Some time ago a young Moslem confronted me after attending one of our morning services in Kensington Temple. He took exception to the fact that I had prayed for Somalian refugees during the crisis current at that time.
He insisted that this was evidence that Moslems were being targeted in Britain for evangelism. He went on to attack the notion of the “Decade of Evangelism’ that had been adopted by many British churches in the 1990s. Such a notion was for him nothing less than an attack on his religion and an affront to his religious liberty.
I reminded him of the enormous restrictions on Christianity found in many Moslem nations, that Moslems were busy in Britain pursuing their agenda to become the dominant religious force and, finally, that freedom of religion surely meant that we Christians had the freedom and the right to preach the gospel to all – leaving people to make up their own mind whether they accept Christ or not. But he didn’t seem to be at all impressed or indeed grateful for the religious freedom he was enjoying in Britain. For this young Moslem, as for many like him, tolerance was a one-way traffic route – the right for him to practice and promote his religion without recognising the corresponding rights of others.
It is a well-known fact that Britain is a tolerant society. Freedom of religion and the right to choose one’s beliefs without interference are an established part of the British way of doing things. However, what is not always recognised is that this built-in respect for the beliefs and opinions of others is rooted in the influence of the Christian faith in our nation. For centuries, Christian teaching has shaped the thinking of Britain and the rest of the Western world. At the heart of the Christian faith lie the principles and values of individual liberty and personal responsibility. These form the foundation of our modern Western democracy. But what is the Christian basis of these beliefs?
Freedom of choice
Christian theology teaches that God is sovereign in power and authority over His creation. But this doesn’t mean that human beings are puppets without the gift of freedom of choice. God has created us in His image and that means He has dignified us with both the right to choose for ourselves and the responsibility to face the consequences of our choices. Ever since sin entered the human race, our power of choice has been heavily influenced by our fallen human nature. But through the gospel we are confronted with the truth of God in Christ and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can choose to follow Christ – but we are also free to say no.
This means we have the capacity to respond to God and enter a relationship with Him. God has given us this freedom and we can choose to obey, or disobey – to say yes or no to Him. The presentation of the gospel is a free offer of Christ to all who will listen. We commend our preaching to every person’s conscience in the sight of God. There can be no coercion, no forcing people to believe. Once they have heard, it is up to them – the decision is theirs. As believers we are responsible to preach the gospel, practice our faith and demonstrate the good news in the best way we can so that Christ is commended to the world. But we are not responsible for the choices they make. People are accountable for their own belief systems before God.
The rule of God
Many reject this understanding of the Christian faith and point to Bible accounts where the enemies of faith were killed and capital punishment was expected for practices such as adultery, homosexuality and blasphemy. But this is the position of the Old Testament only. It is not what Jesus taught. He came to do away with all of that. The central question is one of how God’s Rule or His kingdom is perceived. In the Old Testament, the rule of God was expressed through the laws of the land. This system of religious government is called theocracy and it was how ancient Israel was constituted. God’s laws were enacted through the laws of Israel and that meant “Church’ and State were one – almost to the point of being identical.
It was forbidden to worship any other God, but Yahweh (THE LORD). God judged and governed through the laws of the land. But Jesus brought a revolution in the way God’s rule was experienced. It was not so much through the laws of the land or, for that matter, by any external rules at all. Rather God’s kingdom was His own rule operating through the hearts of people who had chosen to follow Him. The difference between the two testaments is stark at this point
The Old Testament taught that the “Church’ and State were practically one, but Jesus separated them with His monumental statement: “Render unto Caesar the things that are of Caesar, but give to God the things that are of God’. (Mark 12:17).
It is important to understand that there are two testaments, but only one Bible, only one God and only one way to God – and that is by faith, not human effort. God never compels people to follow Him and whenever believers act in this overbearing and dictatorial manner God is displeased. This can be seen even from the Old Testament itself when God did deal with His people through theocracy.
