Barnabas Fund has long campaigned for freedom for Christians in contexts of persecution. This includes not only environments where non-Christian religions dominate, but also Communist contexts and situations where secular humanism exerts pressure on Christians.
Is religious liberty a Biblical concept?
Freedom of religion is set out as a universal standard in Article 18 of the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
This was followed in 1976 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whose Article 18 reads:
- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals of the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardian to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
But is the aspiration to religious freedom grounded in Scripture? How should Christians react to being persecuted, to their fellow Christians being persecuted, or to living in a context of persecution? Is religious liberty central to Christian theology and faith, or is it a luxury, a gift, a privilege? Should Christians resort to human laws and declarations like the UDHR and ICCPR to ensure their religious freedom? Should such freedom cover everyone in society, or only Christians? Should all benefit from religious liberty, or just a few?
Freedom is rooted in God
The Bible shows us that freedom is rooted in God’s nature and in His dealings with human beings. God made the universe, holds it together by His Word of power, and governs it through His law, in wisdom, truth and love. God made human beings in His divine image. He made us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism). He does not force His rule or love on us, but gave us a conscience and a desire to seek Him. In other words, He gives us the freedom to seek and find Him.
God’s way of governance must be the model for human governance. Humans must deal with each other in wisdom, truth and love. Because each one of us is created in God’s image and the Son of God came clothed in human flesh, we must treat each other with the dignity which this entails. Autocratic human governance does not reflect God’s nature or God’s governance. No one must be forced; no one must be hindered. Everyone must be free to worship and free to serve Him. Each individual has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth and to seek Him.
Liberty of the spirit
Christian experience has shown that in times of intense persecution – torture, imprisonment or approaching martyrdom – God gives grace to His people. Many have testified to a bliss that transcends their physical environment.
Another gift from God is the spiritual freedom He gives to those who have put their faith in Christ: they are free from sin (Romans 6), from the law (Romans 7) and from death (Romans 8). “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
Freedom and humanity
The Biblical understanding of freedom is based on the Biblical understanding of humankind as imago Dei, made in the image of our Creator God. This gives us not only the potential for inner freedom but also dignity as individuals free to make our own choices.
God gives us freedom to choose. Adam and Eve made a choice. So did Cain when he chose to kill his brother Abel out of jealousy and then asked a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, he should have been his brother’s keeper and taken responsibility for his brother’s wellbeing, as we all should for each other.
God commands us to act with tzedakah. This beautiful Hebrew word means “righteousness”. It is much broader than “charity” in the sense of “alms-giving”. It is about right relationships with other people, as well as about our private morality. This is the “righteousness like a never-failing stream” that the Lord desires (Amos 5:24).
Closely linked to tzedakah is the Hebrew word mishpat, which in simple terms means “justice”, a justice rooted in the nature of God. Mishpat means much more than punishing wrongdoing. Mishpat is about treating people the same, regardless of race, social status, sexual orientation or religion. God frequently commands us to do mishpat and the word occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament. It means giving people their rights, what is due to them. So caring for the poor is not love, so much as it is justice. David Doty says, “The justice of God is sacrificial and active.”1 If everyone behaved with perfect tzedakah there would be no need for mishpat, because there would be no injustice or neglect to put right. Mishpat tops the list of things that are right and good in Isaiah 1:17 and Micah 6:8. Mishpat frequently describes helping widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor – “the quartet of the vulnerable”2 – and we should note that there are no conditions laid down that these vulnerable people must worship Yahweh in order to be eligible for mishpat.
God also commands us to love, with agape love, the love of Christ. Love is the essential quality of the Christian, based on the sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus. Love (for God and neighbour) is both the first and the second greatest commandment, Jesus said, thus redefining the boundaries of how we should deal with others (Matthew 22:34-40). We are not to treat others on the basis of skin colour, religious belief or sexual orientation, but on the basis of the fact that they are made in God’s image. Jesus takes this teaching a stage further, when He gives His disciples a new command: to love one another (John 13:34). When they have truly learned to love one another, in the way that Christ loved them, they will be able to love everyone else too.
