Being a Pastor and Speaking Out in Today’s Culture: Should pastors remain silent about matters debated in the public square?

(WNS)–A pastor I know recently told me that he was criticized for being “too political.” He has heard such an indictment throughout his ministry, he said. Today he leads a major ministry in the U.S. battling daily for the rights of pastors to speak so that believers can speak. His prophetic word upsets the establishment. His voice is prophetic. His heart is pastoral. Can the two coexist?

I have heard similar charges in my ministry through the years. I accept the critique. However, if the matter is important, I am compelled to address it in preaching or writing, and I believe that is just being pastoral to God’s people. I cannot compartmentalize the Lordship of Christ to only one area of life. He is Lord of all.

Is it right that pastors should remain silent about important matters in society that are being debated in the public square because someone is trying to establish in our culture that there is no place in politics for religious beliefs or moral convictions that have been born out of a faith commitment? Because people squirm when sin is exposed in politics or culture, does it mean we should refrain from preaching? No. It may mean just the opposite.

Is a pastor solely limited to sharing the gospel to his flock on Sunday mornings? Or was the late Dr. John Stott right that one of our identities as gospel preachers, in a faithful biblical portrait of a pastor, is a “herald”? The pastor is not a prophet, yet he most certainly does carry a prophetic voice and speaks with biblical authority to other Beast-like powers when there are souls at risk or the honor of Christ and His Church is under siege.

I have an intuitive concern that the liberal professor who won’t let the young believer raise her hand in a state university and speak from her conviction is now trying to govern public discourse. Well, I am not governed by political correctness that has been born out of a liberal educational system or by the pressure of a liberal press but by the one and only true God. The public square is not the university professor’s classroom nor is it the TV news studio. This is my Father’s world. Therefore, I speak, and I speak publicly, as the Lord gives an open door, through media, because I am compelled by compassion for souls that may be victims of systems that will ultimately enslave them.

I believe that pastors must speak to our declining culture. I am pastorally concerned that that there are dangerous idols masquerading under the banner of politics in this increasingly secularized culture. These heaven-rejected powers prefer that we keep quiet. But when the powers move beyond the Machiavellian machinations of politics to the advocacy of principles at odds with God’s Word we must call them out.

The prophets and church fathers of old spoke forth concerning the actions of governments, individuals yielding power, and the idols of culture. Our Lord Jesus did when he said of Herod “Go tell that Fox” (Luke 13:32), St. Paul did, the church fathers did, and the Reformers did. In the 20th Century I thank God that J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was not afraid to speak to the ungodliness in his culture (read Stephen Nichols’ fine biography). And what of Bonhoeffer? Solzhenitsyn? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Today pastors like Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi preach against the powers of darkness, expose evil in government, and even in churches in our own nation as missionaries to America, and warn people while compassionately inviting them to Christ. Why? Because pastors are like watchmen on the wall (Ezekiel 33) required by God to sometimes warn of coming danger, even if others cry “Off limits!” To do otherwise is to be disobedient to our calling. God says if there is harm to his people because the watchmen were silent they will have the blood of the people on their hands. This is a sobering warning to pastors and trumps any criticism of being “too political.”

Pastors are like watchmen on the wall (Ezekiel 33) required by God to sometimes warn of coming danger, even if others cry “Off limits!”

Yet the challenge of discernment is acknowledged. What must we do?

(1) Pastors must represent no man but God and no party but His Kingdom. We therefore refuse to be used as pawns by any political party. We are aware of Psalms 2 that the rulers of this world conspire against God and His Son. We study. We pray. We speak, therefore, when we must, on behalf of the truths of God’s Word to help people.

(2) Pastors must diagnose the presenting ill to discover the real issue beneath it. Only then do we speak. Diagnosis requires prayer, wisdom, courage, and the leading of the Lord. Speaking requires courage and counting the cost. If it is a real or potential spiritual harm coming from the presenting issues of culture or politics, then we must deliver the diagnosis and offer the cure in the Person of Jesus Christ and His Word. If I happen to yell “Warning!” and the demon under the cloak of culture is a straw-man then I have expended my pastoral capitol, perhaps compromising my ability to preach into real or more critical situations. But if it is not a straw-man, and instead an instrument of the “devil, the flesh or the world” that would further mar the image of God in man or further distance us from God, then woe to me if I speak not.

So we must preach, even when the culture labels our message “off limits.” We will live with that criticism because we are pastors and we follow Christ and His disciples who also were criticized (and crucified) for assuming an authority that challenged theirs.

(3) Pastors must pray for each situation that startles our shepherding instincts, and weigh whether a given issue is an assault on our conscience worth exposing. It is understood that some matters are just politics or a reflection of a sick culture, and a pathology more ably addressed by other men and women.

(4) Pastors must ground their preaching in God’s Word, the Bible. We have no authority apart from His Word. We must also always offer the way out through the gospel of Jesus Christ. To do less is to be embroiled in the political debate. But preaching with a conclusion that leads to freedom in Christ is above the storm, where it should be.

My pulpit and my writings are not for sale to any political party. I care not a whit for using my position to promote a political agenda. I do care for souls. That is my job. And I will preach. That is my calling.

Dangers exist on all sides for the pastor. But, who said the job would be easy? Yet to silence the pastor in any realm is to cause the Church to retreat into a secluded ghetto where we can no longer be salt and light in the world. And that cannot be. We comfort the afflicted and on occasion may afflict the comfortable, as it is sometimes put. The ground of our ministry is love from a pure conscience. Let us not abandon our post as long as God gives us the strength to stand. Let us be silent no more.

 

Dr. Michael Milton is the president of Reformed Theological Seminary.

