Is Freedom of Religion the Christian Way of Church & State?

When I look at Adam and Eve in paradise I’m always struck by the fact that there were so few rules, even though the possibility to sin must have been there.  For example, there were no stated rules about worshipping God, nor any rules forbidding murder, nor any rules forbidding talking to serpents let alone obeying them.

God appears to have been willing to let the humans make choices with little guidance from Him.   Only much later, after God saves the Israelites from slavery in Egypt does He lay down the law (Torah, teachings) to guide His chosen people.

And while the Torah offered the people a way to holiness, and to being more human, it could not save them.  In fact in his Epistle to the Galatians St. Paul argues that the Law didn’t save the Jews but enslaved them!   It is Christ who saves us by His crucifixion not only from slavery to sin and death but also from the Law (see also Colossians 2:14).

Whenever I listen to Christians insisting on passing and enforcing “Christian” laws in the U.S., I wonder whether we sometimes forget how we are saved – through faith in Christ – and whether we imagine that the way to save the world is through passing the right laws which will thus prevent people from sinning.   This I think is the Muslim attitude about God – we don’t need to be saved from sin, we need only obey God.  We don’t need Christ, we need the Koran.

I see nothing wrong with endeavoring to influence civil law through the legal democratic means which are our political inheritance.  On the other hand, I also know from history that monasticism came to power and influence not when the Empire was hostile to Christianity, but when Christianity became the imperial religion and the laws of the Empire became Christian law.   The men and women monastics understood that their salvation was not determined by the laws of the Empire and obedience to them, no matter how “Christian” those laws might be.  Civil law could not bring people to holiness.

The monks did not oppose the adoption of state laws that were supposedly Christian, but they did flee from them.  They endeavored to find ways to live the Christian life DESPITE living in a Christian empire.

Monks aside, most Christians in Byzantium lived under the rules of the supposedly Christian state.  And when that state was swept away in history, they endeavored to live their Christian lives sometimes under hostile or adverse rulers or anti-Christian rulers. 

All this tells me that there is nothing which prevents me from practicing my Christianity if I choose to do so, no matter what the laws of my nation say – and yes martyrdom is also sometimes the only way to remain Christian.   Whether my neighbors or country choose to follow a Christian morality does not determine whether I can or should be a Christian. 

Maybe living in a Christian nation isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be – that would seem to be the monastic movement’s message.   Maybe living in a free nation, where we can practice our faith to the full extent to which we desire is a better place to live than in a nation which attempts to impose a state enforced morality governing every aspect of life.

Obviously humans need laws, standards and a morality to enable us to live together as a society. It is also possible that at some point trying to enforce “Christian” laws for everyone becomes counterproductive.

In history, we can look at how many Coptic Orthodox welcomed the Arab Muslims to free them from the domination and oppression of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire. So too some Greeks thought the Turkish
Turban was preferable to the Pope’s tiara – they didn’t want to live under “Christian” domination: something for us to think about!  Our Christian ancestors who were privileged to live in an Orthodox Christian nation were not always enamored with that possibility.  The monks fled it, and Coptic, Arab and Slav Christians welcomed the opportunity to be freed of that most Orthodox Christian of nations.

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