Freedom is something easily taken for granted—until it is taken away. COVID-19 has forced government-mandated restrictions on societies all over the globe, and these restrictions lead many of us to question what responsibility government has over us. Is it to protect people or their freedoms?
As Christians, religious freedom is paramount. But does government have any right to regulate religion? Furthermore, is government the enemy of religion, or is it its enabler?
In this episode, Chase Kuhn speaks with Akos Balogh, CEO of The Gospel Coalition Australia, about what Bible teaches us about the role of government in relation to religious freedom.
Links referred to:
- Our May event with Michael Kellahan and Chase Kuhn: “Is freedom of religion a human right?”
- The 2019 CCL annual
- The Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC)
- The Gospel Coalition Australia
Runtime: 36:39 min.
Chase Kuhn: In the last few weeks of coronavirus restrictions, we’ve seen challenges to freedoms that many Westerners have grown accustomed to. There have been news images and stories of protestors in America, demanding the lifting of health-related restrictions—all in the name of freedom. Indeed, even church leaders have been calling for the government to not overreach in these matters.
Here in Australia, there have been other challenges brewing as parliament is preparing to deliberate about the Religious Discrimination Bill. What role does government have with relation to the beliefs of people? Is religion something to be protected or protected from? Today, we’re going to consider religious freedom and how we can think about it from what the Bible tells us.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, where we seek to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. I’m Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College here in Sydney, Australia. Today I’m joined by Akos Balogh, who serves as the CEO of The Gospel Coalition Australia. Akos, apart from being a friend and an able Christian writer and minister, has also completed a research masters degree exploring whether or not there are good theological reasons to uphold religious freedom. Akos, welcome. It is great to chat with you even virtually!
Akos Balogh: Ah, thanks so much for having me on, Chase! It’s a real pleasure.
CK: Such a joy, man! One of the things I’ve been thinking through in the news lately is what’s happening in my homeland of America. It’s crazy times there: you have people out protesting with signs—you know, “Don’t steal my freedom”, “Don’t take away my freedom”, “Don’t tell me what to do”—and they’re standing down the government for enforcing lockdown restrictions on them. And it just brought to mind how pertinent this subject is for us—not just about religious freedom, but I mean about freedom generally and the place of government. I mean, give me your thoughts on what’s happening in America and—and how what we’re going to talk about today might address some of these things.
AB: Oh, look, it’s a big question, the whole issue of lockdown and how much governments can force us to do things or stop us from doing things. I think here in Australia, we’re pretty—we—we listen to our governments, perhaps, a bit more. We’re maybe a little less suspicious, dare I say it, of our governments—especially as they seem to be doing a good job during these lockdowns. But I can certainly understand in other parts of the world that have a much stronger tradition of freedom and limiting government, these sort of lockdown laws really raise some important questions. And, look, to be honest, I think these are questions that we Christians needs to grapple with—whether we think that the government’s doing a good job or not. I think the Bible has a lot to say about governments, and so we should think about them—especially moving ahead out of the pandemic, religious freedom, as you’ve mentioned, is an issue, and will continue being an issue. So, yeah, we need to keep thinking about it.
CK: That’s great. And one of the things that we—we struggle with, I think, sometimes as Christians is thinking that the government might be the enemy of religion. Is the government the enemy of religion? Or is the government actually a gift from God? How can we help Christians think about the place of government?
AB: Yeah, it’s—it’s a great question and fortunately, the Bible speaks directly to that issue. So Romans chapter 13, as—as well as some other parts of the Bible, speak about the government’s role and government’s God-given role. So I might just read out a few verses just to set the context.
AB: Romans chapter 13, verse 1-6 are very key. It says:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval. For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God—an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore, one must be in subjection not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this, you also pay taxes to the authorities and ministers of God attending to this very thing.
So in terms of God’s view of government—how God sees government—well, God is the one who instituted governments there in verse 1. And he instituted them for a particular purpose. That purpose is for keeping order in society—for punishing evil and rewarding good.
So in God’s design for governments, governments are not against religion. In fact, they’re there to help a society flourish, and that would include allowing religions to flourish as long as they don’t impinge on law and order.
CK: That’s helpful. And in some ways, I guess, it’s common sense, in many ways. And—and really, it’s—it’s common grace: God has given us structures for living in a world. And in one way, we know from our own experience, that we need this kind of structure—we need authority structures, we need accountability, and we need somebody to enforce these structures so that we can have accountability and good order. It seems like that’s what God’s word is saying—is God has actually given us these gifts so that we can live happily in his world.
