This week’s local paper brought a clergy column titled “How we can pray in unity?” with which we are compelled to express our disagreement. The writer, a pastor of the local Community Church, is writing from the backdrop of the recent terrorist attacks. He begins by calling attention to the ecumenical prayer service in Washington after those attacks. Noting that the participating clergy included representatives of the “three major faiths–Christian, Jew, and Muslim,” he says that at first he was “disappointed to see Muslim and Jewish representatives who reject Jesus as Messiah participating on the platform. After all, Jesus plainly taught that access to the Father comes only through Him. Islam is a false religion. Judaism is an incomplete religion. . . . How in the world can people of true and false religions pray together? What can light have to do with darkness?”
So far, so good, we thought–until the writer continued: “As I wrestled with this, I changed my mind. We really can pray together–and we should.” As the pastor sought to explain his sudden change of mind, his main point was this: “National and community prayer isn’t about the church, it’s about the state. . . . False gospels are anathema (cursed), but that’s a church matter. This was the government in action, addressing the wounds of a bleeding nation. We were a nation, not a church, gathered in prayer. . . . The church is inclusive of only one faith, but the state is inclusive of all faiths. . . .”
You get the idea. A change of mind was arrived at by making a distinction between church-sponsored and state-sponsored religious activities. How broad a brush the pastor would use in his application of this distinction is brought out when, toward the conclusion of the article, this is said: “That’s why we should encourage prayer in public schools, support Bible as literature classes and sing Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus in school concerts. Who knows but that this may shine a light for those in spiritual darkness?”
We disagree with the not-so-veiled suggestion that Scripture passages expressing church fellowship principles (when and with whom God’s believing children may worship, pray, and commune together) may be put on the back burner when “state-sponsored” religious activities take place.
Our position has always been that church and state are to be kept separate and that they operate in different spheres of activity. The Savior indicated this when He told His accusers: “Give to Casear what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). According to the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples of all nations . . . ” Mt. 28:18f), the church operates in the realm of the spiritual, preaching and proclaiming the gospel; on its part, the state as a God-established authority (see Romans 13) operates in the realm of the physical and material, for the protection of its citizens and punishment of evildoers.
That’s why we say that we are sorry that the writer of this clergy column, rather than standing firm in his previous confession, caved in to the ecumenical trend of the day. What was written endorses and promotes a state-sponsored ecumenicalism; it also misleads readers by a spurious distinction between church and state religious activities.
As Christian citizens we are thankful for the benefits we enjoy from our government, including the freedom to worship according to the dictates of conscience. We are thankful that in America we are free to express and practice our faith according to our Bible-based convictions and confession. In a day of rampant relativism, religious unionism, and ecumenicalism, that confession includes putting into practice the separation principle; it includes the conviction that we are being true to our Savior-God and His Word when, in the area of religious fellowship (cf. Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 2 John 10-11 etc.), we keep ourselves separate from those who teach contrary to His Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ–who is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the only One through whom sinners can come to the Father.
We need to address briefly one other matter in the aforementioned clergy column. In further support of his change of mind, the writer said this: “The Bible tells us that God heard the prayer of a pagan named Cornelius in Caesarea.” And, he said: “God answered that prayer by sending Peter to him with the good news about Jesus. Perhaps God will graciously answer the prayers of Jews and Muslims and some who call themselves Christians by sending messengers to them with the wonderful news of Jesus.”
We have a book which answers directly the assertion made in connection with the account of Cornelius (Acts chapter 10): “The explanation sometimes offered here comes out somewhat like this: ‘You see, this poor Gentile didn’t believe in Jesus as yet. But God saw he was very sincere, and so he made allowances in Cornelius’ case. He accepted his efforts at doing good works and declared himself pleased with Cornelius, even though there was not true faith in his prayers and gifts.'” The explanation continues: “This is a distortion of the facts. Cornelius was no longer a pagan, with perhaps a thin veneer of Jewish religiosity. He was on a par with true Old Testament believers. Therefore his frequent prayers were fervent pleas to God to give him more understanding of His Word, especially of the great promise of the Messiah” (Franzmann, Bible History Commentary, New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 1264).
Contrary to assertions in last week’s clergy column, God hears the prayers only of those who pray in Jesus’ name. The Savior said: “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23). God does not hear the prayers of those who pray to, or in the name of, any other god (see Hebrews 11:6, Isaiah 1:15, 1 Peter 3:12).
–Pastor Paul Fleischer
Grace Lutheran Church
Sleepy Eye, Minnesota