Week #11—What Christians Should Ask of Government: To Tolerate True and False Religion


Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.

What Christians Should Do For Government

Week 1: Love Your Nation, People, or Tribe
Week 2: Obey Scripture, Get Wisdom
Week 3: Be the Church Together 
Week 4: Be the Church Apart
Week 5: Engage with “Convictional Kindness”

What Christians Should Ask of Government

Week 6: To Not Play God  
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation

Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics) 
Week 11: To Tolerate True and False Religion (manuscript below)
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family

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“All men have a natural an inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to dictates of their own consciences.”

So reads the 1776 North Carolina Constitution (1776). Such phraseology, one Christian philosopher observes, was “truly innovative.” Previously, theologians would have argued that it is our duty and right “to worship God as God wants to be worshipped.”[1] But now the emphasis switched to the conscience and what the conscience said was right. And so one of the greatest architects of the era’s doctrine of religious freedom, James Madison, averred, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”[2]

This same formulation emphasizing the rights of the dictates of one’s conscience was soon reflected in the constitutions and declarations of rights of other colonies: Pennsylvania (1776), Delaware (1776), Maryland (1776), Virginia (1776), New Jersey (1776), Vermont (1777), and New Hampshire (1784). And you can find it in the constitutions of India, Canada, and the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights.

And ever since the Founders, Americans have, on the whole, enjoyed religious liberty. Yet if you’ve been paying attention to changes in our current moral climate, you know that religious liberty in America feels more under threat than ever.


Courts have begun using the coercive power of the state to require Christian bakers and florists to participate in same-sex weddings. A Christian family farm is fined $13,000 for refusing to rent it out for a lesbian wedding. The fire chief of Atlanta is fired because of a self-published article in which he states that homosexuality is wrong. The CEO of a major technology company, Mozilla, is removed because it comes to light that in 2008 he gave one thousand dollars to support California Proposition 8, which sought to establish that, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Whether in courts or in corporate America, erotic liberty is increasingly treated as a more fundamental right than religious liberty, even though religious liberty is explicitly stated in the constitution and erotic liberty is a late 20th century innovation (see How Sex Became a Civil Liberty). Looking ahead my sense is that erotic liberty will generally win the shoving match. It’s not that America will discard religious liberty entirely. It’s that erotic freedom will continue to prove it’s the biggest bully on the playground, able to grab any turf it wants.

What’s at stake in this battle between religious liberty and erotic liberty? Al Mohler points to seven arenas of conflict.

  1. Christian college and universities could lose their accreditation for remaining true to historic Christian traditions.
  2. The church could lose its freedom to preach.
  3. Businesses could be required to compromise their conscience or be fined out of business.
  4. Employees and executives could lose their job for not sponsoring and supporting the new moral regime.
  5. Christian humanitarian organizations could be closed down or otherwise cut off from ministry opportunities.
  6. Christians students in public school could be denied the right to associate or the right to free speech.
  7. Christian couples looking to adopt could find themselves challenged by secular experts who are concerned about religious and discriminatory indoctrination in the home. (Southern Seminary Magazine, vol 83, no. 1:26).

And let’s be honest: we haven’t even begun to consider the violations of religious liberty Christians are experiencing right now around the world: from imprisonments to beatings to the very taking of their lives, sometimes by mobs, sometimes by “courts.”

What should we make of all this? How would the Bible have us think about it?


Well, let’s start with the very simple question: Is religious liberty in the Bible?

Sort of. Certainly the Bible implicitly affirms what we might call religious tolerance. What Americans define as religious liberty, however, is something slightly different. Let’s start with the Bible and the case for religious tolerance.

The first thing to see in Scripture is that . . .

1. We have no authority except where God gives it.

The natural assumption of fallen human beings, and especially autonomy-loving moderns, is that people have the freedom to do whatever they please, at least until someone comes along and draws a boundary.

When we open our Bible’s to Genesis 1, however, we discover that human beings have absolutely no authority until God gives it.

For instance, do human beings have authority to take a spouse and produce children? Yes, God gives it in Genesis 1 and 2.

Do human beings have authority to build parks, bridges, skyscraper, houses, and zoos? Yes, God gives it in Genesis 1:28.

Do humans have the authority to throw parties in our backyards and eat a fruit and vegetable spread? Yes, God says so in Genesis 1:29.

Do they have authority to eat meatballs on toothpicks and shrimp cocktail at the party? Yes, God provides it in Genesis 9:3.

