The Potency of Proclamations

According to this story, Mayor Tom Hayden of Flower Mound, TX, has proclaimed 2014 to be the Year of the Bible in Flower Mound (complete with website that is performing about as well as under the increased load that accompanies media attention). Hayden collaborated with area churches in making the proclamation, and he hopes that his community will “connect through the Bible” (those are the reporter’s words, not necessarily Hayden’s).

If you are a Bible-believing Christian, this kind of thing FEELS good. In an environment of heavy-handed government oppression of the consciences of people like the Green family, the world seems a little less worrisome when local government does something in affirmation of our beliefs. But these uncertain days are no time for us to be navigating church-state questions by the seat-of-our-pants navigation that our feelings provide for us. We need map-based navigation drawn from time-honored and thoughtful ideas about the proper respective roles of churches and government officials in a well-ordered society.

According to those principles, as I understand them, Mayor Hayden has made a mistake. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. He has overstepped his authority as mayor. In the Fox4 story Curt Orton complained, “He was elected mayor, not as the spiritual leader of Flower Mound.” You might presume (as I’ll admit I did at first) that Orton is a flaming liberal secularist. Actually, it appears that he is an active member of Lantana Community Fellowship Church of the Nazarene in Flower Mound and is, in fact, the president of the church’s missions auxiliary (see this document that led me to conclude this). I’ve neither met nor spoken with Orton, but he looks and smells like an evangelical Christian.

    He’s also 100% correct in his assessment of the situation and stands in line with the best of historical Christian thinking about church-state issues.

    Although I can see some questions that it does not fully anticipate or resolve, I’ve never seen a better theory of church-state relationships than Roger Williams’s metaphor of the Two Tables of the Law. Williams’s rationale safeguards religious liberty for all people without plunging society into erosive amorality. It provides a hermeneutical distinctive that makes sense of the entirety of the New Testament’s treatment of the role of the state in the Christian worldview. It’s a shame that so few of our fellow believers are acquainted with Williams’s approach: We would more deftly handle situations like this one if we were well-versed in the writings of Roger Williams.

    Hayden is free to stand in the pulpit of his home congregation as a church member to proclaim 2014 to be the Year of the Bible as a church member. He is free to stand in a local meeting place as a Christian in Flower Mound and to proclaim with the local ministerial alliance that they consider 2014 to be the Year of the Bible. He is free to stand on his front porch as a citizen of Flower Mound and proclaim that 2014 is the Year of the Bible. But to issue an official proclamation in the council chambers in his role as mayor oversteps his authority.

    One last thing about this before I move on: I am well aware that this is not an official law. I am well aware that the city council did not vote on this question. I am well aware that the ceremonial and non-binding nature of this proclamation may well cause our court system not to regard this as any violation of the First Amendment. But when I say that the mayor has overstepped his authority, I’m not talking about the First Amendment. There wasn’t a First Amendment when Roger Williams lived and wrote. I’m not talking about the authority that the Constitution gives to the Mayor Hayden; I’m talking about the authority that God has given to government as His agent. God has given someone the job of encouraging people to read the Bible, and He did not give that job to the government. I’m also completely cognizant of the fact that Ronald Reagan issued a similar proclamation in 1983. I, decrepit old man that I am, remember 1983. Reagan was wrong, too.

  2. He has denigrated and misrepresented the Bible. Please read carefully, because this is the way that evangelicals so frequently betray what they claim to believe without realizing that they are doing so.

    Hayden’s proclamation, like Reagan’s proclamation before it, explained the rationale behind the proclamation, grounding it in the unique role that the Bible has played in American history as a formative influence underlying our legal system and the design of our government. That the Bible has played this role is historical fact. That any evangelical Christian should expend any energy to communicate this as an important message about the Bible is a crying shame. These accidents of history are not on the Bible’s résumé. The credibility and authority of the Bible rests upon these items of trivia not at all.

    Here’s what’s important about the Bible: You’re going to Hell forever unless you heed the words God has spoken to us in the Bible and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reagan’s proclamation said nothing about that. Although the story did not give the full text of Hayden’s proclamation, and although I have not read it, I’m willing to proceed upon the assumption that Hayden’s proclamation also said nothing remotely resembling these gospel truths. To do so would be to commit political suicide, to be sure, but to fail to do so is to dilute the Bible’s message, transmogrifying its radical gospel message into a bland civil Christianity that encourages people to behave like good citizens while they await perdition.

