They came first for the Communists, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up—
Because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This poetic reflection was made by a German pastor, looking back and reflecting on his inability in the 1930s and 40s to stand up for those in his country who were being persecuted based on their beliefs. Ever since first hearing it, and particularly now that I am a pastor myself, it continues to move me by its sobering reminder to stand with the persecuted, even though I may not be part of the class that is being persecuted.
We stand in a time of unprecedented change in our country. My concern grows as I see a movement emerging that sees a total revolution in the life of our nation’s people as necessary to usher in a new “age of greatness” and what they believe to be human flourishing.
Unfortunately, that new vision of human flourishing is increasingly at odds with the Christian understanding of true human flourishing. In response, the forces for change in our culture—mass media, politicians, the entertainment industry, the public educational system, college and university campuses with their professors and curriculum—are teaching that Christian values and beliefs are out of step with the zeitgeist and “on the wrong side of history.” Our beliefs and ways of life, which are thousands of years old and have been held to by billions, are seen as an obstacle to the revolution.
And, as many of us are aware, those who have the power to make laws, statutes, and regulations are moving to legislate in ways that threaten how Christians live and express their beliefs, including what we can or cannot say. Legal cases are being brought against our brothers and sisters in Christ in creative industries and on college campuses. The State is increasingly flexing its power, including the use of fines and imprisonment, to bring about a public square that may one day have no room for Christianity or for Christians.
So as we look around us and see this movement to marginalize the beliefs and values of a particular class of people—Christians—what are we to do? How should we respond?
I’d like to suggest we go much farther back then the 1930s or 40s, to another pastor in A.D. 31, to see what he did when “governing authorities” used their power—including imprisonment—to get Christians to speak and act in ways contrary to their faith.
It was very early in the life of the Christian movement, but its message was already unpopular. So when the apostles started teaching the “message of life” (Acts 5:17ff) in the public square, they were arrested and put in the public prison. So God sent an angel and broke them out and at the same time delivered this command to them:
“Go to the Temple and give the people this message of life!” (Acts 5:20, NLT)
When an angel brings about your jailbreak and gives you a command, it’s a good idea to listen, which is exactly what the apostles did. And when the authorities realized what had happened, and tracked them down yet again proclaiming their culturally unpopular message, they brought them before their ruling council….
The Chief Priest:
“Didn’t we give you strict orders not to teach in Jesus’ name? And here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching…”
Peter and the apostles:
“It’s necessary to obey God rather than men.”
Peter’s courage serves as an example for what to do in our day when our vision for human flourishing comes under attack. Namely, we can stand together as those who are living out what Peter spoke to that council: “We must obey God rather than men.”
For a little over the past year, it has been my privilege to watch my best friends, Carl and Angel Larsen, live out what they believe to be obedience to God, rather than men. You see, they are professional storytellers, and they own a media production company that specializes in using film to help their clients tell their most important stories. Their company is called Telescope Media Group, because every story they tell magnifies Jesus like a telescope, hence the name.
Another important thing about my friends is that they love marriage. They love being married, helping couples come together and prepare for getting married, and counseling and pouring into couples who want to grow and stay married. So they decided they wanted to use their gifts and their company to start telling the story of marriage.
And Carl and Angel are Christians. Which means they want to tell the story of marriage the way God wrote it, as a covenant union for one biological man and one biological woman. They wanted to glorify God’s design for marriage in their work. But unfortunately, in our state, Minnesota, the governing authorities passed a law saying that they couldn’t limit their storytelling to God’s design. If they wanted to tell the stories, they would have to do it for all those marriages the state says are marriages—including same-sex marriages.
Recently, I sat in a federal court building in St. Paul, for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and watched as Carl and Angel, and the courageous lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), winsomely, peacefully, lovingly, and firmly said, in so many words, “We must obey God, rather than man.”
They did not argue for the abolishment of same-sex marriage.
They did not argue to discriminate or speak against those in the LGBT community.
They simply said to the state, “We don’t want to tell the stories you want us to tell. And we don’t think it right that you threaten us with hefty fines and jail time to do so.”
They simply asked for the right to disagree with the zeitgeist, based on their religious beliefs.
They simply appealed to the idea that religious liberty, and not erotic liberty, is enshrined in our constitution.
It was inspiring. And it made me grateful for their stand, and for the people at ADF, committed to protecting constitutionally enshrined religious liberty for all people of faith, including Christians. And I think we should stand together with them.
You see, I don’t want to look back some day, years from now, as a pastor, and reflect:
They came first for the cake-baker, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a cake-baker.
Then they came for the filmmaker, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a filmmaker.
Then they came for the Educator, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not an Educator.
Then they came for the Church down the street, and I did not speak up—
Because I was not a member there.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I understand that these are complicated and controversial issues, that there are multiple opinions about how Christians and the Church should respond, and that I have merely brought them up for consideration, and not dealt extensively with them. I am unable to do that in a short article like this.
But I think we must prayerfully ask God today—what will be our actions, in our time, to stand together with those standing for our religious liberty?
Matthew Molesky is the preaching and teaching pastor of Calvary Community Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota. You can find more of his writing at his website, matthewmolesky.com. Matthew and his wife, Susan, have four children.