In short, human beings—vessels shaped out of clay—have absolutely no freedom, no entitlement to do anything, not even pick an apple off a tree and eat it, until God so authorizes. Lumps of clay have no rights. Jeremiah speaks more severely: “A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way” (5:30–31, ESV). 

2. Governments possesses authority to prosecute crimes against humans, not crimes against God.

Once again, we see this in Genesis 9:5–6:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

You see the word “require” three times in verse 5. God requires a reckoning by man against man for murder, which is to say, God authorizes us to prosecute crimes against other human beings. And this justice involves parity: a like for like.

Yet what does it not authorize us to do? Punish crimes that are exclusively crimes against God.

After all, how can a government (or any human) establish the extent of a crime committed exclusively against God, such as idolatry or blasphemy or some sin of the heart like pride? How can parity be measured, retribution assessed, recompense meted?[3]

Indeed, the larger point of the story of the flood is that the human hearts are inevitably wicked in their bearing toward God (Gen. 8:21), but that God determines to mercifully withhold his judgment until the last day by laying down his bow of war. To ensure that chaos does not ensue, he licenses humans to protect themselves against harm from one another with this justice mechanism in verses 5 and 6. But he doesn’t authorize humans to wield the sword against crimes like false worship where no harm comes to other human beings. Nor does he in any other place in Scripture.[4] Do the commandments in Deuteronomy to stone those who purse other gods contradict this claim (see Deut. 13)? Only if one believes the civic elements of the Mosaic Covenant are explicitly binding upon nations besides Israel. I do not.

It would seem that false religion should be tolerated simply because governments have no authority to do otherwise, at least until manifest harm comes upon a human being. Here we find the grounds for what the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution calls “free exercise.”

The heart of a doctrine of religious tolerance, then, is this: the state and its citizens must tolerate the worship of those gods whom one does not acknowledge, at least until those gods do harm to oneself or one’s neighbor. On what basis? On the basis that humans do not possess the authority to do otherwise, much less the ability to ascertain the requisite parities of justice in matters related to God.

Notice, there’s no invoking of the conscience here, though the conscience is left free to worship as it pleases. The freed conscience is the fruit of this doctrine, not the ground. Things go haywire, we’ll see in a moment, when you make the conscience the ground of religious freedom.

3. Governments possess no authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom, and no ability to coerce true worship.

Not only can we find what the First Amendment calls “free exercise.” I think one can argue that the phrase in the U. S. constitution “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is consistent with the Bible.

Two reasons: Number one, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to establish churches to two or three or three hundred Christians gathering in his name. It’s the saints who possess the institutional authority to establish an establishment of at least the Christian religion. (I’m speaking of “establishing an establishment” deliberately since every law “establishes” religion; I’ll come back to this.) It’s the church which possesses that authority to declare, “This is a true confession and these are true confessors.” Charlemagne does not possess the authority to say, “Right bishop, wrong bishop.”

Number two: The storyline of Israel teaches us that, even when right belief is required by the sword, it doesn’t work. Israel established an establishment of religion. It didn’t produce true worship. God then tells us through the prophet Jeremiah that God must change the heart by his Spirit. Only the Spirit can give true worship. It’s therefore futile for the State to try.

For these reasons, the Bible presents us with a doctrine of religious tolerance. But Scripture’s teaching is more complex still. Point 4…

4. God established governments for the very purpose of securing a free space for his people to be saved and to call the nations to repentance.

You’ve heard us saying this in previous weeks. Rendering judgment for crimes against human beings is only the proximate purpose of government, just like the proximate purpose of highway guardrails is to keep cars on the road. The ultimate purpose of government is to provide a platform for God’s plan of redemption, just like the ultimate purposes of those guardrails is to help cars get from city A to city B. Genesis 9 comes before Genesis 12 and the call to Abraham for a reason.

Paul therefore observes that God determines the borders of nations and the dates of their duration so that people might seek him (Acts 17:26–27). People need to be able to walk to church without getting mauled by marauders. They cannot get saved if they are dead.

Friends, a government that does not tolerate the worship of God is an unjust government that has opposed God’s very purpose in establishing it. Furthermore, point 5…

5. Governments, on the whole, tend to remain just to the extent they acknowledge that human beings are created in God’s image.

