Before embarking on his missionary journey to India, William Carey famously told Andrew Fuller, “I will go down into the pit, if you will hold the ropes.” Most people remember Carey as one of the fathers of the modern missionary movement. But fewer remember Fuller as the man who organized, raised funds, and built a lasting enterprise to ensure the success of gospel endeavors.
Today missions movements are still enabled by rope-holders—committed believers who pray, send money, and staff organizations that equip and send missionaries to foreign lands. But there’s another aspect of gospel advance that also goes unnoticed: the fight for religious liberty, that first freedom which many consider under threat.
What does an issue tied to the First Amendment have to do with a bloody cross? After all, asserting “rights” seems contrary to the witness of Christ, who set aside his rights for the sake of others, what we’re told to mimic. Even worse, for some opponents, religious liberty is nowadays cast as a bludgeon to somehow discriminate against homosexuals.
Today, some Christians even seem to lust after persecution, viewing it as a mark of true Christian identity. It is, that’s true. We serve a Savior who, by his own life and death, calls us to similarly come and die. And the church is built on the blood of martyrs. But for some in this camp, the persecuted and underground churches of Asia are trotted out as moral exemplars, teaching Christians that “rights” are extraneous to embracing the sufferings of the cross.
We’re sympathetic, up to a point, but fear there’s a well-intentioned, but naive romanticism that the American church has adopted toward persecution. There’s nobility in solidarity, of course. But imagine you’re a 36 year-old pastor of an underground church with 12 members. You can’t publicly identify as a Christian. There are no seminaries, so you can’t receive further education in the Scriptures. You can’t safely have a Bible tucked beneath your arm. You’re viewed with suspicion, even contempt by the governing authorities. Your best friend, another pastor, “disappeared” when his church failed to evade authorities.
Ask yourself: Would you rather persist in this state of hardship? Or, instead, would you rather have the freedom to exercise your religion openly? Would you rather subject your church to the margins? Or, would you rather conduct your affairs without a hint of government meddling?
We could be wrong, but we’d hedge our bets that most would choose the latter. Religious liberty is like a lineman, clearing the way for a running back to score, like pavement on the road to a destination, like a machete, clearing the brush through the jungle.
Christ is building his Church, so the gospel will advance, regardless. Yet we see no virtue in embracing obstacles which impede the message and bring hardship to its messengers.
Paul modeled this well, both as a faithful Apostle and as Roman citizen. While he reminds us of our ultimate and true citizenship in Heaven, he was not shy about asserting his rights as a Roman citizen to escape punishment and stand before Caesar (Acts 22). Paul and most of the Apostles did not escape the sword of the state, but it’s not as if they joyfully requested martyrdom. Because while persecution can purify and build a church, freedom gives space for gospel advance.
A small state and a large church—this is why Paul instructed Timothy to pray for a government that would allow space for the Church to pursue it’s gospel mission (1 Timothy 2:2). Governments that allow religious freedom, whether acknowledging it or not, are doing the work of God. They are self-policing by voluntarily restricting themselves from spheres where they have no reign or jurisdiction.
Government is instituted by God, yes, but there is precedent for resisting a government that invades the human conscience. Jesus taught us that Caesar has limited authority. He is not God and we are not made in his likeness (Matthew 22:20-22).
So Christians who advocate for religious liberty are holding the ropes of those who labor to plant churches, evangelize, and equip the body of Christ in a society. As Southern Baptists, we point, with pride, to the work of an unrelenting Baptist, John Leland, who fought tirelessly for religious liberty during the colonial period. His influence, along with others like Roger Williams, helped enshrine religious liberty in the Bill of Rights.
Those of us who live under the umbrella of freedom, working to spread the gospel in our communities, would do well to not forget the work of men like Leland and Williams, who tilled the cultural ground so we might see a harvest of spiritual fruit. Minimizing the fight for liberty is a backhanded slap to someone who once held our ropes.
The work of those who advocate for religious liberty and the work of those who preach the gospel every week in churches are not at odds with each other. So to our gospel-loving colleagues, who labor faithfully in communities across the country, we say, “You go down and we’ll hold the ropes.”