Who would have thought religious freedom would become an election issue?
So what should Christians think? Should we defend religious freedom?
I’m suggesting we stop throwing our lot in behind counterfeit gods like ‘freedom’…If we stick with [preaching the gospel] rather than playing worldly games using worldly tools (like lobbying, using natural law arguments, or using force) then we avoid a bunch of issues…the sort of issues that undermine our witness.’
Should Christians defend religious freedom? And if so, how?
To answer this question, we must first understand God’s design for government.
1) God Wants Government in the ‘Law and Order’ Business, but NOT in the ‘Religion’ Business
Government must not force people to practice/ not practice religion (except where law and order are affected).
God has appointed the risen and ascended Jesus Christ to be the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords (Rom 1:4; Acts 2:36). And this King is now in control of all governments (Rom 13:1).
But here’s the surprising thing.
God gives human governments the ‘sword’ to act coercively against threats to public order and justice (Rom 13:1-7). Yet He doesn’t give governments the ‘sword’ to coerce people to worship the risen Lord Jesus.
Or to put it more generally: God doesn’t want governments forcing people to practice/not practice religion.
(Any secular reader will quickly point out that throughout history, Christians have brought government into the religion business by forcing people to worship the Christian God. Guilty as charged. But it was wrong and unbiblical for Christians to do such a thing).
We can now define religious freedom:
2) Religious Freedom Means Keeping The Government Out Of The ‘Religion’ Business:
So that government can’t force people to practice/not practice any religion.
Defending Religious Freedom simply means limiting the power of government to its God-ordained role: namely upholding public order and justice (Rom 13:1-7). Or to put it in terms used by the Founding Fathers of the USA, it’s keeping the separation of Church and State: the state must not punish people for practicing/not practicing any religion.
(Now, the state might choose to support religious professionals, such as chaplains. Or religious activities, such as Scripture teaching in public schools. But these people/activities are non-coercive: they don’t force kids to become religious).
Furthermore, religious freedom also benefits our non-religious neighbour:
3) When a Government Enters the Religion Business, Bad Things Happen
All basic freedoms for all their people are eroded.
When religious freedom disappears, other freedoms soon follow. As journalist Mollie Hemmingway writes:
A government that tramples religious liberty is not a government that protects [other freedoms]… Can you think of one country with a narrow view of religious liberty but an expansive view of economic freedom, freedom of association, press freedoms or free speech rights? One?”
The worst human rights abusers are governments that have entered into the religion business. Most Islamic countries are a case in point (i.e. forcing people to practice Islam). Secular Atheistic countries (e.g. China, Cuba) heavily restrict religious practice. And basic freedoms go AWOL for everyone.
So should Christians care about such government persecution?
The Biblical answer is ‘yes’:
4) Christians Should Pray That Governments Won’t Persecute
So that Christians might be free to live God-pleasing lives.
The apostle Paul wrote the following to his mate Timothy:
1 Timothy 2:1-2 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
The apostle Paul knew a thing or two about persecution (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-33). And yet, his desire – and more importantly God’s desire – is that Christians ‘may live peaceful and quiet lives.’
Of course, God won’t always answer that prayer in the affirmative. But it’s a good prayer. And thus a good desire.
5) Christians Are Free to Use Legal/Political Means to Limit Persecution
It’s what the Apostle Paul did.
Unless we think the Apostle Paul got it wrong, we can look to his example as a way of engaging government:
- In Acts 16:37-39, the apostle Paul demanded his rights as a Roman citizen be respected by the civil authorities;
- In Acts 23:12-31, Paul requested the protection of the Roman army when facing persecution.
The same apostle who wrote that being persecuted was central to following the crucified Messiah (e.g. Rom 8: 17), was also at times willing to use legal/political means to reduce that persecution.
But at this point we need to be careful: the apostle Paul didn’t use legal/political power to force people to become Christians. He merely used legal/political power to protect against persecution, whether from government itself (Acts 16), or from other people (Acts 23).
6) Christian Love for Neighbour Will Mean Protecting Them From Government Abuse
This will involve prayer, evangelism, but may also involve legal/political action.
If your neighbour is being abused by their spouse, how would you respond?
Yes, you’ll pray for them; yes, you’ll share the gospel with them. But wouldn’t Christian love also lead you to protect/rescue them?
But what if the abuser is the government? Doesn’t Christian love demand we stand up for our persecuted neighbour and protect them – even through legal/political means?
Theologian John Stott wrote:
‘Some cases of need cannot be relieved at all without political action (the harsh treatment of slaves could have been ameliorated, but not slavery itself; it had to be abolished)…So if we truly love our neighbours, and want to serve them, our service may oblige us to take (or solicit) political action on their behalf.’
(Of course, protecting our neighbour from government abuse is not the gospel: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour’ is the gospel. But seeking our neighbour’s welfare is an important fruit of the gospel (e.g. James 2:14-17)).
Now unlike 1st century Christians, 21st century Aussie Christians bear responsibility for government:
7) Christian Citizens in Modern Democracies are Part of the Political Process
They bear responsibility for good or bad government action.
Writing about democratic responsibility, theologian Russell Moore has this to say:
In [a democratic system of government], religious liberty is everyone’s problem, because the state is accountable to the people, who are, ultimately, the governing authorities.
A Christian, then, who doesn’t care about working for religious liberty is a Christian not only wishing to be persecuted, and to consign others to persecution, but also wishing to be, by his silence, a persecutor of others. This is contrary to the way of Christ (1 Pet. 1:12-17). [Emphasis added].
Elsewhere he puts it rather poetically:
Shrugging this [political responsibility] off is not the equivalent of Jesus standing silently before Pilate. It’s the equivalent of Pilate washing his hands, so as not to bear accountability for our own decisions and precedents set. [Emphasis added].
There are times when Christians are in a Revelation 13 environment, having no choice but to stand and be persecuted. But that’s not 2016 Australia.
Right now, Australian Christian citizens have a say. Which means responsibility: a responsibility to love our neighbour by defending them from government abuse. And one way to do that is by advocating for (God-ordained) limits on government power.
Conclusion: Should Christians Care about Government Injustice?
The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.’
– Elie Wiesel, Night.
Western Christians are facing an issue we haven’t faced in centuries: the erosion of religious freedom. But at its heart, it’s a justice issue: when government overreaches, and gets into the religion business, it’s acting unjustly.
Should Christians care about such injustice? If we care about our non-Christian neighbour, who’ll be affected by such injustice, then the answer must be ‘yes’.