IS(N’T) CHRISTIANITY AN OPPRESSIVE RELIGION?
“On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion [on abortion] in “Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization”. Although this decision did not make abortion on demand illegal in the United States, it returned the issue of abortion regulations to state legislatures, meaning that each state can now regulate or restrict abortion as it chooses. Immediately, people began protesting. Men and women gathered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere across the country, yelling and carrying signs with typical pro-abortion sentiments expressing outrage that the Supreme Court had made it legal to “oppress” women by giving the states power to severely curtail or even outlaw the “right” to kill an unborn child. In many of these protests, vehement anti-Christian language could be found. Protesters recognized the role that Christians had played in the Dobbs decision because of their decades of anti-abortion work, and they insisted that Christianity is an oppressive religion.
To evaluate the charge, we first need to have a clear understanding of oppression. Yet that is not often what we find from those who charge that Christianity is an oppressive religion. Often, at least in the West, people cry “oppression” when they are told that they cannot do something they want to do. Tell a woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy for any reason whatsoever that she cannot do so, and you might be called an oppressor. Reject the notion that two men can get married, and somebody will accuse you of oppressing people who engage in homosexual acts.
But is it oppression simply to be restricted from doing something that you really want to do? Of course not. Laws are made all the time that restrict us from being able to do what we want to do. Are speed limits oppressive? What about laws against murder?
Oppression cannot be conceived of merely as a restriction on something we might want to do. It is, rather, an offense against justice and the humane treatment of others, but who gets to define justice and humane treatment? Ultimately, it is God, who defines justice and kindness in His moral law, which is revealed in the conscience and given to us in Scripture. Restricting abortion on demand or aberrant definitions of marriage is not oppressive, and the reason is that God’s law says that it is cruel and unjust to take an innocent life and harmful to children and others to allow for the expression of sexual immorality. Those who make accusations of oppression but do not heed the law of God have no real grounds on which to make the charge. When people accuse Christians of oppression, it is right for us to demand that they define oppression and then to point them to the law of God as the only thing that can define oppression for all people.” (“Is Christianity Oppressive” – article by Robert Rothwell 2022 in “TableTalk”)
Is Christianity an oppressive religion?
Well…there are two aspects of this question that we have to give a definition of:
- “Religion”: this is NOT the same as “faith”. Faith is what we believe and in whom we put our trust: thus, I put my faith in Jesus – in Him I trust; He is my Saviour and I will follow Him. Religion is “man’s understanding of how to live out their faith”: thus, I will not swear or kill or cheat and I will go to church on a Sunday and read my Bible every day.
- “Oppression”: this is when I force someone to behave or live in a certain way or subject them to control or persecution – I make them suffer wrongly and unnecessarily.
Yes, it has been! In my definition of religion and oppression, then YES it has been, and still can be oppressive.
- In the “world” (i.e., outside of the Church) we have historically forced others to follow Christ and killed those who have not (witness the Crusades of the Middle Ages). Even in the Early Modern Age Spanish Conquistadors gained conversions of Central and South American indigenous tribes at gunpoint. So-called Christians not only owned slaves but traded them – transporting them in horrendous conditions to the New World – claiming that the Bible sanctioned this.
- In the Church we have forced others to follow rules that are man-made: you will NOT eat meat on a Friday; you will obey the Pope without question. Even in the Protestant tradition the Church has oppressed people – to follow a certain doctrine or life-style (wearing hats, hair cut short) or to face censure or even excommunication.
It is right to apologise for the hurts that our Religion has caused to the peoples of the world and to those in our churches by our un-Biblical and un-Godly behaviours.
I was very interested, this very day, by an announcement from Peter Johnson, co-chair of the Church of Scotland “Faith Impact Forum” who was speaking about the fact that in the past the Church benefited from slavery. He rightly declared that “the church now is not the same as it was then” but that the legacy of past oppression – seen in racism and statues to slave traders – remains. Therefore, “part of that is thinking about an apology for what went on in the past…which says something about what we are as a church today” (interview with UCB 2 on the 12th May 2023).
But our “religion” is NOT the same as the TRUTH of our faith. Our religion is NOT always the way that God means us to live. Our religion is NOT always how the Bible teaches us to live.
In fact, I believe, that far from Christianity being an “oppressive” religion, it should be one of love, peace, understanding and FREEDOM:
IS THERE ANY BASIS FOR CHRISTIANITY TO BE AN OPPRESSIVE RELIGION TO THE WORLD?
- Those who have enforced conversion (though it is no real conversion) and baptism (though it is no real baptism) on others “at the end of a gun” cite their wish that none perish and be condemned to Hell – better to force them into the church, they would say, than to see them outside of it and die eternally. Maybe this is a noble hope – but it is un-Biblical: for FAITH is needed to receive the Grace of God – and you cannot force faith! We will not do this! We will not practice this oppressive religion!
- Those who have killed those who are not Christians (such as the Moslems in the Crusades of the 11th and 12th Centuries) cite many Biblical examples of God commanding His people to destroy those nations who stood against the Israelites.
Here is an example: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15: 3). This is the command of the Prophet and Judge, Samuel, to the king of Israel, Saul. And when Saul failed to ensure that this was fully carried out, God declared: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions” (verse 11).
To us, living in the 21st C and knowing that God, the Righteous Judge, shall carry out justice AFTER death when all are judged according to whether their names are written in the “Lamb’s Book of Life”, this seems SOOOO harsh! Can our God truly be “Love” when He commands such things?
But…AT THAT TIME, with pronouncements made against the Amalekites and commands to destroy all the nations in Canaan which stood in the way of the Israelites entering and ruling the Promised Land, God was acting (through man) to ensure that His people were safe and protected not only physically and materially, but also Spiritually – for He knew that they would so easily be turned away from Him by the orgiastic practices of the nations that lived in the land and their worship of other – false – gods. A good Father will always protect their child – and the Hebrews were God’s children.
Does all of this justify killing peoples now? Well, it was used by the religion of many to do so! But not so now! We understand that God loves ALL mankind, that He is not willing that ANY should perish, and that we have the Word and the Spirit within us as God’s protection over our lives. Our religion is NOT to kill others in the Name of God. God shall deal with all rebellion against Him.
- This therefore is my religion when it comes to the world: I will not accept your faith, your philosophy or your lifestyle; I will not compromise with your faith, your philosophy or your lifestyle; but I will love you DESPITE your faith, your philosophy and your lifestyle. Rather than oppress the world, my religion is to LOVE the world. If God “so loves the world” (John 3: 16), then so should we – there is no justification for our religion being oppressive. For “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7).
IS THERE ANY BASIS FOR CHRISTIANITY TO BE AN OPPRESSIVE RELIGION IN THE CHURCH?
There seems to be a contradiction in the Bible. Jesus appears to be saying one thing and Paul appears to be saying another…
What does Jesus say?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 17-20).
Oh my goodness! That sounds like Jesus saying that we do have to abide by the legalism of the Old Testament Law. But…hang on…Jesus speaks of coming to “fulfil” the Law. What does this mean? Many see Him as saying that the Law was always pointing to Him – so things like sacrifices of sheep and bulls was showing what He would do to save us from our sins – so we don’t have to sacrifice anymore as He became the sacrifice for us – for all time. We are not breaking the Law by NOT sacrificing – we are recognising that Jesus did this for us and that accepting His sacrifice is accepting the Law.
What does Paul say?
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’ 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5: 1-12)
These are pretty strong words! Circumcision was the act commanded on Jews to show that they were God’s people. Paul is clearly saying here: “DON’T DO IT!” Why? Because the symbol of circumcision was legalistic. It WAS needed as the sign of being in God’s family. IT IS NO LONGER THE SIGN – we are told that this sign is now written in our hearts.
Paul is NOT saying that the Law is wrong, or unnecessary. He is saying that the Law is now INSIDE of us. It is an attitude, a lifestyle. He is NOT saying that we can do whatever we want now that we are Christians. He is saying that as followers of Christ we KNOW the Law in our hearts. As believers in the Word, we KNOW the Law in our minds*. As new creations by the Holy Spirit we KNOW the Law in our souls. As Christians we follow the Law in word and in deed.
[*God promised His people that this is how it would be in the New Covenant: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31: 33).]
One of the biggest criticisms of pre-Christian Judea was that the Law had been augmented, fenced in, amplified, by huge numbers of man-made additions to the Law – instituted to seek to ensure that the Law itself was never broken (like how many miles you could walk on the Sabbath Day and whether feeding your ox was an act of work making you guilty as a Sabbath-breaker).
Paul is saying, “NO!”. Man-made laws are not needed anymore! We have been freed from them. We have been freed to move and live in the Spirit. We have been freed from all man’s (influenced by the devil, say many) condemnations – we are Secure (in our salvation as God’s children) and do not need man-made rituals; we are Significant (in our calling as God’s children) and do not need man-made rules; we are Accepted (in our standing as God’s children) and do not need rites and rituals to make us so.
- Rather than litter our church with man-made laws and requirements we should live in the FREEDOM that Christ has given us. This is NOT a licence to do whatever we want – in fact Jesus, Himself, told us that not one jot of the Law will pass away. Rather, the freedom that we experience is in living in God’s BEST way for us – which liberates rather than oppresses.
- This therefore is my religion when it comes to the church: if you are living wrongly, I will not accept, or compromise or condone your wrong living; but I will love you DESPITE your lifestyle. My religion is not to oppress you, but to love you.
CONCLUSIONS AND CHALLENGES
Religion HAS been oppressive in the world: not just Christianity but also Islam where to this day millions of God’s people are persecuted and imprisoned and killed for their faith, and Hinduism which does the same in India, and Communism which does the same in China. And so, the list goes on and on.
Religion HAS been oppressive in the church: man-made rules, impossible to keep, leading to failure and a feeling of “not being good enough”. In my late teens I joined a wonderful church, full of wonderful people. But it had elements still of what is known as “heavy shepherding” – we were NOT to drink alcohol (how guilty I felt as I did so in secret…and I’m not talking about getting drunk! Just enjoying a glass of wine with my meal!). Another church I knew dictated what newspapers you could read. Another what clothes you could wear! Another said that you should not go to the cinema or watch TV because this would lead you astray!
Let our religion be that of James 1: 27 –
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world…
…a Christian religion (or lifestyle) that is kind and loving and faithful and caring and honourable.
Love is the opposite of oppression. Let our religion be that of love – not “soppy” love, not “you can do whatever you want” love. But true, Godly, Agape, love – a love that says “I want the best for you – so I encourage you to not do those things that will hurt you or hurt others but I encourage you to do those things that will build you up, make you a better person and draw you closer to your Father in Heaven so that you will spend the whole of eternity with Him.
OUR Christian religion is NOT oppressive!
OUR Christian religion is FREEING and LOVING!