the ACLU and the Kingdom

January 29, 2009

A church in Brookville, PA started a homeless shelter without asking permission, and NIMBY led to a showdown between the ACLU and the borough’s local authorities. While it would have been great for these Christians to have found a way to play peacemaker in the situation, rather than bringing a lawsuit (which can’t be good for neighborly relations), how encouraging to find them refusing to treat preaching the gospel and helping the homeless as separate ministries. And how fantastic that the ACLU should affirm this as well. “At the core of this is that it’s difficult for the borough officials to wrap their mind around the concept that church use is more than a Sunday service. This entire church is set up to help the least fortunate.” Those are the words of Witold J. Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania, as reported by Sean D. Hamill. Thanks, Mr. Hamill, for choosing to include in the story’s lead this simple but devastating statement by the pastor of First Apostles’ Doctrine Church: “I was called to do this by the Lord.” That may come across as arrogant, and he may indeed be arrogant, but to say that he was called by the Lord to help those without shelter is really not to set himself apart from any other Christian. Every single one of us thinks about the question, “Will I be found a sheep or a goat?” …and trembles. The good news is that we are part of a larger community that is organically interrelated, and I don’t see why every First Apostles’ Doctrine Church that opens its sanctuary and its parsonage to all people without regard for race or status shouldn’t serve as a spur. May the work of Rev. Wisor and his parishioners nudge many other congregations toward their own unique call to the ministry of mercy.

On January 16, the consent order originally achieved by the ACLU between the Borough of Brookville and Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach was extended. The original injunction legalized the church to serve as a home for 10 people. Up until March 2, Just for Jesus is now authorized to provide shelter for up to 30 guests and staff. The temporary injunction may be extended again, or the parties may arrive at a settlement. The story is here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Christian theology of our original dominion over all creation, and the way that dominion now belongs to our Lord. It may be that this dominion is sort of being held in trust, and that in Christ we can exercise that power, or some fraction or dimension of it. It could be that as the kingdom of God bears fruit, it does so in patches here and there of restored natural order. Some conservative evangelicals have taken that to mean that the authority of civil government is illegitimate. I’m not sure if the problem is the predominance of “unregenerate” people in the government, or that even if the government was full of evangelicals it would still be suspect. Either way, respect for the separation of church and state, SRAS in social scientific terms, is in doubt. The ACLU would not be pleased. Mr. Walczak has written an illuminating post about the case here.

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