Religious Harm, Natural Right?

One thing we need to be very clear about is that religious liberty is not a government “benefit,” but a natural and inalienable right granted by God.  — Russell Moore, ERLC-SBC

And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. — The Revelation

A paradigm shift had taken place by the time our nation declared its independence from the motherland.  Enlightenment thinking had so permeated the times, that it was leading prominent political thinkers to look at life from an almost exclusively individualistic point of view.  The Rights of Man became the focal point of political discussion, not the common good.  This starkly contrasted with the former manner of political thought which took on a more communal view and had generated such political terms as “the commonwealth.”

A concurrent phenomenon was also taking place at the same time.  As Thomas O’Brien Hanley pointed out in the opening pages of The American Revolution and Religion: “There was a positive aspiration to a Christian state stirring simultaneously with the political ferment, both movements ultimately fusing in the Revolutionary War and the era which it created.” It was at this time as Hanley puts it, the Christian state replaced the Confessional state.  A government was established with the explicit intention of facilitating diversity of Christian understanding — freedom in Christ — rather than the overarching State imposing a solitary view on all.

The then emergent Baptists played a prominent role in this transformative time due to their increasingly substantial presence in the colonies and perceived confinement under the Confessional state’s rule.  This perceived confinement rendered them highly susceptible to the emergent political concept of religious liberty as an inalienable right.  They swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.  This is understandable since no one likes to be persecuted.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise to hear present day Baptists such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission continue to espouse the same traditional view.

But can Religious Liberty as an inalienable right stand the test of God’s Word?

To answer this question we must first define what is meant by Religious Liberty.  A common definition is that Government should not interfere at any point or in any way with an individual’s religious views or practice.  All individuals should be religiously free. In this definition, Religious Liberty is directly related to the relationship between Government and the individual.  No mention is made of the community at large.  This is where the problem lies.

Romans 13 is the most comprehensive statement on Government in all of Holy Writ.  Looking at it we can see a few things:

1. Governments are established by God.
2. Government Authorities are “his ministers.”
3. Government by nature is a religious institution.
4. Government is to be viewed by us as a good thing.
5. Government is to restrain others from doing us harm.
6. Government is to punish evil “doing,”not evil “thinking.”
7. Government is a moral-based entity

From Romans 13 we can can see that Government has a communal perspective, “it is a minister of God to you for good.” That is, good to you in Rome collectively*.  How is it a minister of God to their good?  By restraining individuals from doing them harm.  Many will rightly see the goodness in government restraining an individual from causing them physical harm.  Can we not see that it is also good for them to restrain individuals from doing others much more serious spiritual harm?  Note that Government is not about punishing belief.  It is about punishing those who act on evil belief, and thus seek to harm others, although they may not see it this way.  As a Christian father, you may gladly let a Muslim friend stay in your home.  But if that Muslim friend starts actively trying to seduce your children away from Christ, I would expect you to quickly intervene.  Likewise, this should be the expected practice of Government in the matter of religion.  It should be expected to restrain those who would promote damnable heresies or the worship of false gods, and thereby drag others with them to Hell.  This is simply to punish evil doing, not evil believing.  “Drive out a scoffer” we are told in Proverbs 22:10, “and strife will go out, and quarreling and abuse will cease.”

All said, it should be clear that biblically, individuals should not unequivocally be free from government restraint in the area of religion.  As members of a community they are expected to do good to others, not harm.  They are to be restrained from evil doing.  Religious Liberty, therefore, is most definitely not an inalienable right.




* The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written exclusively to the collective body in Rome. It was not a letter to an individual.

“[T]o all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:7


8 thoughts on “Religious Harm, Natural Right?

  1. Hi, Doug,

    I followed your link over from the SBC Voices blog and read your piece here. I think it is a good thing to expose this truth (or not) to the light of God’s word and see what shines on it.

    Nevertheless, your piece seems to skip a link from the seven points you get from the text of Romans 13 and the conclusion you draw in the end, that would induce the pagan Roman government to interfere in matters of Paul’s (and our) religion. While they intervened on his behalf as a citizen, they never intervened to enforce his religion.

    What do you mean by point #3 that government is a “religious” institution?



  2. Hi Robert! Thanks for your perceptive comments. I try to keep my posts short to encourage greater readership. The skip you noticed is simply my lack of concise writing skill. As for Roman interference in Paul’s religion, I believe they had every right. We see this most prominent in the face to face encounter between Pilate and Christ. Pilate says to Christ, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Notice that Christ does not deny Pilate’s authority. He simply adds a qualification: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” Notice Christ does not pin his persecution on the Roman Government, but primarily on the Jewish religious leaders. That said, governments are required to act according to their “light.” “To whom much is given, much is to be required.” Thus, in Daniel when King Darius’s mind is illumined he responds, “I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel; For He is the living God and enduring forever, And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed, And His dominion will be forever.” Pagan nations have pagan governments. They are expected to govern as blind men. It is the duty of Gospel ministers to lead them to the light.

    As for Government being a religious institution, notice
    -it is established by God
    -the governors are sent by him, his ministers
    -they are to operate according to what is “good” and what is “evil.”

    Very similar to the Church and her ministers. Likewise, the Church is a religious institution.


