“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
Yes, I know it is Halloween, the great American holiday of pretending to be something you are not. No, I'm not a killjoy...actually, that might depend on who you ask. I do find costumes to be a rather odd idea. The history of Halloween is somewhat vague, but it reportedly has something to do with wearing costumes around campfires in order to ward off ghosts. However, there is something that happened on October 31st, 1517 that ought to be recognized. This event changed the entire world for the better and it has impacted every nation in the world by extension.
In 1517 the Roman Catholic church pretty much ruled the world. The Pope had more power than kings. In fact, it is reasonable to argue that this period proves Lord Acton's statement that "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Catholic church was in fundraising mode because they were trying to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica. John Tetzel, a Dominican Fryer, was traveling and preaching to the masses. He would preach hell and damnation and then offer letters of indulgences that guaranteed a shorter stay in purgatory for a friend or relative. Of course, these letters of indulgence were not free, they required a donation. Tetzel was Pope Leo X's favorite fundraiser because he was effective.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther the Augustinian Monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg, had been going through somewhat of a transformation. Luther could not get over his own sin. He worked harder than anyone to be a righteous monk, but he believed he could not please God; this devastated Luther. It was Luther's study of Romans 1:17 in the Greek that helped him turn the corner. Because of some important grammatical details, Luther came to the understanding that righteousness was not something that could be achieved as the Catholic church taught, but it was a gift given by God to His people. The implications of this truth impacted Luther's view of justification, soteriology, and indulgences.
On October 31, 1517 Luther nailed what has become known as the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. This event in itself is not that impressive. This was a common practice, and Luther wrote them in Latin. This limited the number of people that could read them, but over the next weeks and months the 95 thesis spread with mixed reviews. Even though Luther's main focus was his understanding of justification, it was Luther's view on indulgences that caught the attention of John Tetzel. In fact, this whole thing may have blown over had it not been for John Tetzel and the fact that the 95 These were translated from Latin to German and then mass produced on cutting edge technology of the time, the printing press.
Luther's intention was a reformation within the Catholic church, but what has become known as the reformation was closer to a revolution. Sides were chosen and blood was spilled, not just by commoners but by kings and other royalty as well. At one point Luther had to go into hiding in order to protect his own life.
This event not only had an impact on Christianity, but caused a major power shift undercutting the influence of the Catholic church (although it was still significant) and empowering the people. Almost every Christian denomination and western country has been significantly impacted by this event. As you or you kids have fun this halloween, it would be good to take some time and reflect on the importance of this event in history. Perhaps even take time to thank God for what he did through His servant Martin Luther.
This is clearly untrue, right? There is no way that in the land of the free where free speech is written into the very first amendment of the constitution right after a clause guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, that pastors are being censored! You might be thinking I am some wacko "right wing evangelical extremist" who saw a story on my Facebook news feed and I didn't bother to check the sources.
Well, I'm not reacting to anything I saw on Facebook or any other social media source. This isn't about a recent story like the Mayor of Houston demanding sermons from pastors, but that story did inspire me to think about some of the laws on the books regarding pastors and speech. As far as being a "right wing evangelical extremist", I'll let you decide. Whatever the labels, hear me out.
Prior to 1954 churches regularly addressed the issue of politics. Some churches made the decision to openly endorse certain candidates for political office. In fact, the churches involvement and willingness to address social ills has often led to reform. Slavery came to an end in this country because of the voice of Christian preachers like John Wesley who said, "Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you." In 1790 James Dana delivered a sermon deriding slavery and its practice. Of course there were many sermons like that of James Dana. Who would want to limit such speech?
What happened in 1954 that changed all this? LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) proposed a bill while he was in the senate limiting the speech that comes from America's pulpit. Many pastors and churches believe that it is unwise to endorse candidates. As a result, the push back over the last 60 years has been limited. I myself think it is generally unwise to endorse candidates from the pulpit, but could there be a context where addressing a particular candidate would be appropriate?
The short answer is yes, there could be many. For example, a not too far fetched hypothetical situation where addressing a particular candidate would be appropriate is this: if a particular candidate were to run who had previously supported bills that might demand churches and pastors perform same sex weddings, it would be very appropriate for pastors to speak against this candidate, and to do so in a sermon. Is that it? No, another not too far fetched hypothetical would be if a Muslim candidate in Dearborn, Michigan were running for office with the intent of instituting Sharia law. Dearborn has a significant Muslim population. In such a case it may be wise for a church to speak against a political candidate. If Churches had free speech, there are still more benefits.
Generally speaking churches promote moral behavior in society. As the law is right now, a church is not able to speak against candidates who are corrupt and behaving in immoral manners. If churches had the ability to speak against candidates, it may be the case that they would behave better out of fear that that pastors might condemn their behavior and harm their chances of reelection. I wouldn't get my hope up too high, but it might help a little.
The law passed in 1954 ought to be repealed for many reasons, but the first is that it is unconstitutional. The first amendment makes no distinction between for profit and not for profit organizations. Second, there are very real scenarios where it would be appropriate for churches to engage in such things. Third, there are too many issues that the Bible addresses that are considered political.
