Religious freedom is in the media spotlight again. Someone has filed a complaint with the Tasmanian anti-discrimination commissioner against Presbyterian Church minister Campbell Markham for publicly upholding the traditional, “orthodox” view of human sexuality and marriage.
So far, it’s only a complaint. No action has been taken to punish or muzzle Campbell. Yet.
Some have taken this sort of thing as a sign of increased, active, repression of Christian speech and identity – “persecution” – here in Australia. Andrew Bolt is probably the most vocal exponent of this view, and has written a useful summary of recent attempts to subvert, demoralise, and silence Christian speech and identity. Whilst not a Christian himself, he has a high view of Christianity’s contribution to Western society.
On the other hand, other Christian leaders are rightly wary of a “persecution complex“. They point out that:
- Christianity has enjoyed a privileged position in Western society for more than a millennium;
- That position of social privilege is not consistent with the Bible’s expectations – in fact, the Bible expects marginalisation, not privilege;
- The position of social privilege has arguably come at the cost of clear, consistent Christian witness.
“So the situation we face today is, according to the Bible, not unusual. The Bible does not expect God’s people to be powerful and influential in this world which rebels against God. We should not be surprised when we are misunderstood, mocked, and marginalised. It’s perfectly normal. The last 1600 years were an anomaly; we’re now returning to normal.”Presbyterian Church of New South Wales, Gospel, Society and Culture Committee, “Christ Among the Gods” resource paper part 1, pp 5-6, emphasis in original. For more information from PCNSW GS&C, check out their Facebook page and the freedom of religion section of their website.
The aim of this post is not to grow a third hand, but to approach the issue from a different and, hopefully, useful perspective.
What do we want freedom for? What underlying social, personal, and/or interpersonal good/s are we trying to protect and advance?
The freedom of truth
I think that as Christians, we should be in favour of religious freedom – for Christianity, and other religions – because such freedom encourages truth and honesty. Such truth and honesty is good for inter-personal and inter-communal relationships. When we disagree about what truth is, it is better for us to know what we disagree about, and why we have such disagreements, than to merely clam up, or lie – to speak and act in ways contrary to what we actually believe. Therefore, I want people of various backgrounds – whether religious, irreligious, and even anti-religious – to to be able to publicly express their deep convictions regarding “true truth”, “ultimate reality”, without fear of being attacked merely for stating those convictions publicly.
I am a Christian. This means I think that truth – the ultimate truth – is in Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. That means I can only be true – that I can only be right with God, the world, and my self – if I put my trust in Jesus, and let him renovate my life through his Holy Spirit. One aspect of this Christian identity is sharing this ultimate truth of Christ with everyone else. Because it’s – well – true…! Jesus is really is Lord, whether we like it or not. And because it’s true, it’s good. Living by and for Jesus is both healthy and wholesome. We find our true self in him.
All of this relies on “orthodox” Christian “theology”. It relies on, and expresses, various “truths” about God, humanity, and the world – e.g. Trinitarian monotheism (vs. Hindu polytheism and the simple monotheism of Islam); the uniqueness of Christ as God incarnate (vs. the plurality of divine avatars in Hinduism, and the impossibility of the Muslim God becoming one with creation); the reality of sin, and the eternal consequences of divine judgement; Christ’s death and resurrection as the only way to God; etc.
Another significant Christian teaching is the importance of personally entrusting ourselves to God – to “have faith“, to “be converted“, to “be saved“. There’s no point pretending. There’s no point mimicking a Christian lifestyle, unless we actually do believe Jesus is Lord. There’s no point saying we identify with Jesus if we don’t. Such pretence is called “nominalism” – being Christian “in name only” and not reflected in reality. The rapid decline of Christianity in the census probably represents the decline of this kind of counterfeit Christianity.
The vast majority of people do not believe Christ to be Lord. Therefore, they will not believe Christian “doctrine” – the bundle of “truths” associated with faith in Christ. Polytheist Hindus believe Jesus is a way, but cannot believe he is the exclusive way to God. Muslims cannot believe Jesus to be the way, because for them Mohammed’s teachings are the way, and Jesus is reinterpreted according to Mohammed. Atheists of course don’t believe in the concept of theism, so all those ways are dead ends.
Also, many people call themselves Christian, but the Christ they believe in has nothing to do with the Christ of the Bible, but is a projection of their desires, or a thin film of Christian language and imagery over preexisting non-Christian religion, or whatever. This is the bad for everyone, because although it bears the name Christianity, it is not true – it does not bring people to the real Jesus – therefore it does not “save” – it does not put these people in a right relationship with the one true God.
