Culture

Abortion, Matt Chandler, and How Not to Preach Ideology

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In light of all the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood after disturbing videos were recently released, a clip from a sermon preached by Matt Chandler in January of 2014 resurfaced and has been making the social media rounds. Chandler is the lead pastor of the Village Church in the Dallas area and the president of the Acts 29 church planting network.

Unfortunately, the video clip that has been circulated does not include some of the stronger aspects of the sermon, where Chandler tells a story about a group of women from the Village Church who took in a single woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy and supported her through the process of finally deciding to keep the baby and give it up for adoption to another family in the church. What a beautiful and compelling illustration of how the church can actually be "pro-life" in a way that is sensitive to gender and class issues, and in a way that witnesses to the Kingdom of God! 

Instead though, the video clip highlights what in my view is one of the weakest moments of the sermon, in which Chandler passionately, and very loudly, attempts to turn a complex matter into a no-brainer moral imperative for all Christians. Even if we affirm that abortion is never good, and never God’s will, no matter when or how it happens – which I think we should – there are many things about the origin of new life and God’s role in it that are mysterious, and the best legal measures for protecting the unborn are far from self-evident.  Equally troubling is that the sermon was preached by a man who does not believe women should preach, and who failed to address the responsibility that men have in the matter. 

I reference this clip and Chandler specifically, however, not so much to make a statement about abortion itself, but primarily to call attention to the problems that can arise when preaching about something like this, and preaching in the manner of Chandler and others like him.  

Chandler's monologue about abortion comes across as bold, persuasive, convicting and even prophetic to a large number of evangelicals. No doubt this is why so many people have shared the video. But does such a message and the tone that it takes really accomplish anything other than rallying those already in agreement (mostly conservatives) and alienating those in disagreement (mostly liberals)? If not, then what Chandler achieves is merely the reinforcement of a dominant ideology. (By ideology, I mean the received imagination, often unconscious, about an idea or set of ideas that are presupposed as absolute or raised to the level of being unquestionable by a particular group.) Actually, Chandler addressed this question at one point later on in the sermon, and basically admits to doing exactly this:

I will have shrunk our church this weekend. I will have taken our numbers and some of the resources we had coming in and some of the people who come in and I will have effectively let them move on because they want no part of this. What a small price to pay for rallying the rest of us toward what is true and right and good before the King of Glory. (See the manuscript here.)

Though obviously well-intended, I submit that, because it equates a moral interpretation of God's will with the unequivocal certainty about that will, the self-congratulatory justification given by this statement is on the verge of being arrogant, toxic and ideological for the church. 

Both liberals and conservatives in the church are prone to place moral mandates, which are always contextually mediated, on the level of gospel truth itself, and then to exclude people on the "wrong" side – no matter the issue.  Abortion is just one example. Gay marriage would be another.

This sort of thing is in danger of becoming a hidden form of legalism masquerading as righteous courage.  It is completely possible to call abortion into question without creating dissonance with any person in the room who still has some unanswered questions. Sermons like Chandler’s fail to accomplish this.

PREACHING WITHOUT IDEOLOGY

Preaching does indeed serve the purpose of energizing and sensitizing Christians to the will of God, but oh how good it feels to hear our views affirmed and defended!  In addition to proclaiming the gospel in a way that is faithful to a given church's context, one of the primary purposes of preaching is to create an environment in which the Spirit of God is able to move in a transformative way among a people. This does not mean that preaching will never be offensive or controversial, or that preaching cannot get behind a civil justice movement of some kind.  Nor does it mean that preachers should avoid preaching on difficult subjects. What it does mean, however, is that, at every turn, preaching must be heavily guarded against the confusion or conflation of testifying to the truth we believe has been revealed to us in Christ, on the one hand, with the ideological assent to a partisan, moral interpretation of that truth, on the other hand.

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt contends that  

Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

As pastors, church leaders, and followers of Jesus, we must recognize that moral reasoning is very rarely something that people do to figure out the truth, and much more often a post hoc construct to justify a preconceived intuition of the truth.  Intuitions come first, and strategic reasoning second – especially when it comes to something like abortion. 

In the gospels, we see that there was a hardened, self-righteous consciousness operative in the minds of the Jewish leadership and those with power (Pilate, the rich young ruler, etc.). They did not have ears to hear the truth. There was no reasoning with them, in other words.  So when it came to questions about issues like paying taxes, the death penalty (the woman caught in adultery), or working on the Sabbath, Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of their moralistic reasoning and its incapacity to produce self-awareness.  

