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]