A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.


Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.


Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

29 thoughts on “A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

  1. Tim Enloe

    WIlson has a lot of practical wisdom, and much of what he says about politics is helpful. But I've wondered for some time, though, if he's somewhat hampered by his happy acceptance of his Fundamentalist background, which politically, insofar as his many posts goes, frequently makes him attach Bible verse references to many if not most of the statements he makes. It seems he doesn't believe politics for Christians is what it is for everyone else – basically a human art, subject to numerous human frailties and uncertainties. As a Christian, or rather as a happy Fundamentalist, he *needs* to have a certain type of "certainty" about all his beliefs, and this can only come from Scripture. Hence, politics has to be an exercise of discerning the very mind of God on specific political policies via appealing to the Bible. Want to know what form of government is best? Just exegete Deuteronomy and Kings. That may be a little simplistic, but I don't think it's terribly far off the mark as a description of Wilson's approach to politics.


  2. Horace T

    Do you not think there is a correct way of applying Scripture to specific abortion policies and principles of Obamacare? If there is a correct way, shouldn't a minister be free to say in wisdom and having studied the issue, you are not correctly applying what Jesus would say?Help me if I'm wrong, but your argument seems to boil down to either the Church is not allowed to apply Scripture or Scripture doesn't actually apply.


  3. Matthew N. Petersen

    Horace,I think you're missing a fundamental point. We are obliged to attempt to apply Scripture. But we must remember when we do so, we are applying Scripture, and we speak with out own voice, not the voice of Scripture. If I, for instance, think that the best way to fight abortion is to pray for it daily, but stop making a public stink, I am free to do so. I man be wrong, and you may disagree, and we can have a debate over the issue. But neither of us is free to call the other a sinner for doing so taking their views. The conscience is not bound either way.


  4. Matthew N. Petersen

    Two points:Sorry for the typos in the above comment.Brad, it seems you have not read Pr. Wilson incorrectly. He just told me "Christian legislators do not have the freedom to support Obamacare and the apparatus that supports it. It is not a thing indifferent."


  5. Jess R. Monnette

    Brad – Just to make sure that I am following you. If Pr. Wilson preached this same sermon immediately after the Roe v. Wade, how would your analysis change? I am assuming here that his arguments for nullification by the states would change the law of the land regarding abortion and that he called on the governor and legislature of Idaho to do those same things. Could Pr. Wilson, say "this is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it" if it was about abortion? Cheers, Jess


