My good friend Dan Darling has responded to my previous post on the Ground Zero Mosque with kindness and fairness. While I commented in brief on his web site, his thoughtful questions deserve a more complete response. While I have addressed the issue of civil rights in a previous podcast, the issue of religious liberty in particular and the believer's proper role in society has received little attention here. I understand this post will not put the subject to bed, but perhaps it will be grist for the mill as we consider together what applied Christianity actually looks like. As I write this, I am realizing that this subject is too broad to be considered in one very long post. So I've decided to break the discussion into two very long posts: the first concerning the basic theological questions and the second addressing how a believer is to behave is such instances.
Dan is quite correct when he asserts,
Bruce also makes the statement that religious liberty isn’t in the Bible anywhere. And I believe he is right. However, I would say, especially given New Testament teaching, that you can’t definitively say that religious liberty is considered wrong, either. And I think of the ministry of Paul, who stood on Mars Hill. He didn’t necessarily tell them to tear down their idols. What he did, and what we should do, is to tell them that their idols are false, fleeting, and an offense against a holy God. This kind of prophetic preaching is important in every dispensation. You also don’t see Paul urge the church to fight against the building or creation of religions in the towns where he planted churches. That just wasn’t the mandate. The mandate was to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
Using Paul in Athens to show religious tolerance isn't well advised. Paul was "greatly distressed" to see that the city was "full of idols" (Acts 17:16). His distress didn't stay private, however. He went to the synagogue, to the marketplace, to anyone who would listen with the message of the resurrection (Acts 17:17). In case you think that this message wasn't a politically charged one, remember that Paul was executed as an enemy of the state as a direct result of his preaching.
At this point, some might argue that preaching the gospel is different than overt political action. Perhaps. But how does one define "political action?" And once that is defined, what issues warrant political action? While I'm not sure I have the answer to the first question, the second one is a bit easier. I would think that legal and legitimate political action is called for when God had clearly spoken. In cases where there is no divine revelation, one moves into the realm of personal political opinion. Here the believer is free to act politically as well, but is absent the authority of "Thus saith the LORD." Alas, this is a line that believers have unfortunately found…(what is the polite term?)…fuzzy.
A textbook example of such confusion is found in the founding of our country. Yes, yes, the earliest Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution and landed on these shores as a safe haven to follow their convictions. But what was the issue that drove secession from England? Taxation without representation—an issue that affects the pocketbook, not the conscience. Lest we forget, the OT Law imposed taxation without representation! Unless we are ready to charge the Holy One of Israel with moral failure, then we must conclude with John Wesley that the liberty the founders sought was "a liberty from obeying your [their] sovereign, and from keeping the fundamental laws of [their] country." While I'm not in favor of giving the country back, I have to conclude that the American Revolution was an unrighteous rebellion against the rightful authority that God established. (Hate mail is eagerly received and laughed at.)
But what of issues where God has clearly spoken? As Dan noted, one of the most troubling elements of this entire discussion is the lack of a straightforward biblical command for political action by the believer. There are no exegetical arguments concerning the context of a particular passage, no discussion of the subtleties of vocabulary, no debate regarding historical setting. This is because there is simply a lack of instruction in the NT with regard to the believer's engagement in—with a view to change—the political and social structures of this world.
There is plenty of opportunity for such instruction. Paul wrote Romans 13 during the reign of Nero. While the franchise was far from universal, one must assume that at least some of Paul’s readers had the right to vote. Why didn’t he instruct them in this matter? When Paul had the opportunity to confront a societal wrong (slavery) in returning Onesimus to Philemon (Philemon 8-21), why didn’t he plead with Philemon to release Onesimus as an example to the world of basic human rights? When our risen Lord spoke to the church in Smyrna regarding their suffering (Rev 2:8-11), why did he point to the crown of life as their only hope? Why didn’t he mention how their suffering would set an example that would bring about societal change? I understand this is an argument from silence, but in this particular case, the silence is deafening! If I'm going to state an action as a mandate upon the individual believer, so that failure to carry out the mandate is sinful rebellion (for what else is disobedience to the commands of God?), then I would hope for specific commands to be followed, not the stringing together of theological concepts.
Yet not all commands are explicitly stated. Issues like stem cell research, nuclear war, the trading of securities, and so forth have an ethical component even if they are not specifically mentioned in Scripture. This being said, it is vital that we ask the right question if we expect a correct answer.
It is important to remember that the issue is not how the believer should behave toward government that is not godly, but rather what is government’s obligation towards God, who gives the magistrate his authority. As has been stated, Romans 13 was most likely written during the reign of the infamous Nero. Yet despite his infidelity to his divinely-ordained mandate, he was still responsible to God for the promotion of good and the punishing of evil. Nor will it do to appeal to a democratic ideal of freedom of religion or pluralistic notion of truth as an objection. Obedience to God is required for all men, whether they be born again or not. Submission to the will of God doesn't become a requirement after salvation. It's instructive to remember that the pagan Caananites were vomited out of the land (Lev 18:24-28), even though they had no covenant with God and received no special revelation, because of their vile conduct.
Therefore, we can't expect government to find ultimate standards of right and wrong, morality and immorality, justice and equality in such corrupt things as the will of an educated elite or even majority vote. The unchanging character of God remains the infallible standard for determining right from wrong, good from evil, justice from oppression, even in those areas not specifically addressed in God's Word. While the Bible remains silent on issues of space travel, the internet, and Ebay, the character of God is revealed in such terms that we may apply divine revelation to a variety of experiences. Building a mosque, whether it be on Ground Zero or some other place, might be a hot political topic, but it is also a moral issue on which God has spoken.
It should also be noted that objections raised with regard to the establishment of religion are not to the point. Nowhere have I called for the establishment of a state religion. In fact, until Messiah the King establishes his kingdom, the separation of church and state seems not only a good idea, but a biblical one as well. For example, Jesus implicitly recognizes a distinction between "church" (here used in the broadest possible sense) and state when he teaches "give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s" (Mark 12:13-17). Even in the OT, there is a distinct line between "church" (again used broadly) and state that can't be crossed without incurring God's wrath, as prideful King Uzziah learned (2 Chron 26:26-20).
No, I am calling for the individual believer to act as salt and light in a corrupt society, to restrain, when possible the reckless rebellion of a wicked state against the Almighty. What does that look like? That will be part 2.