By Jeff Gissing (@jeffgissing and jeffgissing.com)
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a strong history of advocacy in favor of restrictions on gun ownership. The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has raised the profile of gun control and, once more, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has sought to engage it. In 2010 the General Assembly approved the report, “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” Marketed as a new approach to the issue, it purportedly focuses on “preventing illegal guns from getting into the wrong hands.” This is a generous statement.
Its restrictions are broader than advertised. Reasonable Christians may disagree on how to restrict gun violence, which is a worthwhile goal. And since it doesn’t relate to an essential tenet of doctrine, prudence would suggest restraint unless a clear and compelling case can be made. The report fails to do this. What’s more problematic, however, are its theological foundations.
The denomination, we read, is deeply troubled our “a culture of death” and our “tragic devaluing of life.” Interestingly, the church has failed to connect this to abortion. In the case of guns, it seems, the individual is chided for owning something that may only potentially cause harm to another while, in the case of abortion, the right of the individual to do something which can do nothing other than cause the death of another, is lauded.
An Undefined Gospel
“Gun Violence, Gospel Values” roots its purpose in the gospel. Yet never is the word defined. “We need to be willing to ask ourselves,” we are told, “whether we should voluntarily limit our ownership of guns so that we may be more faithful stewards of the gospel?” This is a fair question, but is vapid in the absence of any clear notion of the gospel.
The little we can gather suggests that the gospel is connected to a rejection of idolatry. The Second Amendment, we read, has created an idolatry of guns. Perhaps. What is clear, however, is that the report closely associates the gospel with non-violence. It is a “Reformed theology of…non-violence.” Given recent decisions by the denomination’s refusing to define “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” for those vowing to uphold them, perhaps our priorities are askance. Theology here is clearly subservient to a political agenda. Regardless of our agreement or disagreement with the agenda, this is problematic.
It also rings hollow when the report cites Calvin in arguing for a gun-less society. Calvin does order society along biblical principles. Yet the report quotes him, “…We are required faithfully to do what in us lies to defend the life of our neighbor, to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and when danger comes to assist in removing it.” Defense of persons is perhaps first the duty of the civil authority, but it is not exclusively so. Presumably Calvin found it acceptable to defend the life of another by the use of force. The best efforts of the PC(USA) not withstanding, Calvin was no pacifist.
What Calvin was clear on, and yet eludes the writers of this report, is the nature of the gospel. In reading this, one gets the sense that the gospel is a political reality. The Gospel certainly has political ramifications but is not, in itself, a political message or reality.
The Utopian Error
The PC(USA) has clearly stated its desire to create a “peaceable kingdom—a society where God’s justice reigns” through the witness of the church. This Social Gospel provides a religious underpinning for centrality of government in the creation of a good society.
Surely we can agree that gun violence is bad and that the church ought to instruct its members to obey the Sixth Commandment. The report, however, goes further to note “the church’s primary calling is to help people prepare for the possibility of a real spiritual awakening that can instigate a social movement.” Is this so?
Only since the early twentieth century has the mainline church embedded “the promotion of social righteousness” into its mission. Surely it is a part of that mission. However one increasingly gets the impression that rather than being one of six great ends of the church, it stands alone. This report claims as much, “It is in the context of the community, especially the community of faith, that the full value of human life is honored and celebrated. We therefore constantly seek to remove double standards and differing expectations between God’s intention for those inside and outside the church.” (emphasis added)
What is unique here is the denomination’s commingling of the ministerial and declarative authority of the church with the coercive power of the state. Applied to any other issue—take abortion, for example—such an allegiance would be decried. When it comes to guns, quite the opposite.
A Mission Confused
While all Christians agree that God’s Law prohibits murder. Not all agree on how this relates to owning and using firearms. Further, it insists on prescribing policy solutions and urges church members to become activists for them. These include the instruction to the Office of Public Witness to lobby for the following:
- Limiting personal gun purchases to one per month
- Requiring licensing, registration, and waiting period
- Closing the “gun show loophole” by requiring background checks for all gun buyers
- Banning semiautomatic assault weapons, armor piercing ammunition and .50 caliber sniper rifles
- Raising the age for handgun purchase to twenty-one
- Eliminating the Tiahrt Amendment
- Requiring judges and law enforcement to remove guns from situations of domestic violence
Here the church has moved from the sphere of theological reflection and scriptural exposition into the realm of public policy advocacy. It has done so on the basis of a recent innovation in theology that posits the church as tasked with bringing the eschatological kingdom of God to reality here and now.
While the church does have a duty to connect the gospel to life, its first duty is to understand and teach this gospel. This duty does not extend to lobbying the government on issues that cannot be clearly linked with the essence of the Christian message. It is not the purpose of the church to move beyond the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and its application to all of life into the realm of playing public policy advocacy. Some of the suggestions found in this report may be prudent, but it is not the church’s business to make them.
Visit the Institute on Religion and Democracy website to read the original article and learn more about our programs!