This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 01 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
When American Christians face religious freedom conflicts, we want to win. We want to protect our rights and ensure that Christians enjoy religious freedom for generations to come. That’s a good desire. But much of the New Testament was written to Christians who were losing religious freedom conflicts. And as pressure mounts on religious freedom in America, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the message of Scripture to the persecuted church. This includes several principles that are particularly challenging for us today. Instead of being surprised by hostility to our faith, we should expect it. Instead of being angry about suffering, we should rejoice in it. Instead of fearing the loss of our freedoms, we should fear God. Instead of using inflamed rhetoric to stoke conflict, we should look for ways to maintain peace. Instead of compromising in the face of unavoidable trials, we should entrust ourselves to God and continue doing good. Instead of lashing out at our opponents, we should love them. And instead of ignoring the difficulties faced by fellow Christians, we should remember them as if we were suffering with them. Ultimately, our calling is not to “win” the fight for religious freedom but to be like Jesus. So, our first task is not to devise a strategy for winning religious freedom fights, but to reconsider what type of people we are called to be in the midst of religious freedom conflicts. Only if we become those people can we “win” religious freedom fights in any meaningful sense.
For four generations, the Stormans family owned a small grocery store and pharmacy in Olympia, Washington. One day, the family received a phone call asking why their pharmacy didn’t carry the morning-after pill, a controversial form of contraception that may cause early abortions. Upon researching the drug, the family learned it could prevent a newly formed human embryo from attaching to the wall of its mother’s uterus, thus, in their view, destroying a human life. Because the family was committed to caring for all human life, they decided they couldn’t sell the drug. Instead, their employees would refer customers to nearby pharmacies that sold it.
That wasn’t good enough for Planned Parenthood and local pro-abortion activists. They protested the store, yelling at customers and disrupting traffic. They filed complaints with the state. And they ultimately convinced the governor to impose a new regulation making it illegal for pharmacies to refer customers elsewhere for religious reasons — even though pharmacies could still refer customers to other pharmacies for nonreligious reasons.
The Stormans family then faced a difficult choice: either sell the morning-after pill, which could destroy a human life, or close the pharmacy, which would destroy their livelihood.
WE WANT TO WIN
How should Christians respond to religious freedom conflicts like this? Over the last decade, I’ve litigated religious freedom conflicts in courts across the country, including in the U. S. Supreme Court. I’ve found that religious freedom conflicts like the one faced by the Stormans family can generate strong emotions. Christians in America often feel surprised that we’re facing hostility for our faith. We feel angry that people are attacking us. We feel afraid that our rights will be taken away. We want justice.
We want to win. So, when we ask, “How should Christians respond to religious freedom conflicts?” often what we really mean is “How can we win?” We want practical steps we can take to avoid being blindsided by lawsuits and losing our rights. We want a strategy for winning. That’s a natural desire, and as a religious freedom attorney, I spend almost all of my working hours devising strategies for winning.
But as a Christian, I think starting with a strategy for “winning” is the wrong way to approach the question. It assumes that the primary goal in religious freedom conflicts is to “win,” and it’s often driven by fear — fear that our rights will be taken away or other bad things will happen if we lose. That fear, in turn, produces anger, hostility, frustration, and despair.
Scripture, however, calls us to a radically different approach. We’re called not to win but to be like Jesus; not to fear suffering but to fear God; not to be surprised at hostility but to expect it; not to complain when we lose but to rejoice; not to lash out at our opponents but to love them. We’re called not to avoid losing at all costs but to glorify God at all costs.
So, before we talk about our strategy for winning religious freedom fights, we need to reconsider what type of people we’re called to be during religious freedom conflicts. Only if we become those people can we “win” religious freedom fights in any meaningful sense.
Scripture is packed with teaching on how to be faithful to God amid suffering and persecution. Often, though, American Christians, secure in the comfort of our Judeo-Christian nation, have lost sight of this teaching. The following are seven principles that are especially challenging for us today.
First, Scripture teaches that we should expect to suffer for our faith. As American Christians, we’re used to having our religious freedom protected; we feel entitled to it, and we’re surprised when it’s taken away. But Scripture teaches the opposite.
When Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, He told them to expect suffering: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves….Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake….If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt. 10:16–25).1
Jesus said the same during the Last Supper: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you….‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18–20).
The same expectation of suffering is repeated in the epistles. Peter tells us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial [of persecution] when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Paul puts it even more bluntly: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).2
So, we need to reject the idea that just because we live in America, we won’t suffer for our faith. We’ve enjoyed many years of extraordinary religious freedom in this country. By the grace of God, we may enjoy many more. But we aren’t supposed to expect it, much less assume that we are entitled to it.
