God is using current events in the United States of America to reveal and topple our idols. Some believe political ‘power’ and ‘control,’ supposedly summarized in the constitutional rights we enjoy as United States citizens, are such idols. But this take is extremely shortsighted.
For one thing, under the US Constitution, freedom of religion isn’t just for Christians, it’s for everybody. So it’s a strange argument that equates the loss of religious freedom with the loss of Christian power or control in particular. But let’s set aside this observation for a moment, and consider a handful of other non-starters in this discussion before we return to it.
People are quick to scoff at Christians for supposedly being so focused on defending, “mUh rIghTs!” while caring little for preserving Christian witness during this time of global pandemic. What these mockers miss is that ‘standing up for rights’ doesn’t automatically equate to standing up for one’s own rights. For example, I was discouraged to see reports of churches in Nevada being treated differently from casinos. Churches were allowed to operate with groups of fewer than fifty persons. Casinos were able to operate at fifty percent capacity. But my rights were never infringed upon; my state governor never treated churches differently, except perhaps in declaring them “essential” from the get-go.
To make matters worse, the Supreme Court seemed to agree with the state of Nevada even with such an obvious example of unequal weights and measures. That is concerning to me, and I feel sorry for those churches and pastors. (More than that, I feel sorry for those government leaders.) Although one can certainly see the slippery slope of one state leading others in the erosion of religious liberty, it still doesn’t follow that concern for the rights of other Christians is primarily, or even partially, about concern for one’s own rights.
The discussion above raises another issue we need to take a look at. The idea that state governors can decide what is “essential” or not is a problem in and of itself. In one sense, claiming some services are “essential” while churches are not might very well mean that churches are being treated differently. Of course, one could argue that the numbers of people and types of activities involved are different in each case, but this seems to be a different argument about supposed safety and not an argument regarding whether or not a church should be considered “essential.”
Even the safety argument falls flat. Many have pointed out that abortuaries and Planned Parenthood were never shut down. These “services” were considered “essential” by the same governors who claimed they were closing churches to save lives. And while we’re on the topic, we should talk about how it’s not necessary that churches be treated differently before we begin to see red flags related to the erosion of religious liberty.
People in China or North Korea probably aren’t comforted by the fact that it’s not only Christians who are persecuted; it’s everybody. The press is in every bit as much trouble as the church. What I’m really saying is that our freedoms are so inextricably connected as to warrant worry when even one comes under attack. The way the Constitution is ordered bears this out. The freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, and petition are protected right alongside the freedom of religion in the First Amendment.
So, we have a lot of things to consider. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing inherently wrong with appealing to or defending one’s rights anyway. Heaven knows we hear a lot about supposed ‘micro aggressions’ of every sort in this spoiled country. An infringement upon inalienable rights is more noteworthy than feigned offenses at feeling slighted which, frankly, aren’t noteworthy at all. (And, lest you feel slighted, please note I did not assume your sensitivities, or anyone else’s, for that matter, are all mistaken.)
The infringement of inalienable rights is important regardless of whether the injustice is great or small. All such injustices matter to God, and should matter to us, particularly when the civil government may be breaking the law of the land, violating their own standard, and going against the Constitution, to implement them. More importantly, all suffering and persecution, every trial, and every difficulty that Christians face is meaningful to God, who has numbered every hair on our heads.
Some fear the aforementioned truth will lead Christians to look for persecution under every rock. Perhaps some will, but it doesn’t follow that they aren’t actually being persecuted in some instances. We should be less concerned about motives and more focused on the objective facts of the case, an approach with which our postmodern society really struggles.
Regardless of context, one can always pick out some instance of persecution and say that another instance of persecution in some other place, or at some other time, is far worse. Sometimes it’s good to point that out to those being persecuted. Doing so could help them with a sense of perspective. At other times, though, pointing that out simply serves to add to their persecution; an abusive tactic.
We can differ as to whether or not this or that thing that happened qualifies as persecution. We can differ as to whether or not a particular response is proportional to the level of persecution one may actually have experienced. What we cannot disagree about, however, is that it’s wrong to mock and deride other believers for facing various trials and difficulties.
I’m hesitant – very hesitant – to say that churches or pastors in the United States have faced persecution because of their Christian witness this past year. And yet, I’m ready to say that many churches and pastors have faced, at times, extreme difficulties, trials, and temptations that have not been common to other churches and pastors in the United States for the past hundred years or so. What worries me is not so much the (often heated) exchanges we’ve had as a result, but the fact that some evangelicals don’t merely disagree with other Christians who approach this topic differently, but actually go out of their way to mock them. That’s not a Christian response, as helpfully pointed out by Dan Darling:
The Bible does not merely promise comfort for those who suffer. The Bible also promises suffering for those with comfort. Suffering is inevitable for Christians. So is persecution. Any other conclusion stems from a misreading of the text of Scripture.
For example, the apostle Paul lists all sorts of suffering as characteristic of the life of the believer when he asks in Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” He is not merely arguing that, in the case such things happen, we should take comfort in the love of Christ. Of course it’s true that we should take comfort in the love of Christ. But we cannot overlook that these various sufferings – even death – have characterized the lives of those to whom Paul writes, as in verse 36, “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”
In John 15:18, Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” He isn’t just saying that in the case you’re hated, you should remember that it hated him first. No, Jesus continues in verse 19, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” That Jesus chose you out of the world is sufficient for garnering the world’s hatred.
