The Greatest Engine for Good: The Local Church

This is one of those times of year where people who don’t usually attend church may find themselves attending services. Maybe it’s part of a family visit. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe it’s an itch in need of scratching. Or maybe it’s a desire. Whatever the cause, it could be fuel for civic renewal.

While the country seems obsessed with what’s happening in Washington, D.C. — with emotions and reactions ranging from encouragement, concern, dread, outrage and just about every other feeling in between — we’re missing something that should be more fundamental to the everyday life of our country.

California businessman William E. Simon Jr. aims to remedy that with a group he’s founded, Parish Catalyst, and a book he’s written, Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive. Having surveyed 244 parishes, he’s in the business now of sharing what works.

This was one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Simon tells me. “It was (megachurch pastor) Rick Warren who pointed this out to me, and he’s right: The local church is the greatest engine for good in history. It’s got the biggest distribution system. It’s got the longest track record. It’s got the most committed people. It’s better than any government and bureaucracy, any agency. And it’s been around for 2,000 years, and there’s no sign that it’s not going to be around for another 2,000 years. You can’t say that about any other entity.”

Focusing on the Catholic piece of the engine, Simon points out that there are roughly 80 million Catholics in the United States, about 80 percent of them affiliated with a parish. “About 64 million Catholics are affiliated somehow or another with a parish. So, if only 10 percent of them are paying attention, that’s 6.4 million. If you could double that number, that’d be another 6.4 million. That’s a h*** of an opportunity.” (Read more from “The Greatest Engine for Good: The Local Church” HERE)

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US Culture in Crisis: Church Attendance Plummets, White Supremacy, Racial Hatred and Societal Polarization Skyrockets

Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.

Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not. (Read more from “US Culture in Crisis: Church Attendance Plummets, White Supremacy, Racial Hatred and Societal Polarization Skyrockets” HERE)

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Latest Examples of Cultural and Governmental Bullying: Church, Wake Up

Have you ever watched a movie where the good guy got framed for what the bad guy did and you felt morally indignant, desperate to see justice done and the horrible wrongs made right? That’s how I feel when I see social madness in our country, wondering to myself, “How can this go on in front of our eyes? What kind of craziness is this?”

Let me give you several cases in point.

Transgender Activism in a Texas High School

In Texas, a 17-year-old girl who identifies as a boy is taking testosterone supplements as she begins to “transition” to being male. (She currently identifies as a boy named “Mack” Beggs and is referred to as “he” in a relevant article about her.) She is in the news because she wrestles on the girls’ team and just won a tournament when her opponent in the finals forfeited because the other girl’s parents protested the match.

And they had every reason to protest.

Beggs is taking performance enhancing drugs, and in a physically-taxing sport like wrestling, the differences are all the more tangible. That’s why the lawsuit brought by the parents of another female wrestler urged the governing body to suspend Beggs “because of the use of the steroid. The suit claims that allowing the wrestler to compete while using testosterone exposes other athletes to ‘imminent threat of bodily harm.’”

This is not rocket science, and Beggs would not be allowed to compete in a college-level or Olympic or professional match while on steroids. (Is this why Beggs is undefeated this season?)

Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are banned for logical, obvious reasons, yet logic seems to stop at the door when it comes to transgender activism.

Accordingly, Beggs’ grandmother (and guardian), rather than recognizing how unfair this all was to the other girls who worked so hard to be there, could only say, “Today was not about their students winning. Today was about bias, hatred and ignorance.”

This is absolute nonsense, and while my heart goes out to young “Mack” and I truly want to see her find wholeness without sex-change surgery and a lifetime of hormones, I reject the notion that her struggles should now be imposed on the other female athletes.

Shame on the school system for letting this happen.

Allegations of Gay Bullying in the WNBA

To give another example from the sports world, we are constantly reminded of the struggles experienced by gay athletes, to the point that Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL, blamed the NFL’s alleged homophobia on his failure to make it at the highest level of the sport.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that other players would be uncomfortable around him once he announced he was homosexual. After all, they are strong young men in the prime of life who work out together and play together and shower and undress next to each other and who horse around in manly ways. Why should they be expected to feel perfectly at home with an openly gay player, even if they did their best to ignore this and behave as professionals?

Today, however, we’re hearing about something very different.

An article about former WNBA player Candice Wiggins states, “There is a ‘very, very harmful’ culture running throughout the WNBA, she says, which saw her get bullied during her eight-year career because she is heterosexual.”

