Since religious freedom has been a hot-button social issue and is more and more frequently covered in secular and Christian news media outlets, we sometimes are asked these questions. Does the Bible address religious freedom, and, if so, what does it say and where?
The Apostle Paul (and his traveling companions on various mission trips) is perhaps the most notable example of a biblical figure who suffered religious persecution and also on occasion stood up for his religious liberty. It is interesting that Paul did so in a government that had some similarities to Western nations.
The Roman system of government was, at the time of Paul, an imperial republic with guaranteed rights for Roman citizens, and in most cases even had a sense of civic responsibility for carrying out and maintaining civil law (to a degree), although this varied from emperor to emperor. While it is true that Rome was moving towards an imperial dictatorship and that, by the time of Paul’s martyrdom, it had arrived at that point, compared to many other nations’ governments, a Roman citizen could expect to receive a reasonably fair trial. Most people within the Roman Empire until the time of Nero (and even afterwards, depending on whether the emperor deemed himself “divine”) could expect to be left alone in regard to freedom of worship. By no means did they have the freedoms which we enjoy today in the West, but conditions were much better than many people have had throughout history, and better than many alive today who suffer under brutal dictatorships.
So how does all of this come together in Scripture in regard to religious freedom? Well we see several cases where Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship or his religious affiliations to avoid persecution or to hold people accountable when he was persecuted unjustly. In Acts 16, when Paul and Silas went to Philippi, Paul cast out a demon from a servant girl, and her masters were not pleased (Acts 16:18–19). They incited a mob and dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates, who commanded them to be beaten and thrown in prison (Acts 16:22–23).
Now typically when we read this account, we focus on Paul and Silas singing to God even after being beaten, the great earthquake that followed, and the Philippian jailer asking Paul and Silas what he should do to be saved. Indeed, these are great and wonderful truths to focus on, seeing God’s power displayed through his Apostles, through natural forces, and in the salvation of the jailer and his household. But we tend to gloss over the aftermath, where Paul stood up for his and Silas’ civic and religious rights.
In Acts 16:35-36, the next day has dawned, and the magistrates who had Paul and Silas beaten send some officers to tell them they are free to go. Do we see Paul and Silas getting out quickly before the magistrates change their mind? Not hardly. Both refuse to go, and Paul tells the prison keeper to go back and tell the magistrates that he and Silas want them to personally come down and explain why they beat and threw into prison two Roman citizens who had not stood trial. This is an implied “lawsuit” of the day.1 By rights, anyone who unlawfully condemned and had a Roman citizen beaten could face punishments ranging from heavy fines, loss of Roman citizenship personally or for the entire city, enforced slavery, or even a death sentence.2 The magistrates recognized this and were rightfully worried and did as Paul requested, suddenly developing a severe case of politeness (Acts 16:38–39).
Why did Paul and Silas do this? Was it just revenge or to shame the magistrates?
Why did Paul and Silas do this? Was it just revenge or to shame the magistrates? Had they wished, they could have asked for justice or demanded a bribe to keep silent, but they did not do so. Scripture does not directly tell us their inner thoughts and motives here, but since they did assert the rights they had as Roman citizens, perhaps their motive was that they wanted to set a precedent. These magistrates needed to know they could not make up their own rules and that, regardless of what they or the slave owners thought of Christianity, the laws of the land protected Christians (especially those who were also Roman citizens) from illegal seizure, punishment without trial, and most importantly granted them freedom of religion. Paul and Silas surely knew that by reminding the magistrates of the law regarding Roman citizens, these same magistrates would likely not be so hasty in seizing, unlawfully beating, and incarcerating Christians again, knowing that they had escaped potential punishment and jail time once already.
In Acts 21, Paul, along with Luke and some believers from Caesarea traveled to Jerusalem. While at the Temple, Paul was noticed and dragged out of the Temple by some Jews from Asia. but the commander of the Roman garrison heard of the uproar and sent soldiers to the Temple area. The Jews stopped beating Paul when they saw the soldiers, and the soldiers put Paul in chains and removed him from the mob (Acts 21:30–35). Paul requested that he be allowed to address the mob and was given permission, but, once he mentioned that God had sent him to the Gentiles, the mob became even angrier.