Issues like abortion function as "master signifiers" (Zizek & Lacan). This means that the mere mention of them sends emotionally and viscerally loaded signals through people's psyches, disconnected from real or learned meaning, causing them to react rather than listen, and blocking self-criticism.  As a preacher, Jesus was a master at disarming the tension between any two given poles – such as the one we find today between pro-life and pro-choice – by showing that both have shortsighted vantage points.

Of course, Jesus was not afraid of agitating people, but he did not use ideology to agitate, or to rally one side against another (as Chandler did). Rather, those who were agitated by him were precisely those who were already given over wholeheartedly to the ideology of moralistic "reasoning" (the Pharisees), which was the real root of their agitation – not Jesus. 

Where ideology is absent or minimized, the gospel becomes liberating. Where ideology is rampant, the gospel becomes confounding and infuriating. A chief goal of preaching, then, as much as possible, is to disarm ideology, rather than to incite it.   

THE CHURCH WITHOUT IDEOLOGY

Ideology poisons the church.  It is not rational. Nor is it faith-based. It is misplaced certitude. It is a way to avoid the hard work of faithful presence in a diverse community brought together at the Eucharistic table and by the gospel of Jesus Christ.   

This is why, especially if a church is fortunate enough to have a politically diverse body, it is so important to make room for honest conversation, questions, and humble dialogue about divisive social problems. We come together to disagree, to listen, to be reconciled, and yes, in many cases, to part ways still frustrated, but never to dismiss or degrade each other. 

Furthermore, the things we come together to talk about and prayerfully discern are not determined by political and media sway, necessarily. Nor are they abstract, disembodied ideas or mere ethical or theological topics of interest. They are real, on-the-ground challenges that confront our neighborhoods and the relationships in our churches. They are questions that rise out of a lived and shared experience – not a theoretical exercise. And I am saying this as someone who loves theoretical exercises… 

As an occasional preacher and teacher myself, I find that teaching forums and smaller group gatherings are the best places to have these discussions rather than from pulpits. If your church is small and intimate enough to experiment with interactive preaching, that is one thing, but many are not. 

Still, even in the most appropriate spaces, these kinds of exchanges are not easy to facilitate. It takes carefully cultivated, mutually submitted, communal leadership and vulnerable self-reflection to snuff out ideology in the church. But it is work we have to do.

The gospel in post-Christendom North America depends on it.

[Photo: The Christian Post]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
By commenting below, you agree to abide by the Missio Alliance Comment Policy.

13 responses to “Abortion, Matt Chandler, and How Not to Preach Ideology

  1. Bill,

    I honestly have the privileged of having a politically diverse church community. Serious, we have fiery progressives and fox-news watching conservatives dwelling together. Your statement “if you have a politically diverse body, it is so important to make room for honest conversation, questions, and humble dialogue about divisive social problems”, I agree with fully. The conundrum is in order to maintain that “room” a preacher/teacher who holds the power must abstain from weighing in on political/hot social issues from the behind the pulpit. The moment a preacher with power weighs in through declarative preaching, all dialogue in community is hushed because they fear stating a different opinion than the “pastor”. There’s no way around that social phenomenon, no matter if you tell people they can disagree.

    I don’t now what to do with this. It’s a tension that some people love and some people hate. I refuse to speak out specifically on current social issues from the pulpit knowing full well that it makes space for diversity to exist, diverse friendships to form and transformation to incrementally occur through dialogue. Here’s the kicker, for every person who says Matt Chandler should not use his pulpit to champion ideology around the political issue of Abortion, another would say in the next breath a pastor should use their pulpit to champion the ideology around the political issue of racism. This is the issue with political diversity, both sides see, feel and possess their preferred issue in the same way.

    We also live in a season that if a preacher doesn’t use their platform then they are viewed as silent in the face of injustice, few people authentically care about the space required for conversation, they just want statements that fit into their current opinion. I want progressives and conservatives to feel belonging in our church but it’s required a measured amount of silence from leaders.

    Thoughts?

    1. This is an excellent question, Dan. Let me make one more comment about Chandler’s approach that might help.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4LpI_PTsUc After watching this follow-up interview with him about his convictions on abortion (from just last week), it’s even more clear to me how much he’s trusting in “voting” and the electoral process as the default way to “take a stand.” In my mind, this constitutes a serious lack of ecclesial imagination and reveals how much most of our biggest churches remain seduced by a Christendom view of their U.S. citizenship.

      I too am in a congregation that is politically diverse (though more Republicans than anything else, I’m sure). But here’s an example of what I would say to them about abortion, and have actually said, in an adult education forum: “If abortion was made illegal tomorrow, would it go away?”

