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Cross Lent

How does the church pursue the common good? (Photo credit: Internet Monk)

By Jeff Gissing (@jeffgissing)

One of the chief points of differentiation between theological ethics in the evangelical tradition and in the mainline tradition is the locus of authority. For evangelicals the chief—even the exclusive—source of authority is sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Despite authoring numerous confessions and catechisms, all viewed as penultimate, Scripture remains the centerpiece of evangelical theological ethics. Beliefs and practices require some biblical warrant in order to be binding upon the conscience of the individual Christian.

In contrast, the mainline Protestant notion of authority developed quite differently. Mainline Protestants came to believe that an ethics derived exclusively from Scripture and experience would necessarily be blind to the insights of the social sciences—handmaidens of the Social Gospel experiment.[1] In their so doing, they exhibited a blindness of their own since the late twentieth century has provided some rigorous critiques of the social sciences as a tool for theology and ethics.[2]

This difference of authority is demonstrated quite clearly in the Lenten petition issued by the PC(USA)s Office of Public Witness. Most Christians understand that, as a penitential season, Lent provides us with the opportunity to examine our own hearts and to embrace new disciplines and practices that will enable us to follow our Lord more closely.

Lent is a solemn observance that enables Christians to prepare for Holy Week and our celebration of Christ’s sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection victorious over both death and sin.

This has traditionally involved prayer, repentance, charity, and some form of self-imposed discipline. In other words, we misunderstand Lent when it becomes an opportunity to inform someone else of their sin, to demand that they engage in some prescribed action we suggest, and then to baptize it with language of theology. This is precisely what this petition seeks to do when it states, “The resolution [Gun Values, Gospel Values adopted by the 291th General Assembly in 2010] calls both the church to support and the federal government to establish laws that will prevent and reduce gun violence.”

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the PC(USA) fits squarely in the mainline tradition, which places a priority on “social righteousness” above the other purposes of the Christian church. The petition acknowledges this and calls “people of faith” to “make earnest strides to challenge the pervasive culture of violence that permeates our social fabric.”

All Christian can surely agree that a culture of violence—in all its macabre manifestations—is something we ought to resist.

We all can agree, I would hope, that “bring[ing] peace to our homes, streets, and public venues” is something we can embrace. Where we will differ is in our understanding of how this “bring[ing] of peace,” this change to the “social fabric,” will take place. The petition envisions peace almost exclusively through the enactment of legislation limiting access to certain types of weapons and ammunition. There may be some wisdom in this, but is it really within the purview of the church to make decisions as to what legislation will be efficacious in reducing gun crime?

The answer to this question depends on your answer to another question: how is the church is to serve the “common good”? There may be many answers to this question. None of them is, however, that the church was created by God to advocate for specific policy solutions that will bring about a positive result through the state’s coercive power. So when the petition urges legislation that “reinstates the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004—banning all assault weapons and high capacity magazines”; “Require[s] universal background checks when purchasing any firearm”; and, “Make[s] gun trafficking a federal crime” it has overstepped its purpose and misconstrued its mission.

The church, in its theological reflection, frames the issue and defines what outcome is right in the eyes of God (with specific reference to Scripture). The church’s power, as the reformers contended, is simply ministerial and declarative. That is to say, the church can say what Scripture says to an issue. It may not dare step beyond what may, by good and necessary inference, be understood from the Scriptures.

In its Lenten petition the PC(USA) has succeeded in redefining Lent and misunderstanding the purpose of the church to the detriment of both. When it states that the PC(USA) has a “gun violence policy” the petition steps across the border into absurdity. After all, recent ecclesial court decisions and the new Form of Government have established that the church doesn’t really have a policy on whether the doctrine of the Trinity must be believed by Teaching Elders, but it does one on gun violence.

Christians are free to develop convictions regarding whether or not individuals ought to be free to own a certain type of firearm. They may even band together to form para-church entities that will argue their case. It is wrong for the church—as the church—to enter into this sort of specific policy debate, especially where Christians of good faith may differ.

Whatever one’s convictions on the issue of gun control, it will always be the case that the church exists, at least in its most significant form, in the context of a particular parish rather than in some denominational agency or governing body. The Office of Public Witness insists that this petition will “[call] for common-sense federal measures to reduce gun violence,” and states that it “is one small piece of a larger strategy to address the culture of violence that pervades our nation.” Perhaps. What is less debatable is whether anyone, let alone congress, will be watching when this interfaith coalition delivers its petition to congress in Eastertide.

Forming Christians in the virtues—by Word and sacrament—is one of the chief tasks of the parish. The other is carrying the Good News into its community. This doesn’t include “preach[ing] sermons, teach[ing] bible studies, and becom[ing] involved in efforts to change our culture of gun violence.” These twin tasks will enable Christians to live in a way that contributes to the common good. And to the extent that a denomination loses sight of serving this end, it ceases to be a faithful church and has become something else altogether.


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[1] Max L. Stackhouse and Raymond R. Roberts, “The Mainline Protestant Tradition in the Twentieth Century” in Ronald J. Sider and Dianne Knippers, eds. Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 96.

[2] See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).