ETHICS FOR BIBLICAL PREACHING
Kenton C. Anderson
Originally appeared on PreachingToday.com. Also appears in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005).
That preaching ought to be ethical is beyond debate. Good ethical practice is foundational to preaching and good preachers know it. Listeners accustomed to media stories of fallen preachers might wonder, but for most of us there is no question about our intent to be ethical in the pulpit. The question is not whether we want to do right, but whether we will know what is right and whether we will we be able to do it.
The apostle Paul had confidence enough to invite people to examine his own life and character as evidence to the truth of his message (1 Cor. 11:1). That might be a higher level of scrutiny than many of us might welcome. The more we are aware of our own sin, the less we feel competent to stand and preach. Yet privacy cannot be promised to the one who claims to speak for God. Listeners still have a right to ask whether we are going to practice what we preach. The reprobate preacher is a common media stereotype. Unfortunately, the cliche is far too often realized in life. Truth is truth no matter who preaches it. Yet nothing compromises the credibility of the message like a life that denies the words the preacher speaks. Character counts. A politician or an actor might be able to shrug off indiscretions. Not so the preacher. A politician can survive as long as the economy is humming and the trains run on time. But the preacher is accountable because of the nature of the message. ÒDo as I say and not as I do,Ó does not make it as a homiletic policy.
Of course, few of us would think it does. We want to have integrity. When we stand in the pulpit offering wonderful pictures of what faithfulness looks like, we want to believe it is true of us as well, or at least has been in our better moments. The problem is that we make it very hard on ourselves and on our people when we treat the Bible moralistically. We are not doing anyone favors by preaching arbitrary standards of behavior that we can’t even live up to ourselves. Biblical preaching ought to be more about redemption than it is about listing appropriate behaviors. Still, there are some basic things we will want to give attention to. For one, listeners need to know that we will handle our sexuality appropriately. Preachers are sexual beings. We dishonor the God who created us when we try to present an a-sexual persona in the pulpit. In fact, people need us to talk to them about sexuality, but they need to know we can be trusted. We will establish distinct boundaries, well clear of danger. We will not indulge in cheap questionable humor. We will remember Paul’s advice about stronger and weaker brothers in 1 Corinthians 14. There are times an ethical preacher will choose not to show a helpful clip because some will have problems with sexual portrayals elsewhere in the movie. No preacher intends to fall victim to sexual infidelity. Yet, so many do. Preachers intoxicated by their position or intimidated by their place fall prey to the weaknesses of their physical nature. Sin committed in private quickly becomes public. The result is always ugly as families are scarred and ministries defeated. God himself is dishonored when his servants sin with sex.
Financial propriety is another area of concern. It should be obvious to our listeners that we are not in it for the money. Paul claimed that preachers do not peddle the gospel for profit (2Cor 2:17). This has certainly been true for generations of preachers who have labored in poverty. Yet, underpaid preachers can be tempted by money. So can well paid preachers who have grown accustomed to its charms. Jaded listeners have the sense that every preacher is part Elmer Gantry, manipulating listeners in order to separate them from their money. Too often their cynicism is warranted. We need to make sure that our personal approach to money does not get in the way of our preaching. Not that we have to be financial wizards, but we shouldn’t let mismanagement lead us into temptation, fear, or the bitterness that can so easily find its way into our preaching. When we negotiate our salaries, we will not appear grasping. When we receive an honorarium, we will do it graciously and not as if it is required. The best way to make sure that people sense we are not driven by money is not to be.
Resolve to live an open life. Don’t keep secrets, especially from those to whom we are accountable. Let us establish strong relationships with people courageous enough to ask hard personal questions of us in order to keep us from these destructive impulses. We are well advised to intentionally limit our personal freedom by avoiding even the appearance of evil.
An example can be found in the ministry of Billy Graham and his team. In 1948 Graham and his teammates, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Grady Wilson, met in Modesto, California to determine the ethical parameters for their preaching ministry. The resulting code, nicknamed ‘The Modesto Manifesto’ described four key commitments. They deliberately determined that they would avoid even the appearance of financial abuse. All money would be carefully accounted for and fully disclosed to the public. They determined that they would be absolutely honest in their publication of statistics. They chose to exercise care to avoid the possibility of any perception of sexual impropriety, never appearing alone with a woman not their wives. They agreed to co-operate with any local church that could subscribe to their view of the gospel so as to avoid any sense of competition among churches. Many would have thought they had taken precautions beyond what was necessary. Yet decades later Graham’s ministry stands as a paragon of ethical propriety. The credibility of Graham’s preaching has been immeasurably enhanced by these commitments to character deliberately chosen and carefully maintained over all these years.
