The recent events surrounding RFRA legislation in Indiana have many Christians deeply worried, and for good reason. Religious liberty is now seen by a good number of folks as a hostile presence in American cultural life. To do anything but affirm same-sex marriage, for example, is taken as a sign of bias and a creeping interest in inequity.
These are perilous times for Christians. They may well signal that worse effects are in the offing. In other words, the prospects of religious liberty may well decline instead of improving. The church may lose ground in society. Pastors may be imprisoned for preaching sound doctrine. Contributions to ministries may be slashed. We should be prepared for these and other deleterious developments in our day. If we have been asleep until now, every church and every believer should be fully awake, and fully aware of the tectonic plates that are shifting under our feet.
I would say just one cautionary word, though, to my fellow evangelicals: if the culture is in flames, then we should not consign ourselves to sackcloth. Instead, we should work to build something beautiful in the ashes of a once-great society. No, we may not move the levers of power in days ahead. But this does not mean that we have ceased to be what we are: the church, the people of Christ, a kingdom of priests, the hope of the world in tangible form, a counter-culture unto life. This we have been. This, as the life and work of figures like Chuck Colson remind us, we are. This we will be.
Studying church history is a tremendous aid to the soul in times like this. One reason, in fact, that we often get so discouraged is because we evangelicals know so very little church history. In reality, the Christian past is little other than a continual overcoming of discouragement and declension. In other words, past believers have found themselves in remarkably similar circumstances to ours, and yet they have persevered in hope that God would use them despite the encroachment of darkness.
Consider the following, for example:
1st century–The church is barely created (through the death of its Lord!) before Nero blames it for the Roman fire. Mass death follows.
2nd, 3rd centuries–Persecution continues throughout in cycles. Many are martyred, prompting Tertullian’s famous comment about blood being seed of the church.
4th century–Persecution waxes hot just before Constantine becomes emperor. Much good and negative follows, but the station of Christians in society changes. At the same time, various heresies proliferate, including that of Arius. The church, therefore, is threatened both internally and externally.
5th century–Pelagius has made major waves with his grace-denying paradigm of the human will. He made serious inroads with cultural elites. The Lord raises up Augustine, plucking him from a hedonistic, selfish life to be spent for the gospel.7th century–Mohammed introduces his Trinity-denying theology. Over the next eight centuries, Islam advances by the sword. The church in Africa, including Hippo itself (Augustine’s city), is largely wiped out.
6th-16 centuries–The Catholic church largely embraces semi-Pelagian theology. Corruption sets in at the highest levels. The gospel, with its burning core of sola fide, is not lost, but is buried beneath a mixture of faith-and-works.
We could go on and on. One reason for the millenarian, “the end is at hand!” tendency among evangelicals over the centuries is this: they lived hard lives. The end seemed near. The cause seemed dead. In terms that now make some chuckle, they predicted that Christ’s return was close at hand, with some even unwisely setting dates for that event. That was and is a mistake. But if we think about the psychology of such an instinct, we recognize genuine despair and pain in it.
Here’s what we should see in the Christian past: believers living in a fallen world, and struggling through it. Things have very often been hard for gospel-loving believers. The church has suffered from both external and internal threats. The norm over the centuries is not ease and societal coherence, but suffering and societal fragmentation.
We should all read Augustine’s City of God again, written to explain the fall of Rome. We are living through the fall of Rome once more, but Rome is America. We need Augustine’s perspective. The city of man is on fire, but it always has been on fire. It was set on fire by Satan and by the complicity of Adam and Eve. It yet burns. But the city of God is being built in the midst of all this. It will endure, and it will never be conquered.
We should also remember that same-sex marriage, as Mark Dever has said, is not the sum total of all human fallenness. This is not the death-blow of the world. It is no positive development, to be very sure. But if you are aware of the martial march of Islam, the Spanish Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment, two World Wars, the Sexual Revolution, and numerous other cataclysms of history, you will remember that human culture rebels against God. It is inherently fallen, just like our individual hearts are fallen.
Man always has attempted to exalt himself over God, and to run up the flag of human pride. But this always fails in the end. There is a divine economy in this world. Those who persevere in God must often pass through fire and many storms. But the Lord has preserved his gospel in past days, and in terrible circumstances, and he is in the business of doing so now.
The city of man is on fire. But the city of God, the people of Christ, will build in the ashes.