Adam Copeland’s a seminary student at Columbia, who’s doing an internship in Scotland. He blogs at A Wee Blether, and we’ve been discussing Jeremiah Wright. Recently, I asked him, “What are the theological implications of Wright’s words?”
Here’s Adam’s response:
Wow. Well let’s see. I could talk about black liberation theology, or prophetic witness, or hermeneutics of humility, or diversity and worship, but I’m going to narrow the discussion to one on preaching, specifically, preaching on politics in America today.
In my Reformed Theology class a few years ago, the professor described a Reformed view of the Word of God. There’s plenty of ways to put this, but in class this day we were discussing three ways the word comes to us (Barth, if you care). First, the Word is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Second, God’s word is revealed to us in holy scripture. And third, God’s word is revealed in the proclamation of the word through preaching in public worship.
We noted the emphasis of the inspiration of Holy Spirit in the process of revelation of the word, and in the back of the room, a hand shot up excitedly. In an astonished almost unbelieving tone, a student explained how gob-smacked he was that a sermon given in public worship is understood as God’s word. He’d preached the previous year in his home church without any sort of thought to his human words as the word of God revealed. He was taken aback, to say the least.
It is an astonishing claim, that God’s word, through the power of Holy Spirit might be proclaimed from pulpits all over the country each Sunday. By measly people like you and me, God can somehow make our words affective, and by the power of Holy Spirit and the community’s discernment, reveal God’s truth and love.
Sure, there are lots of nuances here and plenty of places to be careful. It’s a concept that should bring the preacher to her knees in humility, not inflate her ego or decrease her effort in sermon preparation. But it’s a big claim: the preached word is God’s word revealed as it witnesses to Jesus Christ, God’s word incarnate.
Christians of at least the Reformed tradition place a large emphasis in the proclamation of the word in sermon. Jeremiah Wright surely does too, as his church seems to concur by selling Wright’s sermons on DVDs. So, theologically speaking, it makes sense that it’s so very difficult to discuss sermons on the evening news. Sermons, in their context of corporate worship, are not mere personal reflections or after dinner speeches, but means through which God reveals God’s word and witnesses to Jesus Christ.
In recent years, the IRS has investigated several churches to determine whether they should be able to keep their tax-exempt status. As I understand the 1954 Internal Revenue Code regarding nonprofits and political action, the code explicitly prohibits nonprofit organizations from directly endorsing or opposing a candidate. Sure, if you’re a nonprofit with explicit political purpose, you can do so but you’re then classified as a 501(c)4 nonprofit and donations are not tax deductible. Churches are assumed to have 501(c)3 nonprofit status and donations towards their work is tax deductible. So according to the IRS, churches must not endorse specific candidates.
According to some random article I found online by Mathew D. Staver, Esq., pastors can personally endorse or oppose candidates, personally contribute to them, personally work for them even, publicly advocate for them on basis of personal conviction, but not personally endorse a candidate while in the pulpit. [Pastor Dan notes a new tack here.]
I have never personally endorsed a candidate from the pulpit – heck, I’ve only preached 50 something sermons – but these restrictions certainly seem to me to censor the word of God proclaimed.
Several churches and the IRS are fighting in court at the moment over the gray areas. If I preach in favor of universal healthcare and an African American in the oval office, and against 100 more years of war in Iraq, is that endorsing or opposing candidates? Or further, what if I say Jesus would vote for the democratic party without saying the congregation should (remember, it’s only a hypothetical)?
The IRS restrictions amount to censorship, but that’s because churches have certain nonprofit status. I don’t think the IRS understands the theology of the proclamation of the word. I don’t think congregational accounts should be held hostage by what the pastor preaches. And I don’t think Wright should have to worry how his preaching will affect his parishioner’s political future.
To make a controversial claim: to fix congregations being bound to these IRS regulations, I’d advocate – though I doubt my congregation would agree – that churches should just drop their 501(c)3 status and not be beholden to governmental regulations. While there are benefits of churches enjoying nonprofit tax exempt status, it’s dangerous to censor God’s word proclaimed.
So, regarding Wright’s sermons, one of the theological implications is a certain censorship of the word proclaimed.
My question, then, to Carol is: How do you approach a sermon with which you deeply disagree? If you don’t agree with it, does that mean it’s not God’s word, or not God’s word for you?
So, what do you think about the tax-exempt status? Do you agree with Adam?