Preaching on Moral Issues

C. W. Scudder  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 7 - Spring 1965

That America is in the midst of a moral crisis none can deny. Earl Guinn says, “We are spiritually sick, and the cure lies not in the plans of the technologists, nor in the schemes of the militarists, nor in any brilliant manipulations of the economists or sociologists.”[1]G. Earl Guinn, “The Prophetic Ministry,” Southern Baptist Preaching, ed. H. C. Brown, Jr. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), p. 91. He believes that a radical religious remedy is needed for the hearts and minds of men.

The relation of Christianity and the Christian minister to the moral crisis is a matter of grave concern. A prominent Lutheran pastor says that “conspicuous on the modern scene is a popular religion walking hand in hand with a general breakdown of morality.”[2]Theodore Meimarck, Preaching for Tethered Man (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1962), p. 66. He believes that the slipping moral level is a clear indictment of Christianity—that it reveals its weakened power to control the lives of men.

J. B. Gambrell is quoted as having said that “there is no worse sign in an individual life or community life than that wrongs cease to arouse indignation. The complacency that is indifferent to right or wrong is not goodness, it is moral decay.”[3]Quoted by Guinn, p. 88. Who can deny that complacency and callousness to evil afflict many Christian people today? There is much evidence of moral decay.

If these evaluations are correct, then there is urgent need for a clear word from God’s spokesmen. People are struggling in the revolutionary sea of immorality and they have a right to look to the pulpit for help. The preacher stands in a uniquely important position today.

Many pastors have followed the route of expediency and have remained strangely silent concerning the vital issues of the day. A Baptist editor says that “silence may be golden in some instances but not when Christians face moral issues.”[4]C. R. Daley, “Why Are Baptists Silent?” The Baptist Program, December, 1964, p. 11. Phillips Brooks says, “No powerful pulpit ever held aloof from the moral life of the community it lives in. . . . When a strong, clear issue stands out plain, the preacher has his duty as sharply marked as that of a soldier on the field of battle.”[5]Quoted in Andrew W. Blackwood, Planning a Year’s Pulpit Work (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1942), p. 165. Harold Bosley reminds the preacher that “it is better to be wrong than be silent in the face of problems that are tormenting the thought and lives of his people. It is easy,” he says, “to explain mistakes for all honest men will understand and sympathize; it is impossible to explain silence, for none will listen.”[6]Harold A. Bosley, Preaching on Controversial Issues (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1953), p. 20.


Pastoral Prophet

Pastors must preach prophetically if the moral challenges of the day are to be adequately met. Without such preaching, people become confused, frustrated, and afraid as they are constantly bombarded by the complex issues of a changing society. George Buttrick says that the gospel must be preached “in a prophetic comradeship both compassionate and free. Should no voice be lifted and no life be lived for Christ, our lights are gone out: there remains only the darkness where ‘ignorant armies clash by night.'”[7]George A. Buttrick, et al, Preaching in These Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), p. 25.

It is a prophetic word that is needed today. “It must be declaratory of the will of God . . . the affirmation of the moral law, the principles of conduct. It must be the speech of judgment. . . . It must be the speech of accusation. . . . It must be clear and courageous speech.”[8]G. Bromley Oxnam, Preaching in a Revolutionary Age (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1944), p. 117.

It would seem that some are not so clear and courageous in their preaching. After considering the conduct of some who have occupied the pews, Guinn concludes that “apparently instead of hearing prophets of God sounding a trumpet call to obedience and faith, they have heard inoffensive little men tooting piccolos and then running to the door to grin like Cheshire cats at those whose compliments are demanded by their itching ears.”[9]Guinn, p. 91. If there are such preachers today, may their tribe decrease. They leave their people at the mercy of the forces of evil.

It is not easy for a pastor to preach prophetically. He must never forget that, although God called him to preach, he was also called by his congregation to be their pastor. The prophetic preacher will be met with opposition and be subject to criticism. Speaking of those who would limit or silence the pulpit, Bosley says, “They must be met and met openly. Once give in to them on your right to speak up on any issue and they will silence you on all issues—unless you propose to confine your utterance to the comfortable words they desire to hear. He who does this,” he concludes, “betrays the pulpit.”[10]Bosley, p. 25.

It is important to remember that most great prophets have stood outside the church. Most churches will take very little prophetic preaching. Recognizing this, the pastoral prophet should avoid becoming personal or partisan. He should deal mainly with moral imperatives. “In the power structures which makes up contemporary society the preacher must represent an ethical position more than a primarily partisan interest.”[11]Gene E. Bartlett, The Audacity of Preaching (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1962), p. 123.