The Gibeonites were a community from Canaan who “did work wilily” (Joshua 9:4 KJV) and tricked the Israelites into swearing by the Lord to let them live, when all the other Canaanite peoples were to be eliminated (Joshua 9, especially v19). Therefore this community of non-Israelites, who apparently did not worship Yahweh, continued to live amongst the Israelites for generations.
The Canaanite religion was polytheistic, with idol worship and Baal worship at its heart. It was also militaristic and extremely violent. It emphasised sexuality, linking it to fertility, and it was occultic, involving child sacrifice.
How did the Israelites treat the Gibeonites? The Israelites allowed them to live, but conscripted the Gibeonites as woodcutters and water-carriers. They were “to provide for the needs of the altar of the Lord” at Israel’s central sanctuary (Joshua 9:23-27).
How did God treat the Gibeonites? God protected them. It was on behalf of the Gibeonites that God sent giant hailstones and stopped the sun in the middle of the sky so that the Israelites could win a battle to defend the Gibeonites from their enemies (Joshua 10:5-14).
Centuries later, Saul violated the covenant with the Gibeonites. No doubt, his intention was to cleanse the land of their occultic religion, and thus he planned and began a genocide. But God, despite the evil practices of the Gibeonites, would not have them persecuted, killed or expelled. As punishment for ill-treating the Gibeonites, God sent a three-year famine on the Israelites. This was lifted only when the Gibeonites were given seven descendants of Saul to kill (2 Samuel 21:1-14). King David punished the descendants of Saul for unjustly attacking the Gibeonites.
Freedom for all?
God called Israel to be holy as a nation, separated from all the practices of the Canaanites. Yet they had to allow the unbelieving Gibeonites to live in their midst and not persecute them, even though the Gibeonites had used trickery to gain this status and Israel had failed to seek counsel from the Lord. For their part, the Gibeonites co-operated with Israel and agreed to obey her laws.
God created all human beings in His image, giving them dignity and choice. Dignity and the power to choose are linked. God intends that humans should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not forced but motivated by their conscience.
God also teaches us that His priorities of righteousness, justice and love override everything else. The Gibeonites were to live among the Israelites and freely follow their own polytheistic religion.
This is not just a principle from Old Testament times. Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. To be like Him, we must love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45). We must be just to all who are created imago Dei, whether they are a fellow Christian, an agreeable neighbour, or an implacable foe.
Jim Campbell, senior counsel of the US-based Alliance Defending Freedom, explains that
Defending religious freedom is not, and must not become a self-seeking quest to shield us [Christians] from inconvenience and trials as we practice our faith. Rather, it must be part of fulfilling the church’s call to love our neighbors by righting fundamental assaults on our common humanity.3
So the Bible teaches that freedom of religion must be for all in society. We should not try to prevent followers of other religions from having places of worship, or access to their sacred books, for example.
But freedom of religion does not include freedom to be murderous or to incite others to violence. It does not override existing laws for the maintenance of a stable and peaceful society. It is not an excuse, either morally or in law, for any such destructive behaviour.
Furthermore, we have already pledged to ensure freedom of religion for all, or at least our governments did so on our behalf when they signed up to the UDHR and the ICCPR. We are duty bound, morally and legally, to put these commitments into practice. We have quite literally made a covenant (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). We saw how seriously God expected the Israelites to take the covenant (Joshua 9:15 ESV) that Joshua made with the Gibeonites. We saw His severe displeasure when later generations, in their zeal for the Lord, broke it. Let us not make the same mistake.
What did the Church actually do?
It is remarkable how soon church leaders began to ask political leaders for freedom of religion. Justin Martyr, who was born around AD 100, asked the Roman emperor for justice for Christians who were being persecuted.4 Tertullian (150-230) wrote:
… it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.5
During the fourth century, these hopes became reality under a series of Roman emperors. Galerius’ Edict of Toleration (311) stopped the persecution of Christians, Constantine personally embraced Christianity (312), Constantine and Licinian’s Edict of Milan (313) established freedom of religion, and Theodosius’s Edict of Thessalonica (380) made Christianity the official religion of the empire. The state-approved church was now in a position to persecute others, and did so with gusto.6
The model of an established state church has continued from then until now. It has produced a shameful tally of cruel persecution, whether of other Christians or of non-Christians. In certain times and places it has been savagely anti-Semitic. Even when these shocking excesses are absent, there is a tendency for a state church to slip into nationalism. Surely it would have been better to establish a religion-state relationship rather than a church-state relationship, so that all religions were treated equally and none had pre-eminence.
