The other day, I came across Collin Hansen’s “top theology stories of 2017” list over on The Gospel Coalition’s website. It’s an excellent compilation of the past year’s events or analyses that have ignited broader conversations around public theology and Christian ethics, and the divisions that both entail.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ affects all aspects of life, as Hansen notes at the start of his list. Indeed. Over the last year, we’ve read piles of headlines heralding news of triumph and despair, joy and suffering, new birth and unpredictable death. These stories are a reminder of our human depravity and of our dependence on divine grace and providence.
Hansen’s list sparked my own reflection on 2017 headlines. Suffering has affected Christians this year, to be sure. But in the midst of varying hardships so many stories have illustrated faithful, public Christian witnesses. Because the year is coming to a close—and because I work for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, where we are committed to strengthening American Christians’ public witness—I’ve come up with my own top religion stories of 2017, all emphasizing the importance of a faithful public witness in the midst of challenges to the Christian faith.
In no particular order, they are as follows:
1.) Ancient Christian Communities Liberated from ISIS
The Islamic State forced the people living in the Nineveh Plains to flee their ancient Christian communities. But over the last year, areas of Iraq and Syria have been liberated from the Islamic State’s ruthless control, allowing some Christians to return home to celebrate Christmas. On December 21, a New York Times headline read, “Christmas Returns to A City Liberated From ISIS.” The article examined the recovering city of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian community. According to the Times article, nearly half of Qaraqosh citizens had returned by last August and this Christmas was the first time the city’s main church will be filled with worshipers since its liberation. May God be praised.
Note: In some cases people returned home to liberated areas to celebrate Christmas but they were not able to stay permanently, according to the IRD’s Religious Liberty Director Faith McDonnell. “We pray for the day when that is possible,” commented McDonnell.
2.) Divine Grace Amid Two Tragic Church Shootings
On September 24, 2017, a gunman killed a 39-year-old mother and left seven others wounded in a church parking lot as worship service concluded at Burnett’s Chapel of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee. Six weeks later, on November 5, 2017, a gunman entered First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed twenty-six people, including an unborn baby and the pastor’s 14 year-old daughter. After both tragedies, divine grace strengthened congregants in their continued witness to their communities and beyond.
Following the Chapel of Christ shooting, the young usher who overtook the gunman released a powerful statement asking citizens to “pray that through all of this that people will come to know Christ” and to “reflect on Romans 8:31: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?”
And while still grieving his young daughter, Sutherland Springs Pastor Frank Pomeroy delivered a moving eulogy for a married couple slain at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. “The only way to overcome evil is to shower it with good,” said Pomeroy, as the New York Daily News reported. “I know your hearts are broken. Mine is as well. I lost a lot of friends. I lost my baby. But I chose not to give in over the darkness.” Earlier during a press conference Pomeroy shared, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.”
3.) Charlie Gard and the Christian Pro-Life Witness
The British 11-month-old baby boy named Charlie Gard made heartbreaking headlines around the world. Baby Gard developed a fatal rare disease. Before his passing in late July, Baby Gard’s parents were desperate—understandably— to seek healthcare for their son and fought to prevent the hospital from cutting off life support. They hoped to bring Baby Gard to the United States for experimental treatment. But were prohibited from doing so by the European Court of Human Rights. That’s when a groundswell of Christian pro-life witnesses spoke up.
Prayers and peaceful protests spread on behalf of Gard’s right to life and his parents’ right to protect the life of their child. Thanks in part to the outpouring of Christians’ public pro-life witness, a broader conversation ignited surrounding the sanctity of human life, parental rights, and medical ethics.
4.) Faith-Based Organizations Extend Help, Hope After Natural Disasters
This year—and only weeks apart— hurricanes left Texas, West Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere with devastating flooding and wreckage. Thankfully, faith-based disaster relief organizations and Christian volunteers helped provide aid and the Gospel of Christ at the forefront of relief efforts.
Researcher and author Ed Stetzer, writing for USA Today, succinctly put it:
In a disaster, churches don’t just hold bake sales to raise money or collect clothes to send to victims; faith-based organizations are integral partners in state and federal disaster relief efforts. They have specific roles and a sophisticated communication and coordination network to make sure their efforts don’t overlap or get in each others’ way.
