Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Biblical Case for Religious Liberty

I am doggedly committed to the idea of universal religious liberty not because it is American or self-serving but because it is biblical. As a pastor, I am obligated to follow the Word of God even when doing so puts me at odds with contemporary public opinion. When the day comes that I do not have the courage to do so, I will relinquish my pulpit to a better man. The biblical case for religious liberty is not merely some marginal case; it is a case made as nearly invincibly as any found in the biblical text short of such matters as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Indeed, scripture so plainly declares it that I have not, before now, bothered to articulate it publicly. That has been a mistake on my part, and I write today in order to correct it. In doing so, I have it as my ambition to live up to the words of 2 Timothy 2:22-26.

22So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. 23Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV)

Specifically, it is my aim to keep my own passions at check. I aim to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with pure-hearted believers who read my words today. I hope in my writing to be kind to everyone and to adopt the tone of a teacher, not a demagogue. Some of those who read this may be Muslims or people of other non-Christians faiths (some of which I will mention by name below). Toward them, I aspire to act with gentleness (even if that gentleness exposes me to criticism from other believers who may have no desire to live out 2 Timothy 2:22-26 with regard to Muslims and who are determined to speak of and to them in only the harshest of terms), because my heartfelt desire is not to defeat them but to invite them into the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which has come down from heaven to all people.

Of course, I must also consider whether I am disobeying the admonition to avoid foolish, ignorant controversies. The adjectives are important here, I think. From what we know of the Apostle Paul's life (he wrote 2 Timothy), he was a man often embroiled in controversy. Either he often disobeyed his own instructions in this matter (a possibility, since we speak here of imperfect, fallen Paul rather than sinless Jesus) or Paul believed that Christian leaders should indeed sometimes engage in those controversies that are neither foolish nor ignorant. He did participate in controversies where he thought the arguments on the other side were foolish ("O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…?" Galatians 3:1, ESV), but in those cases the controversy itself—the subject matter under discussion—was very important.

Does the question of whether there will be a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Farmersville rise to that level of importance? In and of itself, probably not. If I were a missionary in China and if the Chinese government were banning a Muslim cemetery, I would be less inclined to join the controversy. If I were a missionary to a place where there are fewer Christians than in China—if I were a missionary to upstate New York or Boston—I would be less inclined to join the controversy. But here in Farmersville, Texas, enough Christians are involved in this turmoil that the central question, although it formerly concerned a Muslim cemetery, now concerns the proper way for Christian people to behave toward those who need the gospel. If city government were populated with secularists and if it were atheists spouting Philippics at local meetings, I would let it pass. But as things presently stand, the cause of the gospel is disserved if no one will stand up and place on the record the New Testament point of view. This point of view must gain public attention so that those who need the gospel might know that there are Christians who are prepared to behave toward them with the kind of gentleness demanded of the Lord's servants in 2 Timothy 2.

Thesis: We must not fight false belief by appealing to the government or other forms of coercive force; rather, we must fight it by testifying to the truth.

The Biblical Texts

I take these not in canonical order but in the order that I think makes for the best logical flow.

  1. I will first offer not a text but the absence of a text. Neither Jesus nor any apostle ever did anything that even approximately resembles having a false religion zoned out of town by city government.

  2. John 18:33-37

    33So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to Him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?" 35Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You over to me. What have You done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world." 37Then Pilate said to Him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." (ESV)

    In this statement, Jesus contrasts His kingdom with all of the governments of this world. But it is not just a general contrast; Jesus gave specific application. Because His kingdom is not of this world, His followers do not fight worldly battles for it. Period.

    I'm no pacifist. I'm not saying (nor was Jesus, I don't think) that Christians cannot serve in the military or the police force to use worldly force for worldly obligations. I'm not even saying that a Christian who is a private citizen could not fight against a home-invasion intruder who was trying to harm one of your children. We have obligations detailed in Romans 13:1-7 (ESV) by which part of what we "owe" to the state may be military service or some other form of public service that requires fighting.

    But we are not called to fight SPIRITUAL battles in this way. We are not called to go on the offensive against false belief in this way. Rather, Jesus said that His way of fighting is "to bear witness to the truth."

  3. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

    3For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV)

    This critically important passage reiterates and expands upon Jesus' statement to Pilate that his servants belong to a different kingdom with a different way of fighting. Yes, we "walk in the flesh," but that is no excuse for us to "[wage] war according to the flesh." We shouldn't do so because our weaponry is not suited to that kind of fighting. They are not worldly, fleshly weapons. Rather, they are weapons with "divine power to destroy strongholds." What does that mean? It means destroying "arguments" and "lofty opinion[s]" and "thoughts." The state wields a fleshly sword against bodies. The church wields a gospel sword against ideas.

    Friends, you'll completely miss the point if you conclude that this is about a limitation put upon the church. Not at all; it is about an extra empowering that Christians have that put government coercion in the Little Leagues while Christian soldiers using spiritual weapons are swinging for the fences in the "big show"!

    Because we know this about government: Government can never make a convert; it can only make hypocrites. That's because city zoning ordinances will never change an opinion or take captive a thought. All it can do is send down the police department to say, "You can't bury that person here." If your ambitions are no higher than that, then the Planning & Zoning Commission can help you, but if you want to win people to Christ, then you need to set aside these fleshly weapons, disengage from the zoning battle, and join the spiritual war. It's not that we war BOTH according to the flesh AND with these spiritual weapons; the apostle says that we "are not waging war according to the flesh."

    Now, there is punishment for "every disobedience," so this is not about ignoring the falsehoods and wrongdoing of those who do not know Christ. Those who persist in rejecting Jesus Christ—be they Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, or just plain lost—will all (I say it in fear and trembling) receive grave, eternal punishment for their disobedience. But the punishment comes "when [our] obedience is complete." When will that happen? At the end of the age (as I'll demonstrate in a later passage).

  4. Luke 9:51-56

    51When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. 52And He sent messengers ahead of Him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for Him. But the people did not receive Him, because His face was set toward Jerusalem. 54And when His disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" 55But He turned and rebuked them. 56And they went on to another village. (ESV).

    So, a village of people rejected Jesus. James and John were outraged on the Lord's behalf, and they wanted to punish these villagers for their unbelief. Jesus not only declined, but he also rebuked them for this. Then Jesus modeled the appropriate response: He just left the village alone and went on.

    We all need to consider that the very moment when we think we're being the most zealous for Jesus might be the moment when we are earning our largest rebuke from Him. Keeping that in mind would probably make us all a lot more humble, particularly when it comes to the temptation to play the role of enforcer against unbelief or false belief.

  5. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

    24[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' 28He said to them, 'And enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"

    36Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." 37He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are he sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (ESV).

    This parable is explicitly, directly about religious liberty.

