Baptists have historically championed the principles of religious liberty. Our Baptist fore-bearers—men like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus and John Leland—spoke directly to the governing authorities, appealing for religious liberty.
Years later, their courageous efforts influenced Thomas Jefferson to respond in a letter with the famous expression: “separation of church and state.” Jefferson’s expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In recent years that historic commitment to freedom has come under assault. In North Carolina, a U.S. Marine posted a motivational passage from Isaiah 54:17 near her office computer. The passage stated: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
According to a military judge, the quotation “could be interpreted as combative… (and) could easily be seen as contrary to good order and discipline.” This Marine was later court-martialed, given a bad-conduct discharge, and denied military benefits, simply for posting a Bible verse.
In Atlanta, an evangelical Christian fire chief was suspended for writing and self-publishing a book professing his Christian beliefs, among them that homosexual behavior is wrong. He expressed shock and devastation, stating: “To actually lose my childhood-dream-come-true profession—where all of my expectations have been greatly exceeded—because of my faith is staggering…The very faith that led me to pursue my career has been used to take it from me.”
In Houston, subpoenas were issued ordering five Protestant pastors to turn over any sermons mentioning homosexuality, gender identity—and/or the mayor. Outraged by this city’s over-reaching, it is estimated that hundreds of clergy flooded the mayor’s office with their sermons. Shortly after the subpoenas were ordered, Russell Moore retorted on Twitter, “If I were a pastor in Houston this Sunday, I’d preach Matthew 14:1-12, and then send my sermon notes to City Hall, on a silver platter.”
There are numerous lesser-known cases as well. In her new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and It’s Enemies, Mary Eberstadt comprises a list of those who suffered because of their religious convictions.
In 2015, the high school football coach suspended in Washington State for kneeling to say a prayer at the end of a game; the American military chaplains who claim to have been reassigned on account of their faithfulness to traditional Christianity; the small business owners working in the wedding industry at a time when vindictiveness in the name of the sexual revolution is apparently boundless; the Christian staffer at a day-care center who would not address a six-year-old boy as a girl and was fired on account of it; the teacher in New Jersey fired for giving a curious student a Bible; and related cases in which acting on religious convictions has been punished, at times vehemently. Eberstadt writes, “These are visible people living an invisible story.”
Americans are taking note, as Eberstadt writes, “People of faith are being publicly condemned and demonized by aggressive activists in an effort to drive them out of the public square and cripple the institutions they serve.”
This is happening simply for holding opposing views on crucial issues like birth control, abortion, and same-sex marriage. As a result, Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others, are being driven together because of today’s cultural climate. Although we disagree theologically, nearly all religious faiths are being assaulted and see religious liberty threatened.
But this is not the first time people of different faiths have banded together for a worthy cause. It’s helpful to recall almost all major religions worked together for the heroic fights against Jim Crow. Without Catholic priests and nuns and laity, Baptist and other Protestant preachers, as well as large numbers of congregants, there would have been no civil rights movement—a truth to which Rosa Parks attributes.
This same “banding together” is taking place in newfound efforts for religious liberty. Succinctly put, religious liberty means that men and women are free to believe, and free to live out those beliefs.
Andrew Walker is exactly right, stating, “A person’s relationship with God is the most important relationship a person can have. It’s so important that no law or state should be able to interfere with a person’s relationship to God or his or her ability to live out his or her faith.”
Religious liberty is important because we believe that every person has been created by God and is accountable to Him. Thus, every person should have the freedom to worship according to his or her conscience. When people are free to worship, this sends a blatant reminder that there is One who rules and governs over all affairs, and our allegiance belongs to Him ultimately, not to the state.
Some opponents of religious liberty characterize “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. They warn that religious liberty is really a disguise for anti-gay and anti-discrimination, particularly towards “women’s health.” These advocates for civil liberty, ironically, diminish freedom at the expense of liberty itself.
There’s no doubt that our society has become increasing secularized and hostile. Those who are on “the wrong side of history” are noticeably out of step in today’s culture. There are people in our communities who see us as dangerous and oppressive because we believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and because we share our ultra-sound photos on Facebook and refuse to label our unborn daughter as a “fetus.”
