Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Irreverent Wrongs

In the kindness of God, I've been traveling a little bit over the past 3-4 days. So, I've missed a lot of the brewing scandal regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright's recent comments during the Bill Moyers interview, at the Detroit NAACP meeting, and at the National Press Club. Seems the couple months of silence was spent resting his vocal chords, drinking lots of water, and preparing for a torrent of very public and altogether useless comments.

After puzzling over why Wright would do the Moyers interview when it seemed the story was dying (albeit a slow and agonizing death), after watching some extended sections from the NAACP talk, and after hearing sections of Obama's reaction, it seems apparent that Wright's comments (a) further wounded a sheep in his care--this time personally, and (b) perhaps revealed a level of pride and lacking discernment. The former pastor is obviously wrong, compounding those wrongs, and appears irreverent about it.

It's a cautionary tale for us younger pastors. Here's a man that's served the same congregation over thirty years, who has no doubt learned many things in that time. He's perhaps forgotten more than I know. And yet, when he is supposed to be retired and out of the public light, seems so taken with himself and his view of the world that he'd beat the sheep rather than feed them and risk overturning perhaps the most significant bid for the presidency in American history.

The lessons are legion. Here are five from my perspective:

1. Feed the sheep, feed the sheep, feed the sheep. For the sake of argument, even if Obama was wrong in his Philadelphia comments where Wright was concerned, the appropriate response from the pastor isn't a series of interviews but Galatians 6:1-2, gently pulling the erring brother aside. Insofar as Wright still regarded himself as the stronger brother and Obama's pastor, he was obligated to bear with the weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1-3) and to teach with all patience (2 Tim. 4:2). This, no doubt, is easier said than done when we're feeling personally attacked. But our call to heal and lead the sheep trumps our "right" to self-defense.

2. Be willing to suffer reproach for doing good. Wright sees himself as a servant of the marginalized and oppressed, a role he asserts Jesus assumed. If he really believed that, he should willingly and joyfully suffer for doing good (1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:13-17). To this we are called. While I think Wright's theological and political commitments are wrong-headed, his life illustrates for me the importance of my being willing to suffer for what I think is right--the Lord, the gospel and the sheep.

3. Think carefully about a separation of church and state principle in my own ministry and public comments on public issues. This, I think, is a serious weakness in some quarters of American Christianity, with social gospels on the left and the right. Wright interprets the critical comments in response to his sermons as an attack on the black church. The comments fueling all of this were pretty clearly political comments, not gospel, Christian, or church-related comments. That he doesn't see the distinction is quite alarming. Now he is in the public square assuming that his detractors at the least don't understand the entire black church and at worst are anti-black church. Whenever or if ever I am called to speak on some public issue, I need to do the hard work of knowing where the Bible stops speaking, where my opinion begins, and where either state concerns are over-running more fundamental biblical concerns or vice-versa.

4. Seek counsel before speaking. That hardly needs any elaboration, except to say that on stages as large as this, and on a thousand smaller ones, we either help the cause of Christ by speaking well or hinder it by speaking poorly. "No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8). Surely we should count the costs before waging war, seek counsel before advancing plans. And beyond seeking counsel, heeding it. I can't imagine that any godly persons advised Wright to make these appearances, or they did that Wright kept their counsel. A good rule of thumb I learned in a different context: if you seek someone's counsel and you decide to do something other than what they counsel, at least make yourself accountable to the counselor and the counsel by advising the counselor that (a) you're going to do something different than what was counseled, (b) the reasons why, and (b) before you act.

5. Pray and war against pride. I don't want to judge Wright. I don't know the man's heart or motives in all of this. But it looks like the same kind of pride that lurks in my heart, seeking to control the assessments I make of myself, my own importance and influence, and my reaction to situations and people who don't think more highly of me than they do themselves. It's been said a lot. And most of us have read or heard C.J. and others on the dangers of pride. But is it not ever with us? Does it not always threaten us, our relationships, and even our ministries? Had Wright never said a word in his own defense, many people would have judged his life of ministry on a wider set of factors, some favorable and some not. But now, it seems pride may have ruined a reputation after the public ministry was completed. It can do as much and more damage in all of our lives.

Here's what I pray I would have said if I were forced to do a Press Club event in Wright's situation. I realize I have all the benefits of not being in the situation and the seemingly better sight that comes from Monday morning quarterbacking. And, it's a strange thing to confess another's sins. But Wright's flaws are so nearly my own, or so peculiar to the preaching ministry, that it's worth thinking through as though they had been my comments. So, here goes:

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you with regard to a number of issues drawing national attention, comment, and even anger. I realize that I don't deserve this platform to speak to you, and I don't take for granted the trust I am called to exercise as a minister and preacher of the gospel and a community servant.

