Preaching and Ethics
Almost every invitation to preach that I receive comes with a stipulation—“Please preach on [insert current ethical hot topic].” Such requests have become so common that I have even joked with a friend of mine, who receives invitations to preach weekly, that unlike him I hardly ever get to pick the topic of my sermon. Of course I am happy to fulfill the requests of the pastors and churches inviting me, but I believe these requests demonstrate a clear need for preaching on ethical issues in our churches.
Why is it important to preach on ethical issues? Why should a pastor delve into typically controversial topics during a sermon?
- Questions about ethical issues are what people are asking.
I can always tell when a conversation is going to last a while. It usually starts with “You teach ethics. I have a question for you.” I love these types of conversations for a number of reasons, but primarily because they tell me that people are asking hard questions about applying the Bible to life. I am sure there are people out there who stay up at night contemplating the complexities of the hypostatic union. I just haven’t met those people. What I can attest is the number of people who lose sleep over whether or not to attend the same-sex wedding ceremony of a co-worker or who struggle over end of life decisions for a loved one.
If we ignore the questions people are asking, then we run the risk of tacitly sending them to other sources for answers. We may not be capable of answering every question adequately in our preaching, but we need to pay attention to the questions our people are asking.
- Scripture answers the questions people are asking.
Thankfully we are not left to develop answers to people’s ethical questions on our own. Scripture addresses matter of life and death, marriage and divorce, war and peace, etc. These and other issues are addressed in the pages of God’s Word. I affirm with Paul that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). This means Scripture speaks to the difficult ethical issues of our day so that we can be equipped for living out our faith. Since our people are asking these questions, we need to provide them with the answers found in Scripture.
There are certainly ethical questions that are not explicitly addressed in Scripture. Many of these are matters of science and technology that have rapidly developed in recent years. We do not have a passage of Scripture that speaks specifically about artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, or nuclear warfare; however, we do find guidance in the pages of Scripture about the type of people we should be and how we should act. From this guidance, we can develop reasonable answers even to the difficult questions of our day.
- Ethical living leads others to glorify God.
When we preach on ethical issues, we want to lead our people to live virtuous lives and make wise decisions. However, our goal is not to develop a congregation of Pharisees. We can get so mired in the details of making the “right” decision that we forget about the goal of the ethical life. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus tells us, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” When other people see our good works—ethical lives—they should stop and consider our Heavenly Father and glorify him. If our friends and neighbors only think about how hard it must be for us to avoid the temptations of the world, then we have failed.
Ethical living actually has an evangelistic thrust. If we glorify God through our lives, then others will see us and glorify our Father. Therefore, the focus is not on us. We need to keep this component of the Christian life at the forefront of our preaching on ethical issues.
Let me encourage you to apply the truth of God’s Word to the ethical issues we face in life. The people in our congregations are asking these questions, and we have the opportunity to point them to Scripture for God’s answers. In addition, our preaching on these issues will lead us to ethical living with an evangelistic purpose.
Evan Lenow is an Associate Professor of Ethics, the Bobby L. and Janis Eklund Chair of Stewardship, the Director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship, the Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and the Chair of the Ethics Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.