  6. Matthew N. Petersen

    Jess,I can't answer for Brad, but here's my answer.No he could not. He could say "we have an obligation to oppose abortion" but he may not speak with the voice of Jesus regarding the proper tactics. He could offer his opinion "I believe governors should nullify the law". But he could not dictate tactics.He may even be outside the likes if he said we must oppose the law. A Christian is free to believe that the best way to limit abortion is to make it legal, and difficult to perform. I don't believe that, and I think it's a relatively silly position. But it's silly, and not outside the freedom of a Christian.But the health-care issue is very different from abortion, because it is not nearly so clearly evil. Christians can even believe the magistrate has a duty to provide healthcare, and to levy taxes to fund it.Indeed, let me put some personal bite on this: I believe (tentatively) that the sovereign has a duty to assist the Church in making sure health care is readily available. Moreover, I have publicly argued that Obamacare is not an unmitigated evil, and remain unrepentant. If Pr. Wilson is correct, I cannot see how I ought not be excommunicated. (And Brad for that matter.) If we went out and publicly argued for abortion that would be grounds for excommunication. But we have publicly defended Obamacare. If Obamacare is not a thing indifferent (and Pr. Wilson has said in as many words that it is not) we are deserving of excommunication.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Wow, looks like I've provoked a good discussion. Kenny—When you say, "your argument seems to boil down to either the Church is not allowed to apply Scripture or Scripture doesn't actually apply," I think you've quite misconstrued me. That is what VanDrunen would say, but certainly not what I would say. Indeed, my whole Ph.D thesis is essentially an attempt to critique VanDrunen on this point—Scripture does apply to politics, and we should apply it. But the answer to VanDrunen has to be a lot more nuanced than just "Nuh-uh" which is essentially what Wilson's approach boils down to. There may well be a correct way to apply Scripture to particular political issues, such as abortion and Obamacare. But first of all, we should recognize there is no guarantee there will be. There is no reason to assume, prima facie, that the Lordship of Christ means that there is only one right Christian answer to a particular political issue, and, if there is one right answer, there is no reason prima facie that we will be able to get it out of Scripture per se. Hooker is extremely helpful on this “Some things she [wisdom] openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise. We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored.Second, even if there is one correct way to apply Scripture to such issues, it will necessarily be an application—an extension by deduction from what Scripture does actually say to what it does not. The more steps this deduction requires, the more room there is for human misunderstanding to creep in, and the less the application can claim to carry the full weight of Scriptural authority. This is particular so when we are talking about political and economic issues, in which the descriptive task is perhaps larger than the prescriptive. We must first figure out what is actually happening in the world (e.g., did John Roberts throw out the Constitution?) before we can apply Scripture to it, and unfortunately, Scripture can't help us much with this empirical task. You could have a beautiful, ironclad argument that ran, "Given that our nation has just done such-and-such, Scripture requires us to do thus," but it would still be invalid if it turned out that our nation had not done such-and-such. That is part of the problem in the present case. So my argument is not that "either the Church is not allowed to apply Scripture or Scripture doesn't actually apply." Scripture will apply to politics in some sense, but it will often not be in the way of direct prescription (though sometimes it will), but rather of providing general direction and insight that must be applied with prudence according to our particular weighing of what the circumstances demand. That being the case, the Church is called upon to bring Scripture to bear upon the urgent public questions of the day, but must recognize how readily its own biases or limited understandings of the situation may distort its application of Scripture. Therefore, it must be provisional. It must say, "If we are correct in judging that this is what is occurring, then it appears that God would have us respond thus." Even this might be a bit much to say when it came to particular tactics. As Matt Peterson said, we could say with certainty that Scripture wants us to oppose abortion in the United States, and we could say with strong conviction (though there is some room for debate on this) that this requires us to oppose its legalization, but we could not say with much certainty whether this opposition required us to vote for particular candidates or pursue particular strategies oriented toward getting rid of abortion, since voting for a candidate that opposes abortion does not translate simply into banning abortion. Another key point is that yes, "the Church" must apply Scripture, but the whole church. The Reformers taught us the priesthood of all believers, taught us that