    I have to admit, I have only rarely heard it preached about religious liberty. I have actually heard it preached against church discipline, or in favor of the corpus permixtum of paedo-baptist churches. But Jesus left us very little latitude in our interpretation of this parable, since He gave us the interpretation Himself.

    The field is not the church; it is the world. The problem in the parable is that the field, which should've had only wheat, regrettably has both wheat and weeds in it. The real-life problem that this parable represents, according to Jesus, is that the world, which should only have in it Christians (the sons of the kingdom), regrettably has both Christians and those who reject Christ (the sons of the evil one). The world is this way because of the work of the devil, just as the field in the parable was in its condition because of the actions of an enemy.

    Dear Farmersville, we live in a world with Muslims in it. That was true a year ago no less than it will be true ten years from now. What will we do about it?

    Well, in the parable, the natural inclination of everyone who loved the owner of the field was to go out and do some weeding. I do not fault you, dear friends, for wishing the world were a pure place where there are no people who reject Christ and follow Mohammed instead. To have an inclination to defend your Christian way of life by using governmental force to drive out the Muslims may be a powerful instinct within you that is difficult to overcome. But I implore you to hear the words of the Master.

    "No."

    I'll go further, but it really shouldn't be necessary. The answer to all of our impulses to go out weeding the world (or even little sections of it) on the basis of people's religious convictions is simply that Jesus has said no.

    Why not? Is Jesus overly fond of weeds? Not at all. But Jesus is far more protective of the wheat than you or I will ever be. And every time Christians empower the state to punish bad belief, it always, 100% of the time, without a single exception in the history of mankind, winds up with the force of the state punishing people for faithfulness to right belief. That always happens no matter what are the motives of the people who get that particular ball rolling (more on that later).

    Jesus just doesn't trust you with this assignment.

    Instead, Jesus is reserving this task for Himself, and He has told us exactly when He is going to do it. It will happen "at the end of the age." When Jesus comes back, he'll relocate everyone who persists in denying Jesus Christ. He won't do it like you or I will. Some of us, I fear, would gleefully watch the Muslim foreigners slip off to perdition, but what about your Texan neighbor or colleague or even family member who is not a follower of Christ? Some weeds we like better than others. That we treat the two differently shows why we can't be trusted with the weeding. So, at the end of the age, the Righteous Judge Himself will sort out the wheat from the weeds and will consign the weeds to their sad, avoidable fate.

  6. Revelation 6:9-11

    Yeah, but isn't it different if you've got a religion in which some people have done some bad things?

    Well, let's see whether there's anything like that in the New Testament. Would you think that people who had been murdered for following Jesus would have a greater right than anyone in Farmersville has to seek immediate governmental intervention and force used to prevent the opponents of Christianity from moving in? Let's see what the role is for such people while we await the end of the age.

    9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar [in Heaven] the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" 11Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

    OK, so here's how much differently Heaven sees things than we do. God's plan is to wait and do nothing because they haven't killed enough Christians yet. So, anything in my mind that would reject that idea as totally unreasonable is an idea in my mind that rejects the teaching of Revelation 6:9-11 and the authority of God. It's an attitude of which I need to repent if it is there.

    What are Christians supposed to do between now and the second coming of Jesus? Preach the gospel. Watch and be ready in our own lives. Wait patiently. Leave the judgment of the world to God. That's it. And that's true for you if the unbelievers are friendly to you and it's equally true if they're trying to kill you. It's true if you live in first-century Galatia and it's true if you live in twenty-first-century Texas. It's true with regard to your relationship with the guy who does your taxes who spends his Sundays fishing on the lake and it's true with regard to your relationship with the guy who sells you gasoline who spends his Fridays at a mosque.

    Now, even though the ultimate judgment from God doesn't come until the end of the age, if we're talking about people who have committed a crime, then there's a Romans 13 role for government to bring partial, imperfect, temporary justice into the situation. Of course, no one has even bothered to allege that the Islamic Association of Collin County has committed a crime or is planning to commit a crime, and if they had, the proper people to call would be the police department or the FBI, not the Planning & Zoning Commission.

    But for Christians (of whom those who live in Farmersville have suffered far less than the martyrs, by the way, if we've suffered anything at all) to mobilize in order to invoke the secular sword of government against people just for what they believe or do not believe? That's just the opposite of waiting and leaving this kind of judgment of religious conscience to God alone at the end of the age.

  7. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

    12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” (ESV).

    As a final entry (I could go on, but this is already too long and I think I've made my point), I give you another explicit scriptural command separating out our responsibility as Christians (Hey, if you've got a member of your church who thinks Mohammed may have been onto something with that whole Quran thing, then by all means, kick that person right out of your church!) from God's responsibility as God. We judge matters inside the church. God judges matters of faith for those outside the body of Christ, and He has chosen not to do so until the end of the age. Not the church. Not the preachers. Not the city government. God.

  8. Revelation 12:11

    And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death (ESV).

    OK, so I said the last one would be the final entry, but I couldn't resist doing just this one more. If we really want to win, the way to do that isn't by running to the city council. The way to do that is by testifying to the truth and laying down our lives. That is the way of Jesus.

    When we finally get to Heaven, dear brothers and sisters, the places of honor will not go to Charles Martel and Vlad the Impaler. The places of honor will go to Peter and Paul and James and John, to Perpetua and Polycarp and Hubmaier and Bonhoeffer, to Abedini and Elliot and Saint and Fletcher, and to a thousand nameless unknowns who have faithfully kept the word of their testimony and have laid down their lives for the gospel.

    This way of zoning out the "undesirables" and protesting the burial of the dead is not the way that they have shown us. It is not the way that Christ has shown us. It cannot be supported from the scriptures. It should not be displayed in our lives.

Considering the Old Testament

Someone will now object, "But what about the Old Testament? What about Elijah on Mount Carmel? What about Joshua at Ai? Those are good questions, and if we were Orthodox Jews, you'd have me over quite the barrel. But with a Christian understanding of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament, the competing claims of those who follow a New Testament understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the state on the one hand and those who wish to make the Old Testament a pattern for church-state relations on the other hand are resolved quite decisively.

I give you three points to consider.

  1. These Old Testament stories support none of the positions advocated in the Farmersville debate. Old Testament Israel was expected to be a Theocracy or a Monarchy in which all idolatry was punished severely at the hand of the theological state. When people argue for the demolition of the Buddhist Meditation Center, the eviction of the Mormons, the rounding up and punishment of all of the atheists and agnostics, and the slaughter of all of the leaders of false religious movements, and replace the city council with the ministerial alliance, then someone will be advocating that we follow the examples of Elijah and Joshua. No one is advocating for anything that approaches consistency with the pattern of Old Testament Israel.

    But why is that? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

    It is a good thing. It is not because Christian leaders in Farmersville lack the courage to seek what the Word of God truly demands. It is not because, as people on the left often claim, the Bible is a muddled mishmash of conflicting rules out of which people can cherry-pick what to follow and what to ignore. No, not at all. The reason why no Christian in this debate is calling for us to return all the way back to the way of Old Testament Israel is because of the fundamental truths that the New Testament teaches us about the way that the coming of Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament and about the way that the second coming of Jesus will fulfill what remains open after His first coming.

