At a previous church I served there was a member who was an officer in the Sheriff’s Department. He was on duty most Sunday mornings, but he nevertheless made a real effort to stop by the church to take communion each week with his family. Sitting on the chancel, I would see him arrive through the sanctuary doors during the singing of the communion hymn. His timing was impeccable. Standing at the threshold he would respectfully remove his department issued cowboy hat, scan the congregation looking for his wife and kids, and then quietly move to their pew where he would sit down to share the bread and cup with them before getting up and heading back out. He was always armed. His gun in its holster was clearly visible, and that bothered some church members. It bothered them very much.
They thought it a violation of our sacred space and that scared hour to have someone present with a deadly weapon, even if he was an officer of the law on duty. They wanted him to leave his gun in his patrol car when he showed up at church for communion, and they wanted me to tell him so for them. Others completely disagreed. They appreciated his effort to be with his family – both spiritual and biological – in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day for the Lord’s Supper each week, and they honored his office as part of the authority established by God to maintain order in a fallen world, including that part about him “not bearing the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). They had no qualms whatsoever about him being armed in church. As with so many things, that church was simply not of one mind of this matter, and so we lived with that diversity.
Now, this disagreement in that church never rose to the level of a public debate. It was not officially discussed at a board meeting. It was never an item of business for the elders to consider at one of their monthly meetings. But I sensed the tension every Sunday morning when the sanctuary doors opened during the communion hymn and he walked in with his gun strapped to his hip. I felt both support for him and concern about his gun ripple through the congregation every time he was there. I knew who it bothered, and who it didn’t, and why. You see, both advocates and opponents had made their positions known to me in private conversation at one time or another, and like almost everything in the faith and practice of a church’s life, I found that there were two sides to the question, and merits to both sets of arguments, and so we simply lived with the unresolved tension of different convictions. It was complicated.
In his “Peace Proposal” for the divided church of his day (The “Irenicum”), the Puritan Preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) offered a vivid picture of what this kind of unity in diversity looks like –
I have read of two rivers in the east, Sava and Danube, that run along in one channel threescore miles together without any noise, and yet they keep themselves distinct; the color of the waters remain distinct all along. Why should we not think it possible for us to go along close together in love and peace, though in some things our judgments and practices are apparently different from one another? (368)
And without a doubt this is my preferred mode of operation for the church. Maybe this is why I am a “Disciple,” or maybe it’s what being a “Disciple” has done to me, but I just don’t expect us as Christians to agree on very much apart from Christ. If you can make the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and your Lord and Savior, then I feel some compulsion to stay in familial relationship with you even though I may disagree with you – and strenuously – on any number of the doctrinal, moral and social positions that you have taken. I’m a strong advocate of the right of private interpretation and for the freedom of individual conscience and conviction. I want church members to live together in love and peace even though in some things our judgments and practices differ. As Jeremiah Burroughs counseled Christian believers some 350 years ago, when we have “labored to get our opinions into one, but they will not come together,” we need to back up and start all over again at the other end. “Labor to join your hearts to engage your affections to one another,” he argued. He believed that a “variety of opinions” and the “unity of those who hold them standing together” could be a real possibility for Christians in the church. And we are a church as “Disciples” that has specifically and emphatically named this as our “raison d’etre.”
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.
Nevertheless, sometimes actions taken by the larger culture force a church like ours to make policy decisions on matters where freedom of conscience and diversity of practice is consciously preferred and had previously prevailed. The United States Supreme Court ruling last summer on the legality of same sex marriage as a matter of equal protection under the law and the new open carry handgun legislation that became Texas State law on January 1, 2016 (see the Texas Impact “Overview” of the impact of this law on houses of worship like Northway at the end of this blog) are two examples of how churches like ours suddenly find themselves having to set official policy on matters where people of “good faith” can and do conscientiously disagree, and where previously they had been perfectly content to live in the difficulty unity of people who choose to remain in fellowship with Christ and one another despite their diverse convictions and practices. The necessity of suddenly having to take official procedural positions on matters of conscience where freedom had previously prevailed in the life of a community of faith like ours pushes us in ways that are neither familiar nor particularly comfortable.
In the coming days Northway’s Board will be called upon to sort out the question of how we as a church will operate in light of these developments in the surrounding culture. But unlike the way that decisions are made in the larger society through political debate and vote, we as a church have to make our operational policy and procedure decisions not on the basis of just what we think alone, but rather on the basis of what we think God thinks, as far as what God thinks has been made known to us and has been correctly understood by us.
Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind (Servant Books – 1978) proposed this little exercise to illustrate just how hard this assignment is for us in the church today –
Take some topic of current political importance. Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relationship to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form you conclusions by thinking Christianly [Defined by Blamires as not “the opinionated self as the only judge of truth,” but rather the acceptance of “the given revelation — discovered by careful inquiry — as the final touchstone of truth” (107)]. Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend on 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 not think Christianly. 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 the Labour Party (Blamires was British, so translate his remarks to the Republican Party or the Democrat Party) is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the Church (with its commitment to the Christ and the apostolic teachings). (14)
In a democracy the majority rules, but in a “Christocracy” (Jürgen Moltmann) Christ rules — and insofar as Christ is the head of His body the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; Colossians 1:18), the church is a Christocracy. And an important aspect of the way that Jesus Christ exercises this headship over His body, the church, is by His revealed will that has been preserved for us in the pages of Scripture. If we don’t know what the Bible, properly interpreted, says about something, then we simply don’t have the “mind of Christ” on the matter.
