By the time you read this a crucial event may have taken place. Our case for proclaiming Christ in public places may already have been argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court, however, will not deliver its verdict until July. Then we will know how much of religious freedom and the right of free speech we have left in the United States. In the meantime we should all be much in prayer over this matter.
As I personally have been praying about it, it has made me think deeply about the law of our land in relation to the gospel. I am thankful to live in the United States, where we have freedom to speak and to proclaim Christ to the general public. Yet recent events cause me to wonder how much longer we will continue to have those rights.
After we won our case against the Los Angeles Airport Commission (who said that the terminal could not be used for First Amendment activity), they appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. We were surprised by a newspaper announcement that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case after all the lower courts had agreed that the airport is properly regarded as a public forum. In reaction to that media announcement, some Christians presumed that we must be wrong, and we were dismayed to receive censorious letters from some self-declared judges condemning us for suing the government.” They also said that because the Moonies and the Krishnas were badgering people for contributions in airports, we should not be there handing out our literature either, even though we never solicit or accept donations in public places. Without acquainting themselves with the great potential for harm to the gospel, those letter-writers had made hasty judgments on ethics and then heaped discouragement on us. It is truly unfortunate that some Christians have so indoctrinated themselves that they just do not understand what is at stake.
Lynn Buzzard, founder of the Christian Legal Society and now professor of law at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, wrote in a recent issue of Eternity magazine:
Most evangelicals have been reared on Paul’s Romans 13 admonitions regarding civil government. To some these admonitions seem simple and unequivocal.
We want the world to be simple, but it is not. We want to give simple allegiances to our parents, our country and those institutions for which we feel loyalty. Yet those simple and uncritical allegiances can keep us from discerning what is true or necessary for us to do in order to serve God. We do not like to think that our country or the institutions to which we are loyal may be wrong, but our nation, like other institutions, can be—and sometimes is—wrong. When we blindly follow nationalistic directions, we can go astray.
Patriotism in itself is not wrong. However, there is a wrong kind of loyalty to government which is statism. Statism is a society’s belief, spoken or not, that the state determines what is right and wrong. Two good examples of statism are Naziism and Communism. When the state arrogates to itself the position of ultimate lawgiver and highest judge of right and wrong, it becomes necessary to set up idols. Such idols might be unseen and unapparent. Yet they demand as much veneration as any spirits that are venerated through crafted images. Communists and Nazis have often shown themselves to be far more zealous than many committed Christians. That fact should jar us. It should alert us to the reality that there is a spirit in the world that energizes anti-God forces. That spirit seeks to possess minds and capture consciences. And if it cannot succeed in possession, it will oppress people so that they cannot act according to their consciences when they are in accord with God’s Holy Spirit.
Our governments in the English-speaking world are far from the demonistic Communism or Naziism we have observed. Nevertheless, we must realize that we are headed in the same direction. We must not allow our loyalty to the government to stifle the Holy Spirit who is speaking to our consciences. For the sake of public order we must obey the laws, but when the laws keep us from proclaiming the gospel, may God grant us the courage to confront the makers of such laws and tell them that we are taking a stand to obey God rather than man.
In a recent book, Exploring The Myths That Could Destroy America, Erwin Lutzer sounds the clarion to alert us to some commonly held destructive notions. In one chapter, “The Myth that Whatever is Legal is Moral,” he explains,
In our country a group of protestors who picketed an abortion clinic were charged with slander because they called the abortionists murderers.
The abortionists argued (just as Hitler’s emissaries did) that they could not be called murderers because they were not breaking any laws. The author recalls the Nuremberg trials where war criminals who had perpetrated gigantic atrocities argued in their own defense that the Nuremberg tribunal had no right to prosecute, since their homeland, which had jurisdiction over their actions, had no laws making their actions a crime. In Nazi Germany it was not a crime to kill Jews. It was seen as a patriotic duty because it was a crime to be a Jew. A citizen who was loyal to the Nazis would not have a choice in the matter, because, according to the Nazis, the Jews were a criminal race that deserved capital punishment. I call those Nazis murderers, and someone needed to call those abortionists murderers. (Their unborn victims were in no position to protest.)
Laws can be wrong! Any law that allows and protects what God forbids must be wrong. And any law that forbids what God commands should be disobeyed. The problem is that our natural, human and ordinary reaction is to fight for our rights when we suffer inequity or injury. But it is not our right as Christians to fight back or defend ourselves. Our Christian obligation is to “turn the other cheek,” and to keep doing it if necessary, until the cheek is worn away. We must learn to make ourselves vulnerable and not seek to vindicate ourselves. So the questions arise: When, if ever, may we—should we—take a stand that brings us into conflict with the law and convention? And when should we set aside our rights and our sense of dignity and obey authority as Paul admonishes in Romans 13:1-4?
The key lies in this principle: We must discern whether the disobedience we are contemplating is for the purpose of gaining something for ourselves or for others. We should not insist on our own rights if that would bring us into conflict with appointed authority. But if we are taking a stand with regard to the proclamation of the gospel, that is another matter. Whether or not people hear the gospel is a life-or-death matter, and we must not withhold the lifesaving message from those who need salvation. Then, even if the appointed authorities should forbid us to speak, and if our telling the way of salvation should be regarded as treason, we must still speak out and face the earthly consequences.
Thomas Jefferson frequently is quoted on such matters as civil obedience. He was the one who presented the concept of a wall between church and state. But Jefferson said, “Strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of good citizens; but it is not the highest.” By this Jefferson meant that there comes a time when citizens must resist the law of the land, as he did when he took part in the rebellion against King George III, though the matter of the divine right of kings was the law of the land.
With the mentality of most American citizens what it is now, I cannot imagine that had we lived 211 years ago, we would have allowed ourselves to take part in the American Revolution. But even at that, would like to believe that most of us Christians would take a stand against any monarch, lawgiver, deliberative body, congress or court that forbade our preaching the gospel in an orderly manner.
True believers in Christ must be prepared to be considered fanatics and must have the courage to love the gospel more than they love their own earthly lives. Yet few of us have committed acts that call for us to exercise such courage, and most of us do not even know if we could endure the extreme disapproval of a state or society that was offended by the Lord for whom we stand.
Toward the end of his life, Francis Schaeffer, known for his law-and-order stance, a man who continually spoke against rebellion, came to a considerably different position. He said,
There is a bottom line that must be faced.…If there is no place for civil disobedience then the government…has been put in the same place of the living God.
Putting one’s government in place of God is statism. Every state eventually becomes greedy for power—more power than the living God intends. And unless a Spirit-filled citizenry resists that power, all of us shall bow down to the idol of the state, and we shall never be able to lift ourselves up as we become slaves.