  2. The Civil Law of the Old Testament is no longer in force for Christian believers. In saying this, I am depending upon a tripartite division of the Old Testament law that hearkens all the way back to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth-century. Even if you have never heard anyone speak of the "ceremonial law," the "civil law," or the "moral law," with regard to the Old Testament, you, Christian in Farmersville, are living your life the way you are living based upon this concept. In saying that, I admit that I am making certain assumptions. I am assuming that you eat bacon. I am assuming that you do not stone to death your children if they rebel against your authority. I am assuming that you have not recently built an altar upon which you have sacrificed a lamb to God. I am assuming, however, that you feel obligated not to worship an idol, not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery, and to honor your father and mother.

    Perhaps you do not know WHY you pick and choose from the Old Testament in this way, but I am assuming that you do so, whether you understand the reasons behind it or not.

    Well, in a minute you'll know the reasons behind it. As Christians we observe that Jesus and the Apostles dealt with the Old Testament Law in three different ways. First, there are many, many elements of the Old Testament Law that are re-affirmed and continued into the New Testament. The standard of one-man-one-woman marriage was reiterated by Jesus Himself (that post on Facebook you read notwithstanding; Matthew 19:3-12). Jesus not only reiterated but also doubled-down on several Old Testament commands in His Sermon on the Mount, including prohibitions against murder (Matthew 5:21-26, ESV), adultery (Matthew 5:27-30, ESV), wrongful divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV), and false witness (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV).

    These portions of the Old Testament that are enduring guides to Christian behavior, many of them reiterated explicitly in the New Testament, are what we mean when we refer to the "moral law." Jesus fulfilled these portions of the Law completely, to be sure. His death and resurrection thereby secure for us salvation in spite of our failures to live up to the moral law. But nothing about what Jesus did on the cross made it any less of a bad thing for me to murder you. Now, because of Jesus, I can go to Heaven even if I am a murderer, but murder is still bad. The "moral law" consists of those Old Testament laws that remain in force because they have been reiterated in the New Testament.

    Thus, if in spite of all that I have given you above from the New Testament you were able to demonstrate to me that the New Testament anywhere reiterates to us a command to treat unbelievers the way that Samuel the High Priest treated Agag, then it will be my new role not to beseech you to call for less government intervention to keep unbelievers at bay in Farmersville but to lead you to call for more. I do not claim to have perfect knowledge of the New Testament, but in my studies on this topic I have yet to find it.

    Second, there are aspects of the Old Testament Law that were fulfilled completely in the life and work of Jesus. Many items from the Old Testament fall into this category, but the one on the lowest shelf is the entire priestly and sacrificial system of the Old Testament. The sons of Aaron no longer slaughter animals in order to take away our sins because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice when He died on the cross and because Jesus serves now as the ultimate High Priest who intercedes for us (for this, consider pretty much any part of the Book of Hebrews, but especially Hebrews 7:26-28).

    These portions of the Old Testament are what we mean when we refer to the "ceremonial law." Jesus did not set aside these items because anything was wrong with them. It's just that the only purpose these laws ever had was to point people forward to what Jesus was going to do when He came. Once Jesus had come, these laws had been fulfilled completely in Him. Yes, certainly there is a sense in which Jesus in His coming fulfilled all of the Law completely, not just certain parts of it (in that He kept it all completely and demonstrated the purpose for which all of it was given). What's different about the ceremonial law is that after Jesus had ascended back to Heaven, no purpose whatsoever remained for the observance of these points of the Old Testament Law. Why would I sacrifice a goat when I have available to me the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? The "ceremonial law" consists of those Old Testament laws that have been set aside forever now that Christ has come.

    Third, we observe that there are aspects of the Old Testament Law that are suspended because we have not yet come fully into the Kingdom that Christ will some day establish. It will become clear in my explanation of this that I am a pre-Millennialist, but I think that Christians of any biblically cognizable eschatological persuasion should be able to agree with the basic thrust of what I am saying. Above I have already (OK, not really, but I'm leaving this in here so you can know that this actually was once even longer than it is now) written about that crescendo moment in Revelation 11:15, further immortalized by Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus, when the seventh angel blew the seventh trumpet and the loud voices of heaven declared, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever" (ESV, pronouns referring to deity capitalized because I like that). Because we are now strangers and aliens inhabiting a kingdom to which we do not rightfully belong, there are aspects of the life of Old Testament Israel which we are not supposed to pursue. The "ceremonial law" consists of those Old Testament laws that have been suspended awaiting the second coming of Christ because they pertain peculiarly to His kingdom, which I think we will see when Christ establishes His Millennial Kingdom on Earth as promised in Revelation 20. I have already covered in the New Testament section above the biblical texts that drive me to view our relationship with the coming kingdom in this way. I think we have been commanded explicitly by Christ to "stand down" in the enforcement of temporal judgment against unbelievers until the coming of Christ.

    This is, for example, why we are permitted to have something like a democratic republic as (we hope) we have in America. There is absolutely no basis in the Old Testament for a government like ours. None. I defy anyone to produce evidence of it. And I guarantee you, my brothers and sisters, there are no polling places awaiting us in the heavenly kingdom. And there will be no religious liberty there, either. The regulations and punishments of the Old Testament will pale in comparison to the perfect standards of Heaven and the infinite torments of Hell. We nevertheless rightfully have our republic and our religious liberty and our comparatively lenient laws because Jesus has not yet restored the kingdom and none of us have the wisdom or power to establish it for Him.

  3. Understood as "our tutor to lead us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24, NASB), I think the Old Testament narratives illustrate quite well why we should prefer religious liberty today over Old-Testament-style theocracy. The governmental system of Old Testament Israel proved to be utterly inept at stopping idolatry (as a citation, I give you the entire Old Testament), but it did manage quite well, as Jesus lamented, to "kill the prophets and stone those sent to [them]" (Luke 13:34, ESV). This is simply because there are no men but Jesus who are sinless enough to wield such power. The Old Testament civil law is good, but "sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment [deceives people] and through it [kills them]. So the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:11-12, ESV).

    This has not only been true for Ancient Israel, but it has also proven true in every last instance in which religious liberty has been set aside in favor of theocracy. There's always some good reason to justify it, but in the end it always ends up powerless to stop the infidels but effective at persecuting the faithful.

