Gordon College May Lose Accreditation Over Opposition to Homosexuality

I am not an alarmist, but this is really serious: Gordon College may lose its accreditation over its opposition to homosexuality.

Carl Trueman was so right six years ago. I’ll put up his money quote on the blog again:

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the day is probably not far off when those who regard homosexual practice as wrong will be consistently presented as the moral, cultural and intellectual equivalents of white supremacists. Al Mohler…has pointed out that this issue is set to shatter any possibility of traditional, biblical Christians being considered cool. You can have the hippest soul patch in town, and quote Coldplay lyrics till the cows come home; but oppose homosexuality and the only television program interested in having you appear will soon be The Jerry Springer Show when the audience has become bored of baiting the Klan crazies. Indeed, evangelicals will be the new freaks.

We ought to pray for Gordon. We ought to pray for those who engage in or are tempted by homosexual acts. We ought not whine, “This is our country and the gays are taking it from us!” Matthew 5 tells us both that we will inherit this world (in other words, it’s not ours yet—Christ will give it to us through no merit of our own) and that we must love our enemies, even when they make all manner of Klan-comparisons against us. But if we return reviling for reviling, those enemies won’t have to speak against us “falsely” (Matt 5:12-13). We will give them justification for their hatred. So let’s turn the other cheek; let’s let our accreditation be taken away without whining (though not without appropriate legal efforts to retain it). As a perceptive new friend said to me not long ago, turning the other cheek is a way of displaying the enemy’s unrighteousness to onlookers.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

19 thoughts on “Gordon College May Lose Accreditation Over Opposition to Homosexuality”

  1. I agree and I’m concerned about the fate of Christian higher ed. It may end up shoved back into a self-authenticating religious ghetto, not unlike Catholic universities during the height of anti-Catholic prejudice.

    Unfortunately, our alma mater is particularly ill-equipped to defend itself because the Klan-comparisons have at least a soupcon of validity. If BJU hadn’t fought so hard for the sake of an un-Biblical cause like segregation, it would have had more moral authority to fight for the sake of a Biblical cause like the one at hand. Sins of the fathers…

  2. It appears ironic that just as BJU seeks accreditation the very fears it had warned against for many years are now being realized! The ostracizing of our institutions appears looming on the horizon.

  3. Paul, I agree—and I don’t view that as a criticism of the current (or immediate past) administration: you said no more than what Stephen Jones acknowledged in his apology in 2008.

    I think we need to make a public case for why the old SoulForce logo is wrong: Gandhi and King fought a battle of a categorically different sort. Civil rights and gay rights are not the same. Every human bears God’s image and therefore has dignity, but not every human action is dignified.

  4. I’m in a little different position because I do not believe that the state should define marriage, that it has always been a misguided intermingling of civil and ecclesiastical authority. We are now reaping what we’ve sowed, to some extent, as LGBQT activists attempt to use the power of the state to redefine marriage and thus to prohibit private religious expression, eg, the bakers and wedding photographers. Maybe if we hadn’t abused the power of the state ourselves in the past, they wouldn’t feel the need to return the favor today. Maybe, maybe not.

    So I do see some overlap between civil rights and LGBQT rights, although the underlying moral situation is very different. Both involve illegitimate state repression of groups on the cultural or religious periphery.

  5. And we’ve just written a chapter on government here for a textbook on biblical worldview in which we argue against the libertarian case. I think LGBTQ marriage is a good test case.

    This is what we wrote on libertarianism in particular, and now’s a good time for you to blast away at it:

    Libertarianism is wrong because it grabs on to the creational norm of individual accountability and turns it into an idol: individual autonomy.
    But look at the places in the world where people are free to do what is right in their own eyes without government intrusion, like Somalia. People there are not truly “free.” They’re caught among the gears of a country grinding to a halt.
    As the early American theologian Isaac Backus said, “It is so far from being necessary for any man to give up any part of his real liberty in order to submit to government, that all nations have found it necessary to submit to some government in order to enjoy any liberty and security at all.”12

    Government is not a necessary evil; it is a God-established (though fallen) good.

    Admittedly, we didn’t have much space to critique libertarianism. But those were the leading points we went for (in the context, of course, of a much longer discussion on other approaches to government).