all of us are called upon to search the Scriptures and seek for wisdom for all of life from them. In Protestant churches, ministers do not have a monopoly on this interpretive authority. I am opposing the way Wilson is handling this because I do want the Church applying Scripture on this, but I want the whole church to maintain its Christian freedom to do so; I do not think it legitimate or Biblical for individual pastors to take it upon themselves to say, "Here's how it is. Agree with me, or find yourself standing against God."Whew, that was a bit longer than I intended. My answer to Jess can thus be fairly brief.I think Matt is substantially right. There would be far clearer and more urgent reason for a pastor to speak up in this way following Roe v. Wade. If there's anyone who really thinks that this healthcare issue is a moral issue of the same order of magnitude as abortion, they need to get their head screwed on straight. For abortion, we have a clear Scriptural norm against murder that applies. (Well actually, even this is simplistic, since Scripture nowhere tells us explicitly that abortion qualifies as murder; but let me just say that as far as moral issues go, Scriptural norms are pretty clear, and pretty urgent.) The only way you can get a clear Scriptural norm that relates to this issue is by applying Austrian economics assumptions about ownership and government that allow you to deduce that certain kinds of taxation, including this one, constitute theft. Then you can say, "God says 'Don't steal,' so this is now a fundamental moral issue." (Which is actually what Wilson tries to do, unfortunately.) But even addressing abortion, you can't get a clear Scriptural directive for action. So while I think a pastor could stand up in the pulpit and denounce Roe v. Wade in very clear terms, he should be much more qualified when he turns to suggest how Christians ought to respond. The church as a whole should apply itself with urgent attention to that question, but any individual pastor ought to be very hesitant to attempt to speak for Jesus in telling his congregants whom and what they must vote for on the issue, or in telling state governors and legislators what they ought to do.(Yeah, that basically just restated what Matt said.)To Matt, however—a couple points of caution. First of all, it's not immediately clear what is meant by a "thing indifferent." The term is a great source of confusion (indeed, as I'm showing in my thesis, it was a great source of confusion even in the Reformation), because it appears to imply "it doesn't matter." But I don't think that about Obamacare either—of course it matters. It's just not immediately clear how it matters; it requires a good deal of debate, interpretation, and attention to empirical circumstances. And one can of course determine that something that is in the technical sense an adiaphoron, "a thing indifferent" has become, in a particular circumstance, no longer indifferent, in the sense that there is a definite course of action required of us. (See my post here for a discussion of the complexities in the use of the term.) So it could be, reading that one statement charitably, that all Wilson means to say is "This is an issue with moral weight. It does matter how we respond, and it is my conviction that we should respond in this way," without thereby saying, "It's necessary that all Christians agree with me on this"—which would be to deny that it was adiaphorous in the Protestant sense. Of course, as I express concern in this post, all his statements taken together essentially do seem to amount to a denial of its indifference in that key sense. It's just important that we don't latch onto the word alone.Second, I'm not sure your last remark follows: "If Pr. Wilson is correct, I cannot see how I ought not be excommunicated. (And Brad for that matter.) If we went out and publicly argued for abortion that would be grounds for excommunication. But we have publicly defended Obamacare. If Obamacare is not a thing indifferent (and Pr. Wilson has said in as many words that it is not) we are deserving of excommunication." That only seems to follow if every unrepentant sin warrants excommunication, which I think would be a rather extreme position. I mean, "unrepentant" is the key word here, but even if I were forever unrepentant about, say, the fact that I lost my temper during sports games occasionally and threw my remote at the TV screen, I don't think any sensible church would excommunicate me. And that's not indifferent, it's just not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. So it would be perfectly possible for Pastor Wilson to think that any Christian who did not oppose Obamacare was thereby sinning, but that it was a sufficiently difficult judgment to form, or a sufficiently minor issue, that the sin was not great, and should be borne with in love (though that would still be, I think, a theologically unsound conclusion). Of course, from the way he has approached the issue, he appears to think that it NOT a difficult judgment to form, and that it is NOT a minor issue, which would imply that anyone who didn't oppose Obamacare is being willfully blind in their complicity with a high-handed rebellion against God. And perhaps, if he really did think that, then persistent unrepentance would, logically speaking, be a grounds for excommunication—in a Presbyterian church, at any rate.