AB: Absolutely. Absolutely! And so, we should be thankful for government. Government is not the enemy, as you say. We should be thankful. And we should also be thankful that God’s instituted governments in such a way—well, I guess, it’s all part of his plan—such that the gospel should be able to thrive and go forward in society.
So, for example, in 1 Timothy 2 chapter—verses 1 to 4, we hear Paul telling us that we should be praying for our governments so that we could live in peace and good order. Government is—is meant to be there such that it allows Christians to live out their faith in freedom.
CK: Yeah, that’s great. So government can actually be a real service to religion. Of course, the government can overstep its mark, no doubt, and it can actually hinder and restrict, and I guess that’s where we’re going to be heading in our conversation today. At one point does government properly function to uphold the right kinds of freedoms for us? And it seems to me that we have a responsibility to government—both, as you said, an accountability, but also then, you know, praying for the success of and good governance over us as God’s people. Where could it go wrong, or—or what responsibility does government have to religion?
AB: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. Look, I—I think it goes wrong when government enters what I want to call “the religion business”, where it starts to promote a particular religion such that it starts coercing people to believe or to accept that religion as their own. Once government starts coercing people—forcing people to adopt a religion or preventing people from adopting another religion, I think that’s when government enters what I call the religion business, and that’s when government goes wrong. It goes—it steps outside its God-given design. So there’s real problems that happen.
And we’ve seen this throughout history when Christianity in some parts of the world—particularly medieval Europe, when it adopted some theocratic tendencies—then people were punished, because they were the wrong denomination of Christian. In more recent times, we have Communism, for example, where—I—I was born in a communist country—in a totalitarian state, where people were persecuted if they did adopt a religion, such as Christianity. So at that point, in the opposite extreme, where they prevent people from adopting a particular religion. So both theocracy and an atheistic sort of totalitarian state, they both step out of their God-given bounds.
CK: I guess if we’re not careful, we would have, in our own minds, the idea that everybody should be Christian. I mean, that’s how we feel, because we are Christian, we know its goodness, we want God’s honour upheld, and so, in some ways, we could be sympathetic with thinking, “Well, everybody should be Christian”. And in some ways, then, we could feel like other religions are a threat to us. Is that the right way or the wrong way to think? And why?
AB: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Should we, in some sense—should government favour Christianity, because we know it’s the true religion? Well, it’s interesting, ’cause Romans 13 doesn’t go there, and neither does the rest of the New Testament. In no sense are we ever asked to try and co-opt government to help the spread of the gospel through coercive means or some sort of more overt government policy. Again, 1 Timothy chapter 2, where government, at best, is meant to leave us in peace so that we can do our own thing, which is, as Jesus commanded us, to spread the gospel. So it’s not government’s responsibility to help people become Christian; it’s rather the church’s responsibility—Christians’ responsibility. And we ourselves, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, we’re to not to do that in any manipulative or coercive means; we’re to do that by the open presentation of gospel truth to people’s conscience. So government is not there to somehow coercively promote through laws or—or any sort of pressure—Christianity.
CK: Yeah, so is it good, then, that a Muslim is free to be a Muslim?
AB: Yes, indeed! Yes, indeed—partly because that’s—God’s role for government is not to prevent people adopting a particular religion—with the exception if it somehow impinges on law and order. So if we have Muslim friends and they’re peaceable Muslims, then it’s not governments’ God-given role to try and prevent them from being Muslim. However, if certain Muslims in our society take on a more extremist bent, where they want to carry out terrorist actions and somehow work against law and order, then at that point, government has an interest in preventing that particular type of action—that particular type of religion.
CK: Yeah, interesting. I’m intrigued by this because you were just mentioning about what our responsibility is as Christians for propagating religion. That is, we go tell the gospel, we—we are disciple-makers of all nations. Is it that actually religious freedom b—provides the kind of fertile ground for that discussion to happen? In other words, because there’s not coercion towards Christianity or away from other religions, there’s actually a certain kind of freedom that allows for the gospel to go out?