    Look no further than Europe, where as early as the eighth and ninth centuries people like Charlemagne were building a Holy Roman Empire, consolidating the spiritual power of Christianity and putting it under the "safe keeping" of the temporal sword of the state. What does Europe look like today? Those churches who were so confident that the government would protect them are the dead state-churches of Europe, mausoleums for and monuments to the hubris and foolishness of man. And what did they get in return for selling their souls? Did they keep out the Muslims? No, Europe is awash with Muslims. And what else happened along the way? The Catholics persecuted the Reformers, the Reformers persecuted the Evangelicals, and eventually our Founding Fathers had to flee Europe for the Americas in order to find liberty from the dungeons and guillotines of other Christians to follow the plain teachings of Jesus Christ.

    Jerusalem killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Rome killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Paris killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. London killed the prophets and stoned those sent to her. Such has been the case everywhere—everywhere without exception—where men determined to give sinful men in human government the power to persecute people for wrong belief.

    It always happens this way because true belief will always trouble sinful men. The courageous believer will always have some critique to offer of his society and his leaders. There will always be some Salome somewhere who lusts for the head of a John the Baptist, simply because Christ will always have a John the Baptist somewhere who is ready to stand up and declare the truth. Therefore, every human government will eventually get mad at the true believers, and every human government empowered to do so will eventually use its power to persecute the true faith.

    Has it occurred to you that God has given us this example in the Old Testament to be our tutor to lead us to Christ? Has it occurred to you that these sad and sinful narratives of Old Testament Israel are designed to make us despair of human government and to long for the coming kingdom of Christ? Persuade Jesus to descend and become Mayor of Farmersville, and then I will gladly see city government discriminate among people for their beliefs. I have no such trust in Joe Helmberger, as nice as man as he is.

Every Christian ought to seek a consistent rationale by which he or she understands the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and then seek to live consistently by its implications. I believe that I am doing so, but I welcome and will consider thoughtfully and prayerfully any critique of my position that is based upon the teachings of the New Testament.

Conclusion

If anyone will answer this essay with an expository biblical case that shows where scripture commands me to run to the government to keep the Muslims out of Farmersville, then I will recant publicly, disavow my previous writings on the subject, and give vocal leadership to the other side of this issue. It is my obligation, after all, to be a servant of Christ rather than a stubborn blowhard who is more interested in saving face than serving Christ. It would take courage to change my position, but far less courage than Christ has instilled in the martyrs down through the ages. Would you have me on the other side? Then the task before you is clear: Show me from the scriptures where I am wrong and you are right.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Why I Will Not…Under ANY Circumstances…Lobby against the Construction of Mosques in Farmersville

At this moment a controversy is brewing over the proposed construction of a Moslem cemetery, mosque, and training center in my town, Farmersville, TX. Many local residents have expressed opposition to the project and have called upon our city government to block the construction of the facility. The relevant meetings have taken place while I am in California for a few days (this whole thing has, I hear, escalated pretty quickly), so I do not have first-hand knowledge of the situation. I understand from others, however, that some of those who have voiced their opposition have been Christians. And perhaps there are many more Christians who aren't sure what position to take.

I send this message out primarily to the members of First Baptist Church. The Planning & Zoning Commission of the City of Farmersville will have to consider the various implications of…of whatever Planning & Zoning Commissions consider. The City Council will then consider their recommendation and will consider how the request lines up with various city ordinances. I have no expertise concerning those things. I have no opinion about them, either. I do, however, have something to say to the members of my church regarding how Jesus expects us to respond to the religious nature of this controversy.

I am your pastor. It is my job—a job given to me both by Christ and by you as a congregation—to advise and shepherd you on spiritual matters. It's is not my job always to say just what you want to hear. Stay far away from the pastor who would never offer a word of correction to you—such a pastor loves himself more than he loves you, and he won't risk rocking his own boat to try to help you grow spiritually. I don't ever want to be that pastor.

And so, I write to explain to you why I think it is important that none of us who are Christians should oppose the construction of mosques in Farmersville. Note carefully what I said. I'm not talking about some trivial debate in which we wind up in different camps on some fine detail of eschatology or wind up differing over who we think is the author of Hebrews or whether we should read the KJV or the ESV. I'm saying that I truly believe that agreement and a united front on this question is important for us to achieve. In the remaining paragraphs, I hope to explain to you why I hold that belief.

It all fits under this main idea: When Christians say that the City of Farmersville should block the construction of an Islamic facility in our town, we're saying a lot more than we think we are saying:

  1. We are saying that we have very little confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote in Romans 1 that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. As you know, I preached from this text just a few weeks ago at our Sesquicentennial Homecoming. I believe that this sentence in the Book of Romans is an important and timely message for us, even before this controversy arose.

    Because I am confident in the power of God in the gospel, I don't believe that I have to supplement its power with the authority of the Farmersville City Council. It's not a very big God who needs Mayor Helmberger to come to His rescue (and I mean no offense to the mayor by saying so).

    Those who want the power of the government to block the construction of Islamic facilities in Farmersville are doing things the Moslem way, not the Christian way. They're doing things the Iranian way, not the American way. Moslems co-opt the apparatus of the state and use it to stack the governmental deck in favor of their faith and against competing faiths with which they disagree and which they perceive as dangerous to their Moslem way of life. Personally, I think the reason why there is no religious liberty in North Africa and the Middle East is because Islam is a weak faith. The personal allegiance of the followers of Islam in those nations is not strong enough to keep them in the fold; therefore, the government must threaten them with death if they convert and must force out all other influences. They have no confidence in their faith. It is too weak to stand a fair hearing in an open marketplace of ideas.

    I think better things of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so should you, if you are a Christian. City ordinances are not the power of God unto salvation. Planning & Zoning recommendations are not the power of God unto salvation. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It has survived for two thousand years without the coercive arm of government to sustain it. C. H. Spurgeon said this about the word of God:

    The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

    So, I beg of you to have and to demonstrate a little more confidence in the gospel. Bring it on, Moslems! Bring it on, Buddhists! Bring it on, atheists! Bring it on, Wiccans! Your schemes and labors have not yet defeated the gospel, and they will not do so today. I have a great confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. The power of God need not be defended; it need only be unleashed.

    Jesus lived in an Israel occupied by the Romans. The Roman Empire was not disposed well toward Christianity. The Roman Empire deliberately promoted Roman mythology in Israel. Some Jews were trying to organize to force the Roman presence out of the Holy Land. Jesus pointedly, deliberately, explicitly rejected that approach. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus said. Jesus placed His confidence in the spiritual work of the gospel to be more powerful than any political movement to throw off the yoke of Roman occupation.

    I believe that Jesus' actions and statements regarding the Roman presence in Israel give us the pattern for our response to situations such as the one that we face today. If I am wrong, then I ask you this question: Which story from the gospels supports your approach? Which teaching of the Apostles or story from the early church instructs us to organize politically to drive competing religions out of town? For my part, I only find that kind of action in the gospels and the Book of Acts being carried out by the heathen. The mob in Nazareth tried to kill Jesus. The mob in Ephesus fomented a riot to try to defeat Paul. The mob in the Jerusalem temple tried to kill Paul. Who is our model, Jesus and the Apostles or the heathen in the New Testament?

