What Christ Expects Of His Church During Times Of Opposition (Updated)

This morning I am thinking of younger American Christians, especially of those who have come of age during the Trump administration. A young person who was 16 when the Trump administration began is now approaching 20 and is perhaps becoming more politically aware. What that former sixteen-year old may not remember is the growing pressure that the second Obama administration was placing upon churches and Christian institutions (e.g., Christian schools).

The Proximate Sources

Three of the more outstanding sources of pressure upon the church and allied institutions were 1) the 2015 Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court of the United States; 2) the 2016 “Dear Colleague” Letter on transgender students; 3) the use of the I.R.S. as a political weapon.

With the defeat of the Hillary Clinton the Trump administration essentially put the Obama agenda on pause. With the apparent election of Joe Biden (pending any court or legislative challenges) American Christians may reasonably expect the resumption of the Obama agenda.

The landmark Obergefell decision was a revolution, the full effect of which is yet to be seen. In it the court fundamentally redefined marriage by eliminating nature from the equation and substituting affection and consent. The court essentially ruled that the historic understanding of marriage was an arbitrary construction eligible for deconstruction and reconstruction in the image of late-modern subjectivism.

In the wake of Obergefell we began to see the wave of legal and administrative actions predicted by the dissenters on the court. Unelected civil rights commissions began levying large fines against those who did not fall into line with the new orthodoxy and orthodopraxy. The court has tried to reign such abuses in but they did not end until the beginning of the Trump administration.

The 2016 “Dear Colleage” letter from the Department of Education, regarding the rights of transgender students, sent shockwaves through the educational establishment. Adam Kissel explains:

Gordon College, Westminster Theological Seminary, Thomas Aquinas College, and others have even faced threats to their continued existence: having their official accreditation revoked. To protect the freedom, access, diversity, equity, and inclusion of all colleges—including religious ones—the Trump Administration’s Department of Education has recently taken action to partially blunt de-accreditation attacks. But religious colleges remain in the crosshairs of critics who view them as insufficiently progressive. Donors who support higher education or who seek to safeguard religious freedom and toleration will want to watch closely.

Gordon’s accreditation was first threatened in 2014, after the college president joined a letter to President Barack Obama asking that religious contractors be allowed to participate on equal footing with other contractors in federal programs. Advocates who believe religious institutions like Gordon discriminate against sexual minorities struck back. The city of Salem, Massachusetts, ended a contract with the college. The Lynn school district terminated a longstanding partnership that had benefited local students. Then the New England Association of Schools and Colleges demanded that Gordon prove within a year “that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory.”

Under the policy articulated in the letter, schools that hold to the traditional Christian view of human sexuality (i.e., that God created humanity male and female and the marriage is between a man and a woman) would have to apply for exemption from this extension of the Title IX rules.

The Trump administration rescinded that letter (see the resources below) but, with the return of the Obama team to the White House and the cabinet, we may reasonably expect the return of the 2016 letter.

Should colleges and other schools lose their accreditation, they will be ineligible for federally guaranteed student loans. “Fine,” you say, schools should not be accountable to accreditors. Let the schools function without student loans.” Setting aside the theoretical debate about the usefulness of accreditation (which, as a former Accreditation Liaison Officer, I appreciate) there are pressing practical questions: is the Christian public willing to make up the tuition revenue lost to the schools? Is it willing to help students re-pay private student loans borrowed at higher interest rates?

Third, under the Obama administration, apparently at the urging of the late senior United States Senator from Arizona, John McCain, the Internal Revenue Service attempted to turn back the “Tea Party Movement,” a political response to the Obama Administration (arguably the beginning of the Trump Movement) by denying tax-exempt status to socially and economically conservative organizations. That unofficial policy came to be most closely associated with Lois Lerner, a former I.R.S. administrator. An inspector general’s report found that, as M. D. Kittle explains,

the IRS had singled out conservative and tea party organizations for intense scrutiny, oftentimes simply based on their conservative-sounding or tea party names. The IRS delayed for months, even years, the applications, and some groups were improperly questioned about their donors and their religious affiliations and practices.

The I.R.S. was forced to pay a settlement to some of the organizations adversely affected by the policy.

To this list we might also add the prosecution by the Obama administration and then continued under an ostensibly more sympathetic Trump administration against The Little Sisters of the Poor, seeking to force that Roman Catholic religious order to conform to the dictates of the ACA (Obamacare) by offering abortifacients to their employees (even though no employee had asked for them). Twice the SCOTUS sided with the religious liberty of The Little Sisters of the Poor. Those two cases are symbolic of what is come.

So What?

What does all this have to do with the visible, institutional church? To quote the Apostle Paul, “much in every way.” Obergefell, the 2016 Dear Colleague letter, and the naked use of the I.R.S. to punish cultural and political opponents together send a strong signal about where the left wants to take the USA. The old liberals retained some vestiges of Christianity and some willingness to tolerate those with whom they disagree. The contemporary left is both largely ignorant of Christianity and quite hostile to it (or what they imagine it to be). The “progressive” cultural-political agenda of the left is their religion. We know that is so by the way they speak about it. They demand total conformity and they persecute dissenters with a fury that would make the even the most devout member of the Spanish Inquisition blush.

