Ethical Approaches to Preaching

Preachers play an important role in shaping the thoughts and behaviors of their congregations. Their listeners regularly face challenging moral issues and take their cues from preachers about how their faith should impact their lives and the choices they make. Since people are increasingly divided over moral issues in the public sphere these days, it is essential for preachers to handle moral issues with care and skill. John S. McClure (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) wrote Ethical Approaches to Preaching to be an accessible guide that helps preachers discern the best ethical approach for handling a variety of issues and contexts. 

McClure is the Charles G. Finney Professor of Homiletics, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt Divinity School and served as the past president of the Academy of Homiletics (2003) and the co-editor of the Academy’s journal, Homiletic. His many books include The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies (1991), The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Preaching and Leadership Meet (1995), and Other-wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics (2001). McClure’s research interests of ethics and homiletics are wed together in this introductory handbook that summarizes and organizes the various ways preaching is currently being demonstrated to be an ethical practice.

McClure believes different ethical situations demand different homiletical responses. Christian ethicists help homileticians to understand their task as an ethical practice. McClure says, “My overarching purpose for writing this book is to provide an overview of four kinds of ethics that have been shaped by contemporary scholars into ways to help working preachers approach difficult ethical issues: (1) communicative ethics, (2) witness ethics, (3) liberation ethics, and (4) hospitality ethics” (xiv). McClure does a good job defining each approach. A communicative ethic is an intersubjective ethic “focused on searching for and applying universally acceptable moral norms” (2). A witness ethic is a virtue ethic that hopes “to construct a countercultural community of Christian virtue” (37). A liberation ethic is a social ethic aimed “primarily at the unmasking, critique, and change of current social systems (economic, political, religious, educational, health care, etc.)” (61). A hospitality ethic is an interhuman ethic focused on “cultivating relationships grounded in moral reflection” (90). McClure applies four questions to each of the four kinds of ethics: (1) How do preachers theologically frame an ethical problem so listeners can identify the best way out of the problem? (2) How do preachers create a personal and communal experience of this problem and provide the best way into understanding and engaging it constructively? (3) What signposts help the preacher organize the best way through the problem or issue? (4) How do preachers articulate a final destination and the best way toward it? 

The structure is one of the book’s strengths. Every chapter offers a description of the ethic, applies the four questions to each ethic, provides a sample topical sermon on immigration from McClure, explains the situation most suitable to the approach, and gives a situational sermon best exemplifying each approach. The additional reading at the end of each chapter is helpful and allows readers to engage McClure’s sources. Additionally, McClure is to be commended for challenging his readers to mirror God’s care for the least, lowly, and too often ignored people in the world.

Evangelical homileticians will have a number of fundamental disagreements with McClure’s work. Among these, he uses the word “convert” to mean a change of mind or perspective, rather than regeneration (5, 40, 68, 76); some of his exemplary sermons advocate non-evangelical views, including those of liberation theologians; the topical sermon examples are neither text-driven nor expository—revealing an important difference in the author’s conception of preaching; McClure encourages reading the Bible through “the christological lens of the non-violent character and paradigmatic witness of Jesus” (53), suggesting his understanding of Christ-centered preaching differs significantly from that of most evangelical preachers; the author encourages preachers to utilize a hermeneutic of suspicion toward biblical texts and commonly accepted theologies (65, 70) and to fill their bookshelves full of commentaries “written from many perspectives informed by critical theories: feminist, postcolonialist, queer, and others” (65); and he calls the task of preaching into question when he says, “Homiletical forms themselves have a hegemonic aspect” and that exploring new forms of preaching “can disassociate the pulpit from practices of oppression” (64).

Anyone involved in weekly pastoral preaching knows that the world our congregations inhabit is broken and ravaged by the effects of sin. Important moral issues continue to be raised as Christians seek to live for Christ in an increasingly hostile world. Preachers are responsible to help their congregations think through these difficult issues. Unfortunately, preachers need to look beyond McClure for help with this important task.


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