  2. We are saying that we don't care about the spiritual lostness of people so long as they aren't too visibly active in our neighborhood. Show me a way to eliminate all mosques everywhere by convincing everyone in the world that Islam is a false religion, and you'll have my support. But what does it mean if I make no protest against the construction of a mosque in Plano but I object to the construction of a mosque in Farmersville? What does it mean if it bothers me not at all that my next-door neighbor is an atheist but I'll harshly object to having an Islamic training center in town?

    If we have constructed a comfortable bubble in Farmersville that isolates us from the world around us and prevents us from being grieved over the fact that people all over the world live next to Islamic training centers, then I say let God do whatever is necessary to tear that bubble down. It is no victory that matters if we achieve the relocation of a Moslem center with just as many adherents who are just as committed as they were before, but at least we don't have to look at them.

    Out of sight, out of mind, is not actually a proverb from the Bible. It is certainly no way for Christians to feel about the presence of false religions in the world.

    But if instead we decide that lost people everywhere are our business, then we can be thankful when God brings those lost people to our doorsteps. We won't have to pay thousands of dollars for airplane tickets to share the gospel with these Moslems, now will we? We just saved a lot of money! We just broadened the opportunity for how many of our local Christians can participate in cross-cultural evangelism!

    That IS our mission, right? Winning these Moslems to Christ is our mission, right? How does it advance that mission for us to make sure that they are farther away from us…that we have to travel farther to get to them?

    It seems to me that the only way it makes sense to keep these people away is if we actually have no intention whatsoever of sharing the gospel with them.

  3. We are telling the government that we think they ought to choose between religions they like and religions they don't like and then use city government to make life impossible for the religions they don't like. And this is a particularly foolish time for us to be articulating that point of view so persuasively. We're less than a month past a Supreme Court decision in which four justices warned us about serious threats to religious liberty that are coming our way. Tell me, please, how do you expect us to argue at the national level with a straight face that we believe in religious liberty for all people while at the local level we're running the Moslems out of town on a rail? I'm spending all week this week studying and collaborating with the top lawyers in the United States in the field of religious liberty. We're trying to figure out how to preserve for our children and grandchildren the freedom to follow Christ. Meanwhile, back home, Christians are going to City Hall seeking to become religious oppressors.

    I tell you, my friends, whatever the city government does against an Islamic training center today, they'll be doing it against Bible-believing, Bible-preaching churches in twenty years. Mark my words. And if you tell the City of Farmersville today that you want them to have and to exercise this sort of power, your objections on that day are going to ring pretty hollow.

    As for me, I think the First Amendment is a pretty good thing. I'm in favor of Religious Liberty for all Americans. That means anywhere I can build a church, the Moslems can build a mosque. Anywhere I can put a Baptist campground (which is pretty much a Christian training center, and we have one on Lake Lavon already), Moslems can build an Islamic training center.

    Otherwise, if I didn't affirm that, I'd be saying, "I want religious liberty for ME, but not for anyone else." Fair-minded judges are not going to be disposed favorably to that self-centered bit of doctrine. Like our spiritual and national forefathers did, we need to take a stand for EVERYONE'S religious liberty. Doing so will tell a watching world that we're not just looking out for our own interests, but that we really do believe in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty for all Americans.

  4. We are telling the world that we do not trust God to take care of us. Some of what drives the opposition is a fear that Moslems will stream out of the training center with dynamite strapped to their chests so they can blow us up. There are elements of that point of view that don't make much sense to me. I mean, if I were putting together a school to train jihadi suicide-bombers, the first towns I'd target would be the towns that screamed at me and kicked me out, not the ones that welcomed me in. Last year, in just a single year, drunk drivers killed more Americans than have died in all the phases of the Global War on Terror combined. But when Farmersville legalized alcohol sales a few years ago there was no organized protest that I recall. This opposition lacks number-sense and lacks logical sense.

    But, then, fears often do.

    Why, though, are we so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of David, the shepherd-boy who stared down Goliath of Gath, so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of Elijah, the prophet who called down fire from Heaven and shamed the prophets of Baal, so fearful? Why are the followers of the God of Peter, the apostle whom an angel released from prison the night before his execution, so fearful?

    Does our fear say something about our faith? Is the something that it says about our faith truly the message we want our community to receive?

Rather than react in fear and hostility, the Christians of Farmersville need to be asking ourselves, "What are the best things I can be doing today to pave the way for me to share the gospel with Moslems in Farmersville?" I cannot imagine any way that protests at City Hall increase our chances of success in that mission. Make no mistake about it: That is our mission. When Jesus gave it to us, it came with a promise: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age." We have a promise from Jesus, and we do not need to be afraid. Let's tell people about that, and let's act in such a way that the message doesn't get lost in the midst of all the bad things we are saying through our actions.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

America: Where We Deliberately Allow Freedoms to Be Abused

People burn American flags. That's despicable.

The Ku Klux Klan holds a meeting. Every time that happens, it makes our society weaker and darker.

William Randolph Hearst was able to use his newspaper empire to plunge our nation into the Spanish-American War. What an abuse of power!

This parade of horribles represents the price we pay for having a First Amendment. We all know that Freedom of Speech is something that people abuse. We all know that Freedom of Assembly is something that people abuse. We all know that Freedom of the Press is something that people abuse. We consistently say, however, that these are but a small price to pay in return for the liberties that these freedoms provide for us.

Strict Scrutiny

Acting consistently with that line of thinking, we have said that restrictions upon these freedoms must survive what the Supreme Court calls "strict scrutiny." Every content-based restriction upon speech and press must pass the strict scrutiny test (subject to the O'Brien test). It is difficult to come up with cases about Freedom of Assembly that do not also involve speech (as defined in Con-Law), but where the government restricts the assembly of adults, that law must survive an examination according to strict scrutiny. Freedom of petition has been challenged so infrequently that I only know of two significant cases involving this right. First Amendment freedoms get the protection of this "strict scrutiny" regime.

What is "strict scrutiny"? When the Supreme Court applies strict scrutiny to a right, it does not mean that people have an absolute, inviolable entitlement to that freedom. Rather, it means that the government may only restrict these rights when (a) the government is trying to advance some "compelling interest" that it has, (b) the government has "narrowly tailored" the law to advance that interest, and (c) the government could not possibly accomplish the important thing that it is trying to do in any other way that would be less burdensome upon First Amendment freedoms.

Under this "strict scrutiny" approach, we deliberately let people do offensive things (burn American flags, for example) that constitute an abuse of free speech rights because we'd rather err on the side of providing too much freedom than on the side of providing too little.

All of this was true for another First Amendment freedom—freedom of the free exercise of one's faith—until a 1990 Supreme Court case entitled Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v Smith (or just Employment Division v Smith or Oregon v Smith).