  8. Matthew N. Petersen

    Brad,Thanks for that response. It was helpful.Let me provide a little more context to his quote (it's on his blog if you want to read it): Pr. Wilson had asked if he was free to believe the speed of light is not a constant. I replied:"Yes, you're allowed to doubt. That's part of your Christian freedom. (Though you must do it in humility, realizing you're probably wrong.) But that brings us back to our original question. Are legislators free to support the Supreme Court ruling, or can you tell them in the name of Jesus they are not? If you want to exercise your Christian freedom, you absolutely must allow others to exercise theirs."He responded:"Matt, no, Christian legislators do not have the freedom to support Obamacare and the apparatus that supports it. It is not a thing indifferent. They should be treated with all charity as they work through it, but they have a moral obligation to work through it."Given the immediately prior appeal to Christian freedom, and his claim that they have a "moral obligation to work through it", I have a very hard time seeing how Pr. Wilson isn't saying "It's necessary that all Christians agree with me on this."I suppose you are correct on excommunication. It would be more accurate to say that on his assumption, questions are raised about whether you and I should be excommunicated. There may be reasons to give us time to repent, and there may be reasons to overlook our sin. But, if he is correct, what we are doing is publicly opposing the Word of God. If we gain a following, and do not "work through the issues" we should be told to be stop–we are opposing the Word of God–and if we persist, excommunication should, it seems be strongly considered.He could say Obamacare is a minor issue. But nullification is a very drastic proposal, and if the issue is minor, the morally required means are very far out of line with the problem they seek to address.


