Freeing the American Pulpit

by Lawrence E. Durr

Dr. Durr is minister of Hunter Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 15-22, 1981, pp. 733-736. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Those who have dared to preach the truth have been martyred or persecuted; yet somehow we expect that the parish preacher can denounce sin and still continue to be popular. The pulpit that declares the unvarnished truth will not have a large following.

The pulpit in the Protestant church stands as a symbol of God’s Word. An open Bible habitually adorns it, meaning to signify that the pulpit freely declares that Word.

But "adorns" is probably a most apt verb. After 22 years in the pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), it seems obvious to me that the American Protestant pulpit is anything but free. It is, instead, held hostage by various monied interests.

God’s truth as it is set forth in the Bible cuts diametrically across so many aspects of the American way of life that most church members reject it. Some time ago, I preached a sermon on Jesus concept of the Kingdom of God. I pointed out that I did not think Jesus was talking about a political entity or some kind of chaplaincy to the political establishment. I suggested that he was talking about a radical reorganization of life, and that what he preached was thought of by those who heard him as sedition or insurrection.

One member of the congregation took issue with me as he left the sanctuary. He said, "That is not the idea I was brought up with, and I don’t think you should be saying those things from the pulpit." I replied that his type of response was precisely what I had been alluding to in my sermon. We have not usually understood the radical nature of what Jesus proposed. The parishioner said that he did not want to think about that and that he wanted to continue to believe what he always had. A short time later, he and his family decided to move to another church.

More recently, I preached a sermon on the unity of the church. I pointed out that diverse interpretations of the Scriptures have emerged, dividing Christians. Many of these interpretations, I indicated, are not supported by the Bible. For instance, I said, "The Bible does not say that a belief in the virgin birth is necessary for salvation. But we have sometimes made it so.

Scratch one more couple. They became very upset and have not been back to worship since. It did not help any to tell them that I personally accept the virgin birth. Neither did it matter that they could not substantiate from the Bible the view that that belief is a condition of salvation. They refused to listen to something they did not want to hear, even though no one was insisting that they change.

As I reflect on preaching generally in the church today, it seems to me that the pulpit is devoid of the life-changing truth which it is meant to declare. I do not mean to say that there are no preachers who are communicating biblical truth in its fullness. There are some. But they are the exception rather than the rule. There are few places today, I think, where the preacher feels free from reprisal if he or she preaches something unpopular, even though it be true.

When a minister is installed in a Presbyterian church, the congregation takes a vow "to receive the word of truth from his mouth." But not many church members really mean that. If they do not hear what they like, they will go elsewhere. Most of the time they do not have to look very hard for another church: many ministers who know these facts of life are reluctant to preach anything that might disturb someone.

If the biblical truths were really being preached in all of their fullness, one of two things would result. Either we would see a grass-roots revolution throughout the whole country, or most preachers would be out of a job. Neither is the case. One needs only to note which churches are growing rapidly in membership or which preachers are popular and pulling in millions of dollars. The growing churches are those that concentrate on "saving souls" and avoid any practical application of faith to life. The preachers of the electronic church fill the airwaves with "born again" stories about people who are enjoying the good life because they have accepted Jesus. Preachers of growing local churches "save" their congregations every Sunday morning so that they can return the next Sunday for more navel-gazing.

The Cruel Facts of Life

In 1965 John Knox Press published a book titled The Unsilent South, a collection of 19 sermons preached on the race situation by Presbyterian ministers during the height of the civil rights movement when communities were being torn asunder by demonstrations. Of the 19 sermons in the book, only six were by preachers from churches with more than 500 members. The great majority of the authors were not big names in the denomination. Few of them would be known by their names in Presbyterian circles, and none would be recognized at all outside the denomination. Undoubtedly, more than 19 ministers preached on the subject. I do not know how the editor of the book chose the sermons. But it is likely that the preachers in the large churches where the power lies were silent or skirted the issue.

Of the 19 who preached the sermons, four lost their pulpits as a direct result of their involvement in the issue. There is no way of knowing how many more moved on to "fields of greater service" because of later developments traceable to their preaching on the race issue. It is also interesting to note that these ministers are still largely unknown in the denomination, and none has ascended the ladder to a position of power. Of the 19, only six are listed in the ministerial directory of the General Assembly’s minutes as being in the pastoral ministry. And only one of those six is pastor of a church with more than 500 members.

If a survey were to be taken, I think we would find the same situation with regard to current issues. We are not hearing enough from the pulpit about disarmament, about economic policies which keep people poor, or about any of the other issues which cry out for a word of biblical instruction.

In Old Testament times, there were two types of preachers. Those whose writings we have as Scripture felt the call to proclaim the Word of Yahweh: they were not hired by anyone, nor did they obtain their office through inheritance. They saw the need for the Word of Yahweh in their nation, and they declared the unvarnished truth. Amos cried, "I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but the Lord called me from following after the flock and said, ‘Go, preach to my people, Israel.’"

There were also the professional prophets, who usually got their office through family lines or succession. They were on the payroll of the king. So as we read in the Book, their word was quite different from the word of those who were called. They mouthed the words they knew would please those who paid their keep. They were not concerned about bringing the Word of Yahweh to bear on the practices of the nation and individuals. The status quo was good for them, as it was for those "who sold the needy for a pair of shoes," or for those who made entangling alliances with pagan nations and trusted in military might.

It was, therefore, not unusual for the professional prophet to stand against the called prophet. As Isaiah remarked, the professional preached peace -- when he should have been warning the king of impending destruction. Jeremiah stood alone in condemning the immorality and corruption of the nation while the professionals counseled military preparation and treaties with foreign nations.

