On April 25, 2018, I was arrested. I was led away from the church in handcuffs. I was booked and charged with 3 counts of larceny and 2 counts of defacing a monument. I know, really shocking stuff. But what is even more shocking than a pastor being arrested, is what precipitated my arrest. I removed political signs that were posted on church property without permission. And because so many have asked me what happened, I thought I should take this opportunity to relate the events, and also a few of the lessons I learned.
I want to be clear and open. The church leases its building. But when I contacted the landlord (who is a believer, though not a member of the church) the morning after my arrest he expressed shock and outrage at my arrest. Someone had asked him for permission to post the signs and he directed them to ask the tenants. The church was never contacted.
I also want to be clear and upfront, on Monday July 16 all charges were finally and officially dropped in a proceeding at the Prince William County district court. I have heard from some that implored me not to let the charges be dropped and to demand a trial and acquittal in the spirit of Acts 16:35-40, and then to forcefully pursue civil remedies. But in the spirit of Proverbs 19:11 I have chosen to overlook the offense. And practically, as the primary caregiver for my disabled wife and as the sole staff member at a small church, I don’t think it is wise to not be free from the threat of legal penalties (however infinitesimally small the risk is) and I don’t think pursuing civil actions would be being a good steward of my time. Others may be differently convicted about how they would have responded to the situation but after much prayer, thought, and advice, this is the course of action I settled on.
Timeline of Events
After running some errands in the afternoon on Wednesday April 25, on returning to the church I was stunned to find a number of political signs arrayed next to the church sign. (In the photo to the right the white post right next to all of the political signs is the church sign.) I promptly took them down and deposited them in the church dumpster. I did so for three reasons. First no one had asked for permission to post them, and to my eye they were posted in such a way as to imply the church’s endorsement of the candidates. Secondly as a 501c3 organization the church is barred from electioneering, and because of our location in Northern Virginia our community is home to many federal employees, including employees of the IRS; I didn’t want the church to give the impression that the church was flaunting the law, and I didn’t want to allow grounds for a complaint against the church to be made. Much more importantly I wanted to maintain the purity of the church’s gospel witness. I didn’t know any of the candidates on the signs (truthfully, I didn’t even read them) but I didn’t want a perceived relationship between the church and the candidates or their campaigns to become a stumbling block to anyone the Lord was drawing to Himself through the ministry of the church. So in the dumpster they went.
Then I went into my study to continue preparing for that evening’s midweek Bible Study. After several hours preparing for that evening’s Bible study I emerged about 5:30 and was shocked to see a new set of political advertisements posted in front of our church sign. So I removed them, this time throwing them in the back of my car assuming that they had been posted by someone who lacked the experience to know better, and I wanted to return them to the campaigns and take the opportunity to clarify that the church had not given permission to post the signs. A quick internet search during my dinner break yielded no contact information.
At approximately 7:15 I returned to the church to teach the midweek Bible Study and I was absolutely flabbergasted to see another set of political signs posted right next to the church sign. I uprooted them and began to head into the church when I was grabbed by the Haymarket chief of police who had been lying in wait and was roughly handcuffed. (The photo at left was taken roughly 5 hours after the handcuffs were removed. I was left bruised and with numbness in my hands that lasted several days, and for which I sought medical attention.) The police chief asked who I was and I replied the pastor of the church. He asked what I was doing and I replied “removing signs that were posted on church property without permission. He replied that it is not church property and that the property owner had given permission (something I later learned was untrue). I was placed in the back of a police car (about this time people started showing up for Bible Study), mirandized and placed under arrest (by an officer who was very apologetic and made clear that he was acting under orders). I was transported to the Prince William county criminal intake center, where I was processed, photographed and finger printed. Then in an act of unanticipated kindness the officer who had actually arrested and transported me, drove me back to the church.