    Now I’ll grant that not every sin ought to be a crime, and I’ll grant that it can be difficult to determine which actions fall into both categories and which fall only into the first. But Paul says,

    Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)

    Some vision of the good is going to drive every government, and I take it from Paul that this is God’s intent for government. Justice, as Michael Sandel says, is “judgmental.” It has to make moral judgments about the purposes of various institutions essential to the flourishing of a society. Marriage simply has to be one of those institutions. I just finally read the Moynihan Report from the 1960s, and it seems to me that he was a pretty good predictor of the very problems my parishioners are now facing as the whole culture of marriage has disintegrated in my neighborhood. I also draw from Stephanie Coontz, who said that cultures have long seesawed between strict customs of marriage which gave no out for the abused to a loose view which doesn’t force people to stay in loveless marriages but which creates its own victims: usually wives and kids. If government is established by God to ensure justice (that’s what we argue in the book), then it is appropriate for government to step in on behalf of the victims and insist that some marriages remain intact.

    I don’t think it’s Constantinianism (or whatever the equivalent would be in Islam, Judaism, or any other religio-cultural system) to say that marriage ought to be regulated by the state. I think cultures will always find ways to maintain the health of necessary institutions, and that government is a legitimate way to do that with marriage, education, health and drug laws, etc.

    I predict that evangelical Christians will take refuge in a libertarian conception of government and society and will be, because of societal pressure, derelict in their duty to warn sinners of coming judgment. I’m not saying you’re doing that. But I’m interested to hear back from you: what does government do in your particular libertarian conception?

    I admit to being a little out of my depth here, but these are my thoughts to start with! Happy for more interaction.

  6. Ooof, you show more audacity than I do to cite Isaac Backus as a defender of the established order! He was rather better known–and suffered for his belief–as a preeminent advocate for the separation of church and state in revolutionary era America. I very much situate my own thought in a stream of Christian disestablishmentarianism going back through Backus, John Leland, and Roger Williams. Indeed, if you go down just two paragraphs after your quote from Backus’s “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty” you’ll find this: “God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government.” Sorry, he’s not the prosecution’s witness. (-:

    More problematic is that you’ve fallen into a common misunderstanding of what libertarianism is. Most self-described libertarians do not advocate for the absence of government, but for a government that protects free spaces in which individuals form the institutions of a healthy society. (It’s anarchists, libertarian’s second-cousins, who are completely consistent in their anti-statism.)

    I’d also retire the Somalia gibe. There actually isn’t the absence of governance there: it’s in the middle of a two decade long, multi-sided civil war to determine which regional power will control the whole. Take al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization that runs the bottom corner of the country (and used to control much more). It governs areas it controls with strict enforcement of Sharia law. It’s just as much of a government as the Taliban was in Afghanistan prior to the US invasion in 2001. They are bad governments, yes, but libertarian ones? Hardly. There’s a certain gallows humor to libertarians being blamed for Somalia; when there’s a failed state, it must be the anti-statists fault (rather than evidence of state mismanagement, corruption, and abuse)! (-:

    I believe in Romans 13 too. It’s certainly a general warrant for the government to encourage virtue and discourage vice, but I think it’s theologically lazy to fall back on it to justify any particular government action. I’ll give you an example of why that’s a questionable hermeneutic. When Paul tells the Phillippians in chapter 4 verse 8 to think about those things which are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, it’s a general call for these to be characteristics of our thinking. It is not, however, a ban on ever thinking about things which are false, ignoble, wrong, impure, and unlovely. After all, if we over-interpreted the passage, how would we be driven to our knees over our sin, how would we engage with the social injustice we see all around us, and how would we ever interact with a fallen, dying world?

    All of that to say, just citing Romans 13 isn’t going to work as a justification for why the state has a Biblical obligation to a specific institution, in this case marriage. In fact, I’ve never seen any connection, whatsoever, drawn between the state and the institution of marriage in the Bible. Zip, nada, none. So far as I can tell in Scripture, marriage is a purely ecclesiastical institution. It’s the union of a man and a woman in the yes of God and witnessed by the church.

    That absence is why traditionalist advocates for state-defined marriage fall back on this argument: I think marriage is really, really important, ergo… And isn’t that what you’re saying when you write, “Marriage simply has to be one of those institutions?” When you don’t got Bible on your side, turn to your gut (or natural law, which wraps one’s gut feelings in medieval philosophizing).

    To which I ask the question, which social institutions aren’t important? Aren’t families important? Since children are our future, should the government require all fertile couples to have children? Should they mandate parental training classes? For that matter, aren’t churches important? Should the government mandate church attendance? Wouldn’t we be a better nation if more people were sitting in pews on Sunday or if there were more ministers because the state provided them with a salary? Etc.