She claims that, “Me being heterosexual and straight, and being vocal in my identity as a straight woman was huge. I would say 98 percent of the women in the WNBA are gay women. It was a conformist type of place. There was a whole different set of rules they [the other players] could apply.”

And, she alleges, “People were deliberately trying to hurt me all of the time. I had never been called the B-word so many times in my life than I was in my rookie season. I’d never been thrown to the ground so much. The message was: ‘We want you to know we don’t like you.’”

Could this be true?

If it is, even if her estimate about the percentage of lesbian players is too high, don’t expect her story to get much traction in the news. After all, straights are never the victims, only gays are the victims, and because Wiggins is straight and therefore part of the dominant culture, she can’t be the victim. Straights are the bullies, so suck it up, lady, and stop complaining.

As this story gets more responses, we’ll see if my theory holds true.

NFL, NBA Threaten Texas

How about one more from the sports world before I get to the most egregious example of all?

Back in Texas, the NFL and NBA have warned the state that if they pass a bill similar to North Carolina, which, among other things, forbids boys who believe they are girls from playing on girls’ sports teams or using the girls’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers, the state will be severely punished by the leagues.

Responding to the NFL, which was the first to threaten Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said, “The last thing the NFL needs to do is to get into the business of telling states how to operate their own political operations.” Indeed.

And what will the NFL and NBA (and NCAA and others) do if state after state does the right thing and protects the privacy and rights of its citizens? Hopefully, we’ll find out in the years ahead as the pushback against radical LGBT activism continues.

USDA Officials Order Christian Business Owner to Hide His Beliefs on Marriage

Finally, in Michigan, a Christian business owner experienced an absolutely outrageous example of government overreach. As explained by Tony Perkins, “Donald Vander Boon has been operating a meatpacking center in Michigan for almost 15 years — but thanks to the federal government, it’s his freedom that’s getting butchered.”

What happened is truly shocking (and should send shock waves across the country).

When USDA officials were touring the plant for an inspection:

They noticed a handful of brochures on the break room table about natural marriage. As Don tells it, the article was mixed in with the stacks of newspapers celebrating the recent Supreme Court decision redefining marriage. Even so, the on-site officers took offense to the literature, walked into Don’s office, closed both doors, and told him they’d call off the inspection if the material wasn’t removed.

So, the Christian owner of a meatpacking center employing 45 workers was given an ultimatum by USDA officials — who were there to inspect the meat operation, not the beliefs, of Vander Boon — telling him that if he didn’t remove the material on marriage, there would be no inspection, as a result of which the center would be shut down.


According to inspectors, Don’s article was “offensive” and had violated a new rule from the Obama administration that gave government officials (including these inspectors) the right to take “immediate and appropriate corrective action” when dealing with anything they considered “harassment.” Vander Boon’s position on marriage, he was told, qualified.

In his own words, “It’s made me realize how quickly we can lose our religious liberty. I never dreamed that I would have this experience, and that I would have USDA personnel telling me that I had to choose between putting an article on the break room table or my business.”

Today, more than 18 months after this event took place, despite ongoing legal efforts by the ADF, the Department of Agriculture has not changed its policy or responded to Vander Boon’s rightful concerns. Perhaps this is coming to your business next?

There’s a reason I and others have been sounding the alarm for years now, seeking to wake up a slumbering church and a complacent society.

If these latest examples don’t jolt readers into reality, I wonder what will.

Honestly, I hate to imagine.

So, let’s pray and act today lest tomorrow’s news makes today’s news look relatively mundane.

God have mercy on America. (For more from the author of “Latest Examples of Cultural and Governmental Bullying: Church, Wake Up” please click HERE)

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Legislation Would Curb Restrictions on Political Speech in Churches

Congress is taking aim at a 1950s-era law that restricts the free speech of churches and other nonprofits after President Donald Trump recently condemned it.

Trump pledged at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month, “I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., was a pastor for 25 years before serving in Congress, which is one reason he favors doing away with the Johnson Amendment. The law threatens the tax-exempt status of nonprofits, including churches, for engaging in certain political speech.

“For too long, the IRS has used the Johnson Amendment to silence and threaten religious institutions and charitable entities,” Hice said in a public statement. “As a minister who has experienced intimidation from the IRS firsthand, I know just how important it is to ensure that our churches and nonprofit organizations are allowed the same fundamental rights as every citizen of this great nation.”

