The Duck Dynasty controversy has finally slipped into the periphery, and most are glad to leave it that way. Franklin Graham, however, recently fired a parting shot—and one that crossed a key line of demarcation. Specifically, he expressed “amazement at how many churches have apparently ‘ducked’ out on the issue,” failed to enter the “culture war,” and instead fell “into the trap of being politically correct, under the disguise of tolerance.”
Here’s my problem with Mr. Graham’s comments (well, one of them, at least): he does not seem to be able to distinguish between the role of the individual believer and the role of the gathered church. As a Christian living in society, I admit to taking an interest in the Duck Dynasty melee. I took an interest because I am concerned that the American political system has begun to fail seriously in it primary responsibility of ensuring “that humanity be maintained among men” (Calvin, Institutes 4.20.3). Specifically in this case, the system is failing to preserve the most basic of human institutions (the family) and doing so with such aggression that the private sector (in this case, A&E) has concluded that suppression of basic human freedoms is the only appropriate course of action. As a voting member of my civil society I was alarmed, and did my part to voice my alarm.
In so doing, I was not speaking in any official capacity as a spokesman for my church. To do so would have been a serious error. Unlike civil government, the institutional church has no mandate to “maintain humanity among men.” Its sole directive is to create and cultivate followers of Jesus Christ in the context of local churches. For my church to take a stand with the Duck Dynasty would be to create Gospel confusion, because the Robertsons, as I understand it, are members of a Campbellite sect whose theology is so suspect that their very Christian identity is in question. Furthermore, it would in some sense give approval to a lifestyle which, while an improvement on much of what is on television, is scarcely a superlative model of Christian discipleship.
Many have pointed to these deficiencies as a clear reason for believers to avoid speaking to this controversy entirely. I would argue instead that these deficiencies are reasons for churches to avoid speaking to the controversy. They are irrelevant, however, for individual believing citizens of God’s civil sphere. Here one forms alliances not based on common creeds, but on common civility, natural law, and the dictates of the law of God written upon the heart. Here one may collaborate, commiserate, befriend, and defend fellow-humans on the ground of natural theology and common grace, irrespective of their views of God and Scripture. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the failure of individual Christians to do these things is equally as crippling to the Gospel as the ecclesiastical confusion introduced above.
As Christians we are members of two societies—the church and civil society. Christ is Lord of both societies, but the two societies are and must remain distinct in order for the Gospel to progress without confusion or impediment.