend that had been living in Winnipeg’s homosexual community for years. He knew I was a pastor and made this statement, “I guess your church would never welcome someone like me?” I answered, “Of course we would, your homosexual sin is no worse than my heterosexual sin. The day you are not welcome, is the day no one is welcome.”

He was a bit confused but what I did was remove the hierarchy of sin that is so unhelpful, and instead identified with him as a fellow broken human being. The moment we become ‘more holy than thou’ is the moment we have already lost the debate.

With the advent of social media and digital dialogue, the debates still continue. However, it often takes place in a vitriolic way that just further polarizes people. We don’t want end up as a chorus of anonymous idiots that argue endlessly online, convincing no one.

As clergy we still have some vestiges of influence. We need to speak boldly and publicly. I believe part of my calling is to educate my audience on issues that have no effective moral counterpoint in our culture. I have been voicing my opposition to the current political agenda to legalize marijuana. I cannot see how another legalized recreational drug is a good thing for our already conflicted young people. I have been getting more flak from Christians than non-Christians. It seems there are more pot-smoking friends of Jesus than one might think.

So how do we speak to the hot topics of our day? Carefully, thoughtfully and respectfully! One of the amazing things about Jesus was that he never soft-soaped the gospel or held back on moral issues. He addressed adultery, sexual immorality, divorce, and even made a reference to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, for some reason, sinners flocked to hear Him. Why? Because He always spoke in love!

Although Jesus never compromised God’s standard of truth, He accepted broken and sinful people unconditionally and in fact non-judgmentally. It should not, however, escape our notice that regardless of His successful approach…they did still crucify him.

This might be yet another reason why we remain silent.

MARK HUGHES is the founding pastor of Church of the Rock in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He, and his wife Kathy, and their three children call the city home.