Preaching on Ethical Issues

by Thomas H. Troeger and D.W. Wilbanks

Thomas H. Troeger is professor of Preaching and Communication at Iliff School of Theology, Denver. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he is author of twelve books including The Parable of Ten Preachers and Borrowed Light: hymn texts, prayers and poems. Past president of the Academy of Homiletics, Professor Troeger is also a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and Societas Homiletica.

Dana W. Wilbanks is professor of Christian ethics at Iliff. He is coordinator of Iliff’s Justice and Peace Studies Program and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is co-author with H. Edward Everding of Decision Making and the Bible, with Ronald H. Stone of Presbyterians and Peacemaking, and is author of Re-Creating America: The Ethics of U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policy in a Christian Perspective.

This meditation first appeared in Ex Auditu, an International Journal of Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Volume 11, 1995; 4137 Timberlane Drive, Allison Park, PA 15101-2932.)


One of the marks of a healthy conscience is an awareness of one’s own limitations, a desire to test one’s beliefs in a larger arena, to draw from the best that a religious tradition has to offer, to feel that one is not isolated and alone in the face of great moral perplexities. How will preachers respond to this hunger for guidance? The preacher may deliver a single message, but its meanings and implications will vary widely among the members of the congregation. The authors describe the contexts for preaching on ethical issues, and provide a case study.

Whether reacting to a bumper sticker or listening to a radio talk show, deciding how to vote or where to invest time and money, recoiling at the prejudice a child has picked up at school or squirming under a company policy that seems unfair -- people cannot escape ethical issues.

What is right? What is wrong?

Sometimes the answer seems obvious. And it is. But often the choice that appeared self-evident proves upon closer inspection to be entangled in multiple perspectives and values. Still other times, the situation is ambiguous from the start. People want to do right, but what constitutes the right is not clear to them.

But even when we are not consciously making moral decisions, our very being is involved in a fabric of values and power relationships. Our daily work, our spending habits, our life styles -- all are interwoven with the moral character of society, its justice and injustice, its compassion and its violence. To exist as a human being is for better, for worse to be an ethical creature.

Where, then, are we to turn for moral guidance?

People can, of course, turn inward. There is power in personal prayer, and in the struggle of individual conscience to discern what is right and good.

However, the formation of conscience is never purely the work of the individual. It happens in communities -- families, churches, schools, work places -- that teach and embody values. And one of the marks of a healthy conscience is an awareness of one's own limitations, a desire to test one's beliefs in a larger arena, to draw from the best that a religious tradition has to offer, to feel that one is not isolated and alone in the face of great moral perplexities.

How will the church respond to this hunger for guidance? And more specifically, how will preachers respond?

Obstacles to Preaching on Ethical Issues

If questions about right and wrong are everyday struggles, why are we so reluctant to preach about them? Why are sermons about ethical issues so rare?

First, the preacher may assume that he or she is supposed to "take a position" on the issue and the preacher may feel ambivalent about which position to take. Or they may worry their position is contrary to that of many in the congregation. Better, then, just not to say anything.

Sermons on ethical issues may sometimes need to express a position. But this is not the only way to approach the challenge. For instance, thinking about God's ways with humankind in general can open us to insights and understandings about an ethical issue. How can people in the pews be helped to better appreciate the human experiences and consequences of moral dilemmas? Can the sermon illumine the issues in ways that do not simply repeat the media messages of television and newspaper? In other words, moral answers may not be the message so much as the perspective and resources which faith can provide.

Second, the preacher may assume that he or she is supposed to criticize parishioners for moral blindness or moral failure. Preaching on ethical issues is often associated with angrily pronouncing God's judgment. One must be morally courageous, "prophetic," an Amos delivering a stinging rebuke against the unfaithfulness of God's covenant community.

It is understandable why preachers back off from preaching on ethical issues if this is their image of what they should do. We know pastors who think that because they do not want to do this they are lacking in courage. Maybe they are. But maybe, more to the point, they have compassion for their parishioners, regard for their relationship with the congregation, and an honest recognition of their own moral failings. As someone has put it: just because the congregation is angry at you, does not mean you are being prophetic!

Again, sometimes sermons on ethical issues will need to challenge parishioners and point to discrepancies between the lives of church folk (pastors included) and the path on which we are led by Christ. Sometimes these sermons will need to risk angry reactions from some parishioners. But "prophetic" preaching is not defined by accusations and condemnations. One does not have to relish feasting on the failures and guilty consciences of parishioners to preach on ethical issues. Genuinely prophetic preaching will help Christian communities to discern the signs of these times, and open us in a fresh way to God's future.

