If the state believes it can… it will.


In case you were wondering here’s what I hope for in civil authority when it comes to people who subscribe to religious communities and beliefs.

When civil authorities make it their intent to seriously limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their religious opinions or views, it means they can seriously limit you if you happen to hold a religious view or sentiment. Civil authority in the oppression of people of faith, even if it is a faith you do not agree with or subscribe to, may or may not act in combination with or in response to societal outrage or pressure, prejudice, or violence against those with “minority” views. When civil authority losses the capacity to differentiate between those who have an intent to harm and those who do not, we all lose.

It is my hope that civil authorities would maintain a degree of sophistication when it comes to faith, ideologies, and religions. Acting to protect religious liberty as a posture toward minority groups will indeed promote liberty for all. We must continue to build up the fragile and always eroding posture of respect for all people by insisting on an environment of trust and civility. Violence inshrined in a “blood thirsty” darkness of heart and mind does not come solely wrapped up in one  particular ethnicity or people group. When we start to believe that violence is simply owned by one group above any others, we will fail to recognize hate speech when it comes pouring across our media outlets.

Some baptists know about this. Or perhaps they used to know about it. This is the tribe of Jesus followers of which I am a part.

Here’s the Baptist Faith and Message, 1963, statement on religious liberty, that is part of the Statement of Faith for the Canadian National Baptist Convention.


God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

Gen 1:27; 2:7; Mat 6:6-7, 24; 16:26; 22:21
John 8:36; Acts 4:19-20; Rom 6:1-2; 13:1-7
Gal 5:1, 13; Php 3:20; 1Ti 2:1-2; Jas 4:12
1Pe 2:12-17; 3:11-17; 4:12-19

Here’s some highlights to draw out as we consider leadership and the civil society:

“The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others.”

“The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind.”

Actively protecting religious liberty I believe is a desired posture for a “secular society.” Of course I’m biased.

So to my fellows baptists we would have to ask: Does this hope for civil society apply to only to us? What obligation do we have to ask for this hope to extended to people who subscribe to other faith positions? How do we want our leaders to think about this issue when it comes to working out any of the forms of democratic governance we enjoy today?

If the state believes it can discriminate on the basis of religious belief or community connection it will discriminate without prejudice.



Christ’s Love, My Rights, and a Free Society

The Human Problem

Our world is a messy place. The Christian worldview sees the human problem through the lenses of a great catastrophe and a great cost-at-the-cross. The catastrophe ripped humanity from their deep satisfaction found only in the communion of God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The by-products of this fellowship were innocence, honour, and trust. But on the other side of the great catastrophe human relationships separate from the communion of God deteriorated into schemes to manage guilt, shame, and fear. (I am indebted to Roland Muller for his work on harmartiology in The Messager, The Message, and The Community.)

The great cost is death and it is ultimately seen at the cross of Jesus Christ as God enters into the catastrophe in fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus shared the Father’s will to ignite a spiritual rebirth in the hearts, minds, and souls of people who will gracefully receive His redemption, the forgiveness of sins, accomplished through His body on the cross. Now, the Holy Spirit sent to all who receive Jesus, will give them a new heart and a new spirit.

When I read the news and listen to people affected by violence and the competing pulls on freedom—license and legalism, I try to listen through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our yearning for honour is satisfied through the death of Jesus Christ. Our cries for justice are  satisfied through the death of Jesus Christ. Our seduction to power is satisfied through the death of Jesus Christ. For at the Cross, we believe, Jesus through weakness becomes the source and object of our faith, hope, and love. And in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the Heavenly Father validates the life and work of Jesus Christ. Through the resurrection He establishes our hope for His full redemptive work in all Creation.


Roman Problems

This hope is tested by complexities of the human heart and the diversity of people. For example,  when Jewish Christians returned to Rome after the Emperor Claudius’ death, they returned to  the fellowship of Gentile Christians in the city. Apparently there where conflicts as some may have felt disrespected and shamed by the Gentiles who had created patterns and circles of comfort that did not consider their needs. Its into this conflict of honour and respect that Paul writes the book of Romans contained in our Scripture. Gentile Christians who had no qualms buying, eating, and serving meat from the local butcher were offending the Jewish Christians who took issue with the source. The local butcher on the corner probably received his meat from the priests of local temples dedicated to the Roman gods. This “meat sacrificed to idols” offended the Jewish Christians. (See Romans 14 and 15.)

Paul writes that as believers under the grace of God in Christ Jesus, they are all free to receive with thanksgiving any meat. But if the “weaker” of faith is offended, the “stronger” of faith out love can choose to go without meat or to seek to satisfy their brothers and sisters who need the care at this point in their journey with Jesus. Love is the capacity to suspend what I want or need in order to meet the needs of another. And on the other side of the problem, when I don’t get what I want, love is nurtured in the community by choosing to forgive the offence.

Such restraint in the fullness of their freedom, is a demonstration of the love of Christ in the fellowship of believers. And it must be said, even as followers of Jesus, redeemed by Him, we do not do “this” easily or even automatically. It might not be automatic for some to accept the pluralism and diversity that Christ allows. It comes with struggle. People long for respect and honour. People long for freedom. These two longings clash when there are competing visions of rightness. The dignity and sanctity of life cherished in the Gospel will be cast aside when offence and the longing for power are mixed in the crucible of greed. Under the cloak of justice people imagine that if they have their way or have their vengeance, things may be set right and people will learn their lessons. That’s a deception.