"Much could be said in an attempt to explain the comments aired on YouTube and various media outlets. But explanation is not nearly as important as repentance.

"I want to make full and public repentance for my comments, which includes (a) denouncing those comments, (b) offering apology and, where possible, restitution for those comments, and (c) disassociating my sins from innocent and affected parties.

"For thirty years I have warned my congregation and many visitors to TUCC about the dangers of sin, the deceitfulness of sin, and the need for the atoning work of Christ to be applied to each person because of their sin. That atonement is appropriated through repentance and faith in the crucified and risen Son of God, Jesus Christ, who in His crucifixion satisfied God the Father's holy anger against sin. That includes sins of speech, like the words I spoke during those sermons. Those comments were careless, inaccurate, insensitive, divisive... in a word, sinful. Without rationalization or attempts at justification, I do now denounce and disavow these specific comments and phrases....

"I also wish to offer unfeigned apology to all those harmed by my comments. The numbers of such people is too large to list them all, even by demographic groups. But I do wish to apologize specifically to the members of Trinity UCC, fellow Christians around the world whose love for and association with the Savior has been hindered in any way, and citizens of the United States of America. Jesus Christ is meek and lowly in heart. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoking wick. Those are characteristics that should mark His people, especially His ministers. Those characteristics are not found in my comments. For that, I am ashamed and deeply sorry. I wish to apologize to anyone hurt by my remarks.

"Finally, I would like to make it clear that my comments were my comments. They were not the official position of TUCC and they do not represent the opinions and commitments of every individual member of TUCC, including my dear brother, Sen. Barack Obama.

"Attempts have been made to characterize Sen. Obama as basically sympathetic to my comments simply because he is a 20-year member of TUCC. As any pastor can tell you, not every member agrees with every position a pastor holds. And as a pastor with enough humility to admit that his opinions and sermons are not flawless presentations of God's word and truth, I am frankly quite pleased that members of TUCC, including Sen. Obama, have enough discernment and integrity to distance themselves from anything I may say that does not well represent Christ and/or their understanding of the Lord's word. In an effort to serve such members, to affirm and protect their integrity and freedom of conscience, it is important that my comments be viewed as my comments and that individual members of Trinity not be unduly and unfairly associated with views they themselves have never shared.

"I know Sen. Barack Obama to be.... And I pray that the American people would judge him by the content of his character, and not by the content of my sermons.

"Thank you for the opportunity to share these comments. As you know, I entered retirement from the pastorate and public ministry in January of this year. It's my plan to enjoy that retirement and to leave behind these things and to press toward the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. May the Lord bless you and keep you."


John said...

This is the best response I have heard- especially the five lessons. I have linked to this post and also discussed and linked to your T4G sermon on my blog.

Your sermon has given me a new burden. That was the purpose, right? May God continue to use you in a powerful way.

Riley said...

Thank you for giving us a gospel perspective on this situation. I appreciate your insight and humility when writing about Rev. Wright. I pray that my interaction with all of this would be grounded in the gospel and that I could follow your example. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Very wise and humble!

Hayden said...


Now that would have been a press conference to see! What would the pundits do with that one?

Now, it just seems to escalate into name calling and 'sound bytes' again.

As one that preaches the Word, I had a similar situation where I offended someone in the congregation with something I said from the pulpit. I must admit the first response is to defend yourself. It was only through reflection that I stopped defending and started to listen. Even though I didn't see eye to eye with this member of the congregation, the Lord used it to help me pursue humility.

I really wish that Rev Wright would have spent the time in reflection and repented.

DJP said...

Wise words, brother.

God grant that neither of us ever has cause to revisit them (— or, worse, is directed to do so)!


Laura said...

I think #4 is interesting given the NAACP meeting especially -- far from being surrounded by wise counselors, Wright seems to be surrounded by hordes of yes-men and koolaid-drinkers, the foremost of whom were apparently sitting on the dais with him on Sunday night.

I heard someone suggest today (jokingly, of course) that Wright's gone over to the dark side -- that he's on McCain's payroll. Funny, but also pretty on point, given the bitterness of his comments toward Obama.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Thabiti,

For confirming what I am sure many African American Pastors were thinking. Especially those of us, who have mixed congregations, and therefore are more sensitive to the perceptions that our non black brethren have concerning the posturing and flamboyance of a man who is truly gifted.

It is apparant the slippery slope that visibilty can bring to the ministry, when we are too willing to be in the public view.

I have always warned about the intoxication of both politics and the media. And how that by nature, it will bring the ministry down, if we cater too much to it's allure.

