Preachers under pressure are particularly vulnerable to using others’ ideas without giving credit.
Pretending that borrowed material is one’s own thinking and experience fatally wounds integrity. Without sounding like an essay writer with footnotes, preachers ought to acknowledge how much they owe to others for this or that idea. The vast numbers of preaching aids—illustrations, generic outlines, complete sermons (especially online)—should at best stimulate preachers to make their own connections for their own congregations rather than to copy.
However, ethical preaching calls for a debate covering more than plagiarism. Since Christian values should necessarily influence the content and style of sermon delivery, the whole preaching event has ethical implications.
For example, Christian values exclude anger which is “murderous” (Mt 5:22; Eph 4:26), though an attitude of righteous anger is permissible. Sermons which barely conceal a preacher’s anger caused by, say, the congregation’s thwarting of an agenda, are unethical.
I shall never forget a sermon preached by a pastor on his fifth anniversary in pastorate when no one remembered the significance of the day. Seething anger permeated his delivery. A sermon should never be a vehicle for personal vendettas, no matter how justified the preacher may feel.
Inclusive language and awareness of diversity are signs of how Christ’s family values everyone; they should not be prompted merely by “political correctness.” All illustrations and applications should be fair and appropriate.
Manipulation and coercion
The key ethical preaching decision concerns the intentional outcome of the sermon. Nothing is more serious than a preacher who manipulates or coerces.
Manipulation seeks to exploit people’s feelings so that they participate in the preacher’s desired outcome. Blatant examples are found in the fund-raising antics of televangelists such as Jim Bakker (who at least had the decency to write, “I was wrong”). Persuasive preaching draws on emotion, but ethical questions are raised when too much pressure is applied.
Some forms of evangelistic preaching have been charged with this offense, where fear or other intense emotions appear engineered by manipulative techniques. There is a world of difference between the evangelist who gives space for the Holy Spirit to convict and move hearts, and the one who doesn’t. Christian preaching believes that the work is done by God, who alone can convict and transform.
Coercion, since it uses force, goes further than manipulation. Because preachers/pastors can have strategic leadership roles in their communities, there is a temptation to preach in order to ensure a particular outcome. This occurs particularly with a favorite project, where every text leads to the same challenge to give more money for a new building or a new cause.
On vacation two years ago, I stayed with a couple who took me to their large church. Wearily, my hostess explained beforehand that every single sermon seemed designed to hit them with guilt-inducing demands for money so that a new church building could be erected. True enough, with passion the pastor took Acts 2:42-47 and tried to guilt the members into giving to the project … in order to show their New Testament-style commitment.
Respect for the congregation
Failure to respect the congregation lies at the root of unethical preaching. Fred Craddock, in his book Preaching, challenges preachers to have a two-fold attitude to their hearers.
First, preachers must distance themselves from the congregation so that each hearer has value independent of his/her relationship with the preacher. Sometimes hearers seem only to be valued as they respond to the preacher. Failure to remember an anniversary or give adequately to a project means less value. Not far away lurks a patronizing tendency that can even grow to despise hearers.
Rather, Craddock suggests taking a piece of paper and heading it, “What I know about those I do not know,” in order to reflect just how different the hearers’ lives are. Young, middle-aged, old, single, married, divorced, fulfilled or discouraged—beware generalizations. Ethical preaching honors individuals and never “puts them down.”
Second, and complementing this conscious “distancing” from the hearers, a preacher often has a privileged pastoral relationship which means involvement at the most critical points of people’s lives. This gives what Craddock calls that “irreplaceable source of power: appropriateness.”
However, a different danger lurks here: the breaking of confidentiality. Nothing is more powerful than a pastor/preacher speaking to a community to which she or he belongs with love’s empathy. Nothing is more destructive than a preacher abusing privileged information and inadvertently showing a profound disrespect.
The greatest antidote to unethical preaching is staying close to Christ, living in his love and preaching out of it always.
Michael Quicke is professor of preaching and communication at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill.