We are now more than halfway through the worst year in my living memory. Born in 1971, I must qualify this just a tad. I have lived through an extraordinarily prosperous and comfortable few decades of world history. Imagine how bad it would be if I lived in Gaul when Attila the Hun invaded, or in Florence when over half the population died of the bubonic plague. I’d be a lot unhappier as a Jew in Spain in 1391 or as a Christian in first-century Rome facing possible beheading or crucifixion.
But things are bad. Most of America is living under some kind of house arrest. For the vast majority of us who need social interaction, the year has been torture. And unfortunately our main interactions with the world beyond our homes have been unsatisfying Zoom meetings full of static and freezing screens, or getting updates from social media, rife with trolling from the Twitter gutter snakes all the way up to the editors at New York Times and Washington Post.
Worst of all for Christians, our churches have unraveled. Most are observing lockdowns and telling Christians to watch sermons online (a poor suggestion for those of us with spotty internet). The churches that are meeting have become even more apolitical, it seems, retreating further from politics at at time when political movements are inflicting intimate damage on the lives of Christians.
The publication of this article from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Commission tastes like the icing on 2020’s moldy cake. This organization is known as the ERLC and it is supposed to represent Southern Baptists’ religious-liberty concerns in the public square, particularly vis-à-vis government. It has become increasingly a valve moving in the wrong direction; it serves far more to allow political interests in the unbelieving world to exert their influence on the shifting beliefs of Southern Baptists. The money trail is rather obvious, seeing as the ERLC was approved for up to $1 million in small business loans from the federal government. To call this a conflict of interest would be a huge understatement. In a case such as California, where the state has made it illegal to gather for church or sing as part of worship, it would be impossible for the ERLC to be loyal to the believers’ side against government encroachment. The ERLC depends on secular taxpayer money to stay afloat.
The ERLC staff’s editorial includes this long block-quote from Luke Goodrich: “[Christians] must discern when to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), and when to obey the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1). A government that targets religious gatherings is infringing religious freedom. A government that imposes temporary limits on all gatherings in a pandemic is trying to protect public health. Churches should also strive for peace with everyone (Heb. 12:14; Rom. 12:18). They should avoid using inflamed rhetoric or a posture of defiance to provoke a conflict with government officials who are attempting to navigate a pandemic. Instead, they should work with government officials, if possible, to find solutions that will enable them to continue ministering while still protecting public health. Thankfully, most churches have already done so, making major adjustments to their ministries to love their neighbors well—such as moving services online, following social distancing recommendations, and finding creative ways to care for the most vulnerable. Loving our neighbors, in turn, strengthens the case for religious freedom, as it shows that religion is essential to a flourishing society.”
If this statement sounds convincing to you, you’ve already lost a good part of the war against evil around us. Strengthen up and try to discern here. Of course we see Bible quotations but remember that the devil quotes scripture when he tempts Jesus. Remember that the Southern Baptist Convention only recently condemned the use of the “curse of Ham” passage from Genesis to justify the African slave trade. Anybody can quote the Bible. But few can discern the will of God. It’s a tough job.
As a quick response to Goodrich above, notice how he presents his view as a balancing act between Romans 13 “obey the authorities” and Acts 5 “follow God, not men.” The balance is an illusion. The entire argument rejects Acts 5 and falsely elevates Romans 13 to mean far more than the scripture does. Goodrich’s calculation amounts to telling Christians to avoid a frightening confrontation with state authorities by following the state’s orders and not gathering to worship God even though the Bible tells us that God wants us to gather in praise and worship of Jesus Christ. Goodrich presents a legal standard drawn from constitutional jurisprudence — “is the state targeting religion?” — as if the Bible allows Christians to reject parts of the Bible to go along with a civil law that clashes unintentionally with something Christians are told to do. As far as I can see, Jesus Christ never tells us to do anything of the kind. He tells us not to worry about tomorrow, to find joy in being persecuted, to let the Holy Spirit guide us when we are brought before authorities, and to be willing to give up our lives in order to save our souls.
Christians seem desperate to justify their willingness to follow government orders that contradict God’s order. The reaction to these unconstitutional limits on worship echoes what I had to deal with, during the debates about LGBT ideology. When LGBT ideology was the issue at hand, churches twisted like pretzels to justify state bans against ex-gay counseling, mostly because they didn’t want the hassle of fighting with government authorities who had succumbed to LGBT activists and their fake studies about sexual orientation, the impossibility of changing, and the supposed suicidal results of trying to go from same-sex to opposite-sex activity. The Bible is 100% clear that God created men and women to be heterosexual, and that deviation from that model, like other transgressions, can be forgiven and healed. The open-and-shut case didn’t matter. Church authorities went to astounding lengths to articulate a position on homosexuality that would supposedly affirm the scriptural position while satisfying the state’s movement against ex-gay counseling. They propped up experts like Mark Yarhouse and testimonial-wielding speakers like Rosaria Butterfield to present the mirage of an easy answer: You can obey Scripture and not be sued by the state! It’s easy! Just pick a few easy phrases and pretend the people pointing out your error don’t exist, or are crazy, or are being hateful. It’s as simple as that!
