By / Oct 30

In recent years, few issues have dominated the headlines as frequently and divided the country as deeply as immigration. Many Americans—including many Christians—feel conflicted as they think about such a complex issue: They want the United States to be a secure country with just and fair immigration laws that welcome those immigrants who want to contribute to our communities and become a part of the American story.

This is why we published A biblical view of immigrants: Part 1 to equip Christians with how Scripture calls us to treat immigrants and what that means for our own communities today. In the second part of this series, we want to explore how biblical principles can apply to a policy framework for immigration reform.

Upholding the God-given dignity of every person

One of the most foundational biblical passages for thinking about public policy is the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).

One ramification of this belief as applied to immigration policy is that, since human life is sacred, it should always be protected; that’s one reason that U.S. asylum laws, which guide the government not to send someone back to a situation of danger, are so vital. The notion that immigrants are made in God’s image also should inform the way that we speak about them. James laments the use of the same tongues to praise and worship God and to “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). 

Not only does each immigrant — like every other human being — have dignity and value, but the belief that each person is made in the image of the Creator also implies the potential to create and to contribute. Indeed, immigrants have used the potential God has placed within them to contribute mightily to the U.S. economy: 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and another quarter were founded by the children of immigrants. Were it not for immigration, close to half of these companies that employ tens of thousands of Americans — including Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Disney, General Electric, Google, Home Depot, Kraft, McDonald’s, UPS and many others — would likely not be American companies, and might not exist at all.

Protecting the unity of the immediate family

Christians believe that the family unit was established by God at creation as the fundamental building block of society. The reformer Martin Luther recognized three institutions ordained by God: the household, the government and the church. Even before God ordains the church (Matthew 16:18) and the government (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1), he first establishes the family unit (Genesis 2:18-24). 

One of the most foundational biblical passages for thinking about public policy is the truth that every human being is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).

God designed the family unit to be the primary place of nurturing and instruction for children. Our immigration policies should reflect this value, keeping children with their parents and keeping husbands and wives united. If the family truly is the core building block of our society, all American policy, including immigration policy, should prioritize the strength and unity of families. While this may not always be possible — and the church, as the family of God, should take particular concern for children not able to experience this ideal — government policy should prioritize the unity of families wherever possible. Broadly, this means that immediate families should be able to stay together except in the very rarest of circumstances, such as when the life or well-being of a child is at risk. 

Respecting the rule the law

Whether by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their visa, a significant minority of immigrants in the United States, likely between 10 to 12 million, are living here unlawfully. Undocumented immigrants often choose to come to the U.S. illegally under very difficult circumstances, fleeing serious economic hardship or even persecution. However, except for those brought as minors or trafficked to the U.S. against their will, they still did knowingly break U.S. law. This is why amnesty is wrong: Amnesty communicates that the law doesn’t matter. Even when laws don’t work well, they shouldn’t simply be ignored — participants in a democratic society should work to change them. 

The best way forward — both to respect the law and to keep families together — is to have an earned legalization process, which includes the payment of a monetary fine as restitution for adults who willfully violated U.S. immigration laws and, of course, criminal background checks. For many who have lived under both the fear and shame associated with their unlawful status for many years, the opportunity to earn legal status would feel akin to the biblical Year of Jubilee, a time of redemption, when debts were canceled (Leviticus 25:8-17). 

Guaranteeing secure national borders

While immigration is a much broader topic than just the U.S.-Mexico border — after all, most immigrants come to the U.S. via airplanes, including many unauthorized immigrants who initially enter on temporary visas — the security of the United States’ borders with both Mexico and Canada is an important matter. Christians want to be part of a compassionate nation that welcomes immigrants, and we also want to be safe. That’s consistent with the God-ordained role of government described in the Bible (Romans 13:1) and with the Israelites’ establishment of fortified cities “for protection” (Numbers 32:17).

The role of secure borders should be to protect the nation, however, not to keep out those fleeing persecution. The U.S. refugee resettlement program is a great example: Since 1980, when the Refugee Act was signed into law, roughly 3 million refugees have been identified overseas, vetted and then invited to rebuild their lives in the U.S. Of those 3 million refugees admitted since 1980, not a single one has taken an American life in a terrorist attack.

One of the best ways to reduce illegal immigration is by building a more functional, robust legal immigration system — not just for those fleeing persecution (who may qualify for asylum or refugee status) but also for those seeking to meet a labor need in the U.S. Most immigrants would much rather go through an application and vetting process closer to their homes and then come safely to the U.S. on an airplane with a visa than make a very dangerous journey across Mexico.

A functional legal immigration system would go a long way toward reducing illegal immigration and allow the Department of Homeland Security to improve border security to keep Americans safe.  

Ensuring fairness to taxpayers

It’s important that immigration policies are fair to taxpayers. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers that those who were unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and likewise it’s right to expect immigrants to work, not to depend upon social programs funded by the taxes paid by others.

It’s true that some categories of immigrants receive some governmental assistance, which involves some costs to taxpayers. But, while there may be a net cost to taxpayers for a few years, in the long run these individuals actually contribute more in taxes than they receive: A study by economists at the University of Notre Dame finds that, 20 years after arrival, the average refugee adult has contributed about $21,000 more in taxes than the combined costs of public benefits they have qualified for and initial resettlement assistance. 