The Temptation to Silence

In light of these complexities we may be tempted to remain silent about ethical issues, to say as one preacher did in an advanced doctoral seminar: "Preaching is not about ethics. It is about salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ." He went on to talk of arrogant, moralistic sermons he had heard before he was ordained, preachers speaking as if their role granted them some moral perspicacity not granted to lesser mortals.

This preacher had a point. The Bible reveals that claiming to speak in God's name is no guarantee that the claim is true. Jeremiah, for example, threw himself with passion against the facile absolutisms of the temple establishment, and Jesus challenged the rigid moralism of the self-righteous. Scripture recounts the stories of prophets and preachers who turned out to be wrong, who in the name of God convinced people to take positions and actions that were in truth against the will of God.

The story of preachers misleading people does not stop with the Bible. There is a tragic legacy of invoking the name of God to reinforce moral positions that we now find repugnant: preaching that slavery is ordained by God, preaching against the jews, preaching to condemn the Copernican revolution, preaching against the small pox vaccine since the illness was the will of God, preaching that anesthesia should be denied women in labor because it is their divinely sanctioned curse to suffer.

The list could go on, but there is enough here to serve as a sobering reminder of the capacity of religious authorities to think themselves right when in fact they are promulgating what is cruel and unjust. And there is no reason for us to take a superior position regarding our ancestors in the faith, as if we ourselves did not suffer from limitations of perspective and from a keen ability to disguise our self-interest in moral respectability.

But if we allow the fear of our own limitations and self-delusion to silence the moral voice of the pulpit, that will not change the facts: there is plenty of evil in this world, and it is not being faithful to God to leave it unchallenged. Furthermore, there is a hunger in the heart for moral guidance, a hunger that is born of the Spirit and that is an essential part of our human character as creatures made in the image of God. Therefore, instead of concluding from historic abuses that the pulpit should be silent about moral issues, we find that the past encourages us to refine and enrich our preaching about ethics.

*How do you feel about preaching on ethical issues?

*If you have preached on ethical issues, what responses have you received? How have they affected your feelings and ideas about future sermons?

*If you have not preached on ethical issues, reflect on the reasons both in terms of your own feelings and experience and in terms of your sense of the feelings and experiences of your parishioners.

*What do you believe the purpose of preaching should be in the church generally? How does preaching on ethical issues fit or not fit into that purpose?

Contexts for Preaching on Ethical Issues

Preaching on ethical issues requires drawing on the resources of Christian ethics. How are we to think through the moral implications of our faith for perplexing questions? What moral qualities and purposes are integral to congregations as communities of faith? As a field of study, Christian ethics helps us reflect about these questions. At the same time, bear in mind that Christian ethics is not a set of disembodied principles. Incarnation is central. Moral requisites of faith are to be enfleshed in selves and communities. The Christian life is lived in the specificity of contexts: in this way in this person, in this congregation, in this society. We take contexts seriously. And so must our preaching.

 The preacher

 First, let's consider the context of the preacher. Liberation theology has helped us understand the importance of social location. In other words, what we see depends on where we stand. The preacher bears in her or his life story certain particularities of human existence: rural or urban experience, race, class, gender, nationality, age, etc. Each of these characteristics impacts the way we understand life, society, and indeed our understanding of the Gospel itself. Our view of the world, of Christian faith, is not value neutral.

Preachers bring themselves to the preaching act -- whether or not they are aware of it. The socialization process is exceedingly important in moral development. We approach ethical issues with already formulated perspectives and reactions, shaped by values and experiences that have constituted our history. The first step is to recognize our social location, the concrete influences that have helped shape our ethical perspective. Then we can make decisions about what to claim, what to seek to change, and what might be helpful to share with parishioners as we preach about ethical issues.

Social location is a fact about the preacher's existence. It may be a bridge to new and vital moral realities or it may be the basis for unacknowledged prejudices and rationalized self-interest. But more needs to be said. Although we will always be influenced by our social location, we are not fated to be imprisoned by it. Social location is not just fate but also choice. By imaginative role taking, we can discern a sense of what it means to live in a different location, we can begin to be present with people whose life experiences are different. For example, justice in the Christian sense means not only unbiased regard for the needs and right of others. It also means a bias toward the claims of the poor and the powerless. It means to be able to see the world through the eyes of the paupers rather than the princes. This kind of critical and transformative awareness of one's own social location and that of neighbors who are different can be a rich resource for preaching on ethical issues.