It would not be far from the mark to say that Protestant clergy today stand in the same danger as did the professionals of the Old Testament. Though we still give lip service to the "call," we are on the payroll. Our keep is paid by those we serve, and that makes it very difficult to speak about concrete sins.

Dazzling the Congregation

The big issue in the church today is survival -- for the preacher, career survival. He or she makes a living by preaching and pastoral work, and any pastor who thinks that pay is not determined in proportion to how comfortable the congregation feels is rather naïve. Not only does the minister’s income not go up if new members are not taken in (and "take in" is often truer than we will admit); neither will that income go up if members leave. It is a very practical matter. And as a minister gets older -- with children to put through college and retirement to plan for -- it becomes even more practical.

Income is not the only career concern; another one is the move to a new pastorate. Unless one can point to a good record in the present church, one is not likely to be in much demand by other churches. This is true not only as it concerns moving to a larger church: it is true of moving, period. Every church, large or small, is looking for that prophet who can dazzle a congregation every Sunday morning, who can make the coins ring in the coffers, who can cause a water shortage by baptizing converts.

There is a real stigma attached to a minister who has not been "successful"; it is generally thought that something must be wrong with such an individual. I do not know how we explain the fact that Jeremiah was thrown into a well and left to die, that Amos was told to go back home and eat bread, that John the Baptist was beheaded, that Jesus was crucified, that most of the apostles were martyred -- as were countless other prophets, down to the present.

In the Bible, and in history since biblical times, it has been the usual thing for a prophet to be in trouble. Always, those who have dared to stand for the right have been martyred or persecuted. And yet, somehow we expect that the parish preacher can denounce sin and still be popular.

But the great majority of churches are struggling to survive, and their goals do not concern mission. They are more concerned to ask: How can we at least stay even on membership; how can we keep up with inflation? In fact, the church that is not growing is not regarded as a success, and neither is its pastor. The nonproductive preacher is expendable; a congregation can get another one. What is important is that the organization be kept intact. (It does not matter that it may not be worth saving.) One is reminded of the comment made by the religious leaders who conspired to get rid of Jesus. One of them said that it was expedient that one man die rather than that the whole nation perish (John 11 :50). It never occurred to them that the nation was already apostate and not worth saving.

No Permission Needed

The real solution for the church’s problems today must begin with the integrity of the pulpit. The preacher must be concerned with preaching the truth no matter how unpopular it may be. The pulpit’s task is not to entertain. Nor is it to tell half-truths, which are never more dangerous than when coming from the pulpit. To preach the grace of God in Jesus Christ without also preaching his demands is a half-truth. There is no salvation apart from responding to the demands to make that grace manifest in life. Reconciliation must become incarnate in this world. And that involves an application of God’s Word to the issues which continue to erect barriers between people and nations, to the practices which alienate and oppress people, and to the false theologies which allow people to think that they are devout Christians when in fact they are not.

The preacher will never make this move by waiting until the congregation grants permission. Indeed, the minister does not need the congregation’s permission; it is his or her solemn duty, by virtue of ordination, to preach the truth. The book on polity for the Presbyterian Church U.S. states that the office of the minister of the word "is the first in the Church, both for dignity and usefulness." "When a Minister, the Teaching Elder, is called by a congregation to labor as its Pastor, it belongs to the office . . . to feed the flock, by reading, expounding, and preaching the Word. . . ."

The pastor alone is responsible for the content of that preaching. No limitations are set by any authority, either in or out of the church, and no approval is required from anyone. That, of course, does not, mean that the preacher can be reckless or irresponsible. He or she owes it to the congregation -- and to God -- to be true to biblical exegesis and exposition, as well as to be accurate about current issues and problems.

One must also avoid being dogmatic about solutions to complex dilemmas; few ministers are qualified to pronounce answers to today’s difficult economic and political questions. But we have too often used that difficulty as an excuse to avoid saying anything about burning issues which demand guiding principles from the Word of God. While dogmatic solutions should not be proclaimed from the pulpit, issues must be raised about which laypeople must think and on which they must be challenged to work for solutions. After all, they are the ones who work in the marketplace; they are the ones in government; they are the ones with lines of influence and power to implement God’s grace in society.

Congregations should be made to realize, that the minister has that authority and to receive preaching for what it is meant to be -- the proclamation of a life-changing Word from God. But they can be brought to that understanding only as the preacher dares to proclaim the Word in all of its fullness. In so doing, he or she demonstrates not only a willingness to risk the consequences of obedience, but also that he or she too stands under the judgment of the same Word, is willing to repent, to change, and to help change the circumstances in which we all live.

Preachers dare not play it safe, thinking they can remain immune to the implications of the Word. They dare not ask their people to risk what they themselves are unwilling to risk. Perhaps that is why church members do not usually take the Word any more seriously than they do. It is only when the congregation sees that the preacher is willing to take a chance that the members will be inspired to do likewise. Of course, a preacher’s risk-taking does not guarantee a hearing. But some will hear and respond, and it is on these that the church must be built.

The pulpit that declares the unvarnished truth will not have a large following. Conditioned as the American public is to the image of success and the false idea that America is a Christian nation, the truth will be viewed as unpatriotic, unbiblical and unacceptable by most of the people who hear it. The church must be willing to accept that. The majority of congregations will be considerably smaller than they are now. But they will be wore vital and truer to the mission given to them by their Lord and Master.

The first step toward obedience on the part of the church is an unfettered pulpit.