Many presume that undocumented immigrants — those living and usually working in the U.S. unlawfully — are not paying taxes, but this turns out not to be true. Like anyone else in our economy, they pay sales tax when they go shopping or buy a car. Those state and local taxes add up to about $7 billion annually for all states. Undocumented immigrants also pay property tax, whether directly as homeowners or indirectly as renters, and those taxes from all states add up to roughly $3.6 billion annually.

However, the fact remains that some undocumented immigrants have not fully paid their taxes, which is unfair to the rest of American taxpayers who have worked hard and paid their fair share. This is another reason why amnesty is the wrong approach. Any path to legal status or citizenship should make sure that American taxpayers are treated fairly in the process by requiring undocumented immigrants to make things right through a process of restitution. 

Immigrants are an important part of the U.S. economy. While Christians should value immigrants as human persons made in God’s image regardless of any economic contribution, it is fair that the government consider economic opportunities and impacts as it develops immigration policy, pursuing flourishing for all Americans and being fair to taxpayers.

Making things right through a restitution-based path to legal status

Unauthorized immigrants, including many within evangelical churches, are often desperate to get right with the law, and many yearn to be citizens of the United States, a land they have come to love. Many Americans rightly wonder why undocumented immigrants don’t simply begin the process to become citizens. But the fact is, for most undocumented immigrants, there simply is no process for them to actually come out of the shadows and make things right. With very limited exceptions, it’s not a question of them being unwilling to wait their turn in line: There is no line in which they qualify to wait.

Our country needs a better way forward — one that honors the law, is fair to American taxpayers and keeps families together. That way is an earned legalization process, including some form of restitution. And for the subset of these immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, commonly known as “Dreamers,” an earned legalization process should not include a requirement of restitution, given the biblical and legal principle that we do not hold children accountable for their parents’ decisions (Ezekiel 18:20).

This sort of a restitution-based, earned legalization process, paired with improvements to border security, is supported by more than two-thirds of American evangelical Christians, according to a poll from LifeWay Research.

Indeed, while the Bible guides us to reject public policy proposals that undermine the rule of law, it also compels us to believe in restoration. Were elected officials to pursue a restitution-based legalization process for qualifying immigrants, it would give these immigrants the chance to earn their way back into right standing with the U.S. government, which would be a tremendous relief to them and a reaffirmation of the importance of the rule of law. 

There would be great community celebrations as neighbors, family members, fellow church members and employees welcome immigrants with open arms out of the shadows and into lawful and permanent status. This process would invite the formerly undocumented to participate fully and completely in American society, finally being able to add their strands of colorful fabric to the great and beautiful tapestry that is the United States of America. 

The invitation: Take the next step

Reforming the U.S. immigration system is not a simple task, nor is it easy politically. But nearly all Americans agree that our current system isn’t working, that people are harmed along the way, and that Washington needs to come together for a solution.

What's one step you can take? You can learn more about these issues by reading the extended articles for each area of engagement and policy reform.

This is an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).

By / Oct 29

As injustices and inequalities have been exposed, there have been increasing calls to correct the criminal justice system and our prisons. What might Christians have to say to minister to those in prisons? What is our calling toward and for the incarcerated? At Evangelicals for Life, Steven Harris moderated a panel with Thabiti Anyabwile, Heather Rice-Minus, and Julie Warren on these very issues.

By / Aug 15

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has been openly critical of some of President Trump’s immigration policies. But he said he wouldn’t recommend churches offer housing to those in the country illegally.

MOORE: Generally speaking, I think there are better ways for churches to minister to undocumented immigrants than to offer physical sanctuary from the laws. One of those ways would be to advocate for families in the community, another would be to serve anyone as one’s neighbor in the orbit of the mission of that congregation. I think that those ways are not only biblically mandated but also are more effective in the long run in caring for immigrant and refugee communities.

Full story here.

By / Sep 28

Leading a Bible study in prison may sound intimidating, but after my work with Prison Fellowship®, I'd lead a Bible study in prison any day. For the past few years I've been blessed to co-lead a women's Bible study at a local jail. The experience has given me new insight into relating with women who are incarcerated.

You have more in common than you think

When I first entered the jail, I was conscious of how different I was from the women there. I wore jeans and a sweatshirt; they wore orange jumpsuits. I was a young woman leading a Bible study; they were mainly older inmates who couldn't find the Gospel of John.

But I quickly learned we had a lot in common. I miss my family across the country, and they miss their families outside the jail. They love their boyfriends and husbands, and I love my fiancé. But the most important thing I realized is that we all need Jesus.

One week a woman at the jail asked how she could pray for me, and she prayed the most loving words of blessing over me. That's when I realized that we are all women on a journey to be filled more abundantly with the love of Jesus, inside and outside prison. I stopped being afraid of incarcerated women and started seeing them—and myself—through eyes of faith.

You have more to talk about than you think

During a prisoner volunteer orientation, the warden warned us not to talk about our last names, our jobs, our families, or anything else that was personally identifiable. "Stick with your first names and the Bible lesson," he said. How could I build a relationship with women in prison when I couldn't talk about some of the most important things in my life or theirs?

