Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Religious Liberty, Part II

The Bible teaches that there is absolute truth. Truth comes from God and His mind. Jesus is the embodiment of that truth as the second person of the Trinity in incarnate form. Jesus is the divine Logos who is truth, reason, order and the communication of God Himself. Jesus did not use armed force to spread the Gospel. Instead, God has chosen to spread the good news about Jesus Christ through preaching rather than the power of the sword. Christians have sometimes been mistaken in attempting to use means other than persuasion to spread religious truth. But the biblical text itself clearly supports the notion that the good news of Jesus Christ is to be spread through preaching and persuasion rather than through force or intimidation. Likewise, it rejects bribery and economic pressure as a means for spreading the Gospel. While it took hundreds of years for European Christians to put this notion into action, the fact is that the doctrine was always present in the Scripture itself. It took time for the idea to work itself out into the consciousness of the society.

The same thing is true of conscience. Romans chapter 2 tells us that God has written His law on the heart of all human beings, both Jews and Gentiles. When Luther said it was neither right nor safe to go against conscience, he was thinking of a God-given conscience—the God-given conscience of a Christian in particular—rather than a mere social construction. If conscience were purely a social construct, it would not make sense to say that you will go with a social construct against the authority of the very society that is responsible for constructing the conscience. Luther’s stand and the idea of freedom of conscience assume that conscience ultimately comes from a source other than social power and pressure. While social norms may mend or mar our higher conscience and make us feel guilty or pleased about actions that are actually evil or truly good, our deep conscience, the moral knowledge that we have from being created in the image of God and illumined by the divine light of God’s general revelation exalt human beings morally accountable before God and means that all human beings have at least some native ability to understand God’s demands even though outside of Christ they do not have the power to comply to any serious degree with those demands. We respect conscience because of its biblical source and because of the need of all people to be free to worship God. One of the Ten Commandments indicates that everyone should be able to observe the Sabbath. Not only are free people given the Sabbath off, but animals, prisoners of war and debtors or prisoners working off their debts are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath. In describing this rule for the Sabbath, God is indicating that all creatures should be given the opportunity to give what they owe to God. All of us should be able to give proper worship to God and to give Him proper place in our lives. Even if we are bound by other commitments or relationships, those commitments or relationships cannot supersede what is owed to God Himself. Hence we allow people freedom of conscience to give what they believe what they owe to God.

We have found through bitter experience that the government is a poor arbiter of religious duty. As a result, we have found that it is best to leave people free to pursue the dictates of their conscience provided that they do not undertake things that are clearly against the moral law of God such as murdering innocent people in order to fulfill that perceived or actual duty.

Individual rights also find their foundation in the Bible. The Scripture clearly talks about moral obligations both of individuals, nations and governments that transcend human authority, governmental sovereignty or social consensus. Indeed, the whole point of many of the illustrations of Scripture is the importance of one man or woman or a group of men or women standing firm against the clear dictates of government, society and false religions. Moral dictates create reciprocal rights. The prohibition of murder creates a right to life. The existence of moral commands creates a right to fulfill those moral commands. The command not to steal creates a right to private property. While a right to life can be forfeited by capital crime or a right to property cannot extend to misuse property over which we have stewardship because stewardship in property is entrusted to us by the God who owns the universe and everything in it, these rights are predispositions of justice rather than immutable entitlements. The existence of individual rights is clearly indicated by the tone, tenor and attitude of Scripture even though there is no explicit discussion of rights as such. Once again, this was not something that occurred to westerners immediately upon conversion to Christianity. Rather, it was something that worked its way out as they absorbed the Christian worldview and began to struggle with the problem of applying Scripture to their lives. Today we sometimes take individual rights too far by believing that we can have individual rights to do things that are evil. While we can have rights that make it easier to get away with doing things that are bad, there can never be any right to do something wrong. God only gives us rights to choose among goods and rights to be free to do what is good. Evil must be tolerated that freedom may exist, but no one ever has a right to do something evil in itself. Hence there cannot be an individual right to abortion or a right to murder one’s spouse or a right to abuse one’s children. Rights are also evident from the nature and order of God’s creation. The rights of human beings are in part related to the kind of thing a human being is and the duties entrusted to human beings by God. Since God is the ultimate owner of all things including human beings, and since human beings have no right to own one another, a variety of realities about individual rights flow from these facts. But rights are a huge topic and we could go on about them forever, so back to these three foundational principles of religious liberty.


Lynn Green said...

Our thoughts are not God's thoughts, even on our best days.--Rev. Robin Meyers

Dean McConnell said...

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" -Philippians 2:5

". . .and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to make it obedient to Christ." -2 Corinthians 10:5

"He forms the mountains and creates the wind and reveals His thoughts to man . . the Lord God almighty is His name." - Amos 4:13

"If anyone loves me he will keep my logos [word, idea. doctrine, theory, reason, logic]" - John 14:23

Our thoughts are qualitatively and quantitatively different from God's. But when we think a true thought we are thinking one of God's thoughts after Him. We must be humble about whether we are right or wrong when our thoughts are based on our opinions or observations or conjectures. But when God has revealed a clear truth in the Bible, it is arrogance, not humility, to reject what god has clearly said. While there are many difficult and ambiguous passages in the Bible, there is more than enough clear material to keep all of us on our knees before God in prayer petition and praise for His grace.

Lynn Green said...

we have this treasure in earthen vessels.