- The greatest unsung heroes of the faith are pastor’s wives in places where there is real persecution of the church. This was the biggest one for me. I arrived home at about 11:30, pretty late for a Bible study that is scheduled to end at 9:00, yet it never occurred to my wife that I could possibly have been arrested or that anything could be wrong. She assumed that Bible study ran long and/or that I lost track of time talking afterward. But the world is full of pastor’s wives who if their husband is an hour and a half overdue home from leading a Bible study would be tempted to think they may never see him again; in fact every time her husband leaves the house there is a very real possibility she will never see him again. Imagine the faith it takes to be a pastor’s wife in places like that, I think it takes more than being a pastor. For a pastor in those places the fight turns hot when the arrest comes, for their wives the battle is hot already, as the temptation to sin by being anxious (Phil 4:6) for their husband’s safety must be great. Pray for these precious saints.
- The authorities are not always right or honest. I know this is going to ruffle some feathers but one thing that has been really driven home by this incident is that just because someone wears blue they are not unimpeachably honest. The claim made by the Chief of Police that the church’s landlord had given permission to post the signs was simply false. I have noticed something among conservative Christians, and I think it is a side effect of the political tribalism that has infected the church. Whenever there is a controversy that involves a police officer, the knee-jerk reaction of many in the church is to immediately take his/her side and to take what they say as truth without examination. I am not saying that police or prosecutors always or even frequently lie or mislead, but I am saying to think they never do is to weigh matters with uneven scales (Prov 11:1). I think the church can and must do better and should take Proverbs 18:17 to heart.
- Persecution will come under the guise of the mundane. I want to be crystal clear, I don’t think the church in North America is persecuted and I in no way compare what happened to me with the kinds of things endured by church leaders in places where there is persecution. But I’ll say this, I don’t think this would have happened 25 years ago. And I don’t just mean that I think a pastor on church property would have never been treated this way, although I certainly think that is true. I also mean that this kind of petty abuse of power would have never happened. I can’t imagine that a lease holder of a commercial property would have been arrested for removing unauthorized signage, or that an officer of the law would have tolerated a politician telling him to do so. At he end of the day what happened here was way more Boss Hog and Roscoe P. Coltrane than Nero, but it did stop a Bible study, frighten Christians who saw their pastor led away in cuffs and sully (at least temporarily) a Bible believing church. I think that the forces of darkness will be more than content to work against the cause of Christ through these means.
- Persecutors know they are doing wrong. One of the most curious things that happened related to this whole incident is that the chief of police at one point asked me not to pray for his damnation. This tells me two things. First, despite a reported lifetime of church attendance he had no understanding of the gospel and the character of God if he thought God would accede to a request to sentence someone to perdition exclusive of His own perfect justice. Secondly it tells me that he knew what he was doing was wrong; that is why he feared eternal consequences for his actions. First Peter was written to prepare and equip the church for the coming persecution, and one of the most surprising things it says is that persecution will come but see to it that none of you suffer as criminals (1 Pt 4:15). Peter is not saying that no one will be brought up on trumped up charges, he is saying to live in a way that it is clear that the charges must be trumped up. We tend to think that if we are shown to be in the right, that somehow that will protect us, and I don’t think that is the case. The man who slapped the cuffs on me hard enough to leave a mark knew he was doing the wrong thing, but he did it anyway.
- We don’t pray for our leaders enough. There is a crystal clear command in 1 Timothy 2:1-2 to pray for all those in authority so that we may lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. Yet we don’t. We may occasionally pray for the president (especially if he plays for our favorite team) but we neglect to pray for all of those in authority. I know prior to this incident I had never prayed for the mayor of Haymarket by name, and I don’t recall praying for the governor of Virginia all that often either. As we see society becoming more hostile to the gospel and the teachings of Scripture we need to redouble our efforts in prayer.
I want to be clear, I am not writing this to bash those involved, I said I want to overlook the offense. Yet I think there are lessons to be learned, more than these 5, and I don’t want anyone to have to be unnecessarily cuffed and stuffed to learn them. Pray for these men, and pray for those in authority where you live