For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1 (ESV)
On Tuesday October 31, Protestant Christians around the world will celebrate Reformation Day, marking 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation heralded a paradigm shift in Western thinking, and the modern concepts of individual freedom and human rights can be directly traced to it. But as this important anniversary approaches, is the West in danger of losing these hard won liberties?
On July 28, in The Australian, it was reported that two Hobart men, Campbell Markham, a Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (just down the road from the University Apartments on the corner of Elizabeth and Melville Street) and David Gee, a Cornerstone congregant and street preacher, were the subject of a complaint made under Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1998. The Act states it is illegal to subjectively offend another person on grounds such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. It is alleged that the men, in a variety of sermons and blog posts, offended atheists and homosexuals. Whilst both men deny any intent to cause offence, they nonetheless stand by their comments, which stem from orthodox Christian doctrines.
As members of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, the men stand in the tradition of the Scottish Presbyterians and the English Puritans. In former British colonies, such as Australia and the United States, these denominations have formed part of mainstream Christianity since the colonial era. As such, they have heavily influenced the social and political structures of our nations. However, whilst their teachings have been regarded as mainstream for several centuries now, these Christian traditions are no strangers to persecution. Indeed, the strength of Puritanism in the United States in particular stems from a history of institutional persecution of Nonconformists throughout Great Britain and Europe. It should be of the greatest concern to all Westerners – whether of the Christian faith, none, or any other – that our prevailing zeitgeist is again allowing such institutional persecution of people of faith. That 2017 should be the year that this reaches a new fervour pitch is perhaps, however, both poetically appropriate, and informative.
On October 31, in the Year of Our Lord 1517, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a list of theses to the door of a church in Saxony. Luther’s 95 Theses consisted of a scathing criticism of the theology and practice of what we now call the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s theses proved to be the spark that ignited a powder keg throughout Europe, smashing the Catholic monopoly on salvation, and leading to the emergence of many now-familiar Christian denominations.
To Protestants, the Reformation is arguably the most important event to occur since the birth of Christ Himself. Luther and the other Reformers sought to recapture the essence of the Gospel as laid out in Holy Scripture (sola scriptura): that fallen mankind is accorded righteous before God by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus) to the glory of God alone (sola gloria Deo). For these criticisms of the prevailing attitudes of their day, the Reformers were ostracised, shunned, and persecuted by the establishment. Every effort was made to silence them, and prevent the spread of their ideas – up to and including burning books and people. This same message: that God loves us, and that if we only repent of our sins and believe in Him, He will save us to eternal life, could now see Messrs Markham and Gee face criminal prosecution.
Of course, it comes as no surprise to anyone well-versed in the Bible that Christians should be persecuted for preaching the Gospel. Christ warned his Disciples repeatedly that if they took up their crosses and followed Him, they would be shunned, hated, and spat on, even by their own mothers and fathers. Christians know that to practice their faith is to be called upon to turn away from the values and standards of this world, and to instead orientate themselves towards the values of the Creator of the world, in anticipation of the world to come – thus, Christians will go on preaching the Word of God to the nations until the End of Days.
Does this mean that this injustice does not matter? Should we – believers and nonbelievers alike – therefore not be concerned that the institutional powers-that-be are making such efforts to silence dissent against our prevailing cultural values? Should nonbelievers – especially those who accept and celebrate values which orthodox Christianity rejects – be pleased at the suppression of such cultural dissidence? What do we care if the hard-won religious liberty of the Reformation is undone?
For on the surface, it may seem like the anniversary of the Reformation has little interesting to offer to those who are neither historians nor Protestants. In our modern secular state, religion has been relegated to a purely personal realm, and thus arguments about whether a person is saved by faith alone or by faith and good works, et cetera, can seem quaint and antiquated. But as many people continue to turn away from faith altogether, the proponents of a strict, progressive secularism seem to grow in their zeal to suppress discussion of religion altogether. It is this outlook – more “freedom from religion” than “freedom of religion” – which underpins the attitude of both the complainant, the Anti-Discrimination Commission, the laws under which they operate, and the attitudes of the many people within our community who harass and bully those who violate the pillars of faith which uphold their progressive ideology.
Whilst freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state, has always been guaranteed in Australia under Section 116 of the Constitution, progressive secularism itself seems to be well on the way to becoming the first ever state-sanctioned church in Australia, and one which, not unlike the Catholic Church in 1517, will tolerate no rivals. One only needs to look at the resemblance of the latest progressive fashion of “No Meat Mondays” to the Roman Catholic tradition of every Friday being a meat-free “Penance Day,” or the progressive insistence on the birth-guilt and culpability of all Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual males to the doctrine of Original Sin, to see the inherent religiosity of the modern left. There is indeed a civilisational threat hidden in these “anti-discrimination” laws and the ideology from which they are distilled. But this threat is not to the Gospel message, so much as to the very foundations which underlie the separation of church and state.