14 Responses to Being a Pastor and Speaking Out in Today’s Culture

  1. Allen Baldwin says:

    Amen! I pray pastors, elders and disciples everywhere will hear and heed your call to action!!!

  2. John Musgrave says:

    At many places, I agree; in others, the argument is flawed.
    Two examples of flawed places:
    1) Dr. Milton writes, “Pastors are like watchmen on the wall (Ezekiel 33) required by God to sometimes warn of coming danger.”
    The flaw: prophets go to God’s people to decry their moral faults, for they are in covenant with God and held accountable to His law. Even in the exceptional example of Jonah, the book is written to God’s people. Did Jesus decry the sins of non-covenant people?
    2) “To silence the pastor . . . [is to] no longer be salt and light in the world.”
    The flaw: Jesus defines “being salt and light” right in Matthew 5 as doing good works, and not as decrying non-covenant persons’ lack of adherence to the law (cf…

    • Thomas K. Johnson says:

      Amos preached to the nations surrounding Israel and Judah, confronting them about their crimes against humanity. Can we do less?

  3. John Hendrickson says:

    It will be interesting to hear the replies of those who disagree.

    The people of God have been ill-equipped to recognize the idols of this present age. One glaring example is that most Christians fail to see the insidious and godless nature of the public school system. They fail to understand that as believers there should not be a subject taught which does not to begin with God and how it fits into what He says its purpose is. He defines reality, but most schools teach atheism in that He is left out as irrelevant. How can this not be recognized by God’s people? Don’t they believe God is over all of life and that, as the Creator, He tells us how to understand it? The fault lies at the door of the shepherds. A revival in them is needed…

    • John Musgrave says:

      Mr. Hendrickson is right in saying that all truth stems from God, and of course. But the viewpoint advocated there puts Moses and Daniel in sin, for example. A Christian can filter as he speaks to his neighbor speak all kinds of errant things or as hears his Biology professor speak of evolution.

    • Allen Baldwin says:

      This is a topic, sadly, that you extremely rarely hear spoken by our Shepherds. Deut 6 clearly places the responsibility on the parents and when we as parents delegate that responsibility we must exercise the utmost care and oversight. Is this happening?

      At the very least every Christian should be actively engaged in the press for School Choice. This would recognize parents as the ultimate arbiter of their child’s education, as it should be, and it would advance our best hope for improvement in a very broken system.

      Thank you John for your comment. Let us hope we hear some of this from our pulpits.

  4. Rev. Lee Bloodworth says:

    Good and vital discussion today. Two things:
    1) I might only add that preaching is itself a good work (Matt 5:13; 2 Tim 3:16, 17)!
    2) The prophets frequently addressed not only the social ills of the covenant community but also of the surrounding nations. Wile it may have primarily benefitted Israel, it was God’s Word to the unbelieving community too. Likewise, the gospel is preached to unbelievers.

    • John Musgrave says:

      Pastor Bloodworth rightly speaks of the great value of preaching. As we look at the books of the prophets, though, we must note that while they do speak of foreign nations’ sins, they speak of them to the people of God, not to those nations. The prophets (excepting Jonah) (but like Amos, for example) aren’t traveling around to those countries to speak those words. They are speaking the words to Israel about those nations. As they speak/write, it’s like us saying, “Woe to this nation or that for their genocide.” We can say that, but it is not implied in saying it that we have traveled to that nation to speak it.

      • Che Anderson says:

        You are overlooking Paul and his life time mission to Gentiles. And early founders of this country and tbier protests avainst EU tyrany

        • John Musgrave says:

          Paul’s message was not: “Rome, make more righteous laws and close down the sites of temple prostitution in Corinth.” He had a hearing with Romans officials, yet he doesn’t speak of this or anything close to it. His message to governing officials was Jesus and the gospel. Jesus and the gospel is good news. Jesus does not send us out with the message of “behave better;” He sends us out to preach the good news. Reforming the world’s behavior is not our mandate.

  5. Buster Williams says:

    Finally, the truth is told! Way too often today’s pastors lack the courage to speak out on cultural issues out of fear of offending someone in their congregation. Finally, someone with the courage to remind pastors of their high calling. Thank you Dr. Milton! Makes this Westminster guy want an advanced degree from RTS!

    • Kevin Collins says:

      Buster, Thank you for commenting on Dr. Milton’s article. We are blessed to have him as our Chancellor. I am the Director of Admissions & Placement at the Orlando campus and would love to discuss our Doctor of Ministry degree with you! Please contact me at 1-407-366-9493.
      Blessings in King Jesus!

  6. Bill Lewis says:

    Michael Milton says here “Pastors must diagnose the presenting ill to discover the real issue beneath it.” Perhaps this is the most important statement he makes. What seems to be happening is that Christians focus on the symptoms and not underlying issues. This diminishes the power of the gospel and hurts the church’s credibility. When people are drowning our current politics argues about whether to offer them a rope, give them a life preserver, tell them to take their own initiative and swim to shore or jump in with them decrying those on shore who are doing nothing. Perhaps we all need to look upstream and determine the historical and other causal factors that put so many into the river in the first place.

  7. Bob Stuart says:

    Mike, thank you for your frankness. For those who think we shouldn’t take on cultural issues, let me remind them that Jesus said the tares are in with the wheat. Not all Israel is Israel. So, preaching to those who claim to be Christians is akin to what the prophets were doing. The main target may be the covenant community, but the Gospel’s “collateral damage” falls upon reprobates. In fact, poor Jonah was sent to the unchurched culture of the Ninevites. They were not in the “church community.” Evangelism occurs, not when we are preaching to the choir, but when we are heralding the good news to a lost and desperate culture. Battling for souls is not to retreat , but to attack the culture head on.

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