We live in a country that has – since its inception – protected our freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. While it may appear that some of those freedoms are quickly slipping away when it comes to being a professing Christian, I believe we still take those liberties for granted when it comes to how we choose to use, misuse, or underuse our religious freedom.
In our American culture, it’s very popular – and even addicting – to be outspoken about our political beliefs, religious convictions, and even our pet peeves, to the point of blasting others who don’t agree with us. But since we have a First Amendment right to believe and speak as we wish, wouldn’t you think we’d be honoring that by freely speaking the truth in a way that draws others to the light and truth of Christ?
Yet we can be absorbed in wanting to convince others of our personal opinions and get them on the right side of our doctrinal or political issue to the point that we’ve forgotten Jesus’ greatest commandment: That we love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind and love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39…).
After reading that 100,000 Christians die annually for their faith around the world and that more than 340 million Christians are living in countries where they might suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, it made me realize how much we take for granted the freedoms we can enjoy. Here are just five ways we, as believers, can unknowingly misuse our religious freedom:
1. We Have Freedom to Tell Others of Jesus, Yet We Tend to Stay Quiet
While we may feel it’s difficult for us to talk about Christ in the U.S. today without opposition or pushback, it is still a fact that we can share the gospel of Jesus with our friends, family members, or co-workers (if not on company time) without fear of being arrested, losing our lives, or losing our jobs.
The U.S. is ranked #6 in “Religious Freedom” among the 120 nations that mention a right to religious freedom in their constitution. (The U.S. follows the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and New Zealand.) Yet, we still tend to stay quiet for fear of personal backlash, being “labeled” a Christian, or being judged for sharing our faith with others with the intent to convert them to Christianity. (According to a recent poll, a growing number of believers – primarily millennials – now consider it a sin to share your faith with the desire to convert another to Christianity, even though they believe Jesus commanded us to do so!)
Jesus clearly told His followers: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NASB). If you can’t go into “all the world” how about just go into “all your neighborhood” and preach the gospel? Jesus also gave us the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission has become the Great Omission among many believers in this country when we should embrace the right and privilege to share our faith with others because believers in many parts of the world still cannot do so without life-threatening consequences.
2. We Have Time to Worry about the Small Stuff
Because of our freedom to believe as we wish, we tend to focus on things that aren’t so important, like whether or not we like the music style at a certain church or if someone noticed and embraced us when we visited a different church. When we can believe as we choose, we tend to think we can criticize as we choose, undermine other churches as we choose, and gain the mindset that we are competing with one another rather than being on the same team.
My brother has a friend I’ll call Frank, who is a Muslim. After sharing Jesus with Frank, my brother asked us to pray for Frank who really wanted to receive Christ as his personal Savior, but knew if he did he would need to turn his back on the Muslim faith and fully commit to Jesus, wholeheartedly. This could mean ostracism from Frank’s family and friends, and could also cost him his job and his standing in the community. For Frank, freedom of religion is the freedom to choose Jesus with very possible risks and consequences. For us, however, freedom of religion is something we’ve always known so we don’t worry about being ostracized or losing our family, job, or life if we accept Him as our Savior and tell others about Him. In fact, our lives can become complacent if we didn’t really “count the cost” when we came to Jesus (Luke 14:27-29) as Frank has to. Perhaps because, in our American lifestyle and enjoyment of our freedoms, there really wasn’t a cost.
Jesus gave His followers the Great Commission in a time and culture in which people were dying for their proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world. Here in the United States, we aren’t dying for our expression of faith in Jesus, so it doesn’t necessarily become a life-changing decision for us if we’re not all-in. Therefore, we have time to worry or make a big deal about the smaller stuff, like whether or not our pastor is preaching on politics, or if our Christian neighbor is supporting a secular company with her money, or if our friends and relatives are for or against vaccination. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about telling one more person about Jesus so they don’t die in their sins and become eternally separated from Him?
3. We Have the Dangerous Right to Reconstruct Our Own Faith
With freedom comes responsibility. Because we live in a nation that does not force us to believe one way or another, it opens the door for us to perceive that we have the liberty to reshape or reinvent our faith in any way that we want. In some churches, and in a growing number of individuals today, that means reinventing what we choose to believe about how to be saved, to what extent the Bible is accurate and applicable for today, and what Jesus would really approve of and what He wouldn’t. In many circles, this practice is called “deconstructing” our faith, with the intention of reconstructing it the way we’d prefer, and it’s seen as a good, healthy, and trendy thing for believers to do.