  9. Horace T

    But taking the example of abortion, if the Church said Roe v Wade is wrong and the state must not enact it, i.e., thus says the Lord, this is the correct way of applying Scripture, does that necessarily rule out other correct ways of applying the Scripture to the situation? If Pr. Wilson said we must vote for Pro-Life Joe, that doesn't mean serving at your local pregnancy clinic is wrong. It isn't exclusive, and I don't think Pr. Wilson has made it exclusive, has he? This isn't a direct answer to your argument, but I think this may have been overlooked, the Church calling for a particular application of Scripture doesn't rule out Christian liberty to correctly apply Scripture to the same situation in other ways.


  10. Matthew N. Petersen

    Kenny,Years and years ago Pr. Wilson was arrested and spent a night in jail for chaining himself to the door of an abortion clinic. He has since decided that wasn't the best tactic, but I think we can all agree that he showed an admirable zeal for fighting abortion that way.But say he had preached a sermon claiming that all of us were morally obligated to chain ourselves to the doors of abortion clinics? Can we not agree that that would have been wrong? I am not bound to believe that is the proper tactic.But that is more like what he has done now. On his reading, governors are morally obligated to nullify the law (though we should give them grace and time to realize this). They are not free to believe that tactic is wrong.But there is a further remove too. That abortion is murder follows pretty immediately from Scripture and the Incarnation. But we cannot claim that the Obamacare tax is theft nearly so easily from Scripture. I believe it is not theft, that Pr. Wilson has not demonstrated it is. Indeed, I believe I have successfully argued on his blog that it is not theft. It may be bad policy, but it is not theft. So in the case of Obamacare there is a further remove than in the case of abortion.Moreover, if the governors are bound to nullify the law, it would seem that I am bound to the prior step, namely to believe that Obamacare is theft. Am I in sin for believing it is not theft? You can, of course, disagree with me, and claim that it is theft. But we're two Christians disagreeing. I think you're wrong, and you think I am. We can try and persuade the other, but neither of us is in rebellion against Christ for what we hold.


  11. Matthew N. Petersen

    Pr. Wilson tells me that he would not be for excommunication for disagreeing with him. I think my criticism more or less stands, if he is right I am standing up to the Word of God. But I should comment that that may be going farther than he would.


  12. Horace T

    Matt,Your critique of Pr. Wilson requires working through more dubious (or gray) areas of Church duty than his argument does. Not that you're necessarily wrong, but I don't think you've gotten to the point or successfully shown anything yet. More like you're taking Pr. Wilson's can of worms and proving him wrong by opening a few more.


  13. Jess R. monnette

    Brad, Another quick question. You state: "I think a pastor could stand up in the pulpit and denounce Roe v. Wade in very clear terms, he should be much more qualified when he turns to suggest how Christians ought to respond." What type of "qualification" are you saying would be necessary for a pastor to suggest how Christians ought to respond?


  14. Brad Littlejohn

    Kenny—"If Pr. Wilson said we must vote for Pro-Life Joe, that doesn't mean serving at your local pregnancy clinic is wrong. It isn't exclusive, and I don't think Pr. Wilson has made it exclusive, has he? This isn't a direct answer to your argument, but I think this may have been overlooked, the Church calling for a particular application of Scripture doesn't rule out Christian liberty to correctly apply Scripture to the same situation in other ways."I think what you mean is, "It isn't exhaustive." To say we must vote for Pro-Life Joe does not exhaust all our other possible responses, so yes, we can still volunteer at a local pregnancy clinic as a way of addressing abortion. But it is exclusive in the sense that it means that we must NOT vote for Pro-Choice Bob. In saying, "Scripture says you MUST respond this way," a pastor does not thereby rule out all other additional methods of responding, but he certainly rules out any contrary responses. Assuming he is going beyond what is clearly authorized by Scripture, this is a violation of Christian liberty.I'm not sure how to understand your last comment, and apparently Matt didn't either. It is precisely because there are such gray areas of Christian duty that I (and he) are concerned at Wilson's insistence that it is in fact all black and white.Jess explained to me that his most recent comment stemmed from a misunderstanding of "qualified"—he thought I was saying the pastors themselves needed to be more qualified, rather than saying that their statements need to be better qualified. The latter was my intent, but of course, the former is true to some extent as well. If a pastor has studied political science and economics, and regularly reads up on these topics, then he has more grounds for attempting to address them from the pulpit; although having a well-informed opinion does not excuse him from having to make clear that it is still only an opinion.