Relating truly to non-Christians
Because “true” Christianity can only be enjoyed through a “true”, “genuine”, “honest” entrustment of oneself to Christ – and, conversely, because there’s no point pretending to be Christian if you haven’t made this entrustment – then it is good for Christians if non-Christians are given the freedom to not be Christians. Because then we know they’re not. And we can pray for them. And explain to them why Christian beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world – Christian “doctrine” – is “true”. And we can plead with them to become Christians. And warn them of the terrifying eternal consequences of meeting the risen Jesus, on the last day, as his enemy.
Recognising non-Christians to truly be non-Christians, and relating to them as such, is far better than the falsehood that all religions are just the same. It’s also far better than the falsehood of coercion – where we use social or legal sanctions to force people to say they’re Christian when they haven’t genuinely put their trust in Christ as Lord. And it’s far better the falsehood of nominalism.
Using our freedom for non-Christians
Of course as Christians we think it’s good for us to be given the freedom to be Christian. Martyrdom is not masochism. We don’t seek trouble, we seek peace (Rom 12:18; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
But more importantly – from a Christian perspective, we should use this freedom not for our own benefit, but to benefit the non-Christian. We must pray for them, plead with them, warn them, “in season and out” – 2 Tim 4:1-5. And we must demonstrate the goodness of living with Christ as Lord, showing them the “beauty” (NIV “goodness”) of the Godly life – 1 Peter 2:11-12. This is what our religious freedom is for. And that’s what every Christian freedom is for – freedom from self-focused sin; freedom to serve God and others. It would be tragic – and untrue – to fight for a freedom which we then don’t use in a properly Godly way.
From a Reformed perspective, it’s also important to give non-Christians the freedom to reject Christ. We are not fundamentally in control of people’s response to our gospel proclamation – the Holy Spirit is. Giving people “space” to consider and respond to our gospel summons not only respects the people; it also respects God the Holy Spirit in his work of irresistible enlivening grace.
Sin encourages falsehood and oppression
But we must not be naive about genuine “persecution” – about the reality of people seeking to actively silence Christian speech, prevent others from finding out about Christianity, and vilify, demoralise and punish people for living a consistent Christian life. This is because from a non-Christian perspective, it is good to not give Christians the freedom to be Christian.
Sin is hatred of goodness. That’s what sin is. The Triune God is the ultimate, universal good. That’s why sin ultimately hates and rejects God himself – Psalm 51:4. People often say “oh, if I saw God face-to-face, I’d believe in him”. Rubbish. When people saw God’s face, they spat in it as they crucified him.
Therefore, sin naturally hates truth and prefers falsehood. It naturally hates freedom and prefers bondage. Sinners don’t want to hear the gospel. They don’t like to be urged to repent and trust Christ. It doesn’t matter how kind and patient and “rational” we are. Without the work of the Holy Spirit in supernaturally bringing people to life towards God, they will at best smile and politely ignore us, at worst denounce us, jail us, and execute us. John 15:18-21; Acts 14:22; etc. Therefore, we experience the beginnings of the kind of censorship which Andrew Bolt surveys and warns about.
It’s good for us, as Christians, to call out this kind of censorship. But again, we do so not primarily for ourselves, but for the other – for the non-Christian. The kind of censorship that Bolt surveys is bad for society in general, because it squashes people’s ability to be “true” – to speak, and live, in a way that expresses their convictions concerning reality. Censorship leads to fear, resentment and hypocrisy – people conform out of fear of being punished, not out of confidence of the goodness and reality of what they’re conforming to. Fear, resentment and hypocrisy are not healthy bases for any society. Even if we disagree with people, it’s better for us to know what we disagree about, and why we disagree about it. Such honest disagreement leads to “truer” inter-personal relationships.
Freedom is truly good for all
As Christians, we do indeed want freedom to practice our religion – including sharing our faith, and urging others to adopt that faith. But we hold that freedom, and argue for it, not for our own good, but for the good of the other – the non-Christian. We are convinced it is good for everyone to trust and worship Christ as Lord. We want to give non-Christians the freedom to honestly be non-Christian, so that we can relate to them as non-Christians. And a society which gives people the freedom to be honest about their convictions, without fear of punishment, is good for all.
We take such social freedom for granted today. But it is actually the fruit of something like 1,600 years of Christian influence upon nations and peoples. Sin means individuals and societies trend not towards freedom but slavery. That’s why we defend Christian freedoms – not for ourselves, but for others, that they may live well in this world, and also, by God’s grace, enjoy eternal life in glory.
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