I assume many of you are aware of a recent change to the laws in Canada with regards to prohibiting and criminalizing conversion therapy. Conversion therapy, historically, is a practice carried out by licensed therapists to get those engaged in homosexual acts to either stop the acts and/or get rid of the attraction. It has also included those who wished to cross the gender lines. While several such laws have existed in the US (and in Canadian provinces) for some time, they are typically limited to prohibiting licensed counselors from engaging in the practice. Now, to be fair, there have been some abominable and torturous practices associated with conversion therapy ranging from the use of electroshock therapy to solitary confinement to beating.
The language of the Canadian law, on first reading (and I did read it), appears to be very broad. On the surface, it would seem to include any sort of attempt, by anyone, to even persuade someone with regards to the issues at hand, regardless of whether or not they are licensed counselors. However, I don’t know how the Canadian legal system works or if there is any other language in the Canadian Criminal Code or Charter to temper the language when it comes to churches and preaching. Further, I am not skilled to understand whether the intent is just to address licensed therapists. I don’t have the desire or time to research such things. Of course, by research, I mean lots of time spent using libraries to do an extensive literature review (as in several hundred books, articles, and case studies). This would be accompanied by tracing the integrity of the sources that are cited by the things found along with writing abstracts for everything I find. A few YouTube videos, a few blogs, a few articles from people with whom I already know I agree, and social media posts from my friend’s aunt’s accountant's college roommate don’t constitute research.
I bring this up because I’ve been approached more than once about a write-up posted by John Macarthur. In it, he urges to American pastors to preach a sermon against all things related to sexual sin (in particular, those involving the same sex and questions of gender) on January 16, 2022, about 1 week after the law goes into effect, in solidarity with Canadian pastors doing the same. Of those who approached me included skepticism of doing such a thing and thinking we should do it.
First, off, let me refer to the sermon I preached on the 7th Commandment on 1/31/21. In it the issues involved (along with other sexual sins) are addressed. I still hold to those positions. In fact, I would encourage you to share that sermon. Homosexual acts and the very desires that are behind them are violations of the 7th Commandment (unless we’re going to be minimalists on God’s Law). Pertaining to the desire, coveteousness is a desire—and it’s a sin. To desire something that is forbidden is itself a sinful desire. Remember, the thing forbidden/commanded in each of the Commandments include everything that would lead up to that or fall outside of its bounds. In the case of the 7th, it limits sexual activity and desire to the context of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman (in the biological sense). Anything outside of that crosses the line of the 7th. Furthermore, denying one’s biological sex (male/female) is an affront to the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27-28) and is thus murderous, as well.
That said, our preaching schedule will not be altered by this turn of events. We will continue as planned in our series in Hebrews. This isn’t a knock on pastors and churches who choose to do otherwise. Each church is autonomous and needs to determine things according to their own context. We also need to remember, as Reformed Baptists, there isn’t a pope or “official spokesman” that represents all the churches in our tradition. I don't believe, for one moment, that John MacArthur views himself like this, but we have a tendency to treat figures like him as such. This tends to create headaches for pastors.
Who Sets our Agenda?
While we mustn’t turn a blind eye to the evils around us, we also must keep in mind who sets our agenda. More accurately, we must be sure that our agenda isn't being set by the wrong parties. I have toyed with, many a time, over the last two years to preach some topical sermons with reference to current events. Whether it would be COVID related issues, the controversies of the summer of 2020, or the whole host of flare-ups that have come across our plate (many times caused by social media). Each time, I turned to something the president of my divinity school, Dr. Richard Wells, said during chapel one time. He was under pressure from students, and a few faculty, to alter chapel plans and instructions in the wake of 9/11 to focus on that. He pointed out that we cannot let cultural events dictate our agenda. If we did, all we would be doing is altering our agenda. We must remember that we have an agenda that is timeless and transcends the comings and goings of all the different things happening.
Now, of course, one might say, “Well, this is an exception. We’re talking about a grave moral issue, here.” It is true that this is a grave moral issue. This is why there are churches that may be justified in following suit. Yet, our culture has many things legal (and even celebrated) that are grave violations of God’s law. Some of them we might not even recognize because, in part, we’ve so minimalized God’s law (10 Commandments) that we don’t see that we are promoting things that are sinful. It could also be we’ve defined Christianity, in part, by sensibilities other than the scriptures. As a matter of fact, we celebrate some American theologians who promoted and justified some grievous, detestable, and murderous acts and mentalities towards entire groups of people. We celebrate some who promoted and justified the non-compassionate use of accumulated wealth (cf. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live, p. 113-119, ask if you'd like a copy). This is, in part, due to a truncated view of God’s law.
