Subpoenaing Sermons

October 20, 2014 at 5:15 am 4 comments


Credit: houstonmatters.org

Credit: houstonmatters.org

“Show us your sermons.” This was the message of the City of Houston to five area pastors. Last May, Houston’s City Council passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting “any type of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy”[1] among private and public employers. Almost immediately, those in faith communities and even in some businesses raised concerns. Will this limit a pastor’s ability to address issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity in his sermons? Could a business be sued for refusing to allow a transgender person to use the restroom of the gender with which that person identifies, even if that identity does not match up with his or her assigned gender?

Opponents of the ordinance rallied and gathered some 500,000 signatures in an effort to repeal it, but the validity of the signatures was called into question and the ordinance was not repealed. This is when things got really contentious. As The Washington Post reports:

A group of Christians sued the city. In response, city attorneys issued subpoenas to five local pastors during the case’s discovery phase, though the five pastors were not involved in the lawsuit.

The subpoenas sought “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,” according to the Houston Chronicle.[2]

The City subpoenaed sermons. And people were furious. Indeed, when several national news outlets picked up on this story, the City had to change course.  Mayor Parker announced last Friday that the City would narrow the scope of the subpoena and City Attorney David Feldman admitted, “When I looked at [the subpoena] I felt it was overly broad, I would not have worded it that way myself … It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty.”[3]

So what are we to make of all this?

On the one hand, as Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post notes, the City, by all reasonable standards, overreached and needs to be called to account:

I don’t quite see how “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” would be relevant to the litigation about the validity of the referendum petitions.

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.[4]

On the other hand, if these pastors were indeed “using the pulpit to do political organizing … [by] encouraging congregation members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for equal rights ordinance foes,”[5] as the City Attorney suggests, even if such conduct is Constitutionally permissible, theologically, this kind of political posturing can compromise the integrity of the Office of the Ministry and can actually impugn the Church’s witness on the moral and ethical issues of our day. Charles Colson explains why:

Because it tempts one to water down the truth of the gospel, ideological alignment, whether on the left or the right, accelerates the church’s secularization. When the Church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its Christian confession of eternal truth.[6]

When pastors try to address concerns that are, at their heart, theological by using political means like petitions, theology can all too readily and quickly – even if unknowingly – get sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.  We need to be careful we don’t compromise our witness for the sake of cynical political gain.

Make no mistake about it:  I do not believe City of Houston officials should, in any way, shape, form, or fashion critique or try silence what pastors preach.  Such actions are beyond their purview of their vocations.  But as a Christian, I also believe that what the Church and her pastors have to say about human sexuality and gender identity is best said from the Word of God and not with a petition.

So, to the pastors who have been subpoenaed, I say: rather than looking at these subpoenas as infringements on your rights, consider them opportunities for ministry (cf. Ephesians 5:15-16). City Hall – even if the wording of the subpoena has now been changed – has invited you to send in your sermons. So do so! Inundate City Hall with the sermons from God’s Word – and not just with sermons where you happen to mention sex or gender. Send in as many of your sermons as you can. While you’re at it, include a charitable note indicating that you are praying for your leaders and praying that your sermons will be a blessing to them.

Remember, with God’s Word comes God’s promise: “My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (Isaiah 55:11). The preaching of God’s Word can do more than a petition could ever hope to accomplish. A petition can win a political war. God’s Word can change a human heart.

Which sounds better to you?

_______________________________

[1] City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-530.

[2] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Houston subpoenas pastors’ sermons in gay rights ordinance case,” The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[3]Houston Backtracks on Church Subpoenas,” ktrh.com (10.15.2014).

[4] Eugene Volokh, “Is it constitutional for a court to enforce a subpoena of ministers’ sermons?The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[5] Jacob Gershman, “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” The Wall Street Journal (10.15.2014).

[6] Charles Colson in Render Unto Caesar…and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (September 1995), 60.

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The Pursuit of Perfection Where’s Your Advantage?

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clare Flourish  |  October 20, 2014 at 6:36 am

    I like this, because rather than crying Persecution and seeking to resist, it is a creative response. Fighting all the time gets wearisome. “Bless those who persecute you” can be a way through.

    Reply
  • 2. Jason  |  October 20, 2014 at 7:27 am

    i would draw a difference between being partisan and political. Partisanship, endorsing this candidate over that one, or this or that petition is not the church’s business. Speaking into politics and governing principles is absolutely the domain of the church, since they are moral issues. These aren’t limited only to right to life or sexual matters either.
    Your blog is a good example of that, bringing biblical truth to political issues. Political without partisanship. Seasoned with the gospel.
    As far as calling out the sins of a particular politician, John the Baptist did that, but it didn’t end well.

    Reply
  • 3. Donald A Novian  |  October 20, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Pastor Zach, Excellent writings. You hit all the right nerves. I’ve always believed that God’s Words from the Bible, if preached correctly, would do more than all the petitions and rallies. This is true on all fronts, what is discussed here and many other issues before us today. Thank you for these words of truth and encouragement.

    Reply
  • 4. Don Novian  |  October 20, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Pastor Zach, Excellent writings. You hit all the right nerves. I’ve always believed that God’s Words from the Bible, if preached correctly, would do more than all the petitions and rallies. This true on all fronts, what is discussed here and many other issues before us today. Thank you for these words of truth and encouragement. Donald A Novian

    Don Novian (( GOD BLESS AMERICA!! IN GOD WE TRUST! READ THE BIBLE DAILY!!)) [image: O:-) angel]

    Reply

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