Monthly Archives: August 2013

The New Face of Bigotry in America

Fifty years ago a grand march on Washington, D.C. marked one of the high points in the struggle to secure civil rights for racial minority groups in America.  In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a massive crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  In his inspiring remarks he envisioned a time when all people would be judged by their character instead of their color.

In celebrating the anniversary of that optimistic moment, advocates for gay marriage recently continued their efforts to identify their cause with the moral high ground of racial equality.  Gay sex, so they say, is the same as dark skin.  To be denied the same legal and social benefits that marriage gives to heterosexual couples is the same thing as being forced to sit in the back of the bus, so the reasoning goes.

Linking arms with a movement that has already enjoyed huge success is a shrewd political tactic.  But their comparison between race and sexuality is severely undermined if people can actually choose their sexual orientation.  Everyone knows that race is not a choice.  So the strength of the comparison between race and sexuality is based squarely on the argument that sexuality is not a choice either.  Any evidence that sexuality is a choice poses grave danger to the politics of gay activism.

Another assertion made by gay apologists is that the cultural majority forces some people into accepting gender roles that are a mismatch for their true sexual orientation.  In other words, the power group bullies everyone into conforming to the commonly held notion of acceptable behavior.  Only gays and other gender-related minority groups are ever subjected to this kind of coercion in matters of sex, so it seems.  Social pressure is aimed at them and so they are victims who live in constant fear of openly asserting their orientation.  But is that true?

First, people who publicly announce their gay or lesbian orientation are consistently affirmed and celebrated in the pop-culture of today.  The news media falls all over itself to provide a venue for those who are said to be courageous enough to take such a valiant step and “come out.”  Elected officials and judicial types rush to be first in line to challenge the heterosexual status quo, claiming the coveted status of champion or defender of civil rights.

On the other hand, those who share their faith in Christ often risk ridicule and rejection.  Christians are being told that public expressions of religious faith are unconstitutional.  Any faith that embraces Judeo-Christian sexual values is shouted down and accused of being hate-filled.  So it seems that the gay is urged to come out and the Christian is urged to go in.  Anyone seeking popularity and support in our society is apt to find it quicker by proclaiming dedication to what was recently defined as aberrant sexual behavior than to announce their devotion to God’s Savior Jesus Christ.

Second, the gay movement is quickly becoming a rigid and intolerant political juggernaut.  Gay and lesbian people started with seemingly reasonable appeals to fairness.  A large number of kind-hearted and somewhat morally ambiguous Americans have responded to these appeals by making ill-advised changes to the laws which provide structure and boundaries for human sexuality in our culture.  But as their influence has grown, gay groups have become more insistent that anyone who dares question their assertions be silenced, shamed, and punished.  So a new political power has emerged and is vigorously asserting itself.

Power often corrupts those who wield it, and the greater the power the more dangerous the corruption.  Groups with power over large segments of the population, the legal system, or of the economic system are capable of doing great harm to many people.  Groups with great power often become addicted to power and take harsh action against anyone who might threaten their power.  This sad but common characteristic of humanity is so prevalent that organizations of all shapes and sizes have learned through hard experience to craft leadership structures with carefully devised divisions of power and sufficiently durable avenues of accountability.  But some groups avoid accountability.

Gay activism is a recent player in the game of power politics, but already it shows signs of intolerance and small-mindedness.  Should students in graduate schools be banished from counseling programs simply because they question the new dogma about human sexuality?  Where will the forum for critical thinking be if not in academia?  Should Christian photographers be punished for declining to celebrate unions which go against their core convictions, even when other photographers are available?  Where will people of faith be free to exercise their religious beliefs if not in their daily lives?  Should organizations that believe in the Bible’s definition of marriage be labeled as hate groups for expressing their beliefs in non-violent ways?  Where will the forum for public debate be?

Recently a law was enacted in New Jersey that forbids counselors to help young people who are confused about their sexuality and seeking to avoid a gay or lesbian lifestyle.  If people are born gay or lesbian, then some must also be born “straight” as well.  And if people are sometimes forced by society to act straight when they are actually gay or lesbian, then society, or powerful political groups within society, can just as surely put pressure on people to act gay or lesbian when they are really straight.

The gay movement has been a player in power politics for a relatively short period of time.  Nevertheless, a new group is already emerging that presents a problem for them.  The new group is former gays.  This group is a potential embarrassment to the gay agenda for at least two reasons.  First, they are living proof that at least some people may be able to choose and/or change their sexual orientation and that some people who have experienced the gay and lesbian lifestyle have rejected it.  Second, ex-gays represent a new suppressed group that calls into question the original promise of the gay agenda that they were seeking fairness and equality for everyone.  Does fairness and equality stop with them?

