By James Tonkowich.
As we near the 4th of July, we often take time to thank God for the religious freedoms we have in our country. But why are these religious freedoms so essential, and are they even biblical? In this essay, author and former pastor James Tonkowich introduces us to the biblical and historical foundations of religious liberty and suggests how we can continue to defend this tradition.
Religious freedom is the opportunity to live our lives according to our most deeply held beliefs and convictions. When governments refuse to allow people that opportunity, they treat them as less than human.
First God gave us food. Then he gave us freedom.
When God placed the first humans in the garden, the first thing he gave them was food. The second was religious freedom. He said, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Adam and Eve could believe God or not, obey or disobey. The choice was theirs. And when they made a tragic choice, God honored their freedom (Genesis 3:8-24).
In the same way, Jesus, in final preparation for his public ministry, exercised his God-given religious freedom. After his baptism, he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1-11; see Lk 4:1-13). Facing Satan’s temptations, he could believe God or not, obey or disobey. It was his choice and he made the right choice.
Religious freedom does not come from government. It is our human birthright.
The Bible teaches that this kind of religious freedom does not come from government. It is God’s gift and our human birthright, something early Christians understood. In the face of persecution, the great apologist Tertullian (AD 160-220), in a letter to Scapula, the Roman governor, wrote, “[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.”
The American Founders, including religious liberty champions Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, agreed. Madison wrote, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the convictions and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
When his enemies tried to trick Jesus into choosing between loyalty to Caesar (the state) and loyalty to God, he responded, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:15-22; see Mk 12:13-17, Lk 20:20-26).
God authorized governmental authority for good, but limited, purposes.
In this world, God has authorized governmental authority for good, but limited, purposes (Rm 13:1-7). Religion has no business arguing about building codes, insurance regulations, or other civil matters except insofar as these have moral and thus eternal consequences. The state has no business telling people what to believe about permanent things such as God, truth, and how to live out our deepest convictions.
Thus we defend religious liberty when we remind our friends that God made them free to decide and to live according to their deepest beliefs and that it is not the government’s place to tell them what those deepest beliefs should be.
This essay comes from the CSB Apologetics Student Bible, designed to help students and young people understand, articulate, and defend the key ideas of the faith. Learn more about the CSB Apologetics Student Bible or order your copy today.