    These aren’t just hypothetical questions. Take mandatory church participation. Because of the deficient political theology of the Reformers, many of their descendants believed civil and ecclesiastical authorities should work in unison to create a godly society. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony that meant parish taxes on all who resided in a particular town. If you didn’t pay the church tax to support your local minister, you couldn’t vote and could be thrown in jail. It was all quite logical: churches are the bedrock of a healthy society and the civil authorities can aid churches through taxation. After all, churches are really, really important social institutions.

    But as Backus, Leland, Williams and whole generations of godly dissenters pointed out, righteousness cannot be coerced. Established religions corrupt the church and suppress true belief. Religious test clauses just exclude honest unbelievers and encourage rule by the dishonest. And, more importantly, as Roger Williams put it, “Forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils.”

    Evangelicals forgot that heritage in the 19th century once they rose to cultural and religious supremacy. There’s an interesting new book about the historical/legal side of that transformation in evangelical thinking: http://www.amazon.com/The-Evangelical-Origins-Living-Constitution/dp/0674726790 In short Compton argues, culture-warrior evangelicals are the source of the idea of a “living Constitution” in jurisprudence. I haven’t seen any books that discuss the topic from a theological perspective, but one is desperately needed. As evangelicals moved from the religious periphery to the mainstream, they forgot that they were strangers in a strange land. The same pattern applies to how Southern evangelicals responded to slavery, from early opposition in the 18th century to support as they moved into the Southern mainstream during the antebellum period.

    So rather than focusing on how upset I am that evangelicals are losing their day in the sun, I try to be encouraged that this is an opportunity for orthodox Christians to remember that they are sojourners. There’s an entire branch of theology that’s received short shrift for the last century or two among evangelicals and now, maybe, we’ll rediscover it. There are others who share that sense of optimism, like Tim Keller in this great little interview: http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/interview-pastor-tim-keller-13446271

    Finally, you ask me what role I envision for government. I believe government should protect free spaces in which individuals voluntarily form communities and institutions for the betterment of themselves and their society. Thus, for example, the civil authorities should leave the ecclesiastical authorities alone, so that individual Americans can band together and form free churches where they learn to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. That protection extends to the topic at hand. Christian colleges today–and maybe churches themselves someday–are threatened by interests opposed to free expression of religious belief. They would have the government stipulate which religious beliefs are appropriate and which are not. The government can, and should, “wield the sword” to protect a free space for religious expression.

    That’s the role of government: protecting the free, private spaces from within which spontaneous order emerges. Those are the spaces in which churches thrive, markets function, families flourish, and communities grow. When government does more than that, when it tries to guarantee churches, control markets, grow families, and organize communities, that is when it tends to violate its Romans 13 responsibilities.

    Marriage is a good example. The idea of marriage as a tightly-regulated government responsibility is a modern conception. The complex system of tax benefits and legal privileges that we take for granted today were mostly established in the 19th century. The idea behind them was to discourage common-law marriages and encourage childbirth. Evangelicals believed they could use the levers of government to engineer a better society. On the surface, it looked like it worked. Divorce was all but nonexistent, marriage rates were high, and interracial marriage was rare. Underneath that veneer, marriage as a Biblical institution was in terrible shape. Domestic abuse was a given, infidelity (by the husband) a constant, and divorce rates were low simply because state governments made them all but impossible to obtain. Think of the honorable SC governor James Henry Hammond, whose wife could not legally leave him despite his molestation of Wade Hampton’s nieces and his serial infidelity with two slaves, a mother and her daughter. By a Biblical definition, is a marriage featuring a wife-battering, unfaithful husband really a God-honoring marriage? No. In the eyes of the state? Yes.

    Is it any surprise then, that when the state-enforced shackles were loosed with no-fault divorce laws in the mid-twentieth century that the institution of marriage “fell” apart? No, because so many marriages were hollow shams. Indeed, I would argue that for our generation, marriage as an institution is healthier (and more Biblically-faithful) than ever. The only Millenials getting married are the ones who really value it. Divorce rates are expected to continue to decline as Baby Boomers age (divorce rates peaked in the 1970s). Spousal abuse is now a recognized problem. Bans on interracial marriage are gone. Goodness, talking about it makes me want to get married again! In summary, as state-support for marriage has relaxed, marriage appeared to be doing worse on the surface, but is actually doing better in reality (and in Biblical terms). Ideally, the only role for the State in marriage in the future will be to recognize the contractual relationship of two parties for the sake of probate courts. Marriage will become almost exclusively the provenance of the church, with only really religious folks even worrying about the institution. It will thrive in the same way that the church thrived in the second Great Awakening following the disestablishment of religion. The best days for Biblical marriage are ahead of us, not behind.

