Thoughts from the 2015 Freedom Conference

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Heidi and I just got back from the Freedom Conference in Iowa. It was a great opportunity to be with friends that we hadn’t seen in a long time, and to make new friends. There were about 1700 people there, including presidential candidates, journalists, legal teams, and families that have been persecuted for their faith.

We heard some great lectures, had some great conversations, and really enjoyed the iron-sharpening-iron experience. We were also encouraged by the fellowship and testimonies of other believers, and a lot of our discussions sparked more questions than answers. I don’t have time to write a nice, neat article, but here are a few scattered thoughts:

Group Rights vs. Individual Rights

In reading various articles about this conference and particularly the criticisms, I noticed a common thread. Most of the critics of Christians gathering to discuss “religious freedoms” made the assumption that we were asking for special rights for our own little group. I can understand why they came to this assumption, since most political action seems to be demanded by special interest groups who want special specific privileges because of their own special minority status.

Opposing editorialists then usually explain that giving Christians “religious rights” would be wrong, either unfair because our special rights to not bake cakes will undercut the special rights of other groups to demand cakes, or unfair because Christians are not a minority. After all, Black pride, Gay pride, and Latino pride movements are good, but white pride rallies or Christian pride conferences are bad.

One of the three protesters that showed up had a sign that read “Religious Liberty is about more than the freedom to be a Christian!” Like most critics, he thought that our definition of “religious liberty” was some kind of exemption list for our special interest group alone; that our conference was trying to take some “religious liberty” high ground, and then Christians could use it to be mean to other religious groups. However, he couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, his slogan could easily have been the marketing tagline for the Freedom Conference.

Christians shouldn’t demand that they get special exemptions to bad laws, they should demand that all people be protected by good laws. Religious liberties are not special rights for those people who claim the right religion on government forms. In fact, our Constitution denies the very idea of “group rights” when it acknowledges that all men are created equal in the sight of God, and must be treated as having equal rights before the law.

The idea that justice changes depending on what group you are in defies the concept of true justice, or even a standard, unchanging truth. Because Christians believe in an unchanging God who is the source of truth and justice, our founders looked to His standards in making laws. When I talk about religious liberty, that’s what I’m referring to: the idea that all men, Christians and non-Christians alike, will have more liberty when our laws are based more on God’s standards, and when we all act more like Christians.

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Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Worship

Throughout our nation’s history, a lot has been written on the subject of freedom of religion and the freedom of worship. Historically speaking, there really is no difference, but today, there’s a pretty yawning gulf between these two ideas, and it’s all down to how words are defined. In modern parlance, the word “worship” refers to a small set of ceremonial acts that one performs occasionally, usually in a special place of worship, and not in public.

Today, it’s a common idea that the state should not encroach on these special places of worship, at least, not as long as they are properly incorporated under IRS tax law, and as long as Christian worship is limited to little religious rites that stay behind closed doors. This is what people usually have in mind when they discuss the freedom of worship.

The problem is that the word for “worship” is not a small, limited word in Scripture. In Hebrew, it refers equally to worship, work, and service. In Colossians 3:23, Paul instructs believers to serve God in all their work, saying “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.”

So, when pastors and theologians of the past have written about the Christian’s duties to worship and glorify God, they have always been referring to his entire life’s mission, every minute of every day, not just for a few hours in a fancy building on Sunday. And when Christians have fled, fought, or died in pursuit of the freedom to worship God, it was the freedom to live like Christians that they sought, not just the freedom to sit in the right kind of pew.

Throughout history, Christians have never been persecuted for merely what happens on the inside of church buildings.

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The Blessings of Persecution

Last night, Heidi and I were reading in Matthew 2, and it was interesting to see that one of Christ’s first defining characteristics was as a recipient of deadly persecution; before He was even weaned, Herod slaughtered an entire town’s children in an effort to kill Him. In His ministry as an adult he was attacked on all sides by different factions of his own people, the occupying might of Rome, and Satan himself.

As we talked to bakers who had been driven out of business for their principles and a sergeant who had been relieved and removed for his opinions, one thing was surprising. None of these folks were extra-spiritual super-Christian leader types. They also weren’t loud critics of homosexuals and hadn’t been obnoxiously sticking their necks out every time a debate came up. They were just regular, quiet people with regular, quiet jobs who had the “misfortune” of being picked on by litigious activists, and the faithful conviction to stand firm.

They also all had a distinct humility. Every “victim” that I talked to quickly pointed out that this wasn’t real persecution; saints being beheaded in Asia and Middle East were the real martyrs, and losing your bakery was a minor inconvenience compared to the tortures and deaths related in Hebrews 11. They also talked about what a blessing it is to stand for principle in the midst of persecution, describing a closer walk with God, greater opportunities to speak to others about Him, and everything that 1 Peter 3 and 4 describe.

Christians should, if faced with persecution, welcome it. We know that God wins, that He expects us to obey His Great Commission and baptize the nations, teaching them to obey all that He has commanded. We should expect the victory that He has promised. But God has also promised to chasten every son that He loves, and we can see in Scripture that He often uses His enemies to chasten His people, even as He commands His people to love their enemies.

Our Hope

Much ado has been made of the fact that Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz showed up at this conference. Folks on the left have complained that this proves them to be dangerous extremists, and folks on the right have complained that this merely makes them look like dangerous extremists.

Regardless of whether any of these men become president, or if devoted enemies of religious liberty take the White House, our work for Christ and hope in Christ must remain the same.

As J.C. Ryle wrote in his commentary on Matthew 2, “Do you think that Christ’s cause depends on the power and patronage of princes [and presidents]? You are mistaken. They have seldom done much for the advancement of true religion… Those who are like Herod are many. Those who are like Josiah and Edward the Sixth of England are few.”

Proverbs teaches us that Godly leaders are a great blessing on a nation, but that the King of kings is not dependent on them. Our job is obey His commission, preach the gospel, and live like Christians. To share our relationship with Christ and the power of His Word with those who don’t have it. The most encouraging thing at the conference was watching how consistently our three protesters were loved by the conference attendees that went out to talk to them, and how moved they were by the personal testimonies that they heard.