Preaching on Ethical Issues (Dr. James L. Heflin)

Preaching On Ethical Issues

By Dr. James L. Heflin

One subject conspicuously absent from the pulpit is ethics.  Except for a few topics, such as abortion, one rarely hears an ethical sermon.  That indeed is strange, when we note the number of other forums in which ethical issues are under debate.  

The Church Members’ Perspective

A member of a church recently wrote us at the Logsdon School of Theology and told us this story: He and his wife attend a Wednesday night Bible study with a group.  The study, he says, “often leads us into daily application and discussion of subjects such as abortion, homosexuality, gambling, discipline of children, the trash on television, pornography, etc.”   An issue which keeps coming up in these studies, he continues, is silence from our pulpits (his emphasis) regarding these subjects -- it is the reluctance of pastors to discuss whatever they consider to be controversial or divisive contemporary issues.  He observes that the media flood us with information, much of it in the form of lies, on these issues.  “Who is going to tell them it is a lie?” he asks.  A. . . Pastors could help by addressing these issues”.

Another layman expressed a similar concern in the previous edition of this publication.

When I look at the minister I see one who is not able to help me very much with the moral revolution through which we are going.  My own values are safely Puritan, so yesterday’s  sermons are in many ways quite adequate.  Mere pronouncements, long our stock in trade, have very little effect on today’s teenagers.  They are already in bed together.  They have already decided experimentally, and apparently in rather significant numbers, that it is better not to wait.  Some of them still crawl out for Sunday morning services.  What do you have to say to these young people?  Shall we simply reach an accommodation with them as we have, say, with our social drinkers—a sort of you be discrete in your activities and I’ll be restrained in my preaching?  I have no answers, of course.  I just want to remind you that I am not getting any help either.  I have not given up hope yet, but I am afraid large numbers of our young people have.1

People in the pews are anxious to hear a word about the critical issues which are swirling around us.  These issues will not go away and new ones will continue to arise with a frightening regularity.  How, then, can we explain the silence from the pulpits regarding these issues?  Surely no simple answer is possible, but one may guess at some of the possibilities.

Why the Silence?

How may we account for this silence?  One possibility is that pastors do purposely avoid anything controversial or divisive.  They may be, as the church member mentioned in the second paragraph, afraid of offending someone with the truth.  They may have read that post-modern people do not want to hear anything which offends or with which they may differ, especially at church.  Pastors simply refrain from the unpleasant realities of life.

Another possibility is that the ethical issues of the early twenty-first century can be technical and complex.  Because the issues are not simple, the answers cannot be simple.  Genetic engineering, cloning, and organ harvesting are among those more complex biomedical issues.  The preacher may steer clear of the issues for that very reason.  (Note, however, that some of the issues are clear enough:  pornography, internet voyeurism, gambling, cheating, lying, etc.)

For another thing, pastors may prefer to leave the discussion of personal ethical-moral issues to other public persons.  The preachers’ thinking may be: “the public hears plenty of debate on human rights, cloning, child abuse, and other highly volatile issues, so why mention them at church?@

Yet another possibility comes from within the local church itself.  Many congregations lend silent, and not so silent, approval to the avoidance of controversy and divisive issues, no matter their nature.  Members do not wish their minister to preach on texts and topics which sound confrontational for fear that people will not come, or will go elsewhere.  Such members expect their church’s attendance to increase from week to week and from year to year, whatever it takes.  If avoiding sensitive or controversial topics will facilitate growth, they tacitly favor avoiding the issues.  Pastors seem happy to oblige, appearing to be hesitant, even reluctant, to use the word “sin” in sermons.  If some brave pastor takes exception and addresses a sensitive issue, many of the church members promptly move their letters across town where the preacher never mentions something which might upset them.

Some ethical issues cease to be front page news after a while, and, knowing that, we can choose to ignore them, i.e. saying nothing about them and simply waiting for them to disappear.  They may do just that, but usually others crop up in their places.  For example, the misconduct of some corporate executives in America became the top story for a while in 2002 and the subject of business ethics was hotly debated in public.  That one disappeared quickly, and cloning vaulted to the forefront, with the announcement that someone had cloned the first human.  Other examples include the annual Christmas media reminders of the battle over nativity scenes in front of public buildings, but after New Year’s Day, that one fades away and in its place comes the continual debate over the posting of the Ten Commandments in the offices of public officials.

We no longer have the luxury, if we ever had it, of looking the other way,  pretending that these issues do not affect us.  They do.  Also, we cannot plead misunderstanding generally.  Many of them are well within the range of our understanding.  Such issues include abuse of the poor, bribery, manipulation (“cooking the books”), and the lavish and selfish life-styles of the rich.  Moreover, we who are concerned with the Bible’s message for our generation have within easy reach some very good biblical bases upon which to speak.  To begin with, the Ten Commandments provide a  beginning point.  Amos, the Old Testament prophet, spoke plainly and directly about social injustices.  In the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the Epistle of James  in the New Testament we find numerous ethical lessons.  Any pastor who considers the whole counsel of God for preaching will, sooner or later, speak about moral-ethical issues.

