Or Maybe He Should Have Stayed Home?

The Fourth Circuit has upheld the ban of a minister from praying at city council meetings in Fredericksburg, VA. His crime? He prays in Jesus’ name. That’s a sectarian prayer. Yes, it is and it’s a good thing too.

I can’t think of a non-sectarian prayer, at least not one in which I would want to be involved. As I understand Scripture non-sectarian prayer is idolatry.

People will decry this ruling as blow to religious freedom and freedom of speech (it is perhaps the latter) but there may be no clearer example of the confusion of the two kingdoms when Christ’s ministers do the bidding of Caesar by praying for divine blessing on behalf of the magistrate, as a civil function. Ministers and all Christians are commanded by God to pray for the magistrate. We do so during the week. We do so on the Sabbath, but do we have any business doing so to open legislative sessions? Legislators ought to pray as private persons before, during, and after their civil work but ministers are called by God as Christ’s servants in his eternal, immutable kingdom. They are not called as civil servants. If they will to be civil servants they have only to resign their ecclesiastical office. To attempt to function as an officer in both kingdoms simultaneously is a blow to the spirituality (which doesn’t mean ethereality) of Christ’s church.

Afraid that the local imam will be opening a legislative session near you? You should be, but not because he’s a Muslim, but because he has no more business opening a session than your minister. God is sovereign. He raises kings and dashes them to the ground, but he administers two distinct kingdoms, by his sovereign power and will, in two distinct ways. He governs the spiritual kingdom, the visible church by the Word of God. He governs the civil kingdom by general revelation and the 2nd table of the natural law.

Dominic Aquila has the story. For more on how to think about this see D. G. Hart, A Secular Faith. Can you imagine the Apostle Paul opening a session of the Roman senate? The real question is whether we’re going to continue to try to hang on to the last remnants of Christendom.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Seth,

    Did you miss this line?

    Ministers and all Christians are commanded by God to pray for the magistrate. We do so during the week. We do so on the Sabbath, but do we have any business doing so to open legislative sessions?

  2. Help me understand then (because, maybe I am misreading): Ministers ought to pray *for* city council meetings, but if they are invited to open a city council meeting in prayer, they ought to decline or at least do so in an “unofficial” capacity?

  3. Why does any legislative body need to invite anyone to pray? Why do they need to open sessions with prayer? Yes, Christians ought to serve in government and Christians ought to pray for government and Christians who serve in government should pray while they’re serving, but a city council meeting is not a worship service. It’s not a prayer meeting. It’s not a bible study. They’re meeting to discuss whether to pave my walk or not. They’re meeting to approve a budget but we’re not a theocracy. We don’t have a state church. We don’t have an officially approved doctrine of God. We don’t know or care about the church affiliation of those whom we elect to office. In that case, what am I doing praying with Unitarians, pagans, Hindus, and Roman Catholics? That’s crazy. I can agree with them on street paving because of the providence of God but I don’t have to agree with them theologically and I don’t have to and don’t want to pray with them.

    His congregation didn’t call him to pray at city council meetings. They called him to preach the gospel to them and to evangelize the community and the catechize their children. If he’s doing his job I don’t know that he has time to pray at city council meetings.

  4. “Why does any legislative body need to invite anyone to pray? Why do they need to open sessions with prayer?”

    To seek God’s mercy and blessing upon their proceedings.

    “but a city council meeting is not a worship service”

    Should prayer be restricted to worship services only?

    “They’re meeting to discuss whether to pave my walk or not. They’re meeting to approve a budget but we’re not a theocracy.”

    Is Scripture silent concerning these issues (budgets, paving sidewalks)?

    “We don’t have a state church. We don’t have an officially approved doctrine of God.”

    True, but when the State invites a godly minister to pray for them, should the minister decline on these grounds?

    “We don’t know or care about the church affiliation of those whom we elect to office”

    I do.

    “His congregation didn’t call him to pray at city council meetings. They called him to preach the gospel to them and to evangelize the community”

    And you don’t see a connection between evangelizing the community and praying at city council meetings?

  5. Seems like these observations also bring into question the institution of “chaplain” where his position is the creation of the state, and he is a paid functionary of the organization.

    Should soldiers call their own, non-military-personnel chaplain to serve them?

    I speak as a former serviceman, and now as a minister of the gospel. I would much prefer this kind of arrangement, which is an “older” model, rather than the professional chaplain’s service that has been institutionalized in the DoD.

    But I think that in either case, the issues raised in the post must still be addressed. How is the chaplain’s prayer different from that outside minister being asked to pray?

    Chaplains today have their own “branch” in the Army, like (e.g.) the Infantry and Medical Service Corps, but most like the JAG. The reason is that ministers, like lawyers, do have to operate according to unique rules.

