FBI Examines Pastor's Sermons
November 23rd, 2004,
started out like any other normal
morning for Randy Steele, senior pastor at Southwest Christian
Church in Mount Vernon, Illinois, a town about 80 miles southeast
of St. Louis. One of the longtime members of his church was on
her deathbed and he planned to spend the day consoling her
family. Then the phone rang.
It was the FBI. Steele said they wanted to meet with him
personally. After agreeing to a time later that same afternoon,
he said his first thoughts turned to his congregation. "I was
wondering what somebody in my church might have done," Steele
said. "So I was in a lot of prayer asking God to give me the
right words to say."
When two FBI agents arrived at the church, Steele said they
traded small talk for a few minutes before the suspense got to
him and he asked about the nature of their visit. Their answer
stunned him. "One guy opened a file," Steele said. "And he said,
‘This is pertaining to a sermon that you preached on
Memorial Day.’" On Memorial Day 2004, Steele was in the
middle of preaching a sermon series he called "Life Issues"
dealing with controversial cultural issues from a biblical
perspective. One such sermon was about abortion and Steele chose
Memorial Day to preach about it. "I shared the number of people
who have died in wars versus the number who had died through
‘legal’ abortion since 1973," Steele said. "I stated
that we are in a different type of war that is being fought under
the ‘presupposition of freedom.’"
Pastor Steele said that he went on to name an abortion clinic
in Granite City, Ill., a city just outside St. Louis, and pointed
out that they perform as many as 45 abortions per week. Somebody
in the church that day apparently misunderstood Steele’s
"different type of war" comment to mean that he was actually
calling his congregation to a physical war against abortion
clinics, so he or she placed an anonymous phone call to the FBI.
The informant allegedly told the FBI that in addition to Steele
calling for a war against abortion clinics, he also said he was
willing to go to jail over such a cause.
Steele said that he had spoken about his willingness to go to
jail, but that he made those remarks in a different sermon that
dealt with homosexuality from the same sermon series. "I had
mentioned a pastor in Canada who had been arrested for speaking
about homosexuality in his church," Steele said. The pastor said
he went on to tell his congregation that "if speaking the truth
means that we go to jail, then by golly, that’s where
I’m going to be and I’m going to save you a seat next
to me." "That was the major gist of why the FBI felt like they
could come here and look through my sermons."
Marshall Stone, FBI supervisory special agent and media
coordinator for the Springfield (Illinois) division of the FBI,
was unwilling to speak specifically about the FBI’s visit
to Southwest Christian Church, but when asked to speak in general
terms about whether the FBI normally looks through pastors’
sermons after receiving anonymous tips about them being a
possible danger, Stone said, "Each complaint, each investigation
is followed up based upon facts and specific circumstances of
that complaint, allegation or investigation." Since there
aren’t any typical cases, Stone was asked if FBI agents
would make a determination on site regarding whether to examine a
pastor’s sermons. He responded in the affirmative.
Steele said he was initially a little irritated that the FBI
would ask to see his sermons, especially since he had to take
time away from the grieving family in his congregation to answer
questions, but he said he has no plans to stop preaching messages
that are culturally relevant.
Roger Lipe, senior pastor at Woodlawn Baptist Church, a
Southern Baptist Convention congregation, in nearby Woodlawn,
Ill., agreed with Steele’s position of speaking the truth
in love to a culture that isn’t always going to be tolerant
of such a message. "Lipe said. "Obviously it’s going to
mean that someday when you as a pastor get into your own pulpit,
in your own church, among your own people, to preach against
subjects like abortion and homosexuality and other biblical
things that we’ve got to preach on, then there’s
probably going to be a price to pay." In spite of his admitted
initial irritation about being questioned by the FBI, Steele said
that after his meeting with the two agents, he printed off the
two sermons, handed them to the agents and invited them back to
his church hoping that as private citizens they might be
interested in hearing the Word of God.
Courtesy of The Pathway, news journal
of the Missouri
Lee Warren is a freelance writer