Religious liberty has become a popular phrase and cause celebre in America’s political culture just now. For Seventh-day Adventists, whose connection to this topic has deep roots in our history and theology, any interest in religious liberty and its attendant issues is a welcome development.
But as with any spiritual subject, Seventh-day Adventists cannot consider the topic of religious freedom without considering what the inspired Word says regarding it. For those of our faith, the written counsel of God—not popular culture, whatever label it wears—must remain the supreme authority for the Christian (Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11), irrespective of the issue or question to be addressed.
For starters, let us be clear about one thing. Seventh-day Adventists are not interested in religious liberty for merely self-serving reasons. We do not seek such rights solely for ourselves or for those of similar faith, practice, or cultural heritage. The right to worship as we please, to proclaim and practice our faith in accord with the dictates of conscience, to educate our children as our faith requires—all are important features of the construct we call religious liberty.
But they don’t tell the whole story. When we consult the teachings of the Bible and their amplification in the writings of Ellen G. White, we find principles much broader and deeper than the perceived challenges and dilemmas presently faced by the practicing Christian. In short, religious liberty is not just for conservative Christians or cultural conservatives in general. Many who promote religious liberty in contemporary America seem to think such freedom is reserved only for those with convictions or practices similar or identical to their own. But the inspired writings offer a much wider and more profound perspective on this principle, tracing it to the very start of the controversy between good and evil.
No Love Without Liberty
When I lived and worked as a pastor in the New York City area, I often visited the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor. Time and again, as I looked up at that weathered colossus, I was reminded that the whole controversy between Christ and Satan is about liberty. For indeed, without liberty there would be no controversy. Rather than simply expelling them from heaven to practice their principles on earth (Rev. 12:9), a God heedless of liberty would have quickly annihilated Satan and his rebellious angels, compelling the entire universe—without question or reflection—to yield to His authority.
So beautifully does Ellen White articulate the divine regard for liberty when she states that “the exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God’s government”[i] , that “only by love is love awakened”[ii]. The principles of righteousness and sin were constrained to work themselves out before the watching universe, so that the love and mercy of God in dealing with transgression would at last be vindicated. In another statement Ellen White declares:
The Lord Jesus came to our world full of mercy, life, and light, ready to save those who should come unto Him. But He can save no one against his will. God does not force the conscience. . . . All such work is after the order of Satan.[iii]
Love is only possible where there is liberty. Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, cannot truly love each other if forced to stay together. Free will is the indispensable prerequisite for genuine love, whether in the spiritual realm or elsewhere.
God’s reverence for free choice marks, like two bookends, the opening and close of the Bible story:
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9).[iv]
And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely (Rev. 22:17).
At the close of this series we will return to the second of the above verses, because it illustrates a key principle in the contrast between the methods employed by the two women depicted in Revelation. But in the story of Adam’s and Eve’s transgression, God’s respect for free will emerges more decidedly than many suppose. Not only do we see God Himself placing both trees in the Garden (Gen. 2:9); we find a most interesting statement made by God as He prepares to drive our first parents from Eden:
And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).
From the perspective of simple human reason, one could say those angels with their swords arrived a bit late! Why didn’t God in the first place put those angels in front of the forbidden tree, thus preventing Adam and Eve from getting anywhere near the forbidden fruit? Why did He wait to station those angels in front of the tree of life after sin had already occurred?
The answer is simple: because God seeks only loving service from His creatures, and there can be no love without liberty.
Jesus on the Separation of Church and State
David Barton, a prominent Religious Right devotee who has served as vice chair of the Texas Republican Party and more recently headed the political action committee Keep the Promise, which supported the 2016 presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz,[v] wrote a book in 1992 titled The Myth of Separation, in which he alleged that the concept of church-state separation is a myth.[vi]
But it isn’t. Jesus Himself articulated this concept when arraigned before Pontius Pilate. It helps to understand that Pilate would have had no interest in adjudicating theological or pietistic differences between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. None of that would have mattered to a Roman judge. This is why the Jewish prosecutors took a totally different tack when accusing Jesus before the Roman tribunal. In their words:
We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ a King (Luke 23:2).
Now, suddenly, Pilate is interested. Political revolutionaries were common among the Jews of Palestine. If in fact that’s what Jesus was, the criminal penalty sought against Jesus by His accusers would be seen by the Roman governor as fully appropriate. For this reason, Pilate took Jesus aside and asked if the Jewish leaders were telling the truth. Jesus answered the governor in words that Christian thinkers have long understood as underscoring the principle of the separation of church and state:
My kingdom is not of this world: if My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is My kingdom not from thence (John 18:36).
Pilate obviously appears to have been satisfied with Jesus’ answer, as he subsequently stated to the Jewish authorities and the attendant mob: “I find in Him no fault at all” (verse 38). The Roman governor clearly recognized that whatever kingdom Jesus claimed to rule had nothing to do with civil power or politics.
Leonard Levy, in his 1986 book The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment, speaks of how the notion of a “wall of separation” between church and state was not, as many believe, invented by Thomas Jefferson, but by Roger Williams, the famous religious liberty advocate who was exiled from Massachusetts by Puritan theocrats in 1636, and who stated that he “would rather live with Christian savages than savage Christians”.[vii] Levy notes how Williams wrote in 1644 of how the wall between church and state was to divide “the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world”.[viii] Levy then writes:
Thus, the wall of separation had the allegiance of a most profound Christian impulse as well as a secular one. To Christian fundamentalists of the Framers’ time the wall of separation derived from the biblical injunction that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.[ix]
It isn’t hard to see how radically American fundamentalism has departed from both the teachings of Christ and its own historical heritage on this point.
Jesus again spoke of this principle just prior to His ascension, when the disciples asked Him, “Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus answered:
It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you (verses 7-8).
Notice that Jesus never promised secular political power to His church. He never directed His followers to use civil government as a means of controlling the religious and consensual choices of men and women. Far from being the “myth” David Barton dismisses, the separation of church and state is a principle whose origin traces to Christ Himself.
Liberty of Conscience For All
The apostle Paul warns the Christian against the use of carnal weapons in spiritual warfare:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:4-5).
Few likely need persuading that no law passed by Congress, no executive order signed by the President of the United States, no ballot initiative, no decision handed down by the Supreme Court, can possibly achieve what the above passage promises. Only the converting power of the Holy Spirit can bring human thoughts into captivity to Jesus and the principles of His law. A free conscience is essential to true conversion.
Speaking of the role of the secular state relative to the human conscience, Ellen White declares:
To protect liberty of conscience is the duty of the state, and this is the limit of its authority in matters of religion. Every secular government that attempts to regulate or enforce religious observances by civil law is sacrificing the very principle for which the evangelical Christians so nobly struggled.[x]
The founders of the (American) nation wisely sought to guard against the employment of secular power on the part of the church, with its inevitable result—intolerance and persecution. . . . Only in flagrant violation of these safeguards to the nation’s liberty, can any religious observance be enforced by civil authority.[xi]
Notice how the liberty described in these inspired statements is in no way limited to persons with good consciences, to those faithful to Scripture, or to others with a largely conservative worldview in matters of religion and morality. Liberty of conscience is not limited to the righteous, or to those with conservative religious or cultural leanings. It is for all.
Those who believe that a secular government endorses those tenets and practices permitted under its authority, fail to consider the principle illustrated by the two trees in Eden. Was God endorsing evil by permitting our first parents to choose evil? Obviously not. The United States government does not endorse Catholicism, evangelicalism, Seventh-day Adventism, Pentecostalism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism merely because those adhering to the above beliefs are allowed to preach and practice them in a free society. Neither is the government endorsing gay marriage, or those heterosexual marriages forbidden in Scripture (such as marriage between believers and unbelievers or marriage involving persons divorced on other than Bible grounds), merely because such marriages are legally permitted in a free country.
Biblically defined errors of faith and practice, in other words, are not endorsed by the secular state merely because they are allowed. Errors of religious belief and consensual practice simply lie on a different plane than do those issues rightly lying within the purview of a non-theocratic state. That is what the separation of church and state is all about.
Elder Ted Wilson, currently president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, wrote in an article several years ago as to the difference between civil government endorsing a practice and simply permitting it:
The core idea (behind the First Amendment) was that America should be a land where believers could practice their faith, free of government interference. But the other side of the coin was that those who don’t believe were also to be free from legislative imperatives to follow the church’s dictates. . . .
Like many other faiths, the Seventh-day Adventist church subscribes to the Biblical definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, for example. But where we differ from some of our peers is that we acknowledge that there’s a difference between government allowing certain actions with which we might disagree on moral grounds, . . . as opposed to compelling them. That is the fine line that is religious liberty.[xii]
Conclusion: Do Sinners Have Rights?
In a word, yes. God gave rights to sinners by not destroying Satan and his angels when they rebelled, and by permitting them to work out the principles of the rebellious course they had chosen (Rev. 12:9). God gave similar rights to Adam and Eve by giving them a free choice between good and evil (Gen. 2:9). By declaring His kingdom to be not of this world (John 18:36), and by confining the warfare waged by His followers to spiritual rather than carnal weaponry (Acts 1:6-8; II Cor. 10:4-5), Jesus established limits on both the secular state and the societal agenda of the church, restricting the purview of the former solely to conduct of a coercive nature.
Our next article will address the relationship of the Ten Commandments to non-theocratic civil government.
[i] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 22.
[iii] Ellen White, Sons and Daughters of God, p. 182.
[iv] Unless otherwise noted, all Bible passages are from the King James Version.
[vi] David Barton, The Myth of Separation: What is the correct relationship between Church and State? (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1992).
[vii] Charles Longacre, Roger Williams: His life, work, and ideals (Washington, D.C: Review and Herald Publishing Assn, 1939), p. 80.
[viii] Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1986), p. 184.
[x] White, The Great Controversy, p. 201.
[xi] Ibid, p. 442.