  15. Horace T

    Matt,I think your arguments regarding excommunication bring more questions. Also you've been very civil and respectful to me, but the tone you take over at Wilson's blog doesn't help your arguments. Take it or leave it, but your rhetoric affects the way I and a lot of other people see you let alone your arguments.Brad, Two things, doesn't being the pastor of a church authorize him to make unique claims on the consciences of his flock?Does this whole point of yours boil down to nominal categories of knowledge? What is the real difference between Pr. Wilson saying, "My opinion is that the Bible requires the judiciary to reject Obamacare" and saying "the Bible requires the judiciary to reject Obamacare"? Peterson said over at dougwils: "It isn't a question of whether he's right, but whether he's offering his own reading of Scripture, or is offering Scripture." I don't know how I would go about offering Scripture. Is it just semantics? If I tell you that it is wrong to murder I am offering you my reading of Scripture, it also happens to be correct. The Trinity and infant baptism are applications of Scripture, aren't they? But I think we're all fine with our pastor saying "Jesus calls you to baptize your children" when Jesus never said that. I'm not violating anybody's Christian liberty if I say credobaptists are wrong and the Bible is why. If the Bible calls to act certain ways publicly and politically, who's liberty am I violating by applying the demands of Scripture to our circumstances? I could say do not murder means it is sinful to take the pill, and the fact that there is room for discussion there (because there are more steps involved than if I said do not murder means don't stab Jonny) doesn't mean I'm not right and my application of Scripture binding. Why can't Pr. Wilson say do not steal means you must not enact Obamacare?


  16. Matthew N. Petersen

    Kenny,Pr. Wilson told me I wasn't understanding his understanding of excommunication so I'm dropping that. My concern is with the claim to speak with the voice of JesusIf I can offer a bit of a personal reflection regarding your question for Brad (I feel it's kinda for me too, if not, feel free to ignore it):A pastor does have the authority to bind and loose with Scripture. But he has the power to bind and loose, even when he is speaking as himself and not as Scripture. This is a very dangerous power, and a minister needs to be very careful he does not bind his parishioners when Scripture does not. I do not say that he needs to be very careful he does not mean to bind his parishioners, but that he does not bind them. He has a sword for killing sin. But one false cut, one mistaken thrust, may slay. He is like a surgeon, cutting out cancer. He needs to be very careful not to cut out the living tissue.I can testify that his claims are (or at least could be) very troubling to my conscience. If I had been in the congregation when the sermon was preached, I would probably have had a very hard time not being very troubled, with strong doubts about my righteousness in Christ. That is, the sermon would have shaken my faith in Christ.Or again, when people shared it on facebook, I find nothing in it that indicates they were not sharing something that said "people like Matt are in rebellion against Christ", and much that does say that. Pr. Wilson has said that he does not believe people who disagree are worthy of excommunication, but where is that in the sermon? When my friends shared a sermon that said "In the name of Jesus, you must fight against Obamacare", how am I to read that but as saying "In the name of Jesus, Matt is in rebellion against God." Does that not condemn where there should be no condemnation? Does that not divide, where there should be no division?Regarding my comments on his blog:I think if you go back and look at the posts over at his blog you'll see that I was charitable, with the possible exception on the post on physics. There was one comment on an earlier thread that perhaps wasn't, but I apologized for it.I can see how in the post on physics I can sound uncharitable, and perhaps it's a rhetorical miscalculation. But the point of his post was not the argument on relativity, but his authority to speak on relativity. My point was not to respond to his argument on relativity, but to challenge his authority to speak on relativity. Giving a straight-up response to the question legitimizes his argument, and thus has the exact opposite effect of what I intend. That is, if I had not said that he was offering sophomoric arguments (his words by the way) I would have been saying that his arguments are not sophomoric, and that he has the authority he claims. Which he does not–as his argument, my and Kevin's posts, and his follow-up questions show . If I had merely said it was a sophomoric argument, and not demonstrated it was, it would have been disrespectful. But I showed, conclusively, I believe, that his argument is bad. And I believe I thereby showed I had the authority to pronounce that he does not have the authority he claims.Anyway, you may still think I have a poor tone. But perhaps you understand better what I'm shooting for. He's a respectable person, but I think in this area he's overestimating himself. He is very good (legitimately) at recognizing bullshit, and calling it out. Even (or perhaps especially) when it's accepted bullshit. But how can one distinguish between something that actually is bullshit, and something that only seems to be bullshit to them, but in fact isn't? That feedback does not come from inside, but from outside. I was attempting to provide that feedback.Other than that, it may be the pace of my posts that makes them sound like they have a poor tone. Several times people have criticized my tone in the moment, but then other people have come back a year or so later and complimented me for my tone; so the pace in the moment may be part of the issue. I really enjoy commenting, and getting responses back. But sometimes that means I comment really fast, and I think that can perhaps come off as too intense. I'm trying to slow the pace down.In Charitate Christi,Matt


