A Biblical Case for Defending Religious Freedom
Why should we actively and publicly defend religious freedom? We’ll look to the Apostle Paul for an answer.In late May, Alan Sears, the founder of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, was awarded the Wilberforce Award for his and the Alliance’s efforts on behalf of religious freedom.At the ceremony, several speakers testified about Sears’ commitment to securing this most basic of rights, and the example he sets for all Christians.But there’s another example of the importance of knowing and asserting our rights in matters of faith I’d like to tell you about. It’s an example that predates Sears’s efforts by nearly 2000 years.I’m talking about the Apostle Paul. On several occasions in the book of Acts, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to further the work of the Gospel.The first is related in Acts 16. Paul, Silas, and Luke arrive in Philippi in what is now Greece. While they were there, Paul casts out of a slave girl what Luke calls a “Python spirit,” a reference to the serpent that guarded the oracle at Delphi.The girl’s owners, angry at the loss of revenue from her fortune-telling, drag Paul and Silas before the local magistrates. The magistrates beat them with rods and throw them into jail.The next day, the magistrates sent lictors, Roman police, to the jail to tell Paul and Silas that they’re free to go. Paul refuses to leave.He tells them that he is a Roman citizen, and thus, had the right to a trial before being beaten and thrown in jail. He insists that the magistrates come to the jail and personally release them. Alarmed by Paul’s assertion of his rights as a Roman citizen, the magistrates do just that.As William Kurz of Marquette University writes in his commentary on Acts, Paul’s assertion of his rights was “important for the reputation of the incipient Christian community as well as for the missionaries’ prospects for returning to Philippi.” In other words, he invoked his rights to protect the Philippians’ religious freedom.Then there’s Acts 22. Following his return to Jerusalem, Paul’s opponents create a disturbance near the Temple. He is taken away by the Roman authorities to be “be interrogated under the lash.” Once again, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen.This not only spares Paul the beating, it also ensures that he will be judged by Roman authorities and not the Jewish leaders who conspired to kill him.As Kurz tells readers, “Paul’s recourse to the legal rights available to him sets a useful example for contemporary Christians who encounter discrimination, persecution, or even court trials, imprisonment, and martyrdom . . . [Paul] used the rights of his Roman citizenship to ensure that witness to Jesus would reach as far as Rome, the center of the empire.”Similarly, Kurz tells us, “Citizens of democratic nations today also need to avail themselves of every political and legal remedy to fight for religious freedom and for the rights of those who cannot defend themselves: the unborn, disabled, sick, and elderly . . . As Paul did not hesitate to use Roman law to protect his Christian mission, neither should we be reluctant to use the laws of our country to protect our freedom to spread the gospel and to defend the human rights of all.”This is why defending our rights, especially our right to religious freedom, is so important. It’s a gift God has given us to ensure that the witness to Jesus continues, both at home and abroad.