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What is religious freedom?

Aug 07, 2018

It is being reported that China once again is demolishing Christian churches, even though their constitution (since 1982) provides for religious freedom.


Concerns have been raised over China's apparent crackdown on Christianity as the ruling Community party continues to intensify its control over religious freedom in the country.

Churches were raided and demolished, Bibles and holy books were confiscated and new laws were established to monitor religious activities in the country's province of Henan, which has one of the largest Christian populations in China.

Under President Xi Jinping, China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believers are seeing their freedoms shrink dramatically even as the country undergoes a religious revival

Experts and activists say that as Xi consolidates his power, he is waging the most severe systematic suppression of Christianity in the country since religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982.

The good news is that China is experiencing “a religious revival.” By reading between the lines, we can understand this to mean an explosion of Christianity. I doubt very much if they mean a revival of Buddhism.

The article shows a house church being demolished. China has two kinds of churches. The first type is government-licensed churches, where meetings are monitored by party officials. The second type are the informal house churches that form the majority of Chinese churches. These house churches used to meet in secrecy, but in recent years, as the persecution waned, many became more open in order to reach more people.

Now the government is again becoming alarmed, because they are afraid that Christianity will affect the politics of communist government. As communism (as an ideology) is discredited, and as Christianity grows in China, one can expect to see the government crack down on churches in the attempt to control the minds of the people.

Licensing Religion

The early church in the Roman Empire experienced the same problem. Rome allowed religious freedom as long as the religion was licensed by the state. As long as the emperor was essentially the authority over the religion, they allowed “freedom of religion.” In the early decades, Christianity was considered to be a sect of Judaism, and since Judaism was a licensed religion, recognized by the state, Christianity was protected.

That is why the Romans protected the Christians from the violence of the temple priests. However, when the Apostle Paul was tried in Rome in 64 A.D., it came out in the trial that Christianity was distinct from Judaism. That was why the temple priests had tried to kill Paul in Jerusalem a few years earlier, and that was why Paul had appealed to Caesar. Paul was acquitted of the charges, and he lived to make a fourth missionary journey to Spain and Britain before returning to Macedonia by the land route through Gaul and Helvetia (now Switzerland).

So when Paul was arrested a second time in 67, along with Peter and his wife, they were executed for being part of an unlicensed religion that did not recognize Caesar as its head. This was the start of 2½ centuries of religious persecution.

Yet Rome believed in religious freedom—for licensed religions who would make sacrifices to Caesar, recognizing him as a god. Christianity prayed FOR Caesar and all government officials (1 Timothy 2:1-3), but they did not pray TO him. That is the inherent difference. Judaism did the same, essentially, as they offered daily sacrifices in the temple. For the most part, Rome overlooked the subtle difference, but they viewed the Jews with suspicion—mostly because there were so many who were rebellious (mostly from the school of Shammah).

The core issue has always caused conflict. Governments have always wanted to control religion. Religions likewise have wanted to control governments. This has been the reason for much conflict in Europe in the past 2,000 years, as the popes in Rome asserted their authority over the kings of Europe. The power struggle continues to this day.

The American Tradition

In America, our founding fathers saw fit to forbid a state church from being established. They left it to each state to have its own religious denomination, but the federal government was not to impose its own religious view upon the states. This eliminated the problem of Rome and Europe, where religious freedom was given only to those who agreed with the government or with the Roman church.

But long traditions are not easily eradicated. In the past century, we have again fallen into the old problem of restricted freedom—which in itself is an oxymoron. The problem began when the federal government began licensing religions in the guise of granting tax-exemption status. The power to grant religious freedom also implies the power to remove such freedom. In other words, freedom of religion is no longer a God-given right but a government-granted privilege.

When we slowly defined freedom of religion in terms of its subservience to government, we again began to sacrifice TO Caesar instead of FOR him. China has never had a tradition of religious freedom, so we would expect nothing less from their government. But America is different. Our founders understood the problem very well, and they took steps to make sure this would never happen here.

Or at least they tried.

But the world is full of power grabbers, and the first thing on their agenda was to dumb down the educational system and eliminate any real knowledge of history. As the people forgot the historical issues and were taught that governments have the power to grant rights and freedom, the idea of freedom itself reverted back to its restricted Roman definition.

What is the Church?

If we maintain a proper definition of “the church,” we can yet avoid this problem. The Hebrew word for church is kahal, "congregation, assembly." It refers to the people, not the institution nor even the temple. The people are the worshipers, not the just the priests. The church is defined in Hebrews 12:23 as “the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven.” In other words, an earthly organization cannot enroll anyone in the church. So-called “church membership” is purely an earthly devise that puts a person in good standing with the denomination or religion. There are many church members who are not even Christian believers. They can be infiltrators, unbelievers, pedophiles, or murderers. Yet they remain in good standing and in some cases are even part of the religious hierarchy.

