Why would Christians support religious freedom?

Learning from early Christian leaders

November 2, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Religious freedom is among the most precious things in existence. At its core it is both a theological and political proposition. Theologically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that every person is accountable to God as an individual. No one has the right to decide who or how another person worships. Politically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that the state has no role in determining what a person holds as ultimate.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that there is only one true God and that he exists eternally as three persons. Moreover, I believe that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who came to earth to save sinners through his life, death, burial, and resurrection. But I also believe that saving faith must always be authentic; it cannot be compelled or coerced. As the Baptist minister Isaac Backus once quipped, “Christ will have no pressed soldiers in his army.”

But beyond the nature of saving faith, I also believe that the state is neither capable nor competent to command the religious beliefs and spiritual duties of its citizens. And because of these things, I stand in the long tradition of Christians who support and defend religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all people. 

But where does one begin in order to gain an understanding of religious freedom? In recent years many excellent volumes have been published covering various aspects of this important topic. A few worthy of mention include Free to Believe by Luke Goodrich, which covers contemporary debates about religious freedom in the United States, and First Freedom, a volume from a number of Baptist scholars dealing with the history, application, and current challenges to religious freedom. And of course to truly appreciate the value of religious freedom one would benefit from reading about religious persecution. For this you might consult Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Steven D. Smith’s recent work Pagans and Christians in the City.

Yet for a single volume exploring the roots and significance of religious freedom, few books hold more value than a recent work by Robert Louis Wilken titled Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom.

Tracing Christianity and religious freedom

Wilken’s book is helpful for a number of reasons, but one of them is perhaps less obvious than it should be. In his work, he labors to show that religious freedom is actually a Christian idea. Some may wonder why Christians, with our very specific beliefs about salvation, would support religious freedom? After all, Christians believe that heaven and hell hang in the balance based on an individual’s beliefs. Why then would Christians support a doctrine that would allow so many people to embrace false beliefs that Christians not only reject but understand to have the most dire of consequences?

Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

The answer, however, isn’t complicated. As Wilken notes at the book’s opening, Christians have always believed that saving faith must be genuine faith; it cannot be coerced. He quotes Tertullian of Carthage, the third-century theologian, on this theme: “It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.” Wilken explains that it is precisely because Christians believe salvation can only be accomplished through an individual’s earnest repentance of sin and faith in Jesus that they embrace and defend the idea of religious freedom. As he states, “religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force” (1).

Unfortunately, religious freedom later fell out of favor among Christians for several centuries. At its inception, the Christian movement was essentially a very small religious sect that many considered to be a temporary offshoot of Judaism. But as the movement spread and drastically increased in number during the several centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, Christians ultimately amassed a great deal of cultural and political power.

A good example can be found in Saint Augustine, the famed bishop of Hippo and author of Confessions and The City of God, who lived in the fourth century. During the Donatist controversy, Augustine insisted that the power of the state be wielded to suppress heretical views (notably, Augustine would ultimately intercede on behalf of the Donatists after witnessing their cruel treatment at the hands of the Romans). From the Gospel of Luke, Augustine offered a justification for “compelling” non or errant believers to embrace orthodox beliefs. And according to Wilken, some continued to appeal to Augustine’s justification of religious coercion as late as the 18th century (32).

This brings us to another reason Wilken’s book serves as such an excellent primer. As he tells the story of religious freedom, he demonstrates how this crucial doctrine was present from the earliest days of the Christian faith and how it was essentially lost for a time, but his focus throughout most of the book is upon how religious freedom was recovered as a central doctrine among believers. From the Protestant Reformation through the Enlightenment, Wilken narrates the rebirth of religious freedom among Christians in Western Europe.

Wilken’s treatment of Martin Luther and his contribution to the recovery of religious freedom is particularly excellent. As he articulates the story of Luther’s struggle against the corruption and excesses of the medieval Catholic Church, Wilken focuses on Luther’s appeal to conscience and sets his story alongside a faithful band of Fransciscan sisters who made a similar stand on behalf or their convictions. Wilken recounts the words of Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521,

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

On the subject, Wilken notes that for Luther and his belligerents, “Conscience was the voice of God, and freedom was found in obedience” (52). 

Similarly, Wilken’s chapter on English Separatists is worth the price of the entire book. He examines the work of the early Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys titled The Mystery of Iniquity. As a Baptist pastor in England during the 17th century, Helwys and his flock were under constant threat of persecution. And as Wilken points out in The Mystery of Iniquity, he defended rights of conscience for all people including Jews and Muslims and appealed to King James I for religious freedom for all of his subjects. Helwys believed that “as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held” (141).

Likewise, he features the voices of other English dissenters including John Murton and Roger Williams. Wilken highlights that it was Williams who first introduced the idea of a “wall” separating the spiritual and civil realm (147). 

Beyond these examples, there is much more to commend in Wilken’s work. His discussion of Calvin, Beza, and Zwingli, as well as his treatment of John Locke and John Owen, all offer substantial insight not merely into the role of each man in the story of religious freedom but of their broader contributions to Christian history. Liberty in the Things of God does more than trace the roots of religious freedom; it lays bare the vital importance of this most crucial doctrine and connects its history to the story of Christianity itself. As Wilken states in the epilogue,

“It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious beliefs must be kept separate” (187).

Religious freedom is a critical and thoroughly Christian doctrine. It is sacred and must always be protected. Wilken’s work provides an excellent reminder of these truths and offers a fantastic entry point for readers to learn about the long history of religious freedom.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24