RELIGIOUS LIBERTY: Attorney, former fire chief, Houston pastor discuss need for Christians” engagement

NASHVILLE— Historically, Christians have often found themselves at odds with society’s sexual standards. But, as a surge in civil lawsuits against Christians reveals, biblically based sexual mores are often deemed bigoted and their harshest critics claim religious liberty is merely an excuse for institutionalized LGBT discrimination.

During the 2016 ERLC Conference in Nashville Aug. 25-27,  an attorney, a Houston pastor, and an Atlanta layman addressed religious liberty issues and encouraged those gathered that relief may not be on the horizon but standing for truth despite the personal cost is its own reward.

“Christ’s church is as much for those not yet in the church as it is for those already in the church,” said Nathan Lino, pastor of Northeast Houston Baptist Church and president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “And Christ’s voice is as much for those not yet in the church as it is for those already in the church.”

Lino recounted his involvement with Houston-area pastors to defeat a pro-LGBT city ordinance that would have allowed biological males who identify as women to use the women’s restrooms and changing rooms. The 2014 controversy gained national attention when attorneys for then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed the sermons of five prominent pastors.

While Lino was not one of those subpoenaed, the event underscored for him the fact that pastors do not have the option of sitting on the sidelines of cultural battles.

Erik Stanley, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said middle ground in the debate over sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws is fast eroding. Stanley’s daily work defending Christians—like the subpoenaed Houston pastors, fired Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, and a rapidly growing list of Christian business owners—can be disheartening. But he noted circumstances in 2016 are little different from the experiences of the Apostle Paul, who recognized the “unrighteousness of people who … suppress the truth.”

“We are at a cultural moment where simply proclaiming the gospel and living it out in our daily lives [are] cultural engagement,” Stanley said. “It brings us into conflict with the cultural and sometimes even with the legal authorities in our culture.”

Truth and morality lie at the root of cultural conflict, not politics, he said. That makes a pastor’s call to his church and surrounding community all the more significant.

“When Christ’s preachers are silent at the wrong time, their city—their society—is void of the voice of God,” Lino said. “And society begins to think that God has nothing to say about the values and morals and priorities of a culture.”

Lino, Cochran and Stanley agreed that Christian cultural engagement is not a matter of “if” but “when” and, most importantly, “how.”

The infusion of biblical truths tempered with grace should be a natural part of a Christian’s daily living. But matters central to the gospel like life, marriage and religious liberty compel Christians to speak directly to those issues, Lino said. Silence is not an option.

Inherent in the freedom of speech is the freedom to hear, a notion lost on those who seek to squelch public discourse over issues of human sexuality and marriage, former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran said.

The Atlanta mayor and city council fired Cochran in 2013 after he self-published a men’s Bible study that had a brief mention of biblical marriage and sexual ethics. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution quoted Councilman Alex Wan, who is gay: “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”

In Cochran’s defense, Stanley disagreed with Wan’s statement, arguing Christians must push back on the notion that they cannot speak biblical truth at work, school or any public place. He said, quoting Duke University ethics professor Luke Bretherton, “Consequences upon the church for being the church is the refusal to allow the state to set the terms and conditions of entry into the public square. The state oversteps its limits when it seeks to determine when, where and in what voice the church may speak. Conversely the church falsely limits itself when it only acts and speaks within conditions set for it externally.”

Stanley said the loss of religious liberties has a human cost, most notably in the loss of all other constitutional rights. With no religious foundation upon which to appeal, other rights lose their moral underpinnings.

Cochran’s deeply held religious convictions, which he had applied as a firefighter and as chief and had earned him national recognition, suddenly made him a pariah. And it cost him his job.

But Stanley, Lino and Cochran noted that kingdom consequences are always better than worldly consequences. In his address to the conference, Cochran cited Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

“How could you put blessing and persecution in the same Scripture?” he asked. “I’m living proof of it.”

“Culture is unfolding in ways that this country has never seen before. But we have no reason to be scared,” Lino said. “This is time to be exhilarated and emboldened. God is sovereign over all things, and we are the ones he chose to be here at such a time as this.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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