Want to protect religious freedom? You’re not alone – People have desired religious freedom for thousands of years. All of us long to do the things that are most important to us, and for many, there is nothing more important than their religion.
I’ve seen numerous stories from people who are worried about losing their religious freedoms. Franklin Graham, for instance, has warned that “the storm is coming” against the christian faith. I don’t personally think his warning has much merit (more on that later), but that doesn’t mean we should not be acting to preserve religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world has a wide variety of experiences with religious freedom. Some places see the church expanding rapidly, others are experiencing extreme persecution, and many countries just don’t seem to care about religion one way or the other.
The Bible speaks to religious freedom on several occasions. The New Testament was written during a time when the Roman Empire ruled and was extremely hostile towards believers. People were frequently imprisoned and/or sent to their death because of what they believed.
This means we would do well to listen to Scripture. The truths it speaks about protecting religious freedom are just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago.
Protecting religious freedom is a good thing, but we must be careful to promote it God’s way instead of our own. I’ve spoken before of the Eden Narrative, but effectively, the Bible is filled with a recurring story: God calls people to something glorious. People desire that thing, but choose to pursue it their way instead of God’s way, and pain and suffering is the result.
Ultimately, God calls us to live peacefully, do good works, and promote the prosperity of those around us. He also warns us that making religious freedom an idol might actually cost us the very thing we long to protect.
In this article, we’ll explore a few verses throughout Scripture and identify 8 Biblical ways to protect religious freedom. Let’s get to it!
The fruit of the Spirit is one of the most popular verses in the Bible, but we often forget the last few words. Galatians 5:22-23 defines the fruit of the Spirit this way:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Nations do not make laws against peace or kindness, and if they do, those laws do not last very long.
For this reason, if you want to promote religious freedom then you should focus on producing the fruit of the Spirit. If you live in a way that is loving and joyful and gentle and good, then most non-believers will appreciate and respect you.
Just before listing the fruit of the Spirit, Paul provides a contradictory list of the works of the flesh in in Galatians 5:19-21
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Religious freedom is important to most believers, but we must take care in how we respond when our freedom feels threatened.
Too often, we think we must aggressively fight to protect religious freedom, leading believers to have “fits of anger” and to stir up “dissensions” and “divisions.”
The works of the flesh cannot help us protect religious freedom, however. Instead, they only serve to push us further from the Kingdom of God and can even invite the very persecution christians seek to prevent.
In the end, we must remember that laws are not created against the fruit of the Spirit, and should focus on creating those as much as possible. There may be corrupt governments who do seek to create laws against the fruit of the Spirit, but these laws will never last long, and the fruit of the Spirit can even play an active role in ending their power.
Submit to your Rulers and Authorities
Titus helped start a church in Crete, and the Cretans were known for being rebellious insurrectionists against the Roman government.
Paul spoke directly against this behavior in his writing to Titus. Calling the church to act differently in Titus 3:1-2
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
This is a really easy thing to do when you like the political leader in your country. It can be extremely difficult, however, when you think the leader is awful.
Again, we must remember the context. Rome was lead by Emperor Nero at the time, and he was certifiably awful. Emperor Nero murdered his mother and wife and would eventually be blamed for burning 75% of Rome. His response to the accusations? Blame the Christians. He then killed hundreds, if not thousands of believers by lighting them on fire and using them as torches in the city at night.
Regardless of the person in charge, Paul calls us to submit to the authorities and obey the law. Furthermore, he urges believers to “be ready for every good work.” Later, in Titus 3:8-9, he doubles down on the message to do good works and to avoid dissension and controversy:
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
If you want to protect religious freedom, then do your best to submit to the authority God has placed in your life and seek to do good works.
Paul is not the only one who calls people to submit to government authority. Peter goes a step further and calls us to honor our leaders in 1 Peter 2:13-17,
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
There is a lot that can be unpacked here, but once again Peter is writing during the reign of Emperor Nero. Despite the faults of the emperor, Peter calls people to honor him.
There will be many who seek to criticize and condemn christianity. Some will seek to do so through government. What is the best way to silence those critics?
By doing good and by honoring others.
We are to live as servants of God, we are to live as people who are free. We protect that freedom by honoring others, loving the church, fearing God, and honoring the emperor.
How do you honor your leaders? Speak kindly to them and about them, give them grace, obey them, do not mock them, and of course, pray for them.
Pray for your Leaders
Timothy was one of Paul’s most beloved disciples, and he wrote him a letter filled with advice about leadership principles. In 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Paul encourages Timothy to guide his people in prayer for the leaders in their life:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made 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 Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
No matter what you think about your king, no matter what you think about your boss or the people who are in high positions around you, God calls you to pray for those leaders.
He even calls us to pray for a specific outcome: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Paul calls people to pray for political leaders, so that we might live peacefully. Not only can this help protect religious freedoms, but it also pleases God and can lead to the salvation of others.
Disagree Respectfully and Accept the Consequences
This one is tough. God calls us to submit to political authorities, but he also calls us to obey His law above all others.
So what happens if you live in a place where the law goes against God?
We have several excellent examples in The Story of Daniel, a Jewish man living in exile in Babylon. Daniel and his friends were asked to do something they believed went against God’s law multiple times.
They didn’t get angry, they didn’t resort to slander or threats, they didn’t mock their leaders, and they certainly did not resort to violence. Instead, they respectfully dissented, and then they accepted the consequences.