AB: I think so. I think freedom allows the gospel to go out and it allows people to, in good conscience, adopt or reject Christianity. When a government starts coercing people and pressuring people to accept Christianity, then people will accept Christianity outwardly, but they won’t be Christian inwardly. And, to be honest, as—as we know from the Bible, God is not interested in dead religion—in a religion, which is just outward. He wants true conversion—conversion of the heart. And government can’t make that happen. Which is why it’s up to the church—it’s up to gospel preaching—to change people’s hearts.
AB: And I—I think, historically as well, there’s an argument in some parts of the world, it would seem, like China today, that where there is government coercion of some description—but certainly in China we see, from every account, there seems to be a growth in Christianity, even in the midst of government persecution.
But in other parts of human history—in other parts of the world, where there has been that sort of government coercion against Christianity—then Christianity hasn’t always grown. I think of where I was born in Eastern Europe: the church was severely restricted in its ability to promote the gospel and make disciples under Communism. So, yeah, to—to get back to your point, I think, all things being equal, when the government is free to—when governments lets religion and Christians do their thing, I think that—at that point, Christianity has the best chance of growing.
CK: Yeah, interesting. I mean, I’ve—I’ve come from quite the opposite context from you. I lived in the American South for a number of years, and what I saw there was a government trying to more or less legislate Christianity—which, in some ways, you’d think you want to uphold the goodness of Christian morality, but what became confusing for people was that just by falling in line with being lawful citizens somehow then became equated with true Christian belief. That’s not the way it works, is it, as you said. Outward conformity to religion—whether that be, you know, refraining from some kind of civil deeds or crimes or whatever else, and adhering to other civic duties is actually not the same thing as regenerate hearts and people of faith. And so that—that’s a very big difference.
So what do you—what do you think Christians should be thinking, then, about religious freedom? How—how can we be thinking about this today?
AB: Yep. Excellent question. I think the short answer is that the Bible says that religious freedom is a good thing—a good thing for people. And we see that in Romans 13, where God’s design for government involves religious freedom, with the government not stepping into the religion business. We see that in 1 Timothy 2, where we’re told to pray that governments will give us freedom to be able to live out our faith as Christians. So in that sense, it’s what Christian theologian Robert Benne says is a straight line issue—can look at the Bible and we can see that there’s a straight line from what the Bible says to the issue of religious freedom. It’s something that comes out of the pages of Scripture itself. So therefore, Christians should take an interest an interest in it.
CK: I love straight line issues, because [Laughter] when I’m teaching ethics at the college, I find we’re always dealing with things that aren’t straight lines! I love when you can see something that really just clearly works itself out for us to see a good way forward, so this is great. Is there anything there we need to think about, though, with nuance, as we consider applying this in our context?
AB: Ah yes. Lots of nuances. You mentioned before about the idea of legislating morality. So in one sense, as I said, governments should not be in the religion business in the sense of promoting or preventing particular religious practices. But all government—all government laws, all government public policy—comes from a particular, if I—if—if I can use the term, “religious worldview”. So there’s underlying beliefs—beliefs that undergird our laws, our public policies—and they’re heavily influenced or—or they come from—particular worldviews—particularly religious worldviews. So in one sense, government can’t help but promote particular religious-based morality. But it should not coerce or prevent particular religious practices in terms of, you know, which church can set up or which mosque can set up, and—and start doing their—practising their particular religion.
So what that means is that—on another another level, I think it means Christians should be interested in government public policy and we should be trying to promote a Christian view of life—a Christian view of morality—a Christian view of laws—because we know that that’s in line with how God wants human beings to live. And so, if a government is set up in such that it promotes and legislates a Christian understanding of morality, it’s going to be a lot better for its citizens—whether those citizens be Christian or non-Christian—than if that government promoted an Islamic morality or an atheistic communistic morality. Governments shouldn’t be in the religious business in terms of preventing particular religious practices, but when it comes to morality, government is always influenced by a worldview or religious underlying beliefs.
CK: Yeah, we see that often, don’t we, I mean, in terms of the kinds of things that are up for reform. I mean, as—as we’re looking the tracks in Australia right now, the kinds of—the bill that’s before parliament right now on religious discrimination is—is really an important step for us in terms of clearly marking out what we can and cannot do, and I guess this is where we find the clash in our culture is when you have one ideology versus the other, and if you were to stand somebody down for believing otherwise than you, what are the limits of expressing that freedom? And if I disagree with you, does that somehow offend a law more than just your conscience or the way you feel? So how—how can we help in this discussion about free exercise of religion and—and maybe the place where we would demarcate where we would cross a line in public society?
