Where Was the Church?

I’ll begin with some important prefacing remarks. I am absolutely committed to the centrality of local churches in God’s kingdom agenda. Organizations such as EPM are secondary and supplemental to the work of local churches. I was a local church pastor for fourteen years and my heart will always be with the church. As a friend of mine puts it, “The church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B.”

Much of my ministry with EPM involves interaction with pastors, not only locally, but across the country. I count some of my own church’s pastors as among my best friends. I have tremendous respect for them. Whenever I hear activists or parachurch workers criticizing churches I tell them it’s much easier to lead a parachurch group than it is to pastor a church. (I have done both; I know.) I tell them their pastors can’t afford the luxury of focusing on a few issues, as important as they may be. They must fight the battle and fulfill the church’s mission on all fronts simultaneously. This is tiring and not easily done. They need our prayers and our help, and only if they are getting that from us should we feel free to offer our advice.

It is therefore with great caution that I approach my subject in this article; namely, the failure of most Oregon churches to effectively address—in many cases to address at all—the biblical principles at stake in our recent physician assisted suicide ballot measure. Catholic churches and even liberal Protestant churches got much more involved in this effort than evangelical churches, both financially and in the distribution of signs and literature. While EPM donated $1000 to the cause and I spoke on and wrote about the measure, I feel we did not do enough either. (I’m not just pointing fingers at others.)

I teach an ethics class at Multnomah Bible College, with thirty five students, who attend evangelical churches. The day after the election I asked my students “how many of you heard anything said at your church concerning ballot measure 16?” Two hands went up. Both were students from my own church. In talking with pastor friends in Portland, the overall situation seemed to be that while a few had churches had made brief references to the issue from the pulpit, many had said nothing, either due to lack of interest or assuming most people would “know how to vote.”

Despite the strong and clear reference to physician assisted suicide in a message at my own church two Sundays before the vote, after the election two people in lay leadership at my church said to me, “You know, I really didn’t know how to vote on Ballot Measure 16.” If people still did not know how to vote on this measure at one of the few churches that addressed it at all, think how few Christians in most churches had a handle on this issue. No doubt many Christians ended up voting in favor of physician assisted suicide because of the stories and advertising they heard. (Just as polls showed several years ago that 40% of those claiming to be “fundamentalist Christians” voted against a measure that would have eliminated convenience abortions.) If it wasn’t important enough to be addressed from the pulpit and in Sunday School classes and in small groups, then apparently it wasn’t very important.

If only two percent of voters had voted differently, the physician assisted suicide measure wouldn’t have passed. I have no doubt that if Oregon’s churches would have taken seriously our God-given prophetic role, if we would have stood up as a moral conscience, we could have easily turned around the vote not only on measure 16, but on two other measures with clear moral issues at stake. But we didn’t. And now we must live with the consequences, not least of which is the judgment of Almighty God. “It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (1 Peter 4:17).

As tax exempt organizations, the IRS tells churches not to directly endorse political candidates. Although I am always cautious when someone besides God tells the church what it can and cannot say from the pulpit, this is not a big problem to me, since there are other perils to specific candidate endorsement, which is why I never do it in this newsletter. There is another effective way to educate, when church leaders simply tell their people where candidates stand on the major biblical and moral issues at stake (usually just by passing out Christian voter’s guides, as tens of thousands of American churches have the last twenty years). However, this also requires that the churches clearly teach their people what Scripture says on these issues. To know a candidate is for or against physician assisted suicide is useless unless the church has taught its people the truths of Scripture that make absolutely clear what God thinks about physician assisted suicide.)

For years churches have been free to take specific positions on ballot measures, and on the moral issues at stake in those ballot measures, without jeopardizing their tax exempt status. Should the IRS decide churches are no longer free to do so (I have no doubt they eventually will), then churches should do what God calls them to do, even if it means forfeiting tax exempt status (which most churches in the world have never had anyway).

Paul exemplified the prophetic calling of pastors and churches when he said, “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). As long as having tax exempt status doesn’t cause us to hesitate or compromise or leave out certain aspects of the whole counsel of God, then fine, let’s keep it. But if keeping it causes us to not speak out, to withhold helpful information from our people, to hesitate to give clear teaching of scriptural truth on abortion, suicide, homosexuality or any other issue, then it’s time to throw off the shackles of tax exempt status. Jesus said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The state has no right to dictate what the church can and cannot say and do. And if the state does so, in a way that violates God’s calling, then the church has no right to listen to the state instead of to God.

(Would it really be so bad to jeopardize tax exempt status in our determination to be found faithful by God? I fully expect that as EPM continues to fulfill what we believe is our God-given ministry, we will one day lose our tax exempt status as we lose the approval of the state. Does that mean God will no longer use us or provide for us? Of course not. And if that is true of us, how much more true is it of the church, which God promises the very gates of hell shall not prevail against?)