Alfred Smith and Galen Black used peyote at a Native American ceremony and were subsequently fired for not passing a drug test. They applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. They took the State of Oregon to court, claiming that the state could not deny unemployment benefits to them for something that they did in the furtherance of their shared religious faith.

The Court, caught up in the war on drugs, didn't want to cut off Oregon's drug laws at the knees, so instead they cut off at the knees the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Departing from the pattern established in a much earlier case, Sherbert v Verner, the Supreme Court ruled that Free Exercise cases would no longer enjoy a "strict scrutiny" level of protection.

Why?

With regard to Freedom of Speech, our nation has adopted an attitude along the lines of, "Well, we know that some bad people are going to do offensive things with their freedom of speech—bad things that will harm people and diminish our society—but we're willing to suffer those harms and indignities in order to enjoy the greater good of the Freedom of Speech that our Constitution provides to us."

With regard to Freedom of Religion, our nation is rapidly adopting an attitude along the lines of, "Well, we can't have full religious freedom in this country, because if we give that much freedom, a bad person somewhere will use that freedom of religion to do something offensive, and we have to prevent those few abuses at all costs."

Why the dichotomy? Could it be that an alarmingly growing number of our fellow citizens actually do not support the idea of religious liberty?

RFRAs

Religious conservatives support religious liberty pretty consistently. Religious and irreligious liberals tend to support it when it lines up with one of their favored causes and deny it when it becomes inconvenient to their other "progressive" goals. So, in the 1990s when suppression of religious free exercise was resulting in stronger enforcement of drug laws, liberals (rightly, with the support of religious conservatives) put together the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The purpose of this act was simply to undo the effects of Employment Division v Smith and to restore the "strict scrutiny" standard of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court responded in the 1997 case City of Boerne v Flores by overturning RFRA as it applies to state laws. RFRA was still valid with regard to federal laws, but as a result of Boerne v Flores, states could suppress people's free exercise of their faith without having to survive strict scrutiny.

Congress achieved a partial remedy by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. After Boerne v Flores, however, a full return to strict-scrutiny protection for religious free exercise was only possible if the states themselves should pass state-level RFRAs of their own. RLUIPA passed with unanimous consent (you didn't know Congress could do such a thing, did you?), because at this point, liberals and religious conservatives were still on the same page.

That political situation changed with the 2008 case in New Mexico, Elane Photography v Willock. No longer were RFRAs about drug laws; now they were about homosexuality. Suddenly liberals didn't like RFRAs any more.

New Mexico ruled (and the Supreme Court refused in 2014 to hear an appeal) that although New Mexico's RFRA had successfully reinstated strict scrutiny for cases involving the government, individuals could suppress the religious free exercise of other individuals without having to meet the strict-scrutiny standard.

Then came Burwell v Hobby Lobby, where once again religious liberty came into conflict not with a conservative cause (drug laws) but a liberal one (everybody have sex with everything, please). First Amendment freedoms apply to people, proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations of all stripes. Every corporation has free-speech rights, for example. Before Employment Division v Smith, Every corporation also had free-religious-exercise rights. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that only some closely-held corporations enjoy free-exercise rights.

And the American Left lost their minds, calling for the total repeal of every RFRA everywhere and the utter obliteration of any strict-scrutiny protections for religious liberty. Again, instead of the "some abuses are going to happen, but that's part of the price we pay for freedom" approach, the left adopted toward religious faith the "we must make the laws so strict that nobody anywhere can ever abuse their religious liberty, no matter how much freedom it takes away from the legitimate exercise of religious faith" approach.

Indiana

The Indiana RFRA is written to try to return strict-scrutiny protection to all Americans in their free exercise of their religious faith. It is written (a) to embody all of the religious protections afforded by the Federal RFRA of 1993 while also (b) plugging the holes in RFRA that were exposed by Boerne v Flores and Elane Photography v Willock and (c) explicitly claiming for itself the benefits previously available under the First Amendment and made visible in the Hobby Lobby decision.

A Question for Liberals

First, an answer to the question that you've been asking. Yes, there will be a few people who will use the excuse of religious faith to try to justify discriminatory practices that are religiously insincere. Let me say, also, I think I'd probably bake the cake. In my personal opinion, baking a cake for someone's same-sex ceremony does not amount to endorsement of or participation in their ceremony. For those of my friends who are on the right, I have come to that conclusion as a result of what I think is sound, objective reasoning that I'll be happy to detail upon request. But for the moment, I'm addressing my friends on the left. So, people will do things under a RFRA that do not meet with my conservative approval. Yes, absolutely, far more things will happen that offend your liberal sensitivities.

My question to you is simply to ask why you believe that every single offense motivated by religion must be made illegal and harried out of the land, while flag burnings must be tolerated as part of the price that we pay for having a First Amendment that protects us all? Why not just let a few people follow the dictates of their faiths, even if their doing so offends you, and celebrate the fact that we live in a country that gives people the freedom to do these things?

Together let's embrace what has been the best contribution of liberal thinking to our nation—the idea that we ought to err on the side of the Bill of Rights when majority sensibilities come into conflict with minority convictions. Together let's stop this scary erosion of religious liberty in our nation before it goes too far.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson Apocalypse

Thick, black smoke billows from a burning car in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury has investigated the shooting of Michael Brown and has determined that the evidence does not offer sufficient cause to indict officer Darren Wilson for any crime in the shooting.

We often use the word "apocalypse" to describe events that are chaotic and destructive. Both adjectives certainly describe 2014 in Ferguson. First came the shooting. Then came the riots. Two other young black men have died in the Greater St. Louis are in the meanwhile. The Missouri National Guard had to intervene. The Department of Justice has begun its own investigation. Never has the Ferguson pot settled below a simmer since the day Brown died.

The root meaning of the word "apocalypse" is something along the lines of "unveiling." For my part, the events in Ferguson have served as something of an unveiling. I had hoped that we were further along in racial reconciliation. I had hoped that our nation was prepared to resolve differences more productively. I had thought that police forces were generally more representative of their communities and that tensions were not quite so high as they obviously are at least in some quarters of our country. I disagree with so much of President Obama's politics; I had hoped that the one silver lining of his term of office would be a greater harmony among the races during his sojourn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A different set of facts have been revealed, as has my erstwhile naïveté.

The Apocalypse is the actual Greek title of the final book of the New Testament. John's Apocalypse tells us the prophecy of the end and forms a major portion of the foundation for Christian eschatology. The events in Ferguson tell us more about our anemic eschatology than they do about our poor ethics.

A healthy eschatology will help us to see one another based upon our shared spiritual future rather than our diverse genetic heritages. Our eschatological citizenship makes us a part of a united nation that is far more polyglot than the United Nations. It reaches to every tribe and tongue and people. The barrier is torn down. We are now one. When we speak and act as though we are not one, we out ourselves as believers who do not actually believe, at least as far as our eschatological destiny is concerned.