But what I've realized is this: when you're standing at the foot of the cross, there is a lot to talk about. When both of you are sinners in need of grace, you have a great God to worship.

I don't know—and have never known—the reasons why the women are incarcerated. I don't know their crimes, and I don't need to know. What they know, and what I know, is that we are unbelievably loved and forgiven by our Savior, and that's something that we can talk about for all eternity.

You are more loved than you believe

It's easy to feel insufficient when you walk into a prison.

One of the first Bible studies I led was on the resurrection of Jesus. At the end of the evening, one of the women asked, "What does the word 'resurrection' mean?" I had been teaching for an hour, and they hadn't even known what I was talking about! I realized that I needed to define most of the Christian words that I was using—words like resurrection, salvation, or baptism.

I began to explain the gospel more simply over the next few weeks—and to my surprise, I found that I understood it more deeply. The gospel had become something that I could easily put into my own words, something far more understandable. Words like "salvation" suddenly had a lot more meaning when we came to the foot of the cross and celebrated the beauty of grace.

Sometimes I still feel insufficient to lead a Bible study in prison, but teaching there reminds me of Christ's sufficiency. His love for me doesn't depend on how well I define the word "resurrection." His love for us is unconditional, and that's why I'm excited to share it with women in prison.

This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s site. To learn more about how you can be a part of ministry to prisoners and their families, click here.

By / Oct 31

While themes related to religious liberty appear in early Christian writings, it was not a principle the Christian Church prioritized throughout its early history. With Christianity in charge and wedded to the state, it did not have to think about its liberty. What happened that disrupted church-state alliances and made Christianity re-evaluate its positions on the relationship between church and state? The Reformation happened.

It is not an exaggeration to argue that the religious liberty we enjoy as American Christians, a form of religious liberty that makes church-state alliances seem entirely foreign, was forged in the aftermath of the Reformation. Why? Because theological principles inherent to religious liberty were at the center of the Reformation itself.

But even the birth of religious liberty stemming from the Reformation has a sordid history. As confessional evangelicals, we write as ardent supporters of the Protestant Reformation, but intellectual honesty requires admitting that the Magisterial Reformers were not always practitioners of their own principles. The Reformers, like all of us, were captive to their time. On religious liberty especially, their theology was often more principled than its application in practical matters of church and state. Though long since passed, the Reformers still speak today through their legacy of faith. Since they are members of the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1-2), we would do well to consider and reflect upon the principles of Reformation theology in relationship to religious liberty, whether positive or negative.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in hopes of retrieving and invigorating Protestant theology, it is good and necessary to examine how themes in Reformation theology supply religious liberty with needed sustenance.

The Reformers’ insistence upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone — sola scriptura —  is foundational to religious liberty.

Scripture cannot be the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice if we neglect to understand the ways in which God has clearly defined the realm of the state's authority. In Scripture, the purpose, authority, and jurisdiction of the state is ordained and limited, meaning that the state plays a positive role in society, but that it does not play every role or possess every type of authority. A pattern emerges from Scripture revealing that the state is not designed to exercise spiritual authority. The state exists to maintain the stability of society through the maintenance of natural law and statutory law (Gen. 8:20-9:17; Rom. 13:1-7). Likewise, the church is ill-equipped to bear the responsibility of civic authority. This duality of jurisdictions is a pivotal and Scriptural foundation to religious liberty because it demarcates the authority of the state over civil matters and the authority of the church over ecclesial matters.

The Reformers’ insistence upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone — Sola Scriptura —  is foundational to religious liberty.

Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone necessarily excludes justification by a state-coerced faith. The nature of authentic faith — sola fide — reveals the inner logic of belief in the gospel.

The Reformers rejected the notion of there being any earthly mediator between a person and God. Each individual stands before the judgment of God in need of a Savior, and Jesus Christ is the sole mediator of salvation. An evangelical account of religious liberty relies upon a doctrine of justification by faith alone, insisting that individuals enter God’s Kingdom individually and conscientiously self-aware of an expressed faith. No one can attain someone else’s salvation for them, and neither can someone’s salvation be negated by another. Faith is grounded in a personal recognition of the conscience’s guilt and personal need for redemption. Thus, the Kingdom of God is received by faith and not by external factors. This entails a rejection of the state declaring the bounds of faithful membership in the church since it lacks the mediatory authority to declare or accomplish salvation. Lastly, true faith by definition is authentic faith. Individuals are recipients of salvation in Christ by a free, uncoerced response to the gospel.

The Reformers’ understanding of human sinfulness provides insight into the blessings and limits of government authority.

Luther believed that “our whole nature is condemned and destroyed by sin and cannot emerge from this calamity and death by its own powers or efforts.” (LW 12:339)  If the heart of humanity is deceitfully wicked above all else by nature, then a government formed amongst depraved persons can either be a blessing to its people or an instrument of Satan; it can restrain itself, thus yielding to higher powers than itself, or it can act tyrannically where no authority exists apart from that which the state dispenses. The state is not omnicompetent, but is marked by sinful rejection of God’s Word, despite its beneficial role in society to protect citizens and punish evildoers. When evil is restrained by the government, the people are blessed. When evil is promoted by the government, the people are oppressed. A thorough understanding of the reformers’ belief in the depravity of man curbs triumphalist visions of government’s competence. A Christian doctrine of religious liberty assumes a restrained vision for the state in order to protect the faculty of conscience among citizens. Only a state aware of its own fallibility can commit itself to preserving and safeguarding fallible opinions.

