NOTE: This article appears in the July/August 2006 issue of Frontline Magazine. It appears here with permission of the publisher.
By Tavis J. Long
Believing that the privilege to pray in Jesus’ name is fundamental to the Christian’s relationship with Christ, and understanding that the privilege to reference the personage of Jesus in public prayer is under increasing attack in the military chaplaincy, we resolve that our Chaplains will be supported, defended, and encouraged to pray in the name of Jesus as mandated by the Scriptures. The practice is not done as a means to ostracize or exclude Americans of other religions; however, we believe that Christian chaplains are privileged to pray in Jesus’ name, not just as a right guaranteed by human governments, but because the Scriptures mandate all Christians to offer petitions in Christ’s stead. Therefore, as an endorsing agency, the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship will expect and prepare its chaplains to practice this God-ordained commandment of invoking Jesus’ name in such a way that glorifies God and edifies fellow Christians.
Here’s a theological question. Do we worship God because the Constitution permits us to or do we worship God because of Biblical mandate? It is a simple question with a very simple answer—our worship is mandated by God, and it is only protected, not granted, by the Constitution.
Since this is the case, why is the practice of praying in Jesus’ name in so much contention? So much attention is being given to the filing of lawsuits, the calling for executive orders, the revision of military guidance, and the solicitation of petitioners. For what purpose? To guarantee a freedom that no government has the right or ability to either give or take away?
John 14:13 says, “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” The next verse is also very pointed: “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”
Other verses, such as John 15:16 and John 16:23–26, are very clear about the mandate to offer prayers in the name of Jesus. Simply put, the practice of praying in Jesus’ name is not up for debate, argument, or compromise.
While every American citizen has the right to expect the Constitution and its amendments to protect him, Christian Americans must be careful in the way they fight for their rights. What may seem good on paper today may have unexpected results tomorrow.
Such may be the case for evangelical chaplains who are seeking government sanction to pray in Jesus’ name. Take, for example, the pressure for an executive order. Though such an order on behalf of evangelicals will certainly advance the cause of Christ and ensure the preservation of the evangelical chaplains’ First Amendment rights, does it not set dangerous precedent for dependency on the executive branch? The result will be the opening of a very dangerous political Pandora’s box. A president unfriendly to Christianity might someday issue an executive order that is in opposition to the Christian faith.(1) Our dependence is not contingent on the faith of the president but on the power of the Word of God.
Therefore, the issue of praying in Jesus’ name should not be approached as merely an issue of liberty. It is much greater than that. It is an issue of sovereignty. The evangelical who depends on the government to grant him the right to pray in Jesus’ name willfully exchanges the sovereignty of the Word of God for the sovereignty of government.
The reverence for God’s sovereignty was understood and cherished by our Founding Fathers. From the very inception of the United States, our Founding Fathers asked the question, “Who grants man his liberty?” The answer to that question was used to justify the Declaration of Independence. In the first paragraph, the Declaration reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”(2) The Declaration went on to say that they were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world.”(3) In other words, the sovereignty of God was the source of man’s “unalienable rights.”
But, what were the “unalienable rights” that the Founding Fathers spoke of? Thomas Jefferson referenced these rights using the preferred synonym “natural rights.”(4) He adopted this term from English theologian Richard Hooker, who defined “natural rights” as those rights provided in the Scriptures. Hooker explained, “The Scripture is fraught even with laws of Nature; … Natural Right [is] that which the ‘Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.’”(5) Jefferson acknowledged that the Scriptures were sovereign in determining the rights of man.
After the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America and the subsequent Bill of Rights, the concept of “natural” or “unalienable rights” remained a staunch pillar in the American Republic. A great example illustrating this fact is the letter written to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 by the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, congratulating him on his victory. The Danbury Baptists were confident that the executive office was finally filled with an advocate who would defend their cause.(6)
However, in their letter, the Baptists stated some of their reservations about the adoption of the First Amendment.(7) In fact, they said they did not like its inclusion because it had the potential of limiting the rights of Americans. The Danbury Baptists understood religion to be “at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions.”(8) Since the matters of religion were so protected by the law of God, the Danbury Baptists were afraid that the First Amendment had the potential to actually inhibit the freedom of worship. They argued, “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”(9) Either religion was an “inalienable right” and, therefore, did not need constitutional privilege; or it needed protection by the Constitution and was, therefore, not really “inalienable.”
To those early Baptists in America, the issue of worship was an issue of sovereignty. The Danbury Baptists wanted Jefferson to answer the question, Who was sovereign—the government or God?
