National and International Religious Freedom: An Essential Part of Christian Mission in the 21st Century

I sat down for a meal with Imam Karim and announced, “I am here to partner with you in your jihad against Islamophobia!” A big smile flashed across his face as he reached out to shake my hand across the table.

But this conversation was not just about my jihad against Islamophobia. As I explained to Imam Karim, “I am on a jihad against all forms of religious discrimination and oppression.” The very same ethical concerns I have for Muslims to experience freedom of worship here in the United States also compels me to speak out against religious discrimination in Muslim majority countries.

Some of my Christian readers may not like my use of the word “jihad” to describe my convictions. But I use the word purposely because I want to help Christians better understand Islam. Jihad can refer to a personal spiritual struggle against our evil inclinations, a campaign, or a war (depending on the context). But in its most basic sense jihad means to strive against something.1

My jihad against Islamophobia and all forms of religious discrimination is best summarized in the Seven Resolutions against Prejudice, Hatred and Discrimination, a document written by Christians, Muslims and Jews. “We stand against all forms of religious persecution against Jews, Christians, Muslims, or anyone else. God desires all people to choose and practice their faith based on conscience and conviction rather than any form of coercion or violence (Resolution # 5).2

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is also engaging in what I call a double-edged jihad. Their “Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign”3 addresses Islamophobia in the U.S., while their groundbreaking campaign on “Citizenship and the Rights of Minorities in Muslim-Majority Countries”4 speaks to oppression of other religions.

So where do evangelical Christians and Muslims stand on this double-edged jihad?

Far too many Christians and Muslims prefer a “single edged jihad”—one that only focuses on their own community. In popular parlance, they believe in “religious freedom for me but not for thee!” Christians boldly speak out against persecution of Christians, but few speak out against Islamophobia. Muslims speak out against Islamophobia, but few speak out against persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

Now let me be clear: Christians must continue to speak out against the present massacre of Christians with ISIS in Iraq and the war in Syria. But few people seem to realize that ISIS has killed far more Muslims than they have Christians. We need to speak out for Muslims’ religious freedom as well.

This orientation to a single-edged jihad is understandable. But it lacks ethical consistency and integrity. And it is unbiblical!

There are no direct commands about freedom of religion in the Bible. But the Bible’s call to imitate God and obey his commands has direct relevance to this issue (Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 5:3). The biblical doctrine of humanity being created in God’s image and the biblical mandate to pursue justice also provide a basis for religious freedom.

Here are six reasons why I believe freedom of religion is a crucial biblical mandate:

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the creation story.

God gave Adam and Eve freedom to obey or not to obey his commands (Genesis 1–3). Because God wanted them to choose to love and obey him, he gave them freedom of choice. True relationship demands freedom to choose. We need to imitate God by giving people freedom to choose.

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the doctrine of the image of God.

As I mentioned previously, every person in our global community is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). When we look at someone, we should not see him or her primarily through the lens of religion or race. We should not see Buddhist, black, white, WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Muslim, or Mexican. We should see God’s image bearers. And when we see that image in others, when we treat people with dignity and equality, we honor God. Thus to coerce an image bearer against her will is an affront to her humanity. In fact, lack of religious freedom is an attack on God’s image bearers.5

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the life of Christ.

Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him. But he gave people freedom to choose. Some followed him and others did not. In one of the most poignant moments in the gospels, it says that Jesus felt love for the rich young ruler who decided he would not follow Jesus (Mark 10:21). Jesus demonstrated a love that gave people freedom to accept or reject him. We need to imitate Jesus by giving people freedom to choose.

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the Golden Rule.

Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).” Surely everyone wants freedom to follow their conscience without coercion. We must grant to everyone the same thing that we desire. We need to obey this command which summarizes the ethical demands of the Law and the Prophets.

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the love command.

Jesus said one of the greatest commands is to “love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).” The standard for love in this command is the phrase “as yourself”. In other words, love means that I treat my neighbors just how I want to be treated. I want the freedom and protection to worship. This then is what I would want for my neighbor.

  1. Freedom of religion is based on the call to justice.

The Old Testament frequently defines justice in terms of protecting the rights of the poor and needy.

  • “Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute (Psalm 82:3 NLT).”
  • “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows (Isaiah 1:17 NLT).”
  • “They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans (Isaiah 10:2 NLT).”

