Why church leaders should not shut up


www.churchsigngenerator.comWhen politicians like Mr Rudd comment on religion, and religious people like Dr Jensen or Dr Pell comment on political issues, someone always tells them to shut up. Those who offer advice to the churches usually appeal to two arguments. They argue that churches are composed of individuals, and, in any statements, should represent the views of their members. If the members are divided on particular issues, the churches should say nothing.

They may also argue that churches should aim at growth. They should, therefore, adopt policies and practices that will meet the desires and needs of people who may be interested in them. The rapid growth of successful churches shows that people drawn to churches want their ministers to confine their interest to God, and to issues of personal morality.

Both these arguments represent the emphasis on the individual over community, and the criteria of success current in our culture. Even to members of churches, they can appear plausible and seductive. Many Catholics, for example, are happy when their bishops respect the different opinions of their people by keeping silent about sexual morality. Others study the success of Hillsong, to emulate the strategies there that have brought young people back to church in large numbers.

Neither argument, however, is consistent with the way in which churches have understood themselves. They see themselves, above all, as communities that are shaped by Christian faith, and hand it on. People are drawn into them because they have accepted a faith that touches each detail and area of their lives. Their faith speaks of a God who takes seriously the world and each human being in it, and invites people to reflect on their lives and on the predicaments of the world, in the light of their faith in Jesus Christ.

This reflection takes place within a church. By belonging to a church, people commit themselves to a structured conversation about the implications of faith for their lives. The conversation takes place at many levels—most importantly at the grassroots level, where the issue affects human lives. But the conversation is structured: when the implications of faith for public life need to be articulated with authority, the bishops or other Church leaders have the responsibility to speak on behalf of the church. Their teaching does not close conversation, but it guides its direction.

From the perspective of the churches, then, when their leaders speak publicly, their responsibility is not to represent the opinions of the people in their churches. They are responsible for speaking truly of the reality and the implications of Christian faith. Although they should reflect the conversations at different levels that take place within their churches when they speak, they are not controlled by the opinions of church members.

It follows from this analysis that growth is not the highest priority for churches. The criteria for measuring the wellbeing of a church are much less tangible—they emphasise faithfulness in receiving and living out the Gospel that it has received.

Nor is success in meeting the needs and desires of potential members a test of a good church. In the classic stories of conversion to religious faith, the converts realise that many of the things they previously thought they needed are, in fact, harmful. And they come to desire different and greater gifts.

Sometimes, too, being faithful to the Gospel may reduce numbers and conflict with peoples’ felt needs and desires. That happened to some South African Church congregations, where the minister declared that apartheid was contrary to the Christian Gospel. The minister failed to meet the needs and desires of their people for reassurance that their attitudes, and those of their nation, were compatible with the Gospel. In such situations, any Christian familiar with the Old Testament knows that the popular ones will usually be the false ones.

Ultimately, the business of churches is truth, not growth. Of course, a passion for truth might also lead churches to reflect, on many of the unnecessary things that alienate people and prevent growth. But the great gift that churches can bring to public life is a care for truth.



submit a comment

Existing comments

In a democratic society, which voices must be muzzled? Can politicians continue to shoot their mouths off provided they sing in harmony with their chosen leader? Who said Church leaders always represent the thinking of their fellow members? Is everyone entitled to think for herself or himself?
R Lamerand | 10 October 2006

sometimes I think it would be good if some of our politicians would shut up! Seriously though, groups such as Hillsong are a passing fad, and bring to mind the "Fosterites" of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
Rodney Graves | 10 October 2006

I simply cannot agree with your ideas , Rodney Graves. I think that church leaders should butt out of secular politics
andrew johnson | 10 October 2006

R Lamerand, I am dismayed that so many politicians are so willing to line up for photo opportunities with certain "church leaders" and certain church groups. On the other hand, I think some church leaders should stay away from interfering in secular politics. I agree with Archbishop Pell that Hicks should get a fair trial, but is it his place to say this?
andrew johnson | 10 October 2006

You are so wrong Andrew (Johnson). Andrew Hamilton is right, church leaders can and should make their feelings known about 'political' issues - it is a moral duty
Aurora Lowe | 10 October 2006

Andrew Johson, I'm sorry but you are away with the fairies. Church leaders must speak out on issues of politics particularly when government policy can, on occasions, so contrary to the Gospel of Christ. To do anything else is to be seen as supporting and conniving in that policy.
John White | 10 October 2006

I would have thought that growth should be a priority for the 'old' churches. Why is it not? Are they content to let Hillsong and other 'charismatic ministries' outstrip them?
rose heard | 10 October 2006

John White, you are so wrong. I do not think that the church should have anything to say about secular matters. Look what happenned when Pope Benedict commented on Islam! Priests, Cardinals, Bishops and Popes should concern themselves with the moral and spiritual realm only. If people actually 'hear' their message, they will see the wrong-headedness of a given policy or idea.
andrew johnson | 10 October 2006

Thanks for the metaphor of us all needing 'guided direction' in our conversations about Christian faith - a creative and flexible image for the interplay between Christians as individual persons living in particular times and place, while bound in communion with one another and the faith of the ages.