The Communist-inspired riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death were an indicator of the religious zeal of the new left. The old liberals argued with religious conservatives. Antifa, the militant wing of the new left, hits them with lead pipes.

President Obama, blocked by a Republican Senate, ruled by executive order. This was his “pen and phone” theory of government. He weaponized the vast (“Deep”) administrative state. President Trump rolled back many of those executive orders and issued his own. Meanwhile the legislative branch of the Federal Government (the House and the Senate) have done nothing to protect the religious and other civil liberties of Americans.

Under the Obama administration the secularist (not secular) organizations sued the Department of Justice in a patent attempt to silence Christian chaplains from articulating historic Christian views. One notices that with the election of the Trump administration, those suits seem to have ended. We may expect them to resume again under the Biden-Harris administration.

So, it seems as if it is only a matter of time before the visible church faces the  wrath of the administrative state at the Federal and state level. They know that churches and other small, under-funded non-profit organizations are ill-equipped to do battle with the publicly funded, quasi-governmental administrative bureaucracies, e.g., the state civil rights commission. These were the chosen vehicles in Washington State and Colorado to punish dissenting Christians and to force them into compliance with the new, post-Obergefell orthodoxy: affirm homosexuality, the transgender ideology etc or go bankrupt defending yourself in court.

Scenario: A same-sex couple will approach a traditional Christian congregation and ask to use the building (presumably post-Covid) or ask the minister to conduct a same-sex or transgender ceremony only to be turned down. This will lead to a complaint to the state’s civil rights commission or to a lawsuit.

It was no mistake that bakeries owned by Christians in Colorado and Washington State were targeted. These were strategic moves in order to achieve a policy outcome. It is known as “lawfare,” the use of the law as a weapon of cultural warfare.

How Should The Church Respond?

Christ is Lord of the church. When the civil magistrate requires her to violate the moral law of God, e.g., sanction or conduct a same-sex wedding or a transgender ceremony, the church must say no. She should do so graciously but firmly. Our goal always is to speak the law and the gospel to all who will hear it so as to win them to Christ. Nevertheless, because Christ is head of the church she must obey her Savior and his revealed moral will above all. She should be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Hence my strong advice to every congregation to get a lawyer.

She must continue to fulfill her divine mission: to use the keys of the Kingdom of God (the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the holy sacraments, and the use of church discipline among members). These are sacred duties and they are non-negotiable. The apostolic church faced deadly persecution and yet she persisted. She preached the gospel even after she was told to stop because “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:46). This is our standard.

When the ancient post-apostolic church was required by pagan pre-Christian magistrates to deny Christ, to affirm that Caesar is a god, and to affirm the Roman pantheon, most Christians gave witness to the faith (hence they were martyrs, witnesses) with their lips and their lives. We must be prepared to do the same. I never believed that we would face this challenge in my life but perhaps we shall. We need to be prepared in any event. How many unexpected, culture-shifting events must we witness before we recognize that the ground is shifting beneath our feet?

We must pray. The future belongs to our sovereign God. Christ was reigning over all things when Nero arrested Christians and false accused them of setting fire to a portion of Rome. Christ was Lord when Pliny the Younger tortured young Christian females for information about the visible church. Christ was Lord during the Declan persecution in the mid-third century and he was Lord during the Diocletian persecution just before the legalization of Christianity in the early 4th century.

It has been his will, from time to time, to purify his church through persecution. It would be ironic for it to happen in the USA, which has been a beacon of religious toleration since the late 18th century but our Lord evidently has a sense of humor.

What is required of us under the coming regime is what was required of us under the last regime: fidelity to the law and to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The culture war will not advance the Kingdom of God. Only the Spirit advances the Kingdom and he does it through the use of the keys. The culture war, whatever its use, is not a key of the Kingdom of God.

The true, visible church is the Christ-ordained embassy of the Kingdom of God. It is there that Christ calls his elect to new life and true faith. Preacher, do your job until they take you away, if it should come to that.

This is not a call to retreat from cultural and civil engagement. It is a call to make a vital distinction between the two spheres in which Christians live their lives in this world: the sacred (e.g., the visible church) and the secular (our daily lives) under the lordship of Christ. The post-Christian pagans who ignorantly rage against Christ and his church only know about political power in this world. If they gain it they have their reward but we know about a city whose builder and maker is God, a city with foundations that cannot be shaken and, by grace alone, through faith alone, we have a citizenship in that regime that does not change.

© R. Scott Clark, 2020.


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  1. Dr. Clark, great piece, and good encouragement. Do you have any literature recommendations on dealing with persecution?

    What are your thoughts on ‘teaming’ up with less orthodoxy branches of Christianity when times get hard in the future? What level of doctrinal differences do we put aside to respond to lawsuits through the civil court?

    • I would recommend Rod Dreher’s two books:
      1. The Benedict Option (2018). His view of what Christians need to do and how to live in light of the culture’s accelerating shift from Judeo-Christian morality, as seen (for example) in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage.
      2. Live Not by Lies (2020), a follow-up to his previous book, in which he looks at how Christians survived persecution in the Soviet Union (and Eastern bloc countries) during the Cold War.

    • We can partner with people of any religion to hold the magistrate to the first amendment which is the law of our land.

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