As the apostle Paul explains in Philippians 1:29, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” And Peter claims Christians are called to suffer:
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23)
What’s more, in these places where the Bible speaks of the suffering of Jesus Christ, or the apostle Paul, or other believers, it’s never to discourage other believers because they don’t suffer as much. And it’s certainly not to mock them, either. Rather, it’s to tell believers to expect persecution and suffering as part and parcel of the Christian life. Thus in 2 Timothy 3:11 Paul mentions, “my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.” He doesn’t boast that his persecutions and sufferings are better than that of other believers, but goes on to affirm in 12-13, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Perhaps you’ve seen plenty of Chicken Littles running about screaming about the sky falling while it remains perfectly intact. But for every Chicken Little, there’s at least one ostrich buried in the sand. Baptists, and Southern Baptists in particular, are far better off skeptically listening to the occasional Chicken Little than hurrying to stick their heads in a hole. Historically, it’s been the case that Baptists, and Southern Baptists in particular, have a concern for the subject of church and state relations and religious freedom. The Bible is clear that Christ is Lord, not only of the church, but of the state as well. Moreover, the infringement of religious rights entails the infringement of religious rights for other non-Christian religious groups in principle. So this discussion is much less about “mUh rIghTs” and much more a matter of the public good. Religious freedom is for everyone.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission exists for this very reason. The ERLC recognizes that the attacks on religious liberty don’t come all at once like turning on a light switch. Military won’t suddenly one day walk into our places of worship and imprison our pastors while congregants wail. Rather, persecution, initially, will take the form of rhetorical maneuvers, incremental legislative decisions, and seemingly justifiable limitations on religious liberty.
We saw one such justification for limiting religious liberty several years ago when a town in New Jersey reasoned that a Muslim mosque would need extra parking spaces to accommodate all the cars that would result from people attending the mosque after work on Fridays, since, presumably, family members would be driving multiple vehicles. In response to the city’s concerns, the Muslim community insisted that they could hold multiple services or encourage carpooling. Their application to build was still denied. Were these Muslims being persecuted for their faith?
We could make any number of arguments that these Muslims weren’t really experiencing persecution. After all, some would say it’s just common sense that churches and places of business should follow zoning laws, building codes, and other government regulations. Should a special exception exist for mosques? Again, it’s not as though the local government was saying these Muslims couldn’t meet, or couldn’t be Muslims, or otherwise practice their faith. Couldn’t they just live stream their worship of Allah, or meet in more limited gatherings, or in houses, or find a place to meet outside? Churches have been told to do all of these during this pandemic.
But let’s not forget that Southern Baptists didn’t respond with any of the aforementioned questions when the mosque wasn’t able to be built. Instead, the Southern Baptist Convention provided legal help to the Muslim community. Not only did the ERLC get involved, the International Missions Board thought it worth their while to support the right of those who wanted to worship Allah as well.
At the time, Russell Moore argued, “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody. And brothers and sisters, when you have a government that says, ‘We can decide whether or not a house of worship can be constructed, based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship,’ then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build.” Moore’s worry was, “…a government that has the power to outlaw people from assembling together and saying what they believe…”
National Review’s Paul Crookston, commenting on the case, wrote:
Freedom to assemble has been, in most places and times, the exclusive right of preferred religious groups. America’s enshrinement of religious freedom is as exceptional as it is valuable. Unfortunately, many on the left snidely put “religious liberty” into scare quotes, arguing that it’s time to put florists out of business in order to assert government power to legislate progressive morality. These strident opponents of robust religious freedom would receive a political victory if Southern Baptists descended into infighting about whether the First Amendment applies to Muslims…
Lesser to Greater
Some readers will make the mistake of thinking this observation is supposed to be some sort of critique of the ERLC. It’s not. Rather, I mean to make an argument from the lesser to the greater. Some Southern Baptists objected to the IMB involving themselves in a religious liberty case. Others objected to the ERLC working on a religious liberty case that involved the construction of an American mosque in particular. My argument doesn’t work for those people.
I only mean to say here that if you’re not willing to mock the mosque idea, then you shouldn’t be complaining when Christians in California are a wee bit upset (by which I mean, very upset) that their governor has said they can’t meet, or at any rate cannot meet without taking extreme measures that are far more restrictive than adding a few extra parking spots, like with the mosque in New Jersey. And this isn’t just the case with Christians in California, either. The very existence of the ERLC testifies to the reality of the civil government sometimes sticking its nose where its nose doesn’t belong, even in the United States.
No, we aren’t like the persecuted church in China or North Korea. But that doesn’t rule out the possibility of persecution, whether actual or eventual. Moreover, it seems we are much more likely to give up corporate worship over something like the possibility that we get sick and the slim probability that we also die, whereas the persecuted church appears willing to meet even when it means fines, imprisonment, or even certain death.
As of right now, Christians don’t seem too concerned that the camel’s nose keeps coming in under the tent during this pandemic. They seem too preoccupied with the gnat of whatever runs counter to popular opinion to care. But that’s a fairly good way of putting us all in danger of swallowing the camel whole.