    Yes, Hayden probably says more about the Bible in private, but the officially proclaimed position of the office of the Mayor of Flower Mound is now this gospel-less view of the Bible, since the proclamation says no more than it does. Yes, there’s the possibility that someone will read the Bible because of this proclamation and will thereby encounter the gospel, but who here really believes that God cooked this up as a strategy for sharing the gospel?

    Look at it this way: Twentieth-century Christianity can claim that the Bible has had more influence upon worldwide jurisprudence and political thinking than any other one book (second place probably goes to the Qur’an). First-century Christianity could not claim that the Bible was any more than a collection of obscure writings produced by obscure followers of an obscure religious sect in an obscure backwater region forgotten by civilization. In which of these two epochs did Christians enjoy greater effectiveness in pointing people to the Bible’s true message?

    The Bible ought to be revered as the words of eternal life. To be regarded as the cornerstone of American civilization would be a high honor for any other book, to be sure, but it is an insult to the Bible to treat it as merely that.

  3. It distracts government officials from their true God-given jobs as government officials. I think God would be more pleased if government officials would put an end to no-fault divorce and the epidemic of child poverty and child dysfunction the proliferation of divorce has created. Perhaps a mayor could drive payday lenders out of the city or end the way that city governments wink at illegal gambling operations like the “eight-liner” game rooms that are proliferating in North Texas.

    Don’t misunderstand: I do not offer this critique out of any jaded cynicism that suspects that Mayor Hayden does not really care about these things. In fact, quite the opposite is true: I offer this suggestion precisely because I suspect that he does care about being the kind of mayor God approves. Because his energies, when directed towards his actual God-authorized job, are likely to be discharged in a good and godly way, I want him spending his time THERE, doing his job well rather than doing mine poorly.

    And although I’m in pretty much 100% in line with the planks of the old Moral Majority platform, at least this much critique of the old “culture war” campaign is healthy and necessary: It was always a lot more effective at producing good proclamations than good laws.

  4. It distracts Christians from their true God-given jobs as Christians. On this we do agree: Proclamations are indispensable to New Testament Christianity. It’s just that Mayor Hayden and the good folks in Flower Mound have chosen the most impotent kind of proclamation over those that are actually effective. Proclaim the gospel from the pulpit. Proclaim the gospel in the marketplace over the water cooler. Proclaim the gospel in the neighborhood by witnessing to your neighbors. Proclaim the gospel at the family dinner table. Undergird your proclamation of the gospel by being careful in the way that you spend your money, your time, and your energy. Treat other people in your relationships in ways that are strategically supportive of gospel proclamation. Too many of those Christians who will celebrate “The Year of the Bible” will not share their faith with anyone in 2014 (or, dare I say, do the hard work required to deepen their own).

    The real-life proclamations about the Bible, in contrast to political resolutions, are potent. Two thousand years of Christian History vindicates that claim. State-sponsored Christianity is utterly impotent. Visit Germany and see what became of Martin Luther’s Landeskirche. I think sometimes we forget that effective spiritual warfare consists of more game, less pep rally, and strategically speaking, mayoral proclamations about the Bible accomplish little more than the rustling of pom-pons. I like a good pep rally as much as the next guy; it’s just that history teaches us that this pep rally takes place during the game, in an offsite venue, and with free food and drinks. I can’t help but suspect that it is funded by the other team.


  1. David Rogers says

    Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes! Thank you, Bart, for the courage to write this. You have a couple of classic lines in this piece, but I will stick with this one:

    “I’m willing to proceed upon the assumption that Hayden’s proclamation also said nothing remotely resembling these gospel truths. To do so would be to commit political suicide, to be sure, but to fail to do so is to dilute the Bible’s message, transmogrifying its radical gospel message into a bland civil Christianity that encourages people to behave like good citizens while they await perdition.”

    • Bart Barber says

      Thanks, David. We’ve just become a mutual-admiration society today, now haven’t we!? But seriously, thanks for this and for the mention on Facebook.

