By John Aman
When D. James Kennedy was preaching at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church – the fastest growing Presbyterian church in the nation for much of his tenure – his sermons and comments to media sometimes sparked fireworks.
One time he said: “We hear today that this is a pluralistic nation and that it is not a Christian nation. But Christianity itself, general Christianity, was conceived as the support of all our government.”
Kennedy, who died in 2007 after 47 years of ministry at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, church, preached that Jesus is the only way to God, urged Christians to discern between good and evil, pointed out the failings of the theory of evolution, affirmed the resurrection of Jesus and believed the church should be a social force in society, defending traditional marriage and opposing abortion. He named one of his efforts “Reclaiming America for Christ.”
When it comes to faith in the public square, Coral Ridge is now moving in a new direction.
Pastor and popular evangelical author Tullian Tchividjian is in the pulpit and has made it, for the most part, a no-comment zone when it comes to matters such as the sanctity of human life and the sin of Sodom.
Regarding social and moral concerns, Tchividjian is happy to talk about them in the public library or somewhere else, but the 42-year-old grandson of Billy Graham says the pulpit should be reserved for leaders “to diagnose sinners by preaching God’s law and then to deliver sinners by preaching God’s gospel.”
“I think it’s fine for the preacher to comment on things that are going on in the world,” Tchividjian told WND, “as long as the preacher recognizes that his role is first and foremost to deliver rest to the weary and heavy laden.”
Pulpit has ‘unique job description’
Tchividjian, who preaches each week to some 1,600 people at the Fort Lauderdale church, said the pulpit has a “unique job description,” and using it to “predominately speak as an activist on social issues” is not being faithful to its primary purpose.
“That’s not to say,” Tchividjian said, “that Christians aren’t supposed to have a biblical world and life view, and have certain convictions regarding things that are going on in the world and speak those convictions.”
But that’s not something for which Tchividjian, a gifted speaker and writer, is known. The author of eight books, including his latest, “It is Finished: 365 Days of Good News,” Tchividjian rarely addresses abortion – arguably the greatest human rights issue in U.S. history. And he says little about the redefinition of marriage, a historically unprecedented moral revolution taking place in less than a generation.
His new devotional, “It is Finished,” mentions abortion once and same-sex marriage not at all. “Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different,” Tchividjian’s 2009 treatise on Christian cultural engagement, mentions these front-burner moral concerns just a handful of times. He approvingly cites columnist Cal Thomas’ claim that Christian political engagement has achieved little in the last 30 years or so.
And he tells readers: “Lots of people think of Christians as embittered, angry people, especially in relation to highly charged social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.”
Political evangelicals hurt the brand
Although publicly quiet about social issues, Tchividjian is outspoken when it comes to fellow Christians who step into the fray. He calls 10,000-member First Baptist Dallas a “controversial church” in his “It is Finished” account of Tim Tebow’s decision to cancel a speaking engagement there. Tebow dropped out after homosexuals mounted a pressure campaign. The church is led by Robert Jeffress, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage.
And Tchividjian rankled many when he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program that politically engaged evangelicals have tarnished Christianity’s reputation.
“Over the course of the last 20 or 30 years,” he asserted, “evangelicalism, specifically their association with the religious right and conservative politics, has done more damage to the brand of Christianity than just about anything else.”
Evangelicals, however, earned a middling 52 rating from the rest of the nation on Pew Research Center’s “feeling thermometer,” a 0 to 100 measure of how cool or warm public attitudes are to a group. Catholics earned a 58 and Jews 63. The result shows Americans are not especially positive or negative toward evangelicals.
And Pew reported last September that increasing numbers of Americans want the church to “play a role in U.S. politics.” Forty-nine percent think churches should speak out on social and political issues, up from 43 percent in 2010.
“My sense of the evidence is that Tullian’s comments are a bit overstated,” said political scientist John C. Green, a leading analyst of religion and politics in America.
While acknowledging “some negative consequences to the political involvement of evangelicals in politics,” Green suggested the evidence is mixed.
“There is an intense debate among many evangelical pastors over whether the positive consequences have outweighed the negative ones,” observed Green, co-author of “The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy” and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“A credible argument can be made for both sides,” he said.