AB: Yeah, e—even the very understanding of religious freedom that we’ve taken for granted in the West that’s really comes through in many ways in this Religious Freedom Bill—look, I—I think it’s very heavily influenced by a Christian worldview. And so I think Christians should be supportive of this particular bill and of this particular view of religious freedom. I know there’s certain concerns around it in terms of does it protect religious freedom enough? But overall, this understanding of religious freedom—that unless you’re actually causing harm to people and causing harm to law and order, you should be free to practise your religion—I think, is a good one and Christians should pray for that and advocate for it to be held together.
I think the danger we face here in the West is that there’s a—different ideologies, as you say, which have different views of religious freedom. I know in America, I—I think under the previous administration, they stopped using the word “freedom of religion” and started referring to “freedom of worship”—as if religious freedom meant nothing more than what you did in the four walls of your church. But I think in the Bible’s view and I think traditionally in the West, religious freedom was much broader than that: it meant your whole of life. You should be able to live out your religious practices in your entire life—in your workplace, at home, on the street. And I think the—the Religious Freedom Bill, as we have it, goes a good way to protecting that view of religious freedom.
CK: This is important for us in our discipleship, I suspect, because what we’re constantly trying to remind our people of is the fact that their lives are not so compartmentalised—as if you just have God on Sunday for a few hours and then the rest of your life you live irrespective of him. But we’re recognising God’s sovereignty over the whole and actually our participation in the world as ambassadors for Christ, we actually have an accountability to him—as all creatures do, of course.
CK: We have an accountability to representing Christ even in the workplace. Now, I guess, thinking about discipling our people and our churches, what faithful discipleship looks like—what—what faithful representation of Christ looks like—is where we have to be maybe aware of the extent of our religious freedom. And that is, we can represent Christ, but does that mean, then, that you transgress laws or that you contend for laws so that you never ever transgress anything? What—what does that look like, I guess, for how we disciple our people, is my question to you.
AB: Yeah, sure. That’s an excellent question. Oh, look, in the Book of Acts—I think it’s Acts chapter 5—correct me if I’m wrong—
CK: I think he meant to say Acts 4.
AB: —where, is it Peter and John that are thrown before the Sanhedrin and they’re not told not to preach Christ any longer—you know, “This is the law we’re giving to you. Do not preach Christ any longer.” And they walk away saying—or—or they actually say to the Sandredin, “Look, we must obey God rather than men.” So as disciples of Christ as per Romans 13 and other passages in the Bible, we should submit to the government, ’cause government’s put there for our good. There are laws that we need to submit to—even laws that we find, perhaps, a little inconvenient, such as keeping to the speed limit or, you know, paying our taxes and so forth—things that we might feel like not obeying at certain times. Those are laws we need to keep. We submit to the government—with the exception when government commands us to do something that would compromise our devotion to God.
So if government, for example, brought in a law that we must no longer share Christ with non-believers—as that law has been in—in place in totalitarian states, for example—then at that point, we have to say, “Look, we cannot submit to that law, because we’re submitting to God.” And theologically, we submit to God first and foremost: he is the one we submit to, and we submit to government out of devotion—out of submission to God, if you will. So if there’s a secondary—if there’s a human law that prevents us from submitting to God, then we’re, I would say, duty-bound not to obey that law.
CK: Yeah. And any time, I guess, that we think about a future where we may have to disobey law, I think we begin to fear the consequences of what that would actually mean. Now, of course, we’re quite unaware of much of this in the West. But there are people every day whose lives are literally on the line for standing in faith in Christ, and doing that publicly and refusing to obey the laws in their land. How should we be thinking about a potential persecution, or even persecution elsewhere—even in history?
AB: Yeah, look, the reality is Jesus said that if we follow him, then the world will hate us. For the last few hundred years, at least, if not more, we’ve had religious freedom in the Western world—a—a meaningful religious freedom. And so, for us, this idea of losing our religious freedom or at least being eroded as we’re seeing over the last few years, is very uncomfortable for us.
But the bottom line is, regardless of what happens, we must obey Christ. If it means that obeying Christ leads to our punishment through government authorities, then, in one sense, that’s situation normal throughout world history. The early church, as you read the New Testament, and the subsequent periods up to Constantine, at least, persecution was the norm. And that’s what Christian discipleship looked like back then—being ready for persecution. And so, that’s what it needs. We need to be ready for that now.
