Religious liberty is the freedom to worship or not worship any deity one chooses in any way one chooses. Religious liberty has been a rarity in most nations throughout history. In most countries the religious liberty of one group is often denied for the sake of another group, and that is one reason free societies carefully guard the separation of church and state. Removing authoritarian control from the observance of religion is a founding principle of American society, which has traditionally seen religious liberty as more than a privilege, but as a God-given right.
The foundations for the democratic ideal of religious liberty have their roots in the Bible. God Himself extends a “freedom of religion” to people, and the Bible has several examples of God giving men the freedom to choose or to reject Him (e.g., Luke 18:18–25). Faith is commanded but not coerced. Part of God’s likeness in man is volition, i.e., the ability to choose. God respects our choices and gives us freedom to make decisions regarding our future (Genesis 13:8–12; Joshua 24:15), even if we make the wrong decisions. Using these principles, Christians believe that religious worship should be a matter of conscience. What the government does or does not do has no relation to the matters of the heart.
The church was born in a society that allowed religious liberty, within limits. But, as the church grew, persecution of Christian intensified. The majority of the New Testament was written to and for people suffering persecution due to their decision to follow Christ (Acts 8:1). Despite the cruel actions toward them, sanctioned by the authorities, Christians were encouraged to stand firm in the faith and pray for their enemies (1 Peter 3:14; 1 Timothy 2:2). One of the key passages of civil obedience, Romans 13:4–5, was written by a man who was at that moment suffering legal persecution for preaching the gospel.
Religious liberty is an unimaginable dream for millions of Christians around the world. Some must meet secretly and, if discovered, could be jailed or killed. Others know that the moment they announce their allegiance to Christ, their families will disown them, their wives and children will be taken away, and they will be left with nothing. Many more of our brothers and sisters in Christ languish in filthy prisons, suffering daily beatings, starvation, cold, and sickness, simply because they will not deny Christ. Religious liberty has never been a part of their experience, so they don’t expect it. Despite the consequences, they are willing to give up everything to follow Jesus (2 Timothy 3:12: Philippians 1:29).
For those in free nations, religious liberty has been taken for granted and often ignored. America is one of the few nations that has religious liberty written into its Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (from the First Amendment). Yet that liberty is often squandered by the masses. Church buildings sit empty in every city while bars, casinos, and amusement parks stay full. It would seem that the presence of religious liberty would cause Christianity to explode in numbers and practice, but history reveals the opposite to be true. In countries where Christianity is illegal, the church spreads like a grass fire, while places with the most religious freedom grow more secular by the day.
Christians should cherish religious freedom and not take it for granted. In open societies, Christians should use their religious freedom to practice their faith, share the gospel, and speak for biblical values on social issues. They should run for public office, start churches, host open-air events to attract the unchurched, and live as Christ would have them to. Those who do not wish to be exposed to the Christian gospel are working against Christians’ rights to exercise their faith freely, and encroachments upon religious liberty must be recognized and repelled.
The church was born in a season of religious turmoil and grew to maturity on the blood of its martyrs (Acts 7:54–58; 12:2). The church continues to spread even in the regions most opposed to it, and it does so right under the noses of tyrants and dictators who are unable to stop it. Truth shines brightest in the darkest places. Christians enjoying religious liberty should not squander the sacred right of freedom but thank the Lord for it and use it to further the work of God in this world.