The wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Of course the tough application of that wisdom comes when circumstances force us to choose one or the other.
From time to time, and more often in recent days, I have needed to decide whether IBSA’s Executive Director, and not just Nate Adams personally, should write a letter to the governor or legislature, or join others in a public statement, or even pursue litigation.
Here are four questions I have found especially useful in discerning whether to publicly speak, or formally act, on IBSA’s behalf.
Has the association of churches as a whole stated a position on the matter? When I have discussed this issue with the IBSA Board, they have agreed that it is wisest for me to speak on behalf of our diverse IBSA churches when IBSA messengers have passed a resolution on an issue in an annual meeting, or when The Baptist Faith and Message statement speaks clearly and specifically to an issue. This helps limit my voice to IBSA churches’ convictions, and not just my own opinions or the most recent or pressing voices I am hearing.
So for example, while churches in some parts of the state felt legitimately oppressed by the recent COVID-19 based restrictions on public gatherings, churches in other parts of the state considered it dangerous to lift those restrictions. That was not a time for IBSA to speak, but for individual, autonomous churches to speak from the uniqueness of their situations. But when the legislature was voting on same-sex marriage a few years ago, I felt empowered to write every Illinois legislator, enclosing a copy of Illinois Baptists’ resolution opposing that law.
Is it a matter of either biblical and Baptist conviction, or constitutionally protected religious freedom? There are many lesser things that could continually distract us from our primary mission of assisting churches in advancing the gospel. We should reserve the time and attention required for public policy engagement for those matters which are an affront to our most deeply held beliefs, or that threaten our fundamental freedoms.
Is the matter of politics, or of legislation? On the rare occasions I have found it necessary to write government officials or to facilitate IBSA’s participation in litigation, such as when same-sex marriage was being considered or when mandatory abortion coverage in health insurance was being mandated, I have sometimes heard the caution that IBSA should not be involved with politics. I very much agree. Politics can be divisive in and among our churches.
But by contrast, legislation can sometimes be about laws that give permission to sin and immorality, or that restrict churches’ religious freedom. I believe IBSA should stay clear of politics, but we must seek to represent and defend churches against unrighteous legislation.
Are there other, perhaps more effective ways of pursuing the desired outcome? Frankly, the few letters I have written to state government have had little effect on outcomes thus far, and in some cases did not even receive a response. IBSA President Sammy Simmons had a similar experience recently when he appealed to the governor, even though it was through his state representative.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write letters. But increasingly, it underscores the value of Christian legal advocates, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, the Thomas More Society, or the Mauck & Baker law firm in Chicago. IBSA is working with all these partners, sometimes behind the scenes in what may seem like silence, to choose the right times and opportunities to use litigation to challenge unfair or unrighteous legislation, and to equip and empower IBSA churches to do so.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.