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:
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?
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.
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.
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.