Maybe part of the reason I studied ethics in seminary was that I heard so many examples of bad ethics from the pulpit while growing up. It wasn’t that preachers actually spoke evil (or only rarely so) as much as that ethics tended to be both confused and abused in the preaching process.
There was absolutism. This happened particularly on issues where there was substantial cultural agreement, whether or not the position was biblical. Alcohol, tobacco and gambling were the big three. Today I’m teaching my son, I hope, to abstain as well. But for me, the Sunday-morning thunder actually made it more difficult, rather than easier, to choose well. Rebellion seemed a glamorous alternative. That can’t be the intent of ethical preaching.
There were ethical potshots. Preachers then, as now, liked to strike a glancing blow on their way to something else. These usually came as passing comments on the week’s news, like today when someone attacks an abortion clinic: “Aren’t we glad another death doctor is out of business?” (Never mind the danger to post-born life or the destruction of property.) I’ve come to believe over the years that these kinds of statements, whether they’re right or wrong, are bad preaching. They trivialize issues that ought not be trivialized. Whether you’re against abortion or consider it a legitimate option, your congregation deserves to know why, and you need to take the time to explain your position biblically. Potshots equal demagoguery.
There were whole sermons that begged the question. Growing up white in the segregationist South during the civil-rights era, I heard quite a few of the “birds of a feather flock together” sermons, not to mention the “curse of Ham” rationale for racism. All this, somehow, had something to do with closing the public swimming pool. These, of course, were simply unbiblical attempts to justify what cannot be justified. Even as a 12-year-old, I knew they didn’t ring true.
There was a biblicism so simplistic that it became unbiblical. Ten Commandments sermons, for example, were plentiful. (They still are. But now they have to do with monuments in courthouses. See the “ethical potshots” category above.) But I never heard “Thou shalt not kill” related to capital punishment or the war we were in at the time–or indeed dealt with in a genuinely thoughtful way at all. Preachers assumed they knew exactly what the Bible meant, and it meant precisely what they wanted it to mean.
There was blasphemous silence on issues that really mattered. When preachers didn’t use one of the techniques described above, they tended to say nothing at all. There was rioting in our town the April that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. As far as I can remember, my preacher remained absolutely silent.
This was all more than 30 years ago. I raise the issue now only to offer a modest hope. I hope we’re learning better.
My seminary ethics professor taught us: “There is no such thing as a ‘personal’ gospel as over against a ‘social’ gospel. There is but one gospel which is both personal and social.” (Henlee Barnette, Introducing Christian Ethics.)
God willing, without abusing them or confusing them, those of us who preach now are finding better ways to help our people learn what it means to live as followers of Jesus in this 21st-century world.
Next column I’ll suggest some specific techniques for preaching on ethical issues today.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.