 The congregation

  Second, let us consider the context of the congregation. We tend to think of ethics as bringing values and principles to bear on moral choices. That is certainly a part of ethics. But ethics is also reflection on the moral ethos of persons and communities. By ethos we mean the habits, mores, customs and prized character traits of a people. Each congregation manifests an ethos in this sense. Each congregation does in fact embody a particular ethical perspective in its own patterned ways of being. To be able to diagnose this ethos is a very important task of the preacher. The congregation's ethos -- warts, beauty spots and all, is its way of bearing the Christian faith in its life and its relation to the world.

The preacher needs to be a keen moral detective of the congregational ethos. This is very contextual knowledge. If one is pastor to a church which ministers to a large number of people who are unemployed, there is little doubt about addressing issues of economic justice from the pulpit. But resistance to such a discussion may be considerable in upper middle class congregations. Or, as another example, the ethos of many African American congregations welcomes explicit support for particular candidates for political office whereas in most mainstream Anglo congregations this is regarded as highly inappropriate.

Congregations are not just collections of individuals but corporate bodies with their own distinctive characteristics. These characteristics should not be seen only as constraints on preachers. They are also opportunities. The congregation's communal ethos is the very stuff with which to work in dynamic and intricate combinations of obstacles and possibilities. Preaching on ethical issues needs to be aware of and address these contextual realities. One is not preaching to "everyone" but to "this people" in "this setting" as an ongoing part of the congregation's struggle to be faithful to the God who has claimed their lives in a special way.

We have heard frustrated pastors complain that their congregations are not "ready" to hear a sermon on an ethical issue. Sometimes this may be used as an excuse for the pastor's own reluctance to take on the challenge. But it can also be a matter of genuine disappointment. Yet, before one accepts this as an unchanging reality, try to analyze the ethos out of which these attitudes emerge. Diagnosis or analysis can help the preacher dig underneath the presenting problem to figure out what the resistances are. With analysis can come some clues about what might be done. Address not only the issues but also the context in which those issues are embedded.

One additional example. We frequently hear the critique of "mainstream" Protestant churches that their members are not concerned about people on the margins of society. This critique suggests that the problem is rooted in a lack of compassion. But perhaps the chief difficulty is something else. Perhaps the apparent indifference is because the social world of the congregation just does not interrelate in an integral way with the social realities of the world's poor. Imaginative preaching will help members begin to make those connections even as pastoral leadership will explore concrete ways for members to experience these connections.

 Social context

  Third, it is important that we attend to the larger social context. Here, also, moral detective work is essential. Take clues from the culture and probe underneath to determine what they tell us about "the state of ethics" in our society. Christians' responses to particular moral issues will be too ad hoc and superficial if churches do not seek to understand the soil from which these issues spring. Preachers need to develop an eye for reading the cultural ethos.

For example, if a preacher decides to preach on the upsurge of violence in American cities, an "ain't it awful" sermon is mere moralizing. By moralizing, we mean lamenting what is terrible without attempting to understand root causes or formulate responsible courses of action. Why is violence increasing? What is happening here? How does our faith help us understand and respond to this alarming trend in our society?

It is commonplace today to complain about the breakdown in morality in the United States. It does not help very much just to repeat the complaints. If morality is eroding, why is this happening now? What is going on here? Maybe it is not just perversity or permissiveness. Maybe there are convulsive shifts taking place in a post-industrial world of huge disparities in power and privilege. Maybe our very ways of working, playing, and relating contribute to a breakdown in moral community. Dig deep. There are a number of plausible explanations. They need to be probed and tested as churches seek to be faithful witnesses to God's love and justice in today's setting.

In our contemporary situation, there may be no more important issue to preach on than race and racial diversity. Affirmative action programs are being challenged; attitudes toward immigration have taken a restrictionist turn; and many white families seek to place their children in schools with few children of color. What is going on here? It is not helpful just to preach against racism with a broad brush. What, concretely and contextually, is happening in relations between whites and communities of color? What is God challenging us to do as agents of racial justice and reconciliation? A sermon on race requires probing reflection on our societal ethos and context. A sermon should help us discern both the character of our predicament and possibilities for change.

  *Identify and describe some of the key elements that make up the contexts within which you would be preaching on ethical issues. Examine all three contexts listed above: that of the preacher, of the congregation and the larger social context.