The commander of the Roman garrison ordered a centurion to have Paul beaten and questioned, but Paul asked the centurion if beating a Roman citizen was lawful. The centurion notified the commander, and, wanting to determine if Paul was being truthful, or merely hoping to bluff his way out of punishment, the commander asked Paul how he obtained his citizenship, since he had bought his own with a large sum of money (Acts 22:22–28).3 Had Paul been lying about having Roman citizenship, the commander could have (and likely would have) punished him severely with scourging, or execution.4 Here again we see Paul standing up for and asserting his legal rights to freedom of worship, freedom from unlawful seizure and punishment, and the right to a fair trial.
This continues in Acts 23 when Paul is testifying before the Sanhedrin under the protection of the garrison commander and Roman guards. Paul notices that the portion of the Sanhedrin council that came to testify against him is split between Sadducees and Pharisees. Paul quickly formulates a way to pit one side against the other, and that is to point out that his entire testimony and apologetic (in the case brought against him) focused on the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6). This immediately made the Pharisees side with Paul over the Sadducees (Acts 23:7–9).
While some may dismiss this this as a clever tactic by Paul meant to invalidate the accusations against him, the reality is much more profound. Paul was here demonstrating that he was being persecuted by the Sadducees for his stance on the resurrection of Christ. Indeed, his arrest in the Temple and subsequent riot outside the Temple proper could not have occurred without some degree of compliance (if not instigation) from the Sadducees (who admitted as much in Acts 24:6), who oversaw all aspects of the Temple’s daily operation.
Far from a scheming tactic by Paul, it was an ingenious appeal to religious liberty.
By appealing to the resurrection of the dead, and with the Pharisees perhaps also remembering Paul’s defense the previous day about a divine visitation (Acts 22:6–10), Paul immediately set the tone for this trial as one of religious persecution against some of the basic tenets of the Pharisees—namely resurrection from the dead, and angelic or spiritual/soulish manifestations. What some of the Pharisees might have been thinking as Paul testified was “He’s on trial here for believing the same things I do, and if they convict him, they’ll be coming after me next.” Far from a scheming tactic by Paul, it was an ingenious appeal to religious liberty.
Paul again frames this as a religious liberty issue in Acts 24:14–21 as he is testifying before Felix, the Roman governor. Then he raises this same argument yet again two years later as he testifies before King Herod Agrippa and the new Roman governor, Festus, in Acts 26:6–8.
So, there is no doubt that religious freedom is mentioned in the Bible. But does the Bible give us any guidance in this area? We need to remember the words of Scripture, that all of it “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV). The same Apostle Paul whom Luke recorded as defending his religious liberty is the same one who (through the Holy Spirit) penned those words to Timothy.
Paul in several places mentions himself as an example, one to be followed (Philippians 3:16–17; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9; 2 Timothy 3:10–11). The writer of Hebrews and the Apostle John also exhorted others to imitate faithful Christians in their own Christian walk (Hebrews 6:12; 3 John 1:11). In the above Pauline passages, Paul mentions or alludes to his conduct as one aspect to be emulated. Had Paul merely stood up for his religious freedom out of spite or vengeance, then Paul, looking back over his life, most certainly could not have claimed (through the Spirit) that these were examples to be followed. Paul was ashamed of his conduct before conversion, especially because he persecuted the Church (1 Corinthians 15:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:13–15), but we see no recanting of his conduct as an Apostle and minister of God after becoming a Christian.
Paul was working within the laws of the governing authorities, and he used those laws to his (and his traveling companions’) advantage when he could. Paul stood up for his religious and civic rights to protect them from being taken away. When he did this, it was not for selfish reasons, but in order to allow him (and his companions) the freedom to proclaim the gospel and encourage the church. When he could do so, he fought (legally) to defend the rights his Roman citizenship afforded him. If we have the opportunity to stand up for our (or others’) religious freedom, we can do so knowing that we have an example mentioned in Scripture.