Hice and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., announced their bill to repeal the law the same day Trump pledged to at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment was included in the GOP platform adopted at the 2016 Republican National Convention that nominated Trump.

The bill would amend the U.S. tax code to allow 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to speak out on political matters so long as the commentary is made in the ordinary course of the carrying out of a group’s tax-exempt purpose, and as long as no expenditures are made to promote the message that might relate to a candidate.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., the co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, has a companion Senate bill, which he said is crafted to ensure more political speech rights, but also won’t allow churches and nonprofits to become political action committees.

“The Free Speech Fairness Act is needed to prevent government intrusion and suppression of free speech by removing a restriction on speech that has existed since 1954,” Lankford said of his bill in a public statement. “The First Amendment right of free speech and right to practice any faith, or no faith, are foundational American values that must extend to everyone, whether they are a pastor, social worker, or any charity employee or volunteer.”

However, Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, insisted repealing the Johnson Amendment could unleash money in politics and corrupt the purpose of churches.

“This is an issue closely identified with the religious right, but it would affect every organization with 501(c)(3) status, not just houses of worship,” Boston told The Daily Signal in phone interview. “You might see sham nonprofits start up to funnel money to campaigns. Tax-exempt status is a benefit, but it does come with conditions.”

Boston said this is a question of bad policy rather than a constitutional matter.

“I don’t think [getting rid of the Johnson Amendment] would be an Establishment Clause violation unless the repeal was limited to houses of worship,” Boston said.

A leaked draft executive order from the White House showed the Trump administration was considering an inclusive order to recognize the right to religious expression, not just the right to worship. Once this was reported, several liberal groups stepped up to oppose the action.

A concern to some conservatives is that Trump will attempt to address the Johnson Amendment matter through an executive order, while ignoring other significant religious freedom concerns.

Melanie Israel, a research associate with the DeVos Center for Religious and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal in a statement:

Should Trump issue an executive order that only addresses the Johnson Amendment, it would be a tremendous disappointment because the Johnson Amendment cannot be fully addressed by executive order and must ultimately be repealed by Congress. In the meantime, there are high-priority items that can be fixed by the text of the draft executive order earlier this month. Trump should move quickly to make good on the commitment that his administration will do ‘everything in its power’ to protect religious liberty. The draft copy of the leaked executive order is a good, lawful public policy that would ensure that the public square remains open to all religious voices, including those whose voices differ from the government’s view.

The Johnson Amendment was named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat, in 1954. Johnson was the Senate minority leader at the time, and he and other lawmakers were concerned 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups would get involved in the elections on behalf of their opponents.

Just before the Senate’s summer recess, Johnson, who would go on to become vice president and later president, pushed through an amendment to rescind a charitable nonprofit’s tax-exempt status if such an organization—including churches—campaigned for or against a political candidate.

The text of the House and Senate bills protect liberal and conservative groups and churches of any leaning, said Travis Weber, director for the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.

“This loosens up simple speech on churches or environmentalist nonprofits or other groups,” Weber told The Daily Signal. “Some might seize on this and say this repeal would be good for just Republicans or for Christian conservatives, but they aren’t looking at the law to see who it protects.” (For more from the author of “Legislation Would Curb Restrictions on Political Speech in Churches” please click HERE)

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It’s Time to Restore Free Speech to American Churches

For more than 60 years, the federal government has been sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, threatening to punish houses of worship and their leaders for what they say.

The Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in Congress earlier this week and, if enacted, would go a long way toward ending that.

Ever since 1954, when Congress enacted the Johnson Amendment, the IRS has been telling churches that it has the power to monitor their speech.

Under that law, if pastors or other clergy say anything that (in the government’s opinion) is “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” the feds can begin taxing them and potentially bring about their financial ruin.

The history behind that speech-censoring law is not what you might expect.

Most people might assume that it was part of secularists’ relentless efforts to “separate church and state.” But the story that history tells is quite different.

In the 1950s, then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, faced stiff criticism from nonreligious nonprofit organizations. In order to silence their attacks against his future campaigns, he introduced a bill to ban all nonprofit groups from speaking for or against political candidates.

Interestingly enough, churches weren’t even the target of his proposal.

But regardless of Johnson’s intent, houses of worship nevertheless find themselves squarely within that law’s reach. And for well over half a century, they’ve had to continually wonder when their speech on some of the most pressing political issues of the day might trigger IRS scrutiny.

