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Monday, August 8, 2011

Hand Over Mouth

Sometimes You Say It Best When You Say Nothing at All

What is below appeared originally as a Soul Food column in the August 23, 30, 1997, issue of World magazine. It is re-printed without alteration. I am happy to note that none of my sons wear earrings any longer except for the minister one who, for the amusement of his children and family, is sometimes known to sport one of his wife’s earrings or hang a Christmas ornament from the pierced ear.

Calls for the church to speak “prophetically” to ever changing social, economic, and political developments come from those who think the Bible has something to say about everything and that the church is called to transform this present world into the something pretty close to the world to come.

Just now folks who share the same historic Reformed faith who are calling for the church to speak out about the economic situation – some calling for taxes to be lowered for those who pay taxes in order to help the rich and poor while others call for taxes to raised on the rich to help the poor. Both say it is the church’s responsibility to speak.


I have a view, and a strong one, on this and a lot of other matters. The difference is I don’t claim to know the mind of God or to be certain I am advancing the kingdom. And while, I think everybody should agree with me because I, as usual, am right, I do not plan to try to get the church to proclaim my view to the nation.

Three of my five sons have earrings, and I hate them (the earrings). I suppose I am paying for the sins of my youth as my mother, a great believer in karma, often warned I would. I can't understand why males put rings in their ears (or why females put them in their navels).

However, I am trying to handle this unwelcome development by remembering two distinctions:

There's a difference between my preferences and God's principles. "I don't like" is not the same as "Thou shall not." I have a right to my preferences, but they don't have the status of the Ten Commandments or the ethical teaching of Jesus and the apostles. If I choose, my preferences can bind my sons' behavior while they're under my roof, but only God's will can bind their consciences.

There's a difference between my guts and God's gospel. My guts revolt at the sight of earrings on men, but I don't want the volume or number of my words on earrings to deafen their ears to the words of the evangel. My feelings are my feelings, but the gospel is God's truth.


I've been thinking about this a lot since I returned from the annual national gathering of my denomination where I participated in a debate about whether we ought to make a pronouncement against women in combat. I was against making one.

This year's debate brought back unhappy memories of my attendance almost 25 years ago at a statewide meeting of my former denomination. As a young minister I sat and listened with growing frustration as church leaders argued about whether to endorse Caesar Chavez's efforts to organize farm workers in Florida and about whether to petition the president to pardon those who deserted the country rather than face the draft during the Vietnam War. What, I thought, does any of this have to do with Christ's message or his church's mission?

Make no mistake about it. I had opinions-strong ones. I wanted nothing to do with endorsing Caesar Chavez or pardoning draft dodgers. But I voted against those proposals, not because of my politics, but because of a principle: I did not believe then, and do not now, that the church as church has any business making such pronouncements. Had the majority been ready to condemn Caesar Chavez and the draft dodgers, I still would have voted "no." For me it wasn't about what I want but about what God unquestionably wills.

I have strong convictions about women in combat. I would like to see women out of the military academies and cockpits and off the ships and battlefields. It's not because I think a woman's only place is "in the home," but because I don't believe women are effective fighters or that mixing them with men in military units is conducive to good morals. But I do not want the church as church to adopt my convictions as its confession to the world.


Christians and Christian publications should pay attention to political questions and many other matters, but the church as the visible body of Christ on earth may not be able to say everything we, as members, would like it to say. The gain will be great, because when church bodies do speak, they will be able to say not "This think we," but "Thus says the Lord." For the church it is better to keep silent when it cannot speak with full conviction.

Self-restraint will also keep the church on message and on mission. We have something that the world desperately needs and that only the church can proclaim-the glorious gospel of Christ. Scores of pronouncements pour forth from church assemblies and conventions every year, and the world is confused by their contradictions and numbed by their number. But when official church bodies boldly and persistently declares the apostolic gospel, they underline the fact that the gospel is the only pronouncement that can save the world.

The most mature of Reformation-era confessions has wise counsel for all church assemblies today: "Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary (when the state violates the clear will of God), or, by way of advice, for satisfaction to conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate."

When denominational assemblies make the mistake of speaking about everything for which a majority can be mustered, they weaken God's commands and obscure his gospel. Synods and councils would do well to listen to the advice my dad used to give his opinionated son: "You'll do better if you can learn when to keep your mouth shut."



 

 

 

6 comments:

Don Frank said...

I absolutely agree with the WCF that "Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth." But, I also strongly agree with calls for the church to speak “prophetically” to ever changing social, economic, and political developments which come from those who think the Bible has something to say about everything and that the church is called to transform this present world into the something pretty close to the world to come.

