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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326

970-259-3384

wdb@frontier.net

SOME THOUGHTS ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTIES

I am a Christian, and believe the Bible is God's authoritative word for our instruction. I also believe that in the Person, words, and actions of Jesus Christ, we have God's finest and best example to us of how we are to live.

I am also a lawyer; I have served as a Judge, and since 1982 have been considering what the Bible says about conflict (why we have it and how we should deal with it) and what the Bible offers as guidance to man in religious and secular organizational settings.

I also believe that all rights flow from God -- not man -- and carry with them co-equal responsibilities. It may be better to say that God gives responsibilities first -- "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen. 1:28). I think rights are merely residual -- they are realized by adherence to the responsibilities. [SOME THOUGHTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS]

It is certain that whatever our rights may be, they are subject to the will and rule of God.

For example, a study of the U.S. Constitution discloses the following listed legal rights:

(1) Freedom of speech -- But Courts quickly placed a restriction upon this freedom to not scream "fire" in a crowded theater just to see people run;

(2) Freedom of the press -- But efforts to regulate pornography, libel, racial and other slurs, and slander prove elusive;

(3) Freedom of assembly -- But not to riot.

(4) Freedom of religious belief and limited freedom of religious practice -- We told the Mormons that they could not have two wives. But today we can ritualistically slaughter an innocent animal as a sacrifice to a pagan god.

(5) Freedom to freely petition the government, but if you do it as a tax-exempt, non-profit you may lose that status.

(6) Equality of these freedoms everywhere in the nation through the "full faith and credit" clause; and, among other rights,

(7) Equal protection under law.

But, by placing these guarantees in the Constitution, we created a legal presumption in favor of our individual rights and against the law, the legal process, the government, and other individuals -- and even against personal relationships and community.

In the Constitution we also placed the matter of Due Process -- the way in which, by and through law and process, the rights of a community might be found to supersede the rights of the individual.

But what happened to the matter of responsibilities along the way? Author John Whitehead (TheSecond American Revolution) said it well:

"In recent years we have witnessed numerous marches on Washington in which one group or another has demanded new 'rights.' Frequently, such rights have not meant freedom from state control, but rather entitlement to state action, protection, or subsidy. In the process of yielding to the 'will of the people,' and creating new rights, the state inevitably enlarges itself and its bureaucracy. * * As the state creates new rights for some, it necessarily diminishes some rights for others. Someone has to lose, but there can be no appeal to any outside criterion of justice in a system where there is no god but Caesar."

"The modern secular view holds that individuals have just such rights as the Constitution and other laws give them. From this the 'struggle for rights' becomes, in effect, a conflict with other human beings to persuade, or force, them to generate laws entitling us to the rights we seek."

What are the rights to which each individual is biblically entitled? I find the following; there may be others:

(1) Life itself, except as taken by God or by man under God's delegated authority (such as in capital punishment);

(2) Freedom from necessity -- the need to find value and meaning through work rather than in right relationship to God and others; freedom from the sense that I must provide all things for myself lest I perish;

(3) Liberty, which can only be found through bondage to the God Who created me, Who has plans for me, and Who saves me from my sins;

(4) Pursuit of a relationship with God, not through fear or duty to obey, but by a desire to obey through love for Him Who first loved me, trusting Him Who knows me best, and knows my needs best;

(5) Meaningful "work" which God has prepared in advance for me, having taken into account my gifts, talents, and life experiences; and,

(6) Property ownership, but recognizing I am but steward of all I may ever possess, or use of the common possession. The God Who delegated responsibility for care of the planet to man, and Who constantly speaks to us of the need to provide for the widow, the poor, the orphan, and the stranger in the land, while setting free people who are captive to the things we were captive to until He set us free -- He is the true Owner.

These rights, I believe, carry with them responsibilities:

(1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which means my desire for rights must be seen, and exercised, only within concepts of relationship and community;

(2) Remember the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land, and the land itself;

(3) Deliver the oppressed from injustice;

(4) Obey the laws of God;

(5) Live within community, in love, rather than in individualism and self-centeredness;

(6) Do justice;

(7) Love all others as God would call me to love them; and,

(8) Help repair the fractures caused to community and relationship by the sinful acts of others.