You see, the broader cultural importance of the Reformation to Western Civilisation is often overlooked. Since the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the established church of the Empire in 380 A.D., the Catholic Church had a monopoly on freedom of thought and speech. The Reformation loosened the shackles around the minds of the men and women of Europe. In the new Protestant Churches, the Christian idea that people should “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” was taken to its logical conclusion: the state should be focused on matters of earthly rule in this world, whilst the individuals and the churches they freely chose to associate themselves with were concerned with the life of the world to come. Thus, whilst it would take time to be fully realised, the idea of the secular state was born, and founded on the principle of the freedom to worship God according to one’s own conscience, uninhibited by the laws and decrees of temporal rulers.
Once freedom of worship had been won, attention turned to freeing mankind from arbitrary authority in the political realm. After all, if man was free to govern his spiritual life according to the dictates of his reason and conscience, why could this same principle not be applied to the governance of his political life? These ideas were powerful, so despite the insistence of the Stuart kings that they ruled by divine right, infringements on ancient liberties, disrespect to parliament, and the threat of a return to Rome, was enough to spark rebellions against the Crown on multiple occasions – first in the English Civil War, and later in the Glorious Revolution. The result of these uprisings was not just a recognition of the importance of religious toleration, but also the laying of the foundations for the modern system of constitutional monarchy in the British Empire, and republicanism in France and the United States through their subsequent revolutions.
From these foundations developed the key concept of classical liberalism: that of inalienable human rights, given by God, and inherent to every person based on their common humanity. From the right to freedom of worship naturally followed the right to think and speak as one saw fit in all domains. In time, this grew to include the freedom to reject faith altogether, and to live contrary to the moral teachings of Scripture if one wished. As time has gone on, the list of rights that we enjoy in the West has only continued to grow, heralding ever-increasing liberation in every sphere. Now, here in the early 21st century, ordinary men and women take for granted a set of rights and liberties that were unthinkable in the 16th century. Today in the West, people can openly live out their sexualities, and are free to reject all religion if they wish – this is only possible because the activists for those causes could call upon an important set of basic freedoms: freedoms won by Christian protesters many centuries before, at great cost.
To live in the West today – even in our secularised, atheistic society – is to subscribe at least in part to the basic principles of Protestant Christianity. The Protestant faith teaches that all people are equal: fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and equally depraved and fallen from this grace. For this reason, we are called to love, honour, and respect one another, whatever our faults. It is not hard to see that this principle of Christian liberty and charity underpins our modern system of human rights, democracy, the separation of church and state, and the rule of law. It is this spirit of love and charity, not hate, that causes Christians like Messrs Markham and Gee call upon their brethren to repent, have faith in the forgiveness of God, and to seek salvation in Christ Jesus.
As we approach Reformation Day, we are faced with a choice. Are we going to continue to live together in a spirit of neighbourly charity and tolerance, accepting and embracing each other’s right to express our beliefs, whether we find them offensive or not? Or are we going to undo 500 years of post-Reformation progress, in the ironic name of protecting that very same progress? Are we going to continue forth in a spirit of liberty, allowing each person to live their lives according to their own purposes and callings, or are we going to see a return to the spiritual and intellectual conformity of Rome, under the auspices of a Universal Church of Progress, complete with state-sponsored inquisitions, witch hunts, and book burnings? Are we going to stand firm, or will we submit ourselves again to a yoke of slavery?
Indeed, to some, the words of Messrs Markham and Gee are offensive, for in truth, the Bible does not always tell us what we like to hear. Its message grates sharply against modern values: where we favour acceptance, it preaches repentance; where we seek subjectivity, it states objectivity; and where we seek ease, it demands sacrifice. But overwhelmingly it preaches liberation. The concept of liberty is at the core of the Christian faith, and is thus at the core of Western Civilisation. The Gospel message is that faith in Christ is perfect freedom from our yoke: from slavery to sin, to our passions, and to death. Likewise, over the centuries, many martyrs to the cause of liberty have struggled, fought, and bought with their blood our modern freedoms of worship and speech because they had the words of Christ in their hearts.
If we truly value freedom and toleration – those catch-cries of the new Progressive Faith – then it is our responsibility to do away with these “anti-discrimination” laws. To do so in 2017 would be an important symbol, a gesture that the flame of the Reformation burns on. Luther’s lamp is not extinguished, but we have placed in under a basket. Let us place it on a stand again, so that it might give light to all in the house. We can live together in freedom, tolerance, charity, and prosperity without the jackboot of the Progressive Church bearing down on every throat which dares to dissent. Is offence really such a price to pay for liberty?
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. Galatians 5:13 (ESV)