February 26, 2013

Presbyterians Exploiting Lent for Gun Control

Cross Lent

How does the church pursue the common good? (Photo credit: Internet Monk)

By Jeff Gissing (@jeffgissing)

One of the chief points of differentiation between theological ethics in the evangelical tradition and in the mainline tradition is the locus of authority. For evangelicals the chief—even the exclusive—source of authority is sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Despite authoring numerous confessions and catechisms, all viewed as penultimate, Scripture remains the centerpiece of evangelical theological ethics. Beliefs and practices require some biblical warrant in order to be binding upon the conscience of the individual Christian.

In contrast, the mainline Protestant notion of authority developed quite differently. Mainline Protestants came to believe that an ethics derived exclusively from Scripture and experience would necessarily be blind to the insights of the social sciences—handmaidens of the Social Gospel experiment.[1] In their so doing, they exhibited a blindness of their own since the late twentieth century has provided some rigorous critiques of the social sciences as a tool for theology and ethics.[2]

This difference of authority is demonstrated quite clearly in the Lenten petition issued by the PC(USA)s Office of Public Witness. Most Christians understand that, as a penitential season, Lent provides us with the opportunity to examine our own hearts and to embrace new disciplines and practices that will enable us to follow our Lord more closely.

Lent is a solemn observance that enables Christians to prepare for Holy Week and our celebration of Christ’s sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection victorious over both death and sin.

This has traditionally involved prayer, repentance, charity, and some form of self-imposed discipline. In other words, we misunderstand Lent when it becomes an opportunity to inform someone else of their sin, to demand that they engage in some prescribed action we suggest, and then to baptize it with language of theology. This is precisely what this petition seeks to do when it states, “The resolution [Gun Values, Gospel Values adopted by the 291th General Assembly in 2010] calls both the church to support and the federal government to establish laws that will prevent and reduce gun violence.”

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the PC(USA) fits squarely in the mainline tradition, which places a priority on “social righteousness” above the other purposes of the Christian church. The petition acknowledges this and calls “people of faith” to “make earnest strides to challenge the pervasive culture of violence that permeates our social fabric.”

All Christian can surely agree that a culture of violence—in all its macabre manifestations—is something we ought to resist.

We all can agree, I would hope, that “bring[ing] peace to our homes, streets, and public venues” is something we can embrace. Where we will differ is in our understanding of how this “bring[ing] of peace,” this change to the “social fabric,” will take place. The petition envisions peace almost exclusively through the enactment of legislation limiting access to certain types of weapons and ammunition. There may be some wisdom in this, but is it really within the purview of the church to make decisions as to what legislation will be efficacious in reducing gun crime?

The answer to this question depends on your answer to another question: how is the church is to serve the “common good”? There may be many answers to this question. None of them is, however, that the church was created by God to advocate for specific policy solutions that will bring about a positive result through the state’s coercive power. So when the petition urges legislation that “reinstates the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004—banning all assault weapons and high capacity magazines”; “Require[s] universal background checks when purchasing any firearm”; and, “Make[s] gun trafficking a federal crime” it has overstepped its purpose and misconstrued its mission.

The church, in its theological reflection, frames the issue and defines what outcome is right in the eyes of God (with specific reference to Scripture). The church’s power, as the reformers contended, is simply ministerial and declarative. That is to say, the church can say what Scripture says to an issue. It may not dare step beyond what may, by good and necessary inference, be understood from the Scriptures.

In its Lenten petition the PC(USA) has succeeded in redefining Lent and misunderstanding the purpose of the church to the detriment of both. When it states that the PC(USA) has a “gun violence policy” the petition steps across the border into absurdity. After all, recent ecclesial court decisions and the new Form of Government have established that the church doesn’t really have a policy on whether the doctrine of the Trinity must be believed by Teaching Elders, but it does one on gun violence.

Christians are free to develop convictions regarding whether or not individuals ought to be free to own a certain type of firearm. They may even band together to form para-church entities that will argue their case. It is wrong for the church—as the church—to enter into this sort of specific policy debate, especially where Christians of good faith may differ.

Whatever one’s convictions on the issue of gun control, it will always be the case that the church exists, at least in its most significant form, in the context of a particular parish rather than in some denominational agency or governing body. The Office of Public Witness insists that this petition will “[call] for common-sense federal measures to reduce gun violence,” and states that it “is one small piece of a larger strategy to address the culture of violence that pervades our nation.” Perhaps. What is less debatable is whether anyone, let alone congress, will be watching when this interfaith coalition delivers its petition to congress in Eastertide.