In Daniel 1, they asked for food that was clean instead of what was offered. They suggested a 10-day test to protect their overseer from getting in trouble with the King.
In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship a golden image. Nebuchadnezzar was furious, but they remained steadfast and respectful in their tone. They knew that doing so would get them thrown into a furnace, but they willingly accepted the consequences. Fortunately, God saved them from the fire, but even if He did not, these three men would have still done what they believed was right.
Daniel 6 tells a similar story, but this time Daniel gets thrown into a lion’s den because he continued to pray to his God. Again, Daniel was respectful, he did not mock the king or seek to get him destroyed. In fact, the king loved Daniel so much because of Daniel’s great character that he was devastated when he realized the impact of the new law. When God protected Daniel, the king rejoiced.
This principle is probably the hardest to follow. Although God protected Daniel and his friends, there is no guarantee that God will protect your body from religious persecution. There have been countless martyrs throughout the centuries.
One thing we do know, however, is that no amount of persecution can separate us from God’s love. He holds us in his hands for eternity, and any loss of religious freedom on earth is temporary.
Time and time again, however, we see God use respectful dissent to promote religious freedom for future generations. There may be consequences, but when we receive them with grace and steadfast faith, it inspires hope and faith in others.
Bless those who Persecute you
The Bible contains several principles that seem to turn the wisdom of the world upside down. One of them is the basis for this site: leaders should be servants.
Another one is the Biblical response to persecution. The world would say, “fight back! Get revenge!”
But look at the words of Romans 12:14-21
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In these 8 verses, Paul explains the appropriate response to persecution 5 different ways:
“bless those who persecute you,”
“repay no one evil for evil,”
“never avenge yourselves,”
“if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink”
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Some may call this passive or weak, but we have the example of Christ. He, who on the cross said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not weak or passive.
The ability to bless those who persecute you can only come from God. It demonstrates a strong faith that will shine like a light in dark places to the world, and it will help protect religious freedom.
If you want to overcome religious persecution, then you cannot overcome it by doing evil, but only by doing good.
While the first few principles in this article have been things you should do, this one is a thing you should not do.
To protect religious freedom is a good thing, but if we make it an idol, then it can lead us to do some very bad things.
What is an idol? Tim Keller defines it this way, “It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
What does this look like practically? If we believe something is more important than God, then we will go against God to protect that thing.
In other words, if your desire to protect religious freedom leads you to sin, then religious freedom (or religious power) has become an idol in your life.
Here is what Psalm 16:4 says about idolatry:
The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
In other words, idolatry separates us from God and His comfort. It drives us to take desperate action to protect our idols, but in the end, our sorrows will only increase and we could lose the very thing we wanted to protect.
Do Not be Driven by Fear
This is the final principle of this article, and the second “do not.”
Whether it’s a salesperson or a politician, people often use fear as a driver to get people to act. Why? Because it is effective.
So often, fear can drive us to do desperate things. Those fears are not always based on current circumstances either, but rather we fear what could happen.
For instance, when Thomas Jefferson was elected to be the President of the United States in 1803, christians were told to lock up their Bibles because Jefferson was coming to take them all away (source: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow). It’s been 200 years, and this has still not happened.
But fear was a powerful motivator in that election, and it is still a powerful motivator today. At the beginning of this article I mentioned Franklin Graham’s warning of “the storm.” During this past election cycle, I probably received over 200 pieces of mail warning me of the extreme dangers of voting one way or the other.
This does not mean fear of religious persecution is always unfounded. It happens all over the world every day.
That being said, fear should not hold us hostage or lead us to sin in an effort to protect ourselves. We must be sober minded and strongly evaluate if those fears are founded or not. Even when there is a reason to fear, the Bible still frequently commands us, “do not fear” and to do what is right.
God is in control, and even though oppressors will rise, He will ultimately remove them. Look at the words of Isaiah 51:12-16,
“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass,
and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor,
when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor?
He who is bowed down shall speedily be released;
he shall not die and go down to the pit,
neither shall his bread be lacking.
I am the LORD your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name.
And I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you in the shadow of my hand,
establishing the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”
In these verses, God acknowledges the wrath of the oppressor, but He calls us to not be afraid. God “laid the foundations of the earth,” and there is no earthly tyrant He cannot remove or change.
He may not act today, but He will act. During times of oppression, we can trust Him and find refuge in Him. He is our comfort in times of trouble.
And as we learned from earlier in this article, if we are persecuted then we are called to respond with blessing. Doing so brings glory to God and can promote religious freedom far more effectively then sin that is motivated by fear.
It may be tempting to read this and think I’m saying you should just rollover and allow people to steal your religious freedom. It may seem like I’m endorsing weakness or passivity.
This is not the case at all. This article is a call to promote and protect religious freedom, but to do it God’s way instead of man’s way. Choosing to do what is right in the face of persecution, choosing to love your enemies and pray for them, these things require tremendous faith and strength.
Jesus turned the world upside down in more ways than one. He called leaders to be servants, he called the first to be last, and he called us to protect religious freedom through good works and love, rather than through aggressive behavior and political power.
It is always worth mentioning, that if you really want to produce good works, one thing is essential. It’s not about trying to be good, but rather it’s about abiding in Christ’s presence. The more time we spend with God, the more like Him we become. He grants us grace to do good for others, and the fruit of the Spirit is a natural result of our time with Him.
If you want to promote and protect religious freedom, then seek to honor your leaders, go above and beyond to demonstrate good works, and remember to live as a good ambassador and representative of God’s Kingdom.
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