Go back to Genesis 9. We have no authority to prosecute false religion. At the same time, notice that this governmental charter (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”) is grounded in a theological claim: “for God made man in his own image.” Right governmental policy, it would seem, has a theological foundation. Remove the foundation and you remove the foundation of good policies and good constitutions. Or again, remove the foundation and you can expect governmental policy to warp from right to wrong, from just to unjust. Indeed, to the extent governments deny the theological claim that humanity is created in God’s image you, can expect those governments to have policy warped toward injustice.

Has history demonstrated as much? Pharaoh denies God, claims to be a god, and has no compunction about slaughtering baby boys?

In our own day, have the courts and legislators considered whether God has authorized them to redefine marriage? Or have they decided to define marriage themselves? And, as a result, when the government shuts down the Christian adoption agency because it won’t allow same-sex couples to adopt, would you say that government is moving from unjust to just, or just to unjust?

Notice the balance Genesis 9 strikes. On the one hand, government doesn’t have the authority to prosecute false worship. Government must tolerate bad worship. It cannot prosecute the sin of idolatry, at least until that idolatry starts to bring human harm. On the other hand, a government filled with men and women who don’t know the God of the Bible will no longer define the human being as made in God’s image and their governance will become unjust. Do you see the balance?

6. Governments, on the whole, will respect the right to worship God when they acknowledge God.

Not only that, governments, on the whole, will only respect the right to worship God when they acknowledge God. Listen to Matthew 10:18: “You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.”

John 15:18–21, too:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.

Notice a couple of things in this text. First, why will persecution come? Because they don’t know the Father, and so they hate Jesus, who claims to speak on behalf of the Father, and anyone united to the name of Jesus. Second, this text doesn’t promise they will oppose the God of Islam and his people, or the gods of Hinduism and their people, or Buddhist ideas bout karma. Jesus promises they will oppose the God of the Bible, and his Son Jesus Christ.

Did you think all organized religions are viewed equally by unbelievers—that unbelievers view the different religions like a parent with multiple children, taking care to love all of them equally?

In fact, listen to John 16:2–3. They will think they are serving God by persecuting Christians:

They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.

They might think they’re offering service to the God of the Bible, or the God of Islam, or the God of autonomy and progressivism and sexual freedom. Have you read how progressive Christians talk about those of us who affirm marriage belongs to a man and a woman? They come after us with righteous zeal.

Let me put it like this: when the people who comprise a government do not acknowledge the God of the Bible, the freedom of Christians to worship God in public and private will always be very tenuous. It will always be one or two court decisions away from criminalization.

Again, think of how Pharaoh treated God’s people. Or the kings who came out and attacked Israel on the way to the Promised Land. Think of the forces of Sennacharub of Assyria standing outside the gates of Jerusalem telling the people not to trust in Yahweh. Or think of Nebuchadnezzar erecting his golden statue or of Darius and his law that no one could pray except to him. Think of Pilot. Think of the beast in Revelation. There are exceptions, to be sure: Pharaoh in the time of Joseph, Cyrus of Persia, Festus the Roman proconsul who protected Paul in Acts. But there’s also a pretty consistent track record of governmental opposition to God and his people. Listen to Psalm 2 again:

Why do the nations rage

and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

and the rulers take counsel together,

against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

“Let us burst their bonds apart

and cast away their cords from us.”

It’s not “religious freedom” that an unbelieving public will attack, says Psalm 2. Much more concretely, an unbelieving public and their kings will attack the Lord and his anointed.

On the whole, governments are more likely to respect the right to worship God when they acknowledge the true God of the Bible.


I said a moment ago that the Bible implicitly affirms what we might call religious tolerance. But I also said that what Americans define as religious liberty is something slightly different. It was James Madison who didn’t think the language of religious tolerance was strong enough; he preferred religious freedom. Tolerance means I have my view, you have yours, but we tolerate each other. But in time, religious freedom would come to mean something more.

But I’d say “religious freedom,” as we’ve generally defined it in the Western tradition, has several significant problems. 

1. Don’t be fooled into thinking “religious liberty” means unbelieving governments and societies will treat all “religions” impartially. They won’t.

This point is the practical application of point 6 above. Unbelievers will not love all their religious children equally, I said. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers. There is only one true God. And all the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil are arrayed against him. They’re not arrayed against the false gods of this world. They love the false gods because the false gods provide cover for their idolatry. It’s not an equal playing field out there.