Calvin’s understanding of divine sovereignty demands that God be regarded as the only Lord of the conscience.  

When Calvin commented on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples regarding their obligation to “render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God,” he noted the rightful though subordinate authority of the government — that government has a limited, rather that totalizing, jurisdiction. When the “princes and magistrates” ruled righteously, it was the Christian’s duty to submit to their authority. However, when government attempted to rob God of the authority over the consciences of man, Calvin declared, “we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.” Standing in apostolic tradition, to regard the government as having supreme authority over the conscience is to dishonor the sovereignty of the Creator over his creation and the kingship of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Acts 5:29). Calvin was right to conclude that “we must attend to the distinction between the spiritual kingdom of God and political order” so as not to forget that “the Lord wishes to be the only Lawgiver for governing souls.”

Luther’s teaching regarding two distinct realms of authority undergirds modern understandings of religious liberty.

Though practiced imperfectly by Luther himself, the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine is helpful for understanding the simultaneity of God’s rule: Christ rules as Creator over the creation and the state, and Christ rules as Savior over His church. God rules over both, but His rule has different implications for each domain. Clear delineation prevents either from encroaching on the other’s domain. Luther asserted that mixing the distinct authorities of church and the state was a work of Satan himself. In a his comments on Psalm 101, Luther wrote, “The devil never stops cooking and brewing these two kingdoms into each other. In the devil’s name the secular leaders always want to be Christ’s masters and teach Him how He should run His church and spiritual government. Similarly, the false clerics and schismatic spirits always want to be the masters, though not in God’s name, and to teach people how to organize the secular government. Thus the devil is indeed very busy on both sides, and he has much to do. May God hinder him, amen, if we deserve it!” (LW 13:194-195) Indeed, may God hinder the work of the Devil in his attempt to disrupt religious liberty by confusing the territories of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.

The Reformers understood that it was only by grace alone — sola gratia — that a sinner could be transformed. The grace of God, not government, was the hope of true spiritual reformation.

If the transformation of the sinner could come through good government instead of grace, then Christ died in vain. Good government, whether from self or civic authority, is ultimately powerless to change a sinner’s heart. Luther’s attempts at self-government failed miserably to bring relief to his guilty conscience. For Luther, life apart from the grace of God was a living hell.  Yet, it was by grace, and grace alone, that Luther’s life changed forever. The faith that led to justification was a gift of the grace of God, not government policy. As advocates of religious liberty, Christians must remember that it is God’s grace in Christ that brings about salvation. Harsh restrictions may make for a good outward show (Col. 2:22-23), but “they have no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” This is true whether those restrictions apply to one’s personal discipline or civic policies. Government may be able to limit certain action, but it is incapable of granting the New Birth (John 3:8).

Calvin’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit reinforces the spiritual nature of religion as a whole.

Calvin believed the Holy Spirit must unite the believer to Christ in order for the blessings of salvation to be realized. He wrote, “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us” (Inst. 3.1.1). Given the spiritual nature of Christianity, one must assume that it is dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its resource, not the civic government. When Calvin was commenting on Zechariah 4:6, he noted the spiritual means by which God builds up the Church. Concerning the phrase, “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts,” Calvin wrote: “But God intended also to show that his Church is built up and preserved, not by human and common means, but by means extraordinary and beyond all our hopes and all our thoughts.” He continued, “When therefore we now see things in a despairing condition, let this vision come to our minds — that God is sufficiently able by his own power to help us, when there is no aid for from any other; for his Spirit will be to us for lamps, for pourers, and for olive-trees, so that experience will at length show that we have been preserved in a wonderful manner by his hand alone.” The necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work in the building of the Church precludes the need for government policies that attempt to coerce faith. The Church’s greatest need is met by the Holy Spirit, not the government.

Calvin’s argument for the freedom of the believer’s conscience further explains the primacy of humanity’s relationship to God before government.

When Calvin discussed the freedom of the believer’s conscience, he distinguished the role of God from the role of the government. The conscience, which for Calvin referred to a “sense of divine judgment, as a witness joined to them” (Inst. 3.19.15), was to be shaped by God’s truth. As the believer grew in their understanding of God, their conscience was formed accordingly. Since the government at times could reflect the general character of God through judgment on wickedness and support of righteousness, the conscience of the believer might be partially informed by a government’s policies and actions. This, however, was not the primary means by which the believer’s free conscience was to be formed. For Calvin, God was the ultimate shaper of the human conscience. The righteousness of a God-ordained magistrate was limited because of the fallibility of its leaders and citizens. Thus, the laws of a government serve as a shadow of the righteousness of God, but they should never be equated with the infallible substance of that righteousness.

The Reformers’ confidence in the steadfastness of God’s truth means that competing worldviews within in the public square pose no threat to biblical churches/Christianity.

