To Speak or Not

Posted: September 7, 2009 in Category - Cultural War, To Speak or Not

The Church: To Speak or Not
by Bill Haynes, ACLJ Legal Review Committee

In America, we treasure the freedom to speak our minds. The right to stand up before a crowd and call for action is fundamental to our democratic form of government. This is especially true at election time, when informed citizens have the opportunity to shape the direction government will take on critical issues.

There is a prevailing attitude among many people these days however that speaking out on moral issues somehow can be, and should be, avoided during the election season. These people might be surprised to learn that, from the early days of our republic, the pulpit has been a place where speaking out on these important issues was both expected and appreciated.

The Example of Jeremiah

One of the earliest traditions in our country was the “election day sermon.” (1) On the Sunday prior to the general election and usually again on Election Day itself, pastors of all denominations would enter the pulpit and preach a sermon that related to the major religious and moral issues that were involved in the election.

One very popular way of approaching this was to preach a type of sermon that became known as the “Jeremiad.” It derives from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who in the 7th century B.C. preached to the nation of Israel that their problems, nationally, came from their abandonment of their covenant with Yahweh and their return to the false gods of idolatry.

It was the obvious position of the early ministers that the leader of the people needed to be godly above all else. So, when a person ran for public office, whether locally or nationally, his character became a major topic of sermons. One such example came from a minister named Nathaniel Emmons of Franklin, Massachusetts. Emmons preached a sermon during fast in 1801 that portrayed the president as an enemy of righteousness. Pastor Emmons drew an analogy between this president, who followed after respected men such as Washington and Adams, and Jeroboam, the successor of David and Solomon, who was the wicked king who “drove Israel from following the Lord.”(2) The undeniable point was that where Washington and Adams had pointed to the providence of God and His blessing the nation, others who did not hold a clear faith would not readily pronounce that to be the case.

Many of the election day sermons made use of Solomon’s words in Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; But when the wicked man rules, the people groan”(NKJV). Minister Elijah Parish cited this passage and asked a rhetorical question when discussing a politician’s writings which expressed doubt in the trustworthiness of the Bible. His question was, “If the people mourn when the wicked beareth rule, then have not the people of the United States reason to mourn?”

Calling a Nation to Greatness

The church in the United States in the early years gave lucid prophetic challenges to culture and government based on the Word of God. They knew the scripture to be true that says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” They loved their county and they wanted to know God’s blessing on her. So they did not hold back in proclaiming the truth of God, even when it would appear that they were “infringing” on political issues.

It is sad that for the most part the church has been silenced when it comes to any issue that can be categorized as “political.” Whatever the issues might be, too many churches, both their pastors and laymen, are afraid to speak out in a prophetic manner for fear of losing their “tax exempt status.” The church should not be put in this position where speaking the truth leads to fearing the government.

Salt and Light in the World

One of the themes running through Scripture is that the Gospel and the cultural mandate are not at odds with one another. Indeed the cultural mandate flows from the Gospel. Very early in His ministry, Jesus preached His famous “Sermon on the Mount.” In that sermon He stated that His disciples are to be “salt and light” in the world in which they live. His words are unambiguous. In Matthew 5:13 He says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” Salt was used as a preserving agent in that day. That Christians are to be “salt” means that we are to infiltrate the culture, the whole culture, with the truth of the Gospel and all of its implications. Personal salvation is obviously the priority, but transforming the culture is also needed. If the church ceases to be “salt” Jesus says then it is useless, “not good for anything.”

Jesus goes on in the same passage (5:14-15) to say, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” The idea of being light is that the church is called to illuminate and expose darkness. If the church chooses simply to coexist in a dark and sinful culture then it is choosing to be something other than the church. The term “non-prophetic church” is a contradiction in terms. The church is not here on earth to maintain the status quo and not “rock the boat.” In his commentary on Ephesians, John Stott referred to the Christian church as being “counter-culture.” What he means by that is that we are to observe the culture and when we see the darkness we are to expose it, to cry out for justice and truth in a very unjust and compromising culture.

There will always be those in authority and power that do not want the church to have a voice, for whatever reason. This should not surprise us because Jesus warned us of this in John 15:18-21:

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.

Jesus is not saying that we will have to go out and look for people to hate us and persecute us; rather that when we demonstrate that we belong to Christ and not to the world then persecution will follow. There will be an attempt to silence the people of God.

When Peter and John were arrested for preaching the Gospel to their culture they were commanded to not preach or speak in the name of Jesus any more. Their answer to the authorities must be the church’s answer today. Acts 4:19-20 states, “But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When the apostles continued preaching and they were once again brought before the authorities and told not to preach Jesus, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men.”

The Prophet Zachariah (8:16) said, “These are the things you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates.” This is the mandate for the church in the new millennium as it has been throughout the centuries. Speaking the truth to our culture is not an option; it is a command directly from the Word of God.

This is why the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act is so important. It will remove the threat of losing tax exempt status for speaking out on matters that are wrong and evil in our society. It will not give the church any coercive power, but will give it the freedom to argue its perspective of truth in the marketplace of ideas without fear of reprisal.

Jesus said, we are in the world, but we are not of the world. Augustine presented the picture of the City of God among the City of man. We do have a duel citizenship-in this world as well as in heaven. Paul stated this in Philippians 3:20, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We must pray and study God’s Word and be obedient to His call for the church, both ministers and laypeople, to speak the truth to our day that we might affect the culture in which we live.

Bill Haynes is a member of the Legal Review Committee at the American Center for Law and Justice.


1. David H. Hall, editor, Election Day Sermons, (Covenant Foundation; 1996)
2. Jonathan D. Sassi, A Republic of Righteousness: The Public Christianity of Post-Revolutionary New England Clergy, (Oxford University Press; 2001) p. 89

All Scripture references from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.


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