The point is that if people think that the earthly organization IS the church, and if that organization is licensed by the state, then it is a state church and technically worships the state. That is idolatry.

But if we understand that the earthly organization is NOT the church itself, then we treat the organization as a mere tool of the church that may or may not be useful. In such cases, a licensed religious organization is subservient to the state, and the church may use it for whatever purpose the state allows. You might say that the organization (or corporation) is a creature of the state that is being used by the church to do good. But it is not the church itself.

In China most of the members of state churches probably think that their organization is the church. In such cases, the church is in a state of idolatry. My understanding is that the house church movement refuses to put the church under the authority of the government, so they have no license to assemble. They must assemble in secret. They know that the people themselves are the church and that government recognition has nothing to do with their relationship with God.

Here in America I have encountered many people who think that one must be a member of an earthly organization or meet in a building with a steeple in order to have legitimacy. All others are considered to be “cults.” A cult is just a minority religion, and so all religions start out as cults. When they reach a million members, then they gain respect as a religion. But in the end, men build religions and denominations, when they should focus their efforts on building the church, the body of Christ.

Three Steps Toward Deception

It seems to me that the underlying issue is one’s definition of “church.” In the early centuries, the definition of church degenerated in three steps:

The first step came through Ignatius in the late first century and early second century. Ignatius focused upon Church unity and appears to have been the first to set forth in writing a clear doctrine of submission to the local Church Bishop who stands as a Vicar of Christ. However, he insisted that Christ was the only Universal Bishop of all the churches. He made no claim that any particular bishop had supremacy over the other bishops.

So Philip Schaff writes in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, page 148,

“The Ignatian episcopacy, in short, is congregational, not diocesan; a new and growing institution, not a settled policy of apostolic origin.”

The second step came through Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons about a century later. Schaff writes on page 149,

“This father represents the institution as a diocesan office… He exalts the bishops of the original apostolic churches, above all the Church of Rome, and speaks with great emphasis of an unbroken episcopal succession as a test of apostolic teaching and a bulwark against heresy.”

So whereas Ignatius had emphasized submission to local church authority, Irenaeus emphasized the authority of the Universal Church ruled by the bishops—essentially, an Episcopal system. Here we clearly find the church being defined as the institution. In practice, this meant that one must have a direct relationship with the institution as a member in good standing in order to be a Christian. The believer’s relationship to Christ was thus secondary and indirect, because the institution refused to recognize a believer’s salvation apart from institutional membership.

Yet this was not clearly spelled out at first. Perhaps the churchmen did not realize what they were doing, or perhaps they just kept their motives hidden. We cannot say for sure.

In the third step, Catholic episcopal thinking reached its maturity under Cyprian, the bishop of Rome from 248-258 A.D. He established in the idea that salvation was possible only within the fellowship of the earthly church organization. The Lamb’s Book of Life was a heavenly copy of the earthly church membership roll. True Christians were those who had faith in the bishop and the institution for their salvation.

Nonetheless, Cyprian did not represent the final stage of development in the definition of the church, because in a controversy with the bishop of Carthage, he still considered the bishoprics of Carthage, Alexandria, and others to be equal in authority to that of Rome.

The Fourth Step

The first time that a bishop of Rome demanded Roman supremacy was Pope Victor in 192 A.D. He demanded that the bishops of the East submit to his decision in the Passover controversy at that time. But Irenaeus of Lyons came to Rome and scolded the pope for his audacity, and Victor backed down. Nonetheless, the seeds of Roman supremacy had been sown, and 414 years later his ambition came to pass.

In 606 A.D. Pope Boniface III permanently established Rome’s supremacy. That was the point where the Catholic Church reached the apex of its presumed authority. That was the point in time where the definition of “church” was settled. From then on, anyone who disagreed with that definition was a heretic and was not called a Christian in official records.

It is also the point in history where the church fully manifested the character of King Saul, under whose reign the people rejected God as their King (1 Samuel 8:7). The people wanted God as a figurehead, and they wanted only an indirect relationship with God. That indirect relationship is also described in Scripture in terms of Hagar, the bondwoman. The people became enslaved to the institutional church—until the great slave revolt known as the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation has run its course, for it appears that its result was only to create multiple popes. There are now many denominations that are ruled by the Saul principle, mostly because they do not understand the story of Saul or its prophetic significance. Many have settled into the carnal definition of “church,” claiming that the church is the institution, rather than the people (or assembly, congregation).

In so doing, they have brought the people back under the bondwoman, which automatically gives people an Old Covenant mindset. But the good news is that God is now fomenting another revolution and another reformation with true religious freedom. That is where we stand today.

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones