Last week a federal judge ruled that the Pittsylvania County (Va.) board of supervisors could no longer begin their meetings with prayers that reflect a specific religious point of view. Citing the faith of our nation’s founders, the judge was careful to say that he did not intend his ruling to be understood as a swipe at religion.
Perhaps this is a good time to review what the First Amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Not that the courts asked for my opinion, but beginning their meetings with a prayer is a far cry from Congress making a law that Pittsylvania County citizens have to go to the meeting and listen to it! It does seem to me that the courts are so afraid that they might be accused of favoring one religion over another that they are devaluing the influence of all.
Still, truthfully speaking, if the board of supervisors began their meetings by prostrating themselves on prayer rugs facing Mecca, I would be incensed. I think most Baptists would be. Whether the First Amendment sanctions or condemns the action, then, is not the issue for me. Rather, in my mind the action is judged by a much older statute than the Bill of Rights. When Jesus said, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise,” (Luke 6:31), didn’t he mean that we shouldn’t do something we wouldn’t want to be done to us?
It isn’t all prayer that was the topic of the judge’s ruling, just prayers that promote one religious viewpoint over another.
If I may quote from the Religious Herald, ACLU executive director Claire Gastañaga said, “Legislative bodies may open their meetings with prayers if those prayers do not refer to particular religious beliefs or prefer some beliefs over others.” She suggested moments of silence were the best approach for those looking to “solemnize” government meetings.
But is Gastañaga missing the whole point? If the supervisors simply wanted a formal, solemn moment to signal the start of their meetings, they could choose from any number of possibilities. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they wanted, instead, to ask God to help them make wise decisions and to be just and fair in their dealings. Does the ruling keep them from doing that? Fortunately, a prayer doesn’t have to be offered by a minister at the start of a meeting for God to hear it. We can hope that the Christians of Pittsylvania County will take an active interest in praying for their board of supervisors before, during and after their meetings.
And, on another topic, will the Baptist General Association of Virginia see churches leave over the Richmond Baptist Associa-tion’s action to affirm Ginter Park Baptist Church’s membership in the RBA after the congregation ordained a gay man? Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised since some will connect the two. I recall a night almost 10 years ago, when Mike Clingenpeel, then editor of the Religious Herald, was asked to address a “Roots and Wings” conference sponsored by the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies. His topic was “issues the church will face in the years to come.” He ventured that homosexuality was one of those hot-button issues. I disagreed, referring to a resolution adopted by the BGAV in 1993 which said, in part, “We affirm the biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful and unacceptable for Christians. Therefore, we do not endorse elevating those who practice it to positions of leadership.” My contention was that as far as the BGAV was concerned, that settled the matter.
Clingenpeel was right. Although last November the BGAV stood by its earlier resolution effectively ending affiliation with the church, the issue seems ever before us on the national scene, on the state denominational level and in local churches. Some churches may seek to remove themselves from having to face the issue by seeking refuge in a group with an even greater bold-faced, capitalized NO than that of the BGAV. But even this will neither isolate nor insulate them from the facts that a tectonic cultural shift is occurring. Support for the BGAV action in 1993 was overwhelming then, but circumstances in the last 20 years have caused some to evaluate their earlier opinions.
Churches will have to consider hard questions, some of which Christ-followers have had to deal with ever since the disciples complained about them to Jesus, and we pray that the days ahead will include study, prayer, respectful speaking, respectful listening and reaching conclusions based on our current understanding of Scripture and other truths.
It seems certain to me that hard questions will be put to churches no matter how progressive or traditional they may be. Churches willing to consider whether scriptural passages that seem to clearly condemn homosexuality can (or even should) be understood differently, will face the hard questions of interpretation with integrity. But even those churches unwilling to consider this will face hard integrity questions of their own. One example is, “If the statements relating to homosexuality are to be taken and applied literally, why aren’t other admonitions (like women keeping silent in the church, 1 Cor. 14:34-35) applied with equal fervor?” Early in SBC life, women weren’t allowed to speak or participate, so in 1888, women attending the convention meeting in Richmond had to walk to the Broad Street Methodist Church to organize the WMU. If women must remain silent in the church, does that apply to the choir as well? Just wondering.
The church will always face hard questions. We can be grateful to God that the Spirit who inspired Scripture in the first place will continue to help us understand and apply it.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.