So we should not be surprised when the editorial board of the New York Times writes, “Religious-freedom laws, which were originally intended to protect religious minorities from burdensome laws or regulations, have become increasingly invoked by conservative Christian groups as gay rights in general—and marriage equality in particular—found greater acceptance nationally.” And these conservative Christians, says the Times, “are using religion as a cover for bigotry.”[5]

In other words, if Native Americans want to smoke peyote as a religious ritual, fine. We affirm religious liberty, after all. But if conservative Christians do anything to stand in our way, it’s only because they are bigoted.

I think James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal was correct when, responding to this New York Times editorial, said, “What makes that Times editorial surprising is the frank admission that the editors are unwilling to apply their principles to the religious group they disfavor, namely “conservative Christian groups.”[6]

There’s not a level playing field, exactly like Jesus promised. The problem with “religious freedom,” however, goes deeper. It gets into the DNA of the doctrine itself.

2. The argument for religious freedom is the argument for abortion and erotic freedom.

Let’s go back to where we began: “All men have a natural an inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to dictates of their own consciences,” read the state constitutions and declarations of religious freedom from early America.

For the sake of public accessibility, we ground religious liberty in the freedom conscience. We know unbelievers won’t accept a theological argument for liberty; so we offer them something they desire—the promise of an unmolested conscience. The free conscience is not the fruit of the doctrine, it’s the ground of the doctrine.

The trouble is, an unvirtuous people will employ that free conscience not only to defend religion, but to kill their children. “Men and women of good conscience can disagree” about a woman’s right to choose an abortion, says Planned Parenthood vs. Casey a few sentences before the infamous “mystery of the universe” line. The arguments for same-sex marriage in the courts built on this very paragraph from Planned Parenthood vs. Casey.

Sexual freedom and abortive freedom is religious freedom in a pagan culture. The vocabulary and moral arguments for the one are the vocabulary and arguments for the other. People may have been surprised that the same-sex marriage and transgender movements gained so much ground so quickly. But really, they didn’t at all. The nation surrendered its ability to make substantively moral public arguments against them over 200 years ago when we made the conscience the sole ground of moral argumentation.

But didn’t the Founders also affirm God’s justice and the natural law? Sure, but no one can serve two masters. A believer might say he obeys God out of a subjective sense of obedience to God. But objectively speaking, God is not a part of the American social contract. After all, contracts stipulate points of agreement. And an unbeliever, by definition, does not agree about God.

So give all the lip service to the Almighty you want in your inaugural speeches and monuments of marble, but remember that justice in the social contract, and in the U.S. Constitution, and in two centuries’ worth of jurisprudence, all depends upon our points of agreement over our rights, not upon anyone’s conception of the right. Again, no one can serve two masters: justice comes from above or from below.

So now, you try discussing traditional marriage or transgender bathrooms with your unbelieving friends. And they look at you like your words don’t make sense. And to them they don’t. They have no moral vocabulary left other than rights and “my conscience.”

Which, again, is why the public conversation today feels rigged. Which is why recent arguments for traditional marriage based on natural law, as brilliant and true as they might be, have simply gained no currency. There’s no place left in America’s moral lexicon for them.

3. There is no such thing as religious neutrality, either in Scripture or reality.

As Paul put it, “There god is their stomachs. Their mind is on earthly things.” You love God or you love the gods of this world.

We talked about this in week 1. The public square is a battle ground of gods.

To put this another way, the real story is not religious liberty versus erotic liberty. The real story, behind the scenes, is one God against another, the God of the Bible versus the God of sexual freedom, Yahweh versus Aphrodite, Jesus versus my sexual desires and right to self-definition.

Freedom in the American understanding of the term “works” only as long as my gods and your gods agree, which means neither you nor me have ever really abandoned our gods. Because sooner or later a decision will have to be made where your gods and my God don’t agree. And then one of our gods will have to win.

But here is where the American approach to Christian liberty become especially problematic. Thanks to our biblical lens, you and I know that erotic liberty is really just another form of worship. But the very terms of the conversation forbid our God from entering the public square and joining the debate, while it permits their gods because they are not called gods to enter in.

In other words, the way we’ve been thinking about religious liberty slants the whole conversation and gives the necessary advantage to the secularist.

4. “Religious liberty” so-called is a pragmatic compromise, the kind of compromise that’s sometimes necessary in a pluralistic public square.