When Luther penned his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” he had already witnessed the unshakeable nature of God’s truth. Though enemies of the gospel threatened to undo him, Luther refused to fear because God had willed for the truth to triumph over all opposition. The battle was not against those who were held captive by the Devil. The battle was against the Prince of Darkness, and the weapon of warfare was the gospel. The battle would not be won by taking aim at a culture permeated with Roman Catholicism. The battle would be won through the transformation of the consciences of the people. Sadly, it seems as though some Christians have forgotten that culture is not transformed through a focus on the culture itself. The truth that endures forever engages the hearts of individuals. Furthermore, the truth is not threatened by competing claims. If there was ever a time when the gospel was threatened by competing claims, it was during the Reformation. Religious and political opposition rallied against Luther’s message, but the truth could not be put away. Reformation, then and now, depends upon a renewed understanding of God’s enduring will to see His truth transform the lives of individuals. Political and social kingdoms within the culture will come and go, but Christ’s kingdom is forever.

The latter day failures of Luther and Calvin to consistently apply their theology after receiving more political authority serves as a clear warning about the danger of wedding the church to the state.  

When we assess the past, we must be careful not to idealize heros of the faith. If Luther and Calvin’s theology taught us anything, it taught us that mankind is sinful and in need of God’s grace. As Luther reminds us, all believers on this side of eternity are simul iustus et peccator, that is, “at once just and sinner.” Luther and Calvin would not have wanted future readers to neglect their flaws and failures. So, while these two reformers provide a tremendous theological framework for religious liberty, they also remind us that good theology does not necessarily result in good practice. At times, Luther and Calvin were harsh critics and even persecutors of those with differing beliefs, Calvin going so far as encouraging the barbaric execution of Michael Servetus by flame. Calvin’s comments on the role of the government to establish and “prevent the true religion which is contained in God’s law from being openly and with public sacrilege violated and defiled with impunity” (Inst. 4.20.3) should be rejected unequivocally. Not only is such a statement unbiblical, but it has proven disastrous from the beginning of Christendom.

The Baptist concept of the free church as a voluntary society is critical to the reformational principle of Semper Reformanda.

As Baptists, we owe our inheritance to Reformational ancestors whose concept of the church as free and voluntary unshackled it from an ungodly union with the state and emphasized the purity, discipline, and regenerate nature of Christ’s church. Where medieval Christendom treated membership in the church and membership in the state as one and the same, the prospect of a voluntary church consisting only of those with expressed faith in Jesus Christ made possible the critical division necessary to identify the church as something distinct from the world around it. A flourishing church is a church that understands its distinctiveness. A free church operating in a free state allows the church to pursue its mission of evangelization and disciple-making. A free church model made up only of those with professed faith in Christ is possible when government does not see the church as a useful appendage to enforce cultural, religious, or political conformity. The church in every age must be attentive to its surroundings in order to keep alive the spirit of the Reformation —  “Reformed and always reforming.”

The Reformation’s emphasis on the supremacy of Christ Alone — solus christus —is the ultimate foundation for a truly Christian understanding of religious liberty.

Because Jesus Christ is the ultimate Lord over the conscience, a Christian understanding of religious liberty begins with affirming that Christ alone possesses the ability to execute judgment over the conscience (Acts 17:30-31). Because Christ possesses the exclusive right and authority to judge erring consciences, the institutions of creation (family, church, state) do not. Religious liberty exists because of the forbearance of God’s coming judgment. Whatever other themes comprise religious liberty (dual jurisdictions, the conscience, voluntary faith, etc.), all of these find their meaning in reference to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the appointed judge over man (John 5:22; Heb. 9:27).

Religious liberty was forged through the Reformation’s fracturing of Christendom.

The legacy of Christendom’s impact on Christian witness and society is mixed. On the one hand, Christians can appreciate Christian morality being the dominant morality in society for the good of human flourishing. On the other hand, an unregenerate Christianity resulting from church-state alliances that fostered political and religious unity is a trade-off that confessional Christianity cannot accept. The idea of Christian social dominance accomplished through church-state alliances and, in some cases, even coercion, has proven to be one of the most catastrophic effects undermining authentic Christian witness. By confusing membership in the state with membership in the church, historic church-state models seen in Christendom resulted in unregenerate churches and a Christian nominalism that easily acquiesced to a state of secular unbelief that we see in Europe today. Christendom did not forge an authentic Christianity for its recipients to look nostalgically back upon; it forged a once-and-former cultural hegemony that is now in ruins.

Christians live in a penultimate age, meaning an age where Christ’s rule is not yet fully present. This means it is normal and expected to encounter a culture where religions and ideology vie and compete for acceptance. We do not live in a naked public square that is solely secular or anti-religious, nor a religious public square where one religion or one denomination has all the cultural power. Rather, Christians understand themselves to be pilgrims living as resident aliens amid a contested public square where our confidence in the gospel—apart from the backing of state or cultural privilege—is the basis of our identity.

It is reasonable for Christians to accept or prefer the imperfections of liberal democracy over the supposed cultural uniformity of medieval Christendom that not only confused church and state relationships, but executed dissenting consciences often in the perverse attempts to further Christianity.

The Reformational focus on the Glory of God alone — “Soli Deo Gloria” — is critical to religious liberty and animates Christian cultural activity.

