The General Board of Global Ministries bases guidelines about freedom of religion in the New Testament.
Both in practice and belief, The United Methodist Church has long affirmed the importance of religious freedom. In the past, religious freedom was approached primarily in the language of human rights and international law. The following policy, however, grounds our affirmation of religious freedom for all people and all faith communities in the distinctly Christian ethic of love that arose from early church communities of the New Testament. The early church communities across the Roman Empire faced persecution from both government and religious authorities.
Today many Christian and other faith communities face similar forms of repression and discrimination from governments and religious institutions. In addition, there is a rise of violent extremist groups that, claiming the mantle of religion, cause great suffering for those of different faith communities. Anti-blasphemy laws, religious and racial profiling, and hate groups fan the flames of religious animosity, repression, and violence.
Global Ministries’ religious freedom guidelines, grounded in the New Testament language of love and respect for neighbors and enemies, offer the church vital support for protecting vulnerable communities and promoting deepened engagement of sharing and listening among faith communities. In the face of rising violence in the name of religion, it is critical that we affirm our faith as followers of the Prince of Peace by respecting and protecting the rights of all faith communities.
Religious Freedom: Grounded in Love
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
The many epistles in the New Testament were addressed to, and read by, small faith communities facing religious persecution and political repression. Members of the early church often faced beatings, imprisonment, and death for the public expression of their faith. As a religious minority, early Christian communities were frequently accused of blasphemy against the dominant religion and/or of being a political opposition group that must be suppressed. From the start, Christians have asserted their right to freely respond to God’s grace at work in their lives.
Throughout history, many different religious communities, notably minorities, have maintained their faithfulness as they faced similar accusations and violent repression. Too often those seeking to maintain or attain political power have yoked religious fervor with the use of violence and repression against “the other.” As Paul warned the Galatians long ago, today too many neighbors of different faiths are devouring one another rather than living together in mutual respect and love. Religious freedom seeks to restore the rule of love that binds us through our diversity, over against the ways of fear, hate, and violence that keep us divided.
At the same time, history gives us many examples of people of different faiths living side by side in cooperation and conversation with one another. We affirm that we learn more about and deepen our own faith when we share and engage with others.
With the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, western Christian societies placed increasing emphasis on the individual and one’s personal relationship with God. The rights of the individual, in contrast to the State or the Church, gave rise to the modern human rights movement, culminating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and succeeding international human rights treaties. These rights include freedom of religious belief and have served as a foundation for many modern calls for religious freedom.
Religious freedom, as a human right, involves not only every individual’s freedom of belief, thought, and conscience, but also a person’s right to change beliefs. Religious freedom flourishes when societies welcome diverse faith communities gathering in worship and living out their respective faith traditions as integral parts of society.
The insistence on religious freedom as a human right does not necessarily mean an end to repression but rather the affirmation from a Christian perspective that love of God and love of neighbor is more powerful than government repression, hate speech, and violent, extremist threats. The words from the First Epistle of Peter demonstrate the power of religious freedom in contrast to a spiraling cycle of violence and repression: “Do not repay evil for evil, or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing…. Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:9, 13-16)
Our commitment to religious freedom leads us to challenge any secular or religious claim to the right to impose one religious way onto others by political, economic, or military force. When any religion is used to justify violence or hateful attacks on others, God mourns, and God calls us all to repent and seek an end to such violence. In humility, we affirm that God’s love is too strong, too broad, and too deep for any of us to constrain or prescribe how God continues to work among us all. Accepting God’s grace at work in transforming our lives, we are both free and at the same time compelled to share how God’s love manifests itself in our lives and in the world today. We testify to God’s love both through sharing the good news and through our love of neighbors and love of enemies. Yet if we do not respect, honor, and listen to our neighbors, and especially our enemies, then we have not love.
Religious freedom, grounded in love, invites us into the hard work of dialogue, listening and sharing with different faith communities, and also to acts of reconciliation across boundaries that divide our own Christian communities. The letter to the Colossians offers us guidance in our interfaith and intercultural efforts. “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony….Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 3:13-4 & 4:5)
In the letter to the Romans, Paul urges, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:9-14, 17)
Following the wisdom of Paul, we seek societies where all faith communities are honored and treat one another with mutual respect. At the same time, whenever freedom of religion is denied or people are discriminated against on the basis of their religious belief or practice, we are called to speak out and to resist all such discrimination in nonviolent, loving ways. Blessing those who persecute does not mean accepting the violence of persecution. Rather, it requires resistance grounded in love.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10) Thus, we challenge actions and government policies that misuse the notion of religious freedom in ways that would harm others by denying anyone services, honor, dignity, equal rights, and equal protection. Such actions that harm or discriminate against others are not expressions of religious freedom. Moreover, love does not allow a neighbor, or an enemy, to keep doing wrong even in the name of religion. Religious freedom grounded in love does not mean “anything goes.” It does not condone silence in the face of violent repression of anyone’s religion. On the contrary, the letter to the Ephesians insists that we take on an often painful, hard task: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25) We must speak out and act whenever religious freedom is denied, but always in a spirit of love and respect for all.
The General Board of Global Ministries shall approach religious freedom in the following ways and encourage The United Methodist Church to:
• Honor, respect, and advocate for religious freedom for all faith communities through study, interfaith sharing, and listening as expressions of our love for all.
• Urge all governments to respect the right of religious freedom in their laws and practices; and to welcome a diversity of religious expressions as serving the common good in every society.
• Join with ecumenical and interfaith partners to advocate, through education and political action, to protect and further religious freedom wherever it is denied or threatened. Indeed, we take the words of Paul to Corinth to heart: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
• Extend the compassionate ministry of the church to persons who suffer because either religious or governmental authorities seek to deny these rights to them.
• Offer support to the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other international efforts seeking to protect and promote religious freedom as a human right.
*Accepted unanimously by the General Board of Global Ministries’ Board of Directors, April 2015. Bible verses from the NRSV. Reported in New World Outlook Magazine.