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How should Christians respond to limits on religious practice?

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Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the ‘free exercise’ of evangelical Christianity in America. Part I explored the depth of the disconnect between evangelicals and secular society on certain moral issues. Part II addressed whether or not Christians should think of it as “persecution” when they face consequences for taking a controversial stand on these issues. This installment answers the question of what they should do about it.

When American Christians face social—and, at times, legal—disapproval for acting on their convictions, how should they respond? The New Testament indicates there ought to be a certain joy in facing trials (see, for example, Acts 5:41, II Corinthians 12:10 and James 1:2), especially inasmuch as these trials represent sharing in the suffering of Christ himself (see I Peter 4:13). And Jesus specifically called his followers to “turn the other cheek,” letting God fight on their behalf. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul mounted a vigorous defense in the face of persecution, employing his legal status as a Jew, a Pharisee and a Roman citizen at various points in his troubles (see Acts 21-26 for the story of Paul’s legal wrangling).

Pastor Ron Clegg of Parkview Church (PCA) in Lilburn, Georgia, sees no inherent problem with Christians taking full advantage of the freedoms and legal protections the American system affords. But he suggests three critical steps to doing this in a way that is both effective and, more importantly, in accordance with scripture.

  • First, Christians must always look initially at their own hearts. “Before we get up in arms about persecution,” Clegg says, “let’s first examine ourselves as Christ taught us.” It may be valid, for example, to insist that calling a particular behavior or attitude “sin” does not constitute “bigotry." But is this defense masking any real hatred toward either the “sinners” in question or those on the other side of the argument? “Belligerence and use of tactics that might violate scripture would indicate a need to repent,” says Clegg.
  • Second, believers must recognize that not everyone’s convictions will lie in the same place. Some Christians may feel conscience-bound to avoid particular forms of birth control or to eschew artificial birth control altogether. Others may believe all methods short of intentionally induced abortion are acceptable. “There is no clear answer on every issue as to how to respond,” notes Clegg. “We need to choose our battles carefully, demonstrating a love of the scriptures, each other and other people.” A striking and successful example of this approach is the unlikely friendship that developed between Chick-fil-A President and COO Dan Cathy and prominent LGBT activist Shane Windmeyer.
  • Third, people of faith should take care to point out that they are not the only ones who stand to benefit from defending the right of free exercise. According to Clegg, “Christians fight for ‘our’ rights in part because it is also better for everyone when freedom is expansive." Looking for opportunities to fight on behalf of other groups—such as Muslims or refugees—will lend credibility to this claim.

Evangelical Christians in America may be under increasing public pressure, but they still enjoy vast protections for which they should be grateful. And, as their first-century forebears could well attest, the gospel can flourish even in the midst of cultural friction.

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