This tramples on the rightful role of churches.

Pastors, priests, and other clergy are called to instruct their congregants in all areas of life. The holy texts of the Abrahamic faiths have implications for everything in life, including politics and how to vote.

As Christian theologian and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands Abraham Kuyper wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

The Johnson Amendment, however, carves out portions of this domain and labels them off-limits for churches unwilling to incur steep financial penalties.

The Johnson Amendment’s scope is sometimes misunderstood. It doesn’t just prohibit clergy from telling congregants who to vote for; it reaches beyond that, threatening to punish all houses of worship for saying anything that the IRS might deem to be in favor of, or in opposition to, a political candidate.

That vague guidance makes it impossible for religious leaders to know what crosses the line and what doesn’t.

Consider these scenarios: What if a pastor states in a sermon that a politician is unfit because his or her personal morality is not in line with the Bible’s teachings? Or what if a rabbi remarks that a politician’s immigration proposals do or do not honor the lessons of his faith’s sacred texts?

It’s not clear whether one, neither, or both of these examples cross the line.

But this we do know—churches and other houses of worship shouldn’t have to worry about this.

They should be free to speak on personal morality, immigration policies, and countless other issues as they relate to anything, including political candidates, and they should be free to do so without fear of government punishment.

The Free Speech Fairness Act would put an end to religious leaders’ playing this guessing game.

It would tell the federal government to stop scrutinizing what churches say about political candidates, and it would lift the muzzles that now cover America’s pulpits on the many issues that often cross into the realm of politics.

The often misunderstood idea of “separation of church and state” is a common objection to bills like the Free Speech Fairness Act. But those sorts of arguments have it exactly backwards: The Free Speech Fairness Act would actually restore (rather than undermine) a proper division between the government and the church.

Currently, bureaucrats are empowered to monitor pastors’ sermons. What could be a greater governmental intrusion into a church’s operations than that?

By removing a primary basis upon which the IRS inspects what clergy say, the Free Speech Fairness Act would put the government back in its proper place.

Over six decades ago, Texas politician Lyndon Johnson set off a chain of events that invited federal officials to meddle where they didn’t belong. The Free Speech Fairness Act says it’s high time we sent them packing. (For more from the author of “It’s Time to Restore Free Speech to American Churches” please click HERE)

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Trump Vows to Repeal Political Limits on Churches

Warning that religious freedom is “under threat,” President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS rule barring pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.”

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries.

Trump made a similar pledge as a candidate but has not detailed how he plans to scrap the rule or how quickly he will proceed in doing do.

Religious conservatives whose overwhelming support propelled Trump to the White House have been watching closely for him to deliver on promised protections for religious objectors to gay marriage and abortion. Kelly Shackelford, head of First Liberty Institute, a non-profit legal group that specializes in religious freedom cases, said no other presidential candidate was “more outspoken on their commitment to religious freedom” than Trump.

The president made no mention at the prayer breakfast of other steps he may take on those issues, saying only that religious freedom is a “sacred right.” He used his remarks to thank the American people for their prayers in his opening days in office. (Read more from “Trump Vows to Repeal Political Limits on Churches” HERE)

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Liberal Theology Empties Churches

The Episcopal Church in America reached peak membership in 1959, with about 3.5 million baptized members, rising from just over one million in a decade. Since the population of the USA also rose during this period, another way to put it is to say the Episcopal Church had in 1959 about 19.4 members per every 1,000 citizens, rising from 17 per 1,000 in 1949. Total church membership has since fallen, with membership about 1.8 million in 2015, or 5.5 per 1,000, and dropping none too slowly.

Liberal versus Conservative

Similar rapid decreases are seen among the Presbyterian (PCUSA), United Methodist, and Lutheran (ELCA) churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians (USA), Lutherans (ELCA) and United Methodists represent historical or mainline Protestant Churches in the USA,

The much more evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, because of its age, is similarly situated. Numbers are better in the large Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) than in the Mainline. But membership in SBC congregations has not been keeping track with population increases.

In contrast, evangelical denominations, such as for example the Assemblies of God, while still individually smaller than mainline Protestant congregations, have seen significant growth. The Assemblies of God had only about 300 thousand members in 1950 (about 2.1 per 1,000), swelling ten times to 3.1 million last year (9.8 per 1,000).

Broadly speaking, and using the colloquial understanding of the terms, conservative Protestant churches have had increases this past half century, and liberal churches have had decreases. It is, of course, of interest to shore up these loose expressions and discover just what “conservative” and “liberal” mean in this context.

