The recent toppling of Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage has reintroduced concerns over the broader issue of religious liberty. Will pastors like me who refuse to perform same-sex weddings face fines, lawsuits, or jail time? Will preaching Bible passages that call homosexual relations sin be considered hate speech?
These are natural concerns. The moral avalanche of the past decade leaves us quite uncertain about the future. I would propose that, rather than letting our fear-driven speculations bury us, we should gain perspective by considering a nation that currently limits religious liberty: China. I will borrow significant from an article about Christianity in China from this week’s issue of The Economist. As we think about what it means for our brothers and sisters in China to follow Jesus under an atheistic regime, I propose three observations about religious liberty.
1. Jesus will build his church with our without religious liberty.
“Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time.”
The Chinese church has grown tremendously in spite of government crackdowns on house churches, the imprisonment of pastors, and other breaches of civil liberties. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that, according to The Economist, “Many experts, foreign and Chinese, now accept that there are probably more Christians than there are members of the 87 million-strong Communist Party. Most are evangelical Protestants.”
Let that sink in. There are more Christians than Communists in China. Few modern day realities better display Jesus’ declaration, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
Zoom in from the stats of millions to the story of one. “A mid-ranking official in a big city was recently told that her Christian faith, which was well known in the office, was not compatible with her [Communist] party membership and she would have to give it up. She politely told her superiors that she would not be able to do that, and that her freedom of belief was protected by the Chinese constitution. She was not fired, but sent on a remedial course at a party school. She is now back at her job, and says her colleagues often come to her asking for prayer.”
The gates of hell shall not prevail. This woman’s testimony of prayerful ministry to coworkers is the story of the church in China. The article reports, “In other regions local leaders lend support, or turn a blind eye, because they find that Christians are good citizens. Their commitment to community welfare helps to reinforce precious stability.”
God is on the move through his people, with or without the support of the Communist government.
2. Our religious liberty is a blessing.
One of the attractions of Christianity to the Chinese is the way it has paved the way for civil liberties. As The Economist reports, “Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China.”
This is not just a cultural observation but a reality on the ground. “One civil-rights activist says that, of the 50 most-senior civil-rights lawyers in China, probably half are Christians. Some of them have set up the Association of Human Rights Attorneys for Chinese Christians. Groups of well-paid urban Christian lawyers join together to defend Christians—and others—in court.”
Even though the church is growing in spite of government oppression, Christians are speaking out against that oppression. They do not enjoy the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and we should receive these as blessings that our national forefathers spilled blood for us to enjoy.
3. Our religious liberty is a curse.
The article closes with this poignant paragraph: “The paradox…is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church might become institutionalized, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen’s churches of Wenzhou. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may become a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe: ‘If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.’”
Our work to maintain our religious liberties must be accompanied by a sober acknowledgment of their harm. The American church is much healthier than the remnants of European “Christendom,” but we have our fair share of corruption and feebleness. If anything, this Chinese elder’s statement should remind us that religious liberty is not the church’s Promised Land.
Indeed, the only way the American church can endure with strength and impact is if we keep our eyes fixed on the true Promised Land, the New Jerusalem that Jesus will bring about at his return to make all things new. The bulk of our resources should be poured out in declaring and displaying his just, merciful reign, come what may. With this orientation will we be free to thrive and suffer as exiles in this land, with full allegiance to our crucified and risen King.
You can read The Economist article in its entirety here.