  7. Ok, ok… I struck a nerve! I didn’t actually write the government chapter I quoted. Gimme some time to process this. I’m listening, I’m listening… =) If I’m right that the libertarian position on marriage is going to be really popular among American evangelicals, and very soon, then I need to spend more time reading about it whether I write about it or not. More later.

  8. A few thoughts on Isaac Backus.

    I don’t see the contradiction between Backus’s statements about liberty and his statements about the distinction between ecclesiastical and civil governments. Mark and I would agree with both statements. It’s wrong for the state to pay pastors from tax revenues, to play a role in appointing and deposing pastors, or to set the boundaries of orthodoxy. Christ ordains civil rulers for their role and he appoints pastors for theirs. The church should not rule over the state nor the state over the church.

    However, James Leo Garrett notes that, in contrast with Leland, Backus’s disestablishment views didn’t mean that he rejected the concept of a Christian nation. William McLoughlin notes that Backus believed that the Protestant religion, though not necessary for government, was necessary for good government. He and the Baptists associated with him accepted “laws against profanity, blasphemy gambling, theater-going, and desecration of the Sabbath.” Even Roger Williams, with whom I’d have greater theological differences, held that the civil government, though it could not enforce the first table of the Decalogue, could enforce the second. Thus he thought civil government could restrain conscientious religious practices such as human sacrifice (a violation of the murder prohibition), the familiar use of thee and thou by Quakers to their superiors (a violation of the fifth commandment), or to protect chastity by requiring modest dress in public.

    I don’t think Backus can be pressed into the libertarian mold. He didn’t want state control of the church, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want the laws of the land shaped by Christian morality.

  9. I should also leave a comment of affirmation. I agree that it is a problem whenever evangelical political action is motivated by a sense of loss of power rather than by a real desire for the common good. And it may well be that an opportunity for Christians to model what marriage should be in contrast to life in society around them will be far more effective at this point than any law that seeks to enforce Christian morality.

  10. Before I go on, let me make a basic point. What I’m doing here–claiming Backus even though Backus wouldn’t necessarily agree with how I apply his principles–is something we all do. Take evangelicalism, which is the stream of theology in which we swim today. Was Augustine an evangelical? Well, if you define evangelical as “guy I approve of,” then yes. But if you ask whether Augustine would’ve called himself an evangelical or weighted the points of the Bebbington quadrilateral as we would, well, the answer is no. Religious historians root the beginning of evangelicalism in the pietist and revivalist movements of the 18th century. Now, that doesn’t mean that our religious heritage begins the early 18th century. No, we trace our way all the way back through the Reformers, church doctors, fathers (including Augustine), till we arrive at the early church and apostles. We claim them even though there’s been quite a progression in doctrinal belief since then. They are in our lineage and that is what I claim, more directly, for Backus, Leland, and Williams.

    Certainly, it wouldn’t be accurate to call Backus a libertarian. It’s a modern term. And you’re right, Backus did support the laws you mention. But I believe the logic of Backus/Leland/William’s disestablishmentarianism is the same logic behind my libertarianism, just taken to its consistent end.

    Think of disestablishmentarianism as a line that progresses upward on a chart. Now, from the perspective of a point towards the top end of the line, a point near the beginning seems positively retrograde. It hardly looks disestablishmentarian at all. That is why Backus and others can seem so inconsistent, eg opposing parish taxes but supporting obscenity laws.

    But it’s important to remember how truly radical disestablishment was. You’ll search in vain for disestablishmentarianism among the major Reformers. Neither Calvin nor Luther favored disestablishment; they wanted to simply replace a Catholic establishment with a Protestant one. Church and state remained tightly wedded. Exhibit A: the execution of Servetus in Geneva.

    It’s not a surprise, though, that it was your anabaptist ancestors who gave us the first inkling of disestablishment. The lowly, peripheral anabaptists did not have the incentives of the (relatively) powerful Reformers to force their theology on those they ruled. Simply put, they were the ruled, not the rulers. When I say things like “sanctification cannot be coerced,” or “righteousness cannot be promoted with the sword,” I am thinking of these early anabaptists. Even though I’m not a Baptist, I love baptists like Claus Felbinger, who said as he awaited the executioner’s block: “God wants no compulsory service. On the contrary, He loves a free, willing heart that serves Him with a joyful soul and does what is right joyfully.”

    When Roger Williams fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and established Rhode Island, it was the first place where Baptists had political control and, arguably, the first place in the Protestant world with formal religious freedom and disestablishment. Rhode Island was the true city on the hill, not Massachusetts. That is the tradition in which Leland and Backus stand, but also remember how early this is. Disestablishment was still a novelty, just a bizarre concept outside of places like Rhode Island.