    But unlike the legal profession, the ministerial “profession” is really a service of calling in another government, and the chaplain’s relation to the military should be envisioned more like a “liaison officer”, an adviser “seconded” to this extraneous command.

    These days chaplains are provided an initial assignment, evaluated by their institutional superior (with input from the executive officer of the assigned unit), raised in ranks, assigned administrative duties, assigned training duties in chaplain-schools, put on “more important” (or less important) command staffs, paid at increasing scale–and all this feeds a completely different approach to the call to ministry.

    Suppose a commander called a chaplain into his office–his men’s chaplain, or his personal chaplain, or in today’s arrangement his unit’s assigned chaplain–and understanding that one of this staff officer’s job-functions is to advise him on the moral dimensions of his command asks him for his advice: What is the chaplain supposed to say? Does he have anything to say? Does he have any business praying?

    But suppose the older arrangement were re-adopted. How would it still not fall afoul of the objections you raised, Dr. Clark?

    This comment and question certainly isn’t facetious, because I really do sense a tension here between the state and its chaplains–who are expected to serve state-determined needs and promote the accomplishment of its ends by bolstering the moral courage of its soldiers, simply assuming the moral justice of the state’s cause–and the chaplains’ ostensible first-allegiance to the other kingdom.

    I am willing to bet not 1 in 10 chaplains has the mien of Micaiah (2 Ki.22). And if one does, we are still back to the first question: should he be praying at the behest of the state’s representatives?

  6. I think the case of the chaplaincy is one of the more difficult cases. If things were other than they are, I would argue against chaplains. If it were possible for denominations to find a way to serve their members (and others) apart from civil involvement, that would be best. Our congregation is next to Camp Pendleton and we have military personnel who worship with us so it’s a real question. I think the hardest case is when troops are deployed on maneuvers or in the field or in combat. In extremis, for the sake of the well-being of Christian troops I think some chaplains are almost unavoidable, but confessional Reformed military personnel will tell you that it can be very awkward having a rabbi or a priest or a liberal mainline protestant or a muslim imam as a chaplain. In that case, from our pov, what good is such a chaplain?

    As to the state summoning preachers, well, we’re not in theocracy. We can’t be convenient theocrats.

  7. Well, a very wise and studied man has told me to read the primary sources from the reformation. This weekend I read Calvin’s Institutes Book 4, Chapter 20. He has a lot of wise things to say regarding the magistrate and our submission to him, etc. And, he was (as I’m told) a ‘theocrat.’

    I figure so far, that if it was good enough for Calvin, it’s good enough for me, and I can do without the American Presby’s revision of the Westminster Standards, thank you very much. 🙂

    Also, if the people that represent me in sessions determining the laws I must obey, I have no issues whatsoever with them all praying to Jesus Christ asking for His wisdom to legislate. This seems to me something that all people would want, which is why I tend to reject the 2 Kingdoms view discussed here. I think it better to see that there is only one kingdom that God is sovereign over as spoken of above, but there are 3 spheres of government, the family, church and state. The three can work in harmony, but cannot cross lines of responsibilities that God has drawn, hence your reference to a minister not being a “civil servant.” But I think that the confessions really meant more that a church officer can’t be a magistrate, but could certainly be consulted by a magistrate.

    Question: Isn’t this 2 Kingdom view really a Luteran view and not a Reformed view? Or, if Reformed, then neo-reformed ala Merideth Kline?

    One other point to add is that we wouldn’t have our U.S. Constitution today if it weren’t for prayer. Benjamin Franklin admonished the entire assembly for NOT seeking God’s favor and wisdom after they had tried for many many days to come up with a new government. Once they went to God in prayer, they finally started to make progress, and God in His providence blessed you and me with the Constitution that we have today. (I’ll see if I can find a link to Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment later on).

    Thought provoking post Dr. Clark!


  8. I found a place that quote’s Benjamin Franklin. I didn’t know he was a Presbyterian! (Not a very good practicing one at that, though). I don’t agree with everything Franklin is quoted as saying here, but it is enlightening. For example, he says “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Well, I do believe in the doctrine of interposition, but that isn’t rebellion.

    Anyway, here is the link: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/cdf/onug/franklin.html

    And here is the quote:

    In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.

    To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?

    I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

    We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages …

    I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

    Blessings to all,


  9. Jeff,

    That’s a pretty good trick becoming a Calvin expert in a weekend. I wish I knew how to do that. Now read a little VanDrunen before you finish your studies.

  10. Ha! LOL I wish one weekend was all it took too. 🙂

    My intent in that first paragraph was really to give you kudos for suggesting it and to possibly encourage others to read him as well. I won’t be finished with my studies until the LORD calls me home.

    The question about Luther vs Reformed wrt your 2K views was a sincere and genuine one though. I don’t think I’ve asked that before.


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