Five Issues with the Inaugural Invocation

1. That is exists. I realize that it is tradition, but so what? Oddly, many of the same people who inveigh against  a “state church” will be thrilled that “one of our guys” gets to pray the invocation. Well, Rick isn’t exactly one of my guys but more important is that if we’re going to oppose a confusion of church and state  then we should do so regardless of who is praying at the inaugural. Prayer to the holy, Triune, and Almighty God, who revealed himself to Isaiah and to Moses and who poured out his just wrath at Calvary, should not become  a stage prop in a political drama.

Christians are commanded to pray for the magistrate privately and on the Sabbath in public worship (1 Tim 2). The historic Reformed liturgies have a place for such prayers but why should a Christian minister or an imam or a rabbi or a priest or any other representative of institutional religion offer what should be, if it is to be  prayer with any integrity, a sectarian prayer at the inaugural? Would we still be in favor of the inaugural prayer if, as part of the ceremony, Warren baptized the president? What if a rabbi circumcised him? If a prayer is permissible, is it permissible for the president to be “slain in the Spirit” and if not, why not? How can we have prayer but not exorcism or a “Holy Ghost baptism” or some other rite?

2. Have you ever heard the prayers offered in the Senate or at the inaugural or in other such trans-denominational, trans-religious settings? Yikes! The prophets of Baal and the philosophers at Mars Hill had nothing on these cats, at least in most instances. Either the prayer is vacuous, inane, and thus offensive, or offensive for other reasons. I understand that the Reformed have a long tradition of theocratic politics. We also have a history of chiliasm and of rejecting a heliocentric astronomy. Okay, we have skeletons in the closet. Some parts of our family history are better not re-enacted. The Christian faith is not well served when it is made to serve two masters. Prayer, properly understood serves only ONE master, the triune God who has revealed himself definitively in God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ. In the case of an inaugural or other such civic prayer it must be a carefully crafted prayer that necessarily serves two masters. No such civic prayer may pray for the conversion of the vast majority along the parade route or watching on television. No civic prayer may include a supplication that the Holy Spirit might soften the hearts of sinners everywhere, teach them the greatness of their sin and misery, and raise them to life and draw them to saving faith in the only Savior Jesus. To anticipate an objection, I would say these things even if it were Bob Godfrey or Mike Horton who were invited to give the prayer or if the prayer included these things. In such a case, it would be the right prayer at the wrong place and time.

3. That a minister placed himself in a possible where it was possible for him to become a pawn in a civil-political dynamic is inherently problematic. He did a good job moderating the discussions with the candidates but he should never have been in that position in the first place. No minister was ever ordained to serve as a moderator of a civil, political, debate. The president-elect’s choice of Rick Warren was clearly an act of “reaching across the aisle” and “uniting” America. Those are political acts. That’s the problem. The president elect chose a minister whom he believed to represent a political constituency and he does so in a way that allows the president-elect to fulfill a promise without doing too much damage on his left. Warren is sufficiently famous and sufficiently socially-conservative (he’s pro-life and opposed prop 8), and yet not too conservative (he’s on the correct side on the environment and other issues). This is a political calculation and Warren is now a number in that math.

4.It is a manifest confusion of the two spheres of the twofold kingdom.  Warren’s inaugural prayer is a civil not a spiritual act.  Ministers are called and ordained to serve a King and in a kingdom that far transcends any civil order. Christians prayed for Nero. Christians prayed for Diocletian and they did so when public piety demanded that they pray to Nero and Diocletian. They did not and they suffered for it. The civil authorities demanded that the Christians observe the public piety of the day, a pinch of this on the fire, a few words that no one really believed, spend a little money at the butcher, and it’s done. When they were arrested for not performing these nominal acts, they were required to perform more nominal acts, to curse Jesus and to deny that they were Christians. The most basic question often was, “Are you are Christians?” A one-word answer, “Sum” (I am) earned Christians the death penalty. Our ancient brothers and sisters understood that they were simultaneously citizens of two kingdoms (see the Epistle to Digonetus for a brilliant account of this truth). They understood that they were to pray for the king but not to him and not as an act of civil piety but as an act of devotion to King Jesus and not in service to the king but in service to the ascended and glorious King Jesus. Because of their holy ordination, ministers, in their office as ministers  are called and ordained to serve the kingdom of Christ. If a minister wants to serve a secular vocation, he must lay down his ministerial office to take up a civil office but he may not serve, in an official capacity, two kingdoms at the same time in an official capacity.

5. Many evangelicals are doubtless excited about having “one of our guys” involved in the inaugural but I fear that they are excited for the wrong reasons. I fear that they see this choice it as it was intended to be seen: as a sign that “the evangelicals” still have “a place at the table.” Don’t you see that’s just the problem? As Carl Trueman reminds us, the price of the is sort of relevance is too high. Conservative evangelicals, in the days of the old “neo-evangelicals” and before them, the old fundamentalists, used to deride “the liberals” for becoming captives to the culture. When the cultural mainstream favored “temperance” (civilly enforced abstinence from alcohol), the liberals were teetotalers. When feminism required the ordination of females, the liberals obeyed and the evangelicals followed. Now, the culture insists on the normalization of homosexuality. The liberals have dutifully obeyed and “the evangelicals” are following. Arguably the evangelicals are simply liberals with a learning disability.  The reason the liberals abandoned historic Christianity, as they manifestly have, and the reason that the evangelicals are following blindly in their footsteps, is the quest for cultural relevance and significance. It’s an idol and it demands total submission.

