Columnists > Soul Food

Learning to be quiet

Why church bodies should stop meddling in civil affairs

Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

Three of my five sons have earrings, and I hate them (the earrings). I suppose I am paying for the sins of my youth as my mother, a great believer in karma, often warned I would. I can't understand why males put rings in their ears (or why females put them in their navels).

However, I am trying to handle this unwelcome development by remembering two distinctions:

There's a difference between my preferences and God's principles. "I don't like" is not the same as "Thou shall not." I have a right to my preferences, but they don't have the status of the Ten Commandments or the ethical teaching of Jesus and the apostles. If I choose, my preferences can bind my sons' behavior while they're under my roof, but only God's will can bind their consciences.

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There's a difference between my guts and God's gospel. My guts revolt at the sight of earrings on men, but I don't want the volume or number of my words on earrings to deafen their ears to the words of the evangel. My feelings are my feelings, but the gospel is God's truth.

I've been thinking about this a lot since I returned from the annual national gathering of my denomination where I participated in a debate about whether we ought to make a pronouncement against women in combat. I was against making one.

This year's debate brought back unhappy memories of my attendance almost 25 years ago at a statewide meeting of my former denomination. As a young minister I sat and listened with growing frustration as church leaders argued about whether to endorse Caesar Chavez's efforts to organize farm workers in Florida and about whether to petition the president to pardon those who deserted the country rather than face the draft during the Vietnam War. What, I thought, does any of this have to do with Christ's message or his church's mission?

Make no mistake about it. I had opinions-strong ones. I wanted nothing to do with endorsing Caesar Chavez or pardoning draft dodgers. But I voted against those proposals, not because of my politics, but because of a principle: I did not believe then, and do not now, that the church as church has any business making such pronouncements. Had the majority been ready to condemn Caesar Chavez and the draft dodgers, I still would have voted "no." For me it wasn't about what I want but about what God unquestionably wills.

I have strong convictions about women in combat. I would like to see women out of the military academies and cockpits and off the ships and battlefields. It's not because I think a woman's only place is "in the home," but because I don't believe women are effective fighters or that mixing them with men in military units is conducive to good morals. But I do not want the church as church to adopt my convictions as its confession to the world.

Christians and Christian publications should pay attention to political questions and many other matters, but the church as the visible body of Christ on earth may not be able to say everything we, as members, would like it to say. The gain will be great, because when church bodies do speak, they will be able to say not "This think we," but "Thus says the Lord." For the church it is better to keep silent when it cannot speak with full conviction.

Self-restraint will also keep the church on message and on mission. We have something that the world desperately needs and that only the church can proclaim-the glorious gospel of Christ. Scores of pronouncements pour forth from church assemblies and conventions every year, and the world is confused by their contradictions and numbed by their number. But when official church bodies boldly and persistently declares the apostolic gospel, they underline the fact that the gospel is the only pronouncement that can save the world.

The most mature of Reformation-era confessions has wise counsel for all church assemblies today: "Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary (when the state violates the clear will of God), or, by way of advice, for satisfaction to conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate."

When denominational assemblies make the mistake of speaking about everything for which a majority can be mustered, they weaken God's commands and obscure his gospel. Synods and councils would do well to listen to the advice my dad used to give his opinionated son: "You'll do better if you can learn when to keep your mouth shut."

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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