    So when someone like Backus cites the logic of disestablishment in one arena but then backs away from it in another, it’s evidence of the early state of the development of the principle. I may have shared this on Mark’s blog before, but I remember spending time in the records of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. During the ratification debates, one of the issues that arose was whether or not Virginia would amend the proposed Constitution with a religious test clause that would require all government figures to swear to their belief in God. In broad terms, the formerly-established Episcopalians were in favor while the disestablishmentarian evangelicals were opposed. Like their anabaptist ancestors, they found civic oaths questionable to begin with. After all, what’s to stop a candidate from lying? In fact, a religious test clause simply increases the chances that any given government official is an immoral liar while honest pagans will be kept out. Furthermore, the anti-clause speaker argued, preventing unbelievers from holding office might lead to more attestations of faith, but they would be more likely to be false professions, people saying they were Christians just so they could hold office. Coerced belief was not true belief, so the test clause should be left out.

    That is the background to what he said next. A pro-clause speaker challenged him to specify what other moral laws he’d ditch, trying to frame him as a crazy radical. Would he end obscenity laws and just allow people to go swearing in the streets!? The anti-speaker, wanting to reassure the convention that he wasn’t a radical, defended obscenity laws as common-sensical. Apparently, forced belief and behavior wasn’t so offensive to God in those areas. I tell this story to make this point: the logic of that speaker, if he were to be consistent, demanded he favor dropping obscenity laws as well as the test clause. But it was a bridge too far. It was too extreme. I put it this way: it was beyond the bounds of his imagination.

    Most ideas are like this. Today, political wonks talk about “policy windows” and try to “shift” those windows. Ideas that were once kooky, just beyond the Pale, like auditing the Federal Reserve, are now firmly in the conservative mainstream. Go back a bit further, and the ideas of the “radical” right in the 1950s–defunding the United Nations, expanding the number of right-to-work states, etc–became the political platform of one of the major political parties within a two decades. Our imaginations are constantly limited by our personal experience, our cultural background, and the limits of what seems possible.

    Today, most American evangelicals are further down the disestablishment line than Backus or my anti-test clause speaker. Even you, I imagine. Would you still favor municipal fines for public vulgarity? How about the death penalty for homosexuals (as was the case in colonial times)? Should we bring back the bluelaws and force non-believers to respect the Sabbath? Maybe you’re on the fence about some of the particulars, but in general, most evangelicals are so far down the disestablishmentarian path that regulating Americans’ behavior in that manner is all but unthinkable. It just doesn’t make sense.

    I use the language of “sense” purposefully to illustrate what’s changed between the Revolutionary Era and now: our imaginations. The disestablishment principle remains the same, but we, unlike Backus, realize that those kinds of laws do not produce the results they are intended to produce. Fining people if they swear might make them swear less, but it doesn’t produce a heart that is any more pleasing to God. Think of Felbinger’s quote again: “God wants no compulsory service.” Or, to cite Roger Williams again, “Forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils.” To please God, our obedience must be voluntary, motivated from the heart and not by coercion. For God looketh on the heart; the State can only see the outward appearance. At its most basic, that is the theological grounding for libertarianism.

  11. A few historical quibbles. First, I find the position that Baptists descended from the Puritan/Separatist tradition rather than from the Anabaptist tradition more convincing. Second, I wouldn’t appeal to Servetus as exhibit A of establishmentarianism. Charles V made denial of the Trinity a capital crime (as I understand it, Switzerland was still part of the Holy Roman Empire at this time, but de facto independent). Servetus was a dead man wherever he went, and he evidently came to Geneva because he thought it was his best chance. When the Genevans asked him if he wanted to be extradited to France, he opted to remain in Geneva. Further, Calvin and the city council were not on good terms at this time. Though Calvin did give evidence when asked that Servetus denied the Trinity, Calvin also requested that Servetus not be burned, which request the council denied. This is not to say Calvin was a Roger Williams, but it is to say that Servetus is not the best exhibit A. Furthermore, the two kingdoms view that is fundamental to Backus’s argument is present in Luther and Calvin. They drew the jurisdictions differently, but the structure was the same. Third, I’m not convinced that there is a single Williams/Backus/Leland tradition. I think there are significant differences between these men.

