A Free Church in a Free Society
For most of us who have been aware of cultural and political developments in recent years, there was little surprise in the Supreme Court ruling announced today. Personally, I was disappointed, but not surprised.
Our nation is an incredibly diverse one. Further, this nation has almost 240 years of experience in the grand experiment crafted by our Founders. This country has been an experiment in freedom. In spite of many shortcomings in our history (e.g. slavery, subjugation of women, child labor, etc.), the idea of freedom has captivated our national consciousness. Liberty is a long-held, much-treasured component of the American ideal. Often this ideal is expressed with pride when we say, "This is America!"
Seeds of liberty were sown across the spectrum in American life from the nation's inception. It took some time for the fruit to be borne both legally and socially. However, in spite of ourselves sometimes, we actually matured into a nation where institutional racism is illegal, equal rights are extended to people of all races and genders, human rights are protected and legal provisions are in place for the impoverished.
It is not--nor has it ever been--a perfect society. However, it has been a grand experiment. The impulse of freedom has penetrated urban, suburban and rural communities in historically-unprecedented fashion. Our national story is replete with untold numbers of people who have risen above their circumstances to achieve "The American Dream." In business, in political life and on the athletic fields--there have been too many inspirational stories to count. At the heart of it all is the concept of freedom. In this country we don't have to ask permission to dream. We don't have to wait on a government-assigned job. We are not subject to institutional limitations that maintain societal divisions.
So -- I would argue the experiment is working. America is a free society. People walk through their day in freedom. A typical American's day is filled with choices. Some of those choices may have a profound impact on their future. It is an amazing country that attracts millions of immigrants each year.
The other aspect of the grand experiment was to all freedom of religion. The Constitution was ratified as amended in 1789. The First Amendment guarantees the practice of religious liberty across our land. This was an unprecedented move. Our Founders were people of faith (not all of them were orthodox Christians). From the very beginning, America was to be a free society inhabited by a free church.
From a church history point of view, this proved to be an unprecedented decision. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been all kinds of relationships between Church and State. The American experiment was truly new. There was to be no persecution, no favoritism and no establishment of religion. Religious expression was to be lived out freely in the context of a free society.
So - how has that worked out?
Again, I would argue the experiment is working. It is not as clear as the State Church model. It is not as pure as the persecuted church experience. However, religion in general and Christianity in particular, has flourished in the grand American experiment.
Just as the seeds of liberty have borne the fruit of diversity in the broader American society, the resulting fruit of religious liberty is a very diverse religious family in America. It is truly the most religiously pluralistic free society on earth. Without government compulsion, but with government protection, religion has grown across America. As already stated, Christianity in particular has truly flourished.
Today, however, we have been reminded of just how difficult it can be to live as a free church in a free society. The highest court in the land has just issued a decision that signals a major societal shift for the American culture. One of the core institutions inherited by American society from much older cultures has just be re-defined by the decision rendered by nine people.
The announcement of this decision has already given evidence of the diversity of religion in America. Christianity is not monolithic across our land. The Christian family is broadly divided across a spectrum known commonly as the right and left. Those who are more liberal in our family (the left) tend to be more embracing of a decision like this. Many of them no longer hold to the authority of the Bible in the traditional sense and thus the message they often proclaim tends to be more of a cultural echo than a prophetic voice. Those on the far right of the spectrum (fundamentalists) tend to demonstrate their anger over these types of decisions and use these times to denounce the American culture. There will be many angry voices heard across America on Sunday morning. I understand their pain and would only caution -- it is okay to get mad, rarely is it ever okay to stay mad.
However, there are many folks like me who tend to hover somewhere in the middle of that theological and religious spectrum. We are not as newsworthy, so you will hear very little from us on a day like this. Our voices are muted by the louder voices on the extremes of our family.
On this day, I have been more reflective than reactionary. I am mulling over how to lead my particular congregation to a reasoned and Biblically-based approach to the free society around us. I am seeking wisdom from God once again as to how to embrace and love people with the love of Jesus Christ without surrendering a deep commitment to the truth He embodies. I have been driven to the Bible again for direction.
I am not given to public political opinions. I am not a politician. And--I have lived long enough to learn how fleeting political power can be. And--I have studied enough history to know how short-lived political victories can be.
I am a spiritual leader. I am a pastor. I am a follower of The Jesus Way. I am seeking God's wisdom as to how to follow faithfully and proclaim graciously the message of the Gospel in a compelling fashion that honors my belief in freedom.
I still believe in a free church in a free society. May God give us His wisdom today as to how to best be the Church for this era!