The underlying factor in the ex-gay counseling debate and now in the lockdown debate is fear. Christians are afraid. They are afraid of finding themselves in conflict at their jobs. They are afraid of being viewed negatively by people in their community. They are afraid of the state treating them as transgressors, lawbreakers, or undesirables. They don’t want to be lonely. They don’t want to be jobless. They don’t want to be hated. They don’t want to be poor. Those things scare them.
Get over it! Nowhere in the Bible do the scriptures applaud basic, garden-variety fear. “Be courageous and strong,” says Joshua 1:9. “Be anxious for nothing,” says Paul in Philippians 4:6. “He who would save his life shall lose it, and whoever would lose his life for Me shall find it,” says Jesus Christ in Matthew 16:25.
Cowards go to Hell. Yes, to Hell. You are asked to be willing to die for Jesus Christ. There are no exceptions for coronaviruses, or a really great house you just took a 20-year-mortgage on, or your gay friend, or your trans niece, or a really scary mob threatening to burn down your church, or a book deal, or a governor who seems really scary, or a sleazy lying Elmer Gantry who’s taken over your pulpit, or even a spouse who tells you to protect your family’s reputation.
Do what God says. Why is that so hard? Why do Christians get this wrong again and again (exactly as the Bible tells us is supposed to happen?)
Let me throw out a few simple explanations to mull over. Just to see if there’s any way we can boost Christians and get them to stand up for things.
1. Christians behave like cowards because they don’t really believe God’s promises.
When I lost my job at a Southern Baptist seminary last year, I spent some weeks despairing over how many people went along with Adam Greenway’s treatment of me and didn’t say anything. I don’t regret doing what I knew was the right thing, which got me fired. But I expected some people to come out and support me, especially since I knew that if enough people did, Adam Greenway couldn’t fire or expel them all. I thought the students really liked me. I thought colleagues really cared about me. I thought relatives would respond with concern about me as someone they loved. I thought conservatives would kick into gear to combat an obvious case of cancel culture stifling a Christian voice even within a Protestant denomination. I thought the newspaper writers and bloggers would take an interest in defending someone who stood up for God’s Word.
Overwhelmingly they didn’t. They were scared. One person said she had to unfriend me on social media and withdraw from my theater company because she didn’t want to be a “a part of the drama.” Students just wanted to graduate and their parents told them not to be seen with me, a troublemaker. Friends in the Latino outreach community said they had to protect their jobs.
They were all clinging to the comfortable “lives” they had made for themselves and couldn’t bear the thought of losing things they valued. I was a small price to pay, a piece of collateral damage, so that their hopes and dreams could come true. But God promises that if you do the right thing, He will provide your needs. He promises that in the Bible. He also says (as quoted above) that if you give up your life, you will find eternal life, the greatest reward.
I think people can go to church every day of the week and not believe God’s promise. No matter how much they pray, tithe, sing, and study the Bible, they just don’t believe that God will deliver for them, so they cling to what little they have. They let other people be sacrificed, thinking, “just please don’t come for me.”
If Christians don’t believe God’s promise, then they shrink quickly before a threatening force such as an authoritarian secular government. The end result is, again, fear.
2. They believe what they want to believe, which is usually pleasant lies rather than the painful truth.
In Psalm 146, the Bible tells us “put not your faith in princes.” We should put our faith in one king, King Jesus Christ. But we should not trust that someone is right or truthful, simply because the person has some position of authority.
Many people believe the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission because it is a well-funded organization that can spend lots of money on books, conferences, social media programming, and videos. Many people believe whichever religious leader can get on TV. Many people believe whichever religious leader is famous or has a lot of books out.
Psalm 146 tells us not to be fooled by such things. “Princes” come in many shapes and sizes. They have one thing in common. They live lavishly, which is why they often need money and are easily bought off. The more famous or rich someone is, the more that person has to lose, and the less likely it is that he or she will act contrary to the agenda of those who control their purse strings. Sometimes you have people who really have the guts to stand up for the truth, even if it means losing their business. But those people are exceedingly rare. Most often, someone who has a huge Twitter following and a lot of prestige will resort to extraordinary means in order not to lose what he or she has.
