“Hello, my name is__________, and I approve this message.” This awkward disclaimer became part of standard political jargon in 2002, when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was passed. Specifically, its “Stand By Your Ad” provision demands that all political ads run on radio or television include “a statement by the candidate that identifies the candidate and states that the candidate has approved the communication.” You’ll hear those kinds of statements a lot over the next seven months. And while the success of such an initiative is difficult to measure, the system is probably better off because of it. Aspiring politicians ought to accept responsibility for their words and actions, and ought to be held in contempt when they don’t. The buck stops at the top—there is no “fall guy” for the man who would be President.
But what about Christian leaders? Do they have a similar accountability? Of course they do. And yet, we sometimes inexplicably absolve them of that accountability. Instead of a “Stand By Your Ad” disclaimer, we’ve come to expect a “God Laid It on My Heart and Led Me” disclaimer. We hear it regularly when a leader enters the ministry, when he changes ministries, when he drops out of the ministry, and sometimes at critical points in between. Explanations involving secondary causation (i.e., providence and wisdom) are thought to be unacceptable in such cases; the explanation needs to involve primary causation (God called me, burdened me, prompted me, laid it on my heart, etc.) to pass muster. In other words, we give them a chance to deflect responsibility for their own decisions.
Primary causation explanations do have certain advantages:
- They sound a lot more spiritual (ministers are closer to God and have special knowledge that normal Christians don’t).
- They silence objections (after all, who can argue with God’s “clear leading”?).
- They give an “out” when the decision turns out to be a dud (failure can be explained away as one of God’s mysterious ends rather than as my stupidity).
But at the end of the day, primary causation explanations to me smack as much of soft cessationism, mysticism, heavy-handedness, and blame-shifting as they do of true spirituality. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we announce ministerial decisions.
My name is Mark Snoeberger, and I approve this message.