  2. Dale Pugh says

    Excellent article! Unfortunately, many Christians, including those I serve as pastor, are convinced that somehow such proclamations are signs of superior politics.
    I’ll be sharing this one.

      • william thornton says

        During my last pastorate there was a locally generated major church/state case concerning the Ten Commandments. It was a ‘take back America’ movement on religious steroids. I was unenthusiastic understanding the solution (having the TC declared unobjectionable as a civil religion expression and thereby constitutional) to be worse than the problem.

        When asked by members why I wasn’t on board for this, the best I could do was to explain the flawed strategy and the ultimate failure of public and governmental expressions/sponsorship of some of our beliefs. The country will not be made better by such but rather by the salvation of souls and resultant changed lives. That and the sordid history of such things. We Baptists haven’t fared too well in this stuff.

        That was sufficient, although I’m sure some of my congregants were puzzled why I or anyone would object to such things. Bart’s explanation is solid, though I think it would not be easy for ordinary churchgoers to grasp.

        If we spent our energies on sharing the Gospel we might even see results. I saw no real value in a framed list of the Ten Commandments posted in the stairwell of our courthouse, unless making Christians feel good counts as results.

      • Bart Barber says

        Here’s one way to handle it: Ask, “Has the country gotten more or less Christian since Reagan made his proclamation in 1983?” When John Leland was fighting AGAINST state-sponsored faith, Baptists were experiencing burgeoning growth during the First Great Awakening. During Reagan’s proclamation and Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives (and do not misunderstand: These are two of my favorite presidents of my lifetime), we have been experiencing spiritual decline, not spiritual awakening.

        People are suspicious—well, I suppose I am too—of approaches to church-state separation that seem to be trying to protect America from religious faith. But what if this is a way to protect and strengthen the faith?

  3. cb scott says

    Good post, Bart Barber.

    I fear that there has been just too much “rustling of pom-poms” from the pulpits of which Christian lawmakers hear what some are passing off as biblical truth. The demands of the gospel message and the call to holy living has been weakened of its potency. “Be good, look good, and feel good” has replaced, “Take up the cross, die to self and follow Jesus.”

    We are in trouble. The days of the cheerleader preacher must end. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself and His mandates to a lost humanity and must be preached as such.

    Researchers report that 20 percent of the folks who claim to be born-again believe in reincarnation and 26 percent believe astrology is authoritative. Another 45 percent believe that “if people are good enough they can earn a place in heaven.”

    Maybe we need to place the Word of God back into its authoritative position in the local church and the pulpit and then government officials will begin to live by the Bible all of their lives, including their time in office rather than giving it an “atta-boy” for a year.

    Again, good post.

    Oh yeah, lest I forget. Remember to “rustle” your pom-poms for the TIDE tonight when they play the heathen SOONERS. Kick-off is 8:30.


  4. Doug Hibbard says

    The most clarity on some of these church-state mashups came from my father many years ago:

    “Do you really think we would be better off if the government ran like the typical Baptist business meeting?”

    That cleared up much of my thinking on these–too often Scripture is misstated, misunderstood, and misapplied in pursuit of ideas that seem good. And that’s less than helpful for the cause of Christ.

    • Bart Barber says

      I’d be much more concerned about the Baptist business meeting winding up operating like the government.

      • Doug Hibbard says

        Yeah, but you’ve had good business meetings recently.

        In context, the third paragraph described the business meetings, not the government.

        That being said, long-term the concern to prevent government interference is the bigger deal. I’ve yet to see evidence, though, that churches could run the state any better that the state runs itself. Whether in compassion or efficiency, we’re not exactly models of brilliance to be copied.

  5. Daniel says

    I’ll quack along with Dale on this one; it’s much better than hollering at detergent to roll.

  6. Greg Harvey says

    What a fantastic, contemporary explanation of the rationale behind thing like traditional, American Baptist support for First Amendment delineation of the boundaries of the federal government. While that view has degenerated into the amorphous blob generically going under the phrase “separation of church and state”, there is a biblically stated argument for distinct government responsibility v. church responsibility and Bart demonstrates the value of that biblical delineation.

