By Bob Hiller –
With the death of Muhammed Ali, 2016 has taken one of the most significant public figures in the last half century. Almost without argument, Ali is considered to be the greatest boxer of all time. He even, rightfully, self-glossed himself “The Greatest.” (Is it bragging if he’s right?) Not only did Ali dominate in the ring. He was a trailblazer outside of boxing, as well. In an era where athletes, let alone black athletes, were expected to be seen and not heard, Ali used his fame as a platform to stand up for what he thought was right. In the ‘60s, when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, Ali provided a voice for the black community. Whether taking a stand against the Vietnam war or marching alongside Malcom X, Ali became infamous for speaking his mind on many controversial issues. More recently, Ali has been known for humanitarian work around the world. Ali was truly a transcendent figure whose impact on the world will be remembered for a long time.
Whether you like or hate Ali, you cannot deny the changes he brought about. What interests me in this is how he set a precedent for athletes after him by using his fame as a platform to stand up for what thought was right. It is a point of controversy among many people whether or not famous athletes or celebrity-types should speak their minds on divisive issues. Ali showed us that fame is an effective platform for making a stand. Even now, we see athletes like Tim Tebow and Steph Curry using their fame as a platform to share their faith in Christ. But as we learned recently from former pitcher and former ESPN employee Curt Schilling, the platform can still come with consequences.
What do you think? Do you think athletes should use their fame as a political or religious platform? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I think about this. I do know that people pushing any number of agendas are happy to get athletes as spokes-people for their ideals. Fame has a way of attracting an audience and expanding influence. The vocation of an athlete may be to help their team win a game, but the vocation of a famous athlete seems to come with more social responsibility.
I was thinking about this sort of thing when it comes to the pulpit we pastors have been given. Sometimes I fear that pastors have forgotten the difference between a pulpit and a platform. A platform gives one an opportunity to speak their mind, to take a stand against perceived evils, and promote the good, the true, and the beautiful. Platforms are used to gain influence and change society. I fear pastors are tempted to use their pulpits this way. But despite the pressure from the culture, the church, and even our own personal convictions, pulpits serve no such purpose. Pulpits don’t serve any mere purpose…they serve Jesus to sinners.
There seems to be a misunderstanding in many churches that the role of the pastor is lead the congregation in cultural change. Like Ali, pastors are to take a stand on this or that social issue. With the upcoming election, once again we’ll re-hash the debate over whether or not pastors have the freedom, right, and/or responsibility to preach politics from the pulpit. After all, I think we can all agree that there are any number of societal evils that need to be corrected. What better place than the pulpit to start a grassroots movement in the right direction? Like Ali, shouldn’t pastors use their platform to stand up for what they know to be right?
Well, yes and no. See, the pulpit is not a platform for any political agenda. The pulpit is not a platform for directing social action or influencing voters. The pulpit is not the preacher’s platform. It’s most certainly not the culture’s platform, either. The preacher has no place in the pulpit. By that I mean, the preacher’s opinions and ideals have not place in the pulpit. The pulpit is the place for Jesus to be heard. He is simply utilizing the mouth of the preacher to get at your ears. The pulpit is not the place for political grandstanding but for attacking sin and forgiving it— for preaching Christ and delivering His gifts.
Now, I know someone will say, “Yes, but what about societal sins? Shouldn’t pastors preach about the evils of abortion or gay marriage? Doesn’t the church have something to say about the injustice our poor suffer?” Yes and no. Of course, the pulpit is the place to attack sins like abortion or gay marriage or any other sin for that matter, and certainly we Christians have a responsibility for the poor as well as the rich. Our aim in preaching towards these things is repentance for the forgiveness of sins, not merely making this world an easier place to live. We preach about abortion and gay marriage because God wants those bound to such sins forgiven and freed to love, not because they are issues on this year’s docket or because a certain political party see the church as a place to push its policies. We preach about caring for the poor because the poor need food and Jesus, not because the church carries political clout.
There is a place for people to like Ali to use their platform for what they perceive to be good, but that place is not the church. The aim of the pulpit is Jesus, after all, and not changing society. Societal change may or may not come from the preaching of Christ crucified. The pulpit is the place to hand out gifts from the cross and empty tomb, not set the political system right. Christians, you are free to fight for your political views and take stands against societal evils. But come Sunday morning, you are free from the politics of this world to hear the good news, that in the end, God will take this mess and make all things right. Until then, your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Oh, and so are those of your political rival. I hope to see you both at the altar!