Enter the paper “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy” by David Millard Haskell, Kevin N. Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne in the journal Review of Religious Research. The trio asked questions of the clergy and congregations of 22 Protestant churches drawn from the Anglican Church of Canada (5), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (4), the Presbyterian Church in Canada (8), and the United Church of Canada (4) all centered in southern Ontario. Of these, 13 had declining populations from 2003 to 2013 and 9 had increasing populations.

Now this isn’t an especially large or necessarily representative sample of churches outside Canada; however, as the survey questions will show, there is still much that can be learned.

Congregations in Growing and Declining Churches
Several questions were asked of the congregants, and many answers showed wide disagreement between the Growing and Declining churches.

For instance, 79% of Growing congregants agreed strongly with the statement “Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of my sins,” whereas only 57% of Declining congregants thought the same. About 19% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant,” whereas 31% of Declining congregants thought so.

Three questions in particular were revealing in the conservative-liberal gap. Only 7% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the Bible is the product of human thinking about God, so some of its teachings are wrong or misguided,” whereas over 15% of Declining congregants strongly agreed.

About 13% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “all major religions are equally good and true,” but more than twice as many Declining congregants, or 25%, thought so. On the fundamental basis of the Christian religion, 66% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” but only 37% of Declining congregants did.

Not surprisingly, about 29% of Growing congregants thought their church’s mission was evangelism, and 16% thought it was social justice, whereas the numbers in Declining congregations was 9% and 31%.

Clergy in Growing and Declining Churches

Questions were also asked of the clergy, and the differences between Growing and Declining congregations was starker.

The largest difference was in the statement “Jesus was not the divine Son of God,” where it might be expected no clergy member could agree. And, indeed, no Growing clergy member agreed in any way. Yet 13% of Declining clergy agreed at least moderately.

Likewise, no Declining clergy strongly agreed that “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” but 77% of Growing clergy did. The statement “The beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant” could not get any Growing clergy to agree in any way, but 69% of Declining clergy at least moderately agreed.

Some 70% of Growing clergy strongly agreed that “those who die face a divine judgement where some will be punished eternally,” but only 6% of Declining clergy moderately agreed, and none strongly agreed. On that same fundamental question asked of the congregation, 85% of Growing clergy strongly agreed (and none strongly disagreed) that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” yet only 38% of Declining clergy thought so (and 19% strongly disagreed).

Has the call for liberalization failed?

Writing in the Washington Post, one of the authors of the study (Haskell), reminds us of the 1999 book by Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “Spong, a theological liberal, said congregations would grow if they abandoned their literal interpretation of the Bible and transformed along with changing times.”

The Episcopal Church followed this advice. They have female priests and bishops. They allow “the ordination of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender clergy.” They even had a practicing homosexual bishop in a (government-defined) “marriage” to another man, a “marriage” which was further liberalized into a “divorce.”

Yet, even though Haskell says Spong’s theory “won favor with academics” and was “praised” at no less eminent a place than the Harvard Divinity School to assist in “shifting Christianity to meet the needs of the modern world,” the Episcopal Church’s membership dropped precipitously, with no sign of slowing. The Church even splintered, with the Anglican Church in North America forming from former Episcopalians who could not countenance Spong’s liberal theology.

As for the anti-climatic conclusion of his study, Haskell blandly writes, “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.”

Apparently theological liberalism empties churches. (For more from the author of “Liberal Theology Empties Churches” please click HERE)

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Excommunication and the Church: A Dose of Discipline with a Side of Grace

I was 17 years old when I first witnessed an evangelical “excommunication.” It was disturbing, sad, frightening, unnerving — and necessary. Unfortunately, excommunication is often misunderstood, even by The online guide claims that “excommunication is a formal way of describing what happens when someone gets kicked out of his or her church, for good.” It goes on to say:

Excommunication is really a kind of banishment, a punishment that’s handed out by a church when one of its members breaks some important church rule.

No, no and no. Merriam-Webster’s definition is much better. The dictionary discusses the rights of church membership that are affected, but also highlights that it’s “an exclusion from fellowship in a group or community.” That’s more like it. It’s exclusion, but not necessarily permanent.

