Viral Threats to Religious Liberty
Beware of Power That Corrupts Absolutely
As American Christians celebrated Easter in 2020, they were coping with unprecedented levels of government intrusion into typical worship practices. Most churches in America complied with generalized public health decrees to minimize group gatherings. So, instead of full houses of worship on the most important day on the Christian calendar, they settled for taped services streamed via the internet.
A very few pastors refused to cancel their live worship services. Opening their doors to any who felt led to attend, they claimed that their allegiance to God outweighed their fealty to Caesar. Other churches decided to host “drive-in” worship services where the faithful could gather corporately, while honoring social distancing guidelines from the comfort of their cars.
Even that option was deemed too risky by some elected leaders. In Kentucky, the mayor of Louisville banned drive-in worship — only to have his decree ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Kentucky’s Governor, Andy Beshear, who mandated the closure of all churches but declared Kentucky’s abortion clinic and liquor stores to be “essential” services, sent state police to record the license plate of every vehicle that attended unauthorized church services. And in Mendocino County, California, overzealous local officials prohibited churches from singing and playing wind instruments in their online services. Talk about tyrannical overreach!
Striking a Balance
Much debate has ensued over the right balance for Christians to strike in the midst of a public health crisis. A real desire to “love others as ourselves” by taking reasonable measures to safeguard public health seems necessary and prudent.
But as the crisis continues, voices have sounded a legitimate alarm over the long-term consequences of an economic catastrophe — something that will impact mental, social and physical health. One Tennessee county official lamented eight recent suicides, arguing that social isolation was having a much greater impact on his community than the coronavirus.
Even as I write, national, state and local officials are weighing the risks of continued shutdown against the virus itself. Inevitably, some states and regions will emerge from the crisis more quickly than others. Sadly, precedents are being set as some officials exhibit autocratic tendencies and undermine the Constitutional primacy of religious freedom.
Among the important lessons to be gleaned from this experience is an awareness of the corrosiveness of power wielded without restraint. The sinful nature of mankind means that absolute power really does tend to corrupt absolutely. That is why our Founders created a system of checks and balances — ensuring that power was never consolidated in one branch or one office. As John Adams wrote: “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast view beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service, when it is violating His laws.”
So, although we are commanded to pray for those in authority, we should never place all our trust or faith in them. Times like this demonstrate the importance of placing our hope in the One who is omniscient and omnipotent.
Lessons from the Passion of Christ
The Bible consistently describes kings and rulers as imperfect. Even David — Israel’s greatest king — was flawed and prone to error. Every king’s rule was deemed righteous or evil based on their consistent adherence to God’s Word. When a king strayed, the nation suffered the consequences.
That truism is not limited to the Old Testament. It is an axiom that has been proven time and again around the world. In the New Testament, various authorities involved in Jesus’ crucifixion offer indelible examples of power wielded irresponsibly.
1. The first group of officials Jesus encountered consisted of the chief priest and members of the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71). Their collective animosity toward Him was already apparent. Because they could not discern the truth of His claims and because He threatened the status quo of their authority, the Bible says that they looked for an opportunity to condemn Him before the people (John 11:47-53). In the end, they bribed Judas to deliver Jesus over to them. Then, they violated their own judicial process to rush a pronouncement of guilt.
2. The second individual who stands out in Jesus’ conviction is Pontius Pilate (Luke 23:1-7). He was appointed by Caesar to represent Rome in Judea. As such, his responsibility was to impose Pax Romana (Roman Peace) on a resistant population — quelling uprisings, ensuring the collection of taxes and maintaining the status quo. Scripture makes it clear that Pilate had grown cynical. He scoffingly dismissed the very concept of truth (John 18:33-38). Pilate was more interested in balancing the expectations of Caesar, the demands of the Jewish religious leaders, his own wife’s clear misgivings and his sense that Jesus was undeserving of death. But in the end, Pilate did not have the moral fortitude to do what was just and right. Instead, he sought to appease the loudest voices and absolve himself of responsibility (Matthew 27:17-24, Mark 15:9-15).