Whether eating or drinking, the Bible is explicit that Christians are to do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). From economics to scientific advancement, the Reformers’ vision for all of life lived under the canopy of God’s rule and the advancement of God’s glory was the catalyzing force behind so much cultural innovation that followed from the Reformation. Yet, the obligation to pursue God’s glory in all spheres of culture requires the exercise of Christian freedom. Christians care about religious liberty since the Bible draws a relationship between our freedom to live faithfully and the extension of God’s glory throughout our pilgrimage on this earth.

By / Oct 31

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies, breaks down what the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation means to modern day Christianity. 

By / Oct 31

You may know about the spiritual sea-change brought on by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. But do you know about the ways the Reformation helped change Western politics? This secondary shift is more obscure than the theological contributions of the era, but has proven epochal on its own terms.

The Reformation featured several distinct models of public theology. The first owes to the "Magisterial Reformers," who believed that the church and state could join arms to strengthen the citizenry. The most dramatic example of this perspective is John Calvin's Geneva. Geneva in the sixteenth century was not a theocracy, as is sometimes said, but was a city featuring strong links between the city magistrates and church leaders. Calvin sought to foster morality and even Christianity in Geneva through teaching, legislation and constant engagement with the populace.

Though Calvin's model invites numerous questions (and especially concerns from a Baptist church-state perspective), it should be noted that he and his Genevan peers believed that preaching drove all their public engagement. It was the Word of God that would purify the Swiss city, and loosen the bonds of sin both private and public. What the pulpit extolled the people should practice. If Calvin made the connection stronger than some would, we cannot fault him for lack of interest in the people's welfare. Calvin and his peers were far from indifferent about public affairs and the common good. They believed that pastors and churches had an essential role to play in civic matters.

The Genevan pastor-theologians were not alone in these convictions. Fellow Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli died on a battlefield, having committed himself to defense of his Protestant city against Roman Catholic foes. In Scotland, John Knox defied not only a church but a monarchy through his forceful sermons. The Scripture summoned these men to public leadership and action, and they were not willing to constrain themselves to the dimensions of their church in heeding this call. This perspective is sometimes called "transformationalism."

In Germany, Martin Luther promoted a "two kingdoms" model that endorsed the state as the ruler by law, and the church as the spiritual authority by grace. Theologians then and now debate the differences between Luther and Calvin's systems, and it is clear that the Genevan felt a good deal more freedom than the German to link the affairs of the church and state. But Luther himself frequently commented on political matters, and his theology bore more on politics than he might have thought.

Drawing strengths from all sides

The major strength of both of these influential systems was this: the church understood its identity in a fallen world. It had a mission to transform and strengthen, for Calvin; it had the responsibility to proclaim an unseen kingdom, for Luther. From the days when these leading lights penned their seminal thoughts, Christians have debated the merits of their models. What cannot be denied, however, is this: the Reformation featured a veritable renaissance of political theology. The often-unstated synthesis of church and state that prevailed in the pre-Reformation era had met a major challenge (or several). The church was not the prevailing culture, but rather had the mission to influence the culture in some way, whether through direct political involvement or through proclamation and embodied godliness.

But there is a third model that we must also identify. This one was less popular in its day but has arguably proved just as consequential–possibly more so—than those considered above. The Anabaptists also featured in the Reformation period, but were not typically able to sustain political leadership like their peers. This was in part because the "radical reformers" drew fire for their rejection of the close connection between church and state as posited by Calvin, Zwingli, and others. For their stubbornness, and their refusal to baptize infants, the Anabaptists suffered. There is no other way to put it. Some of them were killed for their beliefs by magisterial reformers, a fact that is simultaneously sobering and revealing. Public theology was no small matter in the sixteenth century. If we feel divided now, if gospel-loving people lament contemporary disagreement over politics, we should note that not many centuries ago, the Anabaptists were tortured and drowned for their political views.

To be sure, there were heterodox elements in early Anabaptist circles. A few Anabaptists caused tremendous trouble for the whole movement. A handful of them took their separatist political convictions to an extreme, and sought to build little fiefdoms that became overrun with deeply troublesome ideas and practices–polygamy, a kind of socialism, and lawlessness. These figures lent a strongly negative cast to the Anabaptist cause, a perception which persists even to the current day among some Christians.

Religious liberty: A reformational idea

But we must not so easily snark at the radical reformers. Their doctrine of church and state, with a closely-linked principle of religious liberty, has largely prevailed in the Western world. Few today would make the argument that the government should have some oversight of church practices. Few would seek the linkage Calvin pursued between the city magistrates and church elders. If government should not be secular, or thought of in those terms, neither should it regulate God's assembly. Part of the root of this thinking comes from the doctrine of believer's baptism, an explosive concept in political terms. If baptism no longer effectively rendered a newborn a citizen, what exactly constituted citizenship? The American Revolution and subsequent periods of public upheaval would feature considerable engagement with this and related questions (with a strong assist from the Enlightenment).

In our day, the Anabaptist political system deserves careful consideration. The doctrines of a free church and religious liberty for all were much pilloried when first promoted but now seem, in the eyes of many, inestimable contributions to Christian political thought. Modern evangelicals in fact may find themselves thankful not for one Reformational stream exclusively, but may learn with gladness from diverse groups. Today, we hear Calvin asking, "How can the church engage and even better society?" Presently, we hear Luther querying, "Do pastors understand the significance of their charge to preach, and to shape their people?" Today, we hear the Anabaptists urging us, "Do not fall prey to political delusions—even as the public square crumbles, remember the Great Commission."

