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Freedom of religion is a live issue for Canadian Christians. From the saga over Trinity Western University’s proposed law school; to the so-called “kerfuffle” over the Canada Summer Jobs attestation requirement; to debates about pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings: Christians across our nation face increasing limitations on our ability to freely live out our faith – even as we continue to enjoy the blessings of living in what can only be objectively described as one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth.

Despite these challenges, it might seem trite to argue that Christians should care about religious freedom. After all, Christians are a religious people, so it stands to reason that we’d be in favour of freedoms that safeguard religious belief and practice. For these same reasons, however, it may also appear odd to suggest that there’s another sense in which Christians shouldn’t care about religious freedom.

This article thus has two aims: first, to consider the unique biblical reasons for why Christians should support freedom of religion; and second, to demonstrate why our ultimate hope as followers of Christ isn’t found in the preservation of this (or any other) earthly freedom.

The Limits of State Authority

A biblical understanding of religious freedom begins by accepting that God has entrusted the state with a specific, limited type of authority. In his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorted Christians to submit to governing authorities, affirming that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God”.[1]

The state is “God’s servant for your good”, Paul wrote, but it is also “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”, wielding the power of the sword.[2] Those who do wrong will incur the state’s judgement, but those who do good will be rewarded with the state’s approval.[3]

In this way, Paul affirms that the authority wielded by the state is inherently coercive. The basis for this authority can be traced back to the Old Testament, and specifically to the covenant that God made with Noah and, by extension, humankind: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”[4]

All people, as God’s divine image-bearers, have been imbued with immeasurable worth and dignity. When men and women do anything that denies or threatens the dignity of their fellow image-bearers, the human community has an obligation to prevent and, if necessary, punish this wrongdoing through the God-ordained institution of the state.[5]

The Noahic Covenant thus confirms that the covenantal role of the state – as God’s servant for our good – is to not only to protect and avenge human life, but, more broadly, to orient God’s image-bearers toward affirming human dignity. This is to say that the state’s authority is rooted squarely within the second table of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus himself encapsulated within the command that “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.[6]

Taken together, these passages reveal much about the biblical rationale for religious freedom. By its very nature, the state’s authority is circumscribed precisely because this authority is coercive. But the gospel, as an unmerited expression of God’s goodness and mercy, is inherently non-coercive. As Paul explained to the Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[7]

In other words, the conscience of the Christian is bound before God by grace through faith. This means that the worship of God can never be coerced: the salvation that produces true worship is a gift of God.[8] Even the church is unable to compel true worship because the church wields a non-coercive, declarative authority.[9]

Indeed, the Great Commission affirms that all authority has been given to Jesus, but the authority that Jesus gives to the church is to teach and make disciples – not to wage holy war.[10] Christians can accordingly rest assured that neither the state nor the church claim any authority to coerce the worship of God.[11]

The Greatest Commandments

On this point, it’s worth noting that Protestant Christians disagree over whether the state has been given authority over the first table of the Ten Commandments, encapsulated by the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[12]

Many Reformed Christians, for example, believe that the state does have limited authority over this greatest of commandments. Such was the contention of John Calvin, who argued that the state “does not merely see to it … that men breathe, eat, drink, and are kept warm … but also prevents idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offences against religion from arising and spreading among the people”.[13]

Conversely, members of other Protestant traditions, such as Baptists, tend to adopt a more circumscribed interpretation of the state’s authority. Under this view, the state has no authority beyond orienting its citizens toward fulfilling the commandment to love our neighbours. As Andrew T. Walker argues, the Noahic covenant “grounds the idea of the free exercise of religion. Because God has not established civil order to seek out and eliminate false worship, false worship is to be ‘tolerated.’ Thus false belief is not punishable, leaving room for false belief to be exercised.”[14]

Even magisterial reformers such as Calvin recognized that the state cannot proscribe acts of right worship. “Let no man be disturbed”, he wrote, “that I now commit to civil government the duty of rightly establishing religion … For, when I approve of a civil administration that aims to prevent the true religion which is contained in God’s law from being openly and with public sacrilege violated and defiled with impunity, I do not here … allow men to make laws according to their own decision concerning religion and the worship of God.”[15]

We must, however, also recognize that the very idea of state religious neutrality is, at its core, a conceit.[16] All governments, as Jonathan Leeman contends, invariably pass laws that concern matters of religious conviction: prohibitions against murder, as a prime example, aren’t religiously neutral, precisely because virtually every religion agrees that murder is wrong.

“The public square”, Leeman thus concludes, “is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour. Which means, from one perspective, there are no truly secular states, only pluralistic ones.”[17]

The Liberal Rationale for Religious Freedom

The biblical rationale for religious freedom which I have briefly described here is, in many crucial respects, markedly different from the liberal one that prevails in Western democracies such as Canada. It’s important to be clear here about labels. In this context, “liberalism” does not refer to a specific political party or theological tradition, but rather the dominant theory around which North American political and legal institutions have been organized. Indeed, as David Koyzis explains, “[l]iberalism’s influence in North America is such that the central political debate nowadays is not so much between liberals and their ideological opponents as between different kinds of liberals”.[18]

Although there are multiple schools of liberal thought, they each share an underlying commitment to preserving the autonomy of the individual. Koyzis describes the basic impulse of liberalism this way: “everyone possess property in their own person and must therefore be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices, provided that these choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same. If my proposed actions effectively violate the property another person enjoys in her own person, then I have transgressed the primary liberal precept and must thereby be held accountable for what I have done.”[19]

This, then, is the difference between liberal and biblical conceptions of religious freedom: while liberals promote freedom generally and religious freedom specifically to preserve the sovereignty and autonomy of the individual, the biblical rationale for religious freedom is rooted in a theology in which the state, while instituted for the good of the human community, has been given no authority by God to coerce its citizens to worship Him. For Christians, religious freedom isn’t about our autonomy, but God’s sovereignty.