As much as, on the one hand, we want to uphold religious freedom for the good of the gospel preaching—but let me also say, for the good of human beings: I think God’s design for government is good for all people—such that when a government gets into the religion business, it’s not just bad for Christians, it’s bad for everyone. So we want to uphold religious freedom for the good of our non-Christian neighbour as much as the good of gospel preaching. And yet, if it means that religious freedom goes and we don’t have religious freedom, then as Christ’s disciples, we still need to live faithfully to him, even if it leads to persecution.
CK: Yeah, and I guess that—it’s that tension always as well of that kind of cringey Christianity that we worry about—of somebody kind of running headstrong into the persecutions—you know—
CK: —“I’m desperate to be persecuted, in a way, so that I can be standing for Christ.” Doesn’t seem like that’s the biblical picture either. But we see almost this kind of fundamentalism that is an inauthentic expression of faith as well. So whilst we want to say that if you genuinely sin in your faith and you receive persecution, there’s promises held out to you, and in fact, you are following after Christ in that.
CK: As we take a short break from our discussion, I’d like to tell you about a few resources that may help you in your Christian life. Later this month on May 27th, we will be following up this topic of religious freedom in the first of our events for 2020. I will be joined by Michael Kellahan, the Executive Director of Freedom for Faith, for a livestream-only event on the topic, “Is freedom of religion a human right?” You can register for the event online at ccl.moore.edu.au. We have registrations for individual households or for churches where they can give livestreaming code to anyone in their church that would like to join. We think this topic is crucial to our ongoing societal wellbeing. And so I really hope that you will make it a priority to join us on May 27th.
I would also like to tell you about our 2019 annual that is now available. For the past few years, we’ve been drawing together some of the highlights of the resources that we make available through the Centre for Christian Living, and compiling them into an ebook. You can find out more information on our website or you can download the annual from either the Kindle or Apple store.
And finally, as I’ve mentioned in the last few episodes, I would highly encourage you to check out the Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate, or “PTC” for short. This is a course with more than 18 different units aimed to help Christians to better understand the biblical, theological and historical foundations of their faith. And until the end of May, Moore has reduced the price of the first unit to just $25. That means you could do the unit, “Introduction to the Bible” for a very affordable rate and it’s a very flexible course where you can sign in online any time that you are able to. I cannot recommend this to you highly enough, and I think this would be an excellent endeavour for you to undertake during this time of coronavirus restrictions. We’ve had hundreds of people sign up in just the last month alone, and thousands will do it every year, and I really recommend that you check it out as well. Check out the Moore College PTC. You can find it on distance.moore.edu.au.
Now let’s get back to the conversation.
CK: As we think about moving forward, living in a secular society that is one in which there are—are incredible amounts of freedom afforded to us for various different things that we can enjoy broadly, is there place for religious benefits to be extended in a—a government that is not going to promote one religion over another? In other words, is it appropriate—my kids go to Scripture, which is something very foreign to me, being an American. In America, we had a very clear separation of church and state, which meant that when you’re at a state school, you don’t learn anything about Jesus. Well, my kids go to a state school here, and they have an hour a week where they’re allowed to learn about Jesus from the Bible. Is that appropriate!
AB: Yeah—from this particularly view of religious freedom that I’ve been expounding, which I take from Scripture. I think Scripture or Special Religious Education is completely appropriate—as long as it doesn’t coerce or punish people who opt out or who decide they don’t want to take part in it. I think there’s benefits to allowing kids the opportunity—secular kids the opportunity to hear about Christianity. I think Christianity’s history has demonstrated is a public good: we’ve seen so much good that Christianity has brought to the Western world—to Australia in particular. And I think it makes sense for children, if we’re talking about SRE in particular, to be afforded the opportunity to hear about Christianity so that they, at least, can understand this movement that has so impacted their world at the very least, but more than that, to take on Christianity for themselves. So we know and psychologist studies are coming out left, right and centre, saying that people that have a strong religious worldview—including Christian worldview—tend to do better on so many—in so many ways in life. And so I think if we just look at it from the public good benefit—purely from a secular public good—then it makes sense to at least give people the opportunity in that way.