In other words, “God’s justice aims at creating an egalitarian community in which all classes of people maintain their basic human rights,”6 including the right to freedom of religion. Furthermore, religious freedom is not about “just us,” it is about justice! Therefore we promote and protect it for all.

In 2008 I led a conference in Kenya of fifty evangelical leaders from around the world. One of the issues on the table was how to counter the increasing alienation between Muslims and Christians. I began the session with a presentation about my experience in the Common Word Dialogue at Yale—one of the highest profile dialogues between Christians and Muslims in modern times.7 Many rejoiced to hear of the positive and robust dialogue that took place, and especially that evangelical leaders engaged in this dialogue without compromising the gospel.8

One of the negative results of the Common Word Dialogue was that evangelicals were divided over how to respond. A large number (including myself) were positive about the Common Word, while a vocal minority was negative. There were many evangelicals caught in between, sympathetic to the dialogue, but not feeling like they could sign the Yale response because they disagreed with a few important phrases.9

So we faced two crucial issues in Kenya: (1) increasing alienation between Muslims and Christians and (2) growing tension and division between evangelicals about how to respond to Muslims. In response to this I wrote a consensus document for evangelicals called “The Grace and Truth Affirmation”. This later grew into my book, Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims.10 In this document, we commend nine biblical guidelines for Christlike relations with Muslims, one of which is to be persistent in our call for religious freedom. Note that this statement affirms both the right to conversion along with the responsibility of ethical witness:
“We affirm the right of religious freedom for every person and community. We defend the right of Muslims to express their faith respectfully among Christians and of Christians to express their faith respectfully among Muslims. Moreover we affirm the right of Muslims and Christians alike to change religious beliefs, practices and/or affiliations according to their conscience. Thus we stand against all forms of religious persecution toward Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. God desires all people to make faith choices based on conscience and conviction rather than any form of coercion or violence (2 Corinthians 4:2).”11

This kind of emphasis on human rights puts some evangelicals on edge. I can imagine someone asking, “As evangelicals we do not want to oppress other religions, but do we not want our government to favor the Christian faith? Is that not better for us, especially since Christianity is the truth?”

The famous First Amendment to the Constitution was crafted carefully so that our government would not do that. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”12 This “establishment clause” was intended to eliminate the possibility of a state church (like the Church of England, from which some of our forefathers fled). The “free exercise clause” was intended to preserve the right of citizens to believe according to the dictates of their own conscience.”13

A story about Benjamin Franklin illustrates what this meant to the Founding Fathers in practice. When churches closed their doors to the famous evangelist George Whitefield, Franklin built a new hall where he could speak. But this was not just for Christians. It was for the use of all religions. Franklin boasted, “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”14 For Benjamin Franklin the First Amendment meant there was a place for both the leading American evangelical and the Muslim Mufti of Constantinople in America!

This emphasis on religious liberty provides four important benefits. First, it resists political coercion. We do not want our government—or any government anywhere—dictating or unduly influencing our faith commitments and practices. Our faith is between us and God.

Second, it allows for a healthy expression of diversity. We live in an increasingly multi-religious, and multi-cultural world. According to Harvard professor Diana Eck, “The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth.”15

Third, it allows for open-minded investigation of thought. It frees up people to examine, explore and consider alternatives. The gospel is in the marketplace of ideas.

Fourth, it keeps our faith pure. Pressuring people to accept the gospel does not produce true disciples. Freedom of religion allows people to make choices out of their own free will, which leads to authentic Jesus followers.16

I agree with Steven Waldman’s studied assessment: “The Founding Faith, then, was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty—a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone.”17 And Jesus does fine in an environment where there is freedom of religion!

But is this emphasis on religious freedom part of our mission? Are we getting off track to be concerned about this ethical issue? The Evangelical Manifesto, signed by a veritable “who’s who” of evangelicals gives wholehearted support to this cause:18

“Let it be known unequivocally that we are committed to religious liberty for people of all faiths, including the right to convert to, or from the Christian faith. We are firmly opposed to the imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society…We are also concerned about the illiberalism of politically correct attacks on evangelism. We have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose on anyone beliefs and behavior that we have not persuaded them to adopt freely, and that we do not demonstrate in our own lives, above all by love…Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew, and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and right for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land.”19

