What Freedom of Religion is Not

May 1, 2015

Luke the Physician was the king of understatement. If he had written about the current debate over the newly minted legislation in Indiana, it would probably read, “And there was no little disturbance at that time concerning RFRA.” It is not the purpose of this article to discuss legislation per se. Rather, I wish to ask Christians to think about why they feel so strongly about freedom of religion. Is it possible that we have an incorrect expectation of our government? Is it possible that we have become confused about what it looks like to have freedom of religion in America?

Freedom of Religion is not … A Christian Nation.

In the South, you often hear “freedom of religion” and a quote from 2 Chronicles 7:14–“If my people who are called by my name…” in the same breath. There is a portion of conservatives in America who believe that supporting freedom of religion in America means “returning to our Christian roots.” They are saddened that prayer is no longer in schools, that the Ten Commandments are being taken down from courthouses, etc. In many ways, the fight for freedom of religion is tightly entwined with their desire for America to return to God.

I sometimes wonder how our Chinese or Indian or Brazilian brothers and sisters feel about us speaking about America as God’s people. What about John’s vision of “a ransomed people for God from every tribe, tongue, and nation” (Revelation5:9)? The Bible does speak of a Christian nation, but America is not it. According to Peter, the Church is God’s only people: “[We] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). America—and every other nation on earth—is darkness, and the only light shining here or abroad comes from churches who faithfully live and proclaim the Gospel.

It is not the court’s, the government’s, the school’s, or America’s job to spread the gospel of Jesus. It is the Church’s job. The fight for freedom of religion is not a fight for America to get right with God. It is a fight for an open public square—a square where Christians can get out there and stand up for Christ. This means other religions like Islam, Buddhism, and even atheism must also be provided ample space in the private and public square. Freedom to be a practicing Christian must also mean freedom to be a practicing Islamist. If you are confident in the Holy Spirit’s power to regenerate, in Jesus’ blood to save, and in the perfection of the Father’s plan, you should have no worry that in a free religious market the Gospel you proclaim will win the day.

Freedom of Religion is not … a Persecution-Free Life.

Many Christians support freedom of religion because they do not want the United States to become like Middle Eastern nations where Christians are persecuted and killed. In their minds, freedom of religion is about personal and corporate safety. Churches want to be able to meet and function without fear of reprisal or terrorism, and so they support freedom of religion.

However, the Bible frequently denounces people who are motivated by desires for personal safety and comfort. Fear of persecution should never fuel our political action. In fact, persecution is an inevitable part of following Christ: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:2). If the world tortured and crucified Jesus, then “it is enough for the disciple to be like his Teacher” (Matthew 10:25). We thank God for the freedom we currently have to assemble without fear. However, fear of persecution cannot motivate our desire for freedom of religion.

Instead of a self-centered approach, what if we trumpeted the battle cry of freedom of religion because we cared so much for others? What if we were so desperate for freedom of religion because we did not want to give the leaders of this nation the opportunity to bring oppressive darkness over our lost friends, neighbors, and co-workers? The fight for freedom of religion cannot be primarily geared toward persecution prevention. It must be fought against government policies that would intentionally hinder the lost person’s opportunity to hear the Gospel.

Freedom of Religion is not … a Christian Government.

Some Christians believe freedom of religion is synonymous with Christian government. They want a Christian in the Oval Office. They want Christians running the House and Senate. They want Christian governors, state officials, and so on. As these Christians take office, they are expected by Christian voters to enforce Christian principles.

The Bible and history both give examples of nations who prospered because their leaders were faithful to the wisdom of God. However, our support for freedom of religion comes from an understanding that Christianity cannot be legislated from the top down.

More important than Christians in government is a just government. The Bible makes it clear that governments are established to enact the justice of God, to protect the helpless, and to punish the evildoer. In fact, Romans 13:4 states that the governing official “is God’s servant for your good.” Freedom of religion means Christians can elect government leaders who will do the best job at accurately representing the justice of God over our nation. We should elect leaders who will protect the innocent, punish the guilty, and leave the citizen unmolested and free to live quiet lives. If the best candidate happens to be a Christian, all the more praise to God.

Freedom of Religion is … the Freedom to Choose Christ.

Freedom of religion is as Baptist as potlucks, dunking, and committees. In England, Baptists suffered in a culture governed by a state church, being denied preaching licenses and fined for their religious convictions. At our nation’s humble beginnings Baptists were the ones being kicked out of Puritan communities. Through these experiences, early Baptists learned how important it was that no institution or government ever sought to compel a person’s conscience by force. John Leland, a Baptist pastor, was instrumental in seeing that religious liberty was included in the Bill of Rights. True freedom of religion meant every person had freedom from any external force to choose whether they would repent and believe in Christ.

Do you harbor a hidden fear that giving equal privileges to all religions will spell the death of the Church in our nation? How quickly we forget the words of Jesus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). In case you haven’t read the end of your Bible yet, the game is rigged. Jesus and His Church are going to win.

Chad Ashby

Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and blogs at After Math. Read More by this Author