The principle of religious liberty is not a claim that all beliefs are equally valid, nor is it a claim that men are free to believe or practice whatever they want. Rather, it is a claim that governing authorities have a defined role: enforcing God’s legal standards in the realm of civil peace and neighborly love in contrast to the realm of true belief and worship.
As the recent Iowa capitol event provides such a useful example, I have to say that I am thankful to Michael Cassidy for what he did. Not for destroying the Halloween costume-like “Pool Noodle Satan” some religious LARPers tricked the Iowa government into allowing to be displayed per se, but for how the event has – at a relatively low cost – exposed the lingering deficiencies of much of the reformed world’s understanding of the Bible’s teaching on authority and jurisdiction.
My attempts to gently push back at these deficiencies have involved reminding Cassidy cheerleaders about the differences between tolerating false worship and promoting it, the fact that government buildings are not “holy ground,” but are merely public spaces just like parks or street corners, and the hypocrisy of taking grave offense to this particular display of worship while allowing a litany of other blasphemous public displays to remain undisturbed. Yet the most important and fundamental pushback must be scriptural – in this case a deeper dive into the Bible’s teaching on the purpose, nature, and jurisdictional boundaries of human authority.
Note: Much like the identifier “Christian Nationalism” is embraced by a wide range of publicly-engaged believers, the corrections in this article will reinforce the understanding of some and rebuke the understanding of others. It’s not intended as a rebuke of all who identify themselves as Christian Nationalists.
The Continuing Category Error
Evangelical Christianity is still trying to make sense of the aftermath of our response to COVID-19 lockdowns – a response largely characterized by underdeveloped and misapplied understandings of God’s intent for governing authority. Many churches closed their doors because the civil magistrate told them to, uncritically interpreting Romans 13:1-14 and 1 Peter 2:13-25 as functionally granting the government jurisdictional authority that belongs to God. This was not an error in discerning whether or not the government was acting righteously or correctly in prescribing lockdowns. Rather, it was a failure to understand that the government must stay in its jurisdictional lane.
In other words: the government’s demand that churches close was not unlawful because closures were necessarily the wrong decision, it was unlawful because the government has no jurisdiction over spiritual matters at all. All proper governing authority is called to act both righteously and exercised within the limits of its jurisdiction. For example, the State of Colorado is not permitted to punish murder or theft occurring in Wyoming no matter how righteous the punishment. This is true whether or not the State of Wyoming fails to act. Scripturally, governments (human institutions) are ordained by God over the jurisdiction of men. They are not biblically granted jurisdiction to punish sins committed against God alone. These sins are God’s to enforce and punish (and God willing, to forgive). Individuals are instructed to neither avenge God nor themselves (Romans 12:19).
The Jurisdiction of Men
A careful and complete reading of Romans 13:8-10 reveals Paul defining the jurisdiction of the government as enforcing the practice of neighborly love. He ties subjection, taxes, and customs to the love men owe one another – the fulfillment of God’s natural law (Rom. 2:14, Galatians 5:14, Rom. 13:8). As Paul reminded the Corinthians, believers are to judge spiritual matters in the church (1 Cor. 5:11) and leave the judgment of spiritual matters outside the church (lust and sexual perversion, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and swindling) to God (1 Cor. 5:13).
The magistrate is ordained with delegated authority to enforce the practice (behavior) of good rather than evil (Rom. 13:3, 1 Pet. 2:14) – punishing sins committed against neighbors. Yet sins of the heart (worship, expression) are committed against God rather than against man and are judged by God (Jeremiah 17:10, 1 Sam. 16:7, Matt. 23:28, Luke 16:15) and corporately within the church (1 Cor. 5:12, Matt. 18:17).
The Higher Jurisdiction of God
The church is made up of citizens of a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9-10, Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:19) who have been made sojourners and exiles in a world full of accusers (1 Peter 2:12), hatred (John 15:18), and persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). They have been transferred into Jesus’ kingdom (Colossians 1:13) and now are under the lordship and jurisdiction of Jesus Christ (1 John 2:3; John 15:14) as opposed to the lordship and jurisdiction of the kingdom of darkness (Ephesians 2:1-3). Yet within the fallen world, they are passing through, they submit to worldly governing authorities within their God-given jurisdiction and purpose. This purpose is to serve as a minister for man’s good as defined by God’s law (Rom. 13:4), not as an avenger for God (Romans 12:19).
A Free Country
It is in view of God’s ordained jurisdictional purposes that the American founding fathers codified the limited role of government to be the enforcement of love of neighbor through the God-given institution of and respect for the individual rights we owe one another societally (Romans 13:8-9). Paul referred to this self-evident natural law in Romans 2:14-15, noting that the Gentiles do “what the law requires” because “the work of the law is written on their hearts” even as their hearts remain in sin and their good deeds will not satisfy the salvific requirements of the law (Rom. 2:16). God’s writing of the work of the law on the hearts of all men (self-evident truths) produce in the lost the capability of obeying the law in societies that properly enforce it (1 Tim. 1:9).
