The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision is only three days old and already there are calls to end the tax exemption not just for religious schools, but for churches as well. Already we’re seeing public expressions of contempt for clergy, like this one reported by Father Jonathan Morris:
Walking down Broadway and 22nd St just now, I ran into gay marriage parade. Two men walked by and spat on me. Oh well… I deserve worse.
— Fr. Jonathan Morris (@fatherjonathan) June 28, 2015
Even before the Supreme Court concocted a constitutional right to gay marriage, American religious liberty was being systematically undermined. There were widespread efforts to exclude orthodox Christian organizations from American colleges and universities, occasional attempts to literally coerce Christians into voicing support for homosexual conduct, and well-known efforts to destroy businesses that aren’t willing to participate in gay weddings.
All of this is worrisome, and all of it should be resisted, but none of it represents an existential threat to the church. The only real threat is surrender — caving to the cultural, legal, and political forces demanding conformity. The church can and will survive persecution. It will not survive faithlessness. This is both a theological and historical truth.
In previous pieces, I’ve amply documented the decline and fall of the Protestant Mainline, those churches — like the United Churches of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) — that abandoned biblical orthodoxy decades ago, in the name of cultural relevance and “inclusion.” Some are declining so precipitously that they may cease to exist within a generation. Already we’re seeing similar signs of decline in those Evangelical churches that are abandoning biblical truth on questions of sex, family, and marriage.
The day before the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Nashville Scene — a local alternative paper — ran a long, gauzy profile of Pastor Stan Mitchell and GracePointe, a Tennessee church that’s done exactly what the culture demands and embraced same-sex marriage. In the midst of the lengthy ode to his courage, this small paragraph of truth stood out:
“We’ve lost half our church,” Greene says, adding that some who left were major donors. New members who’ve joined since Jan. 11 — roughly 30 percent of whom identify as LGBT — have offset those losses somewhat, but Mitchell estimates attendance is still down 30 percent from last year. The church has cut staff and expenses to the bone. Mitchell puts the current annual budget for church expenses at $1.3 million; as for revenue, he expects to bring in approximately $900,000 this year. “You can do the math pretty quickly and see that’s not going to work long term,” he says.
No, Mr. Mitchell, it will not. Sure, there will be a few individual congregations that thrive — at least for a time — by embracing all the social change the Left has to offer, but at the end of the day, a church that conforms to the world is no church at all. It’s a social club that asks for money.
The church can and will survive persecution. It will not survive faithlessness. This is both a theological and historical truth.
Defiance, however, means more than merely ensuring that your church or your Christian school doesn’t change its policies. It means more than still donating to your church even if the day comes when you can’t deduct the contribution. It means a willingness to lose your job, your prosperity, and the respect of your peers. It means saying no every time you are compelled to applaud or participate in the sexual revolution. It means standing beside fellow Christians who face persecution or job loss — not just shaking your head and thinking, “There, but for the grace of God . . . ” It means having the courage to proclaim an opposing message — even during mandatory diversity training, even when you fear you might lose your job, and even when you’re terrified about making your mortgage payment. And through it all, it means being kind to your enemies — blessing those who persecute you.
But being kind to one’s enemies does not mean surrendering to them. I’ll never forget the first time I feared for my job because of my faith. In the midst of my first major religious liberty case — defending a small, rural church against a plainly unconstitutional government action — a senior partner at my firm called and demanded that I drop the lawsuit. He believed the firm’s reputation would suffer for representing an Evangelical church. As a second-year associate, I had no power or standing to defy his order, so — after discussing it with my wife and pondering my own mortgage payment — I summoned up my courage, walked into the managing partner’s office, and simply and respectfully said, “I’m not withdrawing from the case. I understand if you feel like you have to fire me, but I can’t abandon the church.” To my immense relief, I kept my job — and the case, which ended up launching my constitutional career.
I tell that story not to proclaim myself as a model for others — I have more than my share of failings, and that small act of defiance hardly merits mention — but simply to say that this is an old problem. Even in the U.S., Christians who’ve not yet faced these tests likely will, and soon. When they do, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure that they not do so alone. As the church stands, it must remember that our present troubles are meaningless compared to the deadly challenges facing the church in the Middle East. And, always, we must remember who controls our destiny.
In the book of First Kings, Elijah faced a wave of persecution and mortal danger beyond anything any American has faced on American soil. He felt alone — terrified that all was coming to an end. He declared to God, “I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” God’s response echoes through the ages: No, Elijah was not alone. He had reserved 7,000 in Israel who’d never bowed to Baal.
God will always preserve his people. All we have to fear are our own buckling knees.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer for National Review.