      Everybody answered, “no” without hesitation. Then I asked, so what could do to help reduce abortions in our city irrespective of current policy on the issue?

      So I’m not so much interested in questioning whether abortion is a tragedy, sin, etc.

      Similarly, I would feel totally comfortable telling anyone in our congregation why I oppose the death penalty. But again, how do we prevent more people from committing murder in the first place? Economically, culturally, relationally, what can be done in the neighborhoods of our cities? Electoral politics, as it usually functions, is susceptible to ideology in a way that other approaches are not.

      I think we can do the same thing with racism. What if better training was provided in the police force, and voter ID laws were more “fair,” and funding for schools was more equal, etc., etc. Would racism, go away? No, so what else can we do? Direct people away from partisan policy perspective and more towards a local, economic, relational, but no less serious approach to issues. Because it’s a lot easier to have disagreements in those terms. We don’t need to totally delegitimize electoral process, but it does need to be dethroned.

  2. I am disappointed that Missio Alliance would publish an article like this post. The author (Walker) provides no constructive contribution to the people of God here. Walker simply slams Chandler for no good reason (which I will demonstrate below). If Walker finds error in Chandler, then he should not abuse Missio Alliance’s website (a force for Christian unity) to air personal preferences in a condemning manner in the open public. Not only does this hurt our Christian witness, it is immature, and foolish.

    First, the author complains about Chandler’s preaching style, which is “passionately, and very loudly.” Walker even comes clean with this by saying, “I reference this clip and Chandler specifically, however, not so much to make a statement about abortion itself, but primarily to call attention to the problems that can arise when preaching about something like this, and preaching in the manner of Chandler and others like him.“

    Second, Walker only offers self-defeating arguments in favor of his personal preferences. He states that Chandler ”attempts to turn a complex matter into a no-brainer moral imperative for all Christians.” Then Walker turns around and says that he thinks we should affirm “that abortion is never good, and never god’s will, no matter when or how it happens” (an absolute moral imperative). On what basis does he affirm this absolute moral imperative? Well, it turns out that Walkers affirmation is vacuous, he says, “the origin of new life and God’s role in it are mysterious.” As a result of this self-defeating position he then opines that the “best legal measures for protecting the unborn are far from self-evident.”

    Third, Walker throws up a red herring by attacking his credibility on non-related issues, “he does not believe women should preach.” Hey I’m an egalitarian, but you know what? Complementarians do have good contributions outside of the women in ministry debate! If I disagree with someone over one issue, does that mean we can write them off or totally discredit them? The one other complaint that did relate to the topic at hand was that Walker feels that Chandler “failed to address the responsibility that men have in the matter.” If you watch the whole sermon he address men as well, and was speaking to both men and women on 1) the sanctity of life, and 2) the practical things Christians can do to be a light in our society. So, that is a misunderstanding on the author’s part.

    Fourth, Walker imposes aims and purposes on Chandler that Chandler himself does not have in the situation, and then complains that Chandler fails at the aims and purposes that Walker imposed! Walker states: “But does such a message and the tone that it takes really accomplish anything other than rallying those already in agreement (mostly conservatives) and alienating those in disagreement (mostly liberals)?” Chandler is preaching to his congregation about a moral issue, and the practical outworking of this moral stance in the life of a Christian. He is not in a public debate forum with “liberals,” and he is not attempting to convert all Americans to his moral stance on CNN. Chandler appropriately addresses his own congregation in a fitting manner, and in its context.

    Fifth, Walker creates a straw man in an attempt to discredit Chandler by implicitly charging him to be a Pharisee making this moral truth about abortion “on the same level of gospel truth itself,” and in effect charging him with “legalism.” Chandler said no such thing nor a hint of this in the transcript. In fact, Chandler offered the gospel of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ to those who have participated in an abortion (men and women)!

    Lastly and most importantly, Walker complains about Chandler’s strong stance in his position on abortion. And, Walker accuses Chandler of propagating a “dominate ideology” that is “arrogant, toxic” because Chandler’s message is “set of ideas that are presupposed as absolute or raised to the level of being unquestionable by a particular group.“ Walker goes on to charge Chandler with using “master signifiers” to “emotionally and viscerally” arouse “people’s psyches, disconnected from real or learned meaning, causing them to react rather than listen, and blocking self-criticism.” Walker misunderstands and misrepresents Chandler’s message, again. Chandler doesn’t assume everyone in his congregation is on board with his stance, so what does Chandler do? He pastorally walks through the issue providing reasoned arguments from Scripture and Science! Far from being simply offering unquestionable assertions that have not justification or warrant, Chandler presents his arguments in support of his position. Yes, Chandler is confident in his convictions, because the reasons he provides from Scripture and Science are so clear! It’s not just his “moral interpretation” of truth. Chandlers arguments are founded in not only science (embryology), but also the science of interpretation within the body of Christ. This is the scientific consensus (holistically speaking, the two books God: Scripture and Nature) within the orthodox body of Christ (which includes but is not limited to, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelical Protestant).

