Apparently this legal battle has been brewing since 2005, when Salman, an ordained pastor, began holding Bible studies at his 4.6 acre residence. In 2007, he received a letter from the city informing him that he could no longer hold these studies in his living room, because they violated construction codes. A few months later, during a Good Friday get-together over hamburgers in his backyard, the Phoenix Fire Department broke up the fellowship, and threatened to call the police if the 20 guests did not leave the premises.
|Pastor Salmon and his family
Then in 2009, nearly a dozen police, along with city inspectors raided their home. Armed with a search warrant, police confined the Salman family to the living room as they combed the property looking for violations. And found them, they did; from a failure to post exit signs to a lack of handicap signs, Phoenix officials left no stone unturned, and were able to come up with 67 violations. Apparently, the city of Phoenix wants to label the new structure a church. Salman says it is not.
And so, earlier this week, Mr. Salman began his jail sentence. In a written statement, he said, “They’re cracking down on religious activities and religious use. They’re attacking what I, as a Christian, do in the privacy of my home.” It's enough to give every Christian pause.
In an attempt to remain fair, I know there are two sides to every story. Perhaps Mr. Salman and his wife did not adhere to every code; perhaps they pushed the envelope. But I have to ask, as have so many others .... would the fire department have showed up at his home and asked guests to leave if their backyard barbecue was celebrating the Super Bowl? What if it was a weekly Tuesday night Poker Club meeting at his home? Would construction codes have been enforced?
And where does this stop? Can we no longer worship in the privacy of our homes without violating some city code? What if I want to invite 4 or 5 of my neighbors in for a Ladies Bible Study? Do I have to apply for a permit? And can any building be designated a church just because you study your Bible there?
Here's where this could lead --- in Matthew 18:20, Scripture says, "For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them." In my mind, wherever He is, constitutes the Church. And according to the dictionary, a church is a building used for public Christian worship. But who is going to define what is "public"? Could that mean me and my husband (who number two) could be designated a church, if we are conducting our morning Bible study in our home?
If Mr. Salman's additional building was on his private property, and he did not advertise it as a church, but simply used it to hold occasional Bible Studies among friends, how can the City (which in this case is acting on behalf of the State) declare it a Church?
And I am seeing a growing number of "home churches" spring up, where small groups of Believers decide to gather together once a week or once a month to worship together and study their Bible. Will Mr. Salman's case set a precedence for the rest of us?
It is very apparent to me, that very soon, all of us will have a choice to make --- just as Mr. Salman did. We will have to choose whether to freely worship our Creator, or abide by man's laws. Whenever possible, we should give Caesar his due. But when Caesar begins telling us where and when and how we are to worship, or tries to limit our religious freedoms, then we must decide where our loyalty lies. As for me, I will choose God first. But it is a decision that I pray we do not have to make. But the fact that a pastor sits in jail today does not bode well for us.
2 Thessalonians 1:4 "Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring."