“The city of Houston demands pastors turn over sermons.” This headline, within hours of being posted on Foxnews.com, was forwarded multiple times to my inbox, with comments such as “unbelievable.”
My response? So what? Sermons are public proclamation, aren’t they?
If a government entity comes to me and demands that I turn over my sermon manuscripts, well… I think I’d be inclined to send them along. And I’d be sure to send each one with a carefully written cover letter explaining exactly how the blood of Christ redeems sinners from death and the grave. (Although good luck deciphering my rough outline, and reading my marginal handwriting. I can send you a link to the audio.)
Sermons aren’t exactly what the legal profession would call “privileged information.” (News reports suggest, however, that other “pastoral communications” might be a part of the subpoena, and insofar as those are private communications of pastors, I would fight their release.)
I grant that there are complex legal issues involved. And, seeing how it has just been a few hours since this story started to bubble up on the Fox News outrage-of-the-week radar, I make no claim to understanding the merits of the legal case.
It Started with a ‘Non-discrimination’ Ordinance
All I can tell so far is that the city passed a controversial non-discrimination ordinance, which among other things, would allow biological males to use the ladies room, and vice versa. A petition in opposition garnered 50,000 signatures, then was thrown out on a technicality. Next, a lawsuit against the ordinance was filed, to which the city responded with a subpoena for sermons from pastors associated with churches opposed to the ordinance.
And why, I ask, should pastors be unwilling to send their sermons to whoever should request a copy?
“This is designed to intimidate pastors,” said Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik Stanley. The ADF knows a thing or two about religion and politics, as the organizers of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Stanley suspects Houston’s openly lesbian mayor wants to shame the pastors, holding sermons up to public scrutiny to “out” the pastors as anti-gay bigots.
Free Speech Is Never Guaranteed
What happened to “not being ashamed of the Gospel, the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16)?
It is not as though we don’t have precedent, or direct biblical command, addressing such a situation. The Apostle Paul was put in chains—illegitimately—as a result of preaching the Gospel, and when Roman authorities sought to release him, he insisted on the basis of his Roman citizenship on his right to appeal all the way to Caesar in Rome. And in that same epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote in chapter 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
The government’s request for sermon manuscript—even a mandate to that effect—seems to be one a Christian can in good conscience submit to, and even celebrate as an opportunity for bearing witness to Christ.
But isn’t the First Amendment a good thing? Don’t we have the right to preach whatever we want in our pulpits? Shouldn’t we fight to defend and preserve this right? Absolutely. But having the legal right to preach whatever we want does not equate to keeping records of our public preaching secret. And while Americans have every right to fight to protect and preserve this freedom, Christians have no guarantee that they will live and minister in a land that protects this freedom.
Pastors Should Not Be Intimidated
Christians should, like the Apostle Paul, contend for our freedom to proclaim the Gospel. This is, in part, the point of Paul’s appeal to Caesar in Acts. He wanted to demonstrate that the Christian message is not threat to the public peace, and establish a legal precedent for it. It was in fact opponents of the Gospel who stirred up riots, and falsely charged them with “upsetting the world.”
It may indeed be the case that Houston’s mayor is acting to infringe this right, and hoping to shame pastors into changing their tune, and adapting their message to one more suitable for our age of tolerance. This does have every appearance of bullying. Christian preachers should, however, proclaim a message founded squarely on the Word of God, a message that can stand up to such scrutiny.
Pastors should absolutely not be bullied, and should absolutely not change what they preach. But nor should they be ashamed of it, nor afraid of the public dissemination and scrutiny of their words spoken from the pulpit. Even under the threat of persecution and imprisonment, preachers who take their calling seriously should continue to preach Christ and him crucified, even under the penalty of imprisonment and death.
Paul seems to have lived at peace with this threat, and embraced his suffering of imprisonment for the sake of his risen Lord. He seems, in fact, to anticipate that such suffering was bound to result from faithful Gospel proclamation:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Timothy 1:8 – 14, emphasis added)
The difference between Paul and the Houston preachers seems to be that Paul is more focused on the ultimate heavenly content, and outcome, of his preaching, rather than its political impact in this world.