Toleration of Liberty
THE Scripture makes it plain that our responsibility in
religious matters is to God and not to man.
Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to
his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God
is able to make him stand. Romans 14:4
So then every one of us shall give account of himself
to God. Romans 14:12
Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of
men. 1 Corinthians 7:23
Therefore it is the right of free citizens to dissent
when men attempt to control them in matters of religious life and
practice. It is important that we understand the difference between
liberty and toleration. The American Constitution and those of many
nations of the world guarantee much more than toleration—they guarantee
freedom to worship according to the dictates of each man’s individual
conscience. There are countries, however, which do not afford such
freedom. Yet they maintain that their constitution allows for religious
We very well might ask the difference between the two.
Religious liberty demands the separation of church and state. Before there
can be religious persecution, there must be a union of the civil and
religious powers. The church must have access to the power of the state to
punish those who dissent from her doctrines, practices, and authority.
Religious tolerance, however, requires no separation of church and state.
Neither does it guarantee freedom of worship. Indeed, the concept of
toleration is embedded in the power of the state to control the religious
practices and beliefs of its citizens.
Russell resided for a number of years in an Islamic
nation which granted religious toleration to its citizens. Thus
Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews were permitted to worship
freely and follow their own specific practices.
Nevertheless, this toleration fell far short of
religious liberty. While Islam had the right to evangelize those of other
faiths, this privilege was not reciprocal. There was a prohibition upon
evangelism directed to adherents of the Moslem faith. One pastor, who was
a convert to Christianity from Islam, achieved modest success in
converting Moslems to the Christian faith. The pastor was arrested and
imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security regulations of the
nation. He was released only when he agreed to leave his homeland for the
remainder of his life.
Four former adherents to Islam accepted the Baptist
faith. Their blue identity cards were revoked and they were issued with
brown identity cards. In that nation the color of the identity card
indicated status. Blue cards indicated full citizenship, red cards were
issued to permanent residents, while green cards, one of which Russell
held, were provided those with work permits. Brown cards were reserved for
"undesirables" such as paroled felons and political dissidents.
Thus these converted Christians were immediately identified as
"undesirables" upon the presentation of their identity cards.
Since the card itself contained no mention of the reason for its issue,
the individual may well have been a convicted murderer on parole, for all
those viewing the card might know. The four Baptist men found the
obtaining of employment almost impossible. Eventually they were compelled
to emigrate in order to live acceptable lives, and thus their Christian
witness to their fellow citizens was lost.
A visiting New Zealand Christian was charged with
vilifying the Koran and Islam, an offence punishable by a long term
imprisonment. His "crime" was to testify to the love of Jesus
and to express his faith in the Bible to an Islamic man. He made no
mention of the Moslem faith nor of the Koran, but was convicted of the
offense as charged on the grounds that his words contained an implied
denigration of both Islam and the Koran. Probably because of the strenuous
diplomatic efforts of the New Zealand High Commission, the New Zealander
was given a "light" sentence—one day’s jail, immediate
deportation upon the expiration of the sentence, and a lifetime ban upon
reentry to the country. It was likely that the man was only too willing to
accept this latter penalty.
Even more serious was the prohibition of the use of the
Bible in the national language. The government decreed that over thirty
words in the language of the country were reserved for use only in Islamic
worship. Since these words included those for God, Salvation, disciple,
and other words freely used in the Bible, God’s Word was prohibited.
There was no prohibition on the use of the Bible in other languages, such
as English, Mandarin, and Tamil, since they contained none of the
prohibited words which were all Arabic words found in the Koran and
introduced into the national language.
A Eurasian couple who were Roman Catholics had been
happily married for twenty-five years. The wife, unbeknown to her husband,
converted to Islam. He was presented with the option of himself converting
to his wife’s new faith or being divorced from his wife. Since the man
held sincere convictions concerning his faith, he was forced to suffer
Even members of the state religion are denied religious
liberty. They are virtually forbidden to accept other faiths. They are
flogged for drinking alcohol and fined for eating or drinking between
sunup and sundown during Ramadan, the fasting month. A declaration that
they are now free-thinkiers is not accepted as a defense against such
penalties, which are meted out only against Moslems.
Russell’s experiences cited above plainly illustrate
the differences between religious liberty and religious toleration. Those
differences are immense.
