To both danger and beauty, then, friends: are we paying attention?
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
–Tennyson, “Morte d’Arthur”
Are you paying attention?
The evangelical movement—and the religious community more generally—seems largely asleep in the face of its peril. In recent days in America, two evangelical organizations have signaled their desire to add religious “protections” to SOGI laws; for the full story, see the clear-eyed report by WORLD magazine’s excellent journalist J. C. Derrick. The “Fairness for All” (FFA) measure pioneered by the National Association of Evangelicals pays respect to existing SOGI laws while purportedly adding a measure of protection for religious groups. Here is what one high-ranking official said about FFA: “As Christian higher educators, we are increasingly persuaded that the most viable political strategy is for comprehensive religious freedom protections to be combined with explicit support for basic human rights for members of the LGBT community.”
I for one find cold comfort in these “protections.” All too often, SOGI laws sound like a gentle rain but end up a hurricane for religious people. This is not opinion; this is cold, hard fact. Jack Phillips has lost a major portion of his business; the Klein family had all their savings seized by the state of Oregon; Baronelle Stutzman has suffered tremendously in Washington state. This harvest of trouble comes from one source: SOGI laws, which supposedly grant legal protection to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These ordinances have not resulted in righting wrongs, alas; they have instead allowed the targeting and persecution of those who decide, based on conscience and religious liberty, that they cannot perform services in support of homosexual wedding ceremonies.
Every American person is protected under the law, and thankfully so. But take note: SOGI laws are not actually being used to redress grievances in numerous instances. SOGI laws are being used to drop the hammer on citizens who dissent from neo-pagan sexual orthodoxy. Evangelical organizations face an uphill cultural climb today, this is true. But our hope for retaining religious liberty must not come from a peace treaty –generated by good intentions or not – with the very movement that is punishing religious people for believing in a biblical sexual ethic. Our hope in societal terms comes from avoiding these poisonous regulations, from opposing them, and from finding our rights and abilities – such as they are – in the U. S. Constitution.
It is remarkable to observe the church’s silence or quiescence on these matters in our time. The evangelical movement seems not to know of the danger it faces in America. We do not wage war against flesh and blood, no, but we cannot miss that the LGBT lobby and its many willing partners seek to target and shut down Christians and Christian institutions who stand against the new sexual orthodoxy. If we are paying attention, we are seeing all sorts of quiet policing taking place on social-media platforms. Vimeo, Twitter, Patreon, Facebook: these and other organizations believe they are advancing justice by silencing those who dissent from mainstream orthodoxy. Free speech is challenged today, but not only at the more identifiable public level (the government). Free speech (and free thought) is increasingly imperiled at the private level, where it is especially difficult to spot and oppose. All this, by the way, is seen as righting the wrongs of the 2016 election, making America a more just society, and bringing gender equity to our body politic. This is, in other words, a system of righteousness, secular righteousness, and it comes by a new law that is ironically shorn of religion but championed with religious fervor.
Let us think for a moment of the broader conflict here. Part of Satan’s strategy is to use any means he can find to shut down the church. Satan’s major target is not the intellectual dark web. Satan’s major target is the body of believers who love and promote the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected for depraved sinners like us (1 Peter 5:8). In every country on the earth, among every people group there is, Satan wants to do everything he can to destroy access to the gospel, belief in the gospel, and the very people who are claimed by the gospel. He is a waging a massive, multi-front war across every inch of the globe to deny God his rightful glory and to shred the blood-bought people of God. He does this not only by tempting Christians to sin, but by creating public and private structures that limit access to the truth. This world is not a neutral place. It is God’s world, but Satan wants it for his own. So, he works with great cleverness, great subtlety, and great daring to do everything he possibly can to oppose the work of God and the people of God.
