With the attacks on religious liberty in the United Sates increasing in frequency, Christians have found themselves on the defensive from charges that “religious freedom” is code for “we don’t have to obey the law.” A recent news item brings the question of religious liberty to the forefront. As reported by the Daily Beast,
Dale and Shannon Hickman, members of the Oregon-based Followers of Christ Church…decided not to take their premature newborn son David to a hospital, despite the fact that he weighed less than 4 pounds and was in “obvious distress,” according to doctors who later reviewed the couple’s home video footage. The Followers of Christ believe in faith healing and do not seek traditional forms of medical care… If the Hickmans had phoned 911 as soon as their son was born, one state doctor estimated that he “would have had a 99 percent chance of survival.” The Hickmans…did cite their religious beliefs to argue that, given the Oregon Constitution’s protections for freedom of religion, the state would have to prove that they “knowingly” harmed David in order to convict them. The court disagreed and allowed the state to try the couple for “criminal negligence” instead…In other words: Adult members of the Followers of Christ Church do not have to believe in medicine but they still have to take their dying children to the hospital. In Oregon, religious freedom has its limits.
This brings up a healthy topic for discussion: where should Christians draw the line on religious liberty?
As with every topic, the Christian must consult the scriptures. Unfortunately, the New Testament does not provide pointers on this matter. It speaks mostly to the Church rather than to a government. The New Testament says little regarding the role of the state beyond the fact that it is tasked with ensuring its citizens of a quiet, peaceable life through the administration of justice, which is defined as praising those who do right and punishing those who do wrong (I Tim 2:2, Rom. 13:3; 1 Pet. 2:14).
Does this mean that the government has the right to crackdown on every matter of right and wrong, including theological wrongs? How do we know?
The answer can only be found in the Old Testament, where God gave his most detailed opinion on church/state relations. All scripture (including the Old Testament Law) is God breathed and useful for instruction of righteousness (II Tim 3:16-17, Deut. 4:5-8).
Admittedly, one finds very little support for religious freedom when looking at Old Testament Israel. In fact, one could easily make the case that the Bible is against the idea. Beyond the fact that the first and second commandments forbade the worship of any god but Yahweh, witchcraft and false-prophecy were punishable by death (Lev. 20:27, Deut. 18:20). However, to understand the law of God we must understand it in light of His narrative and must contextualize it accordingly.
The Mosaic Law was given when the nation of Israel was God’s primary medium of communication to the world (Ex. 19:6, Deut. 4:6-8). Israel could not afford religious freedom; they could not be God’s messengers if they had other gods. However, with the inauguration of the New Covenant, a new entity is tasked with serving as God’s ambassador: the Church (Eph. 3:10). While one should be cautious in employing broad generalized formulas to translate the principles of the Mosaic Law into today’s society, one could make the case that since God no longer communicates through a state government, there is no longer any need for the state to administrate penalties for theological crimes. The punishment of heretics and doctrinal breaches now falls under the Church’s jurisdiction. If this formulation is correct, one can make the case for religious freedom from the scripture.
In fact, the United States government has drawn a similar line between beliefs and actions. In Reynolds v. United States, which held that Mormons could be arrested for polygamy despite their religious beliefs mandating the practice, the Court said:
Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order… Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship; would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?
It is important to note that the Court’s definition of “religion,” “social duties,” and “good order” were not arbitrary; they were defined by looking at the history of the First Amendment’s creation, as well as historical attitudes toward the practice in question. This is not a blessing for the government to crack down on the actions of Christians who refuse to accommodate things such as homosexuality.
The Court’s division between thought and action can be traced back to Roger Williams, who was arguably the father of American religious freedom. In his work Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined, and Answered Williams asserted, “The civil magistrate’s power extends only to the bodies and goods and outward state of men.”
However, the fact that the jurisdiction of religious issues has changed hands from the government to the church does not allow one to arbitrarily decide what falls into which category. In order to get a full answer regarding modern jurisdictional boundaries under the New Covenant, one must employ a careful line-by-line contextualized reading of God’s commands regarding church and state.
For now, it is safe to say that religious freedom should be limited by the boundaries of God’s standing laws on topics that do not fall into the jurisdiction of the Church. In other words, people should be free from state coercion provided that they do not act on religious teachings that conflict with what God wants policed by the state under the New Covenant. For example, the Hickmans let their child die, which is clearly contrary to the character of God, as it is murder. Murder remains in the jurisdiction of the civil government in the New Covenant and therefore it can be policed (Gen 9:6).
Under this formulation, that the civil government can only punish religious actions that violate God’s current laws, Christians can support the governmental crackdown on religious sanctioned murder and other vices and better contain an outbreak of unintended consequences that can harm their religious freedom and that of others.