Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Potency of Proclamations

According to this story, Mayor Tom Hayden of Flower Mound, TX, has proclaimed 2014 to be the Year of the Bible in Flower Mound (complete with website that is performing about as well as under the increased load that accompanies media attention). Hayden collaborated with area churches in making the proclamation, and he hopes that his community will "connect through the Bible" (those are the reporter's words, not necessarily Hayden's).

If you are a Bible-believing Christian, this kind of thing FEELS good. In an environment of heavy-handed government oppression of the consciences of people like the Green family, the world seems a little less worrisome when local government does something in affirmation of our beliefs. But these uncertain days are no time for us to be navigating church-state questions by the seat-of-our-pants navigation that our feelings provide for us. We need map-based navigation drawn from time-honored and thoughtful ideas about the proper respective roles of churches and government officials in a well-ordered society.

According to those principles, as I understand them, Mayor Hayden has made a mistake. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. He has overstepped his authority as mayor. In the Fox4 story Curt Orton complained, "He was elected mayor, not as the spiritual leader of Flower Mound." You might presume (as I'll admit I did at first) that Orton is a flaming liberal secularist. Actually, it appears that he is an active member of Lantana Community Fellowship Church of the Nazarene in Flower Mound and is, in fact, the president of the church's missions auxiliary (see this document that led me to conclude this). I've neither met nor spoken with Orton, but he looks and smells like an evangelical Christian.

    He's also 100% correct in his assessment of the situation and stands in line with the best of historical Christian thinking about church-state issues.

    Although I can see some questions that it does not fully anticipate or resolve, I've never seen a better theory of church-state relationships than Roger Williams's metaphor of the Two Tables of the Law. Williams's rationale safeguards religious liberty for all people without plunging society into erosive amorality. It provides a hermeneutical distinctive that makes sense of the entirety of the New Testament's treatment of the role of the state in the Christian worldview. It's a shame that so few of our fellow believers are acquainted with Williams's approach: We would more deftly handle situations like this one if we were well-versed in the writings of Roger Williams.

    Hayden is free to stand in the pulpit of his home congregation as a church member to proclaim 2014 to be the Year of the Bible as a church member. He is free to stand in a local meeting place as a Christian in Flower Mound and to proclaim with the local ministerial alliance that they consider 2014 to be the Year of the Bible. He is free to stand on his front porch as a citizen of Flower Mound and proclaim that 2014 is the Year of the Bible. But to issue an official proclamation in the council chambers in his role as mayor oversteps his authority.

    One last thing about this before I move on: I am well aware that this is not an official law. I am well aware that the city council did not vote on this question. I am well aware that the ceremonial and non-binding nature of this proclamation may well cause our court system not to regard this as any violation of the First Amendment. But when I say that the mayor has overstepped his authority, I'm not talking about the First Amendment. There wasn't a First Amendment when Roger Williams lived and wrote. I'm not talking about the authority that the Constitution gives to the Mayor Hayden; I'm talking about the authority that God has given to government as His agent. God has given someone the job of encouraging people to read the Bible, and He did not give that job to the government. I'm also completely cognizant of the fact that Ronald Reagan issued a similar proclamation in 1983. I, decrepit old man that I am, remember 1983. Reagan was wrong, too.

  2. He has denigrated and misrepresented the Bible. Please read carefully, because this is the way that evangelicals so frequently betray what they claim to believe without realizing that they are doing so.

    Hayden's proclamation, like Reagan's proclamation before it, explained the rationale behind the proclamation, grounding it in the unique role that the Bible has played in American history as a formative influence underlying our legal system and the design of our government. That the Bible has played this role is historical fact. That any evangelical Christian should expend any energy to communicate this as an important message about the Bible is a crying shame. These accidents of history are not on the Bible's résumé. The credibility and authority of the Bible rests upon these items of trivia not at all.

    Here's what's important about the Bible: You're going to Hell forever unless you heed the words God has spoken to us in the Bible and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reagan's proclamation said nothing about that. Although the story did not give the full text of Hayden's proclamation, and although I have not read it, I'm willing to proceed upon the assumption that Hayden's proclamation also said nothing remotely resembling these gospel truths. To do so would be to commit political suicide, to be sure, but to fail to do so is to dilute the Bible's message, transmogrifying its radical gospel message into a bland civil Christianity that encourages people to behave like good citizens while they await perdition.

    Yes, Hayden probably says more about the Bible in private, but the officially proclaimed position of the office of the Mayor of Flower Mound is now this gospel-less view of the Bible, since the proclamation says no more than it does. Yes, there's the possibility that someone will read the Bible because of this proclamation and will thereby encounter the gospel, but who here really believes that God cooked this up as a strategy for sharing the gospel?

    Look at it this way: Twentieth-century Christianity can claim that the Bible has had more influence upon worldwide jurisprudence and political thinking than any other one book (second place probably goes to the Qur'an). First-century Christianity could not claim that the Bible was any more than a collection of obscure writings produced by obscure followers of an obscure religious sect in an obscure backwater region forgotten by civilization. In which of these two epochs did Christians enjoy greater effectiveness in pointing people to the Bible's true message?

    The Bible ought to be revered as the words of eternal life. To be regarded as the cornerstone of American civilization would be a high honor for any other book, to be sure, but it is an insult to the Bible to treat it as merely that.

  3. It distracts government officials from their true God-given jobs as government officials. I think God would be more pleased if government officials would put an end to no-fault divorce and the epidemic of child poverty and child dysfunction the proliferation of divorce has created. Perhaps a mayor could drive payday lenders out of the city or end the way that city governments wink at illegal gambling operations like the "eight-liner" game rooms that are proliferating in North Texas.

    Don't misunderstand: I do not offer this critique out of any jaded cynicism that suspects that Mayor Hayden does not really care about these things. In fact, quite the opposite is true: I offer this suggestion precisely because I suspect that he does care about being the kind of mayor God approves. Because his energies, when directed towards his actual God-authorized job, are likely to be discharged in a good and godly way, I want him spending his time THERE, doing his job well rather than doing mine poorly.

    And although I'm in pretty much 100% in line with the planks of the old Moral Majority platform, at least this much critique of the old "culture war" campaign is healthy and necessary: It was always a lot more effective at producing good proclamations than good laws.

  4. It distracts Christians from their true God-given jobs as Christians. On this we do agree: Proclamations are indispensable to New Testament Christianity. It's just that Mayor Hayden and the good folks in Flower Mound have chosen the most impotent kind of proclamation over those that are actually effective. Proclaim the gospel from the pulpit. Proclaim the gospel in the marketplace over the water cooler. Proclaim the gospel in the neighborhood by witnessing to your neighbors. Proclaim the gospel at the family dinner table. Undergird your proclamation of the gospel by being careful in the way that you spend your money, your time, and your energy. Treat other people in your relationships in ways that are strategically supportive of gospel proclamation. Too many of those Christians who will celebrate "The Year of the Bible" will not share their faith with anyone in 2014 (or, dare I say, do the hard work required to deepen their own).

    The real-life proclamations about the Bible, in contrast to political resolutions, are potent. Two thousand years of Christian History vindicates that claim. State-sponsored Christianity is utterly impotent. Visit Germany and see what became of Martin Luther's Landeskirche. I think sometimes we forget that effective spiritual warfare consists of more game, less pep rally, and strategically speaking, mayoral proclamations about the Bible accomplish little more than the rustling of pom-pons. I like a good pep rally as much as the next guy; it's just that history teaches us that this pep rally takes place during the game, in an offsite venue, and with free food and drinks. I can't help but suspect that it is funded by the other team.

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