There is a popular series of science fiction novels that centres around a fictional book titled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Guide is “a wholly remarkable book” and “a highly successful one,” having “already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.” While “it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate,” the Guide has gained popularity over the Encyclopaedia Galactica for two important reasons: “First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly, it has the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
Religious freedom is one of the most cherished rights of much of Western Christianity, and Christians who enjoy this right often fly into a flat panic whenever they get even the slightest hint that this freedom is under attack. (Okay, “flat panic” may be a slight exaggeration, but only very slight.) Christians who suspect that their religious freedom may be under threat could often benefit from a book whose cover encourages them, “in large friendly letters,” to not panic.
In recent weeks, two proposed bills have raised the eyebrows of Christians across South Africa. The bills in question are, in popular language, the hate speech bill and the regulation of religion bill.
The hate speech bill seeks to criminalise speech that is considered “abusive or insulting” or that intends to “bring into contempt or ridicule” a person or group of persons based on, among other things, gender, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. If passed, it will render illegal Christians standing for, among other things, the biblical definition of marriage. Christians who do so are liable to a hefty fine and a three-year prison sentence for a first offence and a ten-year prison sentence for a repeated offence.
The regulation of religion bill seeks to put in place structures to regulate what particular religions in South Africa may and may not teach and practise. The proposed legislation was produced by the CRL Rights Commission, and in it the Commission grants itself far-reaching authority to act as the final court of appeals in all matters related to religion in South Africa. The CRL proposes that it be granted authority to bestow licenses on religious organisations and leaders. Those without licenses will not be permitted by law to practise their religion.
Both bills contain cause for genuine concern. Both would place severe stress upon Christians and Christian churches who are faithful to the teachings of Scripture. If either bill is passed, religious freedom will be radically limited.
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), a non-profit Christian organisation working to protect and promote religious freedom in South Africa, has noted that both bills run counter to the South African constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, but they nonetheless recognise that there is cause for Christians and Christian organisations to formally object to these bills. FOR SA is committed to fighting these bills themselves, and has urged Christian institutions to do the same. There is a long road ahead, with many opportunities for Christians to speak before either of these bills can be formally legislated, but we would do well to be aware of them and the restrictions that they propose on our freedom to practise biblical Christianity in South Africa.
But while we want to be aware of, and object to, the proposed limitations on our religious freedom, we must at the same time take seriously the words scrawled in large friendly letters across the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic.
As Christians, we must remember one very basic point: The Bible nowhere promises Christians that they will have legal freedom to practise biblical Christianity in the countries in which they live. In fact, the idea of Christians enjoying legal protection to worship God without opposition is almost entirely foreign to the New Testament, and is virtually unknown in the broader history of the new covenant church. To be sure, Christians in South Africa are accustomed to religious freedom, and many can hardly imagine anything worse than the restriction of that freedom, but most Christians throughout new covenant history have simply not enjoyed the freedom that we have enjoyed in South Africa.
So, how should Christians think about these bills? Let me suggest three things.
First, we should take every opportunity we have to oppose legislation that will restrict our freedom to worship. In the first century, slavery was commonplace. Slaves had no rights; they were mere possessions of their masters, existing only to do the will of those who owned them. Paul urged slaves to serve their masters well, but in 1 Corinthians 7:21 he adds an interesting appeal: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” There were legal channels that could be followed for slaves to purchase freedom, and Paul urges them to do so, if at all possible. If they cannot do so, “do not be concerned about it.”
The principle applies here too: We should do everything we can to legally maintain the religious freedom that is enshrined in the South African Constitution. We do so remembering that the king’s heart is in the Lord’s hand and that he can easily sway the king’s heart to grant us the freedom that we desire. But if he chooses not to do so, “do not be concerned about it.” Don’t panic.
Second, let’s remember that God’s word cannot be chained. The apostle Paul found himself “bound with chains as a criminal” for no offence other than the preaching of the gospel. His freedom to preach the gospel was greatly restricted. And yet he declared, “But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Timothy 2:8–9). The powers that be were able to restrict his freedom of religion, but they could not restrict the gospel. Restricted as it was, Christianity exploded in the Roman world so that, even in Paul’s own lifetime, the gospel had reached the ends of the known world (Colossians 1:6).
We cannot ignore facts: The two proposed bills do seek to actively restrict biblical Christianity as it is practised in South Africa. At a recent meeting held to discuss the Christian response to these proposed bills, the spokeswoman for FOR SA noted that the proposed bills are reminiscent of initial legislation that was introduced to regulate religion in places like Russia and Cuba. Clearly, there is much at stake, but the gospel cannot be chained. Don’t panic!
Third, let’s be encouraged that God’s church may be opposed, but it will never be defeated. Jesus’ promise remains firm: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The church at Philadelphia existed during a time when the gospel was severely opposed, and yet because the Philadelphian Christians were faithful with the gospel, God promised them an open door that no one could shut (Revelation 3:7–13). We don’t know what the outcome of the proposed legislation will be, but we know this: It is God who opens doors. The church exists to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in all nations, and that can and will happen regardless of efforts by the world system to silence the gospel. Don’t panic.
BBC, with the entire South African conference of Sola 5 churches, intends to submit an objection to the proposed regulation of religion legislation. We believe that it is prudent and responsible to do so. But, ultimately, our hope does not lie in the whims of legislators and politicians, but in “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). As we look to him, even as the world opposes us, we can confidently assert, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). In other words, don’t panic!