The Church in a Changing Culture (featuring Gary Friesen) – John Stumbo Video Blog No. 96

John invites C&MA Vice President Gary Friesen to offer insights on being the Church in today’s culture.

John Stumbo message #96— The Church in a Changing Culture

July 2021 [11:06]

We are the Church. The Church has always existed within the context of a broader culture, and then culture is always changing. I’ve asked a colleague to speak to the current cultural moment that we find ourselves in today. It’s summertime, and I hope you’ll find some way to participate with what’s happening in the Alliance family, preferably right there in your local church.

As many of our churches are beginning to meet in person again, I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the experience of corporate worship and being with the brothers and sisters in Christ again. Many of our conferences take place this summer, so HAMS, the Home Assignment Ministry Seminar for our IWs that are returning. For those who are just commissioned or going out, our Pre-field Orientation is taking place soon, Resonate, the new official workers’ orientation. So we have various events taking place still in Colorado Springs while many of us are relocating here in Columbus; and meanwhile, there’s also conferences, camps, retreat centers that are in full function again as part of the Alliance family. So if you live close to one of those, I hope that you will experience a beautiful ministry that our camps and conference centers offer.

Thank you for those who participated in Great Commission Day. If you’ve not yet done so, you are still able, as we joyfully send these 50 new workers and keep the ongoing work of The Christian and Missionary Alliance fully funded, thank you for your participation.

I want to let you know that in upcoming video blogs, we get to come back to the whole theme of relocation. I’m excited to share with you some of the new developments. We need in the future to come back to this whole conversation about men and women in leadership and to foreshadow what’s going to be happening at our district conferences over the next couple of years. Lord willing, I and the video team and a few other leaders will be down in Ecuador this fall for the Alliance World Fellowship gathering in Guayaquil, an every-four-year event that I would love to report to you from. And so wanted to let you know what was coming in the future.

But for today, I have invited Gary Friesen to have the microphone, because Gary has a trusted voice in my life and he can speak to this cultural moment that we find ourselves in far better than I could. He’s a former elder of an Alliance church in Oregon, where he was an attorney in that state. He went to Peacemaker Ministries to be part of the leadership team in Billings, Montana for 17 years, and in 2014, joined our National Office staff as a vice-president and general counsel. He is a trusted voice in my life. He and I have sparred many times on many issues, and iron sharpens iron. We make each other better. But for this moment, as so much is going on in broader society, Gary can address things far better than I can on very specific topics. And so it’s with pleasure that I turn the rest of the video blog over to Gary.

When I was first appointed to be legal counsel for The Alliance, my expectation, based on everything I saw and heard, was that my time would be filled with the issues faced by any nonprofit organization, employment, contracts, church property, conflicts, bylaw interpretation, governance, things like that. It turns out that wasn’t entirely correct. I still do those things, but it surprised me how much of my time has been focused on issues of religious liberty, constitutional law, the freedom of the local church to use their property in a manner that they believe glorifies God. This all accelerated in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, finding a constitutional right for same-sex marriage, and has never really slowed down. That’s what I want to talk about today.

The Church, our Church exists in a confusing world, and we don’t know where the world is going next. The pillars of reality on which the Church once stood seem as though they’ve all been swept away. Today, I’m speaking from one of our Alliance churches to address this question, how does the Church continue to be the Church in the midst of this quagmire? The answer, the same way the Church always has. But to understand that answer, it will help to describe the difference in how the world and the Church view reality.

This difference explains why the world has become increasingly uncomfortable for the Church. How we define reality is entirely different, a difference as great as the east is from the west. This distinction defines both the problem and the solution. Today, our laws, our culture, and even our Supreme Court decisions all point to a simple yet powerful way to define reality: self-determination. Every person has the right and privilege to determine for themselves, well, just about everything, their gender, the sex of the person they marry, their race, what actions are appropriate or inappropriate, when actions are considered violent or mere protest, whether to terminate the life of an unborn child, what universities can teach and whom they can employ, and yes, even what churches can teach and whom they can employ and what they can and can’t do with their building.