  3. Robert,

    Forgive me. I inadvertently deleted your comment somehow. Still trying to figure out WordPress. I re-posted it from my email notification below:
    Doug, one other thing, but separated since it is not so much about scripture as history. I believe your portrayal of the “emergent” American Baptists swallowing “hook, line, and sinker” the political ferment of the day. This ignores that their viewpoint had been passed down through a long-standing history from the English Baptists and Continental Anabaptists. I think other than the abortive attempt of some Anabaptists to establish a government in Münster and some English Baptists who joined the Fifth Monarchy Men, most of them were surprisingly consistent that “No king nor bishop can, or is able to command faith; That is the gift of God, who worketh in us both the will and the deed of his own good pleasure.”

    Robert, Thanks for your additional insight. My understanding is that earlier concepts of religious liberty had primarily to do with belief. It was in response to the State attempting to impose a common confession. Not until James Madison was an emphasis placed on freedom of religious expression. Madison thought Jefferson’s efforts at religious liberty inadequate in this respect. That said, I see no evidence that early proponents of religious freedom sought anything other than “Christian” liberty. While there is some sparse comments to be found about Turks, etc., it primarily has to do with not trying to force the Christian faith on them. I do not advocate the State thinking they can engender faith. My point is that Government has a responsibility to the larger community to prevent the harmful spread of explicitly false religion. To use Islam as an example, a man can be Muslim, but good government will compel him to be a “closet” muslim to protect the greater good of society. It will not attempt to make him a Christian, something only the Gospel can do.


  4. Thanks, Doug, for defining your use of “religious” in regard to government. I believe all three points are correct — ordained by God, sent by Him to work in the realm of good and evil — but I would not agree that this means that they are religious in any sense of, relating to, or devoted to religious worship, beliefs or observances, or have any authority over God’s people in that realm. Most governments operate in the sphere of legislating generally agreed upon moral principles; but while ALL governments are ordained of God (Romans 13:1), some present governments operate under a general Judeo-Christian ethic, some operate totally in the realm of false religion, some operate upon secular humanistic principles, and so forth.

    Yes, Pilate was placed in a position of authority by God (Ps. 75:7; Dan. 2:21) which was legitimate. He had the authority given him, but had neither spiritual nor secular authority over Christ in that God was the one who put Pilate there “for such as time as this” and delivered Christ to execution by His own determinate counsel and foreknowledge. The crucifixion was going to come to pass and no one could stop it.

    On the other hand, it seems apparent from the gospels and the book of Acts that the Roman government had farmed out religious authority to the Jewish leaders. They had the authority to arrest and punish Peter and John, but Peter and John did not recognize their religious or spiritual authority over them (Acts 5:29; cf. Acts 9:14).

    We are to pray “For kings, and for all that are in authority” — not that they will lead and guide our religion and worship, but that they will wield the sword in such a manner that we may be able to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Timothy 2:1-2). It is God “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth,” Jesus who is the “one mediator between God and men, and “Who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:3-6). It is that God who ordained Paul “a preacher, and an apostle” (1 Timothy 2:7) and gave him (and other apostles, of course) authority never granted to any government (e.g. Gal. 1:1).

    Peter exhorted his readers to live honestly and uprightly among the pagan Gentiles — not coerce them into being a Christian government — to, as far as possible, submit to the governance to the kings and governors, even though they were God’s free servants (1 Peter 2:12-16).

    I hope this might give you some sense of where I might agree with you, and where I disagree with you. Thanks so much for giving me opportunity to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert,

      I found this comment of yours particularly interesting:

      “On the other hand, it seems apparent from the gospels and the book of Acts that the Roman government had farmed out religious authority to the Jewish leaders.”

      I realize there is much disagreement when it comes to who was responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, but contrary to what is commonly heard from Christians today, Scripture does not seem to paint a picture of civil government as lead Persecutor of the Saints. In fact, Christ, as he did before Pilate, regularly laid the blame at the feet of religious leaders. Likewise, did Stephen in is message before he was stoned. Is it not possible that those who would cast a negative connotation toward Civil Government when it comes to historical accounts of persecution are failing to see the real behind-the-scene perpetrators? After all, it was Pilate’s intent to set Christ free. Would be interested to hear your take on this.



      1. Interesting question, Doug, especially in that I just preached on Pilate and the Matthew 27 text this past Sunday. I agree that it was Pilate’s initial intent to set Christ free. He was a shrewd politician/leader. He could see through the motives of the Jewish leaders who had brought Jesus to him, and could see no real reason to execute Jesus. In what appeared to be a clever move on his part, he chose his worst criminal (a murderer and seditionist) as the contrast to Jesus for whomever the Jews might want him to set free for the Passover, as his custom had been. We can’t rule God out of the equation, since He was orchestrating the crucifixion to redeem sinful man — but each actor was true to the motives of his own heart. In the end Pilate weakly exonerated himself as he caved in to the crowd rather than set off a riot.

        As far as who was responsible for the crucifixion of Christ, in my circles I don’t see people using this to paint a picture against civil government. The Bible lays the greatest immediate responsibility on the religious leaders of the Jews. This and Pilate’s little hand washing ceremony doesn’t exonerate him completely though, for he was the highest civil authority present. He miscalculated what would happen and was responsible for letting it happen. In the broader sense, every sinner was responsible, and no one can say, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” Acts 2:23 may be the best general summary: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:”

        That said, I don’t see that it says much of anything about the broader topic of a government regulating how one worships God.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for that, Robert. A common reaction to Civil Government involvement in religion is the charge that Government can’t be trusted, and always persecutes the saints. I think it a false charge.


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