On Religious Liberty and the Freedom to Worship

declaration

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
— Jeremiah 29:7 —

Today marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a day that marks the birth of our nation and reminds us of the wonderful liberties we have in America. In celebration our family read that founding declaration this morning and praised God for placing us in this country.

At the same time, though, my praise is mixed with pain and petition.

America is not what it was when it was founded. In many wonderful ways the liberties that were not afforded to all men have been extended. But in other less admirable ways, the liberties constituent in the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights have devolved into a libertine version of hyper-individualism. (On this point listen Albert Mohler’s recent discussion with Yuval Levin). Whereas rights were once understood to be endowed by our creator, rights have become things which men can create or castrate as they—or the Supreme Court–wish.

One of the greatest differences the founders vision of liberty and today’s is found in the increasing distinction between the “freedom of worship” and the “freedom of religion.” The former is the freedom of personal belief and private religious assembly; the latter is the constitutional right—the very first right—which says in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .”

In our day, the change in language to “freedom of worship” is altering the understanding of this first amendment right, and with societal pressure Christians are being forced to mute their beliefs—especially with regards to marriage, sex, and lifestyle choices (a clever euphemism in and of itself). For that reason, on this day of liberty I am both grateful and grieved.

But perhaps, as a pastor, I am most concerned about the way some Christians and Christian leaders celebrate the Fourth of July without voicing any concern for these changes. Can we watch fireworks, grill hotdogs, and eat apple pie, assuming all is well? I think not. As Os Guiness (A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and America’ Future) and Eric Metaxas (If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of America’s Liberty) have observed, America’s liberty is under threat from within. And therefore, this holiday leads me in two directions regarding religious liberty and the freedom to worship. Continue reading

The Bible in American Public Life: Two Lessons from Mark Noll’s New Book

nollMark Noll’s new book, In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783is a fascinating look at Scripture role in forming the influencing individuals during the first three centuries of the American Experiment. He opens, “It is no exaggeration to claim the Bible has been—and by far—the single most widely read text, distributed object, and in reference book in all of American history” (1). Because of its central place in the personal, social, and political thought life of America—not to mention its spiritual and religious influence—the Bible has given language and leverage for all kinds of actions in American history.

This is the goal of Noll’s book, to show how self-conscious biblicism translated into the public square. He begins with the Bible’s impact in England and follows it across the Atlantic, showing how the move from British Christendom to American colonialism shaped the way Americans read the Bible. As he has demonstrated in his other books (especially, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and The Civil War as Theological Crisis), America’s political crises and military engagements (e.g., the Revolutionary and Civil Wars) deeply shaped America’s reading of the Bible. Continue reading

A Prayer for America

thanksYesterday, I suggested we take time in our church services to pray for our country as Daniel and Nehemiah did for theirs. Last year, with those model prayers in mind, I offered this prayer at church. A year later it is just as appropriate, just as needed.

Holy God. You are right to demand holiness. Your will for all those made in your image is holiness. We confess that this is right and good.

And with that in mind, we confess we are not. In our city streets and in the corridors of our mind, we are unholy. Our nation and many in your church are drunk on impurity.

We are consumers of lewd entertainment.

We are led by an insatiable desire for more—more money, more sex, more fun, more stuff.

We legalize that which is a stench in your nostrils, and we outlaw that which pleases you.

Worse, our churches follow the ways of this world. We import the practices of our culture.

Instead of celebrating purity, we applaud celebrity.

Following the world, we mix your Word with a cocktail of psychology, leadership principles, and positive thinking.

Forgive us!

We thank you for the Christians who have gone before us, and been salt and light to preserve our nation.

We thank you for the legacy of Christian faithfulness that we have in this country. No country on earth has more churches, Bible schools, Christian publishers, and free access to you.

What a gift! What grace! Thank you for sharing your light with such undeserving and unthankful people.

But, oh how, we tremble at the way such blessings are trampled under foot.

Churches that were once committed to your Word are compromising.

Schools founded to glorify Jesus have exchanged light for darkness.

Leaders who once upheld truth, justice, and goodness are now controlled by moral relativism and whatever is popularity.

And what is popular is not holy. We deserve your judgment. If we learn anything from your words to Israel, we deserve to lose the lease on our land. We deserve to be vomited out. God forgive us!

Send your Holy Spirit. Revive your churches.

May the pulpits of America once again unashamedly declare Christ.

May the Christians in our country strive after holiness.

May we show the world a kind of love that makes God-haters thirst for Jesus.

Oh, be merciful to us! We are sinners. In your holiness, remember your Son’s atoning death. Be patient with us, and help us to be a light in this dark country.

Grant us sober hearts. Hearts that grieve not for the loss of Americana, but for the loss of your holiness.

Father in heaven, hallow your name in our country!

May God grant us, our churches, our nation a heart of repentance and renewed thirst for him and his righteousness.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Trading in Our Patriotic Hymns for Songs of Lament

crossWith the Obergefell decision weighing heavy on our minds, I have been wondering how churches in America will worship this Sunday. Will they go on as usual singing patriotic hymns? Or will they, in light of recent days, reconsider their song selection?

For those involved in music ministry and church leadership, this is not a new question. And honestly, the Obergefell decision should not be the deciding factor. However, that ruling has solidified concerns Christians have with America, and thus raises the question again—Should a church incorporate patriotic hymns in a service of worship?

Thinking on that subject, I believe a church has 1 of 3 options—no incorporation (option #1), selective incorporation (option #2), and unqualified incorporation (option #3). I think the first two options are valid with #1 outweighing #2, while option #3 is troubling and in need of revamping—something that could be done as soon as tomorrow. Let’s consider together. Continue reading