  17. Horace T

    Matt,I don't mean to be insensitive, but how could a sermon condemning a political policy have possibly shaken your faith? What stock does your faith have in public policy?I hope your faith isn't grounded in the idea that you have the correct stance on the issues, so that anyone you respect who preaches a sermon against a particular stance of yours shakes your faith."Does that not condemn where there should be no condemnation? Does that not divide, where there should be no division?"It sounds like the condemnation and the division are happening on your part. Nobody is casting you out because they disagree with you, but you feel guilty or troubled because they do.Thanks for the explanation. I understand what you were shooting for, and if you agree that Pr. Wilson is great at pointing out bull, then I think your best bet for doing the same is imitating him. He mocks ideas, but he is very charitable to persons.


  18. Brad Littlejohn

    Kenny, I appreciate your questions, especially as you've been sticking at this conversation despite the fact that it's two against one. The last question you asked gets at a question I was hoping someone would ask near the beginning: "The Trinity and infant baptism are applications of Scripture, aren't they? But I think we're all fine with our pastor saying "Jesus calls you to baptize your children" when Jesus never said that. I'm not violating anybody's Christian liberty if I say credobaptists are wrong and the Bible is why." To some extent, if pastors want to teach on anything, want to say anything interesting, they're going to tread on controversial ground—that is, ground that thoughtful Christians will disagree on. Does that mean they must not tread on such ground? Or that they must carefully qualify their words whenever they do? Can they claim to speak in the name of Christ when they go beyond the express words of Scripture? Is there something unique about politics that requires particular care? I don't want to try to answer all of this thoroughly here, but I can say a couple things. First, even on matters of doctrine, a pastor should be careful about how he presents his teaching on matters on which Christians will disagree in good conscience—e.g., paedobaptism and credobaptism (the Trinity is not really a useful comparison; it is "an application" of Scripture, but one that almost the whole Church through the ages has understood to be a necessary deduction from Scripture). Pastor Wilson would certainly forthrightly teach that he understands the Bible to teach paedobaptism, but I'm confident he would never say, "In the name of Christ, you must baptize your children. No, really, you need to get on board with this paedobaptism thing now, because credobaptism is fundamentally a rejection of God, a setting up of ourselves to be like God." On the contrary, it's noteworthy that he has always proceeded with caution and patience on this point, happily accepting that some members of his congregation continue to be convinced of credobaptism, and not trying to make them feel bad about that. Indeed, the CREC is remarkable for its equal acceptance of confessionally credobaptist and paedobaptist churches. There is a recognition that the interpretation and application of Scripture on this point allows sufficient scope for debate, no matter how firmly fixed we may be in our particular convictions, that, while working for long-term agreement, we should accept a continued diversity of practice among those who cannot share our convictions and should not try to make them feel that their loyalty to Christ is in question for doing otherwise. All this caution in a purely doctrinal matter—and if pastors aren't supposed to be experts on doctrinal matters, aren't supposed to be able to tell their flocks with confidence what Scripture teaches on doctrinal matters, then what are they experts on?Matters of morality introduce an additional level of provisionality, for while the basic principles of Biblical morality may be clear enough (and, as someone working toward an advanced degree in Christian ethics, I think we are often far too sanguine about how clear and straightforward they are), morality, unlike doctrine, needs to be applied to ever-changing circumstances. If paedobaptism is right, then presumably, it is always right for all Christian families. But morality isn't like that. Aside from a few absolute negative commands, and a few absolute positive commands, we have to determine how individuals and groups are best to obey God in particular circumstances. The ambiguity of this should lead pastors to be hesitant about making absolute pronouncements, "God wants you all to do this; God wants you all to avoid that." Pastors absolutely must apply the Scripture to the moral concerns of their congregants, but their task should primarily be one of elucidating biblical principles, and inviting congregants to make application to their own unique circumstances (though they should certainly offer their best counsel when asked). Politics adds yet another level of provisionality. For political morality is much more complex and ambiguous than personal morality, and whereas everyone who has a family can speak with some competence to issues of how to be a good husband, father, etc., few of us have the requisite experience to speak with any competence to questions of political judgment. Add to that the fact that for the vast majority of us, most of our knowledge of political matters comes third- or fourth-hand from media sources with their own agenda, and it will be the rare pastor indeed who can judge with confidence about how God would have us think about many of the political problems of our day. This is not to keep him from trying, but he must be triply provisional. Which is to say, if a pastor would hesitate to say, "Credobaptism is a form of rebellion against God. Therefore, Christians must leave Baptist churches and baptize their babies now. I speak all these things to you in the name of Jesus Christ," then he should be triply hesitant to say, "Obamacare is a form of rebellion against God. Therefore, Christians must reject this legislation and resist it by whatever prudent means available. I speak all these things to you in the name of Jesus Christ."So there's a long answer to that question. Your larger contention is that this is just semantics—that obviously, to say something is wrong means that you have an opinion that it is wrong, and no one should get bent out of shape. If this was just one more of Wilson's blog posts, I would understand this contention (although it's worth pointing out that if you make an extreme enough statement—say, "anything except supralapsarian Calvinism is simply idolatry" prefacing it with "It is my opinion that" doesn't get you off the hook). But it's not just semantics. Consider the following: "Kenny, it is my view that Presbyterianism is not a biblical form of church government." "Kenny, Presbyterianism is just an unbiblical view of church government." "Kenny, God does not approve of Presbyterianism, so Presbyterianism is a form of rebellion against God.""Kenny, I speak for Jesus when I tell you that God does not approve of Presbyterianism, so Presbyterianism is a form of rebellion against God.""Kenny, I speak for Jesus when I tell you that God does not approve of Presbyterianism, so Presbyterianism is a form of rebellion against God, and you need to get on board with this teaching quick."Would you really deny that each of those forms of utterance is an escalation of the previous one? Of course, contained in the second statement is the assumption that "it is my view," but the addition or subtraction of that qualifier makes a difference; by adding it, you make clear that you recognize that this is merely your view, and you are implicitly inviting the other person to engage you about it. By omitting it, you imply that you are so confident in your view that you just think of it is the plain and simple truth. The third, fourth, and fifth statements intensify this claim to the point of essentially threatening those who disagree with divine disfavor. They are not simply restatements of the original statement, because they essentially say that disagreement is not a mere sin of omission, but of willful wrong-mindedness.Now, in my view, Wilson ended up going through all five stages of escalation in his sermon and the follow-up post. Even the first statement, as I said in my original post on Obamacare, is an unhealthy elevation of particular political policies to the level of Scriptural fidelity, and thus dangerous, inasmuch as it can readily lead to the next four. But by the time you get to the later statements, you are clearly claiming to tell people that their standing in the eyes of God is at stake. If you or I did this, it would just seem like silly bombast. When a pastor, to whom the care of souls is entrusted, does this—holds up a private interpretation on a matter like this as something essential to their Christian discipleship—it is a serious matter.


