Are pew-sitters responsible for what preachers say?

By all accounts, this is an odd political season. Since the rise of the Religious Right it has not been uncommon for preachers (Robertson, Falwell et al) to grab a little more spotlight during this time. But this is something entirely different.

Suddenly political candidates are being held accountable for what preachers in their churches have to say. Blame it on the Devil or YouTube, depending on your theology, but it is a modern political reality.

It started with video of Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor making comments that incensed many outside the UCC congregation on the Southside of Chicago. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright seemed to enjoy the new-found attention and made even more offensive comments that caused his Oval Office-seeking parishioner to distance himself from the preacher and church.

Two candidates have drawn less attention in religious matters. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden is a Roman Catholic. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is an Episcopalian who attends North Phoenix Baptist Church where other family members are church members.

Sen. McCain’s pastor is not a good place to look for startling sound bites. Dan Yeary (a Baptist campus minister turned preacher) is not an extremist — except for that extreme tan that comes from being a pastor in Coral Gables, Fla., and Phoenix, Ariz.

Now attention is being focused on the past and present pastors of Gov. Sarah Palin. No longer are they tucked away in Alaska.

The preaching heard by the current vice presidential candidate over the years at an Assembly of God church and now a non-denominational Bible Church reflects very conservative, and in some cases Pentecostal, theology. Only those unfamiliar with such religious traditions and doctrines would be surprised by pulpit pronouncements that Jesus is the only way to heaven, that homosexuality is a chosen sinful lifestyle and that the return of Christ is just around the corner.

However, one of her pastor’s claim that thousands will come to Alaska en route to the climax of history was new to me. Interestingly, another former pastor interviewed recently is named Tim McGraw. (He is the one with faith, but not Faith.)

There is also video of Gov. Palin speaking to her former AG congregation. She asked them to pray that God would deliver a new pipeline.

I hold the Gov. responsible for her own words at the church. But should any person be responsible for what they heard from the pulpit?

If these new “rules” had been in place earlier, I would have approached church life differently.

First, I would have interrupted a few sermons over the years. I have been blessed by excellent pastors. But I don’t want to be held responsible for everything they — or especially guest preachers — have said from the pulpit.

Second, I would have been more careful in my own preaching. Perhaps a disclaimer could be offered at the beginning: “This sermon, though hopefully a proper rendering of the Word of God, is solely the opinion of the presenting preacher and no one on whose ears these words fall should be held accountable for any foolishness that might result.”

How much a candidate’s church involvement and theological leanings matter in a political race is up for debate. But if pew-sitters keep getting blamed for everything their preachers say, it will be even harder to get anyone with political leaning into a church — except during re-election.


  1. Great post and great topic. Just for fun, here’s the other side of the coin…

    I rather like the idea that pew-sitters are responsible for the teaching they receive. Why? First, because pew-sitting itself is a not a biblically defensible activity. The Apostle Paul had this funky idea that ministers would be training all members of the church to participate in ministry. These days, we’ve reinterpreted that bit in Ephesians to mean that only the pastors, evangelists and teachers minister — while the rest of us sit there and just receive. But what is it we’re supposed to be receiving? It’s training.

    Since church ministry is our training, submitting ourselves to false teachers or plain old wacko’s is a big no-no. Of course, one can listen to a sermon without submitting oneself to that teacher or becoming her disciple. But it does create a problem when you fluff up that teacher’s numbers, contribute to the church and lend him your credibility.

    Personally, I’ve sat in a number of services where the preaching (especially a guest evangelist) was so off-the-wall that I literally felt guilty for sitting there. I felt that my silence gave tacit approval to the teachings.

    For me, that conviction started when I looked around at the people in the congregation and thought, “Do they really *believe* what this guy is saying?” Then I realized that by my presence was affirming his message as much as theirs. They thought *I* believed it!

    So I would say that “hearers” do have some responsibility to respond appropriately to what we hear. Preachers should be held accountable when they stray from the Word — the Word which is life, after all! — and begin to push personal agendas or deal fast and loose with Scripture. We can hold them accountable in a number of ways — through rebuke, prayer, public discourse, withholding offerings from their ministry, withdrawing membership from a church with straying leadership, etc.