Theologian, author and talk-show host Michael Brown sided with Tchividjian, in part, on the consequence of Christian social engagement.
Some Christians, he said, “have made too much of a connection between politics and the gospel.” That has tied the gospel to “conservative Republican politics” in the minds of many. “And that has hurt us.”
But not addressing moral concerns, Brown added, “is a retreat from the front lines of things that are very important to the Lord.”
“We absolutely need to recognize that we’re called to be the salt of the earth and light of the world,” said Brown, author of numerous books, including “A Queer Thing Happened to America,” a groundbreaking 700-page critique of homosexual activism.
He cited Martin Luther King Jr., who said the church must be the “conscience of the state.”
But that, Tchividjian asserts, is not the job of the preacher.
“Preachers (when they preach) should be much more concerned with recovering the gospel for the church than ‘reclaiming America for Christ.'”
Changes at Coral Ridge
Tchividjian’s predecessor, Kennedy, hosted the annual Reclaiming America for Christ conference in Fort Lauderdale, which attracted Christian social activists and speakers such as Roy Moore, John Ashcroft and Jerry Falwell. Some 2,000 people are expected this month at Tchividjian’s Liberate conference, a yearly gathering since 2012 that addresses themes of grace, forgiveness and freedom in Christ.
The two conferences exemplify the shift from Kennedy to Tchividjian, who came to Coral Ridge in 2009. Some 400 members left five months later, including Kennedy’s wife and daughter, after the church voted to retain Tchividjian.
Chuck Tiedje, a member of the church since 1993, says he is one of the few people now at Coral Ridge “who is of the Jim Kennedy era.” He appreciates Tchividjian’s grace-centered preaching but differs with him on addressing moral concerns.
“My guess would be that of the congregation that exists at this point in time that at least half of the people would agree with Tchividjian’s comments on “Morning Joe,” observed Tiedje.
Most of the politically active members and those who want to preserve America’s founding values “left the church when Tullian came and the church split occurred,” he said.
The Issues Awareness group once led by a Republican precinct committee woman no longer exists at the church, as it did under Kennedy, said Tiedje.
“That has not been considered to be something that would be appropriate at Coral Ridge.”
Tchividjian told WND he won’t issue a summons to political action from the pulpit, urging his flock, for example, to call Congress on behalf of specific legislation.
“I don’t do that because that’s not expository preaching. In other words, I address those issues as they come up in the text.”
No comment on homosexual sin
“I won’t skip verses, I won’t skirt verses that I think are uncomfortable,” he said.
But when he preached from Romans 1 and 2 last February, he had little to say about the most explicit condemnation of homosexual conduct in the New Testament.
Paul, the author of Romans, comes down hard in his first chapter against “men committing shameless acts with men,” but Tchividjian doesn’t address Paul’s harsh indictment.
Instead, he asserts Paul’s larger point in his catalog of sins – ranging from ingratitude to gossip, with two verses devoted to homosexual conduct – was to reveal the self-righteousness of his readers and to show that “inside the church people are just as guilty as outside the church people.”
“Religious people are just as guilty as non-religious people,” he said.
Tchividjian said, long before President Obama’s controversial remarks at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, that “there have been horrible sins committed in the name of Jesus.” One is “how slow the church in the south was [200 years ago] to say slavery was bad.”
The statement ignores the leading role of 19th century evangelicals in Britain and the U.S. to end slavery but does, ironically, make the point that silence is costly.
Should German pulpits have protested Hitler?
When asked about the silence of German evangelical preachers in the face of discriminatory and deadly Nazi policies toward Jews, gypsies and other so-called “undesirables,” Tchividjian at first said he was ignorant of that dark chapter in church history.
“I don’t know enough about their silence or what they said or did not say or the reasons why they said or did not say what they said back then,” he said in a phone interview.
After evidence of German evangelicals’ muted response to Nazi assaults on life and dignity was given in a follow-up email, he replied: “To the degree that Christians and Christian leaders remained silent during the atrocities that were committed against Jewish people under the Nazi regime, then they were wrong and negligent in their responsibilities as Christians.”
