Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thoughts on the Sermon Subpoena Scandal

                 Being a pastor is never boring, but recent events here in Houston have made my line of work especially interesting.  Last week, reports emerged that attorneys representing the city of Houston had subpoenaed, as part of the discovery process for a lawsuit, the sermons of five Houston pastors.  Suddenly, I found myself at ground zero of a serious debate over religious liberty, even though I wasn’t one of the five.  (Just to recap: This year the Houston City Council approved the Mayor’s Equal Rights Ordinance, which would extend equal rights protections to gay and transgender residents.  A group opposing the ordinance—mostly because of the provision that would allow men who self-identify as female to use public women’s restrooms—gathered signatures on a petition intended to force the issue to a vote in the November election.  The Mayor’s office declared the petition invalid.  The group then sued.  The Mayor’s attorneys subpoenaed all communications, including sermons, related to the gathering of signatures from five pastors who were key leaders in the opposition).  Within a day of the first report, the mayor’s office backtracked.  They seemed genuinely shocked by the reaction, and not just from the political right. To cite merely one example of the non-partisan nature of the response: The Houston Chronicle, which had endorsed the Ordinance, published an editorial denouncing the subpoenas.  

               Since then, I have read a lot of commentary, mostly from non-Houstonians, about this event, what it says about our culture, and how Christians should respond.  I’ve decided to add my own thoughts to that cacophony of voices, as one Christian living in Houston.  To me, there are two basic lessons we should take from this.   
                It is yet another sign we are living in a new world.  Some non-Christian observers have wondered why Christians were so outraged by sermons being subpoenaed.  After all, the attorneys were clearly following established procedure in a lawsuit, trying to find out what instructions were given by the organizers of the petitions.  Besides, these days, most pastors’s sermons are available online.  (This is true: You don’t need a subpoena to learn what I have preached on sexuality, or any other subject the Bible addresses.  Just go to   

               The reason for the outrage is that historically in our nation, government has stayed away from any attempt to dictate what religious leaders can and cannot say.  When a pastor’s sermons can be used against him in a lawsuit, that seems like a precedent-setting step toward tearing down that wall of separation between church and state—one of the best things about America. 

                 By the way, I have met the Mayor.  Last year, I was part of a small group of leaders from Union Baptist Association who met with her to discuss an initiative to help our city that we called Loving Houston.  She was cordial and helpful, and instructed her staff to give us all the help we needed.  She also was present for the launch of Loving Houston.  I found her to be bright, cooperative, and genuinely desiring the best for our city.  On the other hand, I understand she is a politician, and all politicians must satisfy their political base. So these subpoenas were either: 1) An attempt to annoy, embarrass and intimidate people whose religious views are unpopular with her base.  OR 2) A legal maneuver that turned out to be a massive PR snafu for the Mayor and her office.  Only the Mayor, her legal team, and God Himself know which one is true.

               What bothered me more than the subpoenas were comments I read afterward on social media, such as, “If these guys were preaching politics, their sermons are fair game.”  If I understand the law accurately, that’s incorrect.  The IRS stipulates that a pastor or church may not endorse a political party or candidate without endangering their church’s tax exempt status.  But we are free to preach on how the Bible speaks to issues in our world.  Should abolitionist preachers have been free to use their pulpits to call slavery immoral?  Was it wrong for Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to stand in churches denouncing segregation?  I read other comments that went further than the legalities of this case, instead using this as an example of how organized Christianity is toxic and hateful and should therefore be marginalized for the good of society.  There is nothing new about such comments.  But I am hearing—and reading—them more and more often these days. 
               So when I say we are living in a new world, this is what I mean: Christianity no longer holds the cultural respect it once did.  To borrow an image from another writer, we have traditionally had the wind at our backs as we tried to follow the commands of Christ and make a difference in our society.  Now the winds have shifted.  For the first time in American history, the wind is in our face, and that wind is likely to get fiercer.  The good news is that we still have it much easier than the first Christians, and they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  Which brings me to my other point…  

               We should always respond as Christ would.  In the past week, I have read some eloquent, God-honoring statements from Christian leaders about this issue.  This open letter from myfellow Houston pastor, Chris Seay, is my personal favorite.  I’ve also seen letters, emails and social media comments from professing Christians that made me deeply ashamed.  It’s obvious that the people in the latter group are not interested in persuading anyone.  They don’t have Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” at heart.  They’re just rallying the troops, attacking straw men, making a big noise.  Instead of overcoming evil with good, they are being overcome by evil themselves (Romans 12:21). 

               You might say, “Jesus got angry at evil. He called people snakes and whitewashed tombs.  He flipped tables and chased people out of the temple.”  True, but notice who was consistently the target of His anger: The religious leaders, who should have known better.  The hated Romans would have been a much easier target.  After all, the Romans held religious and moral views (including on sexuality) that would have been contemptible to Jesus.  Plus, they were occupying His homeland.  Jesus could have “played to His base” by attacking Rome, and His popularity would have soared. But Jesus never criticized the Gentiles. In fact, His final instructions to His followers were to take His saving love to those same idolatrous, amoral outsiders.  A guy named Saul, formerly a hyper-religious, conspicuously moral Pharisee, took those instructions more seriously than anyone.  Others followed in his footsteps.  That’s how our world was changed.  From its start, Christianity set people free NOT by attacking them for not measuring up, but by loving them genuinely, while living in a consistently compelling, utterly distinct way.  If they could see us today, I suspect they would wonder why we waste our time getting angry at people who don’t know our God…for acting like people who don’t know our God.

               So here is my hope and prayer: That we would live out our faith, preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word (including the unpopular parts)…and, that in doing so, we would show an uncommon, counter-cultural love for those who oppose us.  I pray that we would get our marching orders from Jesus Christ, not from people on TV, radio and social media whose ratings, blog hits and fundraising efforts depend on stirring up controversy, inflaming serious situations into catastrophes.  

               Speaking of which, one pundit was trying to convince every Houston pastor to preach about the subpoenas this past Sunday, and then send copies of our sermons to the Mayor’s office.  Before any of this hit, I was planning to preach on grace this past Sunday.  I decided to stick with grace.  I may not know much, but I believe that’s always a good choice. 

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