If our moment is one of profound upheaval, we do well to recall that the Reformation was also a massively destabilizing time. Thankfully, despite the disunity and tragic persecution that sometimes flared, it left much health, and sound scriptural thinking, in its wake. With that said, our charge today, and our opportunity, is not to return to some halcyon tradition. It is to reap the riches of biblical teaching, to learn afresh from past Christians, and to be present right where we are, the church everywhere oppressed but always triumphant.

By / Mar 24

Are we taking the humanity and dignity of people into consideration when shaping our own views of immigration? Matthew Soerens, training specialist for World Relief, sits down with Dan Darling to discuss these issues and more.

Soerens serves as the U.S. church training specialist for World Relief. He previously worked as a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited legal counselor for World Relief’s office in DuPage County, Ill.

Twitter: @matthewsoerens

By / Jul 22

It is as much a part of the American tableau as an Independence Day parade. This July 4, scores of smiling immigrants gathered — on the lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and in public squares across the U.S. — to raise their hands and pledge an oath to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” and become U.S. citizens.

The ceremony was the final step in a lengthy naturalization process in which immigrants must prove their knowledge of American government and demonstrate proficiency at speaking English. It may take months or years for their applications to work their way through the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But for every immigrant who successfully becomes an American citizen, there are millions more who hide in the shadows, fearful that a routine traffic stop or anonymous phone call might lead to deportation. The Pew Research Center estimates there are more than 11 million “unauthorized immigrants” living in the U.S.

Members of both major political parties say that immigration reform is needed, but legislation remains stalled in Congress. As election-year rhetoric heats up, a growing coalition of evangelical organizations — including the ethics arm of the Southern Baptist Convention — is quoting the Bible to bolster its call for sweeping immigration reform that will alleviate “a moral, economic and political crisis in America.”

And although Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2011 calling for a “just and compassionate path to legal status … for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country,” Jim Goodroe says many Baptists in his home state of South Carolina still think about immigration mostly as a political issue. “The Scripture verses [addressing the treatment of immigrants] have minimal impact on their political positions,” Goodroe said. Former Southern Baptist Convention president Bryant Wright said at an April 29 press conference in Washington, D.C., that “too many of the conservative evangelical Christians [are] allowing their views on immigration to be shaped more by talk radio and other news outlets rather than by the Scriptures.”

Goodroe, director of missions for the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, is at the forefront of the immigration-reform movement aimed at South Carolina evangelicals. He is an admitted social conservative who voted against Barack Obama but says the issue of immigration reform transcends political ideologies and that the Bible is a “pro-immigrant book.”

Goodroe coordinates Baptist missions work among churches in an area of the state with the largest and most diverse international population in South Carolina. “As you get to know [internationals] as individuals,” he said, “you realize that our commonalities far outnumber our differences — which are mainly excruciating challenges … from which God’s grace spared us by having us born here.”

As someone whose job it is to work with churches to develop strategies for sharing the gospel with all people, Goodroe feels that working to advance immigration reform is a natural outgrowth of his ministry. “I still come at this primarily from a missions perspective,” he said, “since the Great Commission is to make disciples of all the ethnicities — panta ta ethne — and the Luke and Acts versions of the Great Commission say to do this starting where we are.”

Last year, in a radio advertising campaign funded by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical groups that includes the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Goodroe recorded a 60-second spot that ran for several weeks on 15 Christian radio stations. He called on Christians to urge elected leaders to seek solutions to the immigration problem — solutions that might “reflect each person’s God-given dignity, respect the rule of law, protect family unity, guarantee secure borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path toward citizenship.”

Since the radio spot was first aired, EIT has made a “significant compromise” in its position, Goodroe said, broadening “pathway to citizenship” to “legal status” as an acceptable alternative. “I believe this change will allow comprehensive immigration reform to eventually pass Congress,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, told The Courier through his press office that he has met with local faith leaders, including Goodroe, on the issue of immigration reform and wants to “continue facilitating those conversations in the future.”

“I value highly the input from faith communities like [Evangelical Immigration Table],” said Gowdy, a member of Spartanburg First Baptist Church, “as well as from law enforcement officials and those who want to work in good faith to address the challenges in our immigration system.”

Goodroe’s outspokenness on immigration reform has not always met with support. He has heard from a dozen or so critics in the year since the radio spots started airing, including someone who sent him an email telling him to “go to hell.” A layman in Goodroe’s association suggested that his church stop sending funds to support the association, but that has not happened. Even though Southern Baptists officially endorsed immigration reform in their 2011 resolution, Goodroe said that local church autonomy and the priesthood of the believer “allow churches and their members to disagree.”

Goodroe, who will lead immigration seminars this September at the North American Mission Leaders conference in Atlanta, keeps the pastors of his association informed of his work with EIT, and he is quick to share with both critics and supporters his six-page paper, “An Evangelical Response to Immigration,” plus a page of 40 Bible verses that address how God’s people should treat immigrants. The 40 verses include Leviticus 19:33-34 (“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God”); and Matthew 25:35 (“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in”). (Citations are from the New American Standard Bible.)