Rights Restrained by Love

The struggle then, is to enter into the love of Christ and extend it to those who believe and even to those who do not believe. What love might constrain me to limit my rights? What love would compel me to lift up those who are alienated in my society? What love would govern me and compel me to enter into the tension of religious liberty for all? Jesus never required His followers to defend His honour or His kingdom with violence. In fact, Jesus teaches us that we are blessed in the face of such opposition to Him, His Gospel, and to righteousness. He says,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Matthew 5:9-12

Jesus goes on to command His followers to the most extraordinary application of the virtue of love. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44 This is so hard, as enemies ultimately believe their world would be better without you.


Questions for a Free Society

It is my conviction that the pattern of love in the church can be extended to others. You might be tempted to call it the secularization of love. But the desire to extend this love is actually a fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham to create a people who will be a blessing to all the nations. Now the church shares the vision of being a blessing to the societies in which it resides.

Our “free” society in the West, is not the starting place for Christian thought. Christ is and the church is our starting place for understanding the leaven of the Kingdom of God. When I get to our “free” society in my thinking I get there with a recognition of our common longings. And its because of the restraints of love in the fellowship of Jesus’ Church, that I see challenges for us all in a pluralistic and “free” society. These questions are not new. But they are always current.

How shall we govern our rights with love?

What posture shall we take in society towards each other as we hold competing systems of truth?

How do we turn enemies into friends?

How do we protect each other from the lawlessness of blood-thirst?
How will we grieve with those who grieve and celebrate with those who rejoice?
How will we include outsiders in such a way that they become insiders?
How do find agreed upon values and a narrative of the future to move towards together?

How do we treat tension and conflict as a good symptom of two or more high quality but competing demands without desiring the annihilation of a people because “they are the problem” or abandoning our most ideal values?

Jesus sets you free.

31So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.   John 8:31-36

Disciples of Jesus are free.

But they have got to know their desperate situation.

They have got to know what sin is up to.

Sin makes its slaves.

Sin is not just a list of bad acts; 

Its a condition of independence and separation from God.

Jesus says people are slaves to sin.

If that’s the case there is no freedom from the consequences of sin.

We are bound to the evidence of our brokenness: to our guilt, to our shame, to our fear.

Jesus says His word, his teaching, brings us into freedom.

Freedom from sin… may this be a progressive reality we experience more and more.


The Son must set us free.

Knowing truth is a product of abiding in His Word.

Abiding, Waiting, listening, cherishing His Word.

Abide: that’s the word of a free person.

Abide in the word of Jesus and you will

abide in the house of God… like a child enjoy family privilege.

At home with God.

That’s the condition sin always seeks to disturb.

Listen to Jesus.

He says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31


Passion Week ~ Good Friday ~ barabbas

Reflections on Matthew 27:15-23

Barabbas, what’s in a name?  Son of God.

He got freedom.

Jesus got a cross.

A deal struck in a courtyard.

But this moment had been set ages before

in the court of heaven.

“What shall we do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

“Let him be crucified!”

In that moment the crowd did not see

the true Son of God suffering in love.

Suffering to set the children of God free.

(Josh Garrells singing “Good Friday.”)

Where the canary sings. Canada & the Office of Religious Freedom

When the canary quits singing, there’s trouble.  The phrase “canary in the coal-mine”  references a historical mining practice of taking canaries into a coal mine.  The canary  would show distress from carbon monoxide, methane, or carbon dioxide earlier than the miners working and breathing the same air.  The canary was their early warning system.

Religious liberty is our canary.  Where religious liberty falls, other freedoms will soon decline.

This week perhaps in recognition of the importance of religious liberty in our global conversation, Prime Ministry Stephen Harper announced the creation of Canada’s newest office:  The office of religious freedom.  Andrew Bennet a former professor and dean will be the director.

Religious liberty as a societal value is a complex set of beliefs and convictions.  Within Christian thought and practice, religious liberty for all is a philosophical position that evolved over many years after governments gave certain expressions of Christianity favoured-religion-status.  The network to which I belong points back to Roger Williams , founder of Rhode Island, as a leader that dramatically advanced the pursuit of liberty beyond “my group” to “for all.”  I am aware within my own tribe of baptists though, that our stated value for religious liberty is not often taught and is more often pragmatically neglected when confronted with our pluralistic and democratic society.  In those cases, the canary is under duress.

My hope for the Office of Religious Freedom is that it will take its small budget and multiply it by encouraging reflection, scholarship and praxis within Canada’s diverse cultures and religious communities to pursue a “for all” vision of religious liberty.  The global mix of Canada’s citizenry in our cities and our universities affords us the opportunity to create safe spaces for the intentional effort required.

Being the canary watcher is not enough.  It will not be enough for Canada to critique countries and governments that deny religious liberty.  We must learn to recognize the signs of duress and consider how to stimulate and support the hard work, thought, and sacrificial actions  required for liberty.