REJOICE WHEN IT COMES
Second, Scripture teaches us that our primary response to persecution should be to rejoice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12). In Luke, Jesus added that when people hate, revile, and exclude us, we should “leap for joy” (6:23). Similarly, Peter, right after telling us not to be surprised when persecutions come, said, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:13–14).
Why should we rejoice in persecution? Not because it is pleasant or good but because we “share Christ’s sufferings” and our “reward is great in heaven.” Persecution also creates opportunities to spread the gospel. Jesus said it “will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Luke 21:13). Paul confirmed this, writing that his imprisonment “has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:12–14).
So, our response to persecution should be not surprise or anger but rejoicing.
FEAR GOD, NOT MEN
Third, not only should we expect persecution and rejoice in it, but we should also have no fear of it. Scripture repeatedly calls us to reject the fear of men and to fear God alone. Jesus said it best: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
Peter echoed this teaching, saying, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake…have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Pet. 3:14–15). And speaking to the church at Smyrna, Jesus said, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).
How can we resist fear? The answer is not to grit our teeth and pretend suffering doesn’t hurt. Instead, it’s to cultivate a holy fear of God. As Jesus said, “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). And as Peter said, “Honor Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Pet. 3:15). This means recognizing that we serve a holy God and that our actions have eternal consequences far more significant than anything that might happen on earth. It also means remembering that God is sovereign and cares about us. As Jesus said right after commanding us to fear God, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father….Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31).
So, our fearlessness comes both by fearing God and by knowing His sovereign love for us.
STRIVE FOR PEACE
Fourth, just because we expect suffering, rejoice in it, and have no fear of it doesn’t mean we should go looking for it. Some Christians seem to want religious freedom conflicts. They look for ways their faith might conflict with the law and use inflamed rhetoric to stoke the conflict even when it might be avoided. But Scripture commands the opposite.
Paul, no stranger to conflict, urged us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” including “those who persecute you” (Rom. 12:18, 14). Immediately afterward, he commanded that “every person be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1). Similarly, the author of Hebrews urged us to “strive for peace with everyone” (12:14).
This doesn’t mean we compromise our faith to keep the peace. Scripture has plenty of examples of faithful people who engaged in civil disobedience — from Daniel, who braved the lions’ den, to the apostles, who said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Jesus and the apostles often spoke truth that provoked conflict (Luke 11:37–54; Acts 23:6–7). But we shouldn’t look for conflict for conflict’s sake, and we shouldn’t stoke conflict for self-serving reasons. Instead, we should look for ways to obey both God and government, to protect both our conscience and peace. This is part of what it means when Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” and “when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:16, 23). The goal is not to win religious freedom conflicts but to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).
CONTINUE DOING GOOD
Fifth, sometimes it’s impossible to keep the peace and still obey God. In that case, Scripture is clear: we must obey God.
When we face suffering for doing good, it’s tempting to compromise our behavior or the truth of the gospel. Peter experienced this firsthand. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter denied Him three times (Mark 14:66–72). But Peter also got something right. He boldly told the Sanhedrin that he must keep preaching about Jesus, even though it led to a beating (Acts 5:29, 40). So Peter was speaking from personal experience when he told persecuted Christians that “those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pet. 4:19 NIV). We can’t let the prospect of conflict or suffering stop us from doing good.
This is not only the right thing to do but also a path to greater religious freedom. For example, the Quakers were brutally persecuted by the early colonies for refusing to serve in the militia. They were fined and beaten. They “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property” (Heb. 10:34), and they refused to budge. Eventually, the colonies realized that punishing them was futile. So, the colonies gave in and exempted the Quakers from military service.3
Sometimes religious freedom is gained not through political power but through patiently suffering and continuing to do good.
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
Sixth, sometimes being faithful to God and doing good means we’ll have hostile enemies. Even then Scripture is clear: we must love our enemies.
Jesus’ words are the most challenging: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). This is not merely a prohibition on retaliating against our enemies; it’s an affirmative command to do good to them in word and deed. Jesus expanded on what this means in practice: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:39–41).
Peter and Paul further applied this teaching in passages about persecution. Peter said, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). Paul said the same thing (Rom. 12:14, 17), and then he offered practical ways we can love our enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (v. 20). In short, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21).
This doesn’t mean we approve of what our enemies do or join them in doing evil. For example, we don’t love our enemies by helping them perform abortions. In fact, loving our enemies may include exposing their deeds as evil. As Paul said, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11). Similarly, we must be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks,” but we must “do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15) and “always be gracious” (Col. 4:6).