Tolerance rooted in love
The roots of religious tolerance are found in God’s love for Israel, His loving initiative towards them as a people and the covenant of love He made with them to be His people. Israel was called to respond in love, faithfulness and obedience. God was always looking for people to respond willingly from the heart. Coercion is completely out of place when it comes to believing in God. God’s commandments concerning capital punishment for certain sins and death for unbelieving nations were a revelation of His Holy nature and hatred of sin. God reveals His judgments during the course of history to warn of the eternal judgements coming at the end of history. There will be no refuge for sinners on that Day when God will expose and judge the secrets of all people’s hearts.
But even in the days of the Old Testament the emphasis was on heart choice – choosing who you would follow and obey. Joshua called on the people of his day to choose who they were going to serve – which of the gods of the nations around them – but for Joshua his heart was set on the God of Israel. (Joshua 24:15). In a similar way Elijah on Mount Carmel called Israel back to God with a stark choice – Baal or, the true God of Israel. The question was not just a matter of personal choice, but it was necessary to make an informed choice – if Baal was God, then Israel should serve him, but if THE LORD was God, then they were duty bound to return to the pure worship of God they had abandoned (1 Kings 18:21). The decision was theirs. Then, the theocratic nature of ancient Israel meant that the prophets of Baal were put to death, following the laws of the land, but this was merely the capital punishment of offenders in religion under the circumstances of that day.
The way of the kingdom
But Jesus came to introduce another, higher way – the way of the kingdom. Prepared by centuries of theocratic rule demonstrated through Israel, humanity was now heading for a higher fulfilment of God’s plan. Jesus came to fulfil the heart of God for all people, not just the Jews, and also to show that the pure way to God lay in God’s kingdom being established in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Jesus separated Church and State and made it clear that God’s policy of no coercion in religious belief was taken to a higher level. Never would God give permission for the State to act in that way again.
Jesus announced the presence of the kingdom and called people to take action: “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news’. (Mark 1:15). The coming of the kingdom was not to be through the outward force of political power, military might or governmental regulations. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world, else my children would fight’ (John 18:36). Whenever people have taken up arms to bring in the kingdom of God by force, they have departed totally from God’s will. The Crusades of the Middle Ages when Christians took military action against Jews and Arabs in the name of the gospel were an abomination to God. The pogroms of Europe, the bombers of Northern Ireland and the outrages of Serbia and Bosnia – all go against the nature of true Christian religion.
Religious laws take freedom away
It is good to remember all this while we are enjoying the religious freedoms we have in Britain. And all the more so when our religious tolerance makes room for the kind of religions that do not share the same light as the Christian gospel. Islam is said to be the second largest religion in Britain and the fastest growing. And yet, few seem to understand that there is very little, if any, freedom of religion in Islam. It is said that Islam teaches there is no compulsion in religion. But when people kill, maim and perpetrate acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, they can point to numerous texts in the Koran which command acts of violence in order to protect Islam, punish the infidel and destroy those who convert away from Moslem belief – all this under a system of religion that seeks to make religious laws the rule of state. That is not the way of the gospel, or indeed of the British people.
Once on a March for Jesus in London, a woman, angry at having to wait in the traffic while the marchers passed by, wound down the window of her car and shouted, “What’s going on here?” “We’re marching for Jesus!” came the reply. Infuriated that she was being so inconvenienced by those representing the cause of Christ, she screamed back, “I’ll become a Moslem then!” Someone should have gently reminded her that should she have been living in a Moslem state such as Saudi Arabia she would not have had the freedom even to be driving her car, something forbidden for women to do there.
It is time to wake up to the true nature of these modern forms of theocratic religion, which seek to control every aspect of life by making the laws of their religion the laws of the land. That is why they cannot give full freedom of worship to rival faiths.
But in tolerant Britain, rival claims to truth, competing philosophies and religious viewpoints stand side by side, each with equal freedom under the rule of law. Despite the erosion of Christian values in our society, Christianity still represents the main religious culture of Britain. We still have the freedom to worship Christ, practice our faith and testify about Him
But in the final analysis it is a matter of individual conscience. The love of Christ compels us not just to tell others about God, but also to leave the decision with them. And in the meantime, let everyone in the nation gratefully value the freedom Christianity has brought to Britain. Under another religion it may well have been quite a different story.