A healthy eschatology will give us a hunger for justice, both in the sense of micro-justice (in this particular case of Officer Darren Wilson versus Michael Brown, was this shooting justified?) and in the sense of macro-justice (does Ferguson generally offer a just society of day-in-and-day-out equal treatment under the law for all of its citizens without regard to race?) Both, after all, appear in The Apocalypse: both the settling of scores with vast people-groups on a national scale and the appearance of each individual human before God's final tribunal. Being an eschatologically minded Christian will cause you to care about both.

A healthy eschatology will denude us of our incredulity when human beings act destructively toward creation, toward others, or toward even their own selves. This surprises you? Have you not read The Apocalypse? Why, again, did you think people were above such things? Good eschatology should never rob us of our compassion over the anguish human destructiveness brings, but it is difficult to read and believe the apocalypse while retaining a Pollyannish notion of the essential goodness and tranquility of humankind.

A healthy eschatology will remind us that spiritual forces are at work in the world, both of the evil and the good varieties. Pundits on news channels are not giving us the whole story, and they will never be able perfectly to analyze or predict what human beings will do. There are variables in the equation that are invisible to the analysis of the world. The people and the police of Ferguson, Missouri, are pawns in a cosmic battle.

A healthy eschatology will evidence itself in such seasons as a deep yearning for something beyond. I've written about Rich Mullins before. He penned these lyrics that are undeniably Christian and deeply applicable to this situation. The song is deeply, passionately eschatological. I think it exemplifies the way we believers ought to feel at moments like this.

I believe there is a place
Where people live in perfect peace
Where there is food on every plate
Where work is rewarded and rest is sweet

Where the color of your skin
Won't get you in or keep you out
Where justice reigns and truth finally wins
Its hard fought war against fear and doubt

And everyone I know wants to go there, too
But when I ask them how to do it they seem so confused
Do I turn to the left?
Do I turn to the right?
When I turn to the world they gave me this advice

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

I believe there'll come a time
Lord, I pray it's not too far off
There'll be no poverty or crime
There'll be no greed and we will learn how to love

And children will be safe in their homes
And there'll be no violence out on the streets
The old will not be left alone
And the strong will learn how to care for the weak

And everyone I know hopes it comes real soon
But when I ask 'em where I'd find it they seem so confused
Do I find it in the day?
Do I find it in the night?
When I finally ask the world they give me this advice

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

And oh, I hear the voice of a million dreams
Then I wake in the world that I'm partly made of
And the world that is partly of my own making
And oh, I hear the song of a heart set free
That will not be kept down
By the fury and sound
Of a world that is wasting away but keeps saying

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head

And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were only misty notions
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of dreams He's the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him

Friday, November 7, 2014

Simple Observations about the ERLC National Conference.

I did not attend the ERLC National Conference on the Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage. In money, in time away from work, and in time away from family, the cost exceeded my budget for October. Although I did not occupy a seat in Nashville, I did participate in the conference as an Internet event, both by consuming the live feed and by engaging in online conversation with other participants. I offer a few observations about the event itself, the Internet event surrounding the event, and the national landscape it addressed.

  1. The conference threaded the needle. The requirements of scripture tightly constrain Christians. Just as He did, Jesus expects us to treat people with love and respect. Just as He did, Jesus expects us to call sin sin, not with the intent to drive sinners away, but with the intent to call them away from their sin to something better.

    From what I saw, the only major substantive objection toward the conference voiced by those who opposed it was that, whatever other niceties it offered, it continued to treat sex between two men or between two women as a sin. Although it included gay men and lesbian women on the conference platform, they were all people who consider sex between two men or between to women to be a sin (therefore, they're not "really" gay or lesbian, some alleged). Although the conference decried parental behavior that contributes to gay teen homelessness, it didn't budge on the sin question. Although the conference called for civility and love toward all people, the conference's detractors questioned whether there can be such a thing as civility and love without abandoning the idea that sex between men or between women is a sin.

    Christianity cannot embrace same-sex marriage without contradicting the words of Jesus. The ERLC National Conference represents Christians moving as far as we can on these questions without moving beyond the Savior into something else. That the conference managed to go that far without going any further is a strong evaluation in its favor, I think.

  2. The distance between us and the culture is gargantuan. Gender-related questions are only the tip of the iceberg. In a Twitter discussion I had with a number of the conference's detractors, we started out with the question of whether gay or lesbian sex is a sin. We moved pretty quickly to other questions and discovered that A LOT of ethical questions separated us when it came to sex. I think pornography is bad; my interlocutors did not. I think monogamy is good; they were only willing to concede that there might be some forms of non-monogamy that are bad. Of course, this is not that surprising, since there are undeniable connections between homosexuality and non-monogamy.

    In the immediate future, Christians are going to face increasing pressure from society (and from some people who call themselves Christians) to cave in on "the sin question" with regard to gay and lesbian sex, ostensibly with the promise that you'll fit in with society better if you compromise in just this one way. Don't fall for it. Even if you sell out on that question, you'll still be miles and miles apart from where that movement really wants to take you. You'll be no closer to the culture; you'll just be further away from Christ.

  3. We see church differently. That's nowhere more evident than in the article "Why HRC Attended [the] Southern Baptist Convention's National Conference." Consider the following quote, which constitutes a significant portion of this brief article. After acknowledging that often "coming out" leads people out of one church and into another, the article considers the other reality:

    But often the experience is so demoralizing that they leave religion altogether and lose the community that comes with it. It's this community that they once relied on in times of need - the first to respond to a natural disaster, to the loss of a loved one, to a factory shutdown. LGBT people of faith deserve to be part of these communities - helping tend to an ailing neighbor or, when the time comes, having that fellow churchgoer deliver a hot casserole in a time of loss.

    While not everyone holds a particular faith tradition or practices a religion, for those of us who seek it out for moral guidance, for comfort and for community, we have a responsibility to help that community be the best it can. That responsibility doesn't stop if you're LGBT.

    The HRC's rationale makes perfect sense if the church exists to connect people in a "community." Indeed, in every aspect of my life that DOES actually exist for that purpose (civic clubs, workplace, neighborhood, etc.), I'm in favor of acceptance and inclusion. I've attended school trips and swimming parties with my gay and lesbian friends. I've spent long hours working with gay colleagues on projects in the secular jobs I've held down through the years, including a respected gay friend whom our family business employed, promoted, and highly valued. I want to be in community with my gay and lesbian friends.

    We don't see "community" differently; we see "church" differently.

    Church may create community, but the purpose of the church is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. The "community" created at church is a community of disciples who covenant together to bring their lives into submission under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

    Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sex is for marriage alone. The New Testament ideal for sexuality and marriage is consistent and clear. A real church has no "moral guidance" to offer that contradicts the teachings of Jesus Christ. The only "comfort" to be found in a real church is the comfort offered by Jesus. Real churches offer community first with Jesus Christ—and on His terms, not ours—which then leads to community with others who have made the same commitment.