Forming Christians in the virtues—by Word and sacrament—is one of the chief tasks of the parish. The other is carrying the Good News into its community. This doesn’t include “preach[ing] sermons, teach[ing] bible studies, and becom[ing] involved in efforts to change our culture of gun violence.” These twin tasks will enable Christians to live in a way that contributes to the common good. And to the extent that a denomination loses sight of serving this end, it ceases to be a faithful church and has become something else altogether.


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[1] Max L. Stackhouse and Raymond R. Roberts, “The Mainline Protestant Tradition in the Twentieth Century” in Ronald J. Sider and Dianne Knippers, eds. Toward an Evangelical Public Policy. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 96.

[2] See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

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5 Responses to Presbyterians Exploiting Lent for Gun Control

  1. Sadly, the mainline denominations have strayed from an emphasis on the Gospel and Salvation and moved over into a world of social statements and activism to force wordly laws – a step that would probably make Rauschenbusch cringe, but maybe not. As a friend of mine once said, the social gospel bunch has cut itself off from its theological base and now only has sociology and socialism to fall back upon.
    The PC(USA) and ECUSA and the ELCA to name a few seem to have looked not toward Sola Scriptura but Sola Psycholgia and Sola Socialogia as their normative focus. Changing a community from one of violence to one of peace does not come through legislation but through the transformative power of the Gospel because that makes a heart change. Just making criminals out of law-abiding citizens and restricting the rights thereof while doing nothing to change the culture and those who will do evil is a loosing game. You can make yourself feel good by doing it, but what have you really accomplished?

  2. On the bright side, when the liberals focus on gun control, at least it takes their minds off sexual issues for a while. Sex, guns, and socialism – just what Jesus Christ had in mind for his Bride, right?

    I’m all for abandoning the name “mainline,” as that name is totally inappropriate. Falwell was correct when he suggested “sideline,” but I think I’ll opt for “post-Christian churches,” which isn’t too far removed from “anti-Christian,” is it? Consider that 1 John refers to Antichrists in the plural.

    • Donnie says:

      Also keep in mind that the Bible warns us that Satan will present himself as an “angel of light.” Those who expect the Antichrist to be a hideous monster that spews offensive blasphemy will be caught unawares if they allow it.

  3. […] there are some sane people left out there, who understand the last thing a Christian church needs to do is take a clearly defined stand on an […]

  4. I often disagree with your email postings, but this time I must say I fully agree with you. I take offense at the emails from Sojourners (Jim Wallis) in which it is clearly intimated that ‘people of faith’ MUST, of course, agree with HIS hoplophobic opinions about firearms.
    The emphasis is on the tool, which is totally inert without the evil intent of one who wields it. “Gun Violence”? is THAT the problem? In Canada, in 7 out of the last 11 years, there have been more murders committed with knives (sharp objects) than firearms of ANY sort.
    For that matter, by targetting rifles…and specifically semi-automatic rifles…..they reveal an agenda, since ALL rifles combined add up to approximately 3% of all firearms murders in the USA. High capacity mags? The larger the capacity (the much-touted 100 round ones) the greater likelihood of a misfeed and jam. They ignore statistics that clearly state that the much-bally-hood, so-called ‘assault rifle ban’ that expired in 2004 did NOTHING to reduce firearm deaths, and, correspondingly, the rates have not skyrocketed in the 9 years since the ban expired either. Ergo….the ban on ‘types’ of firearms and/or higher capacity magazines did NOTHING to reduce firearms deaths, and reinstating the ban will again do NOTHING to solve the problem.

    There’s a saying I saw on the Chaplain’s office window in a prison I worked in that said, “The definition of INSANITY, doing the same things, but expecting different results!” While he used it to refer to the need for lifestyle changes in convicts if they expect changed lives, I think it is apropos in this situation as well.

    Let’s call it for what it is…a systemic social breakdown, of society, of culture, of families. Let’s also look at the common denominator of mass shootings over the past decades. What we find is that in nearly 100% of the cases, they involved mental illness….Psychiatrists, and powerful psycho-active drugs. Hmmn, I wonder why they DON’T address that, maybe because it won’t carry the same impact on prime-time TV as a sound-bite?

    To blame a firearm for the evil in someone’s heart that chooses to use it to threaten or assault or kill fellow human beings, is like blaming matches for arson, alcohol or cars for impaired drivers causing car crashes, etc.

    Do guns ‘CAUSE’ violence? Well, there are demonstrably far more guns in American society than in previous decades, yet for the past several decades the homicide rate has been declining, along with all violent crimes.
    For every person who chooses to use a firearm in a criminal manner, there are many thousands who are law-abiding citizens, using them responsibly….for sport, hunting, target shooting, and, yes, for defense against unwarranted attack.

    To get back to the subject, I strongly object to ANY religious organization presuming to speak for me, as a ‘person of faith’ on subjects that they are obviously completely ignorant of.

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