Challenge at the church door

Published 9:13 am Friday, January 20, 2017

Article by Mark Stern, an LCMS member and lawyer in Chicago and has served as outside counsel the LCMS Central Illinois District.

“Reprinted with permission of The Lutheran Witness.” 

Edited by Marcia Hopp, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Danville

Martyrdom is a reality for Christians in many parts of the world. In the Middle East, Christians are beheaded or burned out of their homes. In parts of Africa, brothers and sisters in Christ are being kidnapped and enslaved.

What about us? We, too, should expect to suffer, as 2 Timothy 3:12 warns, for bearing witness to Christ. And while giving our life is one way to do that, we Christians in the U.S. don’t expect to die for our faith. We face attacks that are cultural and increasingly legal against our ability to be faithful in the public square. Should Christians submit? Do we resist the Government? Organize politically? Are we prepared to lose friends, job opportunities and social status for the Gospel’s sake?

The Saxon Lutherans, who founded the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), left their homeland 176 years ago for the sake of religious freedom. Some died on the journey. The government of Saxony had taken over the Church and actually made it a department of the state. This was totally contrary to the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms doctrine, found in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession and elsewhere. Christ’s right-hand kingdom is spiritual – the Church, and His left-hand kingdom is secular – civil government. Both are needed. Neither one must interfere with the proper role of the other. The Church does not hold political authority and the state must not attempt to control the Church.

America was different. The First Amendment protects free exercise of religion. We have been blessed with a constitutional republic that respected and valued the role of faith in civil society. Religion and the Christian tradition generally guided many aspects of public life. From the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, to the abolitionists seeking to end slavery, to the civil rights movement – led by a Baptist minister named after Martin Luther – religious people were at the forefront of efforts to improve society.

Do Americans still value religious freedom and respect Christianity? Martin Luther wrote that “God’s Word and grace is a passing rain shower which does not return where it once was.” Are we entering a time of drought?

News reports, nationwide, tell of Christians forced to choose between operating their businesses and living their faith. They are singled out or legally intimidated, merely because they expressed their beliefs and opinions. Government only takes such actions if people approve or at least are silent. The familiar saying attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” applies to Christians who fail to speak and act. If we limit our faith to one hour on Sunday morning, soon even that hour will be threatened.

Challenges won’t stop at the church door. Last year, officials in Houston, Texas, issued subpoenas to five pastors for their sermons and other statements on human sexuality. When Illinois passed a law creating same-sex marriage, its “religious freedom” clause specifically excluded church schools from protection. Adoption and social service agencies have already been made to choose between their religious beliefs and their ability to operate. It’s only a matter of time before our Lutheran schools and universities get sued! 

Must Christians follow unjust laws? Christ’s example in Mark 12 was to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the thing are God’s. Martin Luther wrote that we are to be subject to the government as long as it does not bind our conscience, even if it abuses us tyrannically. Where the government invades the spiritual domain and constrains our conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we look to Acts 5:29 as a marker, the passage in which we hear of Peter and the apostles who refused to stop preaching the Gospel, obeying God rather than men. 

How then do we respond to attacks on our freedom of conscience? We need first of all to know what (and whom) we believe and why, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We can do nothing without Christ, but all things through Him. We ought to be all the more immersed in God’s Word and Sacrament. These are the means by which He will preserve His Church. These are the means by which He will call, gather, enlighten, sanctify and keep us. 

Gentleness and respect matter. We should avoid unnecessary fights and speak in positive terms. We are for the right of the unborn child to life. We are for the right of every child to have a mother and a father, if at all possible. Most importantly, Christ is for us; He gave His life for all of us sinners and for our salvation.

It is not just a Lutheran thing. Recently, the LCMS has taken many positive steps to work with people of different confessions such as Romans Catholics and various Protestant denominations, who stand with us on external matters such as life, marriage and family. We should never shy away from confessing the truth. We, know that silence is unloving when God commands us to speak. We must also repent and acknowledge our own sin. 

Christian education is also part of the effort. Since the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran church has provided Christian training for the young. We must continue to support our Christian schools, colleges and seminaries through our stewardship. These institutions often struggle financially. They are needed more than ever if we are to pass down the faith to our children and grandchildren in the face of anti-Christian messages being conveyed in many public schools and train Christians for vocations of all types.

No law, candidate or political party will save us. Our goal is not to stir up political activism but to grow in the grace and wisdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and then to speak the truth in love. Nonetheless, we are called to pray for those in authority over us, “to the maintenance of righteousness and the hindrance and punishment of wickedness, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (Reformation Prayer of the Church).

Ultimately, any society’s laws reflect its culture. Sometimes culture can change in a positive direction. For example, the Gallup polling organizations reports that Americans calling themselves “pro-life” now outnumber those considering themselves “pro-choice” by a clear margin. This did not happen by brute force. It took the efforts and prayers of many, working to build a culture of life, to counteract the culture of death through God’s gracious will.

The religious freedom we have enjoyed in America is exceptional in human history. God may preserve it, or He may allow us to be tested. But whether our freedom is preserved or not, the Church is constantly being tested to give a faithful witness, and sometimes freedom is the greater test. If we do suffer the cross of losing our freedom, 1 Peter 4:14 notes: “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Ultimately, the victory is His. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Lutheran Church, join us for worship 

on Sundays (Our Savior Lutheran Church, 285 Hill n’ Dale, Danville) at 9:30 a.m. 

or contact Pastor Witten: at church (859) 236-2970 or office (606) 365-8273.