But does he think German pulpits should have rung out with denunciations of Hitler and his henchmen? It’s not clear.
“My point is, and has always been, that the pulpit in particular has a very specific and sacred job description,” Tchividjian said in response to a question about the silence of the German church. “It is reserved to diagnose sinners by preaching God’s law and then to deliver sinners by preaching God’s gospel from every text every week.”
Michael Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus and the world’s foremost Messianic Jewish apologist, called it “surprising” that Tchividjian did not know about the the silence of German pastors in the 1930s. He said it was “shocking that he would not categorically repudiate that silence.”
“Can he really think that murderous acts against the Jews and others did not need to be addressed from the pulpit or that these are not gospel issues as well?” Brown asked in an emailed response.
But keeping current moral and social concerns out of the pulpit and focusing solely on God’s law and gospel is just “classic Reformed theology,” Tchividjian said, and the path taken by Martin Luther and others Protestant Reformers.
What about John Knox?
Scottish Reformation leader John Knox, however, was an outspoken critic of Catholic ruler Mary, Queen of Scots. Knox said he was a “watchman” over both the nation and the church, and was “bound in conscience to blow the trumpet publicly” when danger threatened church or state.
But he didn’t do that from the pulpit, Tchividjian claimed.
“John Knox did NOT use the pulpit on the Lord’s Day to address his cultural concerns,” he told WND by email.
Scholar John Barber found the claim surprising, because just two or three Knox sermons are preserved entirely. One sermon, Barber said, is an explicit attack on both Mary and her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
With both the queen and her king consort sitting in church, Henry on a throne, Knox preached from Isaiah 26:13-14, which says, in part, “O Lord our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us.” Knox also cited Isaiah 3:12, “My people – infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them.” And to make his point extra clear, Knox added a reference to King Ahab, who displeased God by failing to deal with wicked Queen Jezebel.
“Knox was not mentioning Mary and Henry by name, but everybody knew who he was talking about,” said Barber, a Presbyterian pastor, cultural historian and theologian.
The sermon so infuriated the king that Knox was summoned that same day before the town council, where authorities barred him from preaching for 20 days.
“We can certainly infer from this,” asserted Barber, “that Knox was not afraid at all to preach boldly on the cultural and social issues of his day.”
And Knox was not alone in doing so. The Reformation, Barber contended, “absolutely transforms all of Europe” and “that began in the pulpit.”
America’s ‘Black Regiment’
Clergy helped ignite the American Revolution, too. Historian David Barton said revivalist George Whitefield “was one of the first to tell Americans that if you want your freedom you will have to separate from Great Britain.”
Whitefield had plenty of company.
“The British were so infuriated,” Barton said, “at the tendency of American clergy to address social ills that they called them the Black Regiment, because of the robes they wore, and specifically blamed them for all the trouble that went on in the American Revolution.”
When clergyman William Gordon preached in support of the American Revolution on Sunday, Dec. 15, 1776, he declared “there are special times and seasons when it [the pulpit] may treat of politics.”
That enraged one of the “king’s friends,” who shot back, calling the sermon “daring and treasonable” and “audacious and wicked.”
“I most heartily wish, for the peace of America,” the loyalist complained, “that he and many others of his profession would confine themselves to gospel truths.”
That may be the approach of many evangelical preachers today who, like Tchividjian, limit their pulpit remarks to God’s law and God’s grace, as it applies to the individual.
Cost of silence
The “moral voice of the church is silent” today, said Barton, the founder of WallBuilders. He cited polling data indicating that while 97 percent of theologically conservative pastors say the Bible addresses divorce, abortion and homosexuality, “less than 10 percent say they’re willing to talk about those issues.”
He and George Barna note in their book “U-Turn: Restoring American to the Strength of Its Roots” that just 34 percent of Americans believe in absolute moral truth. And just 1 in 10 think absolute moral truth is found in the Bible.
“The church is facilitating that,” Barton charged, “by its silence on very simple issues the Bible talks about.”
John Aman is a writer and communications consultant who served for two decades as a writer and communications director at Coral Ridge Ministries, the media ministry of D. James Kennedy. He is the co-author of “Team Obama: All the President’s Real Men and Women.”