Question: "Does God oppose religious freedom in the Old Testament?"
Answer: Most modern cultures value religious freedom as one of the underpinnings of society. Like the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony, we see religious freedom as a basic human right. However, people sometimes wonder if religious liberty is at odds with the Old Testament Law. In Deuteronomy, God explicitly commands His people to worship Him only and to avoid any other god. Deuteronomy 6:14–15 says, “Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” This seems to mean God opposes religious freedom.
First, it is important to clearly define religious freedom. A belief in religious liberty is a belief that each individual should have the ability to choose how (and whom) to worship. God commanded the Israelites to worship only Him, yet people were free to choose whether or not they obeyed His command. Of course, God clearly communicated negative consequences to those who disobeyed.
There are passages in Deuteronomy that speak of destroying nations that followed other gods. Deuteronomy 7:4 also notes that the Israelites could not intermarry with people from other nations to avoid partaking of their idolatry. It is important to keep in mind two different elements were at work in this time period—spiritual teaching and military operations. God did not want to His people to intermarry with people who would lead them to follow other gods. The Lord also had predicted that there would be war between Israel and other nations in the process of moving to the Promised Land. Also, the Mosaic Law established a theocracy to govern the chosen people of Israel in a particular time and place; no such theocracy exists today, and the Bible does not promote the establishment of one.
Christian teachings support religious freedom today. While the Bible clearly teaches there is one way to God (John 14:6) and there is a particular God to worship, no one is to be forced to believe in Jesus Christ. Instead, Jesus commanded His followers to go into all the world and make disciples by teaching and baptizing them (Matthew 28:18–20). Those who reject the message are condemned by God, but they cannot be forced to believe the teachings of Christianity or to follow them.
Under the Old Covenant, God governed His people in all matters, legal, cultural, moral, and religious. We are no longer under the Old Covenant (Galatians 5:18). Under the New Covenant, we follow the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), but everyone is free to accept or reject Christ. There is no coercion in the gospel message, only a call to repent and believe. No human law or government has the ability to create faith in the heart, and any government that mandates faith is misguided. The Bible allows for people to freely choose whether to follow the teachings of Christianity—with the warning that one’s eternal destiny is at stake.
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