Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 May 2014

Ecclesiastical Separation and the Two Kingdoms


Commencement season has revived a fresh spate of debate about separation. Should Liberty University have invited Glenn Beck to speak? Should Al Mohler have gone to BYU (again)? And related, should Bob Jones University have invited Dennis Praeger to speak?

None of these three situations is the same, of course, and as they say, the devil is in the details. But the following factors connect all three situations: (1) they all involve faith-based universities with feet squarely in both the ecclesiastical and civic spheres, (2) each of which who has invited a speaker prominent in both the ecclesiastical and civic spheres who (3) professes a faith wholly irreconcilable with the faith-base of the institution to which he has been invited.

The complexities of our three representative scenarios should not go unnoticed. Were this a simple matter of a Mormon or a Jew being invited to preach at the worship service of a Christian church, or of an Christian pastor being courted to preach at the regular meeting of a synagogue or temple, the solution would be simple: no ecclesiastical fellowship is possible because Christ and Belial do not get along. On the other hand, if this were a matter of a civic university inviting a believer to address them on the strength of his/her success in some civic arena (say, business, medicine, politics, etc.), there is nothing (on the surface of things at least) that would prevent this address from occurring: civic “fellowship” does not rest on the same ground as does ecclesiastical “fellowship.” Christians hold a dual membership in life—we are members of churches, and we are citizens in civic society—and the basis of citizenry and “belonging” in those two communities is quite different.

The difficulty in the three situations in question is that a faith-based university is a complex blend of ecclesiastical and civic elements. Seen as a civic institution, on the one hand, a Christian university would hear few objection were it to invite an unbelieving expert in his field to offer a lecture or host a field study—so long as the “field” is something like piano repair or heart valve replacement or public court procedures. Seen as a para-ecclesiastical institution, on the other hand, Christian universities would rightly receive many complaints were it to host a persuasive sermon or theological lecture by a Mormon or Jewish expert in, say, hermeneutics, evangelism, or worship.

The question at issue in each of our three scenarios, then, is this: is it possible to establish in any or all of the scenarios proposed that a civic leader was addressing a civic issue in a civic setting? I would argue that to the degree that this may be established (i.e., to the degree that both the speakers and the institutions effectively communicated and preserved the civic nature of the event), then such an exchange of speakers is appropriate. To the degree that the ecclesiastical and civic spheres were conflated (i.e., to the degree that civic responsibilities were presented as being grounded necessarily in common ecclesiastical/faith commitments), then such an exchange of speakers creates considerable confusion.

Let the reader decide.

10 Responses

  1. Kent Hobi

    Mark I wonder if Primacy of the church may have something to contribute to this post? Given the categories that you so helpfully created, it is not, in my view, as necessary for “readers to decide,” but for believing speakers or para-church faith based organizations to clearly communicate. Who is left confused at best or led down the wrong road at worst is the church. Primacy demands or presupposes, I would assume, that faith based speakers/para-church organizations answer to her. The burden is not on the church to figure out, but for speakers and institutions, who know what real motives are and for the sake of clarity and love of the church, to clearly delineate where their differences lie and what exactly their purposes are for going to or having speakers. What are their differences. Is their interests merely civic or are they ecclesiastical. When a speaker who is expected to be civic strays into ecclesiastical/faith areas creating doctrinal confusion the burden is for the institution to quickly communicate the error. The church and the truth so often seem like nothing more than chopped liver. Para-church organizations and/or sought after speakers seem so thoughtless when these confusing alliances occur. They are assumed alliances until clearly communicated otherwise. Its time to call those who love Jesus Christ to value with the same intensity that which Jesus values, the Church. No parent who loves their child, fails to explain with clarity, critical distinctions between safe and unsafe behavior. Our day is NOT a day of clarity, but a day of great confusion. I would encourage these speakers/para-church organizations to stop perpetuating the confusion and begin to clearly communicate their differences and purposes before the events take place.

  2. Ben Wright

    Mark, I’d argue that another factor is the relationship between the speaker’s topic and the theological commitments shared by the speaker and the institution. I’m hardly a knee-jerk defender of BJU, but Praeger’s topic of secularism seems pretty reasonable given the parties’ shared commitments to monotheism—far more than Liberty and BYU could say they share with their speakers. (Granted, I haven’t heard what Praeger actually said.) It’s hard to see how a thoroughly civic leader could address that topic productively.

    A major difference between what happened at Liberty and what happened at BYU is that one speaker deliberately attempted to blur the theological differences, while the other clarified several of them.

  3. Mark Snoeberger


    I think we agree on this. That’s what I was trying to communicate when I said that the propriety of the respective events hinges on “the degree to which both the speakers and the institutions effectively communicated and preserved the civic nature of the event [or, contrarily] presented the issues as being grounded necessarily in common ecclesiastical/faith commitments.”

    And what I meant when I said, “Let the reader decide” is “Let the reader decide, based on the grounds detailed in the post, which speakers and institutions were careful in this matter and which ones were not.”

  4. Mark Snoeberger


    I’m not sure that I see the monotheism/polytheism issue as a significant one. The Jewish and Mormon faiths are equally bankrupt in terms of ultimate realities—it’s not as though we can create a pecking order of false religions and decide that Romanism is better than Judaism is better than Mormonism is better than Animism, and then allow our speaking schedules to include venues that are almost orthodox but not quite.

