Not A Question Of Taste But Of Principle

Mark Tooley, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, weighs in on the June 25 patriotic worship service held by First Baptist Church in Dallas. First Baptist is the home of Robert Jeffress, whom you might know from his frequent appearances on Fox News as the putative Jerry Falwell of 2016. Tooley provides a helpful survey of some of the responses to the service and proceeds to respond by categorizing service, which one might describe as a stunt, as a question of preference or taste.

His essay is worth also reading because it illustrates the utility of the distinction between what Calvin called a “duplex regimen” (twofold government or twofold kingdom; see Institutes 3.14.15; 4.20.1). If we used that categorical distinction, rather than subjective category of preference, we find a way to affirm our citizenship in this world while simultaneously affirming our heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) without confusing the two. Since Christians have a dual citizenship and since the visible church is, as Herman Hoeksema argued in early 20th century, an expression of the heavenly kingdom, a worship service is no place for expressions of American, Canadian, Mexican, or Nigerian citizenship. As Calvin argued,

But whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and that future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ’s spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct. Since, then, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and enclose Christ’s Kingdom within the elements of this world, let us rather ponder that what Scripture clearly teaches is a spiritual fruit, which we gather from Christ’s grace; and let us remember to keep within its own limits all that freedom which is promised and offered to us in him.1

We are always tempted to resolve the tension between the two spheres or the two governments (sacred and secular) in favor of the other. Calvin mentions what we might characterize as Jewish theocrats and Christians antinomians. There were Anabaptists who were seeking a theocracy, who anticipated a future, earthly golden age. There were other Anabaptists who wanted no part of civil life, who adopted a quasi-Gnostic view of the physical world. This approach has, since the 2nd century, led to two outcomes: licentiousness (antinomianism) and legalism or asceticism. We saw these two tendencies re-emerge through the Middle Ages in the radical dualistic Albigensian movement (and related groups, e.g., the Bogomils) and the monastic movements. We see the same sort of impulses in American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. If the physical world is not real or if it is inherently evil, then it must be suppressed or it may be indulged.

The Reformed affirmed the goodness of creation and the propriety of engagement in secular and civil life. This is an expression of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. Christians have a vocation to serve God and neighbor in a variety of ways, as cobblers and magistrates. They also recognized, however, that secular and civil life has limits, that our service to God in that sphere is governed by his Word. One of those limits is that secular and civil life is not the eternal kingdom. We are not seeking to “bring” the kingdom of God into the world through civil laws or secular processes. The kingdom of God is already manifested in the world in the visible church and through Christ’s people. We are not seeking a glory age on the earth prior to Christ’s return. That was the great error of the ancient chiliasts, which error was being renewed in the fervor of the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries.

When we gather for public worship, we do so primarily as citizens of a universal body of believers, as citizens of the heavenly city, whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). That is why in rightly ordered Reformed and Presbyterian churches one does not see national flags in the auditorium. Like Hoeksema and the Reformed before him, we pray for the magistrate, we thank God for the magistrate and for those who serve the community, nation, and state (and especially for those who place themselves in harm’s way in the military and in the police forces) but our principal allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, which, as our Lord Jesus said to Pilate, is “not of this world” (John 18:36). The visible, institutional church is an outpost of that heavenly kingdom. When the minister enters the pulpit, he does so as the divinely authorized representative of the King of kings, not as the representative of the United States or Brazil.

All this comes about as Americans prepare to observe Independence Day on July 4. As with First Baptist Church other congregations will be tempted to confuse the two distinct spheres of God’s sovereign administration of all things. Such a confusion is unnecessary and more than a mere matter of taste.

NOTE

1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.20.1.

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9 comments

  1. I was preaching at a Baptist church once around the 4th of July when, during the congregational sharing/praying time, an elderly woman stood up and suggested they say the pledge of allegiance. Being a good Baptist church, they had a flag at stage right with the Christian flag at stage left and everyone dutifully rose and said the pledge. When it was time for the sermon, I was sorely tempted to move the American flag to center stage and say, “Behold your god,” and walk out. But I didn’t.

