By Matthew C. Harrison
The church is not, and never has been, a country club — though in the last century, especially in North America, it might have been confused for one. There was a time you could conduct personal business after the voters’ meeting, unofficially govern the affairs of the city from the church parking lot and use your Sunday morning bulletin to get a discount at the local buffet. Pastors could get a “clergyman’s discount” at retail stores. These were the halcyon, “good ol’ days,” when being a member of a Christian denomination was expected, normal, even American.
Those days are gone. Thanks be to God.
As I write this, our good friends Bishop Juhana Pohjola of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, a member of the Finnish Parliament, are on trial for charges of “hate speech” for confessing what Scripture simply and clearly teaches about God’s design for marriage and the sinful nature of homosexuality. They made the great “mistake” of quoting what the Bible says in Romans 1 and other passages. Their trial began on Jan. 24, the Feast of St. Timothy. It was scheduled to conclude Feb. 14, the Feast of St. Valentine. As the March issue of Reporter goes to press, we are still awaiting a verdict.
Both Timothy and Valentine were martyrs, killed for their confession of Christ. They were witnesses to the Gospel by means of the shedding of their own blood. They never got clergyman’s discounts or tax benefits.
Jesus promised His apostles, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22). He knew of the fate of His apostles when He sent them out. He knew of the persecution that would afflict His Christians for the first centuries of the church.
Jesus knew the fate of Timothy and Valentine even before He formed them in the womb. He knew of His holy martyrs Justin, Perpetua, Felicitas, Polycarp, Cyprian, Robert Barnes and all the others whom we commemorate throughout the Church Year. If you don’t know the stories of these saints, look them up.
Jesus also knew that Bishop Pohjola and MP [Member of Parliament] Räsänen would stand before the Finnish courts. And, while we do not know how their trial will be decided, He does.
The rest of Jesus’ words to His apostles in Matthew are telling:
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:16–22)
Christianity has never been comfortable. When the church gets comfortable in the culture, her confession gets watered down. The proclamation of the Law is diminished, and the proclamation of the Gospel gets lost.
As goes Europe, so, soon, follows North America. Canada already has “hate speech” laws similar to Finland’s. Probably not in this generation, but maybe in the next, Christians in America will likely have to stand before the courts like our Finnish brother and sister. What will we say? We will confess, as our friends in Finland have at every opportunity, that all humans are precious and created in the image of God, and that all of us are sinful and in need of a Savior, Jesus.
We preach Christ crucified. The church is cruciform (i.e., cross-shaped). That’s not comfortable. It never has been. But we have a hope beyond the creature comforts of this life. Jesus promised persecution. And He promised resurrection.
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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:28–33)
Jesus rose triumphant from the grave. He will not abandon to the grave those who belong to Him. He will raise His martyrs, His confessors, His saints from all time and all places. Body and soul will be back together. All the elect will be gathered into His new heavens and new earth to life in perfect bliss in the presence of the Triune God and of one another.
This hope is what emboldened and encouraged the martyrs. It is what emboldens and encourages Bishop Pohjola and MP Räsänen. It will be what emboldens and encourages us, our children and our grandchildren when we face persecution.
The era of comfortable, “country-club” Christianity is over. I’m OK with that. It will sharpen our confession of Christ crucified for sinners. As the church faces increasing harassment in the West, harassment will soon turn to persecution. It will fix our hopes on the certain resurrection that awaits all the Lord’s church.
A decade ago, the official (once Lutheran) Finnish church defrocked Bishop Pohjola. It expelled his vibrant and growing congregation from their building for refusing the state church’s unbiblical practice of female pastors and false teaching about marriage and sexuality. What happened to Pohjola’s congregation? Did it die?
No. While it lost a beautiful building, it soon rented a space from some Seventh Day Adventists. Now the ELMDF (the LCMS’ newest partner church) has planted 40 congregations. When I ask my friend, the bishop, how things are going, he responds, “Every time they attack us, we grow.”
Be bold. Be courageous. Nothing can diminish our hope. Nothing can daunt our confession.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Posted Feb. 21, 2022