Yes, We’re All Guilty

It’s an unfortunate reality and a consequence of our humanity that each of us sins. Some are just a little better at sinning with the noticeable stuff. In some cases, certainly not all, this warrants excommunication from the body of believers. In the case at my church, it was temporary. A married woman was in a relationship with another man and, although she cried profusely in front of the church body, she refused to end the relationship. So she was cut off from our body of believers temporarily. Call it grace, call it true repentance, call it church policy but she was allowed back into the church after some time. This after she and her husband divorced and she married the man with whom she’d had an extramarital relationship.

For whatever reason, the church felt at that time that she was repentant and eligible to commune with the body once again.

But We Can See You Better

Situations like these get ugly when the sinner is a high-profile Christian leader, as in the case of Tullian Tchividjian, former pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and grandson of “America’s Pastor” Billy Graham. Following his confession to extramarital affairs and subsequent divorce, many Christian leaders have recently signed a statement saying that Tchividjian has “disqualified” himself “from any form of public vocational ministry.” Tchividjian resigned from Coral Ridge in 2015 and worked for a while at Willow Creek Church near Chicago in a non-ministry post but was fired when it was discovered that he’d had another inappropriate relationship. Tchividjian re-married last month.

While pastors and friends in church leadership continue to plead publicly with Tchividjian to “repent of his wickedness and demonstrate his repentance by submitting himself to the leadership of his church of membership, pursuing forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation with those whom he has sinned against,” Tchividjian told Christianity Today that he is doing just that. “Nothing grieves me more than the fact that people are suffering because of my sins, both in my past as well as in the present,” he stated. “I want to be perfectly clear that I take full responsibility for this.” He went on to say:

Please pray for those who are most deeply affected and please respect their privacy. … God knows how sorry I am for all the damage I’ve caused and the people who have been hurt. Please pray that the good work God has begun will be carried out to completion.

Don’t Be a Stumbling Block

He said he is committed to the “painful and progressive process” of repentance. Yes, it’s painful, but oh-so-necessary, too. That’s because people, particularly those in high-profile positions of Christian leadership, have the capacity to harm the faith of others. My church failed to address the well-known sexual sin of my former fiancée. I struggled with my faith (and relationships) as a direct consequence of that for many years. Others undoubtedly did as well. Jesus knew this — about me and humans in general — and addressed it during a sermon at Capernaum:

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves (Luke 17:1-3).

Even more so, those in leadership will have to rise to a higher standard and will one day answer for their actions that caused others to fall: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

Just Good Discipleship

Christianity Today’s Mark Galli wrote an insightful piece on church discipline last month, stating, “We do no one any favors if we ignore or downplay core beliefs.” His November 23 piece covered InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s decision to ask employees who disagreed with their theological commitments on human sexuality to resign. IVCF takes a traditionally orthodox theological stance on the issue of human sexuality. Galli said that this isn’t a “witch hunt,” or “purge,” but simply good discipleship. The church must hold high standards set not by an arbitrary panel of human leaders but by the Leader of the Church, Jesus Christ. It is “crucial to be clear about doctrinal and ethical standards,” said Galli, something that IVCF is doing. To do less than clearly state biblical orthodoxy and hold the Word of God up as the standard would be a tremendous disservice to believers as they live out their faith. Not only because the sinner continues in a pattern of sin and outside of the holy will of God, but also because his or her sin will cause others to stumble in their faith.

With Grace In Mind At All Times

On the other hand, the Church must allow for grace, forgiveness and true repentance. asserts correctly that “discipline is everything the church does to help its members pursue holiness and fight sin.” Once sin has gained a foothold in someone’s life, the goal is to draw the person back to holiness, not to permanently bar them from church. “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

While it may be necessary to bar someone from church fellowship for a time, the goal is always to bring them back to fullness with Christ through true repentance. No, it isn’t permanent; no, it isn’t banishment; and no, it isn’t about “some important church rule” that has been broken. It’s allowing the broken person to come to a place of repentance and acceptance of God’s forgiveness, which ideally the Church mirrors in her love for the sinner — just as Tchividjian says he has experienced, as he expressed in a Facebook post:

I could tell you a thousand stories of the ways God has sweetly met me very specifically in my darkest and most despairing moments, of which there have been many. Through many of you, God has met my guilt with his grace, my mess with his mercy, my sin with his salvation.

(For more from the author of “Excommunication and the Church: A Dose of Discipline with a Side of Grace” please click HERE)

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Surprise! Conservative Theology Keeps People in Church

A recent study found that conservative theology (meaning a more literal interpretation of scripture) is a much better driver of church attendance than liberal theology, according to a five-year academic study of Canadian churchgoers.