Where there is true freedom, there is the
acknowledgment by the state that guarantees freedom for all religious
beliefs and practices, no matter how unusual or different these practices
might be. Within the context of religious toleration, there is the
implication that the state does not necessarily wholly approve of the
religious principles, but by its generous act is tolerating the practices
of a particular group. It also implies that at any time a state decides
that a particular religion is not, for any reason, acceptable to the goals
of the state, that religious practice can be suppressed and the worship of
its adherents banned.
A very significant example of the limitations of
toleration can be seen in the Edict of Nantes. In August 1572, the St.
Bartholomew’s massacre of Protestants took place in France. Many
faithful Huguenots were slaughtered in this massacre. However, some time
later a new king, Henry IV, ascended to the throne. Henry IV was raised a
Protestant, but he knew that he could not accept the throne unless he was
a Roman Catholic. He was therefore reported to have said, "Paris is
worth a mass," whereupon he joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, he did not forget his Protestant friends, and enacted the
Edict of Nantes which offered toleration to the Huguenots in 1598.
The signing of the Edict of Nantes can be seen depicted
in relief on the Wall of the Reformers in Geneva. However, the Huguenots
were not happy with the edict. Deeply concerned that the Huguenots were
not granted full religious freedom, their leader, Theodor Agrippa D’Aubigne,
left the proceedings. D’Aubigne was greatly disappointed with Henry IV’s
change of religion. He argued in the proceedings that a people only
tolerated by privilege may have that privilege withdrawn.
Indeed, that statement proved all too correct, when in
1687, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, revoked the Edict of Nantes,
saying, "My grandfather loved the Huguenots, my father feared them; I
neither love nor fear them." (Chris Richards, The Reformer,
Bedford, England, November-December 1997, p. 9)
The following nineteenth-century sources clearly
delineate between liberty and toleration.
There is a very great difference between toleration and
liberty. Toleration is a concession which may be withdrawn. It implies a
preference for the ruling form of faith and worship, and a practical
disapproval of all other forms. Schaff’s Church and State in the
United States, p. 14
The free exercise of religion, according to the
dictates of conscience, is something which every man may indeed demand as
a right, not something for which he may ask a privilege. To grant to the
State the power of tolerating is implicitly to grant to it the power of
prohibiting. Appleton, Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 4, p.
Toleration denotes neither the freedom of religion from
State control, nor the equality of all religions before the law.
Toleration is the allowance of that which is not wholly approved.
Religious liberty, on the other hand, is absolute freedom of religious
opinion and worship. Thompson, Church and State in the United States,
What other nations call toleration we call religious
rights. They are not exercised in virtue of governmental indulgence, but
as rights, of which government cannot deprive any portion of citizens,
however small. Despotic power may invade these rights, but justice shall
confirm them. U. S. Senate Report, 1829
Thus we can clearly understand that the difference
between religious toleration and religious freedom, is that the former is
freedom recognized as a favor, whereas the latter is freedom recognized as
a right. Toleration implies that there is an established, or state
religion, as is still commonly known in many countries of the world, and
that all others, while deemed heretical or disapproved, are nevertheless
permitted. Whenever a nation has a state religion, there are only two
options: (1) persecute those who will not conform to the state religion or
participate in its practice; or (2) offer a measure of toleration to those
who choose to worship in another fashion. Thus, for example, because
England has an established religion, therefore properly we cannot refer to
the United Kingdom as having liberty in the full sense of the word, even
though there is no evidence of the restriciton of religious freedom in
that nation today. That is why the First Amendment to the American
Constitution explicitly contains both the non-establishment and the free
exercise clauses. These provide liberty to all to worship according to the
dictates of their conscience as a right, and not as a concession. The fact
that the ruling monarch of the United Kingdom must be head of the Church
of England deprives him or her of true religious freedom. The First
Amendment to the United States Constitution, because of its establishment
clause, places no religious constraints upon the head of state.
In some nations, any claim to religious toleration
represents at best, nothing more than the sufferance or endurance of those
who do not follow the state recognized religion. If the government has the
right to permit the exercise of religion, it by implication still reserves
the right to prohibit. Thus in certain countries, their constitutions
declare religious toleration. There are sometimes certain religions,
unpopular in the sight of the state for one reason or another, which are
excluded from the provision of toleration. Thus it is possible in some
countries that the state can compel certain minority groups to refrain
from worshipping according to the dictates of their conscience.