Am I saying that we should never use the language of religious liberty? No, there may be times when it’s pragmatic to do so. I am saying, be aware of what you’re doing and the costs. To sum up what you’re doing, you’re putting the conversation on the secularists’ terms, the terms of neutrality, when we know there is no such thing as neutrality. And eventually the secularist is going to win that conversation because they are his terms.


So what do we do? Five quick thoughts:

1. You cannot back away from this fight, lest you become implicit in the persecution.

I agree with Russell Moore when he observes that the evangelicals who urge us to mildly step away from battles over religious liberty and surrender our rights as some form of Christian humility, those evangelicals become implicit in the persecution. In a democratic republic where government belongs to the people, by surrendering on religious liberty, you’re not just saying, “I’m willing to be persecuted.” You’re saying “I’m willing to be persecutor” by putting into jeopardy future generations of people based upon their consciences.

Friends, not backing away from the fight will mean being willing to take a bullet. It means being courageous. Standing up for religious tolerance will require you to stand against the new morality, which means being publicly shamed by the priests and people of the new morality.

Fight this in the courts, fight this in the legislature, fight this on the school board. If we don’t fight now, it’s not like the terms are going to get better. One of my prayers for this 13-week class is that several of you will be inspired in your particular role to take up this fight.

Remember what we’ve been saying one of the primary roles of governments is: to provide a space for the people of God to proclaim the redemptive work of God.

2. Make better arguments, including calling the bluff on the idea of religious neutrality.

You and I can define a doctrine of religious tolerance from the Bible. But how can we make that argument among those who don’t agree with the Bible? Ultimately, there is no neutral, non-sectarian argument. It does not exist. Every argument takes the side of some God. The argument from conscience works in a pluralistic society only as long as a people are virtuous, as Washington and Adams effectively observed. When every essential maintains a Christian morality, even if they aren’t Christian, our consciences are all saying the same thing. But what happens when they don’t say the same thing? When the area of overlap shrinks? Power wins.

A number of people these days talk about employing the language of “principled pluralism.” But I’m not sure what that solves. Whose gods get to establish the principles in principled pluralism?

Right now, I think the best Christians can do is to call the bluff on neutrality. Look, Mr. Secularist, you’re not leaving your gods behind. You’re trying to impose your gods as much as anyone else. What’s more, if you ever read what John Dewey said about education, you’ll know that progressive secularism very much means to coerce not just our practices, but the way we think—our consciences. That’s why a positive affirmation of the transgender and same-sex agenda is increasingly required.

Let me give you this to chew on later: if you are an unbeliever with no doctrine of the church, you will effectively combine church and state. It’s the fact that believers have a doctrine of the church, which formally establishes their religion, that keeps them from imposing their church on the state. You cannot separate church and state if you don’t believe in any church.

3. While fighting to stay out of jail, prepare to go to jail.

I take this line from Moore who refers to this “two seemingly contradictory jobs” as ERLC president: keeping Baptists out of jail and preparing them to go to jail. “There’s one thing worse than believers going to jail and that’s believers staying out of jail because they’ve negotiated away the gospel” (Southern Seminary Magazine, 32).

Friends, remember what I said when discussing the books of Matthew and John. When the people who comprise a government do not acknowledge the God of the Bible, the freedom of Christians to worship God in public and private will always be very tenuous. It will always be one or two court decisions away from criminalization.

4) Evangelize.

People need to be saved. If they get saved, their perspective on Christian worship will change, I promise.

5) Pray.

Paul urges us to pray for kings and all in high positions so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives. “This is good,” he continues, and “pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:2–4). We pray for our government so that the saints might live peaceful lives and people will get saved.

Would you believe me if I told you praying is the most politically powerful thing you can do? More than voting, lobbying, school board persuading, legislating, court arguing?

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[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Understanding Liberal Democracy, 336.

[2] Peter Augustine Lawler and Robert Martin Schaefer, eds, American Political Rhetoric: Essential Speeches and Writings on Founding Principles and Contemporary Controversies, 6th ed (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 39.

[3] Vern Poythress, “False Worship in the Modern State,” 296.

[4] The only possible exception I’m aware of is Daniel 3:29, but one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate Nebuchadnezzar’s words here are universally normative.

[5] Editorial board, “In Indiana, Using Religion as a Cover for Bigotry,” New York Times, March 31, 2015.

[6] James Taranto, “RFRA Flip-Flop,” Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2015: 4:39 p.m.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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