Now, to me, two critical observations are in order:

(1) To the extent that these responsibilities are binding upon the individual, they are also binding upon the corporate structures which individuals create -- government, churches, and businesses, to name but three structures. And,

(2) To the extent that the responsibilities are binding upon the individual, they are binding upon the individual as he serves in any created institution -- as President, Jurist, or Legislator, Pastor, Elder or Deacon, to name six positions.

From this it flows that man cannot bestow rights of dignity and freedom upon man, nor can man protect rights of dignity and freedom for man, nor can man take away rights of dignity and freedom from man. Man can, at best, affirm in words and actions the existence of rights and responsibilities, and the fact that they flow from God. And man may be able to create an environment which maximizes the possibilities of our using the freedoms granted us by God.

Today, in Russia, there is much discussion of freedom of conscience. In the United States, we are constantly arguing over rights -- another word for freedoms. And in both Russia and the United States, we seek to use the power of the State to secure our rights/freedoms.

But focus on rights soon overwhelms an issue of responsibility. We then tend to either move to anarchy -- each seeking after his own rights to the ignoring of rights of others -- or towards repression -- using power to secure my rights at the expense of your rights. Both directions are a denial of our responsibilities before God. It is this matter of willingness to use the power of the State to define and preserve rights which underlies all I will say.

Finally, for purposes of our discussions, I believe that no organization of man -- religious or secular -- is indwelt by the Holy Spirit as an organization. Rather I see the following:

(1) Each man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:25) and has the laws of God written upon his heart from the moment of his creation by God (Deut. 30:11-14). This allows the statement that all men do know of the existence of God and of His primary attributes (Rom. 1:18-23).

(2) The Holy Spirit dwells in individual people who have in faith received from God the gift of salvation. The Holy Spirit is also moving about in the world in His role of convicting man of their sin and calling man to confession and repentance.

(3) No person, or group of people, holds any secular power but by the forbearance of God which forbearance will end at the time of Armageddon; that is God does not grant a secular power but forbears while the power is being exercised -- reserving the right to intervene and remove the one wielding the power at a moment as we can see in the Old Testament.

(4) A power which a Christian may find himself holding in the world (sacred or secular) may only be held as agent for (bond-servant of) God, and is impressed with a trust to use it as would our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to be hollow vessels (II Cor. 4:7) so that the power is seen as coming from God and not from man.

(5) Individuals carry with them into corporate settings either the image of God (as an unbeliever) or the Holy Spirit (as a believer). Thus, a witness of God may be made in an organizational setting, and an organization may give the appearance of making a witness of God to the world when its words and actions match the words and actions of God -- but the actual witness is still being given by the individuals and not by the organizational structure.

(6) As Christians, we are called to permeate all aspects of the world with the Gospel, including organizations. As we do so, we may find ourselves in positions of power and authority of man -- which we are allowed by God to hold. But as we then exercise that power, we must keep in mind the preceding 5 points.

Today, there is much being said about religious freedom in both the United States and Russia. In the U.S. we just enacted legislation seeking to re-define religious freedom because of some recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Russia has been considering legislation that has been described as placing limitations upon religious freedom. In fact, both pieces of legislation, as they come from man, can only be limitations upon freedoms granted by God; that is, they cannot grant freedom nor prevent exercise of true freedom, but they can place the power of the State in opposition to the freedom granted by God. Law can also create a setting in which liberty becomes license, and the truths of God are denied in the name of freedom. And to the extent that laws purport to grant rights and freedoms, they in fact limit true freedom in the very process of definition.

If law is useless as to our God-given rights and responsibilities, why do we persist in spending so much time worrying about them? I can think of a number of reasons; let's consider 4:

(1) It is the way of man to organize himself around some idea or ideology, in both secular and religious settings. We often start in a spirit of love, maybe even with an insight of God. But we then try to preserve what we have received. We build up rules and regulations and establish grants of power and authority, to protect and preserve by force this suddenly growing "thing." A truth of the Gospel is that what you strive to preserve will be lost; it is in giving away that you gain.

(2) In both the U.S. and Russia, religious organizations are to a greater extent property-based corporations than servant-based giving centers. Being property-based, they naturally seek protection from the State. Servant-based givers need no such protection of man.

