Religious Liberty

Politics and Ministry

240px-2016_presidential_election_ballotOver the past several weeks, I have been asked more about politics than I can ever remember. The situation with the current presidential election has created as much discussion as the Bush-Gore fiasco of 2000. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, we have sought to be a voice of reason during the contentious election cycle. As part of that reasonable voice, I have participated in two discussions over the last week about politics and its implications for ministry.

Today I spent about half an hour discussing politics and ministry on Facebook Live as part of Southwestern’s “Ask the Expert” series. Despite the obvious failings of this “expert,” it was a fun experience with some good questions. You can find the video below.

Last Thursday I was part of a panel discussion with Dr. Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS, and Rep. Matt Krause, Texas State Representative from District 93. We had a wide ranging discussion about law, politics, church, and religious liberty. The video from that discussion will be available on the Seminary’s YouTube channel in the coming days.

 

Radio Interview about First Freedom

knowingthetruth-kevinbolingToday I had the privilege to join Kevin Boling on his radio program “Knowing the Truth” out of the Greenville, SC area. I have known Kevin for several years now and have been honored to join him on his show a few times.

In this interview, we discussed the new edition of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty. I contributed a chapter to that volume entitled, “Religious Liberty and the Gospel.”

Over the course of our discussion we covered some of the biblical context for religious liberty, the connection between America and the ancient Roman Empire, and implications of religious liberty for all religions.

You can listen to the interview here. You can purchase a copy of the book on Amazon or other book retailers (as of Oct 17, the first print run of the book sold out, but the publisher assures us that more copies will be available sooner than Amazon currently reports).

Religious Liberty and the Gospel

91cer-paj4lReligious liberty has become a major topic of discussion in this current political cycle. There are worries about presidential candidates or potential Supreme Court justices who may scale back the freedoms that have been enjoyed by Americans for more than two centuries. However, not everyone understands the full extent to which religious liberty should be applied.

Many people consider religious liberty to mean the freedom to worship at whichever house of worship you choose. However, the free exercise of religion extends to all aspects of life, especially the right to share your beliefs with others. In the second edition of First Freedom (which becomes available on Oct 15), I write:

With the First Amendment’s promise that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” adherents to all faiths were guaranteed the right to the free exercise of religion. As a result, religious groups were free to take to the highways and byways to proclaim what they believed. The right to religious liberty ensured that Christians and others would have the freedom to gather for worship, change their religious beliefs, and proselytize. However, such freedom is a delicate balance. No one religious tradition can be privileged over another. The predominant religion of one generation may be the minority in the next.

The religious liberty we enjoy today is much like the unique features of the Roman Empire that aided the spread of the gospel in the first century. The network of roads between major commercial cities, the common Greek language spoken throughout the empire, and the relative peace brought by Roman military dominance assisted the early believers in taking the message of Christ throughout the empire.

Today’s political landscape is vastly different from first century Rome, but the religious nature of society is similar. We live in a syncretistic culture where people pick and choose what they want to believe. While this may seem like a detriment to the overall religious health of our American culture, it can also serve as an aid in sharing the gospel. Christianity should not be privileged in an environment of religious liberty, but I believe it can win the day in the marketplace of ideas when we take the opportunity to proclaim its truth.

In the closing paragraphs of my chapter in First Freedom, I note:

Religious liberty does not give Christianity a privileged position in the culture. In theory this freedom puts all religions (or even the lack of religion) on equal footing. Consider this for a moment. The next time Mormon missionaries knock on your door and try to convince you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the restoration of the true church and that you need to be baptized in their church in order to enjoy the benefits of salvation, remember that they are exercising religious liberty. The next time that the Muslim community decides to build a mosque in your neighborhood (or even next door to your church), remember they are exercising religious liberty. Since religious liberty guarantees us the right to exercise our faith freely, the government cannot coerce what we believe to be false religions to give up their beliefs or plans for worship. Thus, religious liberty ought to motivate us to share the gospel. In a country where religious liberty is currently protected, we should take advantage of this freedom and reason with others, persuading them to hear and receive the gospel.

This is the unique connection between religious liberty and the gospel. May we not take for granted our liberty and fail to share the truth with a lost and dying world.

If you want to read more about religious liberty, let me encourage you to pick up a copy of First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty from Amazon or any other book retailer starting October 15. To see more about the book and contributors, visit the page of one of the editors, Jason G. Duesing.

Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies

Just over three weeks ago, I spent several days in Salt Lake City attending the World Congress of Families IX. I was privileged to speak during one of the plenary sessions on the closing day of the congress. The title of my session was “Religious Liberty as the Foundation for Pro-Life and Pro-Family Policies.” Video from my session (and many others) is now available on the WCF YouTube channel.

As part of my presentation, I noted that there are three distinct areas where we can see the influence of religious liberty in support of pro-life and pro-family policies. These three areas are marriage, healthcare, and education.

In my conclusion, I noted the following:

At the end of the day, religious liberty sets the foundation upon which we can build the best pro-life and pro-family policies. However, these policies are not simply going to come about because a nation has religious liberty protections. Such policies are still dependent upon people of faith exercising their beliefs in the public square to give a convincing argument for why God’s design for life and family is the most beneficial for the good of society. It is when people of faith practice their faith in a society that respects their right to freely exercise such faith that we will see the most effective pro-life and pro-family policies.

I was honored to be a part of the program for the World Congress of Families. The mission of WCF is to “provide sound scholarship and effective strategies to affirm and defend the natural family, thus encouraging a sustainable and free society.” This was the first congress held in the United States. I attended my first congress in Warsaw, Poland in 2007.

On a personal note, it was fun to “teach” a little Baptist history to such an ecumenical group. In fact, most of the questions I received throughout the rest of the day related to church history. It reminded me how little people know about the history of Christianity and how important it is to continue teaching our history as Christians (and Baptists).

The Threat to Religious Liberty from Inside the Church

prayerEven 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.