Another South Carolina Baptist leader, Derrick Smith, pastor of Kaleidoscope Multiethnic Fellowship in Spartanburg County, appears in a new 45-minute documentary, “The Stranger,” which profiles three immigrant families’ stories, including a single-parent family in Smith’s own church. The film seeks to mobilize evangelical Christians to respond to illegal aliens and to immigration policy “in ways that are consistent with biblical principles,” according to a statement from EIT, which commissioned the documentary.

“As an American Christian … are you called to keep people who are different from you out of the United States, or are you called to get them into the kingdom of God?” Smith poses while being interviewed in the film. “In our church, we know people who came to this country undocumented, [and] they became Christians here. Would you say to them, ‘I wish you hadn’t come here and weren’t a Christian’?”

Matthew Blanton, who grew up in Ecuador as the child of Southern Baptist missionaries, is working to encourage churches, Sunday school classes and others to schedule group showings of “The Stranger” ( Blanton says God gave him a passion for loving immigrants when he was a student at North Greenville University and was leader of a Spanish-speaking Impact team that led worship at nearby churches. He found that “80 to 90 percent” of Latinos who made decisions for Christ were undocumented and lived in constant fear of being separated from their families. “It changes everything when it’s your brothers and sisters,” he said.

Blanton, a recent seminary graduate who is headed to the Guatemala mission field early next year with his wife, recently organized a town hall meeting for Latinos at First Baptist Church of Gaffney, where U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, speaking entirely in Spanish, addressed about 150 people. In March, Blanton helped plan a luncheon for about 60 Charleston-area pastors of different denominations at an event co-hosted by Charleston Southern University. In April, Blanton led a delegation of 15 South Carolina pastors to Washington, D.C., to meet with South Carolina’s members of Congress and ask them to pass meaningful immigration legislation.

One of the pastors who traveled with Blanton to Washington was Dale Sutton, pastor of Overbrook Baptist Church in Greenville. “My concern in this debate is very pragmatic,” said Sutton. “I’m pretty conservative politically, but we have got a fiasco in our nation, and we just keep kicking the can down the road.”

He said he does not favor amnesty, a word Sutton says is “kicked around all over the place” by those who argue against immigration reform. “We want to see the laws obeyed,” he said, “but if the laws are not working, let’s fix the laws so that everybody knows what the rules are.”

Sutton said he is old enough to remember when it was illegal for a black person to eat at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greenville. “A lot of us in the Southern Baptist Convention were late to the party on racial equality,” he said. “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of the Bible again.”

Beyond South Carolina, a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders are calling for immigration reform. Conservative evangelical heavyweight Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, joined former SBC president Bryant Wright April 29 in urging Congress to enact immigration reform. At a news conference in Washington, D.C., where more than 250 evangelical leaders gathered to encourage Congress to move forward with comprehensive legislation, Patterson said he believes “we are at a point in this country where we are very much on the verge of acting unjustly.”

“I believe the fear of God informing our actions would cause us to reach out to many people in this country from many different origins who are not known lawbreakers, not workers of wickedness, but simply needing an opportunity,” Patterson said. “We cannot afford, on the issue of immigration reform, to be anything other than kind and generous.”

Wright, SBC president from 2010-12, discussed the resolution on immigration reform that was adopted by Southern Baptist Convention messengers in 2011 in Phoenix. Southern Baptist leaders saw the “need for us to have a resolution calling for immigration reform that was based on biblical guidance and biblical standards,” Wright said.

The SBC’s resolution called for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring practices. It also asked public officials to establish — after securing the borders — a “just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention participates in the Evangelical Immigration Table. Russell D. Moore, ERLC president, is a signatory to EIT’s principles, according to a list of signatories published at the organization’s website,

“While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by gospel and mission,” Moore wrote in a 2011 blog post entitled “Immigration and the Gospel.”

“The larger issue is in how we talk about this issue, recognizing that this is not about ‘issues’ or ‘culture wars’ but about persons made in the image of God,” Moore wrote. “Our churches must be the presence of Christ to all persons, regardless of country of origin or legal status.”

Barrett Duke, ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, says U.S. law must be respected even as Christian Americans seek a compassionate immigration policy. “Those of us who are offended that these men and women willingly broke our laws and continue to do so with false identity documents are right to be offended,” he wrote in an post in November 2012. “There must be a penalty for this. But for those of us who call ourselves Christians, our reaction to them should first be one of compassion, not retribution.”

“These men and women are loved by God as much as we,” Duke said. “They also are created in the image of God. They are also people for whom Jesus died. They deserve better than what some among us are attempting. For many, the skills they apply here are not even useful in the homelands they left years ago. To drive them out is certain to consign them to lives of abject poverty. This is not a Christian response to people in need.”

Other prominent Southern Baptist signatories to the EIT principles at the organization’s website include Paige Patterson; former ERLC president Richard Land; Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; J.D. Greear, lead pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, N.C.; and Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.

South Carolina signatories, in addition to Goodroe, Smith, Blanton and Sutton, include Tony Beam, director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University and chairman of the Christian Life and Public Affairs Committee of the South Carolina Baptist Convention; and David Blanton, director of missions for Union County Baptist Association.

NOTE: With reporting by Michelle Tyer, a newswriter for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Tom Strode, Baptist Press Washington bureau chief. This article was originally published by The Courier.