From my perspective, for us to alter our preaching schedule because a government passed a law, would be for us to have that government driving our agenda. If we alter our preaching schedule because of a group of protesters somewhere, we are allowing those protesters to drive our agenda. Even when we couldn’t meet in person, we continued with our normal preaching schedule. That was done on purpose with what Dr. Wells had encouraged in mind.
If, every time a government somewhere (even our own), passed (or has on the books) a law that made legal something we know to be against God’s law, we changed our agenda, that is all you would ever hear about from our pulpit. Rather, we need to stick to our practice of Lectio Continua (continuous reading). In so doing, the whole counsel of God’s word will be preached.
Preaching to the Choir
Additionally, in taking a deviation from our normal schedule to address the issue at hand, at least in our context, would be an exercise in preaching to the choir. For other churches, that might not be the case. By preaching to the choir, I mean just preaching on things which really don't challenge our thinking. That is, we're already there. There are a number of concerning veins of thinking out there of which I'm aware (and you are, too, probably). However, in many of those veins, I have zero concerns about the people of RGC chasing them. Preaching to the choir just turns the sermon into a rant. We run the danger of turning the sermon into an opportunity for patting our own back. That is not the sacred purpose of preaching.
Every series and each sermon in those series, after prayerful consideration, I choose has everything to do with our body of believers. One of the fundamental purposes of preaching is to test and try our experiences and thinking by the scriptures-in light of Christ. If I were in a different body of believers, I may well be preaching different series. I also don’t think in terms of hypothetical internet listeners—with the exception of our members who are homebound, deployed, and overseas. This is a tried and true practice that has roots going way back—well beyond our 20/21st Century and even American sensibilities. More recently, in 1860, Charles Spurgeon, when asked by Americans why he didn’t have any published sermons against slavery (they assumed he was okay with it), he wrote a blistering reply. In it he said,
“We miss the mark when we preach of absent individuals. It is very easy to talk about the brutality of the uneducated when addressing my lord and my lady, but I prefer to tell these gentry their own sins, and not to flatter them by comparing them with others.”
There were no slaveholders (as it was long gone in the UK by 1860) nor anyone promoting such in The Metropolitan Tabernacle. Thus, the subject never graced his pulpit. The broader category, man-stealing (1 Timothy 1:10—ESV says enslavers, but that’s too narrow), no doubt did. As an aside, chattel slavery falls under man-stealing as it not only indentures a person’s labor but the very person. That is both a violation of the 8th (You shall not steal—person’s agency has been stolen) and the 6th (you shall not murder--it’s an assault on the image of God). You might see what I mean by the problem of minimalizing God’s law. To get an idea of how blistering his thoughts were, just about every southern pulpit denounced Spurgeon and some called for burning his books. Feel free to ask me for a copy of the letter if you'd like.
Further, as the concern involves confronting the “damning sins legalized in our culture,” the very text to which is appealed includes idolatry (the root of them all), adultery, thievery, greed (also in the vein of theft), and reviling (think verbal abuse—which is murderous activity). All of those are in the list of damning sins. That would require an entire series to be true to that text. Also appropriate to “damning sins” is the passage on church discipline from 1 Corinthians 5. We see in vv. 9 and following that we should not count among us those who won’t repent of sexual sin (thus the exercise of church discipline). It doesn’t stop, there. He goes on to the greedy, the swindlers, the drunkards and the idolaters. It wouldn’t do justice, by my conscience, to the text to isolate just one thing.
The Call of a Pastor
To what is a pastor called? More appropriately, to whom is a pastor called? For what is the pulpit? A pastor (more often called an elder or a bishop) is an undershepherd of Christ called to minister to a particular body of believers (1 Peter 5:1-5). As the teaching elder of Redeeming Grace Church, I have been called specifically to this group of people. This is true of every pastor. Each of us has different congregations that are in different places. It would be malpractice to be focusing my efforts on pastoring the culture. It would be blasphemous to think I’m called to pastor the church universal (only Jesus gets that title). For a pastor to spend his time bemoaning the problems of other churches is malpractice at best and blasphemous at worst.
I take this calling seriously. I am held accountable for it. God is jealous for his people. He has called all pastors to be in the business of feeding His sheep. Yes, we’re sheep—only Jesus is the lion. To preach in accordance with the state of another congregation or in accordance with culture in general, is to feed a diet that is not meant for the congregation to which a pastor has been called. That is malnourishment. Churches aren’t one size fits all franchises—even among like-minded bodies. We aren't Starbucks. Every pastor must take that into account lest we don’t do right by God and His people.
The call of a pastor is to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word—always looking for how it relates to Jesus our Christ. That is, to preach the gospel. In our context, it seems best to simply stay the course. It is in staying the course, in sticking to the whole counsel of God's word, that we will recognize error. It is in staying true to our confession, not in constant adjustment to cultural pressures, that we will remain faithful.