The tension of the times has produced a new cult of psychology, which has attracted much attention. After acknowledging that the new psychology has undoubtedly brought relief to many, Guinn states that “the real test of worth in religion is moral progress and not emotional release.”[12]Guinn, p. 94. He goes on to say,

The technique of the cult is to manipulate God and religious forces in such a way as to bring special healing benefits to the maladjusted. Favorite topics for the prophets of the cult are: ways to make your work easier; how to get along with people; how to break the worry habit; learn to relax your body. It would be interesting to hear a comment from Amos on that kind of preaching.[13]Ibid.

It would indeed be interesting to have such a comment!

Rather than viewing a sense of guilt as debilitating, the prophets of God make men responsible. Again, the irresponsibility and unconcern of the day indicate neglect of the prophetic office. The need is for preaching characterized by concern, conviction, and courage. “The stern facts of the times will not let us conduct services as though no serious business is on hand today. The times are out of joint, and it is our task under God to set them right.”[14]Ibid., p. 92. This assessment of the times and the task of the preacher deserves serious consideration.

The prophetic preacher should anticipate action. He should not feel that he has fulfilled his obligation by merely preaching a sermon. It is possible to preach without expecting anything to be done about the matter. It is also possible for a congregation to listen with no intention of doing anything. Such a religious exercise is a farce. Such a preacher and such a congregation may be asking, what should we think about this matter? They need to ask and answer the more important question, what shall we do about it?

The pastoral prophet must lead his people in the ways of God but never seek to drive them. In his awareness of the pew he “must woo men, not disgust them.”[15]Heimarck, p. 40. He should not preach social righteousness as an alternative gospel. He should lead his people to understand that man’s reconciliation to God should result in a sincere seeking for reconciliation among men in all of their relationships. A new synthesis of theology and social concern should characterize the preaching of the pastoral prophet. As he preaches he is speaking for God to a specific group of people in a particular social context. His leadership is essential.


Ultimate Perspective

The pastoral prophet will do well to keep his preaching grounded in theology. He will do well to preach within an ultimate frame of reference. A recent writer says that “in contrast to some earlier periods of Western history, eternal verities or moral urgencies today appear to have little more than ritualistic relevance.”[16]Paul Peachey (ed.) Biblical Realism Confronts the Nation (Fellowship Publication, published in associated with The Church Peace Mission, distributed by Herald Press, Scottsdale, Pa., 1963), p. 7. This seems to be true. In any event, possibly the greatest problem that is faced today in prophetic preaching is the communication of ultimate values to people who are enamored with values that are far less than ultimate.

William Bradley is correct when he concludes that “the idea of the good man . . . is the same today as it was in the first century. The idea of the good life has changed.”[17]William L. Bradley, The Meaning of Christian Values Today (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), p. 10. The task of the preacher is to communicate the idea of the good man to people living in greatly changed conditions. How is the good man to live in a day like this?

The development of social sciences in recent years has tended to make ethics a descriptive science rather than a normative one. The need today, however, is for normative ethics. People are in desperate need of standards upon the basis of which they can make value judgments. Ultimacy is found only in the realm of religion. The needed standards must come from theology and philosophy. Christian ethics brings both disciplines into focus in establishing standards. The good prophetic preacher must be both theologian and philosopher—he must be a Christian ethicist.

There has never been a more urgent need for an adequate ethical ideal than today. Morals are in a state of confusion. Many acknowledge no standard by which to judge their behavior. They claim to be amoral rather than immoral. Behavior is now judged more on the basis of the context in which it takes place. Ten years ago, Ian Macpherson evaluated the situation as follows:

Standards of conduct which for centuries have been regarded as sacrosanct in all civilized countries are now, in the name of a false freedom, being challenged and flouted and flung to the winds. Pagan gods are being erected in the temple of fame, and the youth of today are bowing down to them with calamitous consequences. Desperately we require a worthy moral ideal.[18]Ian Macpherson, The Burden of the Lord (London: Epworth Press, 1955), p. 25.

This evaluation is even more meaningful today.

Carl Henry states that “the severance of ethics from fixed values and standards, ardently promoted by John Dewey and the naturalists, has brought moral chaos.”[19]Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), p. 13. This moral chaos calls for a recovery of the theological sanctions which have largely been discarded.

