As I was getting ready to come to church early Sunday morning, the anchor of the news show that I had on as background noise announced that “Christians all over the country were going to be hearing sermons about gun violence in church today.” I didn’t get the memo. But even if I had, I can assure you that Sunday morning worship at Northway would still have been about Jesus and not about guns.
I’m not saying that our commitment to Christ doesn’t shape our personal responses to urgent social questions like gun violence. It does. And I’m not saying that I don’t have some settled personal convictions of my own about gun control. I do. And I’m not even saying that there shouldn’t be conversations within the community of faith about how we should arrive at and then act on our social and political conclusions faithfully. We should. What I am saying is that to turn the weekly worship service and the proclamation of the Word into a rally for any particular social cause or concern with the hoped-for outcome to be agreement on the conclusion to which the preacher has given voice is an abuse of the pulpit and an abdication of the call.
In his book The Christian Mind (The Seabury Press – 1963), Harry Blamires, one of C.S. Lewis star pupils, wrote about “thinking Christianly.” This is quite different from having and then promoting a single Christian conclusion – the “right answer” – to the social question “de jour.” What Blamires was advocating was more like geometry than algebra. The point is not just getting the answer “right.” The process whereby one arrives at the “right” answer is equally important. And so Balmires suggested this experiment (remember that he was British and that he wrote from that context) –
Take some topic of current political importance. Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by thinking christianly. Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend upon you. It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t. In a sense that does not matter. But they will think pragmatically, politically, but not christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance. Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average Churchman to the Conservative party or to the Labour party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the Church.
It is important that this point about the loneliness of the thinking Christian should not be misunderstood. It is not lonely to disagree with other people. It is not lonely to meet in the same field of discourse with men and women who reach conclusions that contradict your own. But it is desperately lonely to occupy a field of discourse which no one else will enter, even if you are surrounded by people who have reached exactly the same conclusions as you yourself. (13-14)
Blamires named six “marks” of “the Christian Mind,” two of which are “its conception of truth” and “its acceptance of authority.” On the “conception of truth” Blamires observed that the Christian mind looks to “divine revelation as the final touchstone of truth,” and points out that this is the direct opposite of the secular conception of truth that subjects it to the judgment of the “opinionated self” (101), reducing it to a matter of “personal choice” and/or “majority vote.” To the Christian mind the truth is something delivered and not developed; it’s something accepted and not manufactured. And this naturally leads us to the next “mark of the Christian mind” according to Blamires: “its acceptance of authority.” From its affirmation of “the God-given nature of the Christian revelation,” it just follows that what that God-given revelation can be shown to clearly affirm and command deserves our “whole-hearted allegiance” (124). The Christian mind, from Blamires’ perspective, is a mind that is consciously tethered to the Bible. It is a mind that always seeks to know what’s in the Bible in order to conform one’s own beliefs and behaviors to what it says.
This should sound quite familiar to us who are Disciples.
In his Doctoral Dissertation from Yale Divinity School that was published in 1954 by the Bethany Press as Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell, Granville Walker argued that Alexander Campbell believed in a Bible that was inspired and authoritative, and a Bible that needed to be carefully interpreted. We who are Disciples must live in the tension of the poles of this continuum. Conservative Disciples who can easily and eagerly affirm the Bible’s inspiration and authority need to hold that affirmation in tension with the necessity that the Bible also be carefully interpreted. And Progressive Disciples who can easily and eagerly embrace the insights of critical scholarship need to hold their enthusiasm for that whole enterprise in tension with a commitment to the Bible’s inspiration and foundational authority. This is a horse that we can fall off of from either side. As William Tabbernee, the previous President of Philips Theological Seminary in Oklahoma, observed –
The truth is somewhere in the middle…and this means holding in tension two elements. On the one hand, we must maintain a fervent commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture as the only normative guide for Christian faith and practice. On the other hand, we must express an equally fervent commitment to the best possible biblical scholarship, so that our commitment to the Scriptures is an informed one.
So, to come back around to where this all started, why not a “Gun Violence Sunday” in church? And my quick, flippant answer is that since I can’t find the word “gun” in my Bible concordance, I really don’t have anything to say directly on the subject. You know, it’s that old “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we’re silent” thing. But the seriousness of this issue, and its anguish, quickly moves me on to a more reflective response, and this is where it gets complicated.
Because gun violence is not a topic of Scripture, anything I might have to say about it is going to be an inference, and inferences drawn from Biblical teachings, while perfectly legitimate and even necessary, do not have the same weight of authority as would a direct command of Scripture or an approved example from Scripture. The direct commands and the approved examples that I can reasonably draw from Scripture on this topic revolve around matters like the sanctity of life (Genesis 9:5-7; Exodus 20:13), the priority of our provision for and protection of children (Matthew 18:1-9; 19:13-15; Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:20-21), the right of self-defense (Luke 22:35-38) and the necessity of force to maintain order in a fallen world (Romans 12:19-13:7). These things do not simply and neatly distill into an obvious social position on gun control. Within the boundaries of what can reasonably be brought into the conversation about gun violence from the Scriptures, there is not going to be a single “Christian” position, but rather, equally faithful Christians with a variety of positions.
And so, as Harry Blamires argued, the assignment is not to get every Christian to draw the same conclusions, but to help them all to “think Christianly,” to reason Scripturally. And I believe that how this is best done is not with “Gun Violence Sundays,” but with Sundays where Jesus Christ is clearly presented, the Gospel is boldly proclaimed, the Bible is read and carefully explained, and the invitation of faith is enthusiastically extended. As Sherwood Wirt wrote in his 1968 book The Social Conscience of the Evangelical -
Christians do not have a vest-pocket solution to every towering issue that comes along. But Christians do have Jesus; Christians do believe that Jesus is adequate to meet human need at every level; and Christians do believe that to know Christ is to have a head start in grappling with the dilemmas that society poses. Christians do not, however, confuse dilemma-grappling with the process of coming to know Christ; that is, Christians do not consider social action to be the same thing as evangelism. Evangelism is presenting Christ to people in the power of the Holy Spirit. Social action is an effort to apply Christ in finding solutions to human problems. When social action is mistaken for evangelism the church has ceased to manufacture its own blood cells and is dying of leukemia. When social action becomes more important than evangelism the church has forgotten to breathe and is already dead of heart failure. (130)
William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2 wrote, “I should give a false impression of my own convictions if I did not [state] that there is no hope of establishing a more Christian social order except through the labor and sacrifice of those in whom the Spirit of Christ is active.” And so to get at the problem of gun violence in our society, I believe that the most important thing we can do as a church is to call people to faith in Christ. DBS+