Question: "Is freedom of religion a biblical concept?"
Answer: The first amendment of the U. S. Constitution says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Ever since the Bill of Rights was ratified, Americans have enjoyed religious freedom. Our Constitution guarantees the free observance of religion and prevents the government from ever establishing a state church. Thomas Jefferson called religious freedom “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” Was Jefferson right? Is freedom of religion a divine right? Is it biblical?
Under the Mosaic Law, Israel operated under a theocracy. The nation’s success or failure depended on their degree of obedience to God. “Religious freedom” was not part of the Old Testament system, because God ruled over Israel directly. Of course, Israel’s theocracy was not intended to be a government model for the rest of the world. Nations which have imposed a self-styled theocracy, such as medieval Spain, have produced totalitarian nightmares. The religious intolerance of the Inquisition was not a product of true theocracy; it was the result of power-hungry, sinful men.
In the New Testament, we have a clearer picture of the God-ordained role of government. Romans 13:3-4 delineates the government’s responsibilities, which are, quite simply, to punish evil deeds, reward good deeds, and render justice. So, God has given the government certain duties, but enforcing a particular system of worship is not among them.
There is no conflict between biblical principles and the civic principle of religious freedom. In fact, it is precisely because the United States was founded on biblical principles that religious freedom exists. Only governments rooted in Judeo-Christian values allow such broad freedom. Most Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist governments do not allow religious freedom; therefore, countries such as Pakistan, India, and Tibet are, as a whole, intolerant of other religions. Atheistic governments, such as the former Soviet Union, have also proved to be antagonistic toward free religious expression.
The concept of the freedom of religion is biblical for several reasons. First, God Himself extends a “freedom of religion” to people, and the Bible has several examples. In Matthew 19:16-23, the rich young ruler comes to Jesus. After a brief conversation, the young man “went away sorrowful,” choosing not to follow Christ. The salient point here is that Jesus let him go. God does not “force” belief in Him. Faith is commanded but never coerced. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus expresses His desire to gather the children of Jerusalem to Himself, but they “were not willing.” If God gives men the freedom to choose or to reject Him, then so should we.
Second, the freedom of religion respects the image of God in man (Genesis 1:26). Part of God’s likeness is man’s volition, i.e., man has the ability to choose. God respects our choices in that He gives us freedom to make decisions regarding our future (Genesis 13:8-12; Joshua 24:15), even if we make the wrong decisions. Again, if God allows us to choose, we should allow others to choose.
Third, the freedom of religion acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who changes hearts, not the government (John 6:63). Only Jesus saves. To take away the freedom of religion is to empower human government, with its fallible rulers, to determine the eternal destiny of every soul. But Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and no one becomes a Christian by government fiat. We are made Christians by the grace of God through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). What the government does or does not do has no relation to the new birth (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8).
Fourth, the freedom of religion concedes that, in the final analysis, it’s not about religion; it’s about relationship. God does not desire an external form of worship but a personal relationship with His children (Matthew 15:7-8). No amount of government control can produce such a relationship.
The framers of the Constitution were God-fearing men making a sincere attempt to establish a new nation on biblical principles, including equity, justice, and liberty. One of the liberties they recognized as “inalienable and sacred” was the freedom of religion. Praise the Lord for such wisdom.