The Book of James issues a stern warning to anyone desiring to become involved in a Christian teaching or preaching ministry:
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
There is no escaping the clear expectation of close scrutiny for anyone who aspires to a ministry requiring the utilization of public speaking gifts as a primary function of Christian service.
The incendiary comments of Presidential Candidate Barak Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have come under intense scrutiny and have elicited responses ranging from unqualified support to raging opposition. Many of Rev. Wright's comments have been framed by him and by others who support him as candid and necessary insights into the plight of African-American people in US society today. His comments have also been described by others as venomous, divisive diatribes that have no place in the pulpit and betray a most un-Christian and unholy character within the pastor. It is of utmost importance that the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Rev. Wright be addressed and that a clear sense of exactly how a pastor should address difficult and potentially divisive topics be established. In what I plan to be the first of several entries on the subject, I will set some parameters for what preachers are to use as guideposts in their addressing difficult topics. I will then follow up with a head-on discussion of dealing with the subject of race as an African American pastor in the 21st Century United States.
When the apostle Paul was led to give his protege Timothy instructions on how to execute his preaching ministry in the midst of difficult and complex times, he issued these instructions:
Before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom, I solemnly charge you: preach the word; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, keep a clear head about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
These instructions also apply to those of us who have been called to preach in this era. Note that Paul begins this bit of instruction with a warning - a warning similar to the one issued by James - Remember you are going to be judged. Jesus taught that all people will be held accountable for every idle word they utter - how much more those of us who attempt to publicly offer words of instruction and guidance for others. Paul then commands us to "preach the word" - to insure that our message is based on the solid foundation of Scripture and that we consistently submit ourselves to the principles and commands of Scripture whether we are correcting, encouraging or informing. Our message cannot be driven by a pursuit of popularity or mass affirmation, but must be driven by an unshakable commitment to bring our listeners back to the convicting pages of Scripture in a relentless pursuit of truth and a wholesale abandonment of myths, untruths and sordid rumors. Paul also instructs teachers to be patient, keep a clear head, and to endure hardship so that the work we have been called to do will have the maximum potential to result in changed lives and communities, not merely worked up/stirred up emotions.
Pastors have the difficult, but unwavering challenge to present the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth with patience, love and much, much grace. As they exhort and correct, preachers must never forget that they themselves are the recipients of God's marvelous forgiveness. There have been occasions in the past when I entered the pulpit with anger in my heart and a desire to "set someone straight" burning within me. When those times came, and I am sure they will come again, I have to force myself to remember I am not called to carry out a personal vendetta when I preach, but to communicate God's unwavering standards and His unquenchable love - The Truth in love - Scripture commands. It further commands me to allow no unwholesome thing to come out of my mouth. When broaching a subject as heavy and as significant as race in the United States, it becomes especially important to discipline oneself to not only to aim to connect with an audience, but to be led by the Holy Spirit in a way that will communicate the truth with conviction, enlightenment and healing as the by-products.
In my next blog, entry, I will address how the aforementioned foundations for preaching impact addressing the subject of race, and also offer my personal opinion on Rev. Wright's style and substance. Until then...