    Obviously we should not blame the hearer for what the speaker said, but it is reasonable to ask a member or long-time pew-sitter whether she believes what she is hearing, and what she is doing about it when it is flat-out wrong.

  2. Of course the pew sitters have some responsibility. If I really went off the deep end then they can drop out, leave or terminate me.

    Whenever the pastor gets too far ahead of the congregation or goes outside the main stream of the congregational DNA then the pastor faces a vote either with feet or hands.

    Genuine prophetic preaching is dangerous. Just read the Bible and some church history.

    Preaching outside a congregations’ theological boundaries is dangerous.

    Any smart pastor would use that distinctive baptist phrase so out of vogue today, “It seems to me. . .” in preaching a sermon that challenged the congregations commonly held belief.

    A good pastor will challenge the congregation. If the pastor has paid the price to gain their trust and respect, then that pastor has a lot of latitude but a lot of responsibility not to abuse that trust.

    It is not unreasonable to assume that a pastor’s consistent sermon content reflects the congregations’ agreement. One sermon that is on the edge does not reflect the congregations commonly held beliefs.

    Sermonic themes repeated enough ought to impact the congregation and hopefully result in changed behavior. So the congregation has a responsibility to listen carefully and engage in reflection over the sermon and decide if the pastor is on or off target.

    A good pastor and congregation form sort of a check and balance with each other. Neither has exclusive claim to special revelation. If we practice the Priesthood of believers then yes both the congregation and pastor are mutually accountable.

  3. Jesus held the church at Thyatira accountable for allowing that woman, Jezebel, to teach and seduce His servants to commit fornication and eat things sacrificed to idols. So the Biblical answer to your question would be, yes, the church is responsible for what preachers say if they allow the preacher’s sayings to go unchecked.

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  4. Good points, Jeannie. Always more than one angle to a subject. Not sure now if I feel more pressure on one side of the pulpit than the other.

    Bob, if what you say is true couldn’t you keep a pastorate for more than just a couple of years?

    Mark- Thanks for the warning. We had Jezebel lined up for a revival this fall. All in our blind liberal effort to promote women in ministry. Will reconsider. Maybe Sarah Palin could do it.

    (BTW, Bob has been a very effective pastor of his congregation for over 20 years. Good insights too.)

  5. First, congrats to Baps Today for what I consider two great issues of the monthly in a row. I have defended the last two issues–particularly the letters–to a couple folks to the left of me; but I stand by what I said.
    And anybody who gets a comment from JBTaylor is to be commended as I find her sharp and gutsy; quite a feat from small town North Georgia.
    Now that I have set you up (insert smilie emoticon here) I have to amplify what I some of what I have already said, especially in light of the latest Pig lipstick outrages.
    Baptists like John Pierce, Melissa Rogers, Oliver Buzz Thomas and David Currie, with their Church state friends of the caliber of Chet Edwards and our friend Randall Balmer; must call the Palin/McCain ticket on the carpet with the kind of Lee Atwater fog politics it has embraced.
    The has a litany of opeds today demanding a more virtuous discussion, laying the overwhelming opprobrium at the feet of the Palin/McCain Ticket.
    I have laid out what I think this moment calls for from the most savvy and respected of Baptists, and it calls for folks who know well the SBC episode of 1988 where Richard Jackson was the victim of the Council for National Ideology and demagogic style Palin/McCain has now embraced.
    If we are George Truett Baptists, can’t we demand from those in our ranks, the likes of Dan Yearby and Richard Jackson to call on Palin/McCain to explain themselves in distinction from the Roy Moore/James Dobson America embraced by the Council for National Policy and now Palin/McCain.

    Pardon me, by My God what was the great Celebration celebrating George Truett at CBF DC 2007 all about; and the great standing ovation speech by our friend Randall Balmer at the BJC luncheon all about if all of us including Yearby and Jackson cannot now call Palin/MCain on the carpet about this outrage?