The objectivity of ideals is greatly needed today. Ideals are needed for which to strive. If an individual fails to achieve the ideal, he recognizes that the fault lies within himself not the ideal. These transcendent constants both judge and challenge. The fact that no man has ever lived up to them makes justice, mercy, love, and equality no less ideals. They remain always to convict and challenge.

Earl Guinn recalls how paratroopers confused the enemy during the war by dropping behind their lines and changing road signs at intersections. He states that this has been happening in another realm today. He concludes, “Many thoughtful people today are not asking, ‘Are we turning to the right of center or to the left of center?’ but, ‘Do we still have a center?'”[20]Guinn, p. 91. He then states emphatically his evaluation of the central need today:

This world needs nothing more—I repeat, it needs nothing more—than a clear understanding that God is holy. The distinction between right and wrong is not rooted in utility or practicality but in God’s holiness. He is ethically transcendent, and this morally confused and bewildered world needs to come to grips with that fact. Only then will a man cry out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” and, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”[21]Ibid., p. 93.

The pastoral prophet will find some good preaching in Leviticus 19 in which the writer illustrates what it means in the realm of human relations to be holy as God is holy. He will do well to get his preaching perspective from the perfect ideals of the Bible.


Biblical Approach

The Bible should be central in preparation for preaching on moral issues. A positive biblical emphasis is needed in dealing with social problems. Elton Trueblood says that “we now have a generation in the Western world which knows little poetry, less philosophy and no Bible.”[22]Elton Trueblood, The Life We Prize (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 11. If this be true, it is a strong challenge to the preacher today.

It is certainly true that many people have no clear idea of the ethical standards of the Bible. Some who know much of biblical doctrine know little of biblical ethics. The alarming situation led Andrew Blackwood to ask, “Why not begin to preach and teach the ethics of the Bible?”[23]Andrew W. Blackwood, Expository Preaching for Today (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), p. 40. It is his belief that any delicate moral problem can be approached biblically in the pulpit.

Many moral issues are not specifically discussed in the Bible. There are, however, biblical principles applicable to all moral issues. The indirect method is usually best in dealing with controversial moral issues. A foundation of broad Christian principles is first laid and occasional applications are made to social and moral issues. The indirect approach causes people to consider moral issues in the larger context of the whole Christian gospel. As illustration of the indirect method, Blackwood suggest the following examples: “Any Communism in the Early Church?” (Acts 2.43-47), “A Bible Case of Lynching” (Acts 7:54-60), “When Segregation Seemed Sacred” (Acts 10). His conclusion is that any delicate issue can be approached indirectly in this way.[24]Ibid. The indirect method should be the basic one used by the pastoral prophet.

George W. Truett used both the indirect and direct methods in dealing with moral issues. He is a good example. He usually set forth basic principles and then applied them to the moral issues of the day. “The Power of Convictions”[25]George W. Truett, The Inspiration of Ideals, ed. P. W. James (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 49ff. presents basic convictions of Christian morality and applies them to current problems. In “God’s Call to America”[26]George W. Truett, God’s Call to America (Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1923), p. 24. the subject of human relations is approached indirectly by indicating that all classes need the gospel.

Although seldom using the direct method, when an issue was critical, Truett preached directly on it. “Philip in Samaria”[27]George W. Truett, The Salt of the Earth, ed. P. W. James (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), pp. 129ff. deals with race; “The Highest Welfare of the Home”[28]George W. Truett, The Prophetic Mantle, ed. P. W. James (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1948), pp. 29ff. and “The Spiritual Recovery of the Home”[29]George W. Truett, On Eagle Wings, ed. P. W. James (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), pp. 149ff. deal with the home; “The Passing of the Legalized Liquor Traffic”[30]Truett, God’s Call to America, pp. 152ff. deals with liquor; “Civic Righteousness”[31]Truett, The Inspiration of Ideals, pp. 187ff. deals with the state. Although dealing directly with issues, most titles are indirect.

Robert C. Campbell used the topical approach in dealing with moral issues. Although quoting verses of Scripture from time to time, his messages are not directly biblical. One of his sermon books deals entirely with moral issues. It is entitled, Modern Evils.[32]Robert C. Campbell, Modern Evils (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1933). The sermons were preached in a series.

Christian Faith in Action,[33]Foy Valentine (ed.), Christian Faith in Action (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1956). compiled by Foy Valentine, is a book of sermons dealing with moral issues. All of the messages are positive and biblical in approach. Their thrust is direct. The contributors are outstanding Baptist preachers.

A study of the Truett sermons will be especially profitable. His approach is biblical, focusing on principles and motives as well as conditions. More needs to be written to help the preacher deal with controversial moral issues. The chapter by Guinn, often cited in this paper, is a step in the right direction.