And re 'growth', as I understand it emphasis needs to be placed more on being 'healthy' churches, on growth in quality as well as quantity. Growth for growth's sake sounds like faith communities becoming cancerous cells which do society no good ...
Charles Sherlock | 10 October 2006

I would have thought that the moral and spiritual realm includes, if not supercedes the secular (ref. A Johnson). Of course politicians and spiritual leaders can say what they like, but we can choose to listen to them or not, especially the ubiquitious Kevein Rudd. Get over it.
J Carson | 10 October 2006

I am encouraged by the simplicity, clarity and challenge of this article in directing us to the TRUTH of the gospels which show us as individuals and Church community "the way the Truth and the life"
Thank you

Giovanni Farquer rsj | 10 October 2006

J Carson, I see the worlds as separate, one is not 'more important' than the other.I believe in faith being quietly practiced, firmly believed, and truly lived.
andrew johnson | 10 October 2006

When people enter into politics i assume it is for the good of one particular section of society or another, whether their concerns be humanitarian or economic. A politicians agenda is determined not only by his/her party and constituents, but also by her/his conscience. Religion is definitely going to play a role in that for those who are religious. And i believe we have the right and responsibility to voice our opinions, however they have been formed. To say that they are seperate is ridiculous, if we are living our faith as it should be, it IS WHO WE ARE! Not an addition.
Luke Watts | 10 October 2006

An excellent and succinct commentary.
Fr. David Patterson | 10 October 2006

Andrew Hamilton's thought provoking article is particularly timely when much attention seems to be paid to "Australian values", whatever they may be. Once again there appears to be some conflict between Church & State, the spiritual and the secular.
Christian truths and values are eternal and, if followed, enable human beings to live with one another in peace and harmony. To be true to itself the Church must speak out when human rights are put at risk. The Church has a responsibility to question some of the assumptions which are reflected in the policies being promoted at any time by Government and Opposition.
For example, can it be assumed that market forces invariably achieve the best outcome? They may lead to bigger profits for some large companies and individuals and perhaps to greater efficiencies. But in the process how many are being hurt along the way? Excessive working hours, struggles to put enough food on the table, the widening gap between haves and havenots are all matters that Christ's Church has a right and indeed a responsibility to question. Apart from anything else it often seems that the Church is left to pick up at least some of the pieces resulting from the self-interest of political and commercial leaders.
Sometimes,certainly, the idealistic approaches of the church will be impracticable but surely that is more acceptable than ruthless profit making not to mention the cruelly insensitive treatment of David Hicks as well as marginalised members of the community such as asylum seekers, many of whom are totally dependent on the charitable work of the Brigidine Sisters.
David Dyer | 10 October 2006

Andrew Johnson & John White - I disagree whole heartedly with you - Aurora and Andrew Hamilton are 'right on'. Church people have the same right as non church goers to speak their views and stand up for many rights. Depth of understanding and levels of understanding are key points here.
Richard | 10 October 2006

Pastors have complete right, nay, even a duty to comment on public policy issues in the light of their implications for Christianity and its moral teachings. But the preaching pulpits and teaching venues of Christian churches are not for clergy to tell worshippers and hearers specifically for which political candidates they should vote and how they should relate to public policy issues.
Leonard C. Johnson | 10 October 2006

Richard - i never said that church people don't have the right to 'speak their views' - i was saying that the secular realm should not be guided by the spiritual realm. I wonder what Andrew Hamilton would say about that - surely he would agree that the secular realm should not be solely informed by a monoglot, non-pluralist point of view that is primarily informed by christian theology. i believe there is room for "the majority" view, even if that view is not a 'christian' or catholic view - and i say that as a catholic.
andrew johnson | 10 October 2006