    Walker claims, that Chandler is only preaching ideology, and according to him “ideology poisons the church. It is not rational. Nor is it faith-based. It is misplaced certitude.” But we see just the opposite, Chandlers’ message is based on Scripture and Science as mentioned above, which IS RATIONAL, FAITH-BASED, and therefore is not misplaced confidence! If Walker is correct with regards to his accusations, then Walker shouldn’t whine and moan about Chandler’s style, create self-defeating arguments, throw up red herrings, impose unrealistic expectations, and create straw man arguments. Instead he must demonstrate that the reasons and arguments (based on Scripture and Science) that Chandler provided in his message are somehow fallacious and unsound. That’s it. If he can’t do that, or is unwilling to do that, I hope to see a public apology by the author or by Missio Alliance for publishing this article.

  3. ZG,

    I appreciate some of your points. Overall though, I think you’ve misread and misjudged both my intention and my reasoning in this post, and I’m sure part of that is my fault. But I do not think anything I said warrants an apology — from me or from Missio Alliance.

    You have written much more than I am able to respond to here, but let me summarize by just saying that the main purpose of my post was not to call into question Chandler’s convictions about abortion (though I do find them a bit simplistic). Rather, I’m concerned about the way, and about the medium by which he communicated those convictions. It did not create space for growth and transformation. Instead, it served much more so to entrench and intensify existing ideology, and there is a much better way to talk about issues like abortion in church.

    1. Andy, as I pointed above in my comment above, the issue is not about preaching style, nor primarily even Chandler’s viewpoint.

      Much more so, the issue is about the way Chandler holds his views (ideologically, or in faith?), and the manner in which he uses his platform to communicate them — which is a large and powerful one, and as such raises question about ecclesiology and whether Chandler’s preaching helps or hurts the spiritual formation process of a worship service.

      I accusing Chandler of abusing the power of his influential position when he doesn’t appreciate the complexity of an issue of like abortion — not only its complexity as a moral issue, but the complexity of how a church should talk about and engage the matter in society. Chandler’s approach was highly reductive in both of these respects, and therefore deserved criticism in my judgment.

    2. Bill,
      You say: “I’m concerned about the way, and about the medium by which he communicated those convictions.” Then you turn around and say to Andy, “the issue is not about preaching style, nor primarily even Chandler’s viewpoint.” You are contradicting yourself, and this is the same double speak that is in your blog post.

      You say: “it served much more so to entrench and intensify existing ideology, and there is a much better way to talk about issues like abortion in church.” How is it “ideology” (your definition: “non-rational,” “not-faith based,” “misplaced certitude”)? Can you demonstrate this please? I already exposed the fallacious nature of your original blog post, which you will not defend. And you have only dodged my request for some substantive arguments to show us how Chandler’s teaching, which points to Scripture and science is in error. If he is not in error, you are just judging and attacking him based on your personal preferences about preaching style? So what if you would talk about abortion in small groups, and Chandler talks about it on Sunday morning? Is there a biblical prohibition or mandate on when one can talk about abortion? And who made you the judge of that?

      Missio Alliance is supposed to be all for Christian unity and graciousness toward all in the family of God right? I hope to see a public apology to Chandler by you or Missio Alliance (or both) for such a vacuous attack on Chandler! Again, if it is not vacuous, then show us with some substantive arguments that demonstrate Chandler is misrepresenting biblical Christianity or teaching moral error, not personal preferences over speaking style or the arrogant subjective judgments upon where/with whom Chandler talks about abortion issues. If all you have is the latter, then Missio Alliance is taking part in divisive and damaging work against a brother in Christ, and the pro-life cause, over non-essentials!

      1. DZ, first of all, if you wish to continue commenting, I would request that you please do so without anonymity.

        I am not dodging your questions. Your tone, for one thing, does not invite very much dialogue here so much as sheer argument, and agitated argument at that, and I still do not think we are understanding each other. There is much that I would like to say in response, but I am choosing not to engage most of your comments, mainly because they were unreasonably long for a response to a blog post, but also because, based on your tone, I do not think it would lead anywhere productive. If you had a blog of your own somewhere and linked back to your more extended commentary it, I would be glad to engage, but as it is, I know nothing about you, and I think that makes it hard to have a fruitful conversation.