    More substantially, I don’t think that the differences between Backus and libertarians is due simply to different plausibility structures in different times. I think there is a fundamentally different logic going on. In Backus’s view the church should not be established because Christ rules over two kingdoms, a civil kingdom and an ecclesial kingdom. These kingdoms are under Christ and are subject to his laws. The Decalogue serves as a summary of the law of God, not just as it is in Scripture but also as it is written on the hearts of men (natural law). The first table of the Decalogue deals with man’s relation to God; the second table deals with his relation to others. Backus argues that the Christ has not given the civil kingdom jurisdiction over man’s relation to God. But Christ does give the civil kingdom jurisdiction over mutual human relations. Thus the second table of the law is to be enforced, and that not just by Christian nations, but by all nations–because it is the natural law written on the hearts of all people. But it would seem that the Christian libertarian is operating by a different logic. He sees Christ ruling over one kingdom, the church. The state it seems is autonomous with only the function of ensuring that liberty is protected. The law of Christ is of no concern to it. Thus, it is not that Backus was inconsistent in his disestablishmentarianism while libertarians today are more consistent. Backus and the libertarian are operating with two different theologies.

    You say the theological basis for libertarianism is that God is only pleased with voluntary obedience from the heart, which the state cannot produce by law. I admit that I fail to feel the force of this argument. It is true that a man who restrains himself from murdering someone only because he fears the legal penalty or someone who does not visit a prostitute simply because he does not want to violate the law is not pleasing to God. But it is not the state’s role to ensure that people are right with God. That was fundamental to Backus’s argument. So the fact that laws against murder and prostitution can’t address heart issues is no argument against them as laws.

  12. Calvin’s complicity in the execution of Servetus is complicated, but I didn’t come to bury Calvin (although I’m not overly impressed by his magnanimous gesture of asking the council to commute his sentence to something less permanent but still odious). The ultimate point is this: Calvin created a system of governance in Geneva that intermingled civil and ecclesiastical powers, using those powers to execute and exile quite a few heretics (and the odd political opponent). He did so because that’s what Christians had done ever since Constantine (an over-simplification, but pardon it for sake of brevity). I also can’t think of any other Protestant or Catholic country at the time that wouldn’t have executed Servetus, but “since everybody did” is hardly our standard of conduct.

    I believe it was Roger Williams who first drew a major distinction between the “first table” of the law (the first four commandments) and the “second table” (the final six). I didn’t discuss that distinction because I don’t think it’s relevant. I don’t find Williams’ (and Backus’s) reasoning convincing. The image of two “tables” evokes Moses on the mount, but there’s no textual evidence of Moses dividing the Decalogue into two, meaningfully separate tables. It was a convenient argument for Williams and Backus, but not, I think, an exegetically sound one.

    I don’t see any call to try and ferret out a strict civil/ecclesiastical divide within the Decalogue because I don’t think it’s there. The covenant nation of Israel differs from the nations of today. The church replaces Israel as God’s chosen people and it is the church which, like Israel of old, must enforce the whole Decalogue within its covenant community. So while I can’t speak for all Christian libertarians, I am a 2K person who believes that God rules over both civil and ecclesiastical authorities; he just calls them to discrete missions under the new covenant (whereas their missions were intertwined under the old covenants). And God does call civil government to behave in certain ways and abide by specific principles, but it is no longer called to enforce the moral law of God as it was called under the Mosaic covenant.

    I should clarify something I wrote earlier. I pooh-poohed the concept of natural law, not because I don’t believe in natural law–I do, in the spirit of Romans 2–but because all too often, “natural law,” is the category in which positions without exegetical bases and based on gut feelings and cultural prejudices get dumped. The example that comes to mind, a bit extreme though it may be, is a post I remember from Douglas Wilson, who argued that anal sex should be prohibited for Christian, married couples because it was unnatural. It was unnatural because it couldn’t lead to procreation and because it grossed Wilson out (no literally, that was a major point in his reasoning, that anal sex involves fecal matter). There’s a certain logic to the proposition, a logic which would, of course, also negate the use of birth control and everything short of full intercourse. But it’s an extrapolation of a Biblical concept left open to interpretation. When God says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” is He really saying “Only have sex if its procreative”? That’s reading a great deal more back into a passage than I’m comfortable with. It’s borderline eisegetical. The point of the example is that while natural law is real, it’s presence in the hearts of men stipulated, we should be cautious about its specific applications when they aren’t ultimately bound by the Word but by reason (and the cultural prejudices, particular histories, that piggyback on our reason).

