Even in our truncated news cycle where this hour’s breaking news is yesterday’s story in a matter of minutes, the issue of religious liberty has maintained a lingering presence in the American consciousness for most of the last few months. From the rhetorical flourishes of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and dissents to the jailing and release of a county clerk in rural Kentucky for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, much has been made of this “first freedom.” While we typically think of threats to religious liberty coming from an increasingly secular culture, the most dangerous threats actually originate from within the church.
The first threat to religious liberty from inside the church is ignorance. Like many Christians, I have found myself struggling to articulate a biblical basis for this freedom. There is no passage of Scripture to which we can turn and read, “Thou shalt not infringe upon the religious liberty of your fellow citizens.”
What should we do, then? Should we dismiss religious liberty as an American invention that conveniently serves those of us who sometimes find ourselves outside of the mainstream culture? This should not be the case if we remind ourselves of the historical and biblical basis for this freedom and overcome the ignorance that threatens to undermine it.
The Anabaptists cited several texts of Scripture to support their claims for religious liberty. Matthew 13:24–30 is Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. In this parable, we see that an enemy has sown bad seed amongst the field of wheat. Rather than pulling up the tares and risk destroying some of the wheat, the farmer tells his slaves to allow the wheat and tares to grow up together. It is at the time of the harvest that the tares will be thrown into the fire and the wheat will be stored in the barn. For the Anabaptists, this was evidence that there would be people who would arise in the community and even the church that were sown by the enemy. These are heretics and heathens who do not belong but are allowed to remain so that the true believers will not be harmed by their removal. This does not mean that believers neglect to share the Gospel with these individuals, but that the true judgment is left up to God. It is not the job of the government to judge and remove these people for their unbelief. God will judge them, and His judgment is final.
We also see the biblical foundation for religious liberty in the government’s role of ensuring civil peace, not doctrinal purity. This particular teaching can be found in Romans 13:1–7. Notice some key concepts about government that we see in this passage. First, government is ordained by God. It is God who has given government its authority. It does not have any authority that He has not given it. Second, we are to submit to the government’s authority because we submit to God. Refusing to submit is to oppose the ordinance of God. Third, government functions within the scope of authority God has granted it. The government is a minister of God for those who do what is good. It exacts punishment on those who do what is evil. This is not a theological function but a civil one. Its role is to keep peace and restore order when that peace is violated.
The final biblical foundation for religious liberty we want to consider is that we have the right to persuade others of the Gospel. In Acts 18:12–17, we see that Paul is brought before Gallio and accused of disturbing the peace in Corinth. Notice the specific charge: he is accused of persuading people to worship God in a way contrary to the law. Before Paul can even defend himself, Gallio dismisses the case. He is not concerned with Jewish laws or customs of worship. Paul is free to do as he pleases, persuading men to follow Christ. The Jews exact their revenge on Sosthenes, but the government official is unconcerned about the religious dispute that is brought before him. In the very next chapter, Paul spends months in Ephesus speaking out boldly, reasoning, and persuading people to follow Christ. When he can no longer do so in the synagogue, he moves to a public forum. Over and over, we see the apostles reasoning and persuading men to follow Christ. No one is coerced to confess Christ on threat of his/her life or livelihood. People are free to accept or reject Him.
These biblical principles set a foundation on which we build the idea of religious liberty. Implicit in the text of Scripture is the idea that government has a specific function. It cannot tell people what they are to believe about God. At the same time, the church does not have the authority to use force in converting unbelievers. Therefore, both heathen and believers coexist in this world until the day of God’s judgment. It is our duty to warn, exhort and persuade these unbelievers with the Gospel, but we cannot force conversion upon them.
The second threat to religious liberty originating inside the church is arrogance. This is the idea that Christianity (and particularly conservative, evangelical varieties) is guaranteed protection while all other forms of religion are not worthy of protection against unwarranted government intrusion or restrictions. This attitude stems from an arrogance that has been developed since the days when proto-evangelicals, and Baptists in particular, were not the favored denomination.
Recent examples of this threat have been seen as some Christian leaders have attempted to block the building of houses of worship and cemeteries by religious groups that do not garner the political favor of the citizens in those locales. The fear in some of these cases is that a particular religious group will gain a majority in the government and begin to restrict the liberties of others. As long as the liberty being granted does not infringe upon the liberty of other religious groups, then such restrictions can only be classified as arbitrary. Any attempt to have a government entity impose arbitrary restrictions against a religious group that happens to find itself out of favor with mainstream citizens at this time will result in restrictions against our own religious preferences in the future.
If this type of arrogance is not corrected, then we as evangelicals—and Baptists in particular—will face the consequences of our own arrogance. The tables will turn when our religious preferences are not the preferences of the culture. In fact, that has already begun to happen. However, when we appeal to religious liberty claims to protect our own consciences, our appeals will ring hollow because we fought for discrimination against others when their time had come. This may actually be the most significant challenge to religious liberty in our day, and we are the source of that challenge.
Should we be concerned about the infringement of religious liberty from a secular government and culture? Certainly. But we also need to address the threats to religious liberty coming from our own camp—inside the church. This is a battle on two fronts. We must be prepared to stand for religious liberty both inside and outside the church.
*This post originally appeared at Theological Matters, the blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.