Like so many on the receiving end of intolerance, some believe that Christianity is collapsing all around them. But what they’re witnessing is nominal Christianity collapsing, and—if you have eyes to see—leaving something in its place.
Russell Moore states, “As nominal Christianity disappears, what remains is a vibrant, gospel-focused, cross-preaching, evangelizing book-of-Acts Christianity. It’s this authentic Christian faith that looks so strange, ridiculous, and even repugnant in American culture.”
Every Christian who cares about religious liberty needs to ask the important question: What should I do? There’s a temptation to follow in the footsteps of men like Harry Emerson Fosdick. He believed reimagining and denying major doctrines that are central to the faith in order to keep up with modern times.
But if you study church history, you quickly realize what Russell Moore observes: “People who don’t want the Bible, don’t want half of the Bible either.” There’s a temptation to preach a generic gospel, knowing that we will be welcomed by virtually everyone in our community. But this almost-gospel doesn’t save and leads people on the broad road to hell. Instead, in the Spirit of the Apostles, let’s strive to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
A government should welcome religious diversity and allow various truth claims to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Yet, opponents of religious liberty seek to squelch all forms of speech they deem “hate-filled”—including passages of Scripture that expose their seared conscience. When we find ourselves up against those who often misunderstand us, may we remember to courageously proclaim: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And, in order for us to continue having these Gospel conversations in the first place, let’s remember to pray for religious liberty.
The Supreme Court could make history this summer with a ruling regarding same-sex marriage. Some—like Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune—even predict a 9-0 decision from the Justices affirming the ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. If this ruling happens, current polls show that the majority of Americans will celebrate marriage equality and those who hold to a more old-fashioned or traditional understanding of marriage will be seen as those who are “on the wrong side of history.”
To be quite honest, history has shown that the church has been wrong on a number of important issues. For centuries, the prominent interpretation regarding the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20) had been viewed as a command given only to the Apostles, exempting all Christians who came afterwards. But in the late 18th century, God raised up William Carey to correct the church’s thinking on the Great Commission. Carey, a Baptist missionary to India, taught himself Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Being a skilled linguist and writer, Carey translated portions of the Bible into many languages and founded the Baptist Missionary Society. He was convinced it was the church’s responsibility to take the Gospel to the nations. Carey’s obedience, no doubt, influenced Baptist luminaries like Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon, and countless others who followed in their footsteps. So yes, the church had been wrong concerning the interpretation of the Great Commission and, by God’s grace, had changed.
And what about the issue of slavery? It’s true that Christians—especially in the South—adamantly defended slavery and conveniently looked the other way while insidious brutality was directed on those who were “owned” by another, even using the Bible to justify their (wrong) cause. Unlike slavery, the church has always been convinced that homosexual behavior is sinful and there are no biblical texts that would suggest otherwise. There are, however, plenty of passages that describe the freeing of slaves (Philemon 15-16) and condemn capturing another human being and selling him into slavery (1 Tim 1:8-10). To make it sound like the Word of God is plainly for slavery in the same way it is plainly against homosexuality is a twisting of the Scriptures, reminiscent of the Serpent’s tactics in the first Garden (Gen 3).
But what about the issue of marriage? Could it be—as history has shown—that the church is once again “on the wrong side of history?” What if the majority of Americans are right concerning marriage equality? Many have asked why Jesus remained silent on this issue if homosexuality is so heinous. Jesus spoke against adultery, idolatry, theft, and even murder—just to name a few—but not one word is recorded of Him addressing the topic of homosexuality. Jesus never addressed this subject. Or did he?
The Pharisees—known as the religious leaders of their day—sought opportunities to trap Jesus by asking him questions regarding divorce (Matt 19:3, 7). Jesus answered their questions but not in the way that you and I would expect. Jesus began by asking them, “Have you not read…?” (Matt 19:4), referring to the Old Testament book of Genesis. Of course they had read Genesis, but Jesus’ response is both brilliant and beautiful as He goes to the Scriptures for answers.