Still, we will mess up, sometimes spectacularly. Yet if we mess up, we’ll clean up, and we will rest heavily upon the grace of God, We know we don’t stand on the merits of our own character but on the basis of that which has been granted by Christ. The opportunity to stand with character intact in his presence is only because of God’s forgiveness. Listeners, also, are seldom fooled. Even the act of listening is an act of grace.
Ethical preaching requires honest speech. Listeners must know that the words the preacher uses are truthful and accurate.
Truthfulness begins with exegesis. God’s Word is given in human language and language inevitably requires interpretation. This is not to render preaching entirely subjective. It is to say, however, that there is a certain amount of human discretion involved in the preacher’s use of Scripture. That discretion can be abused, however, when the authority vested in the pulpit is used to provide added weight to the preacher’s particular take on the text. While the Bible can be misinterpreted unwittingly, the preacher must never knowingly use his or her position to manipulate meaning for personal purposes. We are responsible to make use of all the accepted tools of grammatical-historical research to interpret the Scriptures according to their intent and present the plain truth as it is found in the text.
Our listeners have a right to expect that we will be committed to honest speech. People should not have to take our words with the proverbial ‘grain of salt.’ While preachers are known to embellish stories or to speak ‘evang-elastically’ in the use of statistics, our points are never enhanced when we bend truth in the direction of our own interest, even when we do it because we think it is in the service of the gospel. This is not to say we have to be slavish to the details of the stories we are telling. In our use of the Bible, for example, we can imagine a puzzled look on the face of the rich young ruler or a tear in the eye of the prodigal son. The text doesn’t give us those details, but we are not violating the intent of the text when we provide them. People have become adept at screening the bias out of advertising, media editorials, and political speech, but these skills should not be required of those who listen to preaching. Listeners are not always in a position to evaluate the claims we make from the pulpit. While they will critically evaluate what we say, we should not tax that faculty too heavily.
Plagiarism is a particular concern for the preacher. While many would suggest that the pulpit allows latitude in the use of other people’s ideas, unauthorized appropriation of intellectual property is theft. Plagiarism occurs whenever we pass along someone else’s idea or words as if they were our own. It is unethical, for instance, to place ourselves in a factual story that was actually the experience of someone else. Preachers do stand on the shoulders of others. It is good practice, for instance, to benefit from concepts, commentary, and even sermon constructions offered by others. In some of these cases, the ideas are essentially in the public domain and no longer need to be cited distinctly. In other cases, where either the ideas are unique to a particular source or where the use is substantial, we will want to identify who it is that we have benefited from. This is not difficult. It can be done orally (“I like the way Rick Warren put it…”), on the powerpoint screen, or in the printed bulletin. A more substantial problem lies in the increasingly common practice of preachers who lift entire sermons from the internet and claim them for their own. Not only is this practice unethical, but it is lazy and not particularly helpful to our listeners.
A further area of concern, complicated by new technologies has to do with the use of motion picture content without appropriate permissions. This is both a legal and an ethical concern. A judiciously used movie clip can add much to a sermon, but just as we have learned to do with music, we must either get permission from the rights-holder or purchase one of the many blanket license options now available.
Respect for the Listener
Ethics in preaching demands that we speak and act respectfully toward our listeners. The pulpit is a place of power if for no other reason than that the traditional sermon offers little opportunity for dialogue or interaction. Statements we make from the pulpit are not easily challenged. Any half-truths or untruths can be devastating to people unable to defend themselves.
We usually have the best of motives. We preach that people would find faith in Christ and that the followers of Jesus would serve to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. Rare is the preacher who does not feel the subtle strains of temptation to manipulate the listener even just a little. Facts can be stretched, stories exaggerated, and rhetoric heated to the point where the listener finds motivation, not simply in the power of the message or the call of God’s Spirit but in the manufactured emotion of the moment. Seminaries don’t teach this, but still we learn it well. There is a subtle line between manipulation and motivation and preachers must learn to stay on the right side of it.
For example, we must be careful not to use the pulpit as a means to bully people into submission. While we often feel disrespected and maligned, the pulpit is no place to get even or to ‘set the record straight.’Preachers, adept at the use of words, can damage and defame, all the while sounding spiritual and upright. Jesus was particularly vehement in his opposition to such Pharisaical behavior.
We ought rather to seek to be affirming to ‘the other.’ Preachers should deliberately search out ways of understanding what they say from the perspective of people diverse to themselves in terms of gender, socio-economics, age, and even sexuality. We don’t have to share the listener’s experience or even agree with it in order to be kind and gentle. The preacher’s words are only heard with greater power when they are truthful in what they represent.
In the end, preachers embrace righteousness because we serve a holy God whom we love and who will hold us to account. ‘Be ye holy,’ the Bible says, ‘because I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16).