  13. First, a few agreements. I agree that the establishment in Geneva was a problem. Even the Puritans in New England would have wanted more separation of church and state than existed in Geneva. For instance, they would not have wanted the state to determine who was qualified for the Lord’s Supper. That would be a better example than Servetus, since it’s not clear that the church played a role in the execution of Servetus. My quibble, and it was just a quibble, was that Servetus is a bad exhibit A. My argument was not that Geneva is a model of church state relations.

    I think we may also be in agreement on natural law. I also agree in the existence of natural law, and I also think that when it is appealed to on matters Scripture is silent about, the appeals are often unconvincing. This is part of the reason that I’m not convinced by those who think Christians should make natural law and natural law alone the basis for their public policy proposals.

    Regarding the relevance of Williams’s and Backus’s division of the law into two tables: It is relevant because it shows that the difference between them and the libertarian is not that they were logically inconsistent and needed to have their horizons opened. The difference is due to fundamentally different logics.

    Here’s another agreement: I also agree that civil and ecclesiastical authorities have discrete missions under the new covenant. I’ll also agree that these missions were to a greater degree intertwined under the Mosaic Covenant (with the caveat that the priestly sphere was distinct from the regal sphere, as Uzziah found out, even under the Mosaic Covenant). I’d also add that I don’t believe that Mosaic Law is in force today. It remains of great benefit to the Christian; but it’s not the law code that we are under, much less the code that the lost are under.

    That said, there is also God’s law and a law of Christ, according to Paul, and a law written on our hearts in the New Covenant. I would take that to be God’s eternal law, on which natural law is based. One of the functions of the Mosaic law was to apply this eternal law to Israel’s time, place, and role in redemptive history. It shouldn’t surprise us therefore to find major aspects of the eternal law pretty transparently stated in the Torah. And if any part of the Mosaic Law reflects eternal law and natural law transparently, it is likely the Decalogue. And though the Decalogue doesn’t divide itself into two tables, it is clear that the first four commands deal primarily with our relation to God and the final six deal primarily with our relations to others. If it can be argued from elsewhere, and I think you’d agree that it can be, that the state does not regulate our relations to God, then the first table falls outside the jurisdiction of the state. However, within the second table are some commands that clearly fall within the jurisdiction of all states: prohibitions on murder and theft. Backus and Williams are arguing that this is because the commandments are revealing to us a natural law that is binding on the consciences of all people, even those not under the Mosaic Code.

    Which leads me to a question. If Christ rules over the civil sphere, what is he calling on the kings of the earth to enforce if not provisions from His law? What is the good that they are to praise and the evil that they are to punish? How are they to kiss this Son, and what are the bands that they are to cease trying to break asunder?

  14. I suppose the reason that my disagreement with Williams’s and Backus’s “two tables” logic doesn’t change my sense of filial affection for them is that the “two tables” thinking was post hoc theological self-justification. When I read Williams and Backus on disestablishment, I see them ultimately rooting their position in the idea that coerced worship, behavior, and belief displeases God. Thus their opposition to parish taxes, loyalty oaths, and official churches. But they also believed in an active role for government and, because of the “imagination” mechanism I’ve discussed before, they could not take that basic logic to its logical end. Instead, as a way of justifying their twixt-and-tween position–an establishment of religious morality in some avenues, but not in others–they went looking for a theological rationale and found it in the two tables theory. When I claim them, I am claiming their ultimate theological logic, not their attempts at rationalizing their beliefs with the world around them at the time.

    At the same time, I feel the pull for some discrete criteria for what exactly the civil authorities should and should not legislate. The two tables provides something (literally) concrete, (-: but I think the theory is a real stretch exegetically. I do believe there are descriptions of civil authorities in Scripture that give us binding principles for civil government in all places and times. For instance, any judiciary that allows witness bribing (or worse!) so that the well-connected and well-heeled can expropriate money from the poor, is a corrupt institution.

    But there aren’t as many of those governing principles in Scripture as I’d like. So typically, I rely upon extra-textual evidence to figure out what the God-ordained institution of civil government should do in order to be in keeping with the principles we do have. At first glance, this sounds worrisome, I suppose, but consider the fact, for fact it is, that we do this with every God-ordained institution. Take the institution of the family. We know parents are supposed to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord, model the gospel to them, but not really much else. So we have a few principles, but there is not much concrete application given in Scripture. So we turn to practices that the weight of tradition, science, and reason inform. Thus today, most evangelicals spank their children, but we’d be horrified at parents who slapped their kids in the face or hit them with a brick. Yet while those were once accepted applications of Scriptural principle, our scientific views of child development have changed and Christians have changed along with them.