5.) Evangelical Leaders Sign the Nashville Statement
On August 29, 2017 the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a coalition declaration on sexuality and gender, known as the Nashville Statement. More than 150 Evangelical leaders representing churches, seminaries, and ministries signed a statement affirming Biblical marriage, gender, and sexual morality. Most controversially, the statement asserted “We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”
While the Nashville Statement is an imperfect document, it launched a major national conversation around traditional Christian sexual ethics inside and outside of the Church. Suddenly, politicians, comedians, and the Mayor of Nashville were examining (and largely condemning) Biblical teachings on sexuality. Despite the criticisms, it can be said the Nashville Statement serves as a helpful reminder of the Church’s consensus on sexual morality and gender.
6.) The Church Says “Me Too”
While my intention was not to overlap with Hansen’s list, the Church’s voice in the #MeToo movement can’t be overstated. The Church is made up of both sinful and wounded saints. This became quite evident after the #MeToo movement arose shortly after Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal. But as countless others have already pointed out, sexual assault is not isolated to Hollywood, nor NBC studios, nor Senate campaigns, nor the halls of Congress.
Thankfully, Christian leaders like Beth Moore, Kay Warren, Dr. Russell Moore, and others lent their voices to the reality of sexual abuse within Christian communities. As I’ve previously written, the eyes of a fallen world are watching us. They must see that the church serves to protect victims, not create more.
7.) Nabeel Qureshi Remembered
After a year-long battle with stomach cancer, author and evangelist Nabeel Qureshi passed away on September 21, 2017. In the midst of his radiation treatments, Qureshi continued to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During treatments in and out of hospital, Qureshi would post regular video updates of his cancer battle and how the Almighty was guiding him through it all. On one occasion, Qureshi attested to divine grace, writing “who am I to say this tragedy is of the worst order?” Instead of focusing on his own troubles, Qureshi took the opportunity to point others to the cross of Christ, sharing:
But no matter what is going on, I cannot think of something worse than being crucified. And of all the reasons to be crucified, I cannot think of anything worse than to be crucified because I love the people who are crucifying me to save the very people that are crucifying me. That is the worst!
Qureshi’s public witness made a significant impact on the world. Over 14,000 viewers watched Qureshi’s memorial service online. Thank God for Qureshi’s godly legacy.
8.) Masterpiece Cakeshop Owner Gets His Day in Court
On December 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the pivotal religious freedom case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips, a cake artist and bakery owner, is defending his constitutional right to operate his business in accordance with his Christian convictions on marriage.
In July 2012, Phillips politely declined to service a same-sex wedding ceremony. A legal battle has ensued ever since. Alliance Defending Freedom is the legal organization representing Phillips. According to ADF’s website, “Through all of this, Jack continues to trust in God’s plan for his life and for the future of Masterpiece Cakeshop.” Phillips told ADF, “I can trust Him and know that God is doing what he’s going to do. And if He’s chosen us to be a part of that, that’s quite an honor.”
We await the Supreme Court’s decision.
9.) Public Consideration for the Pence Rule
Last spring, The Washington Post ran a profile piece of Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence. The piece quoted an earlier comment from the Vice President explaining he never dines alone with another woman or attends an event where alcohol is served without his wife. This minor comment rapidly stirred major reactions and, hopefully, consideration for what is now called the Pence Rule (a.k.a the Billy Graham Rule).
The Pences are evangelical and set cautious boundaries as a means of safeguarding their marriage from sinful temptations. However, critics have argued his actions serve to devalue and oppress women. (I’ve noted Christian women also take steps to protect their marriage. No one accuses us of dehumanizing men.) What the Pence Rule actually does is recognizes the fallen state of human nature, expresses fidelity to his wife, and attests to redemption through Jesus Christ.
10.) Despite Persecution, Christianity in China Continues to Spread
In April, The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “In China, Unregistered Churches Are Driving a Religious Revolution.” The article attests to Chinese Christians’ devotion and evangelism, despite setbacks and challenges under a controlling government.
There are reports that as many as 100 million people in the People’s Republic of China follow Jesus Christ. “At current rates of increase, there could be 250 million Christians in China by 2030, predominantly Evangelicals, according to Purdue sociologist Fenggang Yang as reported by the Washington Post,” wrote IRD’s Research Assistant Joseph Rossell. “If this projection holds true, China would contain more Christians than any other country in the world.”Google+