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Why Religious Freedom is a Matter of Biblical Justice

September 11, 2019 by

a painting titled City of Churches
City of Churches by Paul Klee, 1918

I just finished reading an advance copy of Luke Goodrich’s excellent new book Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in AmericaGoodrich is a senior attorney at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and many of the cases he discusses in the book are ones he litigated. Primarily through stories and examples he gives valuable practical and biblical guidance on why Christians should care about religious liberty for all and how to weather current culture wars. In a space that is increasingly tending toward politicization and slogans, Goodrich’s balanced, accurate, and thoughtful perspective is much needed. From conversations with members of my own church community, students I teach, and fellow citizens of many faiths or none across the country, this book is overdue.

As Goodrich explains in my favorite chapter, “How Christians get it wrong,” too many Christians frame the issue the wrong way and fail to understand that religious freedom is an issue of biblical justice. When we neglect the right of all people to freely seek and follow ultimate truth, we work against God’s desire for “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


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Thankfully, Goodrich doesn’t just diagnose our failings; he spends most of the book telling us how to get it right. He calls religious freedom “a basic issue of biblical justice, rooted in the nature of God and the nature of man.” As he explains, God desires a genuinely loving relationship with us so he gives us the “freedom to embrace or reject Him” (See Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 3:20). All humans have an impulse to seek truth and goodness and live according to what we find. At its deepest, this innate longing for “transcendent truth, for ultimate good, and for eternal beauty” is a longing to find and follow God. But we can’t embrace truth authentically unless we do it of our own free will. So, as Goodrich puts it, “when the government tries to coerce us into embracing its version of truth – or forbids us from embracing our own – it is going against our very nature as human beings. It is treating us as less than fully human.” As humans, and especially as Christians, we have a responsibility to defend all people from government’s attempt to usurp the place of God.

The church must remain independent of the state. But it also should not remain quiescent in the face of governmental injustice. Goodrich calls the church back to true Christian witness to government, much as Anabaptists have taught for centuries. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. restated this ancient instruction beautifully: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” (See also Foundations of our Faith and Calling: the Bruderhof, section 12: “The church must witness to the state, serving as its conscience, helping it to distinguish good from evil, and reminding it not to overstep the bounds of its God-appointed authority.”) As an Anabaptist in the twenty-first century, I agree with Goodrich that we must advocate for the rights of believers to live out our faith and for the rights of non-believers to seek faith.

How exactly should we go about defending religious freedom when even believers have a hard time responding to the contentious issues of our time? Goodrich provides some practical guidance for today as well as drawing lessons from biblical heroes.

Perhaps his most instructive example is the apostle Paul. Paul’s responses to persecution ranged from fleeing (Acts 13:50–51; 14:6; 17:10, 14) to demanding his legal rights (Acts 16:37; 22:25). Notably, when he experienced religious freedom, Paul capitalized on these opportunities to teach freely, and his ministry flourished (Acts 18:9–11, 18; 19:10; 28:16, 30–31). Paul tried to respond to each threat and opportunity in whatever way would best further God’s purposes. Sometimes that meant submitting to mistreatment, and at other times it meant defending the Christian cause before the authorities or the populace. Like Paul, we must focus on fulfilling God’s purposes. As Goodrich concludes, “our calling is not to respond to the religious freedom challenges ahead. Our calling is to respond to Jesus.”


John Huleatt is General Counsel for the Bruderhof.

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