  *Reflect on how you might become a better "moral detective" able to discern and speak to the moral ethos of your congregation and your community. How might you become more conscious of your own social location and its effects?


New Understandings of Preaching

Homiletics (from the Greek homilia, "conversation") is the branch of theology that deals with the theory and practice of preaching. Throughout most of its history the major focus of homiletics has been the development and delivery of sermons, how preachers can persuasively present the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But in the last three decades homiletics has studied more and more the interactive nature of preaching -- how a sermon is not simply something delivered, but how it is received and processed by the congregation. Notice here that we do not use the words "spoken" and "heard," because studies in communication have shown how much depends not only on explicit verbal content, but on appearance, gesture, and facial expressiveness as well as vocal tone and inflection, and how all of these are interpreted through the ethos of a particular congregation.

The result of this more interactive model is a greater appreciation for preaching as a community-centered, rather than preacher-centered event. We find ourselves considering the impact of the sermon upon the members of the congregation in light of the personal situations of its members and its life as a community of faith. We no longer assume that the preacher's sermon will be the same for each parishioner. The preacher may deliver a single message, but its meanings and implications will vary widely among the members of the congregation.

These observations about the nature of communication between preacher and congregation have implications for preaching on ethical issues. They alert us to the fact that it is not adequate for preachers simply to clarify their own moral position. The have to consider how people in different life circumstances will receive and process the message. Although the sermon seems clear enough to the preacher, the way it comes across may be at odds with the preacher's intention. In short, sermons are not self-contained messages, but are a form of contextual, interactive communication.


Contextual, Interactive Communication: A Case Study

  To clarify the process let us imagine a case in which a preacher is preparing a sermon about abortion, and let us describe a few people who will be present in the congregation, their names fictitious but their situations true to life.

Ruth: an unmarried pregnant teenager struggling to decide if she will have an abortion or carry the child to term.

Anna: a married woman who, with the full support of her husband, had an abortion because the financial and emotional burden of yet another child was beyond their resources. When she shared what she had done with some church women she thought she could trust, they called her a murderer, and their accusation touched off suicidal tendencies.

Louise: a woman in her late 40s who thought her childbearing years were over but got pregnant, and in light of extreme medical complications had an abortion, an act for which she later gave thanks to God.

Karen: a mother of five, absolutely opposed to abortion.

The list is in no way exhaustive. It does not cover the large number of people present in most congregations who have complex, mixed feelings about abortion, and who are discouraged that polarization over the issue often preempts any helpful discussion.

Let us now consider how the different personal situations of these congregation members will vary the nature of the sermon as a piece of contextual, interactive communication. For example, if the preacher is convinced that abortion is morally acceptable and proclaims that position without any hesitation, what is the impact for Ruth, the pregnant teenager struggling whether or not to have an abortion? The preacher's absolute sureness might push her to question her doubts and to act in a way that later causes anguish if her doubts return, especially following an abortion. Would such preaching actually encourage pro-choice or would it short circuit the choice process in an adolescent who is unduly pressured by the symbolic action of the pulpit's assurance?

Or what happens if the preacher is absolutely convinced that abortion is wrong and announces that those who practice it are murderers? What does that do to Anna, who has met the same accusation from her church friends, and who subsequently exhibits suicidal tendencies? If the pulpit, representing the church's moral authority, fosters the woman's self destruction, is that pro-life?

So far we have only considered two of the listeners, and only two possibilities for the sermon. But already we can see that the preacher has an ethical, pastoral responsibility to consider the impact of the sermon upon particular persons. The entanglements of interpersonal communication may shape the preacher's message in the listener's consciousness in ways that complicate, and may even contradict the preacher's moral vision and principles, no matter what position the preacher takes.

*Reflect on the case study outlined above. How might this preacher address the moral dilemma of abortion in ways mindful of the personal circumstances of these congregation members?

*Come up with a case study of your own. Take a difficult moral issue that impacts your congregation and your community and imagine how you might preach on that issue. Identify the different ways parishioners might receive your sermon given their personal situations. What might you say -- and how might you say it -- so that the sermon is true to your moral position but allows congregation members the space to do their own moral discernment around the issue?

Some Further Reflections

We have been emphasizing the importance of personal, congregational and social contexts to the task of preaching on ethical issues. Let us share briefly just a few more observations.

