Atlanta, Georgia’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, according to its website, is “built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ,” and has long been an environment fostering the social justice movement. Boasting its great history as a leading site of Civil Rights events and coordination, Ebenezer Baptist was even pastored by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.
It’s not surprising that this was the location hosting senior White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s birth. It was reported that Jarrett praised Dr. King’s work as essential to the possibility of Barack Obama ascending to the Oval Office. Many may also remember that then-Senator Obama manned the pulpit in 2008 prior to reaching the presidency.
“It felt appropriate to have her here,” said Rev. Raphael Warnock. Ebenezer is several weeks into a voter registration drive, which will continue until November elections, providing attendees the opportunity to register in the lobby before leaving the church facilities.
Jarrett spoke before Warnock’s sermon, and garnered the audience’s applause with two remarks in particular:
“We all sleep a little better at night knowing Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants are not plotting a terrorist attack against the United States.”
“Teachers and firefighters and policemen, whose jobs are now in jeopardy because Congress, well let me be specific, because the Republicans in Congress…”
“Mr. Gingrich, let there be welfare reform, and let it begin with you…He is playing an old game that’s part of the southern strategy…I think he’s relying on old logic of scapegoating and race baiting.”
I am deeply disturbed, and I am not alone.
There is no shortage of discussion material that could be explored here, including the proper relation of politics and the Church, individual Christians involved in politics, government roles, social justice, civil rights, racial tension, liberation theology, and other contentious topics. However, my main concern here is this: how should the Church use the pulpit?
Even setting aside the issue of the “legality” of all but endorsing a political candidate by hosting one of his top advisers and representatives, and speaking against a candidate (threatening non-profit, 501c3 status), this is a bold move by Ebenezer Baptist Church. [IRS: “…Public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.”]
Why did Rev. Warnock surrender the pulpit to such a figure? What did he hope to accomplish with this? Was this an intentional, thoughtful use of people’s time attending the church gathering? How is Jarrett’s celebration of the death of Bin Laden providing the audience meaningful spiritual substance? What perception does this give the public at large about Ebenezer Baptist Church? Or about the Church locally, nationally, or globally? Do we want the world to see the Church in this light, as a forum for more political and socioeconomic divisiveness? Does the Church not project a perception of who God is and what He’s like?
How should Jesus’ Church use the pulpit?
A position of leadership and speaking to a gathered body of people should not be taken lightly, and therefore must be stewarded wisely. The pulpit, as a placement of authority, ultimately belongs to God and not man; we are only borrowing it, but we’ll be held responsible for how it is used.
The intention of the pulpit is to proclaim and celebrate God’s truth in Scripture and the world, to remind us of His heart, to call us out of sin and to repentance, to cast vision for the direction God calls his followers, to instigate believers to live adventurously with God’s Spirit in loving and serving the world, and to bring us back to the centrality of life: while we were still stuck in the mire of sin, Jesus dwelt among us, died to put our sins to death, and resurrected to bring us also back to life in Him. The pulpit is about the Gospel, because without it, truth is incomplete, God is too impersonal, the world too un-navigable, our lives of no culminating significance, and grace too unattainable. The pulpit must be used to re-gather God’s people around their purpose for living, enjoying the Creator and His creation.
Perhaps most importantly, in this instance of opening the pulpit to a high-profile guest, where was Jesus? Not once was Christ mentioned, nor was God name-dropped; neither was there a semblance of biblical teaching, instruction, or leading of attendees into a holistic, godly life following Jesus. [I realize the nature of news reports is to share only succinct soundbites and the most sensational statements, but there has been no shred of Jesus mentioned in any of the broadcasts or transcripts. I would love to be proven incorrect by hearing that Rev. Warnock actually did preach a sermon about Jesus, although it’s hard to argue that the Gospel would not be muddied by including such flagrant speech against a political figure in his same message.] To give a guest speaker, or even a pastor or leader figure, warranted time on the platform to share a message that is void of Jesus and the Gospel, is at best a disjointed, incomplete message, and at worst a disservice and disgrace to the Church for which Jesus died to redeem.
If we contrast how Jesus used the position of the pulpit (although a physical pulpit may not have been the precise location of his teaching), we see Him steward the platform for spiritual authority with great wisdom, boldness, and substance. In the Gospel accounts, for example, we see Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount and visit synagogues to read Scripture. In preaching a brief message based on the prophet Isaiah’s writings, Jesus’ exegesis of Scripture reveals that He is the fulfillment of it. The redeemer of the oppressed, the giver of sight to the blind; despite the imperfection of the world, He is making all things new. We would do well to rightly divide the word of truth in our stewardship of the pulpit.
Do you see unfitting use of the pulpit? What abuses must be avoided? How can we effectively and faithfully steward places and positions of authority?