In contrast, what we believe in the Church about reality is entirely different. Reality is based on the truth of God’s word – our doctrine and not our own individual beliefs. We believe, teach and reinforce that truth is outside of ourselves, not within us. As one theologian put it, truth before conduct, doctrine before life. But our world now believes, teaches and reinforces just the opposite. Instead of truth before conduct, it’s conduct before truth. Instead of doctrine before life, it’s life before doctrine. This critical distinction is why we spend time wrestling together through our Statement of Faith and other doctrinal beliefs, truths that come from outside of our own head. These beliefs define who we are and what we do as the Body of Christ.

As a church leader, you observe and are asked about cultural and legal issues. When gay marriage became the law of the land, you paid careful attention. When the Equality Act, the most antireligious legislation to ever make it this far, passed the House, you wondered how this might impact your church. Interestingly, the Supreme Court’s recent decisions have followed these same two themes, strengthening an individual’s right to determine his or her own value system, and consistently finding for religious liberty. For example, in Obergefell, the Court stated that the Constitution provided the right for each individual to make a personal choice regarding which gender they marry.

On the other hand, in June, the Court ruled that the faith-based adoption agency could follow its deeply held religious beliefs and choose to not provide services to a same-sex couple. How do we make sense of this? We make sense of this by understanding that the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether religious or sexual liberties will prevail when these two rights come into direct conflict. Every decision so far has sidestepped that issue. We simply don’t know the outcome. We make sense of this by understanding that for the foreseeable future, even if the Equality Act becomes law, your church can continue to do church according to our doctrines and practices. This may not be true for Alliance institutions other than the local church. Our schools, camps, and conference centers and retirement communities still remain vulnerable. I continue to collaborate with like-minded organizations and their legal teams to track any developments and changes that could impact those you lead. This includes adding the Alliance name to amicus briefs on carefully selected, highly impactful legal cases, and working directly with you on issues that involve your church or Alliance entity.

Finally, we make sense of this by understanding that there’s no certainty that the laws related to our churches will stay the same. It’s possible that we could lose the right to use our buildings, employ our staff and teach our message according to our beliefs. At the beginning, I said that the way the Church continues to be the Church through this uncertainty is the same way it always has, and that way is with unwavering, faith and hope. We can be confident because the Constitution continues to provide strong legal protection for every church. There’s no indication that this will change anytime soon, and we will continue to provide resources and counsel to help you guide your church with biblical wisdom and open-eyed, practical shrewdness. This includes consulting on specific issues and access to specific key documents, such as our Christian Community Policy.

We can be confident because our faith and hope is grounded on the sheer belief that God’s legal protection is eternal and firm. We stand with the saints throughout the ages who believed that God was always and is forever the sovereign King. The whole universe is beneath His holy law. God remains and will always remain in complete control. We’re reminded of this in Psalm 103. “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”

Finally, I’m confident because the church will prevail as God’s new covenant expression of his kingdom here on Earth. The Church cannot be defeated by anything. His Spirit will guide His Church into eternity. In the 1920s, Princeton Seminary was caught up in the theological liberalism that was sweeping through our country in that day. A school that once taught generations of pastors the truths of Scripture slipped into theological compromise. One man, J. Gresham Machen, fought to retain biblical orthodoxy but ultimately left with a group of scholars to start another seminary, where, in his words, “the glories of Christ and the truth of Scripture would be taught.” At that time of uncertainty, in that time of quagmire, he said this. “The world to us is all unknown; it’s engulfed in an ocean of infinity. But it contains no mysteries to our Savior. He’s on the throne. He pervades the remotest bounds. He inhabits infinity. With such a Savior we are safe.”

How does the Church continue to be the Church? With the grace and truth that comes not from our own self-determined experience, but from our Lord Jesus Christ. With such a Savior, we are safe.