Isaiah 30:10 tells us that if you use the term “prophet” loosely, you’re going to get a prophet who responds to people’s demands to “speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions!” Jeremiah 17 reminds us that the human heart is deceitful in all its ways. If we have to choose between two messages, one that guarantees us comfort and safety, or another that guarantees us hardship and uncertainty, our heart will steer us to the more pleasant message.
Who wants to embattle the governor of California? If you have to choose between a corner preacher telling you the governor’s law is an affront to God, or the ERLC telling you it’s biblical to be obedient and do as you’re told, you will likely be more receptive to the latter.
But it’s your fear that’s listening, and your fear that’s speaking from your heart.
3. They have been sold on a fake gospel that demonizes troublemakers and glorifies being a goody-two-shoes.
Jesus Christ and most of his disciples were executed. They made so much trouble for their society, including their own religious communities, that they were put to death.
If you’re put to death because you raped and murdered people, that’s a different kind of execution from the executions we’re talking about with people like Stephen, Paul, Peter, or Bartholomew. Obviously you shouldn’t go around breaking laws in order to be a jerk or harm other people needlessly; if you read Romans 13 closely this is laid out clearly. God places authorities in order that they be a force for good, not for evil. When authorities become a force for evil, you have to take into account the full counsel of God.
Whom does the Bible present as heroes? People who stayed quiet and let God become disrespected or His people violated or His word disgraced? Was Abraham a troublemaker because he raised an army to save the Sodomites, including his nephew? Was Moses a troublemaker for ordering people to kill those who worshipped the golden calf? Was Josiah a troublemaker for taking on the priests and tearing down idols? Was John the Baptist a troublemaker for confronting Herodias about her immorality? Were Caleb and Joshua troublemakers for returning from their spy mission in Numbers 13 and pressing the Israelites to war, against the advice of the majority?
Christians sometimes conflate good and bad forms of troublemaking. Rioters who set fire to a federal courthouse because they hate Donald Trump are, I will admit, bad. Baptists who call out their leaders’ hypocrisy and risk their jobs to encourage civil disobedience against Gavin Newsom are, if they are under biblical authority, good.
Far too many Christians grow up being taught to be a goody-two-shoes–a kind of squeamish, gentle, and unassuming prude–and thinking this is the same as being good. No. That’s not how any of this works. Very often the goody-two-shoes who does everything the teacher says will follow the teacher’s command to violate the gospel of Jesus Christ when the time comes. The goody-two-shoes is the one who reports neighbors to the secret police and tells someone suffering, “I don’t want to get in the middle of that” because intervention might mean confronting a friend.
The result, again, is the triumph of fear. Nietzsche touched upon this but his irreligious rage barred him from articulating it well. Too many Christians have been taught that when they are acting out of fear they are being godly, and when they see others acting defiantly they are witnessing ungodliness. Fear is not godly. Obedience to God is godly, but fear is not. Defiance for selfish reasons is ungodly. Defiance in order to honor God is godly.
4. They get self-righteous and nitpick with anyone who’s asking for their allegiance.
Twelve years after being born again, I am at a very difficult point with people who call themselves Christian. When someone comes out and says, “I’m Christian,” my defenses go up. I need to hear more before I go any further with them. I’ve heard so many people say that and turn out to be real scoundrels.
But I have to ask God to help me with this attitude, because it doesn’t help. I am guilty of it too. But I try to get over it. Often Christians discount so many different people based on this or that theological position, when a battle comes such as a battle against the state shutting down churches, Christians can’t raise an army. They can raise little pockets of complaint but as a group they are powerless.
5. They’re selfish.
In addition to the generous interpretations I’ve listed above, there are a lot of Christians that don’t want to risk anything to help other Christians. If the harm can be localized and Christians can find some way of being spared the pain of conflict, many, probably most will let other Christians hang out to dry.
I’ve seen this over and over again. I watched while the ChurchToo feminists got on the radio and won followers by going after Paige Patterson over sex abuse allegations, then said nothing when the man who replaced Paige Patterson purged all the senior Black and Latino professors Patterson had hired. I watched while lots of Christians of color fought loud and hard against racism but when Christians of color were mercilessly hounded by LGBT activists they said nothing.
Most people are selfish and Christians are people. I have to remind myself of all the selfish things I’ve done and stay prayerful. But it isn’t loving to let other people suffer and say nothing. It isn’t loving to let evil win on the earth God created. No matter how many scriptures people try to quote or experts they cite, the fact is, God wants us to fight against evil. That’s what we need to do, if we really believe in God.