CK: I was going to ask you on that—I mean, just following up, you’re a father, as I am. One of the things that I wonder about this in terms of religious freedom—I had a discussion with a parent at the school about their kid and they basically want their kid to be able to choose whatever their kid wants to choose about belief. And so, they’ve made it their plan, irrespective of their own convictions, to let their child choose whatever they want about faith. So they’re going to give them a circuit of, you know, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism—all kinds of world philosophies and religions so that they can then, you know, make an educated decision at nine years old, or whatever it is [Laughter] to determine their life path and what they will believe in.
As a father, what I love is that I can indoctrinate my children. That is, I can impart to them a faith that I think is worth believing in. How do we think about religious freedom in these terms—I mean, a bit—a step removed from government, but moving it into the house or even the school? As we think about SRE and this other conversation, I mean, is that coercive that I’m trying to teach my kids what I believe is true? Or should I follow the way of the other parents that are saying, you know, here’s the buffet; you choose what you want to eat?
AB: [Laughter] Look, when it comes to fathers training their children in the way of the Lord, I think the Scripture’s quite clear that that’s our role. So it doesn’t go against religious freedom as the Bible defines it. Yeah, even the idea, I think, of secular parents saying to their kids, “You get to choose what you want to believe”—I mean, that in itself is a worldview. That’s saying, in effect, that truth is really up to you to determine what is true. Whereas, I don’t think the Bible ever makes that claim. I think the Bible would say, “Look, the living God, he is the true God. He is the one we should follow.” And that’s why as fathers, we are obligated to teach our children about God, because he is truth.
The secular view—look, it—I think it’s good in the sense that it doesn’t punish kids or coerce kids in any way—not that—I wouldn’t want to punish or coerce my children either; I would want to lovingly show them God. But it falls short, I think, of what the Bible would have us do.
CK: Yeah, so there’s a very big difference then, isn’t there—that of holding something out as true and saying, “Believe this; this is true”, but actually restricting of freedom to actually genuinely say, “Yes, I trust that and I believe it.”
AB: That’s right.
CK: That’s quite different than saying you have to have everything presented to you all at once as well, or nothing presented to you at all, I guess, on the other extreme. So it’s great that we can situate even faithful discipleship of our children within a respectful religious freedom in society. In one sense, the fact that I can disciple my children is allowed because I live in a society that has given me that freedom to teach my children what I believe and want for their lives.
AB: That’s right.
AB: It should be up to parents to be able to have that freedom to do that. It shouldn’t be the state that restricts parents in any way. So I don’t want the state telling my Muslim neighbour that, no, you shouldn’t be teaching your children the way of Islam. That’s not the state’s role. It’s not that I agree with my Muslim neighbour, and so I would take it on my role as a fellow citizen to speak to my Muslin neighbour and try and convince them of the truth of the gospel. But that’s not the state’s role. The state shouldn’t get involved in that. The state should leave that parenting decision up to the parent.
CK: Yeah. We talked about persecution a few minutes ago and I guess as we’re thinking about engaging with your neighbour that might be a Muslim and discipling their child, one of the fears that we have, of course, is what we will face for living out our faith. And one of the trying things and why I think religious freedom has become an issue for us today is because we don’t know how to have conversations. And disagree well. How would you help people think about having confronting conversations—even disagreeable conversations—in a context of religious freedom? How can we do that responsibly?
AB: Yeah, look, the beauty about religious freedom is that the government’s not going to stop you having those conversations and I think that it’s in everybody’s interest to keep it that way. But as to how to do it, look, I think the Bible has a lot to say about how we talk about our faith. 1 Peter chapter 3 talks about defending or sharing the hope that we have with gentleness and respect, and remembering that ultimately it’s God is the one who opens people’s eyes to the gospel.
So I think what that all means is that the pressure’s off us to try and argue someone into the kingdom of God. We don’t have to pressure them, we don’t have to coerce them; we merely need to present the gospel to them and to do it in a way that makes sense to them, in a way that’s respectful, and if they, for whatever reason, decide to reject it—they don’t want anything to do with it—then, you know, that’s their decision, and they’ll be accountable to God on the last day. But it’s not us to try and coerce them to accept the gospel. It’s not us to try and get the state to coerce them to accept the gospel. That’s their decision and we should respect that before God.
CK: And so offence, then—being offensive to someone—what does that look like?
