Remember the outcry a decade and a half ago over the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Regents’ Prayer” decision? The nation’s highest tribunal told New York educational authorities that as agents of the government they could not prescribe school devotional activities. After the ruckus had died down, many Americans—including many evangelicals—saw the wisdom of the ruling. It said that government should not be in the religion business, not even to the extent of writing a short prayer for students in tax-supported schools. A subsequent ruling banned Bible reading and prayer as devotional exercises in public schools. State-ordered religious activity is out of place in America, said the justices. Jefferson’s church-state wall must not be breached.

Now the shoe may be put on the other foot. Serious consideration is being given to government-mandated restriction of religion. Instead of protecting the separation wall so carefully built through American history, current proposals at the federal level would breach it. None of these, of course, is labeled as an attack on that cherished principle. Religion is hardly mentioned in them, as a matter of fact. The net effect, though, could be a restriction of what the First Amendment calls the “free exercise” of religion. The main attack now is on propagation of the faith through the mass media.

One bill in Congress, H.R. 41 (see May 6 issue, page 61), is the opposite side of the “Regents’ Prayer” coin. It puts all religious groups in the category of “charitable organizations” and then dictates that a government-prescribed announcement be inserted in their radio and television broadcasts whenever they ask for support. If enacted into law, this requirement would constitute federal regulation of program content (even if only a small part of it). This is hardly “free exercise.”

It makes no difference if the proponents of the legislation have the highest aims and the purest motives. It makes no difference that they want to help their constituents know more about the groups sponsoring these broadcasts. (Knowing more about the finances of some sponsors would presumably dry up some support.) The only important consideration is that this would be a breach in the wall. It is no less dangerous for Congress to dictate the content of gospel broadcasts than it is for leaders of any faith to get their type of devotional activity written by the government into the school curriculum.

H.R. 41 would also give postal officials broad authority to look into the finances of “charitable organizations” that mail appeals for money. Government auditors would go over the books of all these mailers to be sure their financial disclosure statements met Postal Service criteria and matched the facts. No appeal could be mailed that did not include an approved disclosure statement. Any church-sponsored welfare institution, missionary society, evangelistic association, or Christian school that sent out a report of its work mentioning a need for support would have to comply. Whether the basic concept of such a disclosure in every report is good or bad, the unacceptable aspect is that this bill would force religious organizations to include certain content in their materials. This, too, would be a restriction on “free exercise.”

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Another bill in the congressional hopper that would limit the freedom now enjoyed by religious groups is H.R. 478, which would levy a confiscatory tax on those “charitable organizations” (including specifically religious groups) that did not spend contributed income within a period specified by Congress and in a way approved by Internal Revenue Service auditors. The bill would also force disclosure of a variety of financial details not only to donors and to the IRS but also to anyone who requests a statement. In other words, the bill would make the business of the XYZ mission the business of any curious person. Requests for information could be made by non-donors, non-Christians, non-citizens, or anyone else. By this single provision the government would be telling the mission how to spend its money. This would be something less than “free exercise” for the group that believes in reporting only to those who pray for it.

The sad fact is that the practices of some unscrupulous preachers, self-appointed messiahs, and careless stewards have created a demand in some parts of the population for more regulation of religious affairs.

Scores of bills introduced by congressmen have little or no chance of being enacted. But H.R. 41 (introduced by Wilson of California) represents a serious and concerted effort that could succeed unless Christians get involved. Neither H.R. 41 nor any of others is the answer to isolated instances of charlatanism. The simplest one in a voluntary society is for people to stop responding to appeals by groups that are unwilling to account for their stewardship to the satisfaction of the contributors.

Memorial Day Prayer

President Carter has asked Americans to put prayers for peace on their Memorial Day programs. “I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11 o’clock in the morning of that day as a time to unite in prayer,” he said in his Memorial Day proclamation. “I urge the press, radio, television, and all other information media to join in this observance.” As Americans remember their war dead, it is certainly appropriate for them and for Christians around the world to beseech God to hasten that day when men shall turn their swords into plowshares.

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Can Homosexuals ‘Inherit the Kingdom’?

“In general, the Church has always maintained that homosexual acts are sinful. But we live in the twentieth century, and new insights might allow or compel us to examine this tradition if we are to receive the truth.” So said Bishop John Yates of Gloucester, England, chairman of a Church of England committee on homosexuality, on a BBC program on homosexuality and the Christian faith. Theologian Norman Pittenger, another speaker on the program, admitted his own homosexual bias and claimed that Christian tradition was mistaken on this point, according to Religious News Service.

From what source do we get our religious knowledge? What is the basis for the Christian’s moral judgments? Traditionally (and we use this word advisedly) the Church of Jesus Christ has claimed that the Bible is normative. It teaches us how to become Christians and how to conduct ourselves as Christians. And what does the Bible have to say about the subject of homosexuality? Paul in First Corinthians writes: “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9, 10, NIV).

