Monday, December 31, 2018

Freedom of religion and the spread of the gospel

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

“At 4 o’clock in the morning, the doorbell rang, then again and again. There were three strangers there – two were wearing suits and one a military uniform. “We have a search warrant”, said their leader, then he pushed me back and intruded into the sleeping house.
Within three hours they rummaged everything – books, beds, cabinets, drawers. When at about 7 the sunshine shone through the window, they ordered me to go with them for a ‘little inquiry’…”
Thank God, this is not a story of the present. But it is not fiction either. It’s a real story. This took place in the life of a Bulgarian pastor, Haralan Popov, in the first years of the communist regime.
But now the situation is very different, someone would say. Now we live in a democracy, none of these things happen. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by our Constitution: “All citizens shall be equal before the law. There shall be no privileges or restriction of rights on the grounds of race, national or social origin, ethnic self-identity, sex, religion…” (Article 6); “The practicing of any religion shall be unrestricted. (2) Religious institutions shall be separate from the State.” (Article 13)
Yet, in the last three months our parliament tried hard to violate these fundamental rights. Christians in Bulgaria had a sad reminder of a bygone communist past.
It all started with a parliamentarian bill sponsored by three political parties passed on first reading in October. The bill supposedly aimed at preventing religious terrorism but actually violated the freedom of religion, especially of the smaller denominations.
When I am writing this the bill has already been passed on second reading. Thanks to the peaceful protests, hundreds of letters to the MPs, pressure from abroad and the prayers of the saints, most of these restrictive texts were dropped out. Yet a few of these clauses remained in the new law. How would this affect the churches?
For now it looks like the evangelical churches won a victory. The relative freedom we have enjoyed will more or less continue. Bulgarian evangelicals can take a breath of fresh air. Yet, the fact that we are taking the win does not mean that we are blind to the fact of the totalitarian tendencies of the government.
All this is happening against the backdrop of a new wave of persecution in the Middle East, India, Northern Africa and China, and resurgence of nationalism in Europe. Would we have freedom of religion in Bulgaria in the long run? Would new restrictive measures hinder the spread of the gospel?
Opinions are split. Many fear that the Church won’t be able to do the Great Commission. Our wings will be cut off and we won’t be able to fly to the unreached; our legs will be amputated to go to the needy, our hands will be broken to reach the hungry.
Indeed, we have seen this in our history. During communism the Church survived but didn’t thrive. She was deprived of its best leaders, had no access to the public arena, and evangelism was a risky business. I myself learned about the existence of the evangelical churches only after the fall of communism.
On the other hand, there are other voices saying that the Church needs to be shaken up and sifted, so that the chaff is separated from the wheat (Matthew 3:12). The proponents of this view point to communist China where in the last 30 years Christianity has grown to more than 100 million adherents.
Though persecuted, the early church, also grew rapidly in number. Persecution caused many to flee and take the gospel to the ends of the Roman world.
If we believe that God is our King, no restrictions in secular laws should be able to hinder the gospel. Yet, are we ready to pay the price?
Personally, I think that as Christians we should treasure and defend our freedom of religion because God created us with this “unalienable right”. Religious freedom is rooted in the Scriptures and is at the heart of the gospel.
This is seen in the fact that God doesn’t coerce but invites his followers in a relationship with him. God is love, and love presupposes freedom. Christian commitment to religious freedom reflects our beliefs about the character of the Creator.
Secondly, the struggle for religious freedom is part and parcel of the second great commandment to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:38). God has given each human being dignity. When the basic human right of religious freedom is not granted, human dignity is damaged. 
And, last, restrictions on religious freedom hinder people from hearing the gospel and receiving the greatest gift imaginable, salvation and eternal life.
It is true that Christianity in China is growing rapidly in spite of restrictions and pressure from the state. Yet, how can we be sure that it will not grow even faster provided there is freedom of religion in the vast country. The rapid evangelization of South Korea is a case in point.
Back to our situation,ws should be  where it said that  and Chinar places in the world is to е църквата при Себе Си. Гото if the state continues to exert more control over the church in Bulgaria it is possible that some Christians would emigrate to places where they can have their unalienable rights granted. This would bless their receiving countries but will render Bulgarian society rather saltless.
At the same time, many churches would have to go underground. Other churchgoers would just be happy with state interference in church life. Orthodox propaganda would increase and state control would also grow. This might lead to a situation similar to what we had during communism.
Plato said, "The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." Once we paid that penalty and we are still recovering from that evil. May God give us wisdom and courage to defend our religious freedom and make sure all Bulgarian citizens have access to the gospel.