I am very saddened however for Obama. While I do not agree much with his politics, He was hurt by the ministry of His pastor.

If He is not nominated, it will no doubt be attributed to TUCC, Wright, BLT, and that segment of African American Churches, who have tauted that system of relgious expression.

Obama, has shined, with dignity, and balance, having had to weather the storm, and He will remain a model for future Black politicians, and interestingly, hope for the nation, that a black man can carry himself well above the stereo typical aggressive, boisterous or smug characiture, that unfortunately is depicted by many, especially clergy.

It hurts, but these are wonderful lessons, about how the Church must model our Saviors, second in command position.

In authority and under authority.

Someone else must be glorified in our actions, and not us!

Wright is both in the way of Christ and Obama.

And that must never be the position of the Church or the minister of the gospel.

Unknown said...

I understand that Wright may have acted in pride and arrogance, but I don't understand why he needs to apologize.

You say he should apologize, renounce and disassociate himself from his comments. Why? What was wrong with him comments?

Nobody has thus far talked about what he said. Nobody explained why what he said was wrong. Can anybody give a response to that?

It seems like his only sin was in offending the patriotic. That's not a sin. It's not a sin to point out a nations sins. It is not a sin to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden.

He has hurt Obama, but not because he's wrong but because a lot of people are virulent against him for reasons unknown.

FellowElder said...


Thanks for reading and for asking good questions. Without raking back through his sermons and listing all the comments i think are problematic, let me try to state in principle why I think he should repent of at least some of his comments.

1. Some of his comments were factually in error (the U.S. gov't spread AIDS in the African American community). Anything accusatory and factually in error should be repented of, otherwise it's slanderous.

2. Some of his comments were factually accurate (Tuskegee syphillis experiments) but wielded carelessly. Our speech is to be seasoned with grace; we are to speak the truth in love. So, while I don't think he is wrong to speak of such things in public, the Scripture has a lot to say about how Christ's people are to speak. Love and grace are paramount. And to the extent that they were lacking, I think as a representative of Christ he needs to repent of at least his tone in those cases.

3. You're certainly correct; it is no sin to stand up for the downtrodden or to point out a nation's sins. But it is at least a missed opportunity to speak to either without holding forth the path of repentance and recovery. Perhaps the most serious flaw of the sermons are not the rhetoric but the overlooked remedy of the Cross of Christ and the articulation of specific forms and acts of repentance. When John the Baptist denounced the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the unrighteous of his day--using very strong words--he spoke to them about what repentance entailed or looked like (Luke 3:7-17). His words were an exhortatoin and a gospel proclamation, not a condemnation and attack (v. 18). On this point, Wright failed. And, imho, he needs to repent of that.

4. Finally, to the extent that Wright now allows and even insinuates that his views are the views of everyone in the church, including those who publicly say otherwise, he misrepresents others. So any comments that project his opinions onto others are unwarranted and necessarily require apology.

Just my two cents here.

Anonymous said...

Three things:

1. Wrights comments were despicable and unbecoming a minister.
2. His need to repent is true. But, there is no evidence that he really disavows those comments (beliefs).
3. He did not have all his facts right. Besides the HIV comment, the Tuskegee comment was wrong. The government did not inject the patients with syphilis. They withheld the penicilin after 1947 when it became standard treatment. The experiment was still horrible.

Shawn Abigail said...

Listening to Wright's words, it is amazing what passes for gospel ministry. IMHO he was ear tickling, tell people what they wanted to hear instead of pointing them to Christ.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Great job. Very thoughtful and helpful for us all to consider even on the smaller stages where many of us clergy find ourselves.

I'm glad I found your blog.

Anonymous said...

Seriously consider coming to Detroit to speak at Cornerston Bapt. It is needed badly in our area.

FellowElder said...

Thanks for the suggestion to come to Detroit. Lord willing, Paul Edwards will have me on his talk show at 5pm today. Maybe that's a start :-)


Unknown said...

He isn't bitter for just bitterness sake, he is bitter for a reason--he isn't justified to be bitter but called to forgive. I don't agree with him or his liberation theology, but to dismiss his message for reconciliation (which was mentioned in the sermon )is fool hardy and lacks compassion.

White evangelicals have no clue what it would have been like to pastor a church in the black community during slavery, or jim crow, or the civil rights movement. You and I haven't walked a mile, let alone ten feet, in his shoes.

Does he need to repent for his bitterness? Yes. There is nothing you can do about the past. Blacks got a bad card dealt to them by this country.

Should his message be totally dismissed? I don't think so. Racism is well and alive in this country, and just because you can't see or experience it, doesn't make any less real.