We see an example of how to respond to Satan’s stratagems in the apostle Paul’s capture by the Romans (see Acts 22-26). I doubt your average evangelical has heard a solitary syllable about the significance of Paul’s self-defense for matters of conscience and public faith, but it matters greatly for our conversation. Satan will use any government, any body of leadership, he can to shut down the proclamation of the gospel. When he succeeds in his aims, and the state (or any group or leader) acts to quiet the church, what should Christians do? Paul shows us. When the Romans catch him in their net, Paul does not go quietly. He does not say, “Well, the life of the church matters, but the affairs of state don’t rate. I guess it’s prison for me, and then death.” No, Paul appeals to his Roman citizenship (beginning in Acts 22:25). He lives to fight another day. He refuses to accept his easy persecution and silencing. Even in prison, he continues the fight, as Acts shows, and he redeems the extra time his maneuvers buy by writing several epistles of the New Testament. Think about that: if Paul hadn’t made his citizenship appeal, and hadn’t fought his unjust persecution, we would not have the New Testament we have.
Christians in the twenty-first century should learn from Paul. We should not work with the Roman government to hammer out a way we can bow to Caesar, but also bow to Christ. We should follow Christ only. We should not craft language – even with the best of motives – that helps limit our freedoms. We should not consent to speaking one syllable less about virtuous sexual ethics than the Bible demands. We should stand against our silencing, our quieting, our marginalizing. Alongside Paul, we should remember John the Baptist in moments like these. John did not negotiate an arrangement with Herod such that he could speak 50% of the truth about holy sexuality. John spoke the truth. John put his life on the line for the truth. John paid the ultimate price for doing so, for speaking the whole counsel about godly sexuality (Matthew 14:1-12). Are we ready to do the same?
Do not misunderstand me. If persecution and even martyrdom should become the norm for the church, we will not give up. Our identity as the church does not depend on our circumstances. We are ready, come what may. But our willingness—even our readiness—to suffer and even die for the Word of God does not call for some sort of pacifistic, limp-wristed, shoulder-shrugging embrace of our demise. We should be like Paul. We should make whatever appeal to Caesar we can. We should fight the muzzling of the people of God. We should seek to preserve and even extend religious liberty, for in American terms, it has allowed the unleashing of Christian witness and missionary enterprise in historically unprecedented terms.
What a world this is. It is a world of such travail and needless pain. The one institution that brings light to the world, the church of Jesus Christ, is hated. Yet as believers we do not lose heart or hope. What grace, common and special, is ours. We live in evil times, and yet we welcome newborn children. We eat feasts with our loved ones. We create new programs and spoons and sculptures and songs. We cry at acts of selfless heroism and give thanks for faithful believers who went before us. We dance, and we shoot three-pointers, and we hit imaginary home runs over imaginary Green Monsters. We read adventure stories and find ourselves hopelessly stirred by the courage of mice and elves. We develop inside jokes and share hilarious memes and call friends when they are down, discouraged yet again. We walk in forests that are brimming with life, and filled with the songs of happy little birds. We attend a wedding at our church, and watch as a couple flushed with joy enters into lifelong covenant. We go to a hospital room of a suffering saint, and find in that room faith that transcends the ordinary. We sit with our grandfather or grandmother, and listen as they eschew complaining in order to speak with wonder of the goodness of God shed abroad across nine decades. We watch a mother tenderly care for her child, a child who needs round-the-clock care due to birth defects, and we see love of which the world is not worthy. We observe as a young father – the one who leaves work early to get home to play with the kids – sweeps his little girl into his arms, her face instantly flooded with happiness. We see single men and women fighting daily for purity, testifying to a sexualized order every minute of their existence that there is greater pleasure in Christ than this world affords.
We celebrate in this supernatural season the birth of a tiny Jewish boy who would suffer and die not only for his father and mother, but for us.
What a life. What a call. We are hunted by a foe we have never glimpsed, and yet we are awash in miracles that we barely acknowledge. We are always sorrowing in a cursed realm, but we are never—ever—without hope. We are a city set on a hill, the light of the world, the salt of the earth. We repent daily, and fight for our neighbor relentlessly, even when we must oppose the ideas and schemes of our neighbor as an act of love. We are dying, our bodies breaking down this very second, but we are already glorified in and through Christ, and we could not leave the hands of God—the safe and impossibly strong hands of God—if we tried.
To both danger and beauty, then, friends: are we paying attention?
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