The reason I can hold to both is that the General Assembly is not the Church. The Church, whether gathered in worship or as individuals in the world, is obligated to live in accord with Scripture. Brad Littlejohn in his blog at http://www.swordandploughshare.com/main-blog/2011/7/25/sola-scriptura-in-the-public-square-pt-2.html helpfully reminds us that "Scripture does not restrict itself to “spiritual” matters only, or to things concerned solely with redemption, but on the contrary, “is fraught even with lawes of nature” (I.12.1). Hooker thus summarizes the relationship: “divine law . . . both ascertayneth the truth and supplyeth unto us the want of that other law. So that in morall actions, divine law helpeth exceedingly the law of reason to guide man’s life, but in supernaturall it alone guideth.” (I.16.5)

In the conclusion to his post, Littlejohn offers these three points: "The first is that Christians need not be afraid of admitting that they don’t have an answer for something. Politics is a complex business, and new problems are arising all the time. Scripture does not claim to provide us a clear and direct answer to all these. As Hooker says, it is no dishonor to claim for Scripture what it doesn’t claim for itself, and in fact, it is a dishonor to humankind to refuse it the opportunity to sort through a problem that God has invited his creatures to address. Christians need not be afraid of admitting that unbelievers do have a good answer for something; we should not expect that depravity means they have lost all access to the law of reason. And so we need not insist that for every problem, we must have a distinctively Christian answer.”

“Second, Christians should not be afraid of asserting that they do have an answer for something. They should not accept the rebuke “this is secular business; keep religion out of it.” For natural law is God’s law too, and he has a lot to teach us about it in Scripture and through the Spirit, knowing that we are prone to “fawn upon ourselves” and lose sight of it. In a world of sin, we should expect that many political problems will call for guidance or rebuke that we as Christians have been particularly equipped to provide, and when that is the case, we should speak up.”

“Third, when they engage in political action, whether in common with unbelievers or from a distinctively Christian standpoint, Christians should be humbly mindful of the provisionality of such enterprises. The nature of such actions is that they are not of eternal significance--in Hooker’s terms, they are not “necessary for salvation.” The nature of human law is such that the right answer today may not be the right answer tomorrow, and we shouldn’t assume that what we think is the right answer necessarily is. We should not, therefore, feel that bad political policies mean that the world is coming to an end. Nor should we consider our that our attempt to apply Scripture in a particular circumstance carries the full authority of Holy Writ. It may, but it may not.

In short, Hooker calls Christians to a life of thoughtful, creative political action, wielding Scripture judiciously like a sharp scalpel rather than whirling it like a blunt axe."

I believe this is a far better way for the Church to engage the world than simply to restrict itself to the 4 walls within which it gathers.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Don, you confuse me:

WCF on the church as the gathered people of God on earth:

2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

The General Assembly is the church of which our local congregations are members and where our officers gather to act as the court of the church's Lord.

Where else do you find the church defined as that institution on earth to which Christ has given the oracles, ordinances, and ministry?

You and I sitting in your home and discussing politics are not the church are we? We don't celebrate the sacraments do we? We don't decide who may come to the Table and who is excluded do we?

Then if the church is supposed to speak to all these issue why in the world did not Jesus and his apostles do so. Surely there were plenty enough issues having to do with the government and culture of the Empire calling out for pronouncements of God's will and for transformation by the church.

Adam Parker said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Curmudgeon. I'm in agreement with you and I appreciate you sharing this.

Don Frank said...

Strictly speaking, the WCF classifies the GA as a synod or council for the better government and further edification of the Church. The functions of the GA are legislative, deliberative and judicial, not preaching the word and administering the sacraments. As the WCF states, The visible church consists of all those (individuals) throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children. When gathered locally, the Church functions include the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.

More to the point, however,the Church (as individuals who are being perfected)is best qualified to speak to issues of politics, for not only do they honor natural law, the only law that unbelievers recognize, but they honor divine law from which natural law is derived.

This is why Paul can refer to the ruler as a minister of God in Rom 13, and why he is justified in demanding public release by the Philippian magistrates after being beaten without legal recourse. Certainly this was a pronouncement of God's will with regard to a political issue as are the many passages throughout Scripture that condemns the ruler who does not care for the poor and oppressed.

Steve said...

Don, how do these two statements comport:

"The first is that Christians need not be afraid of admitting that they don’t have an answer for something. Politics is a complex business, and new problems are arising all the time. Scripture does not claim to provide us a clear and direct answer to all these…Christians need not be afraid of admitting that unbelievers do have a good answer for something; we should not expect that depravity means they have lost all access to the law of reason. And so we need not insist that for every problem, we must have a distinctively Christian answer.”


“More to the point, however, the Church (as individuals who are being perfected)is best qualified to speak to issues of politics, for not only do they honor natural law, the only law that unbelievers recognize, but they honor divine law from which natural law is derived.”


Huh? So, are Christians more qualified for politics by virtue of being Christian or aren’t they? Should we be humble or should we think those best qualified for provisional matters are those who are eternally fit? Sure seems like what you humbly give with one hand is arrogantly taken away with the other.

Don Frank said...

Good point, Steve. I think I overstated the case. I should have said, given no other difference between the two (hypothetically speaking), a Christian is more likely to be better qualified than the non-Christian because the Christian understands and acknowledges divine law from which natural law is derived. Or, to put it more humbly, the Christian should not be afraid to apply his knowledge of divine law in the political arena since it is the source from which natural law is derived. Thanks for pointing this out.