Jefferson responded to the Baptists’ letter, stating that he was in agreement with them; Jefferson wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act … which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”(10)
Today, Americans have drifted from this original understanding of the First Amendment. Instead of viewing the First Amendment as the protectorate of religious rights, many look to the First Amendment to grant the freedom to worship. This attitude results in elevating the Constitution to the position of sovereign authority. Praying in Jesus’ name, for example, may be protected by the First Amendment, but it is not granted by the First Amendment.
This does not mean that the evangelical cannot subject himself to the authority of the Constitution. For over two hundred years, Christian Americans have had no disparity in honoring the Constitution. The reason for this is because the Constitution, in principle, is established on the precepts taught in the Holy Scriptures. It has only been in recent years, that Christians are being forced to choose between their religious convictions and their civil obligations. Such a decision was completely foreign when this great nation was founded.(11)
But the original concept of “religious liberty” has been abandoned, and evangelical chaplains are forced to make a decision on how they will approach the issue of praying in Jesus’ name.
To pray in the name of Jesus is to align yourself with the Person, power, and purpose of Christ. In other words, when you use His name, you are attaching His character, personality, reputation, and authority to your prayer. Since this is the case, it is vital that our prayers be consistent to the will of the person of whose name we are invoking.
But why do we say the actual words, “In Jesus’ name”? It goes back to the issue of sovereignty. As evangelicals, we claim the authority of the Son in our prayers. Do chaplains set that authority aside when praying at different venues? The military requests that chaplains use Jesus’ name only when praying within the context of a religious service. However, they are “encouraged” not to use His name when in a civic setting. Does this mean that there are different types of prayers; or that the Christian’s address is to someone different? When asked to pray, the chaplain is praying to the same God and in the spirit and personage of His Son—the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when a chaplain excludes the name of Jesus in His prayer for the sole purpose of not being offensive, he is being dishonest to the very God to whom he claims to be praying (2 Tim. 2:12). It is all imperative for evangelicals to invoke the name of Jesus.
In conclusion, because it is a privilege to pray in Jesus’ name, the matter is settled—not in the legal system, but in the Word of God. Though lawsuits and executive orders to “permit” us to pray in Jesus’ name, are a nice relief; and in their place and time can have a positive affect, we must be careful of placing our confidence in the government as the legislator of our righteousness.
The battle for praying in Jesus’ name does not need to be waged in the courtrooms or on Congressional floors. Rather, the battle is most effective when fought on the front line: with the troops acknowledging Christ before men (Matt. 10:33).
Twentieth-century Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper gave valuable council when faced with compromise. He said, “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin.”
Praying in Jesus’ name should not be an issue. It is not up for debate, argument, or legislation. Though it would be wonderful to have all of the executive orders in the world to protect evangelical Christianity, and it would be great to have military guidance that pointedly gives protection to the name of Christ, we cannot depend on the government to define our convictions.
Chaplains, things may become so tough that one day we may have to resign our commission or be passed over for promotion because we refuse to compromise our faith. But rest assured, God is sovereign; and one day “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, … And … every tongue [shall] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10). May God give us grace as we look forward to that day.
(1) It is interesting to note that the Constitution never mentions anything about the president’s power to issue executive orders. Instead, the practice has developed out of historical precedent. All executive orders are subject to judicial review and can be declared unconstitutional.
(2) William Bowen, et. al., American Government in Christian Perspective, 2nd ed. (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Book, 1997), p. 257.
(4) David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, and Religion (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilders Press, 1996), pp. 220–21.
(5) Richard Hooker, The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, Vol. I (Oxford: The University Press, 1845), p. 207.
(6) Letter of October 7, 1801, from Danbury (CT) Baptist Association to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
(7) “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
(11) Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story said the following about the Bible, Christianity, and civil society: “One of he most beautiful boasts of our municipal jurisprudence is that Christianity is a part of the Common Law.” He went on to say that “there never has been a period in which the Common Law did not recognize Christianity lying at its foundations.” Story served on the Supreme Court from February 3, 1812, to September 10, 1845. He is considered the Father of American Jurisprudence (William W. Story, ed., Life and Letters of Joseph Story, Vol. II [Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851], pp. 8, 92).
Lieutenant Tavis J. Long is the Command Chaplain for the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, California. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Bethany Theological Seminary. His dissertation, entitled The American Concept of Church and State: The Founding Fathers’ Return to a Judeo-Christian Ethic, deals with civil and religious freedom as defined by the First Amendment.