Evidence confirms that America was founded by overtly Christian thinkers, and America has maintained a rare and uniquely Christian perspective for two hundred years, combining civic laws with Christian virtues. The high water mark for this hybrid faith-freedom reality came in the 1980’s when the so-called moral majority ushered an evangelical like Jimmy Carter into the White House and owned the late 20th century airwaves via broadcasts by Focus on the Family.[i] For the most part, a large segment of the voting populace coalesced around conservative ideologies that impacted the ballot box, including the Victorian family unit, protection of the unborn, and the protection of marriage. In society, the question was never really, “Are you in church?” but rather, “Which church do you attend?”
This two hundred year cohesion of God and government, which was birthed in the Great Awakening, and culminated with the moral majority, should be applauded as a rare grace but should not be assumed as normal, and if history truly repeats itself, this era has come to its end. The privileges experienced by the Christian church throughout this unique period have expired and the church will be required to conduct itself like its counterpart brothers and sisters across the remainder of earth.
What America has experienced is unique but not unknown in the storyline of history. In fact, the rise and fall of the state supported church fits squarely into the cyclical patterns of church age history – the church scars, skies, and then scatters. As early as 90 AD, the church was birthed through scars, martyrdom under the Roman Emperor Domitian. But, by 300 AD, the church skied, as Constantine moved to make Christianity the state religion. Throughout the middle ages the church then scattered through the iconoclasms and east-west schisms. The cycle continued during the Protestant reformation as early Christianity, under men like Wycliff, Hus, and Luther, was scarred, until the Church of England provided state support and it skied, only to be scattered during the Downgrade Controversies of late 20th century modernism. The pilgrimages to early America were in large part a group of scarred saints willing to bring faith to a new pagan world, and following the Great Awakening, Christianity skied as the state religion. Today we see the expected scattering of its proponents and values.
This cycle of birth, growth, and decline finds modern examples in the Confessional Church of Germany during 20th century fascism[ii] or the modern church of China under Communism.[iii] Time and again God delivers a new group of revivalists, and His church flourishes until it is challenged and sent for a new day of reckoning.
Why is this? The answer is theological. Governments are positioned by God (Rom 13:1) but remain unregenerate associations under the immediate management of the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2). Therefore, pagan governments and societies may for a time utilize, and even appreciate, the advantages of a Judeo-Christian work ethic and value system, specifically until it limits their profits or attempts to reign in their carnal freedom and expression. However, when morality crests to a majority position, evil turns its attention to disband the growing foe. In China, there is a proverb of Communism stating, “The small pig everyone love, the medium pig is okay, the big pig gets eaten” which stands as a reminder to everyone that growing things will be disbanded.
Jesus promised to build His church (Matt 16:18), and Paul promised that Satan would continue to assault it every time (2 Timothy 3:1-9). Therefore, what we’re about to experience in America is not new to Christianity.
The July SCOTUS decision to legalize gay marriage is the culmination of 40 years of litigation to re-define marriage, dating back to Baker vs. Nelson in 1972, and it stands as a federal mandate of a position OPPOSITE that of biblical command for the first time, thus positioning two civil rights against one another, and opening a door for persecution of the church.
Within hours of the ruling, detractors of “biblical values” pushed to remove tax benefits from any organization which would not comply with the new law. Mark Oppenheimer of TIME magazine wrote, “Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.”
In Oregon, Aaron and Melissa Klein were ordered to pay $135,000 in damages to a lesbian couple for refusing to make their wedding cake. Of course CEO’s in the private sector, and even Fire Chief’s, have already been terminated due to their views on marriage.
The California state university system, the largest in the country, derecognized local chapters of the evangelical Christian student group Intervarsity since it would not allow non-Christians or openly gay students to hold leadership positions.[iv]
In the ruling itself, Justice Anthony Kennedy left out critical language which would have protected the future of religious freedom. Deep into the ruling, on page 27, Kennedy finally touched on religion, but did so passively:
“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned…”
Chief Justice John Roberts rebuts Kennedy in his minority dissent by clarifying that the door has been opened for religious persecution:
“The majority’s decision imposing same sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. Ante, at 27. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses. Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36–38. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”
Based on Chief Justice Robert’s assessment, Christians should expect imminent opposition, including financial limitations, and forms of passive persecution if they will not marry same sex couples.
Historically, when civil governments and religions come into this form of contradiction, a form of “State church” is contrived whereby those who concede to state regulations continue in privilege, while those who hold to their “subversive” belief systems are slowly privatized and eventually penalized. This was true of the confessional church in Germany and is currently true of the state church in communist China.
Times are difficult but hope is not lost. As of 2015, religious organizations in America amass and distribute over 82 billion dollars annually.[v] Law firms who specialize in protections of religious freedom estimate court cases against para-church and houses of worship could take years to file, and the roll-out of any federal financial penalty or procedure following the ruling could take twice that time to enact, providing approximately one decade of stability before the landscape of American evangelicalism changes for the worse.[vi] However, within a few years, tax exemptions and housing allowances may be removed from the church and individual Pastor(s), which could result in 20-30% declines of revenue and benefits, not including the added expense of property taxes for those with buildings in high cost urban centers.
Two principles will be critical for the true church in the coming decade: First, is that Jesus was never politically correct. Second, that Christians were never meant to be citizens of this earth, motivated by societal ease.