AB: Oh, look, the problem with the term “offence” is that it is so subjective. As Christians, we don’t want to deliberately be offensive; we want to understand what the other person finds offensive. So example: if I’m talking to a Muslim, I wouldn’t want to go up to them and say, “Look, your religion is absolute rubbish. Muhammed was a false prophet”—and—and say all these things that I know will inflame them. Instead, I want to have a conversation with them which is much more respectful and comes at it from an angle of, look, I know the gospel to be true, but I don’t want to deliberately inflame things and be disrespectful without having to be disrespectful. Look, the gospel has enough offence in it so that, you know, lots of people—either Muslim or secular—will take offence at it. But I think is it Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 9 and 10, where he talks about being all things to all men; he doesn’t want to put stumbling blocks in their way or unnecessary stumbling blocks.
AB: Be as respectful as we can. The gospel will offend, but let’s not add to its offence unnecessarily.
CK: Yes, so we do everything we can personally—
CK: —to show love, respect, care. The place where they stumble—the stumbling block—is Christ: he is the stumbling block and the rock of offence. And so, when they meet Christ and encounter him, that’s the barrier, I guess: that’s the point where they trip. That’s the point where they come undone, if you will. And—and the only offence they take is at him. But hopefully we are as lovingly, carefully, considerately presenting that truth to them. But in order to present it truly, that’s the point where it becomes offensive, I guess.
AB: That’s right. That’s right. We must be careful to let the gospel offence be the one thing that they’re offended at and not our own, you know, disrespect or our own silly words or anything.
CK: Yeah. And is offending somebody a reason to curtail religious freedom?
AB: Oh, look, I think definitely not. Going back to Romans 13, God has instituted government to uphold law and order. Feeling offended, I don’t think, is part of that law and order that we need to uphold. If we were to start curtailing offence, then government would need to radically increase its coercive power.
Now, having said that, sadly that’s what we’re seeing in some jurisdictions around Australia in the Western world, where certainly in Tasmania, for example, you’re not allowed to, I think, it’s insult someone, because of their religious belief or sexuality or whatever. And again, my lawyer friends tells me that that is such a subjective term. Like, what does “insult” even mean? To one person, it might just mean you’re being truthful; to another person, saying that, you know, “Unless you believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell”—that is deeply insulting to them. And they can take you to a discrimination tribunal based on making a statement like that. So I think it’s very problematic once we start making offence the bar at which we have to uphold religious freedom.
CK: Yeah, just because of its subjectivity.
AB: Oh, absolutely.
CK: Akos, as we’re—as we’re wrapping up our conversation, I mean, what would be a word you’d give to people as they’re seeking to live faithfully today and especially in view of religious freedom? What can they doing and thinking about or fostering in their lives as Christians?
AB: Yeah, certainly, I’d get them to meditate over passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-3, which commands us to pray for our governments. I think particularly now as we see governments at both state and, to a lesser extent, federal, but certainly state governments bringing in certain anti-discrimination laws, which are problematic to religious freedom. I think we need to be praying for our governments—praying that they be wise. I think there’s a place for Christians as citizens—as voters—to undertake democratic stewardship—to make sure our representatives know—our democratic representatives know—that religious freedom is an issue that we care about. And also, thirdly, to understand why religious freedom is so important—spoken about from God’s word: it’s one of these issues that God cares about, so we should care about—and on a practical level, when religious freedom leaves a society—when religious freedom is weakened in a society—other freedoms are weakened as well. We’ve seen that throughout human history, and therefore it’s not just Christians that suffer, it’s also your non-Christian neighbour. So understand that it’s not just a case of we want to uphold our own freedom as Christians, but we want to uphold religious freedom: we want what’s best for our neighbour as well. And that’s another important reason why we are not—uphold religious freedom.
CK: Yeah, it’s a way to love our neighbour, isn’t it.
CK: Actually allowing them to be free in the way that God has made them and the good order he’s provided for society—that’s a way for us to love them, even when we disagree. And that’s very helpful.
Akos, I’m really grateful for the time you’ve given to us today. Thanks for sharing.
AB: Thanks Chase!
CK: It’s been a great privilege for me to have Akos today on the CCL podcast. I would encourage you to check out more resources from Akos and others at The Gospel Coalition Australia website. Akos is doing a fantastic job of curating resources there and they’ve been great partners for us in ministry. Please check it out. Thanks again, Akos!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast and also be sure to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you can discover many articles, past podcasts and video materials.
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As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.