“Non-directive” preaching

It sounds like something straight from George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth”. But it is in fact language that the Scottish parliament’s equalities committee are using as they explore out-lawing “conversion therapy”. The committee has concluded that religious teaching and prayer about sexual identity should only be permitted if it’s conducted in a “non-directive way” (para 3). 

I love the thought of Christian preachers working out what “non-directive” preaching looks like! It’s a bit like the invention of the “stationary” car, an “opaque” pair of spectacles, and a wonderful bottle of “tasteless” wine. 

The language of “non-directive” religious teaching is almost comical in its failure to appreciate the first thing about human beings and God. I can imagine the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, standing up to announce to the crowds that they have crucified the Christ, but God has raised him from the dead. When he gets to the climax of his sermon, Peter says: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). But then, he remembers the Scottish legislation and corrects himself: “Whoops, sorry, I mean… I’d love you to think about all of that, but in a non-directive way, of course! And if anyone would possibly, maybe, like the idea of being baptised, come and talk to us, but, please understand there’s no pressure, no obligation, at all!”. 

Maybe the members of the equalities committee have experienced “non-directive” preaching from pulpits. I admit there’s plenty of it around, and it can be sleep-inducing. But it’s not actually real preaching. All true preaching is “directive” by definition. If it’s not directive, it’s not preaching! One 19th century text-book on preaching says: “Whenever there is no direct purpose in the speaker to educe an action of will in his hearers there is no proper oration”.

Likewise, a “non-directive” morality is nonsense. Morality is “directive” by definition. Right and wrong, good and evil, righteousness and wickedness are not abstract ideas to simply ponder, in glorious abstraction, but principles to act upon. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). If you hold moral convictions that are never expressed in the presence of what is wrong, they will end up shrivelling and dying. 

“Non-directive” religion will mean that the censors have to cut most of the apostle Paul’s letters in half, and put the second-part through the paper-shredder. The Scottish government are OK with Ephesians chapters 1-3. That’s just “teaching”. But when Paul gets to his “therefore” in chapter 4, all the “directive” instruction in chapters 4-6 needs to be binned. Censors will have to hunt down every verb in the imperative form and axe it.  We can say: “God is holy, God is love. Jesus is love, and Jesus teaches us to love”. But you can’t say: “Love God”. (Whoops – sorry – that last sentence was too directive, wasn’t it?).

Of course, a lot of people will love the sound of a non-directive Jesus, leading his non-directive church, to teach non-directive lessons and offer non-directive prayers. But directions are quite simply what we do!  We can’t “non-directively” direct people away from the broad road that leads to hell and towards the narrow way that leads to life (Matt 7:13-14). 

So, of course, the Christian church is seeking to direct people’s sexual identity! We’re seeking to direct everyone’s sexual identity. This is what the Christian church has been busy doing since God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:21). It’s what that wonderful word: “Repent” means. Today, young people are growing up in sexual confusion. They don’t know who or what their bodies are for (clue: it’s not themselves). And we preach and teach that Jesus Christ, the Saviour, has come to powerfully release them from self and direct them back to God. Any faithful Christian minister, youth worker, or parent worth their salt will go on directing the young people under their care in this light.

Now, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about what that moral “direction” looks like. I’d be quick to say the church is not seeking to physically coerce and cajole anyone into certain forms of behaviour. There are ways that church leaders can act manipulatively and in sinfully, controlling ways. But morality, by definition, does need to be enforced. Parents consistently find themselves coercing and cajoling their children, with threats and promises, backed up by actions. Teachers exert control and pressure over their classes, backed up by actions. And let’s not pretend that this proposed “conversion therapy” legislation itself isn’t an attempt to enforce morality, with some pretty hefty threats. 

Let’s face it. Being told that your experiences and actions are sinful in the sight of God is never nice. No one likes being on the receiving end of a group’s moral judgments. But, like it or not, that is precisely what any moral system does. A moral position that does not label certain things right and other things wrong is simply not a moral position. In fact, a moral position that believes certain things are right and wrong, but never seeks to voice or direct people accordingly, has become immoral! 

I’m not under any illusion that Jesus’ sexual ethics are popular today. But to tell the church to teach them in a “non-directive” way is asking us to say that human sexual experience and action is no longer even in the moral realm. It’s ludicrous! Make no mistake; any legislation that says Christian churches will be “free” to teach and pray in “non-directive” ways is like a policeman, telling you he’s protecting your freedom, while simultaneously handcuffing you. It is a muzzling of the church’s prophetic voice. It’s not a good faith attempt to tackle a crime or scandalous behaviour in the church, but an attempt to shove a cloth down the church’s throat. 

Jesus Christ is gloriously “directive”, and the preaching, teaching and prayers of his church will continue to direct people back to God, until his return, whatever the kings of the earth may say (Psalm 2:1-5).