I agree with Leonard C. johnson's point - well made - that clergy should not tell people who to vote for. There should be reflection from the pulput, more than DIRECTION. too often in the US it seems that priests and other clergy become 'party politicised.' I hope it never gets worse here.
Donald Phelan | 10 October 2006

I have not noticed any reference in this debate so far,about the biblical sources on this.Jeremiah was surely not concerned about how many agreed with his criticisms of his king -he was concerned only about speaking the truth.Ezechiel was told by the Lord to be like a "watchman" for Israel;his responsibility was to warn against evil.Is that not the task of a preacher of the word today?Hillsong seems to have forgotten these biblical principles;religious leaders have a right and a duty to denounce evils,such as the Iraq invasion.
ron perrett | 11 October 2006

Thank you Andrew Hamilton. It is heartening to hear someone speak of the Truth.
Angela | 11 October 2006

Thank you so much, once again, Andrew, for a forthright and very balanced reflection, down to the last paragraph!
Continued best wishes for the new enterprise.
Frank Reese, S.J.
Frank Reese, S.J. | 11 October 2006

Great article!
Andrew Johnson, you class Islam as "a secular matter". You apparently know very little about Islam, or about Christianity.
Peter | 13 October 2006

I agree that that business of churches is truth, not growth. My problem is when Church leaders are so convinced of the rightness of their own "truth" that they don't feel a need to check it against "the truth" in the sense of what really happens in the real world. This is particularly so with issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Conservative Church leaders claim that modern secular society has lost its "respect for life". In fact, in many ways, our society has an unprecedented respect for life; what people have lost is their respect for authoritarian structures, and they feel they should have more control over their own lives. We also have to ask why, if we can have a just war, why can't we have a just abortion - has this really got nothing to do with the fact that women have had NO input into the Church's teaching?

It seems to me that on these sort of issues Church leaders are not emulating Jesus but are acting more like the Pharisees - determined to hold the moral high ground and distancing themselves from the "sinful" world around them. Surely they should, like Jesus, be in tune with the needs, the difficulties and experiences of ordinary people, and should be striving to make their "burdens light and their yoke easy". I always think that public pronouncements by Church leaders should leave people thinking, "God must really love me!" If the are not conveying that - if they might even be conveying the opposite - how can they be conveying the truth?
Cathy Taggart | 14 November 2006

Sure the business of the Church is truth, the truth that is an external objective reality, not a subjective concept which translates only as that which we desire, an objective reality which is preached "in season and out of season".
Hugh Ivens | 20 November 2006

I cannot fathom why anyone would NOT expect a preacher to speak about morality and especially if it involved adherence to Christianity in spite of the laws of the particular nation. Christianity has a history of thousands of men and women who chose death rather than give up their faith in the face of national laws that "reqired" them to do so.
Bill Bauer | 20 November 2006

Christianity isn't an idea confined inside a Church, but rather should be a lifestyle. If Church leaders do not speak out about issues conflicting Christ's teachings not only are they neglecting their responibilities they cannot claim to be a Christian; for a Christian lets Christ's ways penertrate their entire life, even the political facet. We are told that as Christians we may be rejected for doing this but we must stay true to the teaching of Christ, for would he allow the oppression of his children? Are we not all brothers and sisters united in Christ? We ALL must stand up for Christ's teachings.
David Prior | 20 November 2006

I believe that it is important for church leaders and politicians to critically reflect on matters of public interest and concern and suggest responses to the matters that are consistent with the fundamental beliefs of their faith. I see that this is the essence of democracy and people should have the right to express not so much their feelings but their beliefs.
Bernard Edwards | 20 November 2006

Great to read all the varying comments, heartening to hear that Cardinal Pell is suggesting that David Hicks should get a fair trail, does anyone have the link to what George Pell actually said about David Hicks. As a Christian I agree whole heartedly that there are times when our silence is our downfall. There are so many instances where Christians need to stand up for human rights and human dignity both within Australia and on the world stage. Thank God, many are.

Andrews’s article is very interesting; the final point that he makes that the church can contribute to and brings to public life is a care for truth; touches the essence of this discussion. Of course a question that needs to be asked is whose truth and which truth and does this truth encompass the spirit of the gospels. I suggest that all of us need to contribute to the various ethical debates that come up regularly, with open and unbiased contributions from church leaders more than welcomed.

Best regards to all.

Peter Igoe-Taylor

Peter Igoe-Taylor | 21 November 2006

I found this link on Cathnews to what George Pell said about David Hicks' situation: http://www.cathnews.com/news/610/44.php
Marisa Pintado | 21 November 2006


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up