    I propose that most of our specific policy beliefs are the same in the civic arena. Here’s an example: in keeping with Biblical injunctions that courts not become instruments of exploitation of the poor, I’m opposed to civil asset forfeiture. (A humorous riff here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks). It’s a public policy that in an of itself is not designed to hurt the poor, nor is there anything specifically un-Biblical about the concept in theory. Yet in practice, it has become a means for police departments to enrich themselves at the expense of predominantly poor and minority communities. In other words, I reasoned my way to the belief that civil asset forfeiture, as it is currently conducted at least, is not a policy that a believer should support.

  15. I’m not seeing Backus’s two kingdoms/two tables argument as a post hoc theological self-justification. Indeed, he makes it the entire foundation of his argument. Nor could I find anywhere in Backus where he affirms that the government coercing behavior is a bad thing. Indeed, he begins his whole discourse by an argument that our true freedom is found not in breaking the laws of government but by submitting to them when they are aligned with God’s will.

    I’ve not read as much of the primary source material on Williams as I have with Backus, but the secondary material on Williams seems to indicate that his views were also theologically rooted. Whereas the Puritans held that they were in a covenant analogous to that of God’s covenant with Israel, Williams argued that the Israel was a type fulfilled in Christ. Thus OT Israel does not provide a model for how to run the state; it provides a figure for how the church is to be governed. This is in addition to the two tables reasoning. It seems to me that both men were firmly theological in their reasoning. What I can’t find anywhere in Backus’s writings or in the secondary literature on Williams that I’ve read is the idea that since God is not pleased with coerced behavior, the government should not coerce behavior. Any behavior?

    With the rest of your post, I’m in broad agreement. The way I would put it is that in Scripture we find norms that must be applied to situations. When we’re looking at OT law sometimes we see the norms right on the surface (no bribing judges). Sometimes the norms are applied to a specific cultural situation in the OT and we need to work back to the basic principle.

    The other aspect is applying the norm to the situation. I think you’ve given some good examples of how understanding the situation is necessary to rightly applying the norm.

    When it comes to individuals, there’s a third component, what could be called an existential component. For the action to be pleasing to God the norm must be rightly applied to the situation with the right heart motivation. However, since the state can’t assess heart motivation, I think the state should be looking at only the first two elements. Right norms rightly applied to the situation.

  16. We seem to be in agreement about most things.

    I’ve not spent any time in Backus’s personal papers and, of the three–Williams, Backus, Leland–he’s the one about whom I know the least. I am familiar with his famous 1773 sermon, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty.” And when I read the following in section 1, part 3, I hear the echo of Williams and “forc’t worshipp.”

    “All acts of executive power in the civil state, are to be performed in the name of the king or state they belong to; while all our religious acts are to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus; and so are to be performed heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men. And it is but lip service, and vain worship, if our fear toward him is taught by the precepts of men.”

    It’s true that here Backus has in mind the collection of parish taxes, but this is a statement that encompasses much more. If civil law (the “precepts of men”) is what compels our obedience to God (moral law), then it is in vain. And the libertarian could not state the following bit from part 4 more forcefully:

    “That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same.”

    Doesn’t that sound awfully similar to what I’ve written before, that church authorities should compel obedience to the moral law from the covenant community, whereas the civil authorities should not? Again, I don’t doubt that Backus upheld laws on issues that I would not, but the ultimate basis of his logic–both rational and Scriptural–in this sermon, is not the two tables of the law (although you can find an oblique reference to them in section 2, part 2), but the concept of coerced obedience to the moral law of God.

  17. I apologize for my long silence. I’ve been pressed with deadlines both at work and with outside projects these last few weeks.

    I’d also affirm a great deal of agreement. Maybe there is hope for fusionism after all 🙂

    Regarding, the first quotation, I’d affirm what Backus said wholeheartedly. The state cannot compel true worship. But that does not mean that it cannot compel right behavior. Hence laws against murder, theft, public indecency, adultery, etc. Since Backus is in favor of such laws and opposed to compulsion in worship, it makes the most sense to read him as objecting to compulsion in worship but not as opposing compulsion to right behavior.

    Regarding the second quotation, I think Backus would include under guarding the peace the second table of the law. For instance, Edmund Morgan says of Roger Williams: “To deprive government of God’s assistance and to confine it to the protection of bodies and goods did not mean, for Williams, that government had nothing to do with the moral behavior that God had prescribed for His creatures in the world. Human beings could live together happily and peaceable in ‘civility’ only by honoring the commands which their Creator had given them.”

    I think one reason for preferring my reading is that it results in a unified reading of Backus. I don’t have to bracket out part of his thought as being actually inconsistent with other aspects of his thought.

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