Four Ways Church Leaders Can Respond to the Loss of Religious Liberty

statue of liberty

Sam Rainer

December 4, 2016


Oppression pushed the group of believers to meet in a field. The preacher dismissed previous warnings as he stepped up on a table in front of a small crowd. He knew imprisonment was likely. As soon as he finished his sermon, two men appeared from the woods and seized the preacher.

“What are you doing here?”

“I am preaching the gospel of Christ.”

“Who gave you this authority?”

“The Author of the gospel.”

The authorities extended a few abusive epithets and then hauled the preacher to jail. He would not leave his cell for another five months. During his time in prison, a group attempted to blow him up. At the moment of the explosion, he was singing a hymn. The terror didn’t stop him from finishing the hymn. The explosion left him shaken but uninjured.

While in prison, the preacher was poisoned but survived. Someone attempted to suffocate him. He kept preaching in the jail. The authorities placed the worst of society in the cell with him. He won them to Christ. After his release, two people poisoned his family at a meal. The preacher barely survived, and one of his eight children died as a result of the poison.

Where did this happen? The place was Virginia. The year was 1770. The preacher was James Ireland. Prior to the Revolutionary War, religious liberty was not a widely accepted concept. Each state had a state church. In Virginia, it was the Anglican Church. If you wanted to preach in Virginia, you had to get permission and a license from the bishop. Dozens of dissenters like Ireland were fined, persecuted, jailed, or killed.

A lack of religious liberty is not new threat.

A return to pre-Revolutionary War persecution is unlikely. However, the erosion of religious liberty should get the attention of every church leader.

Religious liberty is a key part of America’s legacy. It was not always this way. The history of our early colonies are rife with examples of religious persecution. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony maltreated the Quakers. Anti-Catholic sentiment was popular in New England. Freedom of religion was not formally adopted until the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649. This act laid the foundation for what ultimately became the First Amendment in our national constitution. The constitutional right to religious liberty was adopted in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” Since the late 1700s, our nation has cherished the ability to worship as we choose.

The American public believes firmly in religious freedom. The vast majority of Americans believe people should be free to worship with others, choose beliefs, share a religious faith, and even run a business in accordance with religious beliefs.



Additionally, a growing number of Americans believe religious liberty is declining in the United States.




Four Ways Church Leaders Can Respond

Doing nothing is not an option. Maintaining the status quo is an impossibility because the culture has moved it without the church’s input. I’ll offer four ways church leaders can begin to help their congregations move forward in this new era of deteriorating religious liberty.

  1. Elevate clarity over elusiveness. When religious liberty is threatened, the church needs leaders speaking with clarity. Don’t dance around the issues. Elusiveness may buy time with opponents pushing you into a corner, but it does not help in the long run. Make a stand and be clear.
  1. Elevate truth over rhetoric. Don’t spew the venom from talk radio. Rather, teach biblical truth. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking. Leaders should utilize rhetoric as a tool. As Americans, we should challenge every threat to religious liberty. However, Christians are first citizens of heaven. The primary responsibility of church leaders is to guide their congregations to respond biblically first and politically second. Biblical truth is more important than persuasive rhetoric.
  1. Elevate engagement over isolation. Rather than crawling into a Christian bubble, church leaders need to start engaging community leaders who are likely to speed up the deterioration of religious liberty. Start making friends now so that you don’t have more enemies later. By taking the initiative, you might build bridges before others burn them.
  1. Elevate kindness over complaining. Make it a point not to complain. Little good will come from a barrage of complaints. Even if a whine session gets someone to yield reluctantly, it’s not going to work twice. Kindness is always a better way into someone’s heart and mind.

Unfortunately, the erosion of religious liberty is increasing the likelihood of threats to your church. Churches sticking with biblical truth will face these threats from the government, media, business, and even other churches. Jesus warned the church that we would face these threats. While darkness threatens, it can’t win. The decline of religious liberty is simply an opportunity for a gospel advance. Be clear. Be truthful. Stay engaged. And show kindness. Above all, have an attitude like James Ireland, who, when asked about why he kept preaching, said it was worth it to “suffer all for Him.”


5 comments on “Four Ways Church Leaders Can Respond to the Loss of Religious Liberty”

  1. Ron Keener says:

    Sam, this piece on religious freedom is one of the finest things I have read on the subject–especially since you addressed it to our own country, at a time when persecution for our religious faith grows daily and the ultimate challenge may not be that far away. I have been involved with The Voice of the Martyrs for a few years and have been to their regional conferences that have drawn some 1,000 people at recent ones in Pennsylvania. Yes, VOM is mostly focused on overseas Christians who are under persecution, and there is the greatest need., But we need to be in touch with what is happening right here in America. Your blog is very insightful and I am sharing it with some of the VOM people with whom I am familiar, as well as with others I am in touch with.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Thank you! Much appreciated.

  2. RandyW says:

    You claim diminishing religious liberty, but do nothing to substantiate the claim. Losing a traditional position of privilege is not a loss of liberty so much as being relegated to being equally treated with everyone else. If that is what you’re railing against, there is no reason to support it if one appreciates the constitution. If you think there is an unjust diminution of religious liberty, state it and corroborate it with evidence. People who are looking for something to stoke their emotions and feed their victim/persecution narrative may not care about things like facts and reason, but I do.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Randy – Concerning evidence, I believe the charts above speak for themselves. The majority of Americans believe religious liberty is declining. As far as a “position of privilege,” personally, I’ve experienced some horrific stuff because of my beliefs, but I do understand your point. More generally, Baptists (a tribe I claim) have experienced some degrees of persecution in this country historically. I encourage you to read this article:

      1. RandyW says:

        Just because people believe it is happening doesn’t mean it is. People think violent crime is more common now than it was twenty years, yet it is significantly lower now. What people think is happening and what is actually happening may or may not agree. I care about what is actually happening. And, you can’t compare centuries ago, BEFORE THE CONSTITUTION EXISTED, to today, when states actually try to fund Baptist conferences (yes, really, and it got stopped because it’s illegal). You can’t keep claiming victimhood when you’re now a powerful political presence. You aren’t being marginalized as a group, or as a sect. You’re dwelling on events that have absolutely nothing to do with your experience. They don’t even inform your experience your experience, any more than Luther nailing his theses to the door does. You. Are. Not. Victims. But, if you have actual evidence of actual losses of religious liberty, please share it.

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