Yesterday Barack Obama bowed to inevitable reality and resigned his membership at Trinity United Church in Chicago. He did what he had to do given a) his desire to be president, and b) all the publicity swirling around the controversial statements of his former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, and last Sunday’s guest preacher, Father Michael Pfleger. I do not doubt that it was a very painful decision, and I do not fault him for making it in part for political reasons. Would he have resigned if he were not running for president? One assumes the answer is no, but it doesn’t matter. We all have to make tough choices, and in this case he did the political calculus and decided that the price of continued affiliation with the church he attended for more than 20 years was more than he was willing to pay. I don’t feel sorry for him, but I don’t fault him either. I hope he finds a new church home soon.
I can see a small lesson and a larger lesson here for pastors. The small lesson is that in the Internet age, everything we say is being recorded somewhere. There was a time–and it wasn’t so long ago–that a pastor could unburden himself to his Wednesday Bible study, knowing that his words were not being recorded and would not show up later on YouTube. I call this the small lesson because it ought to be obvious to all of us that personal privacy is rapidly disappearing. The day is long past when pastors can get away with loose talk or casual jokes or offhand remarks. They can’t say, “This is just for the church family,” because someone with a cell phone will soon send it around the world.
Pastors, take note. If you don’t want to see it later on the Internet, don’t say it or write it. Anything you say and anything you write can and will be used against you. Barack Obama made that point, he’s right, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Furthermore, this whole episode ought to conclusively refute the notion that churches and politics can be completely separated. The moral and spiritual issues of our time are such that you can’t be a faithful pastor without offending someone, somewhere, sometime. I don’t agree with Jeremiah Wright, but I have no particular problem with him speaking his own convictions to his own congregation. In the days to come evangelical pastors will be speaking out about abortion and gay marriage, especially the latter since the California Supreme Court has put the issue on the front burner. “Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 NLT). Faithful ministry of the Word always involves both the negative and the positive.
In an odd way Barack Obama’s resignation proves the point that the church must be the moral conscience of the community. It would be tragic if pastors stopped speaking out on the great issues of the day, even though it means that from time to time you will have to use the word “former” to describe certain prominent church members.
Pastors, say what you want, but remember that what draws a loud “Amen!” on Sunday morning may come back to haunt you when it shows up on Fox News. And you may lose some church members as a result.
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