Two religious stories hit social media like a firestorm this week. The first was the report that the City of Houston had subpoenaed the sermons of some pastors who were fighting for repeal of an ordinance known as Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which gives protection to members of the LGBT community.
The second was the resignation of Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church, a church he founded. Driscoll’s resignation comes after allegations of plagiarism, but also concerns over his leadership style, which even many of his church members called arrogant and authoritative.
Both of these stories raise the question concerning preaching and the authority of preachers in the pulpit. Yet, they also raise the issue of accountability preachers must be held to be effective leaders to their congregations.
I have written before on the importance of the separation of church and state from both a theological as well as a constitutional position. Our constitution demands this separation, but from a theological perspective, the church must remain separate from the state so that the church can speak prophetically to the state.
The report about Houston subpoenaing sermons from pastors is troubling in this regard. I am sure the full story is yet to be known, and some reports coming out today suggest a backing away from this action by Houston’s mayor, but let’s assume that the facts are true concerning the initial requests. If so, then this not only infringes on the First Amendment rights of these pastors, it also places constraints on preaching as a prophetic practice that has always been important to this country, particularly at crucial moments in our history.
Let me be clear, preaching is and always has been a political exercise. Mark 1:14-15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” John had been arrested by the state for his preaching, and Jesus comes preaching the coming of the rule of God. How much more political can one get?
Pastors have a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to speak politically. This does not mean, however, that particular political candidates or parties can be endorsed from the pulpit, for they should not be. The law is clear on this. But it does mean that pastors have the right to speak on any political issue they deem worthy of a sermon, and they have the right to take a stand on that issue, even if the state does not agree.
Barring the endorsement of a candidate or a political party, the preacher has the right to exercise free speech, even if such speech is disliked by the state or challenges a particular law. Indeed, and I am to the point of physical illness as I write this sentence, but the preacher has the right to say anything he or she wants from the pulpit, without fear of being sanctioned by the state, so long as the preacher does not promote violence or harm of others. What I have heard from some preachers disgusts me, but the state should not interfere with the preacher’s right to preach.
That being said, pastoral authority must be held accountable. Such accountability lies with the congregations and to some extent with the denominations, depending on the type of church governance a church is under. Pastors and preachers who stand before their congregations each week to bring a sermon must understand that they do not speak the word of God.
Sermons are interpretations of scripture and applications of those interpretations, and preachers who make these interpretations and applications in the sermon are fallible human beings. Neither their training nor their authority gives them carte blanche from the pulpit when it comes to their proclamations on social, political, or theological issues.
This means that parishioners who gather to hear Sunday morning sermons should come with critical minds to engage with what is being said by the preacher and they should feel free and safe with calling out the preacher for speech that is not worthy of the gospel.
While the state has no business censoring a sermon, those who hear the sermon have every right to confront a preacher whose comments in a sermon verge on bigotry and hate or that limit the rights of others regardless of the preacher’s disagreement with those rights. While preachers may feel strongly about an issue, they must not take the position that their view is equated with God’s view, and they should not force their views onto a congregation. That is the abuse of pastoral authority.
Pastors and preachers who consider their words to be infallible and their authority unquestionable should not be held accountable by the state for what they say from their pulpits so long as their words are within current laws regarding political endorsements and tax exempt status, and so long as they do not encourage harming others. However, the congregations that they lead and to whom they preach must keep pastoral egos in check by always questioning what is said in a sermon.