  19. Matthew N. Petersen

    It may be worth pointing out that whatever Pr. Wilson said, he did not intend to say the fifth option, but the fourth. "And you need to get on board with it." Yes. But not necessarily "quick."I don't see that in the sermon, and he definitely didn't make that distinction in the sermon. Thus one could argue he burdened those with tender consciences to make it. But it's still a point in his favor that he didn't intend "quick".


  20. Matthew N. Petersen

    Kenny,My faith has little stock in public policy, and I'd like to leave it that way. But if someone with power to do so says "in the name of Jesus, stop believing what you do, agree with me" suddenly my faith is pronounced to be contingent on public policy. Particularly if my position is the minority position. The words of a pastor have the power to give life, but also to kill.Abstractly I know no one would cast me out. But do not their words say just that? Are not our words quick and powerful, particularly when they seem to be the Word of God?


  21. Horace T

    Brad,Fundamentally credobaptism is a kind of rebellion. Pr. Wilson and the rest of the CREC after him are very sensitive to our credobaptist brothers, which is great, and I think sensitivity touches a bit on what Matt's been saying, maybe Pr. Wilson isn't sensitive to liberals in his congregation and maybe he should be. But if a Pastor can't study the Bible and apply it with confidence, what can he do?


  22. Brad Littlejohn

    Alright, Kenny, this is a bit frustrating now. I took an hour to try to parse out all the relevant distinctions, and instead of engaging them, you just collapsed them all and reasserted your basic point—"shouldn't a pastor be able to confidently apply Scripture to his flock?" Well yes, he should. But on what? Presumably not on every conceivable topic. And how? As prudential counsel or as divine law? And how are they required to respond? To receive it as the interpretation of a wise and educated man, or as the very words of God? These are all very important distinctions. Not very important just to me because I've got some chip on my shoulder and am trying to stir up trouble. They were very important to the Protestant reformers, who understood fundamental matters of soteriology and ecclesiology to be at stake. We brush aside such concerns at our peril.I'm also a little taken aback that you just swallowed the reductio. "Fundamentally credobaptism is a kind of rebellion." Really? I mean, I knew Presbyterians were wound up pretty tight, but that takes it to a new level. Perhaps it all depends on how much you're packing into that "a kind of" so that you would say that any form of error, however well-intentioned, is in some sense a rebellion against God. But I don't think that's a very morally coherent or helpful way to approach things.


  23. Matthew N. Petersen

    Jenson says:

    Those to be baptized are those whom the preaching of the gospel brings to repentance and into the church. And here there is indeed a problem. For a time after Pentecost, the two events of repentance and entry into the church simply coincided. But as the Lord "delayed" his return and history therefore went unexpectedly on, the church had to reckon with numbers of persons whose entry into the life of the church preceded any possible "repentance" on their part, since they were born or adopted as infants into families of practicing believers. If such persons were to be baptized at their entry into the church, it would have to be as infants, prior to any deliberate repentance on their part. If, on the other hand, baptism were to be held for such repentance, baptism would come too late to be their initiation into the church.There can be no perfect resolution of this dilemma, and church fellowship should not be broken solely because churches grasp opposite horns. Apparently as soon as the problem was faced, the majority church decided that infants can be baptized…. (A Large Catechism, p. 42)

    This strikes me as pretty close to accurate.Of course, baptism today is different civil issues for two reasons: The Church has almost universally baptized infants, and though tradition is not an ultimate authority, it is a very high authority. And second, baptism belongs to the internal discipline of the Church, not to the Church's interaction with the world, and surely the Church has some sort of authority to organize her own polity.


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