Review of Ethical Approaches to Preaching

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John S. McClure, Ethical Approaches to Preaching: Choosing the Best Way to Preach About Difficult Issues (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).

In Ethical Approaches to Preaching: Choosing the Best Way to Preach About Difficult Issues, John S. McClure creates a guide by which preachers can do precisely what the subtitle of the book states—preach about difficult issues. At the core of his premise is the conviction that ethics and theology are interconnected and not different modes of instruction. McClure states: “No matter how interior or transcendent theological ideas may seem, they always harbor implicit or explicit ideas regarding how we ought to live and behave as Christians” (8). Thus, preachers ought to embrace their craft as both a theological and ethical activity.

McClure identifies four ethical categories: communicative ethics, witness ethics, liberation ethics, and hospitality ethics. These categories offer approaches preachers can utilize in the homiletical task of guiding their listeners regarding how to live in this world.

  1. Communicative ethics, for the preacher, seeks to understand various viewpoints and “articulate the moral norms that can be considered . . . for as many people as possible” (16).
  2. In the witness ethic approach, preachers call people to moral character and uses the pulpit to challenge powers and systems (50).
  3. The liberation ethical approach recognizes how God identifies with the poor and oppressed and calls for justice. It “aims primarily at the unmasking, critique, and change of current social systems” (63).
  4. Lastly, hospitality ethics calls for face-to-face engagement that seeks moral solidarity that produces relationships that flourish (88).

McClure surmises that congregants listen intently for their preachers to give them directions on how to live, the political choices they make, and the social concerns they carry. Because congregations are often socially diverse, preachers need to utilize the various ethical approaches to avoid a “one size fits all” methodology to their preaching. One sermonic style will not be sufficient for preaching on all ethical issues. Ultimately, McClure seeks to help preachers identify what ethical approach fits a particular preaching moment.

With the presentation of each of the four ethical approaches he also provides four categories through which to evaluate them. Those categories are defined as:

  1. The Way Out: the preacher uses theological subjects (i.e., sin, evil) to present an ethical problem, giving listeners a clear way out of that problem.
  2. The Way In: the preacher poses the problem in such a way that congregants are motivated to “step inside” and listen, becoming invested in the problem.
  3. The Way Through: the preacher gives clear “signposts” (categories, topics, concepts, etc.) for people to grasp the best response to, or way through, that particular problem.
  4. The Way Toward: the preacher articulates the end goal or “final destination” toward a new and better world that comes out of having addressed the ethical problem.

After presenting his methodology, the subsequent chapters develop the four ethical approaches. Each chapter focuses on one ethical approach and contains a sermon from McClure himself utilizing that approach to discuss the topic of immigration. By choosing to preach on the same topic in each chapter, McClure allows the reader to gain a better grasp of the distinctions between the communicative, witness, liberation, and hospitality approaches. In addition, he supplies a short commentary within each, demonstrating how he is developing that ethical approach at various points in the message. After his sermon, McClure provides another sermonic example from a different preacher that reflects the same ethical approach. Each chapter ends with several books for suggested reading.

With the four ethical approaches, McClure recognizes that some preachers will initially feel uneasy, as if he’s suggesting that their sermons need to be placed into one of four homiletical “boxes” without creative flexibility. He believes that hybrid approaches are valid, but only after the preacher first truly understands communicative, witness, liberation and hospitality ethics on their own terms. Ultimately, McClure wants to impress upon preachers that the reason they go through the work of determining the best approach to address an ethical problem is because preachers are committed to the task of applying God’s truths to the immediate context in which they serve.

I applaud McClure for developing clear categories through which preachers can engage ethical issues. Preachers seeking a fresh approach to their witness as homileticians will be greatly helped by it. The four ethical categories also press the preacher to consider the question, “What approach is most needed in my particular context?” This question prevents stale sermons that are forced into a basic sermonic structure and ultimately miss the mark. For example, when a preacher utilizes the ethic of hospitality and considers the ultimate goal (“the way toward”) of the instruction, the preacher is able to approach sermon crafting and the preaching moment with a clear direction and aim geared at relational flourishing.

A regular tension that I felt in reading the book is the need for more discussion on how our biblical interpretations form our theological convictions which in turn affect the way we approach various ethical issues. While McClure encourages preachers to view ethical issues objectively, more needs to be said on how a preacher is to approach an ethical issue objectively that he or she views to be immoral.

Ultimately, fidelity to the Bible has to be the basis for morality. On the one hand, McClure talks about the importance of preachers entering into public meetings on things such as fair housing and fair wages to gain a better understanding of peoples’ needs while at the same time encouraging churches to invite into their learning community diverse teaching voices that differ in perspective on things such as abortion, immigration, welfare, and euthanasia. The concern I have with this approach is that the preacher has not only the responsibility to be objective about nuanced ethical questions (fair wages, immigration, welfare) but also has the responsibility to shepherd the church on ethical questions where the Bible takes a clear stand (abortion, euthanasia). Our theology must determine where we draw certain moral lines. Ultimately, what is lacking from McClure’s discussion is a more robust presentation of how the gospel informs moral standards and ultimately ethical approaches. In seeking to understand diverse views, we cannot lose our prophetic witness.

McClure’s work is beneficial in that it gives preachers fresh approaches to preaching on difficult ethical challenges that most readers will find helpful. However, his outworking and examples of those approaches will likely leave some wanting greater gospel and biblical rootedness when addressing these issues.