First, preaching a sermon on an ethical issue is not the same thing as writing an essay. We are not suggesting that you present to the congregation the complete text of your social analysis. Rather this is a form of preparation. This is the kind of "thinking thought" that needs to take place in preparing the sermon. Some of your insights will be shared but in an oral/aural form that is appropriate to preaching.

Second, we believe ethical reflection emerges from pastoral experience. By this we do not mean just the experience of the pastor. We mean the specific, perplexing, often agonizing moral struggles people experience in their lives. Ethical issues are also pastoral issues. People try to figure out what to do about a problem pregnancy, terminal illness, public education, welfare policies, availability of guns, youth alienation, multi-racial tensions. These are not just issues "out there" someplace but are often experienced in very personal ways.

Third, ecclesiology is an exciting way to think about the connections between preaching and ethics. How can congregations become settings for moral reflection, discussion and action? More often than we realize churches do serve in this way. Sometimes the conversation is rancorous, painful, awkward and divisive. But pastoral leadership, including preaching, can do a lot to cultivate an environment for serious and healthy moral deliberation. There are not many places now in American society where the ethics of particular issues are discussed. Preaching can take place in the context of an ongoing conversation within the congregation about moral matters that matter a great deal.

Finally, one of the ever-present questions about preaching on ethical issues is the role of the Bible. How does one draw on the Bible for illumination and guidance? We realize, of course, that the Bible rarely settles a moral question. The Bible is used in many different ways to support many different moral stances. There are numerous contemporary ethical issues that the Bible simply does not speak to directly. And ones that the Bible does address emerge out of a very different context from our own. Contemporary Christians are challenged to carry on a lively dialogue both with the Bible and our own contexts.

In preaching, one style is to give extended attention to the way the Bible deals with a particular moral issue. For example, if the preacher addresses the issue of homosexuality, he or she may deal with the specific texts that say something about homosexuality. But this is not the only way. Important moral teaching in the Bible may be found in other texts -- those that give us a picture of human relatedness that mirrors God's love. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, recently preached a Biblically centered sermon on homosexuality which focused on Matthew's rendering of the Golden Rule. The message was not whether homosexuality is right or wrong, but examined the challenge to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated.

The Bible may be most helpful as it provides a perspective or angle that enables us to see issues in a different light. Diverse Biblical texts, even unsettling ones, can fire our imaginations and open us to insights that we might otherwise miss. It is important to realize as well that the Bible communicates something of the moral disagreements and struggles of earlier faith communities, not simply unambiguous and unfailing conclusions. What is the role of women in the church? "In Christ there is no male nor female" or "women are to be silent in church?" The Bible is an invitation to join a community that seeks to embody a people's covenant faith in their own time and place. This is a dynamic process -- and one to which preaching can make a powerful contribution.

A Community of Moral Conversation

We must always keep in mind the contextual and interactive nature of preaching. It is an illusion to believe we can deliver a message that exists in some perfectly defined and absolute state. Instead of focusing exclusively on what we want to say, preachers need to consider the reality of the congregation members' worlds.

Such a strategy encourages the church to be a community of moral conversation. The burden of finally making hard decisions remains, but now it is done in a setting that recognizes the ambiguity of multiple perspectives and the human cost of any difficult moral action. For the absolutist who wants clear and unbending pronouncements, a community of moral conversation is probably not a satisfactory understanding of the church. It may sound to some people who are hungering for certitude as if the church is promoting a faith that lacks moral discipline, debating but never deciding for right against wrong.

Talk that goes in circles and never ends in action is always a danger. But in truth, the preaching that we have in mind and the moral conversation that it encourages demand rigorous intellectual and spiritual discipline: a readiness to question our basic assumptions and values, a willingness to consider how we may have dressed our own self-interest in moralism, and a commitment to supporting one another in embodying the values that emerge from our conversation. Preaching that creates a community of moral conversation is a rigorous discipline! It asks a lot from preachers and from congregations. It demands that preachers be honest and thorough in preparing to address ethical issues. It demands that parishioners not threaten to withdraw support or attendance when preachers make them faithfully uncomfortable about their own lives.

If the church were purely a voluntary association, a social or political club, the demand would be more than it could bear. But the church is drawn together by the Spirit of Christ, who binds us to one another and who seeks to lead us toward a life that is more compassionate and just. Therefore, we approach the discipline of being a community of moral conversation, not only with our natural human anxieties about conflict and change, but also with the hope we have in God's grace, our belief in the power of the Spirit to work through and among us.