Reliable Information

The pastoral prophet must be realistic in approaching moral issues. He must understand the issues of the day. He must convince people that he knows whereof he speaks if he is to have their respect and be able to influence them. He must also maintain a comradeship with his people. “In any event, the prophet must not alienate instantly and outright those whom he would lead.”[34]Buttrick, p. 19.

If a minister is really to help his people meet moral issues, he must know them individually. He must not only know the Bible; he must know the people. Macpherson points out that to be realistic and effective in meeting the needs of people the minister must know “their temptations and aspirations, their sins and regrets, their frustrations and achievements, their hates and loves, their sorrows and joys, their fears and hopes. Like Henry Ward Beecher,” he concludes, “you will often have to put your books by and study men.”[35]Macpherson, p. 111.

It is tragic when the lines of communication are so deteriorated that the minister cannot hear the cry of those in need. Bradley is incisive in his evaluation as he says, “The middle­ class man of comfort and conformity is not bad: he is deaf . . . . he cannot hear the cry sent up to him by those in need.”[36]Bradley, p. 15. Is it possible that this could be said of many comfortable and conforming ministers today? The preacher must see that he gives God’s answers to the questions people are asking. He must spend much time with his people. Otherwise, he will not know and will not meet their needs.

Many preachers have lost the interest and respect of their people by speaking concerning subjects about which they knew very little. One who would deal with moral issues should be sure that he possesses reliable information. This calls for thorough study of current events, periodicals, and books dealing with moral issues. The expression “ministerially speaking” clearly indicates that some preachers have been entirely too careless with the truth.

Some ministers may feel that it is beneath their dignity or outside the realm of their responsibility to deal with moral issues most of which are unpleasant and controversial. Harold Bosle says that “a religious faith that will not concern itself with the vital issues in the life of a person or a people is a mean and doomed thing” and that it “deserves the scorn which ethically sensitive people are not slow to heap upon it.”[37]Bosley, p. 20. All vital issues are controversial, and the pastoral prophet cannot afford to avoid or ignore them. “The true man of God can weep at suffering he can get downright mad at sin, and he can rejoice at moral progress. Such were the prophets.”[38]Guinn, p. 88.

How often have ministers led people to Christ and then left them to fight their battles alone? Even a casual consideration of the moral conditions of the day should give a preacher his answer. James Clarke raises two disturbing questions which every preacher should answer: “Is it right for a preacher to help save the individual, and then leave him to the cold indifference of a social order that cramps his new desires, flows against his new way of life, and discourages his newborn dreams? Has the preacher no responsibility to help change the pagan environment in which the Christian must live, and the foul moral air he must breathe?”[39]James W. Clarke, Dynamic Preaching (Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell company, 1960), p. 82.


Loving Concern

The pastoral prophet must be motivated by loving concern for his people. A congregation must be convinced that their pastor loves them, and that he is deeply concerned about all of their needs. Apart from this, they will never hear him gladly. They must also have the assurance that he is with them that he has not gone off and left them. Buttrick says that some preachers are like a railroad engine running at ninety miles an hour but hitched to no tram. A lone engine, of course, is useless. It becomes useful only as it pulls a train. The pastoral prophet should be sure that he “is always ahead of his people, but always tied to them in loyalty and understanding love. . . . If their minister has been with them in stress of and sorrow, in overcoming and failure, they will not question too strongly his right to speak the whole truth as he sees it in Christ.”[40]Buttrick, p. 20.

The pastoral prophet must never view himself as a social reformer nor as an agitator. He must ever be a true ambassador of Christ, motivated by the very love of Christ. “Prophetic utterance must never be divorced from the message of redemption—the justice of God, yes; but the grace of God, always.”[41]Oxnam, p. 119. James Clarke is profoundly correct when he says that “before we can do anything, we must be something. Before there can be social renewal, there must be personal renewal. Before we can have a new world, we must have new hearts and new minds.”[42]Clarke, pp. 86-87. Albert B. Belden is equally profound when he says that “if religion ends with the individual, it ends.”[43]Quoted by Clarke, p. 78.

It is the preaching of the whole gospel that is needed today. The gospel preached must be both personal and social if it is to meet the needs of today. Unless the whole gospel is preached, men will continue to go down in spiritual defeat in a society in which evil is rampant.

Only love is powerful enough to overcome evil and reconcile men. It is quite possible that no great change in the moral realm can be expected until men learn truly to love one another in the Christian sense.


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