What The Bible Says About Working for Religious Liberty
In America, unlike many places around the world, people of all religions can, for the most part, practice their faith freely without government intrusion or invention. This is a blessing that we often overlook and, at times, forget we enjoy. Many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world worship God under threat of death. They gather in secret, in homes, in caves, sometimes underground at great risk to their lives. In America, we not only can gather freely, but we have access to a flood of spiritual and theological resources. We have Christian schools, parachurch ministries, mission agencies, and other institutions that serve the church.
If you, like me, have grown up enjoying religious liberty, it might be tempting to think it will always be here. But just like previous generations of Americans fought to preserve religious liberty, it’s important for our generation to do that same work, to ensure our children can live out their faith freely in a pluralistic society.
But increasingly many Christians are questioning the value of religious liberty as an unqualified good. Increasingly the idea of religious liberty has become polarized, especially as it conflicts with the sexual revolution. Christians making arguments for religious freedom are often labeled intolerant and out of step. And sometimes Christians make arguments for religious liberty that are less than civil. So many in the church today are wondering if the fight is even worth it.
Because Jesus called us to take up our crosses in self-denial, to lay down our lives for others. So it can seem incongruent to then appeal to our civil authorities, to work to elect people who promise to protect religious liberty. It seems this is at odds with gospel mission. But is it? What does the Bible say about religious liberty?
Obviously, the Scriptures were written in a very different setting than the one we currently enjoy. Followers of Jesus in the first century didn’t have the opportunity to shape their governments like Christians in democracies like ours enjoy. And yet Scripture is not silent on the power of the state and the importance of protecting the human conscience.
Here are four Biblical justifications for fighting for religious liberty:
1. Jesus addressed religious liberty.
When approached by two fighting religious factions about the morality of paying Caesar’s tribute, Jesus offered an interesting response: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17). Most of us read this as Jesus telling us to pay our taxes. He is doing that, but he’s doing so much more. Jesus is making a bold declaration about the power of the state and the primacy of the human conscience. He is saying that there is legitimate power delegate to civil authorities by God for human flourishing (Romans 13), but that there are certain things that the state has no right to take and control. Caesar is not Lord of the conscience. Belief that is coerced is a denial of the basic human dignity of the individual, an assault on the imago de. So Jesus, in a seemingly innocuous statement about taxes, reminds the powers that be that their authority is limited. Jesus also, in his trial, was unafraid to appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen when they were wrongly denied (John 18:23)