    That the delineation also protects freedom of conscience and freedom of worship are precisely non-defective benefits of the biblical doctrine. And the fact that much of the doctrine hinges on the “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” passage means Jesus himself strengthened the revelation of the distinction that was to some extent visible in God’s plan to bring correction to Israel via an instrument if righteousness forged specifically from the otherwise dramatically evil Kingdom of Assyria and its capital Nineveh. Which helps us understand an additional level or two of God’s redemptive purpose as revealed in the book if Jonah.

    Now I don’t intend to offend by noting this, but God’s eternal punishment of the Devil, the angels that joined him, and the truly unfortunate inclusion of the “many” who refuse to leave the broad way that leads to destruction serves God’s redemptive purpose as well. And remembering that one rather murky verse assigns the “sword” to government also provided a “lamp to our feet” regarding God’s intention for this delineation as well.

    Specifically, God maintains separated grants of authority both as a display of his prerogatives as Creator and to remind us that there is always a source for God’s wrath to be completely and effectively accomplished in a world otherwise seemingly spinning out of his control. What Nineveh intended for evil, God intends for good.

  7. Steve Tanner says

    We’ll stated truth, unfortunately the majority who need it will not read it or want to read it. Instead of making a “proclamation” we must live out it’s truths, that is how the first century folks did it. The best defense is a good offense.

    Look for the Hogs to return soon. They chose good morals over a winning coach. Whooo Pig Sooie. Go Razorbacks!

  8. Bill Mac says

    It is interesting to see how many people think displays of the ten commandments in public are going to bring about some kind of moral revival in the country, especially since I suspect a great many churches do not in fact have a display of the ten commandments in their churches.

  9. Nate says

    I guess George Washington calling for a National Day of Prayer was overstepping his boundaries as well? Or maybe John Leland shouldn’t have told Madison to get a Bill of Rights together or he would run against him?

    Have we so bought into the revisionist history of this country that now mayors or presidents cannot make statements with religious overtones? Jesus told His disciples, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against us is for us,” when the disciples were ticked off someone else was casting out demons.

    So Mayor Hayden encourages people to read the bible and this is a problem? While it may not be the most effective means it is certainly better than him declaring 2014 the year of sexual freedom, the year of removing religious symbols and education from the city, or a host of other things that the majority of mayors proclaim publicly or privately. Perhaps he could have ushered in the trans-gender reformations that California is trying to pursue?

    Sorry Bart, I think you’re targeting the wrong thing.

  10. Robert I Masters says

    I think your mistake is assuming the soteriological as ultimate; rather than the cosmological as supreme.
    This was precisely what Chuck Colson argued against in his “How Now shall We Live”.
    Frankly that is why I am a Reformed Baptist Southern Baptist and not a Dispensational Southern Baptist.

    That Curt Orton would be a Nazarene does not at all surprise me. His pietism flows from Arminian theology.

    Its the Puritans who founded America not the Pietist’s like Roger Williams.

  11. Louis says

    Good post and good comments.

    I don’t have the time to put all of the thoughts I have relating to this to paper, but I’ll outline a few.

    In days gone by, state and local governments would display the Ten Commandments, make proclamations like these, or use crosses and other religious displays on city symbols or say Christian prayers at meetings and during holidays etc.

    These actions were not inappropriate. They were simply the expressions of the community regarding civil government and its relationship to the Christian faith. And since the vast majority of citizens professed to be Christian and identified with the symbols or practices, there was no controversy.

    Also, there was never any concern about church/state separation during almost 200 years of the Republic as it relates to these practices.

    Were they “watered down” faith expressions that contained only a minimal amount of doctrinal content? Yes. But that is o.k. in my book. Is it ideal? No. But it’s o.k. And I doubt it has done little harm.

    And the good it has done is primarily to express the existence of a divine law giver and the existence of transcendent right and wrong.

    All good stuff in my book.

    In the mid part of the 20th Century, with the increased religious diversity in the U.S., and ever increasing philosophical diversity, certain groups set out to scrub expressions of religion from the public square. And they used the courts with some success (though not complete success) to accomplish their aims. This still goes on with great energy.

    There has been a popular backlash against the aggressive and often gnat straining activities of these groups. Reagan’s very election was due in part to this backlash.

    People resent a professional class of lawyers and forum shopped judges from micro-managing public life through the use of lawsuits and twisting the Constitution. It is disingenuous in many cases.

