We can’t say He didn’t warn us.
“In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” One of the ways He accomplishes that overcoming – and has since those long-ago days when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood shoulder to shoulder in the fiery furnace – is through the unity of those who believe in Him.
In a recent post, I quoted Benjamin Franklin’s famous wry charge to his fellow signers of the Declaration: “We must all hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.” It’s the same choice increasingly faced by pastors and people of faith in America today. Government officials are learning the ropes when it comes to persecuting churches.
And across these United States, the nooses are tightening.
In California, for instance, efforts are underway by state officials to force churches to pay for elective abortions in their health insurance plans. In Iowa, the state’s Civil Rights Commission is working to ban churches from expressing their views on human sexuality if those views could “directly or indirectly” make “persons of any particular . . . gender identity” feel “unwelcome” in conjunction with church services, events, and other religious activities.
Specifically, members of the commission want to ban any comments that might possibly be construed as offensive during church activities that don’t seem to have a “bona fide religious purpose,” like – I’m not making this up – a church service open to the public. Under the same interpretations of Iowa law, churches opening the doors for public services could also be required to open their bathroom doors to people of both sexes.
All of which only underscores last week’s extraordinary 15-page dissent by Justice Samuel Alito of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said (in the wake of Court’s refusal to hear the case of Christian business owners and pharmacists being persecuted by Washington state officials):
“If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.”
Against that darkening legal horizon came word of the passing of Pastor Mike Hobby of Quartzsite, Arizona.
Quartzsite is not what you’d call a bustling metropolis of the Southwest; its population is less than 4,000 souls. But it stands on the Arizona / California border, at the intersection of two major U.S. highways, and that brings a sizeable number of homeless people and other transients to the town all year long. It was for them, in 2003, that Mike and his wife, Linda, launched the Church of the Isaiah 58 Project, whose members provide thousands and thousands of hot meals to wayfaring strangers each year … as well as showers, clothing, transportation, even jobs.
Mike had been homeless himself for a while, years earlier, and he understood all too well the physical needs and spiritual ache of the men and women he was serving. He liked to call his church, “God’s lighthouse in the desert.” The state of Arizona merely saw it only as another source of income.
The Hobbys’ church applied for tax-exempt status in 2006. It took the county assessor a long three years to process that application and grant the exemption … after which he immediately billed the church for the three years’ worth of back taxes racked up during his delay. That came to $67,000 – considerably more than the church’s annual budget. Unable to pay such a bill, the church faced foreclosure and the end of its ministry to the homeless of that area.
Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represented the Hobbys in a case that, over the next four years, went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court. Sadly, despite the intercessions of civic leaders from throughout the Quartzsite community attesting to the outstanding work of the Isaiah 58 church, and despite evidence of violations of state law by state officials, the court sided with the county assessor.
That could have been the end of the Isaiah 58 Project, but it wasn’t. A miraculous surge of support from people of faith across the U.S. provided the Hobbys with the money they needed within weeks of their foreclosure deadline, allowing them to continue their ministry in Quartzsite – a ministry that church members are determined to continue, now that Mike is gone.
- What happened with Mike Hobby’s church is powerful testimony to the need for Christians to stand visibly together and support one another – in and out of the courtroom.
- The need for that unity is only going to grow – and grow rapidly – in the months and years ahead. The current administration and many state officials are serving clear notice of their attention to bring people of faith to heel, and force our acceptance of even their most unscriptural policies and agendas.
- We have reason to hope.
When I was a boy, we often sang a hymn that said, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” And so we do. Mike Hobby’s testimony is proof that the story will be told, with the government’s permission and approval, or over its most concerted objections and attempts at persecution.
But it’s a story told best by people who know they are free to tell it, to people free to listen. That’s why the fight to preserve religious freedom is so important, and why the vigilance and commitment of the people in the pews is so crucial to keeping a door open for the Gospel.
“[T]hose who honor Me, I will honor,” the Lord promises His people (1 Samuel 2:30). Mike Hobby was honored for his faithfulness with the gifts and support and encouragement of his fellow believers; he is being honored in a still more wonderful and lasting way now.
As the legal scaffolds go up in courts and state offices all over our country, may we continue to find the grace to hang together. Whatever the short-term results, we can and will win … if we stand in unity for the religious freedom that is our legacy as Americans, and whose defense is our responsibility before God.
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