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Liberty of Conscience: Keep on Walking, Keep on Talking

on May 6, 2015

As the culture war over Christian morality rages on and on, both in the churches and in society at large, and in recent years with a coercive legal side to it, faithful Christians need to beware least they be drawn into believing that the results of legal and social battles are binding on what they will or will not do. We may argue for liberty of conscience to say and do things that social liberals find abhorrent, but that must not mean that if we are finally legally required to disobey God and compromise with sin, we will do so. As the Manhattan Declaration so well articulated the matter early in the Obama Administration “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”

All persons are required by God to obey His commands, regardless of their wishes or beliefs (Rom 1:20-23; 2:12-16). The disciple of Christ strives to obey God unconditionally. Scripture is clear that this is particularly true when the state requires that we disobey God (Dan. 3:14-18; Acts 5:25-32). Scripture is also clear that we are to obey God no matter how badly we are pained, or how badly anyone else is pained, even those we love (Matt. 10:34-39; Lk 14:26-27).

We must resist the persistent messages of popular culture that sin is normal, and that we must accommodate homosexual sin as a matter of “rights;” no one should have the right to require conscience violation – reasonable accommodation can be made. Nor do people generally have the right to require conscience violation because they are offended. Soldiers do not have the right to require a pacifist photographer to take a celebratory photograph, nor do butchers have the right to require a vegetarian photographer to photograph their shops. But we live in a society in which part of that society, and especially influential parts, are unwilling to accommodate the Christian conscience, because they believe that the particulars of the Christian conscience are wrong. If this is the direction which Western society is going, and there are many cases in which liberty of conscience has been defeated where it conflicts with liberal/left liberation doctrine, then there comes a point in a society in which it becomes so hostile to God’s commands that faithful Christians must become an harassed minority, arguing for the truth of God’s Word and the truth about the world, but persecuted because we are faithful to the truth. Western society is approaching that point, although it is not yet fully there, particularly in its parts that remain more Christian.

Our faith and hope is in God to deliver us from all threats, including the legal requirement to disobey Him, and to save us in the end. Nevertheless, at the level of civil law, the common sense that the majority of people share is that people should not be required to take action against conscience because other people are offended. The state should not judge conscience, especially a state which professes religious neutrality should not judge the religious conscience. It should be noted that the conscience claims Christians make today, which concern sexual morality and the sanctity of unborn life, pale by comparison with conscientious objection from military service, which if sufficiently common, would risk the life of the nation. Yet conscientious objection from military service was allowed even in World War II, when the nation’s life was indeed at stake.

Christians are not asking to discriminate against a category of persons, but for conscientious objection to be allowed from providing services that are religiously objectionable (i.e., contribute to behavior believed to be sinful). Racial discrimination in the provision of services to the public focused instead on service to a class of persons, not their behavior, was based on the superficial characteristic of race, not the profound one of sexuality, and was a cultural preference rather than religious precept for most people. Certainly it cannot be reasonably derived from the Bible. Religious freedom has to protect religious beliefs and practices regardless of popular or governmental objection if it has any serious meaning. There is no good reason why part of the population should be required to act against what they believe is ultimately right and wrong because of the moral intuition of another part.

We must not compromise and acquiesce in sin, which in our time often means facilitating sinful behavior, since this is itself sinful (Matt. 18:7-9). We must not acquiesce even under protest, since it is absolutely wrong to sin. Conscientious objection only makes sense if one is absolutely unable to take the action human law requires. This means that one cannot take action against conscience even if there is never a legal accommodation of conscience. And this raises the possibility that orthodox Christians will become an underclass in society, excluded from business and the professions. This may be what will happen, but faithfulness to Christ demands that we take this route, and never be disobedient to God.

However, perseverance over time may result in accommodation; it is the only strategy which reasonably will result in accommodation. We must heed the old civil rights song and “keep on walking, keep on talking.” It is likely this that the cultural Left fears more than anything, because they know that this worked for them. But our concern is not only with what works, but above all with what we ought to do. If we really do believe that God’s Word is true and should be obeyed, then despite defeats in the heartland states of Arizona and Indiana, we will not acquiesce and agree that accommodation of sin must be part of our life, we do not discover that life goes on as usual when we change our beliefs and practices, and we do not accept that the loss of religious freedom is final, but continue to argue that Christian morality is correct and that religious freedom should be respected.

American Evangelicals at this point share a common body of praise choruses, maxims, and general religious practice that has developed in the generations beginning in the mid-twentieth century. One especially familiar praise chorus has as its most familiar words a quotation of Psalm 63, “Thy loving kindness is better than life.” Think about these words, they say the value of God’s goodness is greater than life itself! A similar idea is in the twentieth century Evangelical maxim that “Jesus is Lord of all, or He isn’t Lord at all.” These are really fierce, absolute commitments, so often made in the comfort of affluent, middle American life. But now, put to the test, do we mean them?

  1. Comment by Mark Brooks on May 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

    Acts chapter 4:

    Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.

    And it came to pass, on the next day, that their rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and as
    many as were of the family of the high priest, were gathered together at
    Jerusalem. And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, “By what power or by what name have you done this?”

    Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

    Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it. But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, “What shall we do to these men? For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But
    so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely
    threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name.”

    So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. ButPeter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no wayof punishing them, because of the people, since they all glorified God for what had been done. For the man was over forty years old on whom this miracle of healing had been performed.

    And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:

    ‘Why did the nations rage,
    And the people plot vain things?
    The kings of the earth took their stand,
    And the rulers were gathered together
    Against the Lord and against His Christ.’

    “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were
    gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”

    And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.

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