Over the past several days, there has been widespread media coverage of the Dove World Outreach Center‘s plan to burn Korans this Saturday to “commemorate” the ninth anniversary of 9/11.  The Gainesville, FL church’s stated goal is to “warn about the teaching and ideology of Islam.”  On their blog they list 15 reasons why they believe burning Korans is a useful way to accomplish this goal.

Needless to say, there is a great deal of public outrage in response to this plan.  Muslims worldwide are understandably offended.  The American military is particularly concerned about violent reprisals, and the Commander, US Forces – Afghanistan, General Petraeus, has publicly pled with the Dove Center’s pastor to cancel the planned burning.  American and coalition forces in Afghanistan have already been targets of retaliation (including protests, American flag burnings, and rocks tossed at American convoys) since shortly after the pastor’s plan became public.

I’ve been mulling over this issue since I first heard of it on the news a few days ago.  My initial response was to think, “What a stupid, foolish thing for that church to do!”  And while I still feel that way, I also believe that at issue here is the expression of two different types of freedom – both of which are freedoms which the radical Muslim perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks despised, and which, at least in part, drove them to carry out their attacks in 2001.

What two types of freedom am I talking about?  The first freedoms are those guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – in this case, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  The five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment are among the principles Americans hold most dear.  Among those, the freedom of speech is marvelously summarized in the saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (originally attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall).  This is the first lens through which I view the proposed Koran burning.  I think it’s foolish, obnoxious, offensive, and completely detrimental to the spread of the Christian message.  But do they have the Constitutionally-protected right to do it?  Absolutely.

By virtue of the fact that they call themselves Christians, the members of this church enjoy a second type of freedom.  Christians believe Jesus’ death nullified our obligation to follow Old Testament laws as our source of righteousness; instead, we are free to rely completely on His sacrifice to have right standing before God.  Now, however, the members of the Dove World Outreach Center are stubbornly exercising their freedom of speech, while utterly failing to find a better way to spread the message of true freedom that can only be found at the foot of the cross.

The members of this (and every) church have two authorities to whom they are accountable.  Their earthly authority is the Constitution; their eternal authority is Jesus Christ.  And while the proposed Koran burning may be entirely in keeping with the rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, it is wholly contradictory to the teachings of Scripture.  A church which calls itself a “World Outreach Center” has in its name a truly noble goal, and appears to take seriously Christ’s command to His followers in Matthew 28:18-20.  But I would expect that church to be equally familiar with the New Testament Epistles, in which the apostles repeatedly plead with their churches to demonstrate love, gentleness, respect, patience, and humility towards those to whom they are preaching the Gospel.  In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter encourages those preaching the Gospel to maintain its truth, yet to always do so in a way that shows gentleness and respect to the listener.  Paul does the same in 2 Corinthians 6:3, where he reminds the Corinthian church that he and his fellow disciples “put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found in our ministry.”  Many more examples can be found throughout the Epistles; the conclusion can be made that today’s Christians are expected to behave in the same way.

Why did Christ’s followers place so much emphasis on avoiding offense when sharing the Gospel?  They knew the Gospel was offensive enough by its very nature.  Preaching the fallenness of man and our utter reliance on Christ for salvation was bound to cause some hurt feelings.  Preaching these things in an offensive manner certainly wasn’t going to help get the point across.

All of this brings me back to the utter foolishness of the Dove World Outreach Center’s plans for this coming Saturday.  Are they trying to spread the message that Islam is a religion that will not ultimately bring its followers to right standing before God?  Yes.  Are they trying to spread the message that only in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can salvation – eternal freedom – be found?  Yes.  But by exercising their Constitutionally-protected freedom to do so in a vulgar and offensive way, they are ultimately failing the message of Gospel-given freedom.  It will be a tragedy if American troops’ (or worse, innocent civilians’) lives are lost in the fallout from this church’s myopic plans.  It will be an even greater tragedy if souls are eternally lost as well.