The person who looks favorably upon homosexuality can do one of two things with this passage and others like it. He can push the Bible aside and deny its teaching. Or he can claim that Paul’s words here apply only to his day and not to ours. If this is so, must we not conclude that the other prohibitions in this passage—against such things as thievery, greed, slander, drunkenness, idolatry, and adultery—are likewise cultural overhangs of an older day and are not binding on Christian conscience today?

Whether readers of the Bible deny its clear teaching about homosexuality or accord to the teaching a cultural status that empties it of binding force, the result is the same: the authority of the Bible is rejected, its other teachings are called into question, and the Christian faith suffers a loss. That churchmen should concur in the opinions of the world and try to validate that which the Bible condemns is tragic.

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What to Do With Laetrile

Big Daddy continues to watch over citizens who are prone to use things that are not good for them. The latest of the forbidden fruits is saccharin. Alcohol and tobacco, to name two addictives, are certainly more pernicious than saccharin. But for some reason there is little talk of banning them.

Another substance banned by the United States government is Laetrile, which has been acclaimed by various people as a cure for cancer. Multitudes afflicted with the dreaded disease flock to Mexico, where they pay high prices for injections of this vitamin and for supplies that must be brought across the border illegally.

Almost without exception the medical fraternity is agreed that Laetrile does nothing to cure or arrest cancer. An advertisement in this magazine for a book defending Laetrile brought a harvest of vigorous protest from physicians. It was as though even the advertising of such a book contributed to the earlier death of some cancer patients. But loud and insistent voices have accused the medical profession of depriving cancer victims of something that would help them.

It would seem reasonable to make Laetrile available as a prescription drug, even if it would be only a placebo. This would put the responsibility on the medical fraternity, not the government. It would enable physicians to treat cancer victims now in the hands of quacks who are dispensing Laetrile illegally. And it might have a beneficial psychological effect for patients who are convinced of its effectiveness.

The Shrinking Church Rolls

Most major denominations in America are losing more members than they are gaining. Some of the smaller and more theologically conservative churches are growing, but not substantially, especially when population growth is taken into account.

According to the newly released Yearbook of American Churches, the fastest-growing religious body has been the Salvation Army: its 1975 tally shows a 5 per cent increase over the previous year (to a total of 384,817).

Southern Baptists were the only Protestant group in the top ten to show an increase (1.8 per cent, to 12,733,124). The Roman Catholic Church rose 0.4 per sent (to 48,881,872). The grand total for all bodies reporting to the Yearbook was 131,012,953 members.

Genuinely New, But …

In Colossians Paul writes, “Lie not one to another; seeing that ye have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, that is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him” (3:9, 10, ASV). In these words Paul is not telling his readers that they are stili both old and new as many Christians think; rather, he appeals to them not to lie because they have put off the old man and have put on the new.

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However, if we think that the new man never sins, we will not dare to see ourselves as such, since we stili do sin daily. It is therefore important for us to note that in this passage Paul does not identify the new man with sinless perfection. He says, “You have put on the new man that is being renewed … after the image of his Creator.” “Is being renewed” signifies that the new man is not yet perfect. One could say that we are now genuinely new though not yet totally new. But new we are—and so we ought to see ourselves.

To be sure, we still sin daily. But when we do, we do not revert to the “old man” state, any more than we suddenly become unregenerate. We remain new persons, but new persons living inconsistently. When we who are adults do childish things, we don’t suddenly become children; we remain adults who for the moment are not acting like adults. The fact that believers remain new persons in Christ should be for us a constant incentive to reflect that newness in new ways of thinking, talking, and living.

There is a close connection between being a new man in Christ and living in the Spirit. In Romans 6:6 Paul describes the believer as someone whose “old man” was crucified with Christ, so that he is no longer a slave of sin. In Romans 8:9, however, he depicts that same believer as someone who is no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit.

What does Paul mean by “flesh” and “Spirit”? We mut not see in these concepts a contrast between two aspects of man’s nature, a “fleshly” aspect and a “spiritual” one. We must rather see a description of two contrasting power spheres. Flesh does not mean the physical body in distinction from the mind but man’s whole being as it is under the power of sin. Though apart from Christ man is “in the flesh,” in Christ he is “in the Spirit.” To be in the Spirit means that a person who was formerly under the sway of the flesh has now been brought under the liberating rule of the Holy Spirit.

Although Christians are no longer in the flesh, they are still constantly tempted by the flesh. Throughout the present life, therefore, they continue to be involved in the struggle between flesh and Spirit. But they are to engage in this struggle not in the atmosphere of defeat but in the confidence of victory. Notice how Paul describes the struggle in Galatians 5:16, “But I say, Walk by the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” The emphasis is positive: If you walk by the Spirit, you will not be able at the same time to gratify the lust of the flesh. Since you are now under the rule and power of the Holy Spirit, you can triumph over the desires of the flesh and are no longer enslaved by them.

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