It’s Good to be Free

Guess who’s going to North Korea? Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, has been invited to come to the communist country next week. Tensions are already high between North Korea and the United States, particularly with the firing of a 7th medium-range missile. Even prior to these recent events, North Korea has been known for its religious persecution. Warren apparently understands this reality: “I know they’re going to use me, so I’m going to use them.” Saddleback is the largest Baptist church in the nation, and members consider Warren’s trip a victory for religious freedom. However, a Christian Worldview Network spokesperson has another perspective. Ingrid Schueter, producer and co-host of a Christian talk show on the network says “not for a moment do these leaders worry they will have a Christian revival on their hands. Warren is loved and feted because his message is absent the cross and Christ’s call to die” (ABP). Why was Warren invited? Time will tell.

We’re 230 years old! July 4th is celebrated across our land with hamburgers, hotdogs, parades, and fireworks. And flags galore. One aspect of our Constitution that has particular meaning for me is the Bill of Rights, and specifically the first amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Other parts of it include freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the right to address the government for a redress of grievances. I wonder what North Korea’s constitution looks like.

We are a religious nation. Some would say we are a “Christian” nation. However, we must not confuse patriotism with freedom in Jesus Christ. Being an American doesn’t make me a Christian. Jesus addressed a similar issue with the Jews who felt like being Abraham’s descendants gave them privileged status. He responded, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now, a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:34-36). They believed their physical lineage and geographical location secured special favor with the Almighty. This sort of thing is going on in our country today.

Historically, Baptists have been on the front lines in the fight for religious liberty. We have been on the receiving end of persecution in centuries past and would think we’d learn from it. But, growth and prosperity have caused many Baptists to change their tune. W.A. Criswell’s comment in a 1984 television interview aptly describes the shift away from a key Baptist distinctive. He said, “I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination.” Interestingly, Criswell followed a pastor at FBC Dallas who held to a completely different viewpoint. Dr. George W. Truett gave a sermon on the East steps of the Capitol Building in 1920 recalling Jesus’ words to “render unto Ceasar the things that are Ceasar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Truett said that these words were “the most revolutionary and history making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. It marked once and for all the divorcement of church and state.”

We’re in trouble when Criswell’s viewpoint gets more applause than does his predecessor’s. There is a movement in place that seeks to wrap the church in an American flag and turn places of worship into political temples. It’s almost as if you have to adhere to a particular political persuasion in order to be accepted in some churches. If you happen to disagree with the pastor or other leadership in these politically-consumed churches, then you are labelled as “just not believing the Bible.” When politics and piety begin to mix, you know that something is going to be compromised. As with Esau from the book of Genesis, churches are giving away their prophetic birthright for a political bowl of stew.

Walking down one of the aisles of the Resource Fair at the CBF meeting in Atlanta, I stopped to look at a book entitled “Exiled.” I must have been walking too slow, because the next thing I knew the author was selling me his book. The book is a compilation of essays written by men and women who for one reason or another found themselves marginalized from the SBC. He signed the front page, looked at me, and said the words he had written–“It’s good to be free.” He was talking about freedom in a denominational sense, but the words can apply to a broader theme. It is good to be free as Americans and as Christians, but we must not confuse the two. The Apostle Paul said that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Ph 3:20).

I believe in getting involved in politics by supporting candidates and going to the polls. But keep it outside the doors of the Lord’s House. Preach issues but don’t endorse candidates. Take a stand on the Word of God. Encourage people to vote, but don’t make political party affiliations a test of fellowship in the church. Let’s be more concerned about being on the Lord’s side than whether He is on ours. People are living and dying without hearing or seeing an authentic Christian witness. Churches can all too easily fall prey to the politics of power and position. Keep the Jeffersonian “wall of separation” in place. If we don’t, then either the church or the state is going to lose. I think I know which one.

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