This isn’t surprising whatsoever and should be a big fat “duh” moment for everyone remotely familiar with Christianity and/or the Holy Bible in the first place.

According to a story at the Guardian:

“If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,” said David Haskell, the Canadian study’s lead researcher.

The findings contradict earlier studies undertaken in the US and the UK, which attempted to discover the underlying causes of a steep decline in church attendance in recent decades but concluded that theology was not a significant factor.

The findings corroborate research published in Baylor sociologist Dr. Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Faith last year, which also found that while liberal Protestant denominations have been hemorrhaging membership for years now, conservative Catholic and evangelical congregations are actually growing, while actually levels of irreligion are holding steady.

“I don’t know what study ever found that doctrine didn’t matter in church growth,” Stark told Conservative Review in an email. “It always matters a lot. Note which churches are shrinking rapidly – all liberal – and which are growing rapidly, all traditional/conservative.”

A 2011 Study by the National Council of Churches also found similar trends among conservative evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.

But why is this? Why are those archaic strains of thought, the ones that Hillary Clinton advisers Jon Podesta, and Jennifer Palmieri mocked as “backwards” in the now-infamous “Catholic Spring” emails? After all, conventional wisdom would dictate that more progressive, comfortable, and permissive brands of Christianity ought to sell better than those whose prescriptions seem out of step with a post-Sexual Revolution society. Wouldn’t it?

Perhaps conservative theology is the key to attendance simply because it is much closer to the truth than all the various strains of modern liberal theology that tells the church to get with the times. After all, if you subscribe to the bible as written, you’d have to believe in all sorts of taboo things like natural marriage and the unborn child’s fundamental right to life. It would make far more sense for someone to avoid all the negative things that come with those beliefs — unless, of course, those beliefs are true.

Perhaps G.K. Chesterton put it best when he said, “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.” In order for that to happen, the church, whether Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic, has to stick to the script, rather than make it accommodate the very world from which it seeks to save souls.

After all, we’re talking about the greatest story ever told in the greatest book ever written. Some watered-down, platitude-laden, post-modernist-friendly, safe space-approved substitute just won’t do.

If what you’re hearing from the pulpit makes little to no claim to absolute truth, why listen? If worship — what we render to God, and how we render it — is not of dire importance, why get up out of bed to a church on your day off? If you’re looking for a social club with a message that makes you fit in with your friends at cocktail parties, why not sleep in an hour and just meet them for brunch? It has to be far more appealing than the coffee and donuts they give you after service anyway.

But that’s the wonderful, transformative thing about Christianity: It doesn’t matter whether or not a belief is socially palatable, contemporary, or popular. It never has. The only thing that matters is whether or not that belief is true. And there is no substitute for the truth, once it is revealed.

Once people find the truth, they’ll suffer all sorts of calumnies and abuses for it. They’ll even die for it, as we’ve been tragically and heroically reminded of by the martyrs of the Islamic State over the past two years. And, yes, you can be for absolutely certain they’ll actually get out of bed and get to church for it. (For more from the author of “Surprise! Conservative Theology Keeps People in Church” please click HERE)

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Pastors, They’re Coming for You!

OK, I get it.

The title of this article sounds conspiratorial and inflammatory. In fact, it sounds like a “shock” headline designed to get your attention. Who, after all, is this ambiguous “they” I’m referring to, and why are “they” coming for “you” — referring obviously to Christian leaders? And what, pray tell, are “they” coming to do to “you?”

So I’ll admit it. I did come up with the title of this article for shock value, but the fact is, you need to be shocked. It is only sensational because it is true.

Consider this October 26 headline on Fox News: “State of Georgia demands pastor turn over sermons.” Yes, “A lay minister who is suing the Georgia Department of Public Health for religious discrimination has been ordered by the state’s attorney general to relinquish his sermons to the government, according to federal court documents.”

In the words of Attorney General Samuel Olens, “Please produce a copy of your sermon notes and/or transcripts.”

And why is the state of Georgia demanding his sermon notes and/or transcripts?

As Todd Starnes reports, “Walsh, a Seventh-day Adventist lay minister had been hired in May 2014 as a District Health Director with the Georgia Department of Public Health. A week later, a government official asked him to submit copies of his sermons for review. He complied and two days later he was fired.”