(3) Property-based corporations must grow or perish; thus, our religious organizations advertise like product salesmen, seeking to lure the sheep from one flock to another. We then compete with one another in ideology and philosophy, demanding rights and requiring law. Servant-givers know they need only faithfulness in word and deed for the seed to be sown from which God will bring the increase.

(4) Property-based corporations fear freedom of ideas and practices, for such place growth at risk. Thus law becomes a tool of repression against even freedom of thought. Servant-givers have no such fear, for they know Who is in control, Who protects, Who preserves, Who supplies, and Who has the final decision!

Now does all of this mean that a State is to do nothing? No, for it is impossible for an organization to do nothing. It either does (if only actions to preserve self) or it dies. Therefore, as Christians, it is still right that we address the issue of what the State should do, and what the State should not do -- though all of such will constitute a limitation on, not an enabling, of freedom.

First, a State may declare that God is -- that we are created beings, created by a Creator, and that this Creator has a call upon our lives.

Second, a State may proclaim the God it knows, and offer Him to the people -- recognizing that circumstances change and someone may one day amend the declaration. For a State to say that it believes God is the God of the Bible and of Jesus Christ is, I believe, quite appropriate. This does not "establish religion".

Third, a State may declare that it intends to weigh its actions against the revealed will of the Creator which it has acknowledged and say where it finds that revealed will set forth. A state may say that it will look to the Bible and the life of Christ for assistance in deciding issues, but this is no guarantee of any specific acts, or of the future. It also does not prohibit discussion.

Fourth, a State can set forth principles of the inter-relation of rights and responsibilities, based upon its Source for law.,

Fifth, a State can maximize the freedom of expression of belief even while upholding one belief as its guide post. In the same way, limitations may be placed by the State upon religious practices, but not the religious beliefs or dissemination of those beliefs.

Sixth, a State by its laws and legal systems, may give a place where people can complain when they believe they have been wronged by an organization or a single charismatic individual.

I suggest that this approach recognizes that there is a market place for ideas, as there is a market place for commodities. This grants maximum freedom for the expression of ideas while, at the same time, seeking to establish and preserve those which are Godly. It gives a common, level playing field to all. And it grants a degree of protection for the unwary, innocent, and ignorant.

All of this having been said, what might this mean to the recent legislative efforts within Russia (and, for that matter, the U.S.)?

First, it would not prevent any person from coming into Russia and promulgating any idea. They could even band together (organize) to do so.

Second, such people could receive gifts from others, in and outside Russia, for doing the work. Should the government elect to tax all eleemosynary bodies on property and income (not services or sales of religious nature), it could do so as long as it did it equally with profit-making organizations. This tax should be of a gross-income nature, without benefit of business expense deductions that encourage the property-based corporate approach rather than the servant-giving based approach. If all our religious institutions are merely different forms of property-based corporations seeking to grow or perish, then subjecting them to tax as other corporations may be a method of upholding the sovereignty of God (that is, allowing God to be God). Please note that this would not, in any manner, impede servant-based givers in their work.

Third, people, or organizations, would have to register their purpose for coming into Russia, and the locations where they will be operate, just as would any other foreign or domestic business entity. They would have to make annual reports, etc. If I decide to come and preach a message (any message) and never acquire land or buildings or other property, my liability would be limited to declaration of my income from preaching and payment of tax thereon. My ability to reproduce -- spread the Gospel -- has not been limited in any manner, nor has my ability to grow. If I hold myself to a Bible study within my flat, so be it; if I want to build a cathedral, so be it -- the result is a combination of my sense of purpose, my choice of style, and my ability to gather others about me with a similar sense of purpose who are willing to invest in property rather than just promulgate an idea.

This is not meant to be a prescription for law and legal process -- just a reminder that God is (and will be despite our best efforts) God.

It is a call to place our trust in Him, and not man or man's laws and systems.

It is a call to re-think what we call "ministry" and to spend our time in ministry, not in politicking (unless it is to the law and politics that we are called and gifted to minister!).

Our Lord Jesus Christ had no authority or power granted to Him by man. He ministered in the face of both secular and religious laws and systems which were opposed to Him and His ideas. And we killed Him. But the seeds which He cast bore fruit, and His Church exists today because He did not allow man to control, or the things of man to divert Him from, His ministry. The same is possible for us, in any nation, at any time.

The next in this series is Freedom of Belief as an Indicator of Democratic Rights in Society.