It isn’t in any of our Baptist confessions. No doubt Tony Campolo in recent weeks has wished that it were. But the freedom of the pulpit, we say, remains one of our most cherished Baptist traditions.

Campolo was roundly criticized in Southern Baptist circles for remarks he made at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. I, meanwhile, found myself preaching to a post-conference worship service of the North American Baptist Triennial–the group that controls the seminary where I teach.

His experience, and my own, prompted me to consider again what this tradition means in practice.

Growing up I thought I knew. The preacher could speak in the pulpit whatever message God gave. Indeed the preacher was compelled to do so. He or she minced words or pulled punches only at the peril of his/her own spiritual well-being. Part of why I thought this, of course, was that’s precisely what our preachers told us while they were also telling us any number of other unpleasant truths.

It wasn’t till I read John Lee Eighmy’s Churches in Cultural Captivity in seminary that I began to realize the obvious. Pulpit freedom is not absolute. It never has been and it never will be. Eighmy’s book dealt with the parameters of acceptability in Baptist churches in the South regarding racial integration. There were things preachers simply couldn’t say from the pulpit in the 1950s and 1960s if they wanted to keep their jobs.

The truth, though, is that is still the case. As a part of teaching where I teach, I signed a pledge to teach in accordance with a particular statement of faith. If I should choose to speak otherwise, I should expect to be held accountable for my words.

Most often, however, preachers get in trouble as Campolo did, not for expressing opinions on doctrinal matters but rather for offering interpretations of Scripture regarding social norms or practices. Hence it may be useful to offer a few general guidelines within which “freedom of the pulpit” most often operates in practice.

First, freedom operates in context. I preached differently when I was pastor of a conservative country church of farmers and factory workers than I did when I was pastor of a highly educated, progressive congregation in the city. The gospel doesn’t change from situation to situation, but the way it is expressed does change.

Second, the preacher’s obligation is to speak truth as he or she understands it. We don’t preach to please people. We preach to please God. The Word of God stands in judgment of all our cultural assumptions and preconceptions. The preacher who can’t say things the congregation doesn’t want to hear can’t do his/her job.

Third, a healthy congregation wants to be challenged to think new thoughts. Normally in Baptist life they will feel no obligation whatever to agree with what’s said from the pulpit. They’ll test what we say against their own sense of the Spirit, understanding of Scripture and life experience. And that’s exactly the way it should be. This sort of adult/adult conversation is an essential part of the contract of Baptist worship. It affirms our cherished doctrine of the priesthood of the believer.

Fourth, there are limits nonetheless. A pastor must maintain ongoing relationship with a congregation. To say something from the pulpit that insults the congregation, denigrates their beliefs or is so outside their frame of reference as to be impossible for them to hear is to abuse the pastoral office. Even the most difficult pastoral truths need to be couched in gospel terms.

Part of what that means is that a dissenting preacher needs to take personal responsibility for the effect his or her preaching might have.

When I as a pastor reached the point that I could no longer in good conscience serve a congregation which identified itself as Southern Baptist after that convention passed the 2000 “Baptist Faith and Message” statement, I said so from the pulpit. I also realized as I did that that sermon could conceivably cost me my job. It didn’t, but if it had that would have been my responsibility.

The Baptist pulpit is free, but then so is the Baptist congregation. You can say what you want, as long as you recognize they can then do what they want in response.

Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.

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