    The critical factor in the civic realm, as I see it, is one of fidelity to natural law. That’s how I make a great many decisions in the civic realm. My primary criterion for choosing a doctor, lawyer, political candidate, gunsmith, or used car salesman is not whether they’re Christians or, if not, whether they’re at least monotheistic. I make my decision based on things like honesty, knowledge, skill, ethical track record, and whether they shake my hand firmly and look me in the eye.

    And so IF it can be established that the three scenarios in question were civic in nature, and IF the speakers and candidates clearly understood and communicated this, then I see natural law and not biblical orthodoxy as the critical issue. But IF NOT, then we’re basically dabbling with syncretism.

    1. Ben Wright

      Mark, I’m not suggesting that Judaism is superior to Mormonism regarding ultimate realities. I’m arguing that it offers a rational basis for opposition to secularism. I’m not sure that’s altogether different from what you’re saying about natural law. I’m sure you’ve thought about that category far more than I have, so it’s possible I’m missing something in your argument. In any case, I don’t see how one would get to natural law on wholly civic grounds, disconnected from monotheism.

  5. Mark Snoeberger


    I would say that one gets to natural law on the grounds of common grace and natural revelation, irrespective of one’s specific credal commitments (so, e.g., Romans 1 and 2). Some unbelievers correctly incise, retain, and even lobby for what is “natural” while others don’t. Or as Greg Bahnsen put it, some borrow from the Christian worldview and others don’t. I wouldn’t invite ANY unbeliever to speak at my church, but in the civic arena (say, at a meeting of the local rotary club or at a gun-rights rally) I would privilege a natural-law-abiding unbeliever over a natural-law-rejecting unbeliever. I wouldn’t ask whether or not the speaker was monotheistic.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see why a general monotheism is important to civic functions. Perhaps you might explain what you mean by this.

    1. Ben Wright

      Mark, it’s a bit difficult for me to know exactly how to interact, since you haven’t put your cards on the table on any of the specific scenarios, in particular BJU-Praeger. What I can say is that I don’t know how someone can address problems with secularlism from a strictly “civic” perspective, and it’s difficult for me to imagine how someone with a non-monotheistic worldview could offer something much better.

      By the way, I’m not arguing that a monotheist could be helpful on all topics, or that monotheistic commitments would be necessary for all civic discussions. I’m suggesting that it seems relevant to this particular topic.

  6. I am just curious if you do not think there is also another dynamic, namely that in whatever sense these are ecclesiastical communities they are not assembled primarily for the purpose of worship, but rather for education. Would this not expand the type of discourse that would be consistent with the purpose of the institution?

    If the students are being trained in worldview issues then exposure to popular discourse regarding those principals would not necessarily be harmful would it? This would seem to expand the potential addresses beyond something as narrow as piano repair (which is also sinful when not done to the glory of God). It is often the case in educational settings that students are exposed to opposing arguments and views so as to sharpen their ability to critically evaluate their own views. Obviously, this needs to be done with wisdom but I would guess that even at DBTS not every author or book on the reading list is in line with the stated positions of the seminary.

    I think a crucial question in an educational setting is, when does inviting a speaker constitute an endorsement of their positions (particularly those unrelated to the address) vs. recognizing them as an important voice in a public dialogue that students are being trained to evaluate and potentially participate.

  7. Mark Snoeberger

    First off, I would say that a church-based seminary is a separate issue–virtually everything we do here at DBTS takes place in the ecclesiastical realm, with the possible exception of some bits of legal/financial instruction connected to church life. Hypothetically, we might possibly invite an adherent to another faith to explain his belief system firsthand in, say, a comparative religions class, but the complexities even of this situation are such that we are much more likely to use a book instead. We have hosted events featuring believers who disagree with particulars of our doctrinal statement, but we have also made it clear that the scope of these presentations would be appropriately narrow. So, I accept your argument to a limited degree.

    In a faith-based university, the situation is different. Here, we find believers being instructed on living out their faith not in the ecclesiastical sphere, but in a variety of public/civic venues—medicine, law, engineering, etc. And while the “faith” part of such instruction means that the instructors will challenge theirs students to pursue their whole lives in view of the comprehensive revelation contained in Scripture, there is much in these disciplines that rests on the narrower foundation of natural law. Natural laws are, to be sure, divine laws, but such laws “work” whether or not one acknowledges the God who instituted them. As such, I would see a great many more situations where unbelievers might legitimately address students in a Christian university.

    And I agree that perceptions are important. No matter what sphere we are inhabiting, it is very important to clarify, if we are not making an unqualified endorsement, the level to which we are promoting/endorsing a speaker. Sometimes when it is “obvious” to me that an invitation is not an unqualified endorsement, it is not so obvious to someone else. So we sometimes need to be overly pedantic in this kind of situation.

  8. Interestingly, Douglas Belkin of the the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that there is an increasing trend in secular universities of student and faculty protests leading to the cancellation of addresses by invited speakers.

    I find it interesting that in many of these cases the protests were based upon ethical and moral assessments of the speakers positions on various topics. Those who are not in line with the prevailing moral consensus at those schools (or at least that of a vocal group within them)are shut out.

    Universities are supposed to be a place where ideas can be exchanged and evaluated. As the culture moves further and further away from Judeo-Christian worldview frameworks it is easy to see how Christian voices will be bullied into silence in the marketplace of ideas. Anne Neal aptly observed that “universities are becoming havens of the closed minded.” We have seen this story many times throughout world history and the ending is never good.

    Fortunately, our confidence is in the unfailing promises and word of The sovereign God.