We exist on a very tiny island in the vast ocean of history. Surrounding us are hundreds of millions of people who face persecution for their personal religious convictions. Stretching back for millennia are the stories of untold billions of souls who lived in fear and persecution, denied the right of religious freedom.
For most of human history in most every culture or society, religious beliefs have been imposed by coercive measures. Those who dared to dissent endangered themselves and their families. Religious freedom was not even a consideration. Conformity was demanded. Any deviation from the accepted religious belief and practice was seen as a threat to order, a threat to society.
Then Jesus uttered revolutionary words, insisting that people should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. He surprised the powers of this world when he announced that his Kingdom is not from this world. Clearly he was introducing an innovative idea: the notion that two distinct kingdoms exist in the world, the church and the state.
Jesus also stunned his followers by defining his disciples not by nationality, or ethnicity, or ability, or geography, or politics, or wealth, or any other human status, but simply as those who are willing to accept the demands of discipleship. He invited social outcasts to be his followers and he allowed powerful and privileged people to reject his invitation and simply walk away.
So our Lord introduced two ground-breaking truths. First, church and state have distinct missions in this age. Second, people should be free to accept God’s truth without coercion and to reject God’s truth without persecution. Upon these two fundamental realities a new vision for religion in this age rests: individual God-given freedom of religion.
After centuries of political and religious oppression, the founding fathers of our country forged a new nation that incorporated and applied Jesus’ revolutionary ideas. In keeping with his revelation about two kingdoms, they adopted a Bill of Rights that prohibits government from establishing religion or from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
America has experienced a season of religious freedom that is stunning in its contrast to the rest of world history. What people in Europe bled and died for, we have come to take for granted. And now our complacence seems to be resulting in a steady erosion of this precious first freedom, our freedom of religion.
Jesus warned his followers that they would be hated in the world on account of their loyalty to him. John’s Apocalypse foresees a time when God’s people will be universally ostracized and persecuted. These things must happen before the Lord comes and establishes his kingdom, a kingdom no longer divided into civil and religious realms.
When our Lord chooses to turn the page of history and remove the invisible hand of protection that keeps us from suffering the mistreatment of government, so be it. But until then, let us not give up our precious, hard-won first freedom simply because so many people are uninformed, uninvolved, and uninspired.
May the Lord of our salvation continue to bless us with freedom and with the wisdom to use it for his glory,