On Religious Liberty and the Freedom to Worship


But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
— Jeremiah 29:7 —

Today marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a day that marks the birth of our nation and reminds us of the wonderful liberties we have in America. In celebration our family read that founding declaration this morning and praised God for placing us in this country.

At the same time, though, my praise is mixed with pain and petition.

America is not what it was when it was founded. In many wonderful ways the liberties that were not afforded to all men have been extended. But in other less admirable ways, the liberties constituent in the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights have devolved into a libertine version of hyper-individualism. (On this point listen Albert Mohler’s recent discussion with Yuval Levin). Whereas rights were once understood to be endowed by our creator, rights have become things which men can create or castrate as they—or the Supreme Court–wish.

One of the greatest differences the founders vision of liberty and today’s is found in the increasing distinction between the “freedom of worship” and the “freedom of religion.” The former is the freedom of personal belief and private religious assembly; the latter is the constitutional right—the very first right—which says in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .”

In our day, the change in language to “freedom of worship” is altering the understanding of this first amendment right, and with societal pressure Christians are being forced to mute their beliefs—especially with regards to marriage, sex, and lifestyle choices (a clever euphemism in and of itself). For that reason, on this day of liberty I am both grateful and grieved.

But perhaps, as a pastor, I am most concerned about the way some Christians and Christian leaders celebrate the Fourth of July without voicing any concern for these changes. Can we watch fireworks, grill hotdogs, and eat apple pie, assuming all is well? I think not. As Os Guiness (A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and America’ Future) and Eric Metaxas (If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of America’s Liberty) have observed, America’s liberty is under threat from within. And therefore, this holiday leads me in two directions regarding religious liberty and the freedom to worship.

On Religious Liberty

Right now there is in California a bill under consideration that has the potential to close countless Christian colleges. If the California Senate approves SB 1146, it would make it impossible for Christian colleges to uphold their statements of faith, enforce standards of sexual conduct, and maintain separate bathrooms and/or locker rooms for men and women. In other words, this bill would make Christian colleges conduct themselves by the same secular mores invented by the ever-changing culture.

This bill, coming in a state that often anticipates forthcoming cultural trends, serves notice to Christians that religious liberty is under attack—if not already passé.

With such legislation on the table, it befuddles me how Christians can give unqualified praise to our nation. This is not your Founding Father’s America, and accordingly those who love liberty must follow in the footsteps of our forebears. The call is not to pick up arms, but to pray and speak up for religious liberty—religious liberty for all religions. If we hope to enjoy religious liberty in the future, we must pray and petition now.

On the Ability to Worship Freely

The other angle to consider today is what it means to worship freely. Fox News of news has been headlining  a comment made by Candace Burr that speaks for so many Christians. She said that in living in America is great because “we have the ability to love God here.”

She continues,

“I think that is why this country is so great because we all do have a voice here, and we have the chance for opportunity here. We have the ability to love God here. I don’t ever want to see that taken away from us. We have freedom here that is what makes America so great and that we have people that are willing to fight for that freedom on a daily basis.”

Her sentiments are boilerplate for many American Christians. They rightly express gratitude for the blessings that are found in our nation and for the soldiers who have sacrificed to preserve those freedoms. Indeed, they rightly understand that freedom is costly and bloodshed is necessary to protect it. But what they mistake is the true origin of freedom to worship God.

Mrs. Bure’s mistake is to attribute the “ability to love God” to one’s geographical location. I think I know what she means, but what do her words convey to the underground churches in China? Do they not have the “ability to love God”? What about Syrian Christians fleeing for their lives? Or Baronelle Stutzman, a florist from Richland, Washington, who has lost “everything” because of her love for God and people?

What will happen in California if SB 1146 is passed? Or in the rest of the fifty states if freedom of religion is wholly replaced by freedom to worship? And more pertinently, what kind of freedom do Christians have when their governing officials force them to marry people against their religious beliefs—as the governor of my state has tried to do this week?

Here’s the point: What determines our ability to love God is not a government, but God himself. Just as the founders understood religious liberty to be an inalienable right, so those who have the revealed word of God (the Bible) know the ability to love God is a spiritual gift, which depends not on the temporary governors of this world.

Yet, this is a truth that we must learn again.

How often have I heard a Christian pray, “And we thank you for this country in which we have freedom to worship you.” (Note again the language of “freedom of worship” instead of the public exercise of “freedom of religion”). I too am thankful for the freedoms afforded to us in America, but I’m also leery of this prayer. For according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is God alone who liberates the heart to worship.

Christians marvel that we can worship in our country without the threat of intrusion, but ought we not to be more in awe of the fact that we can worship at all. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul,

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands;
no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12)

Likewise, Jesus said, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). A teaching that Paul echoed again in Romans 6:16–19, when he said that the natural man is a slave to sin.

According to Scripture then, human nature is not free to worship. Open the floodgates of religious liberty in our country and not one person will be found worshiping in Spirit and Truth (John 4:24). Oh, there will be scores of worshipers; humans are by nature religious. But apart from the gracious, life-giving work of the Spirit there is no spiritual freedom. To put it theologically, regeneration—not the Bill of Rights—gives us freedom to worship.

Celebrating Liberty By Remembering  Where Freedom Comes From

In these strange and strained days, Christians must keep our eyes on this truth. The church is not built with government assistance. We don’t need religious liberty to be Christians. The persecuted church is testimony to this fact. By their blood venomous mouths have been shut, violent hearts have been born again, and victorious testimonies have been penned to teach us—true freedom comes by the Spirit, not the flesh.

That said, Christians should not settle for or seek a country where religious liberty is discarded. Countless are the blessings that religious liberty has afforded Christians and every other religion in America. To be sure, it has not been perfect, nor have Christians perfectly understood that religious liberty is for all people, not just Christians. But better an imperfect America with religious liberty, than one without.

Indeed, on this day of national celebration, followers of Christ have many reasons to give thanks for our country. But I would say, we have even greater reasons for concern, prayer, and petition. We must plead to God for mercy; we must persuade our neighbors and nation’s leaders about the civic good of religious liberty; and we must proclaim to everyone that the greatest need we have is a freedom that man cannot produce through legislation and local politics.

In this way, we join the fight for liberty in our nation, we remember where freedom comes from, and we make it possible for future generations to experience that freedom as well. Truly, as citizens of a heavenly country we must preach a gospel that offers spiritual liberty to all, even as our earthly citizenship calls us to pursue civic good for the church and every other citizen in our country.

This was the way of Christianity among the Founders of our country, and it must be our way again.  Until the kingdom of Christ is established on earth, may we who live in America seek the welfare of the city where we are exiles (Jeremiah 29:7).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds