Recently, a colleague and I were called as witnesses before a Parliamentary Committee exploring Section 18C of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act. We were asked to describe our experience of being at the pointy end of an anti-discrimination complaint, and what we thought about such “hate laws”.

The recurring question was, “Where do you think we should draw the line for freedom of expression and conscience?” “At what points does free expression become harmful to the extent that the State ought to step in and curtail it?”

These questions were just as acute in 17th century Europe, when the Westminster Confession of Faith was written.

Within the previous century England had lurched back and forth three times between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and each group had been harshly persecuted by the other. As well, the idea of absolute monarchy was gaining ground, and the Stuart kings’ taste for ecclesiastical conformity to the state-established Church of England was strong.

The Pilgrim Fathers had already sailed, in 1620, to find religious liberty in Massachusetts. And Protestant refugees were arriving daily from France, telling how the Bourbon kings were dismantling their rights to work in the civil service, to maintain schools, to assemble as churches, and to baptise and raise their children as they saw fit.

In short, the Westminster Assembly knew that Christian freedom and liberty of conscience had to be very carefully defined. Today we see a general ambivalence towards liberty of conscience, and even a growing will to crush it. It grows harder to live as a Christian, and it may well be very much harder for our grandchildren. The statements of chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession will be keenly interesting to every thinking Christian.

Section 1 paints a glorious vista of the freedom that Christ has purchased for His people. We are free “from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation.” As well we have “free access to God… yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind”

Thus Christians are free “from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected”. Christ frees us from slavery to food laws, circumcision, and any other religious rites as a means to salvation.

The Confession now builds a bridge from our soteriological freedom to our civil freedom: for Israel was a theocracy, the Sanhedrin was a religio-political authority, and there was no clear demarcation between Jewish religious and civil law. To be freed from the ceremonial law was, therefore, to be freed from certain “laws of Judea” –laws that were unnecessary for salvation, or which dishonoured God’s Saviour and King.

Section 2 thus begins with the bold and far-reaching declaration that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”. God alone determines ultimately what is right and wrong, and the Christian lives and obeys accordingly. What are the implications? First, our conscience is “free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship”.

The civil authorities make laws and we must obey them, except when they contradict the laws of the Supreme King. First, this means that when the civil authority commands us to act against God’s law we must say “no”.  Second, this means “that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience”. Third, we must not require of someone “an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience”. We must live according to our conscience, shaped by God, and no power may command arbitrary obedience, to say “Obey because I say!” In fact to obey in this circumstance “is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also”.

Knowing our inveterate tendency to twist God’s good gifts to evil, section 3 warns against the abuse of freedom: “They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life.” We are freed from sin, not to sin.

Section 4 says that Christians ought then to obey the lawful laws of our God-given authorities, whether “civil or ecclesiastical”. Christ has not freed us from civil obedience, but to it.

The second part of section 4 seems alarmingly anti-freedom-of-expression. The Church may censure, and the civil magistrate may act against those who “publish such opinions, or maintain such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church”.

Read alongside chapter 23, we see that the Commissioners expected civil magistrates to be godly and to do their part in maintaining godly conduct in society, “that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed” (cf. Calvin, Institutes 4.20.2). This scheme was never realised in England, nor to my knowledge in any other nation since. Nevertheless, the Confession expected godly magistrates to take on a shepherding role, to play a part in protecting society from harmful teaching and example.

Whether or not we agree with this scheme, or the way it is framed, the Confession has laid down some basic principles of freedom of conscience that every Christian should adhere to.

First, we must recognise that God appoints civil authorities, and so we must pray for them, pay our taxes, and obey their commands when they do not contradict the commands of God (Romans 13:1-7).

Second, we must not obey the civil authorities when they command us to do evil. This was the laudable example of the Hebrew midwives under Pharaoh; of Daniel and his friends in Babylon; and of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, who had commanded them to cease preaching, and thus disobey the Great Commission. Their response was axiomatic: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29.)

Third, we must publicly contend that ultimate rule is never invested in civil authority, and that we are all—ruled and rulers—subject to God’s transcendent authority. Civil authorities must not make laws that disregard freedom of conscience, or that prevent people from living according to their conscience.

Finally, we must contend that our freedom to live worshipful lives is God-given. Civil authorities have no right “to grant religious freedom”. Beware, for when they do claim this right, they claim the correlating right to remove religious freedom. And in time they will.

Get ready, for this is exactly what is happening in our nation right now.