When a religious group seeks permission from the state
to practice its religion in a certain way, that church implicitly concedes
that the state has the right to dictate in that manner. If that is true
and the group is to be consistent, it should abide by the decision handed
down by the state, whether favorable or unfavorable. If the religious
group is unwilling to abide by the state’s decision, should it be
unfavorable to its request, then there is no consistency in asking the
state for permission. Certainly, if there is a "Thus saith the
Lord" from the Scripture, it is wholly inconsistent to ask civil
legislators for permission to carry out that which God has commanded. True
freedom and liberty of conscience can be maintained only at the price of
It was Lord Stanhope, in the House of Lords in London,
who in 1827 said,
The time was when toleration was craved by dissenters
as a boon. It is now demanded as a right: but a time will come when it
will be spurned as an insult.
To give to man his God-given rights is not in the power
or province of the state, for it has no such right to bestow. Rights of
this nature are bestowed by God. What God has given to the state is, the
responsibility to protect the liberty of conscience, and surely this is
the limit of its authority in matters of religion, for governments exist
to a large extent for the protection of the persons and properties of
their citizens. Religious freedom has to be separate from the state,
because states by their very nature are controlled almost inevitably by
majorities. The Scripture is plain that faithful Christians are a tiny
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate,
and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which
go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which
leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Matthew 7:13, 14
When there is a state-controlled religion, or
alternatively a religion-controlled state, minority religions are
automatically deprived of their God-given freedom. Under religious
persecution it is almost certain that those who are persecuted are men and
women of conscience. Often, conscientious people are detested by those who
themselves operate with less than selfless intent. This is true in the
operations of the church as well as the state.
Conscientious men are not the enemies but the friends
of any government not established on tyranny. They are its strength and
not its weakness. Daniel, in Babylon, praying contrary to the law, was a
true friend and supporter of the government: while those who, in their
pretended zeal for the law and the constitution would strike down the good
man, were its real enemies. It is only when government transcends its
sphere that it comes in contact with the consciences of men. Fairchild, Moral
Philosophy, p. 185
It is the conscientious Christian’s responsibility to
disregard unjust laws which transcend the rights of conscience. This
principle is altogether different from anarchy. Anarchy is the disregard
of all law. The most patriotic, loyal, and conscientious eschew anarchy,
but they have a right to disregard unjust laws. When it comes to just
laws, faithful Christians are the best citizens a nation can have.
Daniel’s persecutors used a ploy common to all ages.
By subterfuge, persecutors secure the unjust measures they desire and then
attempt to coerce submission of their fellow citizens to the unjust
measures. Only when national governments recognize that they have no
jurisdiction in matters of religion do we have true God-given liberty.
When a government demands absolute obedience to its dictates, this implies
that if the state commanded men to murder, or to steal, or to lie, or to
worship in just one particular way, citizens who disregarded such laws
would face the severest of penalties. So permeated by the sacral
philosophy was society at the time of the Romans, that the following law
was in place.
Whoever introduces new religions, the tendency and
character of which are unknown, whereby the minds of men be disturbed,
shall, if belonging to the higher rank, be banished; if to the lower,
punished with death. Neander, Church History, Vol. I, Sec. 1, Pt.
1, Div. 3, Para. 2
The founders of the American nation possessed an
entirely different concept:
It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator
such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to Him. This
duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to
the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered a member of
civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Government of the
universe. James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, State Papers,
What was understood by the early leaders of America,
was that man’s relation to his God supersedes all human legislation, and
the rights of conscience are inalienable.
The framers of the U. S. Constitution recognize the
eternal principle that man’s relationship with his God is above human
legislation, and his rights and conscience inalienable. Reasoning was not
necessary to establish this truth: we are conscious of it in our own
bosoms. It is the conscientiousness which, in defiance of human law, has
sustained so many martyrs in tortures and in flames. They felt that their
duty to God was superior to human enactments, and that man could exercise
no authority over their consciences. It is an inborn principle which
nothing can eradicate. The bigot, in the pride of his authority, may lose
sight of it; but strip him of his power, prescribe a fate to him which his
conscience resists, threaten him in turn with the dungeon and the fagot,
and the spirit which God has implanted in him rises up in rebellion, and
defies you. U. S. Senate Reports, 1829