The city wants to read your sermons; why are you saying no?

If you are (a) a Christian, and (b) on any social media platform, then you probably read that the city of Houston is demanding that pastors “hand over” transcripts of their sermons to city hall! Or something terrible-sounding like that. If your feeds are like mine, this news may have been accompanied by appeals to first amendment rights, discussions about pastors preaching boldly in the face of persecution, and so on.

The hyperbole I offered above is not exactly what happened, but something did, indeed, go down in Houston this week that should make pastors and other Christians take notice. And maybe rejoice.

The Background

Houston mayor Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors in the U.S. (that’s relevant, as you’ll see), signed a bill into law on May 28 of this year (2014) called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO.According to the Houston Chronicle, the ordinance can be summarized as such:

The measure bans discrimination based not just on sexual orientation and gender identity but also, as federal laws do, sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy and genetic information, as well as family, marital or military status.The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

The law itself was controversial from the start, not least because it offered a sweeping ban of “anti-gay” discrimination, and because originally it contained language (later removed, but said by city officials to still be implied in the substance of the law) that stipulated that those who identify themselves as transgender could choose which bathroom they wanted to use — men’s or women’s. Attempts to appeal the ordinance have failed.

The responses of Christians have made headlines, as well. Beside protests, one group of Christians, which included two pastors, sued the city; those pastors and others are also said to have openly preached about and against this ordinance.

On the heels of that lawsuit, city attorneys issued subpoenas for “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” (ref: Houston Chronicle). And thus, the big stir on Fox News, Facebook, and elsewhere about how the city government is trying to control what pastors in Houston preach.

It should be noted, too, that Mayor Parker and the city council have tried to put distance between themselves and the subpoenas, and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz has called for the city to rescind them. This was clearly too hot a potato for even the most daring of city politicians to handle for long.

(By the way, tip o’ the hat to my Facebook friend Sarah Pulliam Bailey, whose coverage of this issue through Religion News Service has been stellar.)

Inconsistency & Problems (mostly not the subpoena kind)

Surely, if the city was, in fact seeking to control what the pastors of Houston — or even a select few pastors — are allowed to preach, that is problematic. First amendment rights do indeed apply, with respect to both freedoms of speech and the free exercise of religion. I’ve pointed out before that the suppression of freedom of speech for some other group eventually means potential threat to that freedom for your group! That’s to say nothing of questions like, “How would they enforce it?” and “Should(n’t) pastors be willing to preach with integrity, even in the face of legal consequences?”

And, while sometimes Christians may think they are being “persecuted” when they are not, such an act would, indeed, be persecution (if mild compared to some incidences). Beyond that, it would violate the very terms of the ordinance, by discriminating against others on a religious basis. But there is no evidence that this is anything more than an attempt at overreaching for information and evidence regarding the suit filed against the city. At any rate, a grand jury would have to approve of the sermons being evidential, and some, such as Texas College of Law professor Charles Rhodes have speculated that the bar may be too high for the grand jury to approve them (ref: Houston Chronicle).

What is equally as striking as the legal/political ramifications is the inconsistency of pastors on the matter. I’ve read comments from dozens of pastors who are incensed, even outraged, at the nerve of the city to require that these ministers provide copies of their sermons. Some have suggested that they would refuse, and that the Houston pastors should as well. (One Houston pastor, at least, has said the opposite: that he would gladly deliver his sermons to city hall in person.)

The irony of those who decry is that many of these are men whose churches publish their sermons every week in video, audio, and/or transcript, and that it doesn’t require a subpoena or anything more than a decent internet connection to get them. They, and their congregations, often portray these published messages as a means of outreach; after all, who knows whether some unbeliever might not be surfing the web, come across a sermon, and actually read or listen to it? And I suspect that some of these pastors monitor their views and downloads with a zeal that would be troubling to their fellow leaders, and that they find much of their confidence and identity in how many people are listening to their podcasts.

Which is it? Do we want anyone, including those outside of the church, to read, listen to, or watch our sermons? Or do we want to keep them fire-walled from the world, and only for the ears of those who show up on Sundays? (And what happens if a city attorney comes and starts to make notes — do we have the ushers escort him out, since he is not a member?)

Opportunities

These Houston pastors should instead see this as an opportunity. These city officials — perhaps including the mayor herself — are asking to read their sermons! Does this seem inconsistent with the call to preaching? It does to me.

The preaching of the Word of God should always be something that is done boldly, confidently, and without reservation. Furthermore, it should be something that, while crafted for believers, is pastoral and clear even to unbelievers, who should be able to hear the grace and invitation of the gospel and respond accordingly (even if their response is a hardened heart). Why would any preacher not want his sermons to be published and read by the city officials?

What’s going on here?

That is, unless these sermons are not so gospel-driven. If they are filled with the kind of hate that has come to define Christianity for much of the secular world (see: Westboro Baptist Church), it would be totally understandable that those pastors might not want the civic leaders, or the courts, to read their words. If the pastors in question are unconcerned with the planks in their own eyes (and, full disclaimer here: I have no idea what those pastors have or have not preached, so I’m not accusing them of anything), it’s possible that they have good reason to be fearful instead of bold. But we need to ask: is that really faithful preaching, anyway?

I think this is an opportunity. Consider a few of the things this suggests:

  • It shows that the public still sees Christian sermons as relevant and important
  • It demonstrates that God might use the most unexpected ways to get His Word before those who need it
  • It offers a chance to face challenges in a manner consistent with the gospel itself, and with the ways that the New Testament apostles and preachers modeled for us

What If…

Imagine a church — maybe in Houston — that made it clear that all who would come are welcome, without qualification. That opened its doors wide to the LGBT+ population. That ensured that privacy in bathrooms was sufficient that no one would feel uncertain — even a transgender person. That embraced visitors of all kinds.

AND imagine that this church preached the Word faithfully, not qualifying away or dismissing any part. That the preaching exposed the sin of everyone present, gay and straight, including the pastor and leaders. That it preached about all sin, not just the prominent or sexual ones. And that this sin was met with gracious, humble, and gentle hope that is found only in Christ. That there was true accountability, but accountability which took into account that everyone — believer and unbeliever alike — is in a different place, and that the Holy Spirit works differently in my sanctification than He does in yours.

This could only happen if the commitment to it was bigger than just the pastor’s commitment, or even the leadership’s. The entire congregation would need to be committed and consistent, even if/when they were put in awkward or challenging contexts.

I don’t know if such a church exists. If it does, it may be small and struggling. Churches that are so given to grace and truth together are seldom the kind of church that grows to huge numbers; it’s just not what most people (Christians included) are looking for in a church.

But that seems like the kind of church that can minister effectively to Houston today.