Now that gay activism has started to gain power, we see signs that they are apparently willing to deny people freedom in order to protect their newfound influence.  Maybe we are seeing the new face of bigotry in America.  Is it time to speak truth to power, the power of a bullying gay agenda?  Will ex-gays enjoy the attention of all the civil rights activists?  Will there be marches and speeches and songs for them?  Will journalists give them voice and judges give them protection?  Will Hollywood write sitcoms that present them in a positive light?

None of this should surprise authentic followers of Jesus Christ, but it does.  Why?  Some in the North American Evangelical Church have mistakenly confused popularity with success.  As gays and lesbians gain in popularity and Bible-believing Christians experience ridicule, believers either blame the world or doubt the faith.  There is no reason to blame the world because the world is simply acting as the Bible predicts it always will.  Scripture tells us that the whole world is under the influence of evil (1 John 5:19).  And Jesus warned his followers that in this world we will have trouble (John 16:33).

False teachers were a serious threat to the Early Church.  Much of the New Testament was written to combat error and to provide a clear and authoritative statement of faith for followers of Jesus so that they will not remain infants in the faith, “tossed about by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14).  False teachers are troublesome for the community of faith today, too.  Some preachers and teachers are selling the notion that we simply need a winsome approach and the world will love us.  If our smile is white enough and our politics are right enough and our buildings are bright enough then the world will beat a path to our door.  Is that true?

If we start to question God’s Word when the world makes things uncomfortable, then we are in danger of compromising the truth.  We may find ourselves wanting to promote “traditional” marriage instead of “godly” marriage in the hopes that our message will be more palatable to the modern culture.  We may wonder if building relationships with people is smarter than sharing the plan of salvation so that we can avoid conflict and rejection.  We may conclude that hell is an embarrassment and start to peddle a god of unqualified love and acceptance because he is more marketable to today’s progressive mindset.  In short, we are tempted to compromise the one thing that assures us power in this age: God’s unchanging truth.

Jesus boldly and consistently proclaimed God’s word, without compromise.  When he was popular and followed by thousands and when he was threatened by hostile leaders, he still spoke the truth in love.  He calls his followers to do the same.  Jesus compared the word of God to a seed that grows and bears a harvest of eternal life.  Like Jesus, his followers are sent into the world to spread the seed liberally, on good soil and bad.  He promises that we will reap a harvest.  The Bible urges us to share the faith, in season and out of season, that is, when it is convenient and easy, and when it is not.  The world will always resist the gospel and oppose those who proclaim it, but Jesus assures us that we can take heart, because he has overcome the world, no matter who happens to be popular or powerful in the world at any given moment.  How did Jesus overcome this dark, confused, and dangerous world?

Ironically Jesus was illegally arrested, falsely accused, and shamefully executed for being a threat to the established political powers of his day.  But he refused to be made king when the opportunity presented itself (John 6:15), he never engaged in violence against the establishment (Luke 22:52-53), and when falsely accused and arrested, he submitted to the authorities, even though it meant sacrificing himself (John 19:10-11).  Jesus warned his followers against the dangers of political power in this world, urging them to seek greatness in God’s eyes by choosing to serve instead of rule (Matthew 20:25-28).

By keeping himself from the corrupting influence of power in this world, Jesus was freeing himself and his followers to see the true value in every person, despite their status in this age.  Jesus did not see people as members of identity groups that either supported or opposed his political agenda.  He reached out to the marginalized and oppressed, but also to those who were comfortable and influential.  He did not judge people by their position in this world and he did not entice them with the promise of sharing in the fleeting power structures of this age.  Jesus was not looking for political supporters, but for spiritual followers.  Jesus challenges all of us to get our identity not from political or social movements in this world, but from citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus sacrificed himself so that people of all kinds can be citizens of God’s Kingdom, members of God’s family, and living stones in the Temple of God’s Spirit.

–Richard Foster, Grace Baptist, August 2013


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Is Religious Freedom Still Important?

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has created bewildering confusion about where the line should be drawn between church and state. Sometimes public displays of the Ten Commandments are acceptable and other times they are not. Sometimes prayer is okay and other times it is unconstitutional. Sometimes a cross is legal and other times it must be removed. Nativity scenes are allowed here, but not there.

