Maybe you heard the story about the preacher who got arrested for preaching in Arizona. And maybe you heard the version that Glenn Beck told. Or anyone else at Fox News told.
No, that’s not what happened. And no, Christianity is not becoming illegal in America. This is Arizona. You’re not going to find a town that puts a man in jail for “operating a church”. It’s a matter of complying with city ordinances about safety.
If you wanted to you could take the time to look up all the public information pertaining to minister Michael Salman’s history with his church and the town. The city never stated that he could not hold a Bible study in his home. It turns out that he owns two restaurants which meet building code standards, but that he was trying to hold large church meetings in his home, with numbers so high that he was violating building code standards.
He filed his house as a non-profit business, which means it had to hold up to certain building laws. We may call those laws absurd, but they must still be followed. It’s almost as if he wants to be persecuted.
The Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions on Free Speech
Were I in Salman’s position, I would either not call my house a “church” building on the property listing, or I would hold my worship meetings in one of my restaurants. I would not push the law to “persecute” me when I could take a meeker way out. Jesus never did a single thing for publicity, but this guy is filming his family crying in a circle and putting it on Youtube.
However, just for the sake of illustration, let’s say Salman was imprisoned and fined and placed on probation merely for having a bible study in his home. Say he just had people in his house to read the bible and sing, and the town looked at that and said, “we won’t have any of that. Churches can’t meet in houses.” That would be an actual outrage.
Let us understand fundamentally why, so that if this kind of thing actually does happen, we can understand why it is an outrage:
Plain and simply, you cannot zone a people. If people are gathering merely to be a family, which is what a church is, that is not something that can be zoned. It is a kingdom gathering beyond this one. Whether they meet in a house or a business, when people are meeting as a spiritual kingdom the structure remains what it is, whether it be a house or a business or an industrial park. In fact, I submit that if Salman himself understood this he would not have gotten himself into the mess he is in. Don’t file your house as a church. People are church. When the number of people gathering is too much, have them gather at a new location, or have them “split” into multiple congregations for the sake of space and growth.
You can’t zone a people, but people should watch their zones. Salman and some of his flock have been protesting. The thing is, protesting over actual persecution would be one thing. Protesting over altercations with the town over zoning issues is actually pretty pathetic. Jesus would not have done this. He would have complied with the law of man in any way that did not actually interfere with his duty (not “right”) to comply with his Father.
If you’re given a permit to convert your garage into a game room, but you want a church, you miss the point. A church is not a building. The garage/game room/home gym is just that, a structure. Don’t call it a church and you won’t be messed with. When your church meets in it, it’s not a church. It’s a building with a church currently in it. Don’t invite so many people into the place that it’s a fire hazard and you won’t be messed with. And if you are messed with, then you can say you are persecuted. Even then, remember how Christ and his followers handled persecution. Don’t you dare grab a gun just so you can “defend your liberties.” You will have destroyed everything you claim to have worked so hard for: the Glory of God.
Persecution is real, and we must handle it with meekness and fear, as we must handle evangelism. Granted, what happened to Michael Salman is absurd, and yes, I believe the sentence, fines, and probation were too heavy, even for failure to comply with zoning laws. But he is no martyr. Let’s respect real martyrs by not cheaply trying to become one. Oh, and if you lift a single gun against those who persecute you, you can never be called a martyr. Peace to you all, and pray for martyrdom and persecution everywhere.
I’m pleased that you addressed this and framed it the way you did. As soon as I saw the story popping up on my Facebook feed, and my friends moaning about the church in America being persecuted, my first response was, “C’mon, this happened in Arizona. Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio Arizona. One of the safest places to be a Christian in America, unless of course you are a Christian who happens to be Mexican.” And I looked into it and saw it for what it was: Christian propaganda, which is never, ever good. We are supposed to pursue peace, not stir the pot.