I don’t know how you set the parental controls on your cable TV. I don’t even have cable, but if I did, I’d filter certain episodes to protect my three sons. Of course, we could similarly restrict some scriptural episodes due to explicit content not suitable for all audiences. Maybe that’s one reason many churches censor parts of the Bible for being too crass, violent, or sexual.
Who wants to hear the sex laws of Leviticus 18 at 11 a.m. on Sunday while sitting next to your mom? Or what mom wishes to cradle her newborn as she listens to Psalm 137 bless those who dash their enemies’ babies on the rocks? And what teenage girl desires to sit next to pubescent boys as she hears how Abraham circumcised his whole house in Genesis 17? What kind of church would preach this stuff?
My church has preached each of these texts over the past few years, and I want to encourage you to do the same. Why? Because I believe Christians and non-Christians alike need these R-rated texts to make sense of their R-rated world.
Christians Need R-Rated Texts
God’s Word is entirely sufficient to equip Christians for “every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Whole believers need the whole Bible. But the principle of sola Scriptura ought to drive the vision not just for our personal quiet times, but also for our corporate gatherings. As a pastor, who am I to suppress the parts of Scripture that cause me to tremble a bit as I read them publicly? What if I’m concealing the exact words God would use to incite revival in my church? What if hiding these texts is actually creating a people so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good?
I’ve been struck time and again by the responses of the children of light to the darkest parts of Scripture. Initially, the congregation becomes restless with the horrors of sin and eager for some glimmer of hope. Then, as I unveil Jesus in the sermon, it feels like he’s being unleashed on the darkness. The hearts of saints rejoice as they see their Savior once again entering the shadow of death as a flash of brilliant, unstoppable, conquering light.
Non-Christians Need R-Rated Texts
While edifying believers is our primary goal in corporate worship, we must strategically and passionately engage non-Christians as well. Have you considered that unbelievers might need the texts we’re most hesitant to teach?
For example, if we avoid sexually explicit texts, how will the girl who’s broken and bitter at God for being raped know he hates sexual sin even more than she does? Where will she hear of the redemption and restoration the gospel delivers or that a healthy sexual relationship with her spouse is possible? That’s why I’m no longer surprised when new believers join our church and vocalize their appreciation for preaching that moves through whole books of the Bible.
I think Sunday morning boredom often results from sermons that aren’t as gritty as our lives—or the Bible. God gave us R-rated texts because we live in an R-rated world. Think about it. It’s hard to relate to Abraham, David, or Paul if you imagine them as spiritual Supermen living in a world without kryptonite. But a closer look at these heroes of faith reveals lives riddled with dark sins—stories that dare me to hope that if God can work through them, then maybe he can work through me. Pausing to reflect on the horrific failures of God’s men excites us to look for God’s man—Jesus Christ.
6 Tips for Preaching R-Rated Texts to an R-Rated World
To be sure, preaching R-rated texts is tough. I’ve experienced the pain of people walking out during difficult sermons. I’ve felt the sweet sting of brotherly correction over botched attempts. So let me invite you to learn from my failures with six suggestions for preaching these passages.
1. Be sensitive to cultural expectations of the congregation.
This caution is especially true as a newer pastor. You probably shouldn’t preach about dashing babies on the rocks on Mother’s Day.
2. Preach expositionally.
A complete series on unnerving texts sounds weird. Sure, I’ve thought about ways to do it. But people are less likely to think the pastor’s a creeper if they understand your larger motivation is to preach the whole Bible—even when it’s hard.
3. Label parental advisories clearly.
Parents hold different perspectives on what they want their children exposed to, and I think that’s okay. At our church we print sermon cards months in advance so people can know what’s coming. We also have a pastor warn parents of explicit content prior to the sermon. If you don’t have a children’s program during your service, you may want to organize something special for that day.
4. Call a spade a spade.
People need to know gross sins are gross. They also need to know why they are gross and how they mangle a human identity meant to image our Creator God. A world that revels in spiritual disfigurement needs to hear that gross sin is gross because it mars the intrinsic value with which God has endowed all of us.
5. Don’t diminish grace.
I’m familiar with Monday morning discouragement over Sunday’s failure to communicate grace. In fact, the same grace I failed to preach gets me out of bed those mornings. Friends, put your back into preaching grace. Don’t preach Leviticus 18 saying, “Look at these nasty sexual sins. Moses lists these sins because this is what they were doing. Things haven’t changed much, huh? Oh well. Stock up on water and crackers. Build a bunker. Stop sinning. Amen.” Don’t be surprised by the Israel-like horrors lurking behind the veneers of smiling faces in your congregation. They’re desperate for grace to meet them in the specific sins showcased in Scripture. If we diminish sin’s severity, we diminish Christ’s provision. But if we shine light on gross sins while leaving Christ in the dark, we’ve failed as ministers of the gospel. It would be better if we didn’t preach at all.
6. Avoid false hope.
The question isn’t if but when justice will ultimately arrive. God fights for justice. Justice finally wins. Any progress we make in alleviating injustice in this world pales in light of the justice that will arrive when Christ returns. A healthy doctrine of Christian suffering, then, helps to counterbalance any over-realized eschatology that would erect unrealistic expectations for ushering in the justice only Christ can.
If you preach the whole Bible publicly, expect conflict. People will still walk out. But when done prayerfully and thoughtfully, expect it to bring life from death and light to the darkest places.