Henry Blackaby in a book written with his son Richard Blackaby – Spiritual Leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001) – said –
The problem for so many church leaders is that they are unfamiliar with the Bible. They don’t really know what it says, so it doesn’t guide them. They don’t read it regularly, so it really doesn’t influence their thinking. When a crucial decision is required, leaders have no alternative but to do what makes sense to them and hope it does not violate the teachings of Scripture. True spiritual leaders recognize their utter dependence on God. So they regularly fill their heart and mind with His Word. When leaders’ minds are filled with Scripture, they find themselves thinking according to biblical principles. When a difficult situation arises, The Holy Spirit will being appropriate Scriptures to mind. When they prepare to make a decision, The Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance. (182)
Right before Christmas John Piper, the Minister Emeritus of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis responded to the widely publicized and highly criticized remarks of Jerry Falwell, Jr., to the students of Liberty University about guns on campus. Dr. Falwell’s call for the students of his University to arm themselves legally and then to go to class prepared to use their weapons should the circumstances ever dictate was condemned by most of the people I know, especially the church people. They expressed outrage at what he said. They expressed disgust at what he said. They ridiculed what he said. They called what he said “unchristian.” There was sound and there was fury, but there was very little “thinking Christianly” in the reactions that I heard and read. The whole episode, at least in mind, only confirmed Blamires’ observations about “the full loneliness of the thinking Christian.” And then John Piper wrote-
Now, you need to know that there is much about John Piper that concerns me. Even though we play the same position (we are both “Evangelical” Christians), and we learned the game from many of the same coaches (both of us spent time studying at Fuller Theological Seminary), we don’t play the game of Christianity in exactly the same way – in fact, I’m pretty sure that if he had his way I would be benched, and maybe even traded to another team. But still I respect him, and I read him because John Piper makes me think. Jesus told His disciples not just to invite your friends over when you are having a party, those who will return the favor, but instead to invite those who are different from you and who would probably never think of having you over to their place (Luke 14:12). Based on that counsel I read with real benefit people who think about Christ and Christianity differently than I do, people to my theological left and people to my theological right. Enter John Piper from my theological right.
You can find John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks at http://www.desiringgod.org under the title “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” It is an important read. As Harry Blamires explained, you may agree with what Dr. Piper writes, or you may disagree, “in a sense that does not matter.” What matters is how Dr. Piper makes his argument. If you ask me, what Dr. Piper gives us in this essay is a textbook example of what it means to “think Christianly.” Because culture is always going to be asking questions that the church will have to answer, and taking positions to which the church will have to respond, it is important that the church finds her distinctive voice that speaks from a mind that has been formed and informed by “thinking Christianly.” And I deeply appreciate John Piper for showing us what that looks and sounds like on the question of guns and self-defense. There is much to learn here for the conversations that we are going to have to have in the coming weeks among ourselves, and with the world. DBS+
Brief Overview of Current Law concerning Handguns in Texas Houses of Worship
Beginning January 1, 2016, concealed handgun license holders will be allowed to openly carry handguns into houses of worship. Although “concealed carry” has been Texas law for 20 years, visible handguns may alarm parishioners and prompt conversation. Under Texas law, congregations wishing to prevent concealed or openly carried weapons must ensure an individual has “received notice” that entry with a handgun is forbidden.
According to the law, “notice” must be provided orally, on a written card, or by means of a posted sign. Provision of oral notice or a written card requires confrontation, and for this reason is not recommended. Posting of appropriate signage minimizes risks to staff and greeters, and enables immediate enforcement of the law by police. If a person disregards properly posted signage, it is appropriate to call the police immediately.
- To be legally enforceable, signage must adhere exactly to specifications prescribed by the Texas Penal Code:
- If a congregation wishes to prohibit “open carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.07 of the Penal Code.
- If a congregation wishes to prohibit “concealed carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.06 of the Penal Code.
- Congregations wishing to prohibit both open and concealed handguns must post both signs.
- According to legal experts, it is not sufficient to post one sign making reference to both sections of the law—the two sections must be posted separately.
- Legally enforceable signage reviewed by prosecutors is available for purchase atwww.texasimpact.org/gunsigns.
To ensure that notice is “received,” legal experts recommend that signage be posted at every entrance to the building that is open to the public. Congregations are encouraged to use this opportunity to examine their security practices and to identify which of their doors should be public entrances and which doors should remain locked from the outside. Often local law enforcement will help congregations to conduct safety assessments and develop preparedness plans.
Questions often arise as to whether posting notice creates a “gun-free zone.” The trespass by license holder laws apply only to the general public who are license holders. Therefore, posting notice does not apply to trained professionals such as peace officers (on or off-duty) or contracted private security.
Under current law, houses of worship cannot prevent open or concealed carry on portions of their properties that are not buildings—such as parking lots, playgrounds, or sidewalks. However, congregations may still have individuals removed from any private property under the general trespass statute found in Section 30.05 of the Penal Code for a reason unrelated to the handgun license. In such an instance, work closely with your local law enforcement.
Invariably, congregations will discover unique circumstances in their properties or operations about which they require specific guidance. Local law enforcement agencies are the entities best positioned to offer situation-specific counsel about safety and security for congregational property.