The verse Jesus quotes is from Genesis 2:24, a passage so familiar to us that many have missed the amazing statement Jesus makes concerning marriage and the authorship of Scripture. In the original text these words are simply part of the narration and not attributed to any particular speaker. But when Jesus quotes this exact passage in the New Testament saying, “[H]e who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said…the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:4-5), Jesus is attributing God as the speaker, not simply as an unknown narrator. Do you see the significance? The implication could not be clearer: for Jesus, what Scripture says, God says. This is precisely why Jesus can battle the Evil One in the wilderness saying, “It is written” (Matt 4:4, 7, 10), and why he can claim—without hesitation—that the Creator of the universe wrote Genesis. For Jesus, Scripture is powerful and authoritative because it is nothing less than the Word of God. It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus attributes God alone as the architect, designer, and creator of all things, including marriage. In these verses, Jesus clearly defines marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman and thus eliminates the possibility of homosexuality, polygamy, bestiality, and every other sexual sin that is outside the covenant of marriage.
Think of the arrogance one possesses to re-define what God has created. God is the One who has created marriage as a one-flesh union between a man and a woman in a life-long, covenantal relationship. Yes, the State has the task of keeping orderly records of marital unions, but it has no right to re-define the rules for marriage. Only God has this prerogative and His Word must be the starting point for any discussion regarding marriage.
This is precisely Paul’s argument when he describes marriage as a “profound mystery” pointing to “Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). From the beginning, Paul asserts, God’s plan has always been for Jesus Christ and His church. That is, Jesus would call and redeem a people for Himself and would “give them eternal life” (John 10:28). As others have pointed out, if it were possible to see God’s blue prints for the creation of the universe, the first thing we’d notice is not Adam in the Garden but instead, Jesus in the Gospels. This is God’s plan before the foundation of the world. God creates a universe, bringing together Adam and Eve in the covenant of marriage in order to picture God’s redemptive plan of Jesus Christ and His church. This mystery had been hidden throughout the ages. Now do you see the significance of marriage? Our marriages matter because they point beyond us to a future reality—Jesus Christ and His Church. In other words, marriage is a picture of the Gospel. This picture is fully displayed when a man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony. Any other picture—two men, two women, one man and five women—distorts the Gospel.
Public opinion has undergone a generational shift on the issue of same-sex marriage. Christians who believe in the sufficiency and authority of the Scriptures will continue to be labeled as those “on the wrong side of history.” Individually, we’ve been wrong about many things, and admittedly, our local congregations and entire denominations have been wrong as well. But to suggest—as those arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality must do—that the whole church has always been wrong is an audacious claim.
To oppose same-sex marriage is likely to bring persecution. Rejoice and be glad (Matt 5:12). Following Jesus—no matter the cost—will ensure that we are indeed “on the right side of history.”
A few months ago I read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. You might be familiar with Hillenbrand’s other book, Seabiscuit, which was later turned into a movie.
In her latest book, Hillenbrand writes about the life of Louie Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants who was born in New York in 1917 and later moved to California. Louis’ family was poor, and in order to eat, Louie often stole the things he needed, especially if it were edible. Housewives who stepped from their kitchens would return to find that their suppers had disappeared. When he discovered the cooling tables at the local bakery, Louie began snatching pies and eating them until he was full. Almost all of his childhood stories ended with “…and then I ran like mad.”
In fact, Louie ran so fast that his older brother Pete talked him into running track when he started junior high. Louie ran incredibly well in junior high and high school, that he received a track scholarship at the University of Southern California. In college, Louie’s coach was sure that he would be the first person to ever break the 4:00 mile. At the age of 19, Louie tried out and won a spot on the 1936 Olympic team that would be held in Berlin. But on the boat ride to Berlin, Louie had never seen so much food in all of his life. Whatever Louie wanted to eat, they would bring it to him. Nine days later, when the boat made its way to land, Louie had gained 12 pounds! Louie knew that he had no chance of winning the 5,000-meter race. Nevertheless, he decided to try as hard as he could. During his last lap, Louie gave it all that he had. The crowd noticed Louie passing all of these runners, and they sprang to their feet in applause. Although Louie didn’t have the fasted time, he did catch the eye of Adolf Hitler, who sent for Louie to shake his hand.