But there were also times when Paul suffered for his faith and had no recourse to Roman law to avoid persecution (1 Corinthians 4:11–13; 2 Corinthians 11:23–28). Much like Peter and John when commanded not to speak about Jesus in Acts 5:40-42, Paul would still boldly proclaim Christ and felt it better to obey God than man. Even though at times his personal freedom was taken away and he was clapped in chains, Paul knew that the gospel could not be chained (2 Timothy 2:9).
Paul mentions liberty several times, and although it is usually in the context of liberty of conscience; even that is a religious freedom issue. Increasingly governments, groups, and individuals view religion as something you are free to practice behind closed doors but that shouldn’t be allowed to influence your public life.5 As we’ve said many times, freedom of religion without freedom to practice or voice your faith according to conscience is not freedom at all; rather it is merely a facade of civic freedom.
Freedom of religion without freedom to practice or voice your faith according to conscience is not freedom at all; rather it is merely a facade of civic freedom.
For those of us who live in most westernized countries, we have laws that legislate civic religious freedom, protect us from persecution, and allow us to voice and practice our faith. Those laws, however, are being challenged, restricted, reduced, or eradicated in almost every country that once viewed them as inalienable rights. There almost certainly will come a time when leaning on civic laws to protect our religious freedoms will not be possible. Like our Christian brothers and sisters in North Korea or Iran (for example) we must be willing to obey God, and, if punished for doing good (living out the Christian faith), rejoice (1 Peter 2:19–20, 4:12–16). But like the Apostles, we must still be bold to preach the Word and be faithful to God. Ultimately our freedom comes not from men, but from God.
As we look around at the social pressure on Christians today to compromise and/or reject what God says about marriage, gender, sexuality, and the sanctity of life, we need to keep this same attitude Paul had. We stand for the truths of Scripture, we stand for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and, when we are able to, we use the laws that God has ordained in the country we live in to fight for that freedom, or petition to have laws created that will preserve or reinstate such freedoms. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 7:21 that if one can become free to take hold of that opportunity to be more effective for the gospel. If already free, it seems likely that Paul would recommend fighting to retain that privilege. While this passage is talking about seeking freedom from slavery, we might draw a parallel and apply this to seeking religious liberty if the opportunity arises.
Paul did not shrink from proclaiming the gospel, whether he was free or bound in chains.
If we live in countries that don’t have these kinds of laws, we still must obey God rather than man. God may use individuals in that country to enable changes to the laws of the land, soften the hearts of rulers, or even create a movement for a new nation. Conversely, he may see fit to allow persecution in order to glorify his name and further the gospel (Philippians 1:12–14). In fact, we know that all who follow Christ will suffer some persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). As Paul so eloquently stated, we “suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9 NKJV). Religious liberty is an issue that the pages of Scripture mention often. Whether we live in a country which has laws protecting religious freedom, or whether we live in countries which don’t, we should look to Scripture—and all the more so as we consider how to respond when these civil liberties are restricted and taken away.
But Paul, as he testified in chains and defended his religious liberty before King Agrippa, made sure that his main focus was not on his own religious liberty; instead, he was focused on preaching the gospel through his testimony.
In Acts 26:22–23, Paul proclaimed the gospel—that Christ the Messiah had come, had been crucified and had risen again. Then Paul asked King Agrippa if he believed the prophets and said that he hoped all those within hearing would be persuaded of the need to become a Christian. Paul did not shrink from proclaiming the gospel whether he was free or bound in chains.
Perhaps Paul had this portion of Psalm 119 in mind as he stood before King Agrippa:
So shall I have an answer for him who reproaches me,
For I trust in Your word.
And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
For I have hoped in Your ordinances.
So shall I keep Your law continually,
Forever and ever.
And I will walk at liberty,
For I seek Your precepts.
I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings
And will not be ashamed (Psalm 119:42–46 NKJV).