        If you read some of my comments to others here, I think you will find some of your questions addressed, and specifically the one about mere
        “preference” of “preaching style.” That is certainly not what this is about, at heart. There is a theology to preaching, and a theology
        to the church, and I believe what I am criticizing about Chandler has to do with both.

        As for this second criticism, a further point of clarification might help. I do not have a problem with Chandler’s convictions as such, but I do have a problem with how he holds them, and yes, I believe he holds them “ideologically.” There is nothing contradictory about this.

        You also asked for demonstration of how he is being ideological. There is not room for that here, but suffice is to say two things, which I’ve already stated: Chandler raises a complex moral and legal questions surrounding abortion to the level of what for him seems to be black and white Scriptural truth. Scot McKnight recently made a post that I think applies here. He refers to a practice that he calls “colonizing the authority of the gospel,” by applying it to moral issues in a direct way without contextual and ecclesial mediation. This is what I believe Chandler effectively did, even though he didn’t explicitly state it. (see the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/08/17/cccu-and-dissenters/)

        The second thing has to do with something that I think Chandler takes for granted. As an interview with him from just last week indicates, which I posted above, Chandler clearly believes that Christians have a duty to vote in such a way that reflects their convictions on this issue. Based on his sermon though, what this means — again, even
        though he doesn’t come right out and say it — is that he is telling his church that, in order to be faithful Christians, they should vote for the candidate (in all elections, presumably!) who is closest to pro-life. Once more, I find this to be a blatant abuse of his platform, not to mention incredibly problematic, theologically, ecclesiologically, ethically and politically.

        This assumes that the primary way to oppose abortion is through voting — even though he does gives other examples in his sermon, which I mention. This is the main form of (political) ideology, that creeps into theology, that I am trying to highlight. For many reasons, the idea that voting is equated with “taking a stand against abortion” is one of the major political failures of the evangelical church in the last forty years. Chandler does not question this, but instead gets pulled right into it.

        1. You say: “I am not dodging your questions”…“I am choosing not to engage most of your comments”…“You also asked for demonstration of how he is being ideological. There is not room for that here.” Really?

          You say: “There is a theology to preaching, and a theology to the church, and I believe what I am criticizing about Chandler has to do with both” So you have clarified that your problem with Chandler is not about preaching style, or your personal preferences. Instead you are saying there is a biblical way to preach, and a biblical course of action for the Church, which Chandler has violated and stands in error. Please demonstrate this biblical-theological error. That’s is precisely what I am asking for and await substantive argumentation, or an apology for attacking Chandler without providing any substantive argumentation to demonstrate his error!

          Now, about my tone. I admit to feel strongly about this, but I have bent over backwards to show that I am willing and eager to listen to your position! And, I feel strongly over this because the unity of the Church is so close to my heart, that any unhealthy dissention and divisiveness over such non-essential issues with such non-substantive arguments is not acceptable for you nor Missio Alliance to engage in.

          1. Thank you for that clarification about your tone. I will try to respond in greater depth in due time. I ask for your patience!

  4. I thought the second half of the article was fabulous. However I see no need in using Matt Chandler’s sermon to prove the author’s point. In fact using Matt Chandler as a way to introduce the subject was a distraction to some excellent content later in the blog. If Matt Chandler was preaching heresy then by all means call that out. However he has a preaching style and holds some viewpoints that are not the author’s own. I would encourage the author to focus on the great content and his convictions about ministry and the Bible.

  5. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 – For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desire, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

    It sounds to me like you want ears tickled, Mr. Walker.

  6. Bill I really appreciate this post and don’t think there is anything wrong in using Chandler as an example…it is a viral video that people are familiar with and it encapsulates perfectly the problem in today’s platform driven, online preaching. It is often missing context (as you described about the rest of his sermon), community (the nature of anonymity online) and nuance.

    We don’t preach about abortion from the stage because I don’t believe there are people in our congregation that are considering an abortion or thing it is morally ambiguous, and because we have women in our church who previously had abortions (and regret them). So we would just be preaching to the choir and alienating those who are either on the fence about such an issue or have personal experience with it. If I bandstand-ed about this issue I feel confident I would not have had the opportunity to pray with several women over the past year who confessed to an abortion and are seeking grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. I can’t imagine Jesus standing up and giving that message…

    I appreciate what you put out there in this blog.

    1. “I can’t imagine Jesus standing up and giving that message…” I think this sense you express, which I share, is what most motivated me to use Chandler’s sermon as an example. As your examples illustrate, it just does not accomplish enough good, and it potentially does great harm. Thanks, Noah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *