Freedom of religion requires freedom to offend

Christianity isn’t just offensive to Muslims; it’s offensive to everybody. The Gospel calls us all to account for our sin. It tells us there is no such thing as “self-help,” we have no power, no solution for sin in ourselves. It promises us death and eternal destruction unless we confess, repent, and place all our confidence in a crucified Jew, now raised from the dead — who claimed, by the way, to be the very Son of God.

Of course, God is love, but what is said in love may yet give offense. The law of God requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Paul teaches that we should not seek offense (1 Corinthians 10:32), and he can proudly say that “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense” (Acts 25:8). And yet, throughout his public ministry we see scenes reminiscent of Cairo and Benghazi. Ephesus and Jerusalem erupt in righteous anger at his proclamation of the risen Christ as Lord (Acts 19, 21). God offends Jew and Gentile alike.

Ironically, this offensiveness of Christianity is why the freedom of religion is the only public policy position for which we can claim the direct support of the New Testament. As Paul is driven from synagogue and marketplace across the Mediterranean, he appeals to Roman authorities on the basis of the rights he possesses as a Roman citizen for the freedom to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles may be read as an apology for Christianity as a religion of peace and love, while its opponents claim falsely that it “upsets the world,” even as they do. While the church has often fallen short of this ideal, the teaching of the New Testament is the basis for true religious tolerance.

Christianity not only may give offense, it must give offense. The embassy statement was wrong. “Respect for religious beliefs” is not a cornerstone of our democracy. Respect for our fellow man, and his right to dissent, is. There is a world of difference. A freedom merely to exercise an inoffensive religion is no freedom at all.

Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.