In no sense is the civil government God’s servant for his own good – rather, God judges hearts and avenges Himself. We are not instructed to bear the sword to punish the false beliefs of those we seek to preach the Gospel to. Just as we do no wrong against them when we offend them (Gal. 5:11), they do no wrong to us by their offensive false worship (this is reciprocal – the “as ourselves” part of neighbor love). The magistrate exacts justice and vengeance on our behalf (1 Peter 2:14), but God exacts justice and vengeance on his behalf (Romans 12:19).
Error and Overcorrection
Many (if not most) churches that ceased gathering in 2020 employed (at best) a “Caesar is right, therefore he has authority” application of Romans 13 when they allowed government encroachment into the authority of Christ over the church. Sadly, many pastors who in 2020 didn’t possess the theology or courage to defend their decision-making authority as undershepherds overseeing the gathered worship of the church (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2-3) would still let Caesar have a say today. While true that many were encouraged in their ignorance and cowardice by public theologian lackeys like Russell Moore and David French in accepting that gathering was for man rather than for God, their churches long ago traded true worship for people pleasing, leaving them no room to suddenly tell their flocks that church wasn’t actually about them.
Faithful churches that erred eventually corrected their behavior, but only by asserting that obeying the command to gather for worship trumped Caesar’s noble call to neighborly love. The premise that Caesar has a seat at the worship table remained, and in the ensuing (apparent) cultural free-for-all, many faithful Christians began to vocally defend and advocate for a correlating premise: If Caesar is God’s minister and can therefore righteously stick his sword-wielding nose in the worship of God’s people, God’s people better make sure Caesar is right.
According to this line of thinking (which is at stark odds with the history of the persecuted church), we must start by reminding Caesar that, rather than merely serving his role as God’s minister for the good of the citizenry (Rom. 13:4), Caesar should pick up the mantle of worship enforcement that the church has dropped. At the very least, Caesar must superficially acknowledge the divine source of his authority. Rather than merely applying the law to restrain evil (1 Tim. 1:9), commissioning Caesar as an enforcer of true worship would surely soften the hearts of the wicked. If nothing else, at least we might not have to witness the kind of wickedness that might make it seem like we’re losing down here.
Advocates for this general approach draw various lines in the sand for the limits of Caesar’s enforcement role (it usually amounts to nominal Christian expression – no Satan worship/advocacy, but praying the Rosary is probably allowed) that ironically tend to be similar to the neighbor-loving role ordained in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Yet with true worship moved out of God’s sole jurisdiction and into human institutions (1 Peter 2:13) next to neighbor-on-neighbor sins like murder and theft, there is no principle by which to defend against Caesar bearing the sword against disfavored speech and practice, and grave damage done to the religious liberty used to preach the truth and correct error.
As John MacArthur reminded us a few years ago:
As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The history of the Christian church is a history of the triumph of the Gospel not by way of government power but despite government persecution of the church. Christ promised persecution (John 15:20), trials, and sorrows (John 16:33), yet his overcoming of this world is complete in his salvation of his people, the true church and citizens of Heaven.
“Wait!” you may object. “Isn’t this a defense for a morally neutral civil government?” No, it most certainly is not. There is nothing morally neutral about government authorities that both enforce God’s natural law and respect the civil equality of men before God – the latter being the general equity application of equality before the cross and each man’s direct spiritual responsibility to God rather than magisterial hierarchy (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, 1 Tim. 2:5). Believers must not relinquish the fact that ours is a God and a faith that provides the foundation of human equality, liberty of conscience (before man, not God), and freedom of worship, knowing that none are without excuse before the Almighty (Romans 1:20).
The godless, humanist, and blinded world has no justification for nor claim to the God-ordained right and responsibility to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 25:15). It is the birthright of the redeemed, and by God’s grace he has mercifully seen fit to extend this liberty of conscience to all people (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). This freedom is self-evident, as the Bible gives instruction and makes constant appeals to mankind to choose rightly. Religious liberty is the practical acknowledgment that beliefs and actions are choices of each person before Christ, with no mediator in between.
Back to Iowa
As for the “beheading” of Pool Noodle Satan? As I argued previously, there were jurisdictionally consistent reasons to deny the silly troll LARPers their mocking display. Iowa representatives were foolish in granting good faith legitimacy to the “Satanic” Temple’s mockery, and we have every God-given ability to rebuke them for it and/or choose better representatives. We can also (and should) mock the blind “beliefs” of the childish atheists brandishing Satan as their mascot. Yet the display was private property, and destroying it was an illegal act that had civil consequences. While Cassidy is willing to face the consequences, the fact remains that he acted outside the authority God gave him (Rom. 12:19). This in no way makes supporting his defense a sin, as he is entitled to all rights of the accused including a fair trial.
The public practice of false worship was not a sin against Cassidy, God wasn’t threatened by the childish, powerless display, and God wasn’t avenged by Cassidy’s cathartic 8th commandment violation. The lost are still lost, and $70,000+ that might have been used to support a Christian school, parachurch ministry, or a missionary family is instead going to lawyers defending needless criminal mischief. The mockers of God are not dissuaded in any way, rather they have even more reason to blaspheme the name of God, seeing us dishonor God by breaking the law (Romans 2:23-24).