  2. I wonder how much the display of the US and “Christian” flag at the front of churches came from the practice of Presbyterian and Congregational churches back in the 19th century. We shouldn’t be talking about the specks in the Baptists’ eyes when We may have sticks, if not logs, in our own.

    • I was Baptist at the time. It was that incident that actually got my attention and I brought it up to the deacons some time later, but to no avail. Since then I have yet to attend a Presbyterian church that has either flag in the sanctuary, so I’m not sure what log is in the Presbyterian eye. And, if it’s a matter of past congregational or denominational sin, I’m not sure how much of that log is mine to remove.

    • Steve D.–(July 3d post)>

      Log in the Presbyterian eye–Well, I’m perhaps a bit older than you and I’ve seen flags displayed in the sanctuaries of churches of several denominations. Maybe there is a movement among Presb. and Reformed folk to take advice such as our blog host has given us to heart, and if so, Soli Deo Gloriam!

  3. Robert Jeffress has too many problems and is a bad pastor. The man nearly cursed from the pulpit (available on YouTube) when approvingly quoting Donald Trump and calling for a bombing; all this was done from a pulpit with parishioners clapping and some even yelling in agreement!

  4. Celebrating and expressing membership of a nation and participation in the divine institution of government, is quite appropriate.

    Left kingdom distiction does not mean there is no left kingdom expression in the right and vice versa.

  5. Having not attended said “offending service” of Pastor Jeffress, I can’t have an opinion on it. However, I can easily imagined prayers for our country and its leadership from the pulpit and is indeed, a Scripturally allowed means of grace. I have often prayed that even those who are not Christian but in political leadership would be guided into making decisions good for the common welfare-and that enemies of the public good would be thwarted from their wicked designs. Don’t you so pray? “And one nation under God” is part of the pledge, is it not? I think a discussion should follow on this topic. I recently read the Lausanne Covenant (1974) and the creators of it make clear Evangelical Christians should be involved in the “Public Square.” As Lutheran turned Catholic Richard Neuhaus would say regarding speaking to the culture: “If a church offers no truth that is not available in the general culture – in, for instance, the editorials of the New York Times or, for that matter, of National Review – there is not much reason to pay it attention.”

    • John,

      Certainly we pray for the magistrate. Paul commands that in 1 Tim 2, 1 Peter 2:17 tell us to honor the emperor. Certainly we pray for the country. None of that is in question.

      What is in question is the propriety of turning the visible church of Christ into a virtual extension of the state or a political party of whatever administration or sort. This is a question of “civil religion.” We simply see no such thing in the New Testament. It is not possible to imagine a similar service for Nero or Claudius, two of the Caesars under whom Paul ministered. The Apostle John has some strong words (and images) to describe Domitian, the emperor under whom he wrote the Revelation (c. 93-94 AD).

      As to “one nation under God” that is the sort of civil religion to which I am referring. The only God I know and worship is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit revealed in holy Scripture and confessed by Christians in all ages and times in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.

      There is no question whether Christians should be involved in the public square. Amen! Christians should serve as magistrates and officers and representatives but again, that does not answer the question of how the visible church should conduct a worship service.

      Christ has instituted a “twofold kingdom” or “twofold government” of the world (Calvin). The visible church is a representative of the eternal kingdom. It is universal. When we are gathered together for public worship we are not there as Americans (though we pray for our country and seek to serve it faithfully). We are there as Christians. In that hour we are seeking a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10).

      I am not calling for a withdrawal from culture or civil life (the so-called Benedict Option). I am calling for a recognition of a distinction between the two spheres under Christ’s Lordship.

      You can read more about this distinction here:

      https://heidelblog.net/category/twofold-kingdom/

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