Problems with the Presidential Prayer Breakfast

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to presidents, prayer, or breakfast. I’m not opposed to praying presidents having breakfast. I’m not opposed to prayer before breakfast. All these are good things. The annual presidential prayer breakfast, however, is more than these things. Each year, about this time, the president gathers Christian leaders for a prayer breakfast. If this presidential prayer breakfast is like most of those I’ve attended there is more breakfasting than prayer.

The first problem is the most obvious: civil religion. President Obama holds an important office. He is a magistrate and in his civil office he is God’s minister (Rom 13), i.e., God’s servant. As president he does not hold ecclesiastical office. To be sure, historically, civil magistrates have long convoked assemblies for prayer and theological deliberation but, though no one can doubt the righteousness of gathering for prayer and theological assembly, we have reason to doubt whether it’s a good idea for the civil magistrate to do so.

Where in the new covenant is the magistrate authorized to function in this way? Would the Apostles have attended a prayer breakfast with Nero or Claudius or any of the Caesars? Did the apostolic church expect the civil magistrate to function in this way? Did the apostles favor gathering for religious observation indiscriminately? We have clues in 1 Cor 10:14-22 where the Apostle admonished the church in very strong words: “I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” His point, going back to chapter 8, is that we have a common civil life with non-believers. We eat the same food. We wear the same clothes but when it comes to religious matters the commonality ends.

Civil religion, however, does not respect sectarian distinctions. This raises the second problem. The Christianity Today story highlights, perhaps unintentionally, the problem with civil religion. The headline for the story is that PCA pastor Tim Keller was at prayer with the highly successful pentecostal preacher T. D. Jakes, whose Trinitarian orthodoxy has been questioned for years. Jakes was associated with the Oneness Pentecostal movement, which denies the Trinity. Jakes has denied being heterodox on the Trinity but his account of the doctrine of God would warm the heart of any Socinian. You should read it to be reminded why we have the Nicene and Athanasian creeds.

I understand that it is difficult to turn down an invitation to a prestigious relgio-civil event. It is an honor to be invited. Most Americans respond when the president calls. We are to submit to those in authority over us. We are to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17). Nevertheless, just as the magistrate is God’s servant, the pastor is also God’s servant in another, more glorious, eternal kingdom (Col 1:7; Phil 3:20; 2 Pet 1:11). There are limits upon the authority of the king. There are limits to the honor we can pay him. This is why the apostolic and early post-apostolic church suffered: because they would not participate in civil religion. They refused to go through the motions. They refused to put a pinch of incense on the fire. They refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” They refused to renounce Christ, even when everyone present knew it was a mere formality.

It is difficult to see how the presidential prayer breakfast does not cross those boundaries and by doing do produce the sort of confusion we have noted: an orthodox, Trinitarian, Presbyterian minister at prayer with a respected “evangelical” pastor who refuses to acknowledge even the most basic catholic, Trinitarian formulas.

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