Following Jesus

How Important Is Religious Freedom for Christians Today? Not Very.

June 5, 2019 by

photo of a hand holding a Bible

I have a confession: I’m of two minds about religious freedom. I know I risk being called a heretic by some, and a hypocrite by others, but I’m not so sure religious freedom has always been good for Christians.

What? Here I am, in a country that grants me freedom to practice my faith and freedom to express my beliefs, questioning this very freedom. Am I thinking straight?

Maybe, maybe not. However, let me clarify one thing. I’m not really addressing the issue of religious freedom, per se, but considering instead the effect it has on the authenticity of Christian witness. Is religious freedom necessary for Christian faith to flourish? God certainly didn’t need it when he poured out his Spirit upon the first church in Jerusalem (Acts 2). The apostles and the earliest Christians didn’t need it when they spread God’s Word throughout the Mediterranean world. Nor did a whole host of others, like the radical reformers in sixteenth century Germany or the frontier missionaries in China in the 1800s.

In our day, too, religious freedom has not been a requirement for the spread of the gospel. The underground church in Soviet Russia and in China grew despite government suppression. In fact, according to many mission experts, these churches spiritually thrived, unlike today. I can’t help but think of what happened in Ethiopia, when Anabaptist churches were being persecuted from 1974 to 1992. At the height of their repression under the communist government, when all their properties and buildings were confiscated and under constant danger of raids by police, churches formed networks of five-person groups, eventually adding thirty thousand to their fold (See Bearing Witness, chapter 31).

Of course I don’t want to be targeted for my faith, not by any group or government. I’m thankful for my freedoms. But these freedoms are neither necessary, nor always good for the health and growth of the church. I, along with many others, am not so sure that Constantine did Christianity any favors when he made it the official religion of the empire. The monastic movement that followed is a reminder that the church’s political security and its spiritual vitality are not the same.

Our religious freedom, if we are honest, is a mixed blessing. “The blood of the martyrs,” Tertullian once said, “is the seed of the church.” Without that seed, it seems like no new growth can spring.

Any kind of freedom that leads to complacency and compromise, that confuses man’s ideals – including political ones – with God’s, is in my mind nothing less than a curse.

Should we therefore hope for persecution? Of course not! I’ve read and heard too many horror stories about those who have suffered and are suffering for their faith. But let us keep religious freedom in perspective. Jesus said that he would build his church and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). No one, no power can shut the doors that God himself opens (Rev. 3:8).

If we feel compelled to struggle for religious freedom, fine. We should be grateful for those who tirelessly work for the common good of all. But let’s remember that there exists a far greater and far more powerful freedom that is found only in Christ – a freedom independent of any and every state: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).

Does the Spirit of the Lord dwell in our midst? What, then, are we doing with our freedom? Any kind of freedom that leads to complacency and compromise, any sort of freedom that lulls us to sleep, any kind of freedom that confuses man’s ideals, including political ones, with God’s, is in my mind nothing less than a curse.

So when persecutions come (and they are coming), let us not lose our way in anxiousness or political frenzy. Instead, let us remember our main mission and renew our ultimate commitment: the advancement of God’s kingdom of love and peace on the earth. For when the Spirit is at work, no legal structure can thwart God’s will, and no legal structure is necessary for it to be accomplished.

For another perspective on religious freedom, check out John Huleatt’s article “Why Religious Freedom is a Matter of Biblical Justice.”


About the author

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore and his wife Leslie live in Denver, CO, where they form a small house community with friends and visitors...

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  • I think is interesting to know how the other connunity lives

    jose luis alonso martinez
  • Quick comment about religious freedom—The legal protetions in the United States are less than perfect. As a person of faith who believes that participating in the huge US military budget is against my religious conscience, I have not experienced protection of a core expression of my faith—to not pay the portion of my income tax that would be allocated to the military budget.

    Maria Smith