Public Morals and The People We Are

Melanchthon, quoting Erasmus, at Luther’s funeral – God has sent in this latter age a violent physician on account of the magnitude of the existing disorders…

So many of the conversations that I have seem to center around “the magnitude of the existing disorders”. Many people realize “that ain’t right”. But there is an unwillingness, or an inability to say so publicly. And there is no willingness to bear the cost of correcting it. A big part of the disorders are a huge misunderstanding between the correct and necessary application of grace to the private person, and the public rightness of insisting upon the law (i.e. public morals).

The presenting case is one Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who “went walking the Appalachian Trail” and came back with his South American “soulmate”. Roughly three years later, the same Mark Sanford, presents himself as a candidate for the US House of Representatives. This presents us with a pickle. The Christian religion instructs us to forgive. The former Governor has repented, has married his “soulmate” and presented his candidacy as a request for forgiveness. This is a terrible mash-up of public and private. The former Governor from the outside appears to have done everything necessary to receive absolution, privately. He is perfectly able to walk in grace in private life. As 1 Thessalonians would say, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs (1 Thessalonians 4:11).” There is a big bridge between that quiet private life, and a public one. When you present yourself for public office there is a much different standard. It is not exactly the same thing, but a good place to look for a public standard might be what St. Paul requires of ministers otherwise know as the office of public ministry. Let’s take a look at 1 Timothy 3:1-13.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

The only changes that I might make to such a list for public office in a pluralistic state would be when Paul speaks of “holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” I might substitute something like support the constitution with a clear conscience. That would exclude any revolutionary candidate whose true purpose would be to subvert public order. Otherwise, that list for overseers and deacons (aka bishops/pastors and elders) would serve as a good list of requirements for secular (or temporal) public office. It is not a list marked by strict holiness, but a smart practical list of traits in one who governs. As St. Paul says, to desire public office is no shame but is in fact noble. But, there is no requirement to grant public office. And there is no shame in a quiet private life. To desire the noble public task there are certain requirements – like one wife, not prone to fall into disgrace, faithful in all things. If you don’t meet this, thank you for your desire, but you don’t meet the first requirements.

We can forgive former governor Sanford. We can find like Jonah Goldberg “something quaint” about his scandal. Compared to pressing young interns and sending pictures of your crotch, going walking with an age appropriate soulmate almost sounds sweet. We can also say, such actions disqualify you from public office. In fact Christians should say such things. The appropriate time to have done so for the ministers of South Carolina was during the primaries so that the sword of Damocles didn’t hang over the voters head, where you could vote for someone who would vote for what you like but who is himself unqualified for office, or vote for the person taking you in the wrong direction but meets more fundamental qualifications. Yes, I know that makes us judgmental. You know what, good. The mature should “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 6:14).” Until we are able to do so, the magnitude of the existing disorders will only increase. If you give an inch, the devil takes a mile.

And what this ultimately does is discredit what we believe in most dear – the gospel. (Douthat gets it.) You cannot come to the gospel without hearing the law. The law is both our tutor in our need for the gospel, and our guide to living the God fearing life. Our problem today is not the same as in Luther’s. Our problem is not that we are beset by a lot of holy-made-up-work crushing our souls. Our problem today is cheap grace. Our problem today is not hearing that the life of a Christian is one of daily drowning and arising. We can’t sacrifice a house seat for a few months, so we live with someone not fit for office. We can’t pick-up our cross or deal with life in community (i.e. the church) so we walk out and go “spiritual”. If the magnitude of the disorders are so great, pray for a violent doctor, because the other option is a disappearance beneath the waves. On this Ascension Day, it is the Lord who raises up and who dispatches. Our time on the stage might be drawing to a close. Just like all those other empires of history.