Sarah Zylstra’s April 20, 2016 blog published in Christianity Today takes up the failure of Tennessee lawmakers to override their governor’s veto to make the Bible as the official state book. In the article, brief quotes from reputed authorities on both sides are presented in a clear manner. In her evenhanded treatment, the one side attests that by acknowledging the cultural and historical value of the Bible, we are in essence making it more readily available to the masses.
In large part, this is a tactical argument as opposed to primarily a theological one. The portion with a measure of theological undertone is similar to what has been attributed to Charles Spurgeon when asked, “How does one defend the Bible?” Spurgeon said, “How does one defend a lion? Let it out of its cage and it will defend itself.”
In 2002, a Christian movie was made entitled, “Time Changer.” Besides a number of well-known actors like Gavin MacLeod, Hal Linden, and Paul Rodriquez, the audience was treated to the opaque cheesiness that accompanied many of the Christian films of that era. At the same time, I was very entertained and it is one of my favorite B movies.
The storyline starts in 1890 with a professor at a Bible College, Dr. Russell Carlisle, who was trying to get his book published. The book taught that because the moral teachings of Jesus are true, it should be taught and applied to everyone whether or not one believes Jesus as the Messiah. Gavin MacLeod’s character, Norris Anderson, was a colleague at the college who blackballed the publication of the book because of serious objections to the idea that allegiance to Christ’s morality could be separated from devotion to Christ himself. Anderson had built a time machine that could travel from 1890 into what looks like our present day. Carlisle takes the trip and is shocked to see the sex and violence on television and movies. He was appalled to hear preacher’s preaching moralism and churches being run like businesses that had lots of programs and good clean fun, but no urgency to lead people to Christ. One of the poignant scenes of the show was when a little girl steals a hot dog and Dr. Carlisle chastises her with the claim that “stealing is a sin.” The little girl turns to him and argues, “says who?”
The argument made by writer/director Rich Christiano was that to separate the morality of the Bible from devotion to Christ as Lord has had disastrous results. Since I do claim Jesus as my Lord, how would he weigh in on this important subject?
Jesus drew a clear line of demarcation between “the world” and “his disciples.” He said in John 15:18-19, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” The world-at-large is not going to value or adhere to the commands of Christ, because it “hates” him.
I don’t think we have come to terms with this. Many Christians walk around in a fog of denial that somehow humanity is basically good and tolerant of others. If they aren’t, then they are bigots. According to Jesus, there is no 38th-parallel, no agreed upon truce between the world and Christ. Jesus is affirming open hostility between his people and the unbelieving in this world. According to Jesus, the world loves its own, and if you are a follower of Christ you are not one of them.
So, can we enforce Christian morality upon America? Yes, with enough followers of Christ who possess leverages of wealth and power. Just like unbelievers can enforce secular morality on us. Will the unbelievers like it? No, they will hate us all the more. But again, this is a tactical issue, not a theological one.
The culture war paradigm is much more pernicious than that. The question should not be “can we,” but “should we.” Since we believe that the Christian moral code is the only one that can secure the highest good for mankind and society, it seems almost unchristian to deny fellow human beings with its benefit. It is not loving our neighbor as ourselves, and thus a sin.
That line of reasoning is what makes the argument so pernicious. By enforcing the Christian moral code through political or economic power, a poison pill has been introduced at the same time. This has to do with the nature of the unbeliever. The Bible uses strong imagery, metaphor, and adjectives to describe the unbeliever’s state of being. Besides the legion of Old Testament passages that accentuate human sinfulness, Jesus said they “cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). If they can’t even see it, how are they going to observe its laws? They “loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (Jn. 3:19). If they love darkness, how are they ever going to turn it loose to observe what is good? They do not “have life” in themselves (Jn. 6:53). They neither know Christ, nor the Father (Jn. 8:19). They “cannot receive” Christ for they “do not behold them” or “know him” (Jn. 14:16). Then, how can they give even a modicum of deference to Christ as a moral authority?
The apostle Paul expands on this and affirm that “none seeks for God,” “none does good, not even one” (Rm. 3:12). They are not able to subject themselves to God’s law and cannot please God (Rm. 8:7,8). To them, the word of the cross is “foolishness” (I Cor. 1:18). The “natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot know them…” (I Cor. 2:14). The “god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they may not see the light of the gospel…” (II Cor. 4:3,4). They are spiritually “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
To try to lessen the despicable state of the unbeliever to less than the walking dead or a hideous monster of rapacious appetites, some appeal to prevenient or common grace. Here it is believed that God extends to all unbelievers grace to apprehend the general revelation of God (Matt. 5:45). They argue that fallen men in their natural state cannot apprehend God’s word, but with divine mercy they can (Rm. 1:19).
The problem is that even though they are given this divine mercy to understand God’s existence, they remain under the wrath of God for having “suppress[ed]” it (Rm. 1:18). Apparently, this general mercy stops at the doorpost of a converted heart. As was his custom, Peter is more explicit than Paul. He uses the simile that unbelievers are “like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant…” (II Pt. 2:12). He says “They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions…” while hanging around church people (II Pt. 2:13). Again, he writes, “They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children!” (II Pt. 2:14). Such is the state of those who have been given this prevenient grace and twisted God’s word to comport to their own fallen belief system.
So, the counter-argument to the notion that we must legislate Christian morality as an act of love for our neighbors is that it is patently unchristian to do so. It is tantamount to requiring a pig to use a knife and fork. It is not in its nature to do so. All it will breed is resentment on the part of the person who feels enslaved to a moral code to which they do not subscribe.
The next step in the line of reasoning lends to the wringing of hands and claims that we are left with an inferior moral code or no code at all. Yet, there is a difference between enforcing the moral code of Christ upon the unbeliever, and resorting to no moral code at all. Indeed, as noted by C. S. Lewis, we all share some basic moral framework dictated by our consciences that encourage a civil society. We all can share in the notion that it is wrong to steal. However, the devil is in the details as to whether it is this moral code of conscience or the morality taught by Christ. A pure capitalist will not include theft when purchasing a piece of land from a destitute farmer at far below market value. A politician will not consider it theft to subject hard working citizens to being thrown in jail for failure to pay exorbitant and unwarranted taxes. Yet, we ALL believe we should not steal.
The pernicious nature occurs when Christ’s morality is conflated with consensus morality. That may be an underlying reason as to why the Bible is filled with admonitions for believers to be “holy.” The word in Hebrew (qadash) and Greek (hagion) refer to separateness. As these varied moral codes become muddled, it is near impossible to know what is Christian and what is not.
To place the Bible as the official book of Tennessee has unintended consequences way beyond separation of church and state. I could care less about the Constitution’s Separation Clause when the more insidious result is the notion that fallen men and women are able to subscribe to the moral teachings of Jesus found therein without the regeneration needed to understand and apply them.
As a youngster, I never will forget hearing a Baptist evangelist defend the Bible. As a straw man, he played upon how modern secularists were finding hundreds of contradictions in the Bible. His cavalier backhand to them was, “That’s what they get for reading someone else’s mail.” The Bible is God’s holy (separate) word for God’s holy (separated) people.
To espouse a Christian morality to a nation of unbelievers results in the exact argument made by Jesus and the apostles, which was played out in the film Time Changers. Although I applaud the motivation of those Tennessee legislators to honor the Bible. I must side with the governor on this one.
Zystra, S. (2016). Should states honor the Bible as a historic but not sacred book? Carol Stream, IL: 2016 Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april-web-only/should-states-honor-bible-historic-sacred-book-tennessee.html?start=2