3. The next individual who stands out in the narrative is Herod Antipas — the same Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded. This was not Herod the Great — the great builder who ruled with an iron fist. This son of the former Herod was a sycophant who ruled the region of Galilee. Instead of taking seriously his role in reigning and administering justice, he had a reputation as a hedonistic pleasure-seeker. He was mainly interested in Jesus as a curiosity and a worker of miracles. It is telling that Jesus never responded to Herod’s inquiries and pleas to see a miracle (Luke 23:8-11). Although Herod saw no reason to condemn Jesus, he joined his soldiers in mocking Jesus.
4. The next group of individuals who played a part in the passion of Jesus Christ was composed of the various guards and soldiers who were “just following orders.” Both the Jewish temple guards and the Roman soldiers treated Jesus with great contempt, mindlessly following the edicts of the men appointed over them (Matthew 27:27-31, John 18:12-13). In both cases, they demonstrated a sadistic callousness that offends our senses to this day. But, mankind has produced millions just like them throughout history. The Nazis in Germany, the Soviets in Russia, and the hate-filled racists in our own nation’s past could not have perpetrated their evils without huge cadres of men wielding power in an ungodly manner. Every dictator to this day has a throng of unquestioning secret policemen to fulfill their authoritarian decrees.
5. The final group we must observe from Jesus’ experience is the mass of sheep-like people who tolerated injustice. They represent an authority in themselves because the religious leaders and Pilate alike were wary of their collective will — or at least the threat that they might start an insurrection (Luke 22:2, Matthew 27:24). Many of those common people were part of the fickle crowd that had hailed Jesus as the “Son of David” less than a week before — a clear recognition of His Messianic title. But by the morning of His crucifixion, they had either been swayed against Him, caught up in the mob, or cowed into silence. After an initial burst of resistance in the Garden of Gethsemane, even Jesus’ own disciples were frightened into despair.
The Gospel Shines Through
Recognizing the behavior of sinful men does not take away from the orchestrated plan of God that led to Jesus’ death. As He said, no one took His life from Him. He laid it down and took it up again — both of His own authority (John 10:17-18). Even Pilate was only able to exercise authority over Him because he had been given that authority from above (John 19:10-11).
The good news is that God did send His Son — offering Him as a perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world. The shortcomings of man did not lessen the magnitude of God’s great love for mankind which was manifested at the Cross. Nor did it restrain the power of God which was demonstrated by the empty tomb.
The same character traits manifested by all the authorities leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus are evident around us today. I make that assertion as someone who has served in the marbled halls of a state capital. Here are some modern observations and applications:
1. Like many on the Sanhedrin, there are some in authority who have no discernment. Lacking a moral compass, they resent any threat to their power and authority. The Communist leaders of China and North Korea clearly fall into this category. They reject Christianity not because they have weighed its truth claims and found them lacking, but because embracing Christian faith would inevitably impose limits on their own power. And they despise Christ most of all because He asserts His Lordship over them.
While American elected officials were seldom so brash in the past, a growing number share the same animosity toward Christianity. I personally witnessed Democratic legislators in Kentucky disparaging Christians, and the Christian faith in general, on numerous occasions. Believers impose too great a restraint on their secular agenda. In America today, we have many officials who prioritize their support for abortion, abomination, and apostasy above any respect for God or His Word. Why else would they take advantage of a crisis to dictate the closure of churches but defend abortion mills at all costs? New York Mayor Bill de Blasio even threatened the permanent shuttering of churches who did not heed his every order.
2. The next type of leader that is far too prevalent is the one who wrings his hands and is unwilling to buck a vocal but wrong constituency. Desperate to preserve their own power and eager to please the masses, they stick their finger in the air to determine which way the wind is blowing in every circumstance. These officials are dangerous because they bend to every ungodly influence. Like Pilate, they scoff at truth. Unlike President Harry Truman who famously said, “the buck stops here,” they avoid any responsibility that might cause people to blame them for anything. Dithering indecision and weak ingratiation mark their tenure. Leaders like these have allowed our national debt to explode and unfunded liabilities to multiply in most states and major cities.