In other words, he was not fired because of any lack of qualification. To the contrary, he was highly qualified for the job.

As noted by attorney David French, Walsh’s resumé included “working for former President Bush and President Obama to combat AIDS, serving as a board member of the Latino Health Collaborative, and starting California’s first city-run dental clinic for low-income families dealing with HIV/AIDS,” but that “wasn’t sufficient to overcome the horror at Walsh’s Christian views.”

Yes, Walsh was fired for the unpardonable sin of preaching against homosexual practice, based on Scripture — and note that he was preaching this to his fellow-congregants, not giving a lecture to his staff. As Walsh’s lead attorney Jeremy Dys said, “He was fired for something he said in a sermon. If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything.”

Yes, continued Dys, “It’s an incredible intrusion on the sanctity of the pulpit. This is probably the most invasive reach into the pulpit by the state that I’ve ever seen.”

It’s No Surprise

But this should not surprise us at all. As I pointed out in 2013:

Already in April, 2009, an article in the Washington Post documented how, “Faith organizations and individuals who view homosexuality as sinful and refuse to provide services to gay people are losing a growing number of legal battles that they say are costing them their religious freedom.”

This was confirmed by Georgetown Law Professor Chai Feldblum, appointed by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and herself an out and proud lesbian, when she remarked that when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

That’s why Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, was fired for his personally held beliefs about sexuality and marriage.

That’s why Dr. Angela McCaskill, associate provost of diversity and inclusion at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (and herself deaf), was suspended from her job for signing a petition at her local church which called for a public vote on same-sex “marriage” (rather than for a legislative decision).

That’s why Crystal Dixon was fired from her position as Associate Vice President of Human Resources at the University of Toledo for writing an editorial in her local newspaper, taking issue with the idea that gay is the new black.

And the list goes on and on, growing on a regular basis, as I and others have documented now for years. (Just check out the chapter “Big Brother Is Watching, and He Really Is Gay” in A Queer Thing Happened to America for some sobering examples.)

And I used these three examples here because in each case, gay sensitivities not only trumped religious rights, they also demonstrated that, when it comes to “gay rights,” even black Americans can be perceived as victimizers rather than victims (Cochran, McCaskill, and Dixon were all black).

As we have now learned with Dr. Walsh (did I mention he’s black as well?), not even the pulpits are safe.

But this too should not surprise us. After all, it was just last year that Annise Parker, the lesbian mayor of Houston, along with the city attorney, David Feldman, demanded that five local pastors turn over their sermons, speeches, presentations, and even emails to congregants which addressed the issues of homosexuality and gender identity, among other subjects.

It was only when Parker and Feldman came under intense national pressure that they backed down, with Parker still denying that “the request[s] were in any way illegal or intended to intrude on religious liberties.” (I document this in detail in the chapter “The Day the Line Was Crossed” in Outlasting the Gay Revolution.)

With all respect to the mayor’s position, her explanation was absolute rubbish, and there is no question that what she did intruded on religious liberties.

The Church Must Resist!

As I warned last week, if Hillary Clinton is elected, this will only get worse. Even if Donald Trump is elected, abuses like this will continue on a local level for years to come. There’s only thing that can stop it, and that is simply the Church of Jesus, led by its pastors and elders, standing up to speak what is right and do what is right, regardless of cost or consequence. If we do, the tide will turn.

Now, I’m quite aware that I sound like a broken record, having written on this theme three times in two weeks, including this article (see here and here).

But I will keep sounding the alarm until God’s people wake up — beginning with the leaders — and with yet another example staring us in the face, we sleep on to our own peril, not to mention our lasting shame.

In recent days, I’ve been reading a terrific book by Dean G. Stroud entitled, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. And while I am absolutely not comparing our current government to Nazi Germany and while I do not believe we will go the way Nazi Germany went, I can’t help but see the striking parallels between our two countries, beginning with these incremental attacks on religious freedom, back then and today.

And so, while I am not saying that America will one day look like Nazi Germany, I am saying that very soon, America will hardly be recognizable, the antithesis of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

After all, who would have believed that in the last two years, government officials would be demanding that pastors and Christian teachers turn over their sermons, sermons notes, and private emails dealing with sexual morality and that, in the last 10 years, Christians would be fired from their jobs or kicked out of their schools because of their privately held, biblical beliefs?

And so, I will say it again. It’s time to wake up! (For more from the author of “Pastors, They’re Coming for You!” please click HERE)

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