Freedom of religion is not only biblical and constitutional, but it also has positive and powerful implications in the real world. Brian Grimm’s research led him to this startling conclusion: “Our research on 143 countries finds that when governments and religious groups in society do not erect barriers to religious competition but respect and protect such activities as conversion and proselytism, religious violence is less…In sum, religious freedom promotes stability, helps to consolidate democracy, and lessens religious violence”.20

Christians and Muslims, those of other religions, and those with no religion, let us commit ourselves to a “double-edged” jihad—one that defends the rights of one’s own community as well as the rights of all communities. This is a peace jihad—an essential part of Christian mission in the 21st century!21


1The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, 2003, pp. 159-160.
5David Gushee, in his brilliant book, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World’s Future, p. 33, draws out the implication of humanity being created in God’s image:
Human life is sacred … Through God’s revelation in Scripture and incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has declared and demonstrated the sacred worth of human beings and will hold us accountable for responding appropriately…It includes offering due respect and care to each human being that we encounter. It extends to an obligation to protect human life from wanton destruction, desecration, or the violation of human rights. A full embrace of the sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing”
6Mafico, T. L. J. (1992). Just, Justice. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, p. 1129). New York: Doubleday.
7“Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed,“ Yale Divinity School website, July 17, 2008,
8One hundred and thirty-eight Muslim scholars from virtually every Islamic country or region in the world, representing every major school of Islamic thought (e.g. Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, etc.), invited Christians to dialogue. These Muslim scholars maintained that the common ground between Muslims and Christians centers on the commands to love the one true God and to love our neighbor. This invitation is referred to as “A Common Word between Us and You“ ( Because of this, the Yale Reconciliation Program has responded with the publication of “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’“ (henceforth “the Yale response“). The Yale response was featured in a full-page ad in the New York Times (Nov 18, 2007), with over 300 Christian signatories. (There are now over 600.) I happened to be at Yale on sabbatical doing post-doctoral studies when this happened, so I was recruited to help put on the dialogue in conjunction with the Reconciliation Program of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture ( For historical background and my report on this see
9For a helpful description of tension among evangelicals see page nine of my paper, “Conversion, Respectful Witness and Freedom of Religion,“
10Ultimately this consensus document became the basis of a book on the topic. See Rick Love, Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims.
11“Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation,“
12“Bill of Rights,“ National Archives website, date accessed January 18, 2015,
13See Kemeny, P.C., ed. Church, State and Public Justice (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
14Quoted in Waldman, Founding Faith, 30.
15Eck, A New Religious America, 4.
16Roberts, Real Time Connections, 194-195.
17Waldman, Founding Faith, xvi.
18The Cape Town Commitment, which is part of the Lausanne Movement, also acknowledges this priority. Under Section IIC, “Living the love of Christ among people of other faiths,“ point 6, it reads: “Love works for religious freedom for all people. Upholding human rights by defending religious freedom is not incompatible with following the way of the cross when confronted with persecution. There is no contradiction between being willing personally to suffer the abuse or loss of our own rights for the sake of Christ, and being committed to advocate and speak up for those who are voiceless under the violation of their human rights. We must also distinguish between advocating the rights of people of other faiths and endorsing the truth of their beliefs. We can defend the freedom of others to believe and practise their religion without accepting that religion as true. Let us strive for the goal of religious freedom for all people. This requires advocacy before governments on behalf of Christians and people of other faiths who are persecuted.” (
Pastor John Piper also supports Christian advocacy for religious freedom. In the “Grace and Truth Exposition,” (a much longer, comprehensive document related to the “Grace and Truth Affirmation“) we quote his incisive rationale for religious freedom. “Christians are tolerant of other faiths not because there is no absolute truth or that all faiths are equally valuable, but because the one who is Absolute Truth, Jesus Christ, forbids the spread of his truth by the sword. Christian tolerance is the commitment that keeps lovers of competing faiths from killing each other. Christian tolerance is the principle that puts freedom above forced conversion, because it’s rooted in the conviction that forced conversion is no conversion at all. Freedom to preach, to teach, to publish, to assemble for worship—these convictions flow from the essence of the Christian faith. Therefore we protect it for all“ (“Grace and Truth Exposition,“ 2005,
19“An Evangelical Manifesto,“ May 7, 2008,
20Quoted in Real-Time Connections by Bob Roberts Jr., 191.
21Daneshforooz, Loving Our Religious Neighbors, p 64.