As citizens of the civil kingdom, Christians ought to fulfill their vocations. They ought to do their jobs, love their neighbors, serve their communities and nations by serving in civil office, in the military,  and by defending creational norms.  In that sense, Christians have only as much “relevance” as their vocation, civil life, and arguments provide. A Christian film maker may be relevant to the culture because of his films or a Christian gardener might be in demand because of his skill as a landscaper, and perhaps because of good customer service (both of which, of course, are informed by his or her faith).

The only relevance that a Christian minister, as such, should have to this or any culture, however, is the relevance that the Apostle Paul demonstrated at Mars Hill (Acts 17)? He preached the law and the gospel. He demonstrated to them that they were inherently and obviously religious (they were surrounded by idols) and yet they just as obviously blind to the truth and suppressing it in unrighteousness (Rom 1). He preached the gospel in the most concrete way possible, by telling them of the resurrection of a crucified Jew.  He wasn’t angling for cultural “influence” or “relevance.”  There was no studied cool. There were no over-the-top theatrics. Paul fulfilled his vocation. He preached the law and the gospel and left the results to the Holy Spirit. He did it in obedience to the Lord of heaven and earth, to the King whom all magistrates serve, but he did it as a minister of the spiritual kingdom, the church instituted by Jesus the King.

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  1. The hardest theocracy to combat, it seems, is the roaring silent one that hides behind “the separation of church and state.”

    I’m not quite as inclined to fault Warren. In some sense, he’s just being a good evangelical. What raises my ire are those (nominal) confessional Reformed Protestants who speak like theocratic evangelicals.

  2. Jeepers, you are irritating, Dr. Clark. Just when I think we are “winning” the cultural wars, you keep on raining on the parade. Stop it, you’re making my head hurt.

  3. I would hate to lose for winning. I would hate to lose the distinction of the gospel rightly preached for winning a culture wars battle. I would hate to lose my identity as a child of God (adopted) for winning the right to be a ‘conservative (or liberal), evangelical religious right (or left) Christian’ without the ability to evangelize the Mormons, Roman Catholics, etc. I would hate to lose the law-gospel distinction for moralism, whether it’s heavy law (fundamentalist legalism) or law light (feel good about myself therapy). Thanks Dr. Clark for your post. I’m having (along with our senior pastor and some session members) similar battles in our PCA. Are we distinctly confessional / Reformed or broad evangelical? What are the implications and distinctions of each? Your work – books and blog particularly – have helped me quite a bit.

  4. It’s not just that you have a minister praying, it’s also that you have someone who professes to be Christian joining in prayer with unbelievers; the prayer will probably also be tailored so that people who are not even Christian can join in the prayer. Even if a person is not a minister, a Christian should never join in prayer with unbelievers in any context. Is it not proper to think of prayer as an act of worship? If it is, then how can we engage in worship with unbelievers, especially when they think there is no need for faith in Christ?

    But on the military, I am somewhat unsure about that. Perhaps I’ll mention it some other time when the issue comes up again. I’ll just say that I have some personal experience and am re-thinking the notion that it is alright for Christians to join the US military.

    By the way, this makes me think of something I have not thought for a while. How can we allow for the presence of military chaplains in a governmental system which emphasizes the separation of church and state or as people who affirm the the type of two-kingdoms theory of this blog? And beside the training and pay these chaplains receive from the government, how about the seminarians who are in the military and are receiving financial support, or even full support, from the government? What of regular seminarians who can receive financial support from the government? I have noticed the federal assistance that some students can receive at WSCAL. Perhaps these questions have already been answered, but be patient with me, I’m learning.

  5. Hi Alberto,

    I don’t see a problem of a believer praying in the midst of unbelievers. The preposition “with” would change things, I agree. Of course we can’t simply decide unilaterally that everyone around us is an unbeliever. Nevertheless, generic prayers are problematic. Would the Apostle Paul join in a prayer that was acceptable to a Muslim or a Hindu?

    The Reformed view has always been that military service is appropriate for Christians. It was the Anabaptists who withdrew from civil society and particularly from the military service or public office. One benefit of distinguishing between the civil kingdom and the spiritual kingdom is to make service in the civil kingdom (including military service) legitimate and honorable. Jesus didn’t tell the soldier to quit the military.

    Military chaplains are a very tough problem. In theory, were there a reasonable way around the current system (e.g. private funding etc), I would support that over the current system. Living in an area where there is a lot of military personnel, I’m sensitive to the fact that Christian military personnel are often deployed or on maneuvers or otherwise away from church for extended periods of time so that they are without access to the ministry of Word and sacrament. This is a real problem especially on long deployments overseas where there are virtually no Christian ministers apart from the chaplaincy. In short, given the need and the virtual non-existence of any alternative and the practical problems of a retinue of 1000 ministers being deployed with every troop movement, the current system is all there is.

    As to student loans, it’s a fair question. Students are not ministers, however. They are students. The school is not a church. It’s a school preparing men for ministry and preparing other students to fulfill other worthy vocations, e.g. school teacher etc.

    Our students borrow money, at interest, from banks and lenders who participate in the Federal Student loan program. These students repay this money with interest. Should we say that, because we’re a seminary, students may not borrow money in the federal student loan programs?

    A seminary is in an unusual position, in some ways straddling the two kingdoms, because we train men for ministry but inasmuch as WSC is a school it’s a civil institution. We don’t ordain people here. We don’t administer sacraments here. We don’t “preach” (technically) here.

    There are going to be intersections between civil and ecclesiastical institutions. The two kingdoms doesn’t mean that they are hermetically sealed from one another. Churches are composed of tax-paying citizens and they may, e.g. rent a civil facility in which to hold services.

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