Is racial reconciliation ever going to happen in this country? I seriously doubt it.

He doesn't speak for this black man or most of us in the african-american community, but I betcha most blacks can identify with his message.

To simply dismiss him as a crazy black man, or unpatriotic without looking at the issues he raises isn't fair.

I think he should seek biblical counseling to deal with issues of bitterness, but I think American needs to deal with it's racist past just as much as wright needs counseling.

Anonymous said...


Wise words. A great response, thank you for using this situation as a teaching tool for pastors.

Tandy Vaughn said...

I appreciate your comments, they were very thoughtful, open, and honest. For my take, Wright was both right and wrong: Wright was on target noting that Obama responded like a politician, however Wright was wrong in his self-assessment, he did NOT respond like a pastor, at least not as defined in the NT. I'm so glad I was referred to your website.

Pastor Pablito said...


Let me first say that Rev. Wright is obviously a well educated man, both worldly and Biblically. He is evidently a respected theologian and I am sure he has done many great things for Christ over the years.

Now, as I don’t know how TUCC operates as a church, I may be speaking a little out of turn, but Rev. Wright appears to be one who has had little if any oversight for a very long time. I don’t know who, if anybody, he answers to in his church. Many pastors who have built their churches over 20-40 years seem to have carte blanche in what they do and say. Even if there is an elder board or committee, they may be reluctant to “buck the boss”.

I feel he has gone the way of some other preachers (John Hagee comes to mind), that if it will get them to clap, cheer and stand up, then shout it louder, stronger, longer and push the envelope further.

As Wright has apparently said whatever he wanted to say for “a while” now, it appears he felt that it was his prerogative to do it again in his last few venues. I’m a conservative Republican, and I don’t agree with some of Barack Obama’s positions (frankly I’m not happy that these three are our only choices) and even I watched in horror as Rev. Wright pretty much shot his campaign in the foot.


Doc said...

Has anyone thought of the shocking idea that perhaps Wright does not want Obama to win. Crazy, you say?

Wright is steeped in black liberation theology, which is based on black people being oppressed. Well, what could be a bigger nail in the coffin of black lib theo than a black man being democratically elected to the highest office in the land? President Obama would mean an end to the entire framework of Wright's theology and ministry. And it's not like Wright could even take credit since he was saying earlier this year that America, the US of KKK, is still a racist land.

Say what you want about Wright, but he's not stupid. So, why would he say on national TV that he speaks the truth while Obama speaks like a politician? He had to know he was stabbing Obama in the back; but that's just it. Maybe he was actually trying to capsize Obama's image as a new breed of statesman.

And the icing on the cake comes when Wright says the attacks on him are attacks on the black church. So, if Americans turn against Obama because of his association with Wright, and any attack on Wright is an attack on the black church, then it follows that voting against Obama is now an attack on the black church. In other words, if Obama loses, it just proves American really is racist; a loss for Obama would not merely save the legitimacy of Wright's black liberation theology, it would vindicate and validate the theology.

Of course Wright wants Obama to lose. He needs Obama to lose.

Anonymous said...

If you read the whole New Testament you will find out that we can judge with "righteous judgment" our own bretheren. We are not to judge the unsaved, but we are to judge righteously our own bretheren. Example: John 7:24
Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment."

1 Corinthians 5:9-13
9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner--not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person."

Anonymous said...

Although I do agree with what you said concerning Dr. Wright's humility and dealing with bitterness and lack of discernment, Dr. Wright still spoke the truth with the exception of the HIV situation which he put in the context of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment. He even stated that he could not prove the HIV comment. I do believe that Dr. Wright is misunderstood and is a proud man concerned about his legacy. It is easy for you and I of an obviously younger generation to not be able to come close to what Dr. Wright experienced in the US during the 1950's and 1960's here in the US. Nevertheless, I do disagree with his Liberation Theology because it is not Biblical. However, if you listen to his entire sermons which I am assuming you have, you will find HISTORICAL truth mixed with bitterness but nonetheless accurate HISTORICAL truth. There are problems with truth in history (ancient and medieval) when it comes to the Christianity (doctrines and eschatological views) that is preached and portrayed in our country (USA) and politicized every election cycle. This is why I love Reformed Theology which is very Biblical (yet not perfect in all aspects) and very accurate with a focus on Christ and him crucified (an act of God's grace) without the baggage of some of these crazy eschatological views that has had a profound impact on US foreign policy).

The bottomline is there is a real and true disconnect between accurate doctrine and accurate historical prospectives being preached together in our country and some others as well. And this disconnect between biblical truth and historical truth bothers me.

In Christ,