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How to Preach Ethics

It’s not easy to preach ethics. It’s especially difficult for many Baptists, because our high view of scriptural authority tends to make us look for simple answers–whether the issues are simple or not. To preach ethics ethically a minister needs to be willing to do a lot of homework and to take at least a few chances. But it can be done.

Adam Hamilton is pastor of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. It’s one of the thousands-every-Sunday megachurches. Given the stereotype that such churches often offer relatively little depth, many would not expect to see serious ethical issues confronted from this pulpit. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Yet Hamilton has done exactly that. His book Confronting the Controversies, published by Abingdon in 2001, offers a set of eight sermons on hot-button ethical issues in which Hamilton walks the line between pastor and prophet with skill and integrity.
 
On each issue he makes a scrupulous effort to state both sides of the question fairly. He states the opposing arguments complete with their scriptural/theological/scientific rationales. He validates the Christian sincerity of opposite viewpoints. Then he gently, and with pastoral and biblical sensitivity, states his own position.
 
I’m using Hamilton’s work in a seminary class titled “Preaching Ethically,” because he does as good a job both of using and stating a model for preachers as I’ve seen lately.
 
First, an ethical sermon should be seen as a pastoral conversation. It’s not a pronouncement from on high requiring obedience. Baptists don’t do that. Nor is it a campaign. Emotional or informational manipulation with the goal of producing a particular conclusion constitutes abuse. Instead, when one of us brings a controversial issue before the church we do so in the recognition that we are fallible both in our understanding and our conclusions. An ethical sermon is simply one believer doing his or her best to offer a perspective on God’s Word to other believers.
 
Second, an ethical sermon should reflect honest, scholarly study of the issues. Many of us fail here, because we tend to research only far enough to confirm our own prejudices. Genuine scholarship seeks to understand the opposing positions thoroughly, because only by doing so can we truly understand our own. Nor is science to be feared. All genuine truth is from God.
 
Third, an ethical sermon must be scrupulously honest with the biblical texts. Very often there’s a significant cultural and conceptual gap to be bridged between first century texts and the 21st century world. The preacher must do his or her best to comprehend that gap and the interpretive skills it requires. At the same time, where the Scripture speaks clearly, you can’t hesitate to say so. And where the Scripture is ambiguous, the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement offered wise counsel: “The criterion for interpreting Scripture is Jesus Christ.”
 
Fourth, anyone preaching an ethical sermon should be honest about one’s own conclusions. Hamilton does this gently and clearly. He says what he believes, even when he knows many in his congregation may disagree with him. If you’re unwilling to speak in the face of opposition, your preaching will never have the capacity to move people forward in their relationship with Christ.
 
Fifth, ethical preaching, like all preaching, should be bathed in prayer. Often in ethics we explore new territory. In John 16:13 Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things to come.” I believe that’s what the Spirit has done across the years with issues such as slavery and the role of women in the church. Preachers should seek that same Spirit when we stand in front of the church on the issues of our day.
 
Finally, ethical preaching takes place within the context of a particular congregation in a particular environment at a particular time. In one sense its conclusions are always provisional. When Paul wrote his pastoral letter to the Ephesians with regard to the structure of Christian families, he had neither the vision nor the will to alter the cultural realities of his day. What he did do was bathe those realities in the Spirit of Christ. He did what he could do in the world as he understood it. And that opened the way for much that has happened since.
 
It’s not easy to preach ethics. But you and I are called to do for our day what Paul’s ethical preaching did for his, trusting that our work, too, has its place in God’s ongoing redemption of all creation.
 
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.