"Loose lips sink ships." They also damage credibility. One of the dangers that accompanies pastoral ministry is the irresponsible expression of pastoral opinion apart from biblical guidelines. This temptation is multiplied the longer one serves as a pastor of a congregation and the more comfortable one becomes with the pulpit ministry of that congregation. This week, two more preachers are in the spotlight for making remarks that have offended many and confused many more. Reverend John Hagee and Reverend Rod Parsley have made comments that have brought a firestorm of criticism on them as pastors and have caused their political endorsements to be rejected by presidential candidate John McCain. Senator McCain's rejection of the endorsement of these pastors naturally brings to mind Senator Barak Obabma's rejection of his pastor's public statements and has led many a pundit to evaluate the appropriateness of pastors issuing endorsements for political candidates. The question is a fair one, and one I'd like to carefully consider with you.
In many discussions I have had with friends and church members on this issue, the first thought that comes to mind is this: Jesus warns that people will give an account for every word that comes out of their mouths - every single word. Even the little stuff will be called into account. If this is true for people in general, then those in pastoral leadership must be even more careful. In an earlier entry, I stated that the book of James reminds Christian teachers and leaders that their standard for accountability is stricter than that of non-leading Christians. Pretty sobering when one considers that those outside of leadership are accountable for every single word! If you speak up in public, the judgment for what you say is stricter.
When claiming to speak for God, a preacher better be absolutely sure, with no margin for error, that the word they are proclaiming is from God. Just because a word rolls easily off of the tongue and is readily received by the congregation, doesn't mean that God has endorsed the message. Exposing the Biblical text for the edification of the church and the spreading of the Good News to those without faith is job one. Other uses of the pulpit increase the risk that the essential message will be compromised and that the purpose of the church and the pastor will be misunderstood.
Pastors must take care in equating the Old Testament office of Prophet with contemporary Christian pastoral responsibilities. The Prophets of the Old Testament were speaking in the context of a theocracy, with a unified religious system and a nation that acknowledged both of these authorities and lived in subjection to them. Though the Prophets certainly had words from the Lord for other nations outside of their authority, their message was targeted primarily towards those in a covenant relationship with the Living God. The message of salvation did at times hit its mark in the most ungodly of uncovenanted nations - the brutal city-state Nineveh, for example, which heard the word of the Lord through Jonah and repented. Nevertheless, the Bible instructs us that judgment begins with the "House of God" and we pastors would do well to make sure our own back yards are in order before we go pruning bushes in the yards of others.
Christians have a responsibility to engage culture and to bring the Message of Jesus Christ to bear on any society in which they live. The realization must be made, however, that even the most cherished politicians, whose platforms seem to line up with whatever convictions we may possess, are still politicians and by nature highly motivated by ambition and resigned to some degree to the art of compromise. This means that the same politician that courts Christian citizens and raises their hands in a church service is also courting all kinds of other people with all kinds of other agendas as well. This same individual has to convince all of us from all of our divergent backgrounds that our interest are precious and equally held by them even when our combined convictions are in direct opposition to each other. As the pastors we have mentioned have all learned, political candidates will not hesitate to "throw them under the bus" when their endorsement is perceived as a burden rather than an advantage.
Pastors must avoid making statements simply for shock value that can easily be taken out of context or misinterpreted. If a statement calls for 3 hours of commentary and a press release to help it make sense, it is probably better avoided altogether. All of us make misstatements, even when we're not trying to be particularly controversial, but I find the advise of a seminary professor particularly helpful to remember when trying to deal with difficult, controversial or political topics: "Don't dig up more snakes than you can kill!" In other words, make sure you can support, explain and defend everything you say when you preach - both within the context of your congregation and to others outside of it who may call for an explanation. For some perspective, remember that the same Gospel that speaks to US citizens in the context of our democratic form of government must also speak to our brothers and sisters in Christ who must engage their cultures within the context of repressive governments. The core of our message is solid enough to encompass that wide of a spectrum - our extreme and crowd pleasing commentating statements may not be.
Finally, we need to recall a few basic Scriptural admonitions that simply and eloquently offer us the guidance we need to avoid the pitfalls of Christian and pastoral "Hoof-in-Mouth Syndrome."
James 1:19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger...
Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
Matthew 12:34-37 - For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Let us strive to speak the kinds of words that expose a heart full of the love of Jesus and that justify a life committed totally to Him. Until next time...