Billy Sunday Preaching by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, 1915
Religious freedom is under assault in our culture.
Churches and preachers which have stood as the chapels and chaplains for a majority Christian America are finding themselves increasingly pushed to the fringes of political and public discussions in light of increasing secularization. Government and public opinion have determined that any speech which labels homosexuality as sin is hate speech and that decrying the legal murder of the unborn is refusing the woman’s right to choose. Merely holding the opinion that gender and sexual identity are fixed biological realities rather than the free-for-all, choose-your-own-story Wild West ensures treatment as a social pariah. And make no mistake, despite the best efforts and intentions of the First Amendment, churches and seminaries and religious schools will not be exempt from LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policies. It’s just a matter of time.
And in response, some pastors will stand behind the sacred pulpit on Sunday morning and attempt to provide a softer, more genteel, more tolerant message of Christianity to their churches and communities. Some will simply tone down the rhetoric while still holding the same convictions, albeit quietly. Others still will re-evaluate the entirety of biblical teaching and judge it to be outdated and culturally-irrelevant.
Many, in fact, have already done this.
In Numbers 22, the king of Moab attempts to coerce the prophet of God to provide a message contrary to the will of God. He wants Balaam to curse those God has commanded him to bless. He wants to force the prophet to up-end God’s judgment—to reverse God’s order. And in so doing, the king of Moab places Balaam in much the same predicament many pastors find themselves every Sunday morning in churches around this nation and around the world. The king solicited a man of God to give validation and approval to something contrary to the will of God. (This was his purpose for calling Balaam, and the prophet’s acceptance of his invitation to do so is what prompted the popular story of Balaam’s conversation with his donkey.)
If Balaam would just bow the knee and kiss the ring of that which is acceptable and culturally preferable, all would go well. He would receive payment and acceptance. He would receive comfort and an extended audience with the king. And yet, Balaam’s response to the king demonstrates both the submission and the courage that should characterize the preacher.
Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak. (Num 22:38b)
This verse gives the reader insight into Balaam and his submission to the authority of Yahweh. Rather than allowing a desire for riches and honor to deter him from the will of God and curse that which God has blessed as Balak demanded (or, as our present circumstances demand, bless that which God has labeled sin), Balaam submitted to the command of Yahweh.
He was not angry or indignant. He was not hateful. He was, however, submitted to God. And that submission made him firm in his resolve and steeled his spine to stand before the king.
Will our submission to God give us courage before men?
As the angel of the Lord had commanded him, “speak only the word that I tell you,” Balaam obeyed (Num 22:35). In response to the pressures of Balak, Balaam answered, “Am I able to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth—that must I speak” (Num 22:38). When the stakes are high and our public opinion is low, will we kiss the ring and speak with the authority of kings and presidents and courts?
Or will we recognize a higher authority, strengthen our backs, and speak only that which has already been given to us in God’s Word with submission and courage?
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.