And yet many Christians, alarmed over the erosion of their civil liberties, are increasingly adopting liberal rationales for religious freedom. This trend ought to give us pause. To be clear, Christians aren’t prevented as a matter of political wisdom from supporting liberal laws or institutions – including those with which Canadians have been blessed – nor are they unable to work in common cause with those who articulate liberal conceptions of religious freedom. The point here is simply that politically conscious Christians do well when they distinguish between liberal institutions and liberal theory: it’s possible to affirm the wisdom of the former without uncritically embracing the latter.[20]

The Idol of Religious Freedom

But what of this article’s second contention, that there’s also a sense in which Christians shouldn’t care about religious freedom? There are two related ways in which Christians can ascribe a higher importance to religious freedom than they ought: the first is when Christians assume that advocating for religious freedom is sufficient for maintaining a faithful gospel witness; and the second is when Christians believe that religious freedom is somehow necessary to preserve this witness. Neither of these conclusions are true and, if left uncorrected, can prove harmful.

This first error, in some ways, should be obvious. After all, there are many non-Christians who – to their credit – advocate for religious freedom. But (as already noted) not every rationale for religious freedom is biblical. Similarly, it’s possible that a Christian might devote their entire career to fighting for religious freedom, but that their life otherwise fails to bear witness to the hope and truth of the gospel. This is a sobering reality for Christians who are vocationally called to religious freedom advocacy, and I write this as a Christian lawyer who serves on the board of a Christian legal charity and currently works for a non-Christian legal organization.

Christians must never forget that the call to discipleship and true worship can never be coerced. On its own, freedom of religion can’t bring anyone into a right relationship with God; at most, religious freedom fosters a culture of “peace, order, and good government” (to borrow a defining phrase from the Canadian constitution) in which the church can openly fulfil the Great Commission.

As Paul wrote to Timothy, we are to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving … for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”[21] This is the ultimate good toward which religious freedom is oriented.

When Christians lose sight of this reality, we risk turning religious freedom into a good unto itself, and thus into an idol.[22] Such an unhealthy preoccupation with religious freedom can lead to other errors, including a belief that, without this freedom, we’re prevented from leading God-honouring lives. But Christians were never promised earthly comfort or freedom. Our calling, quite simply, is to take up our cross and follow Jesus. “If the world hates you”, he told his disciples, “know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”[23]

To be clear, religious freedom is unquestionably a good gift from God, and it’s something that Christians should cherish and zealously protect. But the ultimate freedom to which Christ has called us is not an earthly freedom, nor an “opportunity for the flesh”, as Paul wrote to the Galatians, but a freedom to pursue good works and “through love [to] serve one another”.[24] If it’s God’s will that we should lose our earthly freedoms, this does nothing to take away our assurance of salvation nor prevent us from loving God and neighbour.

Martin Luther put it well when he rhetorically asked, “how could poor health or captivity or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul, when even the godliest, purest, and freest consciences are afflicted with such things? Not one of these things touches upon the freedom or servitude of the soul.”[25] Calvin reached a similar conclusion: “it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation’s laws you live,” he wrote, “since the Kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things.”[26]

Conclusion

Christians should take religious freedom seriously. Those of us who enjoy the blessing of living in liberal democracies such as Canada shouldn’t take the freedom that we hold for granted. But above all, we shouldn’t lose hope when our religious freedom is threatened: no matter what we end up facing in the months, years, and decades ahead, our true freedom – the freedom that comes only from salvation by grace through faith in Christ – can never be taken away.

 

 


A version of this article was originally delivered at a session of the 2022 Religious Freedom Summit hosted by the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa. 

 

[1] Romans 13:1 (ESV).

[2] Romans 13:4 (ESV).

[3] Romans 13:3 (ESV).

[4] Genesis 9:6 (ESV).

[5] See David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) at 79-81.

[6] Matthew 22: 39-40 (ESV).

[7] Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV).

[8] See Wyatt Graham, “Can Governments Bind Our Consciences?” (12 November 2021), The Gospel Coalition Canada <https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/detrinitate/can-governments-bind-our-consciences/>.

[9] See Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016) [Leeman, Political Church] at 51.

[10] Matthew 28:16-20 (ESV).

[11] See Jonathan Leeman, “A Baptist Third Way for Political Theology” (31 January 2022), Mere Orthodoxy <https://mereorthodoxy.com/baptist-third-way-politics/>.

[12] Matthew 22:36-37 (ESV).

[13] John Calvin (John T. McNeil, ed.), Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) [Calvin, Institutes] at 1488.

[14] Andrew T. Walker, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001) at 55.

[15] Calvin, Institutes at 1488.

[16] Kristopher E.G. Kinsinger, “Quebec’s Bill 21 and the secular conceit of religious neutrality” (2020) 31: 1/2 IJRF 2020 81 at 91-92, <https://ijrf.org/index.php/home/article/view/104/132>.

[17] Leeman, Political Church at 82.

[18] David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, 2nd ed (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019) [Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions] at 32.

[19] Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions at 34.

[20] Leeman, Political Church at 65.

[21] 1 Timothy 2:1-4 (ESV).

[22] Kristopher Kinsinger, “Tearing Down the Idol of Religious Freedom” (22 March 2018), The Gospel Coalition Canada <https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tearing-idol-religious-freedom/>.

[23] John 15:18-20 (ESV).

[24] Galatians 5:13 (ESV).

[25] Martin Luther (Timothy J. Wengert, ed.), The Freedom of the Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016) at 11.

[26] Calvin, Institutes at 1486.

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