St. Augustine’s reasoning, on force and human freedom, demonstrates how essential it is for Christians to balance their desire that all persons know God’s truth as revealed in Jesus Christ with their recognition that the only coercion they should apply is that of reason and love.
The essential flaw of Augustine’s argument is the assumption that the end justifies the means. The end, in this case, is commendable. But the question that must be posed is clear: “Does love not decree the means as well as the end?” Agape love never allows one to detach the means from the end.
Love may reason, urge and plead. But love does not coerce or force. Christians cannot employ means that do not give the fullest attention to the latter’s freedom and personal integrity. Agape simply cannot use force by definition. To apply love in this way usurps God’s prerogative and contradicts love’s very nature.
God created humanity not out of an inherent need but out of love. We were designed for personal communion with God. Human love responds to, and reciprocates, divine love. If communion is forced then it is not real communion.
Peter Abelard, in the Middle Ages, understood this point when he insisted that God chose the way of the servant to reach us.
This point must be clear–God does not relinquish judgment to human beings. Final judgment belongs to him alone. It would be helpful if all Christians remembered this in their response to people and beliefs in our present society.
True defenders of religious liberty have long made this point–belief, right or wrong, is an entirely personal matter. True belief involves not merely rational assent but an intensely personal relationship between two personal beings.
But what is the basis for the freedom to proclaim a message, to assemble a group, to engage in corporate (missional) activity? Though elements of this freedom were brought to the surface by the Enlightenment the true seeds of religious liberty can be discovered in Scripture, especially in understanding agape.
Liberty as a universal right was implicitly recognized in the second century by Justin Martyr who gave a most eloquent plea for the freedom to believe without constraint. Tertullian of Carthage echoed the same sentiment in the third century. Tertullian said, “Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions. One man’s religion neither helps nor harms another man.” He added, “It is not in the nature of religion to coerce religion, which must be adopted freely and not by force.”
So far as I can tell no Christian, before Constantine, demanded liberty for Christians alone. Here is how Tertullian put this very point: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.” He added, “It is not in the nature of religion to coerce religion, which must be adopted freely and not by force.”
But such views of liberty were still-born in the early stages of Christian expansion. The reasons for this are several and not all are related to the elevation of Constantine as emperor. Later, the humanists, the anabaptists, and the various non-Catholic radicals, all resurrected this conversation following the Magisterial Reformation. The “lively experiment” of Roger Williams comes particularly to mind since America was uniquely prepared for this vision.
For Roger Williams the preservation of liberty depended on the complete separation of church and state. In this stance he was reacting not to Catholicism but to Puritan and Anglican concepts of God and the state. He argued that it was not necessary for religion to be formally married to the affairs of the state.
The civil magistrate is only to attend the calling of the civil magistracy concerning the bodies and goods of the subjects, and is himself, if a member of the church and within, subject to the power of the Lord Jesus therein, as any member of the church is; cf. 1 Corinthians 5.
In 1654 Williams employed an analogy to explain and defend his position against those who contended that his approach to liberty would bind the magistrate’s power completely.
There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges–that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further all, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ships’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers.
Underlying everything Williams understood was this simple conviction–all genuine faith must be voluntary. No amount of coercion should ever be used to bring people to Christ. All such action can do is encourage hypocrisy. Only one means can and should be used to bring people to Christ, the word of God.
While I am concerned about the drift of our culture into radical secularism I also do not believe the way most Christians are attempting to influence the state is genuinely beneficial to either. Vatican II did not teach this truth, as I have stated it, at least not entirely. But it got so much closer to true freedom as to make previous moments in her history look like a dark past. For this I am profoundly grateful.