“We Ought to Obey God Rather than Men”

You are a pastor and you have an idea for reaching the people of your community who are in need—offer prayer and free vegetables and fruits from a stand on your church property. And so your church puts up a stand and a sign announcing “Prayer and Produce” in large red letters.

People start to come. There are opportunities to share the gospel message of hope and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Some of those in need come regularly and receive the fruits and vegetables at no charge. Others give donations in return for produce.

Then you’re told that all this might have to stop because you’re violating zoning codes. “The signage and the way the produce stand is operating is commercial use in an area zoned for residential,” says a city official.

What would you do?

This is the situation a church is now facing in Lakeland, Florida; and the associate pastor of Believers Fellowship Work of Faith Church in Lakeland, Jonathan Friedt, says he’s been told by the city that his church’s stand will have to be shut down because it’s violating city regulations by operating as a commercial enterprise.

Even though, as Pastor Friedt says, the only money the stand brings in is from donations.

"We feel like it is an encroachment of the city’s power to come and dictate to the church what ministry is and what ministry is not,” he said in a recent interview with a local TV station.

According to the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), there are other cases in which zoning restrictions and land-use ordinances are being established that specifically discriminate against churches—restricting when and where services may be held.

As a Christian legal defense organization, the ADF has successfully defended churches and ministries against such threats and intrusions of their religious liberty since its founding by Dr. D. James Kennedy and others in 1994. Now, as the election cycle heats up, ADF is focusing its efforts to inform and educate pastors and churches as to the liberty they have to inform their congregations about the issues and the candidates.

These liberties were severely restricted when Congress passed the Johnson Amendment to the tax code in 1954. The amendment stated that entities that are exempt from federal income tax cannot support or oppose any candidate for public office by publishing materials or distributing statements about those candidates.

In the up-coming Truth that Transforms television program, Bill Federer, author of Endangered Speeches, gives the history and discusses the effects of the Johnson Amendment, named after its author, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson introduced his amendment in an effort to silence the speech of several religious non-profit organizations in Texas that opposed his re-election, accusing him of being soft on Communism.

“Lyndon Johnson didn’t like this group calling him a Communist,” says Bill Federer. “He asked the IRS to investigate the Facts Forum. They come back and say they’re fine, they’re just a 501C3 and they’re just talking about elections and endorsing candidates—that’s okay.”

But it wasn’t okay with Johnson, and he proposed his amendment to the tax code. It sailed through the Senate without any discussion or committee study. The net effect of the Johnson Amendment has been to essentially silence churches and all other non-profit organizations. And this means that many pastors who have swallowed the left’s politicization of moral issues no longer address these issues from their pulpits out of fear of losing their tax-exempt status.

“Pastors and churches should pressure the politicians to remove the limitations that Congress has placed on churches,” says Federer. “The First Amendment specifically says Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

The ADF has launched the Pulpit Freedom Project, to encourage pastors to “preach biblical Truth about candidates and elections from their pulpits” a month before the November elections. On October 7, 2012, pastors across the country will be joining together to preach sermons that evaluate the candidates running for political office in light of biblical truth and church doctrine.

As historian Rod Gragg points out in Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of the Nation 1607-1776, the early Puritan pastors found both the proper form of civil government and justification for resistance to ungodly government in the Bible. “Biblical grounds for resisting ungodly civil rule were found in the accounts of Old Testament prophets challenging godless kings, and when the Apostles defied a civil ban on preaching the gospel by declaring, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’”

Today’s ministers of the gospel should consider whether they are obeying God or men when they fail to preach the application of biblical morality to current issues.

(Note: the Western Center for Law & Policy offers the free downloadable booklet, “Pastors, Pulpits, & Politics: The Case for Clear Biblical Moral Teaching,”

In addition, a bill, H.R. 3600, was recently introduced in the House of Representatives to repeal the Johnson Amendment. The bill states that its purpose is to “restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.” You can join others in signing a petition in support of this bill at TruthInAction.org.)

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