ALEXANDRIA, La. – Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic oratory during the March on Washington brought a searing indictment against a nation that had not only failed its founding principles but had ignored God’s righteous expectation.
King minced no words on that hot, humid day. With the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop, he succinctly and bluntly identified as sin the societal segregation and institutional discrimination practiced and tolerated throughout America.
God used the words of the 34-year-old prophet to convict the conscience of a nation and inspire hope in those who had endured oppression. In just over 16 minutes he placed an exclamation point on the movement seeking racial equality.
Prophets, in the biblical sense of the word, seem to come few and far between. “The church of today is a non-prophet organization,” Vance Havner once quipped. His observation, spoken more than two decades ago, is as relevant as ever.
A prophet in the biblical sense is not someone who gazes into crystal balls or reads tea leaves in an effort to predict the future. A prophet is an individual who speaks God’s truth to his contemporaries, calls attention to sin and warns of the consequences for failing to repent of falling short of the Lord’s expectations.
Prophets are needed when a nation embraces practices and policies that transgress God’s clearly articulated expectations. When a society promotes materialistic hedonism, gangrenous greed and fiscal irresponsibility, a prophetic voice is needed.
When a culture derides sexual purity, accepts promiscuity and encourages all manner of sexual perversion, a prophet is needed. When a nation embraces the slaughter of unborn children as a normal part of life and even defends infanticide, that nation needs a prophetic rebuke.
Prophets are in desperate need when marriage is not approached with a holy commitment and the breakup of families is not just accepted but expected.
King understood that the church was to be salt and light to the culture in which it found itself. In a sermon titled “A Knock at Midnight,” he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
King continued, “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without spiritual authority.”
There are some today who say the church should remain silent on controversial issues. Others insist a pastor should never comment on moral issues that have been politicized.
A man recently called the publication I edit and said he was canceling his subscription because of all the “Republican junk” we publish. When asked what he meant by “Republican junk,” he replied, “All the anti-abortion and anti-gay stuff.”
King did not believe the church should be silent on the issues of racial segregation and discrimination. Though both were controversial at the time and highly politicized, he stood boldly and spoke prophetically.
Charles Spurgeon said, “I often hear it said, ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought and set there in the face of all men on a candlestick.”
Spurgeon continued, “I would have the Cabinet and the members of Parliament do the work of the nation as before the Lord, and I would have the nation, either in making war or peace, consider the matter by the light of righteousness.”
Jesus insisted that His followers were to be salt and light to the culture in which they found themselves. According to Christ, it defied logic to light a lamp and hide under a basket. Light was to illumine and call attention to the righteousness of God.
Salt, Jesus said, was to be used according to its purifying, preservative purpose or it would spoil and become useless. When not used, salt became, in His words, “no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
Could it be that America is suffering for lack of a prophetic voice? Could it be that the reluctance by many preachers to address the sins that so easily entangle our nation is why many in America see the church as an irrelevant social club?
It is true that prophets are rarely appreciated while offering their rebuke. Many are persecuted and some are killed. King was one such prophet. He was struck down by an assassin’s bullet less than five years after rebuking the nation at the march.
Prophets may not be appreciated, but they are sorely needed if a nation is going to please the Lord. Though they may be maligned, mistreated and even murdered, great is the heavenly reward of the prophet who will speak God’s truth to the cultural and societal power structures of his day.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)