3. Following in the footsteps of the lesser Herod are those shallow-minded officials who wallow in the pleasures of power and position but do not really serve the people they represent. We’ve all known people who wanted a position more than a job. In government and in every other sphere of human activity, these people are a drain on society. Once again, every legislature and bureaucracy has far too many people like this. As Jesus demonstrated before Herod Antipas, Truth doesn’t even bother speaking to them.
4. The next category of people is those who know better but do not speak up or resist ungodliness. They prove the adage that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Like the Thyatirans, they tolerate the intolerable (Revelation 2:20). In the context of this pandemic crisis, they enable violations of the Constitution by elected officials that are sworn to defend the Constitution. In that regard, keep in mind that elected officials at every level swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Faithfully doing so allows citizens to safeguard their own lives and livelihood.
Claiming to protect people from themselves by trampling on their Constitutional rights violates that oath, undermines those God-given rights and forfeits their lives and livelihood — a trade-off none of us should tolerate. And, as military members are taught, unlawful orders should never be obeyed.
I am not heaping scorn on my law enforcement friends who are expected to follow the misguided orders of governors and mayors and judges. I am challenging all of us who have allowed our nation to embrace abominations — tolerating through our votes and our silence the murder of millions of unborn innocents and passing laws that are an affront to a holy God. Virtually none of us are beyond reproach when it comes to the corporate waywardness of our nation.
5. Finally, what of the fickle sheep who profess faith on Sunday but turn their back on Jesus the rest of the week? Far too many would claim Him as Savior without honoring Him as Lord.
One of the most disappointing experiences during my legislative tenure was witnessing professing Christians — legislators and voters — abandon biblical positions in order to defend their own perceived self-interest. A growing chorus of Christians have been radicalized by our secular society — even pooh-poohing abortion and endorsing abominations in their insistency on embracing the full mantra of liberal ideologies. Some of those would willingly submit to any dictator who could promise sustenance and entertainment (bread and circuses).
How many of us have allowed our witness to be muddled by the choices we make on a regular basis? Does the language you use, the television shows and movies you watch, the media you absorb and the lies you tolerate reflect a life built upon the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Know that you cannot swear allegiance to Jesus Christ on Sunday and then refuse to keep His commandments the rest of the week (John 14:15).
Judge a Tree by Its Fruit
It has been said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Some of the most egregious purveyors of authoritarian overreach have proven the truth of this adage during the current coronavirus crisis by citing their altruistic intentions. Adding insult to injury, for many of them, the tendency to marginalize Christianity and defend abortion has been absolute.
Jeremiah warned that the human heart is more deceptive than all else (Jeremiah 17:9). But Christians grounded in the Word and blessed with discernment should not be deceived — even by wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Instead, we should look at a person’s fruit. Does an official’s actions erode reliance on and faith in God? Do they honor constitutional restraints on their own power? Or, do they take advantage of every opportunity to grow the scope and intrusiveness of government — even at the cost of religious liberty?
Freedom’s Flame is Flickering
Previous generations of Christians fought and bled to lay claim to the religious freedom granted by our Creator and enshrined in the American Constitution. They considered it a sacred duty to exercise that freedom and then pass it on unencumbered to the next generation. Religious liberty is under attack as never before — and is being relinquished by many who ought to know better.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Ordered by the high priest to stop teaching in Jesus’ name, Peter and the apostles responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:27-29). Flogged as a warning, “they went on their way rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:40-41).
The signs of the times indicate that we are witnessing the fulfillment of Romans 1:18-32 and 2 Timothy 3:1-8 and 4:3-4. Men and women who purport to represent our society show growing animosity toward sound doctrine of the Christian faith. Their hatred for those who love the Lord’s appearing will only increase as the Day of the Lord draws near.
We have been posted on the watchtowers of our society. While we still have a voice, let us sound the alarm. When we run afoul of secular despots, we will be warned and may even be persecuted. But some who are groping in darkness will heed our call, repent and turn to Him who will set them free indeed.
In such a time as this, let’s heed the advice of the Apostle Paul (Romans 13:11-14):
11) Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.
12) The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
13) Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.
14) But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.