Jesus did not say, “If you deconstruct your faith and then reconstruct it by choosing what you want to believe from the Bible or secular culture, you will finally be free.” Rather, He said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32 NASB). Then, in case there were any more questions, Jesus clarified the definition of truth when He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus’ words may not sound politically correct today because they exclude every other religion, but He’s God and He made the rules. He calls the shots (Acts 2:21; 4:12) because He paid the price (John 3:16). Even if society – or believers –dislike rules because they’re restrictive, that doesn’t change who God is or what He said. We may think we have the freedom to believe as we wish, but there is no freedom at all if we are not believing the truth. And the truth is found in no one else but Jesus and His infallible Word.
4. We Don’t Understand What Real Persecution Is
I grew up in a small conservative town in Central California with one of the largest ratios of churches per capita in the state. For decades, the whole town shut down from 12 noon to 3 p.m., every year to observe Good Friday, and businesses were never open on Sundays until maybe the 1980s. Today, it’s a little different. While growing up in that Christian utopia was wonderful for me personally, it certainly did not prepare me for what religious persecution really is.
By the time I went to a secular university (Cal State Fresno) and continued to be vocal about my faith, the personal mocking and threats I received made me believe I was being persecuted for my faith. I wasn’t. Persecution is being removed from one’s family, or being tortured, imprisoned, or killed for one’s faith. The persecuted church exists today, but rarely in the U.SA. We only talk of religious persecution in this country when a shooting occurs in a church or synagogue. Yet, Christians are dying or being imprisoned daily in countries where it is illegal to own a Bible or speak about Jesus. We can speak freely in this country and if we are fired or harassed, we can even sue for infringement of our personal rights (not a suggestion, just a fact.) Persecution is something we know little of unless we live radically different from our fellow Americans. And when we read about “The Voice of the Martyrs” (www.persecution.com) we get a glimpse of what that word means, and how little we’ve experienced it, and how much we need to pray for others who don’t experience nearly the religious freedoms we do.
5. We Fight Among Ourselves Over Trivial Matters
Where there is real persecution of Christians, believers are blessed to be in contact and community with other believers. And they rally around one central truth: Jesus is Lord. Yet, where we enjoy religious freedom, we tend to abuse that by seeing it as the freedom to argue, disagree, and name-call others whose beliefs or opinions don’t line up 100% with ours.
Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that believers through the ages “may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Jesus actually prayed for our unity and that we would have a genuine love for one another so we would draw others to want to be a part of the church. Yet our infighting is not only unattractive to the world, it drives believers and unbelievers alike out of the church. We mustn’t forget that.
My niece is sharing Christ on a daily basis in a developing world country. Every single day she sees divine appointments in which people are hungry for the Word of God, hungry for truth, and hungry to understand who Jesus really is and what He did for them. They share, yet they do it carefully, trusting God daily to protect them (and those with whom they share their faith) from the consequences of speaking about Christianity where it is illegal to do so.
I would never want to see us lose our religious freedoms in this country but if we did, I often wonder what we would then deem important enough to argue about with other believers. Or would we get back to appreciating what we have in common with one another – Jesus and a love for His Word – and sharing our faith with unbelievers which the early church embraced?
It’s long been said that persecution is the seed through which the church grows. Or, the church is revived by the blood of the saints. So if persecution causes us to grow, what does religious freedom cause us to do. Get lazy? Get complacent? Take for granted the priceless freedoms we’ve been given? I realize I, too, fail in this area at times. Until I hear another story from my brother who is in contact daily with others who are beginning to turn to Jesus and realize the blessedness of new brothers and sisters in Christ, and a spiritual family that truly loves and cares for them. Oh, what we miss that the First Century Church experienced! There is such joy in sharing our faith and seeing one transformed from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
God, help us if we take the freedom we have in this country to believe as we wish and turn it into the freedom to attack one another in the body of Christ.
Lord, thank You for the freedom of religion we still experience in this country. Let us not grow complacent through it or turn it into a freedom to attack one another if they don’t believe as we do. Help us instead to embrace that freedom to talk freely (in love) to unbelievers and believers alike about Whom we love and what He did for us on the cross out of His love, and how we can be people who follow His example and love one another as He has loved us. Help me to remember to pray daily for the followers of Yours who are losing their lives, their jobs, their livelihood, and their personal freedoms for the sake of the Gospel. Give me boldness to live the freedom I have in You (freedom from condemnation – Romans 8:1) and the freedom I have in this country (to express my beliefs) for Your glory. Thank You for the organizations that exist to continue to protect our religious freedoms in this country and may we ever remember that it is only in Your truth that we are truly free.