The question “How can they hear without someone preaching to them” (Rom. 10:12) applies not only to the gospel, but to any truth. Left to themselves, or rather left to the prevailing winds of political correctness that inundate them throughout the week, most Christians will not come to biblical conclusions on moral issues. That’s why the sheep need shepherds, and that’s why shepherds need to take their cues from the eternal word of God and their marching orders from the Almighty. That’s why they must not hesitate, must not back off from leading the flock to think and act God’s way, even in—perhaps especially in—controversial areas.

I think the question every church must ask, and every ministry like EPM must ask, is this—”would we say and do anything differently if our tax exempt status was not at stake?” If the answer is “no,” great. But if the answer is “yes,” then it means we are serving an idol. It’s time to do what we should do, whatever we believe God calls us to do, no matter what it puts at risk. “No man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24).

In 1835 there was a meeting of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Two thirds of the delegates were pastors. Christians were the back bone of the underground railroad that illegally housed and fed and transported slaves escaping to freedom. The practice of dueling in America was finally outlawed because so many ministers condemned it from their pulpits. In fact, many of them urged their congregations not to vote for any political candidate who believed in dueling.

How are churches today that stay away from dealing with abortion, euthanasia, homosexual acts and other moral issues are like the American churches that staued away from dealing with slavery? How are they different from the German churches that ignored the killing of Jews? Looking back, we now have the sense of moral clarity to realize the minority of churches which spoke up clearly on unjust legislation and social practices were right to do so, and the majority who failed to speak up were dead wrong. History holds these churches in contempt. It’s easy to look back and think “If I was there, if my church was there, we would have stood up for the slaves or the Jews.” But the truth is, if we’re not standing clearly and firmly and compassionately on the parallel life and death issues here and now, then we lack the character and conviction and courage to have done so then and there.

Too many churches have edited the Great Commission and restricted it to evangelism and a very narrow definition of discipleship. In his Great Commission Jesus didn’t only tell us to evangelize. He told us to make disciples, which he said involves “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).

Jesus commanded us in Luke 10 and Matthew 25 and other passages to be compassionate and to take sacrificial action for the weak and needy. So that’s part of the “everything I have commanded you.” Therefore, if in the church we fail to stand up for God’s truth and fail to intervene for the suffering and needy, and to teach others to do so, then we fail to fulfill the Great Commission. We show the world and the church that our words about the gospel are only that—words.

Ironically, I often hear people say “we should just pray for revival and not worry about these moral and political issues. They aren’t the root problem.” Well, that’s a half truth. Of course, it is true that political solutions are never ultimate solutions. Hearts and minds must be changed by a work of God. But if black people and Jewish people and unborn people and newly born people and old people and terminally ill people are at stake, even if they are going to die from a symptom rather than a root problem, then we dare not fail to speak up or intervene.

Martin Luther said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proven, and to be steady on all the battle fronts besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

I’ve spoken before of William Carey, “the father of modern missions” and his relentless efforts against infanticide, widow burning, and exposing the handicapped and elderly to die. Within his lifetime he saw most of these made illegal in India.

Carey wasn’t alone in his social conscience. Evangelist Charles Finney had a major role in the illegal Underground Railroad, saving the lives of many blacks, while under criticism from fellow Christians because of his civil disobedience. His college, Oberlin college, was a major stop on the underground railroad. (So was Jonathon Blanchard’s Wheaton college.)

John Wesley actively opposed slavery, and encouraged mine workers to unite in order to resist the inhuman treatment by their employers.

D. L. Moody opened homes for underprivileged girls, rescuing them from hopelessness and exploitation. Charles Spurgeon built seventeen homes to help care for elderly women, and a large school for hundreds of children. Spurgeon and his church built homes for orphans in London, rescuing them from starvation and vice on the streets. Amy Carmichael intervened for the sexually exploited girls of India, rescuing them from temple prostitution. She built them homes, a school and a hospital.

When New York City was dominated by corrupt strong arm politics of “Tamanny Hall” early in this century, it was a local church pastor, Charles Parkhurst, who stood up to stop it when no one else would. He was told to just preach the gospel and stay away from politics. But instead of looking the other way, and teaching his congregation to do the same, he personally gathered 284 separate affidavits against the moral corruption in the city. He then proceeded to read every one of them from his pulpit. After a hard fight, the affidavits prompted the judicial action that ended an era of widespread corruption and injustice.

Christian churches were once the conscience of this nation. But what about here? What about now? Look around. What do you see?

When Oregon became the first jurisdiction on the face of the planet to legalize physician assisted murder, where was the church?

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries