The Burden Of Freedom

The church's primary task is not to legislate the enforcement of morality, but to promote the cause of the gospel.
Many Christians are nervous about the erosion of the influence of biblical values on American law. Several high-profile court cases in the last few years have exacerbated this growing tension. The Supreme Court's Lawrence decision of June 26, 2003, ruled that the state cannot dictate the sexual practices of two consenting adults within the privacy of their own home.

Sodomy is a violation of God's law, and Christians are justifiably upset about the legalization of the practice. But, we are faced with an age-old dilemma: At what point is it appropriate to enforce our moral convictions upon the unwilling through the power of the state?

It is common for Christians to believe that national health will result from the use of legislation to enforce morality. But, too often, when we have used the state to enforce our moral code, we have gotten negative results.

When we make it criminal to commit consensual immorality, we might be heading down a path that leads us the way of the witch trials of the 17th century and the Taliban in Afghanistan. While this may seem like an overstatement, it should force us to think through our priorities as Christians.

Our aim is that people choose virtue not because it is required, but because it is good. Compulsory morality is no morality at all. The roles of the state and the church are complimentary, and each must do its job well for people to thrive. In order to have an orderly society, we must have a combination of internal constraint, often birthed in religious conviction, and external constraint.

Our message as Christians deals primarily with internal strength so people can be godly. But in our roles as citizens, our responsibilities include discussions about laws that impact everyone, not just believers. Thus the potential conflict.

The reality is that the government isn't going to limit immorality the way it used to, which means we must step in as Christians with greater power: the gospel that changes hearts. We can communicate this gospel in an atmosphere of freedom, and the good news is that the very freedom that guarantees the rights of homosexuals to gather in protest is the same freedom that preserves our right to communicate the transforming power of the gospel in a compelling way.

Maybe we're shortsighted. Rather than fighting the winds of freedom by attempting to enforce our moral values through law, we should be harnessing them to persuade people of the value of virtue.

Should people who commit adultery be put in prison because of their immoral influence? Should people who divorce and remarry be marked as adulterers and be incarcerated? Even though we don't endorse these practices, I don't think they should be outlawed in a free society.

But this forces us to compel adulterers to receive the gospel. No doubt, this is tough. It would be easier to pass a law against this sin, but this would be using external legal constraints instead of the power of our message to change people. We have at our disposal the means for changing people in the most authentic and permanent way.

It is a mistake for evangelicals to consider it harmful when freedom increases. Freedom provides the best environment for the church to accomplish its primary calling of acquainting people with Jesus Christ and persuading them to be godly.

Dinesh D'Souza underscores this point in his book, What's So Great About America: "Instead of completely denying the value of expressive freedom, conservatives would do better to embrace it--at least in part--and to focus on educating people on the rich moral sources of freedom, and about how to use freedom well."

Simply put, as the wind of freedom increasingly blows over the Earth, we as Christians should not bemoan its effects, but rather see them as indicators of our increased responsibility to persuade those who need the gospel.

Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of many books and serves as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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