Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and season for every purpose under heaven. A time to be silent and a time to speak. Over the past four months I have found myself silent, when I have wanted to speak. I have internalized, lamented, swore, studied, and sought wisdom. I have let other people carry the burden of speaking out for issues that I have agreed with, but have held back. I have done this mainly because like it or not, I am a public person and I have not wanted to offend or isolate those whom I am called to serve. I care more about them, than my personal opinion.
Our society is so tribal right now. I have tried in vain to stay out of my tribe and move into a higher level of thinking – one that honors all people, sees that we all breathe the same air, walk the same earth, and fundamentally, I believe, share common values of loving our families and our country. I refuse to place people in categories of “good or bad.”
That being said, as I have sat mainly on the sidelines and watched issues that are fundamental to my core values and beliefs be put on the auction block, I have sat on my hands, held my tongue, and closed my eyes. I knew that there would be a time to be brave and now was the time to be wise. So I sought wisdom. I sought higher understanding. I sought God. I found Him on a brief spring break, when I visited the ocean. The ocean didn’t seem to know what was going in the world. It didn’t seem to know that there was conflict on every continent that the ocean reached. The breathing waves just kept rolling, kept pulsing a heart beat as if to say, “I have been here long before you and I will be here long after. There might not be any fish, or choral, or life in me, but I will still be here.” As I sat on the warm, white beach of my childhood and felt the sun on my face, I realized again, how small we are and how big God is, and how much God trusts us to take care of what has been given to us. I told God that He might want to rethink that decision. I sat on the beach, and cried for the creatures and for my great grandchildren, and I wondered if they would ever know the beauty of the ocean. – I still remained silent.
But now, today, something is happening, and I can no longer only seek wisdom. It’s time to be brave. Today, the President of the United States will sign an executive order that will repeal the Johnson Amendment.
What’s the Johnson Amendment?
It is one of the brightest lines in the legal separation between religion and politics. Under the provision, which was made in 1954, tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate. Specifically, ministers are restricted from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit. If they do, they risk losing their tax-exempt status. (Jeremy Peters, February 2, 2017, New York Times.)
When I read about this in February, 2017, I prayed it would go away, be forgotten in the piles of administrative priorities. But today, on this the National Day of Prayer, the President will be signing an executive order that will diminish that bright line that separates church and state in our country. By doing so, the President will open the door for a slippery slope of where the demarcation of church and state rest.
Let me tell you why this is dangerous.
In 1934, almost immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to “aryanize” the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi “Führer Principle” as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and many Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a “German prophet” and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But some Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church’s proclamation.
At Barmen, this emerging “Confessing Church” adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be God’s sources of God’s revelation.
Adapted from Robert McAfee Brown,Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church, published in 1990 by Eerdmans.
The Barmen Declaration states:
1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” John 10:1,9
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.
2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30
As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
3. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.” Eph. 4:15-16
The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.
4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant.” Matt. 20:25-26
The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.
We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.
5. “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17
Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.
6. “See, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20 “God’s Word is not fettered.” 2 Tim. 2:9
The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.
We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self- chosen desires, purposes and plans.
The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith hope and love.
Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.
The Word of God will last for ever.
I don’t know if I can fully comprehend the bravery it took for the authors of the Barmen Declaration to write these words in Germany in 1934, under the barrel of Hitler and the Third Reich. I do know that I will not let their brave words, which are part of my tradition’s confessions, be forgotten.
Furthermore, let me say this: any pastor who uses the sanctity of the pulpit for their own political views, or the political advancement of another person, desecrates the integrity of their position and the Word they are called to preach.
Regardless of what the President does today, I call on clergy of every stripe to stand firm in their integrity and say they will not violate their calling to preach the Word alone and not become mouth pieces and pawns for the political flavor of the day.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.