It wasn't that long ago that Jack at Masterpiece Bakery just up the road from my residence here in Colorado was charged with a civil rights offense because Jack refused to make a wedding cake for a same sex wedding. Although I had been very concerned about the general direction of a small but powerful movement promoting same sex marriage, when Jack cam under attack I began to wonder how long it would take before a Christian pastor or church would be charged with discrimination for refusing to do a same sex wedding. Jack has been able to maintain his business and solve his situation by simply not making any kind of wedding cake in the future. This does not seem like a reasonable solution for pastors.
Of course, when I first started to suggest that it was only a matter of time, many (not all) suggested that, that would be ridiculous and it would never happen. Well, it has happened! Ordained ministers Donald and Evelyn Knapp in Idaho have been threatened with time in jail or up to $1,000 per day in fines unless they perform a same sex wedding. While this is not a church, is there any doubt it will happen to a church in the near future?
The details of the case do paint a web of intricate legal language. It is not a stretch to suggest that when people allowed same sex marriage to be classified as a civil rights issue, it opened up the gate for these kinds of law suits. This issue is not a civil rights issue as civil rights has traditionally been understood. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this categorization will be undone. So what now?
Religious liberty must be fought for with all the courage Christians can muster. This isn't even about whether these two ordained ministers of the gospel should do the ceremony or not. Even if you think they are wrong in taking this stand, your religious freedom and mine are at stake. Instead it is about whether they ought to be able to practice their religion as they understand it. This is what the first amendment of the constitution is about. While this issue may be far from home for many, it is only a matter of time until your church and mine are going to have to deal with it and if it isn't same sex marriage it will be something else. Religious liberty is a freedom that ought not be taken lightly and must be fought for.
Recently the mayor of Houston, Texas requested some area pastors turn over their sermons to the city. Fortunately, this story has taken a turn for the better, but this raises another question. Have churches been wrongfully excluded from being protected by the first amendment in the bill of rights? Are churches and other 501 (c)(3) organizations having their speech censored?
In 1954 under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson a law was passed prohibiting churches from participating in campaign activities on behalf of candidates. Since then the ban has strengthened and the freedom of churches to participate in those activities has been limited more severely. Prior to 1954 churches were free to endorse candidates and participate freely in campaign activities on behalf of certain candidates. One might question the wisdom of engaging in such activities, the last thing I want is to come to church and hear a sermon endorsing or speaking against a particular candidate. This post isn't about the wisdom of churches engaging in such activities, it is about whether the government should prevent such activities.
The first amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." As I read it, there is nothing in this that makes exceptions for religious organizations. Based on the 1954 law and the strengthening of it in 1987 churches may be prevented from addressing immorality in government if it involves a particular candidate or group of candidates.
You might be thinking, "I don't want to go to church and hear about politics." Generally speaking, I agree with you. However, this isn't about your preference or mine. This is about freedom and censorship. Churches have generally been compliant since 1954, until recently. There is good reason for this. Many of our founding fathers correctly recognized the important influence the church had on the government promoting morality and good behavior. Just think, if the candidates had just a little fear of being condemned by the church, how might their behavior change? If churches were free to get up and condemn a candidate based on their moral behavior they might be more inclined to behave in a more moral manner if it might cost them votes.
In the end, everyone is allowed to speak freely about political candidates, why not church's and other 501 (c) (3) organizations?
The United States of America was once a bastion of liberty, religious pluralism, and tolerance. The striking irony is that those same terms have been turned on their head and are being used to persecute Christians (and some others as well). Not more than an hour ago I read a headline that made my head spin. I was certain it couldn't be true, so I did what I always do when I see things that don't sound right. I did some quick research. Apparently it is true, here is the headline, "City of Houston demands pastors turn over sermons."
The issue the cities mayor, openly gay Annise Parker, is concerned about is homosexuality. To be honest, it doesn't matter what the issue is, pastors and other religious leaders ought to be able to say whatever they want to their congregations. We have an amendment in the Bill of Rights (it's the first one) to protect against this kind of intrusion. To say this makes me angry is like saying the Antarctica gets a little chilly sometimes.
It reminds me of Acts 5 where the high priest had the apostles arrested for preaching the gospel. After God miraculously released them from prison, they went out and started preaching again. Of course they were again arrested and brought before the council. When they were asked why they persisted in preaching the gospel after being told not to and put in jail, Peter, gave a very clear answer, "We must obey God rather than men!"
So, let me make this clear for anyone who wants to read my blog. If you want my sermons, you can have them. I will give them to you, all you have to do is ask nicely. If you subpoena me, I will fight you tooth and nail as a matter of principal. If you try to intimidate me...well good luck, I'm not easily intimidated.
I am a fighter, it is how God designed me and I'm starting to think my time might not be too far down the road. I stand with Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednigo, Peter, Stephen, Paul, Polycarp, John Huss,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and numerous others. Most of all I will stand with Jesus Christ and say what Luther said before those gathered at the Diet of Worms in 1521, "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me."
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.