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To speak or not to speak

To Speak or Not to Speak, Part 1

By Rev. Aaron Messner - Window on the World - April 3, 2016

To speak or not to speak, that is the question. I am referring specifically to the challenges churches face when it comes to speaking to cultural, social and political issues. Now these challenges are always before the church, but they become particularly acute every four years when the country is faced with a presidential election and even folks who don’t tend to pay that much attention to political issues under normal circumstances can become passionate advocates of particular candidates.

During this season in particular, there is great pressure on the church to speak out on the issues of the day. There’s a pressure for pastors to publicly endorse candidates and for churches to tell their members how to vote. At the same time there is also a pressure not to speak; there is a fear of alienating members and visitors who disagree with the church’s political commentary. There is also a concern that such speech will distract the church from its mission to preach the gospel and make disciples.

So the church is faced with the question: to speak or not to speak. Tonight I want to offer a few comments that can help us think through this issue. First of all, it is important to make a clear distinction between the speech of individual Christians, or even groups of Christians, and the church speaking as the church. As individual Christians who are citizens and resident aliens of this land, we have incredible freedom to speak on any and all issues that we face as a society. It is good and right and appropriate for Christians to analyze everything that is going on in our world and to try and critique those things we disagree with and speak to what we think are the best solutions. It is appropriate for Christians to try and apply the truth of God’s Word to all the issues in our lives, and to try and develop a coherent, consistent and Biblical world and life view. And when the Word of God is silent on an issue, it is good and right for Christians to seek to apply sound reasoning that is as consistent with the Scripture as we can be, and to formulate opinions and make sound decisions for all the matters that are before us. As the great Dutch pastor, theologian and statesmen Abraham Kuyper once wrote, “There is not one square inch of the entire created order over which Jesus Christ does not declare: this is Mine.”

So, we need Christians who will think and speak about every aspect of public and private life. We need Christians who will do this in a thoughtful way, because this Word is our Father’s world, and we need Christians who will do this in a humble way, knowing that while the Bible is the sufficient Word of God for all matters of faith and practice, it is not the exhaustive Word of God. There are many areas of life where the Bible does not give us specific guidelines, and though we may try to reason those issues from Biblical foundations, our human reasoning is not infallible. The further we reason from the Scripture, the more likely it is that error can creep in. So we need to speak for the good of society, but we need humility in our speech, recognizing that much of our speech on political and social issues is just that, our own human speech. It may be right, it may be wrong, but it is not a case of “thus sayeth the Lord.”

However, when the church speaks not as the church proper, a different dynamic is in play. When the PCA for instance, makes formal declaration as a session, or a presbytery or the General Assembly, or when a preacher on behalf of the session stands in the pulpit and declares the Word of God on the Lord’s Day, the church is not just speaking as an individual Christian or even a collection of individual Christians, but rather the church is speaking with the divine authority that has been invested in it by Jesus Christ himself. As Jesus instructs the church in Matthew 18, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Part of what this means is that the church, as the Church, has a greater degree of authority in its speech and actions than does an individual Christian. It also means that the church has a greater degree of responsibility and divine accountability for its speech and action. The church has been entrusted with a very specific mandate to preach the word of God, to pray, to receive and dismiss individuals from membership in the church of Jesus Christ and to administer the sacraments to the members of the church.

Because of this divinely appointed authority and responsibility, the church as the Church, does not have the same freedom to speak out on any and every issue. The church as the Church is to speak in an authoritative manner only on those issues to which the Bible speaks and gives the church that authority. The church is uniquely positioned to declare to the world, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” and the church diminishes that authority when it decides to descend into offering up man’s opinions (even man’s thoughtful and potentially correct opinions) on all matters cultural, social and political.

So the church, as the Church, should be careful and judicious with her commentary or pronouncements on cultural, social and political matters. When the Bible is silent, the Church does well to be silent, even as individual Christians rightly exercise their God-given prerogative to wade into the details of such matters. Very often the church forgoes such discipline on its own speech and offers official declarations on particular candidates, and a whole host of issues that the Bible simply doesn’t address. In doing so, the church is politicized and it exchanges a momentary sense of human cultural influence for the divine authority to declare the Word of God and the gospel of Christ unto people’s eternal salvation.

However, within this judicious discipline, the church must also be bold with its speech. For often the clear message of the Scriptures will have direct application to social and political issues in our day. A church that refuses to call evil in society evil, a church that does not warn its people away from particular sins all in the name of keeping with the “pure gospel” is a church that is culturally irrelevant and impotent. The church must preach the full counsel of God, not more, not less. At times this will frustrate those who want a more politically active church, and at times this will frustrate those who want the church to stay out of the public sphere all together. Pray that God would grant the church, and this church, the wisdom and courage to navigate this narrow path.

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