    So, Reagan’s proclamation and many acts related to that should be seen as reactive, not proactive.

    One may object to things like what the mayor did, but everyone would admit that the underlying attitude driving the mayor is to “push back” against the real aggressors in this decades long crusade. And that’s why lots of people “Amen” the mayor.

    It’s not that it’s great strategy. It does risk failing to say what really needs to be said, and what could be said, about the Bible. It is a “watered down” version of civil religion.

    But what the founders envisioned was that these things would take care of themselves through the natural political process. Change in practice would come if the make up of the country changed. Who wants to have a mandatory Lord’s prayer said in classrooms when the classrooms start teaming with people of other faiths? I don’t.

    But I believe that happens through natural interaction and the give and take of negotiation in the public square.

    Not through phony baloney claims about the Constitution and what it supposedly says and does not say.

    First Amendment jurisprudence in the area of the establishment clause is a hodgepodge of rules and exceptions that really make no sense, with the test being a judicially created test, not the words of the Constitution, and certainly not the observable history of the those who wrote and ratified the Constitution.

    So, when a mayor does something like this, the underlying sentiment is appreciated.

    Also, there is a philosophical issue at stake that is impossible to fully resolve, in my opinion. Baptists’ view of government has, at the philosophical level, to be separate from the church.

    But the weaknesses of a total separation approach were readily exposed over the decades. (I will digress here and point out that Baptists expended lots of energy, money and rhetoric trying to see that people can’t drink. How this is consistent with total separation is beyond me. But if history tells us anything, we probably spent a lot of treasure on the wrong issue. And if you read the blogs, especially Baptist blogs, this is still a defining issue for many.)

    Then come authors like Francis Schaffer, Colson and others who rightfully point out that the church should see as part of what it means to “make disciples” is addressing areas that might be seen as “secular.”

    This is tricky business. It takes great judgment.

    But if WWII and the fall of the Nazi and Communist regimes did anything it was to expose the weakness of legal theories which said that law is whatever the state says it is (which was the rage among intellectuals and New Dealers before Nuremburg), and show the benefits of and necessity of natural law arguments.

    The Christian in a democracy is forever going to be forced to stand up and say some things are right and some things are wrong because God has decreed it to be so.

    And to support such statements they are going to point to – the Bible. (As an aside, even President Obama said within the last year or so that Jesus would approve of his budget vs. the Republican budget. Let’s submit that this is about as crass as it gets, however, and let’s stick to big picture matters, rather than budgetary line items.)

    The fact that the arguments from the Bible may appeal to pagans and those of other faiths does not mean that Christians would or should stop appealing to the Bible. At the end of the day, the only way Christians should claim to know what God approves of or disapproves of is in the Bible. (An exception may be the “private Jesus” (not the biblical Jesus) that resides in the hearts and minds of our Moderate Baptist brethren.)

    So, at the end of the day, what this mayor did, while clumsy and probably ineffective, points to the inevitable tension for the Christian living in a democracy.

    Other Christians who believe some sort of imposition of Christian law or Christian government, as an obligation and as part of Christ’s commands, have a better grasp on the Christian obligation toward the public square in many cases.

    But I don’t think they have all the answers, either. History itself and much of the rhetoric and systems from those corners of the faith are less than impressive, and often raise as many questions.

    Finally, I completely agree that great consideration needs to be given to tactics. People hate it when I say this. They think it means I am calling for people to cop out.

    I am not. I only want Christians who engage in these issues to increase the chances that their endeavors would be successful. There is no virtue in poor planning or poor communication that results in failure.

    Among some, there seems to be an unwritten article of faith that so long as one is sincere and right, that’s all that matters.

    I do not subscribe to that.

    So I do not agree that the mayor of this town should proclaim the year of the Bible. I agree that it is only likely to bring ridicule when that is not necessary.

    A thoughtful approach would be to employ tactics that show people why there is transcendent right and wrong, how the Bible played a role in that in Western society, and how much of the Bible espouses the very things we treasure in the U.S.

    That will not result in explaining the plan of salvation. Nor should it.

    But it would be part of what Christians are called to do, and it would provide an atmosphere that would enhance evangelism efforts.

    So in my book even though this mayor is a million miles off on his approach, his action touches on an issue that requires discussion and a thoughtful approach.