Louie went back home and was clocked running the 1-mile in 4:08. It was the fastest NCAA mile in history. By this time, everyone was convinced that he could win a gold medal in the 1940 Olympics scheduled to take place in Tokyo, Japan, but before the Olympics, World War II started, causing the Olympic games to be cancelled.
Congress enacted a draft bill, but those who enlisted prior to being drafted could choose their branch of service. In early 1941, Louie joined the Army Air Corps. To his surprise, the Army was going to make him a bombardier. Louie and his crew flew on a number of missions, until his plane was shot and damaged so badly, receiving more than 594 holes. On another mission, the engines failed, and the crew crashed into the ocean, killing everyone on board except Louie and two other men.
Louie saw one of the life rafts bobbing on the water and snatched it and climbed aboard. All three men climbed in and lived on this raft for days. Louie—who wasn’t a Christian—would often pray, “God, if you’ll send water for me to drink, and if you spare my life, I’ll serve you for the rest of my life.” Soon, it began raining and all of the men lifted their heads back and drank and stored up enough water to live on. As the sharks swarmed around their raft, they caught one with their bare hands and ate it raw.
After 47 days adrift on the ocean, the men spotted land. If anyone had survived longer, they hadn’t lived to tell about it. But before they reached land, however, a Japanese boat captured them.
The Japanese quickly learned that they had caught the famous Olympian, Louie Zamperini. Although they barely recognized him, having lost half of his body weight and only weighing 80 pounds. The Japanese forced Louie to stand up and dance, pelting him with fistfuls of gravel. One particular guard—who they nicknamed The Bird—looked for Louie everyday. The Bird later said, “Hundreds of prisoners, Louie Zamperini number 1 prisoner.” Almost everyday, The Bird would find Louie and torture him—kicking, beating, rupturing his eardrums, shattering his teeth—sometimes leaving him unconscious. Louie could do nothing, not even shield himself from the blows, which would provoke greater blows. Louie would emerge dazed and bleeding. He was more and more convinced that The Bird wouldn’t stop until he was dead. Louie spent hours in prayer, begging God to spare his life.
Louie stayed a POW for over a year. Then suddenly, The Bird left the camp, the violence stopped, and the war was over.
Louie came back to America and within a few weeks, he met a young lady named Cynthia. Louie wasn’t the first guy to go after Cynthia—who was already dating two other guys at the same time—but Louie won her heart, and after dating for only two weeks, Louie convinced Cynthia to marry him.
Cynthia knew little about Louie’s time as a POW. Drifting off beside Cynthia each night, Louie saw The Bird lurking in his dreams. These dreams became nightmares and caused Louie to turn to alcohol. Soon, Louie decided that he would save enough money to return to Japan and do to these guards what they had done to him. One night in his dream, Louie captured The Bird by the throat, only to wake up and discover that he was squeezing Cynthia’s neck. By now, Cynthia had enough and packed a suitcase and told Louie that she was going to divorce him. In God’s providence, as she was walking out of her apartment complex, she ran into her next door neighbors who convinced her to come and hear a 31-year-old traveling evangelist with a North Carolina accent by the name of Billy Graham.
Cynthia went that evening and heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. Her life was changed that night, and she went back home to see Louie and told him she wasn’t going to divorce him. The news filled Louie with relief, and Cynthia convinced Louie to come with her the next night to hear Billy Graham. Louie went, and during the invitation, Louie was so angry that he got up to leave, but Billy Graham pleaded, “At this time, no one can leave. You can leave anytime during the singing. You can leave anytime during my preaching. But you cannot leave during the invitation.” As Louie stood there, he began to remember the promises that he’d made to God. Promises like, “God, if you just give me enough water to drink, I’ll serve you with the rest of my life. God, if you spare my life from all of these beatings, I’ll serve you with the rest of my life.” Louie realized that he needed Jesus Christ to forgive him of his sins, and that night, he gave his life to Christ.
