The below is a historical preamble written by the session of South Austin Presbyterian Church which explains why the church has a voice to speak to both the state and the culture. It was attached to a correspondence to the nine Justices of the Supreme Court calling them to repent of and repeal their decision on same sex marriage.
I offer it here for consideration to the broader church. I am of the opinion that the church must be extremely choosey about which issues it speaks to and which issues it does not. First, the church had better have a clear “thus saith the Lord” before it speaks. Second, I myself am somewhat leery of when Christians talk about “the prophetic voice of the church.” Usually that expression is a sanctimonious way of saying “I want to leverage God’s name for the sake of pushing my political agenda.” And I find that tremendously distasteful. Third, I have noticed that churches and Christians have been not only hesitant to speak to the SCOTUS decision publicly, but also critical of those Christians who feel compelled to do so. It is therefore against both extremes that I offer this brief historical preamble to the question of how and why and when the church should and should not speak to the state.
Please notice that in the examples cited caution is issued to the church to avoid meddling in civil affairs as much as possible. But, also, the examples acknowledge that there are times when the church may and must speak. These examples avoid the extreme of remaining silent about all civil matters on the one hand, and the extreme of speaking indiscriminately to many, most, or all civil matters on the other.
The Church’s Prophetic Voice
In the history of God’s people there have been various and sundry occasions when the church has been called upon to speak to the civil government. After all, God alone is the one true King of all nations who serve at his command. And the church, as the Kingdom of God, is the place from which the Lord God speaks to not only his people, but to all peoples everywhere – including civil governments. In ages past God spoke through the prophets to civil governments in extraordinary circumstances. The Judge of Israel, Deborah, addressed the kings of the earth (Judges 5:3), Nathan the prophet called King David to repentance for his sin (2 Samuel 12), throughout the book of Daniel the prophet declared messages from God to unbelieving Babylonian kings through the interpretation of dreams, and John the Baptist called King Herod to repent of his sexual immorality (Mark 6).
Beyond the biblical witness, the church has always been a voice to those outside her pale. The church has never been understood as being a merely private institution, but a prophetic entity with a public voice. Of course we saw this quite clearly in the days of the civil rights movement. But even before that the church has been understood to have the jur divino ability to speak to the civil magistrate. We can only cite two examples here.
First, enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal statement of many denominations here in America and throughout the world, is this statement: “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.” Our forefathers were very resistant to the idea of the church speaking to the state or the culture at large about matters civil. It was believed that insomuch as the church “inter-meddled” with civil affairs it was being distracted from its divine mandate to proclaim the Gospel and to be agents of reconciliation between God and man. But the church also recognized that there are times and cases which are “extraordinary” which demand the church to speak using its “prophetic” voice.
In addition, we have a representative example of how early American theologians articulated the role of the church relative to the state in the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge. While he acknowledges that the church “has nothing to do with the state, in the exercise of its discretion within its own sphere; and therefore has no right to meddle with questions of policy, foreign or domestic,” and that “they profane the pulpit when they preach politics, or turn the sacred desk into a rostrum for lectures on secular affairs,” he nevertheless acknowledges as well the church’s prophetic voice toward the state.1 For instance, he says:
if the state pass any laws contrary to the law of God, then it is the duty of the Church, to whom God has committed the great work of asserting and maintaining his truth and will, to protect and remonstrate. If the state not only violates the Sabbath, but makes it a condition to holding office, that others should violate it; or if it legalizes piracy, or concubinage, or polygamy; if it prohibits the worship of God, or the free use of the means of salvation; if, in short, it does any thing directly contrary to the law of God, the Church is bound to make that law known, and set it home upon the conscience of all concerned. (ibid., 104)
It follows from the great commission of the church, that it is her prerogative and duty to testify for the truth and the law of God, wherever she can make her voice heard; not only to her own people, but to kings and rulers (Ibid., 103)
It is in light of this historical precedent that we, the Session of South Austin Presbyterian Church, do respectfully and humbly submit the attached appeal.
1 Charles Hodge, Church Polity (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Publishing House), 103–105.