Loving our enemies means changing our speech — to bless them and speak with graciousness, gentleness, and respect. It means changing our prayers — to pray for them. And it means changing our actions — to find ways to do good to them without participating in their evil deeds.
Our primary concern is not defeating our enemies but loving them.
CARE FOR ONE ANOTHER
Finally, Scripture commands us to care for fellow Christians who are suffering. We must “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). We must remember that “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26). And we must “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
Accordingly, the early church made “earnest prayer” for Peter when he was imprisoned (Acts 12:5), sent help to Paul multiple times (Phil. 4:10, 14, 16), and “made great lamentation” over Stephen when he was killed (Acts 8:2). Even if we aren’t personally suffering, we’re called to actively remember, pray for, and encourage those who are.
This includes caring for Christians we might disagree with. Take, for example, a scenario where a Christian baker is asked to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. Some Christians might agree that same-sex marriage is wrong but still disagree over how the baker should respond. Some might believe the baker should never provide a cake for a same-sex wedding because it makes him complicit in immorality. Others might believe the baker can provide a cake because he isn’t personally participating in the wedding ceremony. Still others might believe the baker should provide the cakefor free as a way of blessing people who need to experience the love of Christ.4
The point is that sometimes Christians will disagree on questions of conscience, and sometimes we’ll be tempted to condemn Christians we disagree with. The ones who would provide the cake may accuse the ones who wouldn’t of being unloving toward gay couples, stoking an unnecessary culture war or giving Christianity a bad name. The ones who wouldn’t provide the cake may accuse the ones who would of failing to be good witnesses, being “soft” on marriage, and caving to the culture.
This is not a new phenomenon. Early Christians disagreed over another matter of conscience: whether they could eat food sacrificed to idols. Some believed eating such food (like providing a wedding cake for a same-sex couple) made them complicit in evil; others believed they could eat it in good conscience. Amid that disagreement, Paul urged Christians to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). That means not despising or passing judgment on those who disagree (vv. 3, 10, 13). It also means “walking in love” and not putting a “stumbling block” in the way of fellow Christians (vv. 13, 15, 20–21; 1 Cor. 8:9, 12–13).
There’s room for debate about how these passages apply in modern disagreements over questions of conscience. Rather than quickly condemning fellow Christians who reach different conclusions on questions of moral complicity, we should try to build one another up, reason together, and work in community to discern how to love our neighbors as ourselves.
SOMETIMES WE LOSE
In sum, Scripture calls us to radically reorient our thinking about suffering and persecution. We are called not to “win” but to be like Christ. That means we expect suffering, respond with joy, fear God, strive for peace, keep doing good, love our enemies, and care for one another in suffering. We don’t try to win a culture war; we try to glorify God by being like Christ.
We obviously can’t do this on our own. We can’t flip a switch and suddenly make ourselves rejoice in suffering and love our enemies. We must “be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]” (Rom. 12:2). That starts with repenting of ways we’ve sought comfort over Christ-likeness and feared men rather than God. It continues with cultivating humility toward those we disagree with and presenting ourselves daily as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). Ultimately, how we respond to violations of religious freedom will be dictated by the nature of our relationship with God. We’ll respond faithfully only if we’ve “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
The Stormans family — who faced the difficult choice of either selling drugs that could cause an abortion or losing their livelihood — had been with Jesus. I helped them appeal their case all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. To get a hearing, we needed four justices to vote to hear the case. Just weeks after we filed our appeal, Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the Court short one member. Our appeal then received three votes — one shy of what we needed for victory.5
We lost the case. But to their credit, the Stormans remained committed to following their conscience, no matter what it cost them. They modeled Christlikeness throughout the process. By doing so, they taught me a lesson I’ll never forget: winning isn’t everything.
Luke Goodrich is vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, where he has won religious freedom cases in the U. S. Supreme Court. He is also the author of the award-winning book, Free to Believe: The Battle Over Religious Liberty in America (Multnomah 2019), from which this article is adapted.
On a recent edition of the Hank Unplugged podcast, Luke discussed Free to Believe in some detail with Hank Hanegraaff (equip.org/unplugged).
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
- Emphasis in Scripture quotations is added.
- For an illuminating account of the Quakers and conscientious objection, see Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America (San Francisco: Encounter, 2005), 45–52.
- The baker in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018), had yet another view: he believed he could sell a pre-made cake to any customer, including for a same-sex wedding, but he couldn’t use his artistic abilities to design a custom-made cake for a same-sex wedding because he would then be celebrating the wedding.
- Stormans, Inc. v. Wiesman, 136 S. Ct. 2433 (2016).