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How should we respond to increase church attacks?

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Yet another church shooting on Sunday underscored the dangerous environment faced by Christians today, even in places once considered “safe” for Christianity. In this environment, church security consultant Tim Miller said on “Washington Watch,” churches need to take security seriously, as a matter of wisdom.

For those who may not be aware, a 36-year-old Salvadoran woman entered Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas between services along with her seven-year-old son. She opened fire with an AR-15 rifle but was quickly taken down by off-duty police officers on the church’s security team. She died, her son was shot in the head and remains in critical condition, and one other person was injured.

At this point in the investigation, Miller acknowledged, it is unclear whether the motive was psychological or political. The woman had a criminal record and history of mental illness. She might have been motivated by anti-Semitism (“Palestine” was written on her gun, and she recently divorced a man with Jewish family). She might also have been motivated by gender ideology (she sometimes used a male alias, and we’ve seen increasing incidents of violence perpetrated by LGBT-identifying people).

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Whatever the reason in this instance, the Lakewood Church shooting extends an increasing trend of attacks on churches. Last year, Family Research Council documented more than 500 attacks on American churches from 2018 through March 2023. “We seem to be seeing more of these [incidents] in recent years,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, host of “Washington Watch,” adding that they seemed to indicate an “environment of hostility toward churches.”

In particular, “We see hostility being directed at religious institutions that hold to traditional morality,” Perkins pointed out, “and that’s coming from our own government.” Luke recorded similar but more extreme circumstances, in which Saul sought and obtained the government’s permission to imprison and kill followers of Jesus (Acts 9:1-2).

“We’re seeing not only the frequency but the severity of these attacks continue,” agreed Miller. “All of us were raised in churches that you didn’t even have to think about that.” Given the “unparalleled anti-Semitism” now directed towards Jews, he said, “it shouldn’t surprise us that that’s beginning to pivot now towards Christian communities.” He compared the moment to the circumstances of Nehemiah’s day, when the enemies of God’s people were “very angry” with them for rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, “and they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Nehemiah 4:7-8).

Lakewood Church’s pastor, Joel Osteen, and his bestselling book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living Your Full Potential, are widely identified with an unorthodox brand of teaching called the prosperity gospel. He told The Associated Press in 2004 he wanted his services to “uplift people. They’ve got to walk away saying, ‘You know what, I feel better today.”’

Osteen’s teachings have been criticized for watering down the Gospel message. Bethlehem Seminary Professor Dieudonne Tamfu called the prosperity gospel “an idolatrous perversion of the Gospel according to which Jesus is a means to God’s full blessings, primarily of wealth, health, and might.” Pastor Greg Gilbert critiquedYour Best Life Now as “one more self-help manual focusing on the power of positive thinking.” Wrote Gilbert, “There is nothing Christian about this book … There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.”

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul argued, “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” (Galatians 5:11). By “circumcision,” Paul meant a more culturally acceptable system of works-based self-righteousness. The “offense of the cross” refers to the fundamental Christian doctrine that the only way for man to be declared righteous is through faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death for our sins. Paul’s contention was that watering down the Gospel message would also remove the grounds for persecution.

Yet Lakewood Church’s self-help heterodoxy proved no defense against the rising tide of church attacks. “As the broader culture continues to secularize at an astonishing speed, the theological claims of Christianity are increasingly seen as not only implausible but as bigoted and dangerous, particularly in the area of sexual ethics,” remarked David Closson, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview. “In the cultural imagination of many people, the church is the last institution opposing much of the moral drift we’ve witnessed in the last quarter of a century.”

Christian church gatherings have been targets since the first century. Luke recorded that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house [the first believers met ‘from house to house,’ Acts 5:42], he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:2). Saul, a.k.a. Paul, later admitted, “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:10-11).

In fact, Christians have faced intense seasons of persecution for nearly 2,000 years, right up to the present day. “Although the church has been persecuted throughout its existence, the American church is certainly experiencing, in a more personal way, what many of our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced for a long time,” Closson explained.

“Jesus warned his disciples of increased persecution in John 15-16,” Closson said. As Jesus told his followers, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). “The reality is, if we believe Scripture, it’s only going to get worse,” noted Miller.

If churches can expect to face increased hostility, persecution, and violence, then they should be prepared, argued Miller. “Security is about being wise and prepared with a plan,” he said. Proverbs says twice, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it (Proverbs 22:3, 27:12). If “the Church is a hospital, we want broken people to come,” Miller urged. “But we also want people to be safe in the process of coming.”

Miller drew two principles for church security from Nehemiah 4:9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” “We pray to our God first and then we post a guard,” he said. This approach acknowledges God as our shield and providential shepherd, and it also acknowledges that God often works through human means to achieve his purposes.

Perkins added one more principle, found in the same chapter. We should “not operate out of fear,” he said. “We have no reason to fear if we have prepared and taken the right precautions.” Nehemiah encouraged the harried inhabitants of Jerusalem, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Nehemiah 4:13).

Church attacks may be on the rise, but remembering our great and awesome Lord should leave us no reason to fear.

Originally published at The Washington Stand. 

Joshua Arnold is Media Coordinator for Family Research Council.

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