Why is religious freedom so difficult? Are decades of conflicting legal rulings evidence that religious freedom does not work? Are we in danger of losing a precious liberty for which so many have suffered and died?

After centuries of cruel oppression and harsh violence in the Old World, people came to the New World hoping to build a better life, one with liberty and justice for all. Even so, some people brought Old World ideas with them to America and oppressed their fellow citizens because of their religious differences. And even though we now have an amendment to the Constitution that guarantees our religious freedom, after more than two hundred years we still struggle.

Despite these persistent difficulties, religious freedom in America is truly ground-breaking and not something that we should abandon. Religious freedom is fundamental. Our cherished political liberties rest firmly on the foundation of our religious freedom. Without religious freedom there would be no political freedom.

It is true, Enlightenment philosophers made important contributions to the great American experiment in liberty, but religious freedom was and is the vital underpinning for political liberty. And religious freedom was championed by Christians who built the house of freedom on the firm foundation of God’s word. Specifically, the teachings of Jesus provide the basis for providing religious freedom to everyone.

Jesus revealed two cornerstone principles that undergird a uniquely Christian concept of religious tolerance and freedom. First, Jesus practiced religious freedom by allowing individuals to accept or reject his message without coercion from him, from religious institutions or from the state.

On one occasion a rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus instructed him to go beyond following commandments and to sell his possessions, giving the money to the poor, and becoming his follower. The man could not bring himself to leave his riches and so Jesus, although he loved the man, allowed him to walk away. Jesus respected the man’s God-given freedom to make up his own mind.

Proponents of true religious freedom who came to America insisted on laws that kept religious and state institutions from punishing people for their religious beliefs and practices, or lack thereof. They insisted on laws that protected people from religious and state institutions that would force them to support any particular religious organization. They wanted everyone to have freedom to practice religion, or not, based on their own personal beliefs, not someone else’s.

Jesus’ second cornerstone principle is that two kingdoms co-exist in this age, both endorsed by God: Church and State. Jesus made some powerful enemies who constantly tried to trick him into saying something that would allow them to bring legal charges against him. In one such attempt they questioned him about paying taxes. After asking for a Roman coin and pointing out whose inscription was on the coin, Jesus told them, “Give the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God” (Matthew 22:21).

When Jesus was on trial he faced Pilate, the local Roman governor. Pilate had been told by Jesus’ enemies that he was a dangerous threat to the government. In his interrogation Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus said yes, but of a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that does not fight like this world’s kingdoms; a kingdom that instead relies on proclaiming God’s truth.

Jesus refused to use the power of the state, or any coercion whatsoever, to force people into submitting to his message against their will. After all, forced conversion is not true conversion. But Jesus also recognized the authority of the state to impose and enforce law and order, even to the point of his own execution (unfairly, I might add). He saw a clear division between Caesar and God, the state and the church.

Christians in America fought for religious freedom that is based on Jesus’ understanding of two kingdoms. The state has no God-given right to govern the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens. The church has no God-given mandate to enforce law and order. Or, from a positive perspective, the state should concern itself with law and order and the church should focus on religious beliefs and practices.

The state is allowed the sword of physical coercion in its task of enforcing law and order. The church has a sword, too, but not one of physical violence or political coercion. The sword of the church is the word of God. The power of God’s people is in proclaiming God’s truth.

So, is religious freedom still important? Perhaps for those of us who have never really endured violent religious oppression it is impossible to measure the true value of religious liberty. Perhaps Americans have grown somewhat complacent about the great worth of our freedoms because we have no memory of the stockades, the jail cells, the fines, the bloodshed.

Or, maybe Americans take religious freedom for granted, failing to entertain the notion that it really could be lost. But there are no guarantees that religious freedom gained will be religious freedom retained. The confusing court cases in the U.S. over the past few decades are evidence that our religious freedom is still a work in process, still open to conflicting interpretations by various groups who represent divergent points of view.

Ironically, despite their passionate belief in freedom, followers of Jesus have often referred to themselves as slaves. But the master is not the state, a political leader, or even a religious leader or institution. The Master is Jesus. It may seem counter-intuitive, but true and eternal freedom comes through following and serving the all-powerful and all-good Lord.

Religious freedom is precious, but in reality it has come and gone throughout history and its future is precarious. Nevertheless, a true and lasting personal freedom is available to anyone, whatever the direction of political or legal trends may be. Let’s not give up on protecting our religious freedom, but let’s not forget that our greatest liberty of all comes by God’s grace through our faith in the Crucified One; and no human lawmaker can take that away.

Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Church, August 2013

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