Addressing the Context

For the pastor who wishes for a way to begin, we offer a few suggestions for ethical preaching.  First, speak about the Amoral oughtness@ of our faith; that is, Christians ought to behave according to certain standards.  People with a strong belief in the Bible have points of reference for the moral dimension of life.  For example, Daniel and his three Hebrew friends who were taken into Babylonian captivity, when they were tempted with the dainties from the King’s table, the eating of which would violate dietary restrictions taught in their homes, simply refused on the basis that their religion forbade such food.  Later, when the King ordered everyone in the kingdom to bow to an idol, the three would not bend their knees.  Their point of reference for decision making was their faith.  The same was true of Daniel when he was commanded not to pray to any foreign God.  These provide dramatic examples of the way to decide a moral issue: refer to the contents of your faith to determine what you ought to do.

A second suggestion: Preach through books and other portions of the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount.  This serial preaching will lead naturally to the texts which speak of the sensitive moral-ethical issues which we confront.  We preach them because they appear in the text of the Bible and not because we are attempting to single out some person in the congregation or some specific subject of public discussion.  Such preaching requires and permits the preacher to bring Bible truth to bear on the issues of our day.

The author was pleasantly surprised to see an example of this suggestion while watching the broadcast of a prominent preacher recently on a Saturday evening.  The pastor apparently was preaching a series on the Ten Commandments and had come to the sixth one: “Do not murder@ (NIV).  He explained  how the commandment related to the actual crime of murder, then asked how it spoke to the issues of capital punishment, suicide, and abortion, and made abortion the primary topic for the remainder of his sermon.  The preacher spoke directly and gave a forthright opinion about each issue he raised.

Third, offer dialogue sessions on sermons in group settings.  One pastor I know held a class during the discipleship hour on Sunday evenings specifically to discuss the Sunday morning sermons.  From these sessions he learned how well he was communicating his messages and heard the thoughts of his listeners.  He asked for and received numerous ideas for more sermons.  Overall, the people in the pew were vitally interested in hearing what the pastor had to say.
We may conclude, from letters, articles, and other expressions from members of the congregations that they are eager to hear some voices of certainty in the din surrounding us in the media.  Now is a good time for preaching on ethical issues.  Politicians, sociologists, psychologists, journalists, and theologians are discussing these topics in word and print.  Among these, only theologians are specifically concerned to raise the voice of the Christian.  Meanwhile, one of the most probable forums for a word from the Lord, the pulpit, remains strangely silent.  How long before someone breaks this silence?2

1  Miles E. Anderson, AA Layman Looks at the Minister,@ Window: Ministry Resources from the Logsdon School of Theology 5 (Fall 2002): 7.
2  I include here two outlines for ethical sermons -- one  from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.  The first addresses the issue of faith-oriented decision making and the other suggests a way to preach on the problem of pornography.  They are intended as “sermon starters” with the hope that they will stir the  imagination and lead to a study of Scripture in search of biblical content with which to address the ethical dimension.

Ethical Sermon Suggestion--Old Testament        

Text:  Daniel 1:1-16; 3:1-18

Title:   “Making Up Your Mind@

Sermon in a sentence: When confronted by temptation, the child of God decides the issues on the basis of faith.

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced numerous temptations in Babylon, where they lived in exile.  One was to defile their bodies with fancy food and strong drink (1:1-16).  Another was to forsake the worship of God (3:1-18).  We should remember that the four of them were probably still in their teens at the time they were taken captive.  They withstood the temptations they faced by remembering the contents of their faith.  The temptation to defile the body with wine and other forms of alcohol is one of the most serious which youth face today.  When it comes to them or to us, we may learn from Daniel and his friends how to respond.

I.  When Tempted to Defile Your Body, Remember Your Faith

II.  When Tempted to Forget God, Remember Your Faith

Ethical Sermon Suggestion--New Testament

    One section of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-48, contains the teachings of Jesus himself on several major ethical issues, including murder, adultery, and treatment of ones enemies.  Going beyond the overt acts, Jesus speaks of the attitudes which produce the acts.  We may turn to these texts for sermons on the sinfulness of Murder, Adultery, and Retaliation.  In the passage on adultery, Jesus makes a startling statement about the eye.  We may consider the declaration a starting point for a sermon on pornography, a very widespread evil.
Text: Matthew 5:27-30
Title: “See No Evil”

Sermon in a sentence: The continual viewing of evil affects the whole person, including the attitudes which lead to a person’s actions.
Jesus compared the overt act of adultery to the inner attitude which produces the act.  He spoke of the eye as a source of offense.  We may deduce from Jesus’ words that the constant viewing of material which produces lust is sinful and address the problem of pornography on the basis of this principle.  The sermon may be developed along these lines:I.  Beauty and Evil Lie in the Eye of the Beholder 

II.  Sight Affects our Thought

III.  Refusing the Look is Part of the Cure

This sermon will be a topical sermon, developing an implication of the text.  This will be true of many ethical sermons.  In some of these sermons, the preacher must deal with theological principles found in the text.  Take the time to do careful study and be prepared before you preach.

For additional sermon ideas, see David P. Gushee and Robert H. Long, A Bolder Pulpit: Reclaiming the Moral Dimension of Preaching (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 79-203. These authors offer instruction for preaching on ethical issues and include sermons from their own collections.  This is a helpful volume.

The Window Library

click the links below to see full-version issues

The Window - Fall 2011
T.B. Maston - His Life and Thought
Manuscripts from the 2011 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. William M. Pinson, Jr.

The Window - Spring 2011
Narrative and Character Formation
Manuscripts from the 2010 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. Joel Gregory

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