The Protestant Reformers took a variety of attitudes to the church-state situation at their time, a situation in which the spiritual and secular powers were closely intertwined. Luther (1483-1546) held that the government should leave everyone to believe according to their individual conscience. Calvin (1509-1564), on the other hand, established a strict religious regime in Geneva and punished anyone who differed. The Anabaptists took the (then) radical line that the state should have nothing to do with church matters at all.
The Roman Catholics
The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church issued a statement on religious freedom on 7 December 1965 entitled Dignitatis Humanae [On the Dignity of the Human Person]. This affirmed that all humans have the right to religious freedom and must not be coerced into acting against their own beliefs. It states that this freedom applies to individuals and to groups, and lists five freedoms that religious communities should have, summed up by Jeff Mirus as follows:7
- Religious communities may govern themselves, worship publicly, assist and instruct their members, and promote institutions for ordering their lives in accordance with religious principles.
- Religious communities are not to be hindered in selecting, training, appointing, transferring, or communicating with their ministers, or in acquiring funds, purchasing properties or erecting buildings for religious purposes.
- Religious communities “also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith”, providing that they themselves refrain from acting in ways that are either coercive or dishonorably persuasive.
- Religious communities “should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine” to society as a whole, and so are free to hold meetings and establish charitable and social organizations “under the impulse of their own religious sense.”
- The family in particular has the “right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents,” who have the right to determine “the kind of religious education that their children are to receive.” Government must guarantee and protect this freedom.
Since protection of rights is an essential duty of government, “government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens in an effective manner,” and to “help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life.” However, if special civil recognition is given to one religious community, the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must still be recognized and made effective. Government must never violate the freedom and equality of citizens before the law for religious reasons. Finally, it is “a violation of the will of God” when force is brought to bear in any way in order to destroy or repress religion.
Dignitatis Humanae emphasised that all these rights must be limited by the rights of others, duties towards others, and the common welfare. It also stated that “society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion” and that governments should safeguard not only the rights of all, but also “genuine public peace” and public morality.
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” US President Ronald Reagan famously said. Every generation must fight for freedom, protect freedom and hand on freedom to the next generation. New laws, and new interpretations of old laws, are rapidly eroding freedom of religion, freedom of speech and other long-cherished freedoms in the West.
In some Western countries, such as the UK and Australia, there is no law specifically guaranteeing and protecting full religious freedom. Barnabas Fund is leading the way in campaigning for a law that will guarantee to protect our religious liberties. We appeal to you to support our campaign, Our Religious Freedom. You can sign the petition, share news of the campaign on social media, raise awareness in your local church and write to your Member of Parliament.
Religious freedom is a right that is not conferred on humans by humans, and, therefore, cannot legitimately be denied to humans by humans. It comes from God, and hence, above all, we ask you to pray to God for the preservation of our religious freedom.
1 David B. Doty, “On Justice and Righteousness (mishpat and tsadaq)- Strong’s 4941 & 6663”. https://edensbridge.org/2012/01/11/on-justice-and-righteousness-mioshpat... (accessed 2 March 2018).
2 This phrase was coined by Nicholas Wolterstoff.
3 Jim Campbell, “Why Christians Should Support Religious Freedom for Everyone” 22 April 2017 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-christians-should-support... (accessed 2 March 2018)
4 In his First Apology, chapters 2, 68.
5 Ad Scapulam, chapter 2, translated by Sydney Thelwall. This was an open letter from Tertullian, who lived in Carthage (in modern Tunisia), to Scapula, the Roman Proconsul of Africa, who began persecuting Christians, some time after 14 August 212. The letter urged Scapula to stop his persecution, not because the Christians were unwilling to die for their faith, but so that he might avoid the disasters which seemed to befall other persecutors of Christians. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_III/Apologetic... (accessed 2 March 2018)
6 See “A History of Christian Persecution: Part 5 When Christians became the Persecutors” in Barnabas Aid (March-April 2018, pp. i-iv).
7 Jeff Mirus, “Vatican II on Religious Freedom”, 13 September 2010, https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=700 (accessed 2 March 2018)