  6. Hello fox,

    Are you suggesting all George Truett Baptist will vote a certain way?

  7. Fox-
    Never underestimate Ringgold, Ga.

  8. Fox-

    And this relates to the topic of the thread how?

    As to the thread, yes, pew sitters are responsible to a degree for what their preacher says. If, as Jeannie says, the teaching is off the wall, as in not scriptual, it needs to be challenged and addressed through the proper channels.

    If the preacher continues in the same vein, then the congregant is responsible for removing himself/herself from the congregation or you are giving tacit approval to what is being said. In that case, you must expect to be painted with the same broad brush.

  9. To Gene Prescott:
    I am not suggesting all George Truett Baptists vote the same way; but I do expect the likes of David Currie, Dan Yearby, and Richard Jackson who in some fashion with their association with CBF or standing up to Presslerism; they address James Dobson, Richard land and the Council for National Policy’s influence on the selection of Palin.
    Bill Moyers was troubled by the CNP’s influence on the takeover of the SBC in his national documentary that featured Daniel Vestal in December 2007.
    It seems an exploration of the same subject now is demanded for reasons I have attempted to address here and at my blog.
    Dobson and CNP supported Judge Roy Moore.
    Randall Balmer has written extensively about that in his Evangelicals Lament. In that book he called Richard Land a “counterfeit” Baptist.
    Bring Yearby and Jackson front and center into that discussion now with Moyers and Balmer.
    I do believe the ghosts of George Truett expects that of us or we are not fit for the true vine Baptist Kingdom of God.
    Maybe some other branch, but not the Baptist version.
    From What I read similar sentiments were given a standing ovation when Balmer made a much better presentation of this conviction at the BJC luncheon in DC July 2007.
    Chet Edwards was there to celebrate George Truett that very day.
    Let’s bring that plumbline to Sarah Palin as loudly, publicly, exhaustively, without equivocation as we can; and let John and Cindy McCain’s Baptist pastors Yearby and Jackson lead the exploration.

  10. Thanks Johnny for a thought provoking question. You got me to thinking. that is an accomplishment! I know this is a bit of a rabbit however these are my thoughts:

    Which role is better at moving a congregation? Does the pastor or the preacher get a congregation to challenge its’ theology and change?

    I think it’s the pastoral role. When the time is right the sermon [s] may be the cap stone but the hard work of leadership is where the presuppositions are challenged and God’s will is found and perhaps obeyed. That process could take 10 or 20 years. Even that might not be enough time for some issues.

  11. I agree with Jeannie "because pew-sitting itself is a not a biblically defensible activity"

    I have to present this question: Are You Dissing God?

    Today’s western church services are so far from their Biblical call and the historical example that I think anyone participating is really dissing God week after week after week. Church goers are so ignorant of God’s Word that they actually think they are worshiping God. They have no clue that they are trusting blind leaders, and honoring un-Biblical traditions over simple Biblical commands. Jesus warned is that this would happen. Take a look at this passage;

    NLT Mar 7;6 Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 Their worship is a farce [NIV worship is in vein], for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ 8 For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” 9 Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. 10 For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.” 11 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 12 In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. 13 And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”

    – The “many other examples” includes the Participatory Believer gathering Commands in 1 Cor 14, the call to servant leadership, the false doctrine of tithing, and finally refusing to follow Paul’s example, the tent maker preacher. These specifics are discussed;

    Servant Leadership

    Tithing; God’s Call or Man’s SubstitutePastor’s Pay

    Today’s churches are packed with ritual and the wisdom of men. They claim to be seeking the Holy Spirit, but they refuse to honor the commands that would put the Holy Spirit back in control of their gatherings. They refuse to use the methods prescribed in the Bible to grow, develop and equip them to live out their life of faith (see Eph 4;12-14 below) . Instead they rely on man made (even ) systems. The Blind leaders blame it on the flock, thinking that they lack dedication, when the real problem is the leader’s anchor to the Pagan roots of today’s services.

    Full Article:

    May God Guide and Protect You

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