Should a Christian minister accept an invitation to give a nonsectarian prayer at a public meeting?
This week some ministers said no.
One is quoted in the StarNews as saying, “I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and feel I would be denying him if I didn’t pray in his name. What happened to freedom of speech and religion?” Another minister said, “If you ask me, as a Christian pastor, to come and pray, I could expect you to hear a prayer in my faith’s tradition.”
In many parts of the country, but perhaps especially in the South, it has been a tradition to open public meetings of civic bodies such as city councils and county commissions with clergy-led prayers. But recently in North Carolina, a district court ruled that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was violated by prayers that discussed specific tenets of Christianity and referenced Jesus Christ. Hence, the policy of nonsectarian prayers.
I think the ministers quoted above may be missing a good opportunity to answer part of their calling.
First, it is an occasion to set the work of the commission or council in a proper theological context. Surely it is the duty of all Christians to pray for those in positions of power and authority.
In Romans 13, for example, the Apostle Paul recognizes the temporal authority of governing bodies, within the context of God’s ultimate authority. Regardless of the political party or position of the elected officials, a minister praying at a public meeting has the responsibility of reminding them of the limits of their authority and the requirements that they provide just government.
Accepting the invitation to pray does not give approval to the civic body, nor is it an example of collusion. Rather, it gives the minister an opportunity to remind the civic body of its responsibilities to serve all with justice.
A second reason to accept the invitation is it provides an opportunity to give a word of hope. The minister can remind the authorities and the public that we are a people of hope, that God’s Spirit can work through them and all of us to build a just and peaceful society.
Third, a prayer could also acknowledge and foster a good partnership between civic and religious authorities. It is a sign of good will between church and government, proof the two can and must work together to provide social services and work for the betterment of the lives of the whole community. Both the public and the civic authorities need to hear that.
All this can be included without necessarily praying in the name of Jesus. Praying to God as Creator is no less “Christian” and certainly can be a witness to the work of God’s Spirit in this world.