    If this kind of "moral guidance, comfort, and community" is not "the best" a church can be, then churches ought to pass out of existence and give way to something else. But if the teachings of Jesus Christ represent the best plan for humanity, then churches ought to offer the moral guidance, comfort, and community of the gospel without apology and without compromise to the whims of decadent culture.

I wish I could've attended the conference. I look forward to future ERLC offerings. If this conference is a bellwether of things to come, I'm very optimistic. But no resolution of the differences between Christian sexual ethics and pagan sexual ethics presented itself in the early Roman culture that gave birth to the church, and we're not going to find one in this epoch, either.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why Southern Baptists, Above All Others, Must Stand Ready to Aid Liberia

A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I'm not talking about the epidemiological tragedy, which will continue to unfold over the next several months. I'm talking about the inevitable state of these two nations after the virus has run its course and the epidemic comes to an end.

Between now and then, the United Nations projects that 10,000 new cases of Ebola will emerge weekly, mostly in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and that, at this phase of the epidemic, those numbers will increase exponentially. At present the fatality rate in this epidemic has been around 70%, so this nation of around four million people (far fewer than the population of the DFW Metroplex) will witness its disproportionate share of 7,000 Ebola deaths each week in coming weeks, with the possibility that those numbers will grow like a Texas brushfire. If, as some have estimated, 1.5 million people die from this disease, as many as one out of eight people in Liberia may be dead before this crisis ends.

How many of those dead will be parents of newly orphaned children? How many will be breadwinners for a dependent wife? Since epidemics spread as they do—not by randomly selecting people from the populace as a war might do, but through close contact—how many villages will lose their chiefs and virtually all of their leadership? Will the Liberian government fall? Will another bloody civil war ensue as the vacuum of population and power invites competitive claimants?

I'll say it again: A massive humanitarian tragedy is developing in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And as it develops, a lot of people will ask another question:

How is any of this my problem?

It's at least partially our problem because of the special relationship that Southern Baptists have with Liberia. I use the phrase "special relationship" deliberately, mimicking the way that those words have come to describe the relationship between the United States of America and Great Britain.

Has it struck you as odd that "Liberia" is not an African name? The names of so many other countries in Africa—Burkina Faso, Namibia, Lesotho, Guinea—arise etymologically out of native languages. "Liberia" is a Latin-derived name, roughly meaning "The land of the free" (sound familiar?). The capital city of Liberia is "Monroevia." Hmmm…looks a lot like the last name of an American President, doesn't it? The capital city of Sierra Leone (which is a Portuguese phrase meaning "Lion Mountain") is "Freetown." Now that right there, ladies and gentlemen, is a language we call "English."

The nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia were founded by people who were trying to solve the conflict over slavery by repopulating slaves to Africa. Liberia was founded by the United States of America. A great many Southern Baptists in the years leading up to the founding of the SBC and down through the U.S. Civil War favored this solution. They were too Christian to support slavery but too racist to support living together with African slaves as peers. So, "send them back home" was their plan (the facts notwithstanding that South Carolina, not West Africa, had been the lifelong "home" for these men, women, and children).

Southern Baptists were in on this up to our necks. One of the most prominent founders of Liberia was also one of the missionaries that Baptists North and South supported together before our schism: Lott Carey. Carey was a Virginia slave who purchased his and his family's freedom in order to move to Liberia as a politician-missionary. John Day, who served the SBC's Foreign Mission Board after the split, was a signatory on the Liberian Declaration of Independence and a Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court.

Ongoing conflict and segregation emerged between African-American-Africans and native-born Liberians. For nearly two hundred years, our experiment has unfolded on the Liberian coast, mostly with tragic results. Ebola is so successful there because little else—government, medical infrastructure—has been successful at all. To the degree that such things can be true two centuries later, the Liberian mess is one of America's making, with particular responsibility falling upon Southern Baptists.

So, when the epidemiological tides turn (we're not at all qualified to combat viruses), I believe that Southern Baptists will be doing the honorable thing if we step up to the plate in a sacrificial and jaw-dropping, head-turning way to address the plight of Liberia's survivors.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Stop Calling It "Reformed" If It Wouldn't Have Permitted the Reformation

Google informed me today that Wade Burleson had linked to a post of mine. I don't know what's wrong with Google—Wade hasn't linked to a post of mine in years. Google was picking up an archive page on Wade's site somehow. But I followed the link and, curious, I looked to see what Wade had been blogging about lately.

The years have not afforded me too many opportunities to blog in agreement with Wade Burleson, and by golly, when a chance like that rolls around, I'm going to take it!

Wade posted back on September 17 about James MacDonald's (and it is MacDonald, not McDonald—apparently he's comfortable with everyone's thinking he's a lowland Scot) view of the authority of elders. Here's perhaps the most relevant snippet of Wade's prose:

[MacDonald's] views [on the authority of elders] can be clearly seen in the prefacing words Pastor James McDonald used when the majority of elders publicly disciplined the three minority elders in September 2013 (you may watch the actual video if you desire):

  • "I just want to remind you that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church."
  • "We believe that (this) authority of the church is invested in the elders."
  • "When the elders speak collectively in agreement, they speak for God to our church."
  • "That's about as serious as serious gets."
  • "These elders are now going to speak on behalf of God to our entire church."

The elders then proceeded to explain why the minority caucus of elders in their midst were 'Satanic to the core,' were 'false messengers,' and everyone was to avoid them lest "you incur great detriment to your own soul."

I have not researched the situation with James MacDonald at all. I do not have the time to perform this research. I'm weighing in not at all on whether MacDonald said this, whether this is what his church believes and teaches, or whether his views have been represented accurately by Wade.

I do, however, know that there are people out there whose theology of the authority of elders is precisely this. Wade's post offers me an occasion to air my thoughts on the matter.

First, I want to affirm that I, too, believe that God has entrusted spiritual authority to the local church. I also believe that some authority is entrusted to the elders of a local church. The mistake MacDonald (as he is represented in Wade's blog) makes is to conflate the two. All of the authority of the local church is not vested in the elders of the church. Jesus grants sweeping authority to the gathered church in Matthew 18. Elders are mentioned nowhere in that passage. Rather, quite expressly, the authorization of Christ is given to gathered believers—to ANY assembled believers who are operating in the name of Christ. The authority of elders must be balanced against the authority of the gathered congregation if we would be Christian and biblical.

Second, I'd like to point out an important historical aspect of this point of doctrine: If the elders of the churches speak with all of the authority of God that He has entrusted to the church, then virtually every phase of the Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against the authority of God. I know that there are people who believe precisely that, and I want to be charitable in acknowledging that schism is never pretty and is never God's best plan. Nevertheless, I do question whether a theory of spiritual authority that would have prevented the Reformation can rightly be associated with the label "Reformed ecclesiology."