A church is more than just a crowd

First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (I Timothy 2: 1-2)

What do they teach in schools these days? Actually, what did they teach 20-30 years ago when many of our elected leaders were in college? Among the many things that had the paint scraped off them by 2020 is respect for the free exercise of religion. I’m talking about several states and cities led by those who see churches as unruly crowds, singing and hugging one another. In one egregious case, the mayor of Washington D.C. said that Capitol Hill Baptist Church could not enjoy the same rights to gather, carefully and outside, as various protests and marches held in D.C. A federal court has recently overturned the mayor’s order but it’s troubling that a court had to do so. Protests and marches are covered under the First Amendment of the constitution. But if you read the whole thing, so is the right to exercise your religion without undue government restrictions. Similar disputes have arisen in Virginian, Michigan and California. 

The most common answer to this misunderstanding is to say that churches are vital community resources. Why do people routinely show up at a church when they run out of gas, food, money, etc.? It’s normal and expected that churches look for ways to encourage the common good through the school systems, law enforcement, emergency services, voter drives, food distribution and disaster relief. Many thousands in our own state have been the recipients this year of basic benevolence from the hands of church volunteers. 

In that same vein, churches are facilitators of stability and order in communities. Church people are law-abiding and outwardly focused for the most part. And when we are not, sister churches and denominational leadership encourage greater energy toward helping those outside the church fellowship. 

But it is important, and missed by those who consider churches non-essential, to realize that people are not just needy physiques. Feeding a person is a good work but it is an insufficient work for those who profess to believe that God is a spirit and that we are made in his image. We are immortal, living, souls. 

Many people who don’t believe God suspect that I might be right about this. It is, for example, rare to have someone decline an offer to pray for them. Put them in a hospital bed, prepping for surgery, and even fewer will decline your offer to pray.

A church therefore provides something that no community benevolence is able to provide—soul care. Our generation-long experiment with pretending this is not true has been disastrous for families and for the mental health of individuals.  

Most Americans are sympathetic to the work of churches either as benevolence agencies or as a “just in case” refuge in the time of national crisis. “There’s the slightest chance that what devout religious people say is true,” they think tolerantly. At times when the activities of churches become troubling because of what they teach or what they will not do, or because they gather, sing and hug, in our current context, churches are evidently seen as less important than other First Amendment groups. 

In our nation as it is, and with our Bill of Rights as it is, this is an understandable misconception—and completely wrong. It becomes ominous when any magistrate gets this wrong. In most nations, even most democracies, the situation is different. In ours, the mysterious spiritual work of churches must not be hindered without a compelling reason, and then it must be hindered to the least degree necessary. 

It is not necessary for elected leaders or judges to understand the way a church works or even the most important things it does. Leaders who are believers understand it, and that’s a benefit, but no leader is granting us a right; they are, or should be, respecting a right clearly affirmed by the U.S. Constitution.

For our part, we must do the work of soul care—witnessing, discipleship, discipline, prayer, etc.—whether others find it acceptable or not. We must not be pressured into being only a benevolent organization whose agenda is drawn from news headlines. There are other groups and some vaguely theist denominations that will chase relevance in that way. 

Like Paul, we can use the rights granted by the laws of our country to facilitate the gospel ministry (Acts 22). But, like Peter and John, we must also do the work God has set before us—even when an authority says no (Acts 4).   

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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