Jesus wasn’t politically correct. Jesus didn’t receive a warm welcome while on earth the first time and wouldn’t be welcomed by government leaders or Hollywood stars today. People are focused on luxury, tolerance, subjectivism, and self-love, always chasing a form of utopia (online now days) that sits forever outside their reach. Jesus knew His ways were the best ways, including marriage and sexuality, and did not sway with public opinion. This is a crucial principle when working with people attracted to the same sex – Love isn’t tolerance, emotion, sensitivity, or even equity. Love is desiring and expecting the BEST for someone, even if that best is something they do not yet see or desire, and that best is ALWAYS derived from God through His word. The first and second great commands “Love the Lord your God” and “Love others as your self” presume that there is, in fact, a God whom we follow in our expression of love.
Jesus never swayed to public opinion. During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry Rome took the lives of Galilean pilgrims who had come to worship. While the city was still stunned, a tower fell and took more lives. When asked about these events, Jesus said, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)
Jesus ignored the rules of political correctness and declared openly that people were lost and in need of saving. The message offended then and it offends now. The arrogant who had hardened their heart to guilt and enjoyed the lusts of their savagery were offended. Others saw their sin and humbly repented.
“He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
That is the gospel, as strong today as it was then. But the promise isn’t for those who come believing they’re right and strong. It’s for those who come knowing they’re humble and weak.
Proud people, including lots of religious people who call themselves Christians, don’t really believe Christ’s message at all. What would Jesus say to world leaders today? To smug, self-satisfied, arrogant sinners (including multitudes on church rolls) his words would sound harsh, shocking, and provocative. But to “the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) — those who are exhausted and spent by the ravages of sin; desperate for forgiveness and without any hope of atoning for their own sin—Jesus’ call to repentant faith remains the very gateway to eternal life. This is a particularly hard message in cultures like ours that elevate self-love, self-esteem, or self-righteousness, but Jesus was absolutely clear, and these words do still speak to us: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” ~ John MacArthur, Gospel According to Jesus
Christians aren’t citizens of this earth. Persecuted churches don’t just survive they thrive. The early church exploded even as Rome attempted to stop it. The reformation launched the pilgrims and foreign mission’s societies, and now some scholars believe the underground church of China is the fastest growing church on planet earth.
The early church, “oikos” (Greek for household) operated as a large family unit working together – not using big buildings and big programs, just gathering in groups committed to the Word of God, celebration of His goodness, and care for those within its membership.
Rodney Stark writes that in AD 40 there were 1,000 believers (0.0017% of the populace) and by 350 AD the church boasted 33,882,000 constituents (56.5% of the Empire). All taking place while Christianity was illegal and homosexuality was a lifestyle – note that the mighty Rome fell but the church survives.[vii]
Based on the cyclical nature of church history, choices of government, and tone of culture, it is likely that the American church will greatly transform in years to come. Some think it may in fact return to the “oikos.” But whether the church exists in large buildings or in homes it remains critical that the church not act browbeaten and Christians not walk with heads hung low – Jesus has promised to return and fulfill every covenant, including the establishment of His literal rule on earth for 1,000 years, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against His church or His coming. Thus, when Christians continue boldly in faith regardless of the prevailing cultural wind, they identify themselves with their Savior and with the myriads of martyrs who’ve come before.
For the next decade it is important that each church clarify their Bible, By-Laws, and Base:
The Bible, meaning that the church teach the entire doctrine of Scripture in an INTELLECTUALLY bold manner not focused on attractional emotionalism or mysticism which breed immature saints unable to stand amidst opposition. The church must leave its seeker pacification leanings of the 20th century and focus on the saints, strengthening them to be “called out and set apart” as commended in 2 Corinthians 6. All are welcome while none are expected to stay the same, growing more and more into the image of Christ.
The By-Law, meaning that the church clarify positions on culturally controversial truths in a legal form allowing institutions of justice protect the church when necessary. In the interval, the church must charge obediently forward, trusting Christ with the consequences. It would be a grave disservice to the kingdom of God to become timid. “Fear not, I am with you.” (Is 41:10)
The Base, meaning that the church develop prepared members, living spiritually prayerful and financially faithful regardless of peer pressure. Each Christian must be trained for boldness – in Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested and challenged. When joined by their “oikos” for prayer they did not ask for safety or protection. Instead they asked God for boldness “that the gospel may be proclaimed.”
For two hundred years being a Christian in America was a societal positive – It helped one get a job, get into school, and make friends. America is now post-morality and being a Christian will bring many limitations. The words of Christ will now come to full reckoning, “Acknowledge me on earth and I will also acknowledge you before My Father in heaven. Deny me on earth, I will also deny you before My Father in heaven.” (Matt 10:32-33)
Trust God. Be bold. Move forward.
[i] Tom Brenneman, “Homespun Gospel”
[ii] Eric Metaxas, “Bonhoeffer: Prophet, Preacher, Spy”
[iii] Robert Marquand, “China Church State Showdown”, CS Monitor, 1/11/15
[v] Dylan Matthew, Washington Post, 8/22/13
[vi] American Center for Law & Justice & Pacific Justice Institute
[vii] Rodney Stark, “Rise of Christianity”