Louie went home and immediately there was a profound change in his life. He poured out all of his alcohol. In the morning, he woke feeling cleansed and—for the first time in five years—The Bird hadn’t come into his dreams. In fact, The Bird would never come again. A year later, Louie began a new life as a Christian speaker. The work gave him enough money to return to Japan. While there, Louie found all of his captures—except The Bird, who everyone believed to be dead—and forgave them.
The 1998 Winter Olympic Games had been awarded to Japan, and Louie had been asked to run the Olympic torch past the very place that he had stayed years before as a POW. Before he arrived in Japan, word reached Louie that in fact, The Bird was still alive and Louie made arrangements for the two of them to meet in the lobby of the hotel. The day of their meeting, The Bird changed his mind and refused to meet with Louie, but sent a carrier in his place. Louie wrote a note to The Bird and gave it to his carrier. He never knew if The Bird actually read the note, but nevertheless, Louie wrote:
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with vengeance.
Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.
The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”
As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison…I asked then about you, and was told that you probably committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.
Zamperini’s story of survival and resilience will grab most readers’ attention, but it’s his testimony of redemption that makes Unbroken perhaps the most exciting and encouraging books published about World War II. As a Christian, you’ll not have to worry about sharing this book with unbelievers, almost guaranteeing to provoke fascinating conversations. Unbroken illustrates the depths of human depravity and exposes our desperate need for a Savior. For if even Louis Zamperini can be broken, how much more should we realize our brokenness and our need for Jesus, who alone can make us whole.
*Note, this fascinating book has recently been produced into a movie. Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken premiers in theatres on Christmas Day, 2014.
Perhaps you overheard the conversation. The gentleman sitting across from you, whom you’ve never met, is telling his co-worker the list of reasons why he’s leaving his church in order to express his faith in a more “genuine” way.
Soon, you discover the root issue beneath his argument: He wants fellowship without commitment and he wants to learn without being taught by anyone. Sound familiar?
After all, the bombardment of recent books—Life After Church, Quitting Church, and They Like Jesus but Not the Church—have taught us that church is archaic. The revolution to come—or already underway—will see Christians abandon the institutional church in favor of expressions that are more individualistic. But are these “experts” spot-on in predicting the future or, perhaps, are their views of the local church too low?
These are some of the reasons that led me to read Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. You may recognize these authors from their first book, Why We’re Not Emergent, a resource that won Christianity Today’s 2009 Book Award in the Church/Pastoral Leadership category. Together, these two authors team-up and provide a wonderful resource for churches—especially those that we’ve grown to love.
This book is written for four kinds of people: the committed, the disgruntled, the waffling, and the disconnected. For the committed, DeYoung and Kluck aim to spur them on to keep working hard and ministering steadily in their local church, providing thoughtful responses to disillusioned former churchgoers.
To the other three groups—the disgruntled, the waffling, and the disconnected—the authors provide four reasons that people are disillusioned with the church: the missiological (the church is failing, impotent, and it’s time for something completely different); the personal (the church is filled with hypocrites, antigay, and unloving “Christians” who have an image problem that desperately needs to be fixed); the historical (the church, as we know it in the West, has been corrupted by paganism and not saturated in the Scriptures); the theological (the organizational, institutional, hierarchical, programmatic, weekly services view of the church, it is said, are completely foreign to the Bible). Throughout the book, DeYoung and Kluck respond to these reasons and (faulty) rationales, equipping “the committed” with an apologetical understanding for the church.
Perhaps the most significant parts in the book pertain to how the church is central to all God is doing in and throughout the world, through—and not apart from, His local church. The authors rightly assert that a Christian is expected to participate with a local body of believers, and we should not expect a person who deliberately remains outside the visible church to be a true follower of Christ.
So, if you’re eager to engage in these discussions, pick up a copy of Why We Love the Church. I’m confident you’ll benefit, walking away with a greater love for Christ and His church.