“When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” Then [Jesus] said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.” (Luke 21:8–13, NIV 1984).
“In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you.” (John 16:2–4).
My Musings – As a general rule, I avoid getting embroiled in political controversies. Little is gained and relationships can be irreparably damaged. The funny thing about general rules though, is that there are usually exceptions. So with a bit of fear and trepidation, here goes one of my exceptions.
On December 15, 1791 the first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights) to the U.S. Constitution were ratified. The first amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For most of the history of this clause the focus seemed to be on the freedom of religion aspects of this clause. That began to change in earnest with the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, that banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools. Since that time the scales, which I suspect the Constitutional Convention intended to be relatively balanced, have tilted more and more on the side of “no law respecting an establishment of religion” than it has on the side of not “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The result has been an increasing erosion of religious liberty.
Now for the controversial part. From 1791 until 1962, and for the most part since then, the United States has been blessed by a measure of religious freedom that is relatively uncharacteristic in Church history, and that has eluded much of the rest of the globe during this same time period. We have been a privileged nation in this respect. But sometimes privilege carries a degree of danger with it. In this case, the danger is not so much that scales become unbalanced, but that the Church in the U.S. mistakes this clause in the first amendment as being on par with religious canon. It is not.
Many were upset when shelter in place was declared precluding churches from gathering together. It was okay to grieve the temporary loss of in-person fellowship that this entailed, but we should not be surprised by it. And we should not be surprised as these restrictions begin to be lifted if church gatherings carry greater restrictions for longer periods than other “non-essential” gatherings. It is entirely possible that this will happen solely due to the concerns over public health and safety and that there is no underlying conspiracy to further erode religious liberty in America. But even if there is no sinister subplot being devised by our public officials, they can still unknowingly be pawns of Satan’s evil designs against the Bride of Christ.
While this may concern us, we should not be surprised. Because Jesus “told [us] this, so that when the time comes [we] will remember that [He] warned [us].” And let’s also remember that “this will result in [us] being witnesses to them.” It may still be a long time “before all this” becomes the “beginning of birth pains” that Jesus predicted would precede His return. But whether it is or not, the question we the Church should be asking ourselves is this — what kind of witnesses do we want to be? Those who are self-absorbed with protecting their own religious freedom (win the battle) or those who are selflessly committed to helping set the captives free (win the war)?
The Church has before it what is perhaps the greatest evangelistic opportunity since The Great Awakening. People are hurting. People are scared. People are angry. People are losing hope. Do we want to squander this opportunity by being more concerned about the infringement of our religious freedom (inward focus) than we are about the eternal destination of countless souls (outward focus)? Let’s be the Church that Christ commissioned us to be. Let’s be heralds of the only true and lasting hope there is. Beacons of light in world growing increasingly darker.
My Advice – In Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, strategist James Carville coined the slogan “it’s the economy, stupid!” There was no way Clinton was going to win the election against the incumbent George H.W. Bush, on foreign policy. Bush’s credentials were impeccable and he had just orchestrated a stunning military victory over Iraq. Winning not just the war but significant approval ratings. But he was becoming vulnerable due to a weakening economy. Whenever, Clinton’s campaign got side-tracked on other issues they would re-focus the campaign with the rallying cry of “it’s the economy, stupid!” As we all know, Bill Clinton won that election more than President Bush lost it. The Church can learn a lesson from this. In carrying out the Great Commission, our focus should be less on the first amendment, and more on “it’s the Gospel, stupid!”
The time will come when we lose all religious freedom. “They will lay hands on [us] and persecute [us]. They will deliver [us] to prisons, and [we] will be brought before [the authorities], and all on account of [His] name.” My brothers and sisters in Christ. In that day we may find in our eyes the same fear that would take the heart of men and women without the hope of Christ. And if a day could come when the courage of the Church fails, when it forsakes the Gospel and breaks all that binds it to the Great Commission, let it not be this day. An hour of demons and shattered freedoms when the gates of hell could prevail and the Church Age come crashing down, let it not be this day! This day we fight for the Gospel! By the faith we hold dear on this decaying earth, I bid you stand with Christ! (A shameless adaptation of Aragorn’s speech before the black gate in “The Return of the King).
Let this be our witness. “But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” (Luke 21:14–19, NIV 1984).