In our current climate some American Christians, lacking a firm foundation in the faith, are questioning and even renouncing the ideal of religious exercise for all, free of government compulsion or restriction.
Biblical principles of religious liberty can be found in:
- The supernatural creation of mankind. God made man in his image, and he is the supreme authority to whom they must give account. Only God and his moral law bind our consciences. Obeying God may mean disobeying lesser authorities (Cf. Dan. 3:1-30; Acts 5:29).
- The exclusivity of God’s salvation. God can and does reveal himself to man, and individuals are only able to deal with God through the mediator Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:4-6). Neither priests nor powers may mediate God’s salvation to man, and individual Christians and churches only proclaim it. Salvation is of the Lord, by grace through faith, not by man or his works – most certainly not by the works of human power, the sword or coercion![i]
- The specific nature of the Lord’s commandment. The Lord’s commandment to his churches is to make disciples by preaching the gospel, baptizing them in water, and teaching them all things he has commanded (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8). We have no commission of force, no commission of coercion.[ii] But we have a commission. It belongs only to the Lord’s churches and not to human authorities or secular governments. The state has no ecclesiastical function and a church has no civil authority.[iii] As individuals we seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness; as churches we preach the gospel, baptize and teach the commands of Jesus. The world is at enmity with God and His righteousness; we must not be complicit with the world. There is a command to preach the gospel; there is no command to compel others to accept it.
- The otherworldly distinction of the Lord’s kingdom. God’s kingdom and his people are “not of the world.” The kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world are distinct, and operate in different spheres on different principles. The sword of the kingdoms of this world is a sword of steel, but the sword of the kingdom of heaven is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. The sword of the kingdoms of this world operates in the temporal realm, enforcing outward conformity and punishing evildoers and lawbreakers. The sword of the kingdom of heaven operates in the spiritual realm, convicting and convincing sinners in their hearts and souls. There is neither precept nor example of the Lord’s New Testament churches exercising rule by the sword of the flesh. They have been given one sword. They operate by the sword of the Spirit.
- The suffering of the saints and their general predisposition toward non-violence. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10). Jesus calls upon his people to suffer for the cause of Christ and not resist or retaliate.[iv] Put up the sword and rather be struck upon the cheek. The servant aspect of Christian leadership is found in the explicit declarations of our Lord (Matthew 20:25-27; John 12:26; 15:20) and in the example of the towel and the basin (John 13). Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet teaches us a perspective on power. It teaches us to serve God by serving others.
- The ultimate judgment in God’s hands. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) inculcates this truth for us regarding non-interference. For the protection of the wheat we are not to root out tares – lest in so doing we injure the wheat also. In the world, both wheat and tares grow together. God will separate them, unsparingly and with divine precision. In the gathered body, the church exercises spiritual judgment (1 Corinthians 5-6), and God judges those in the world (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
[i] Ephesians 2:8; Faith is a gift of God that cannot be forced or compelled by man.
[ii] The Baptist church ideal of voluntary baptism and church membership based upon true conversion through repentance, belief and a profession of faith is in full accord with this principle. Membership in a Baptist church is always voluntary – both on the part of the church and the person requesting membership. None are compelled to be members. Churches affirm those who have repented, believed, and been baptized. Church membership is voluntary with regard to outward coercion, but demanded obedience according to the command of Christ (Heb. 10:25).
[iii] That is, it is the duty of government to establish laws and punish civil crimes, such as murder and theft. A church may “punish” these as sins – not by the sword, but by exclusion from church and/or Christian fellowship. The government’s authority exists temporally over those within its geographical realm, and a church’s authority exists spiritually over those within its local gathering. In Matthew 22:20-22 it is recorded that Jesus delineated a clear distinction from what is given to God and what is given to the state, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
[iv] The true churches suffer rather than inflict suffering.