Church History

Suffering For Christian Liberty

If you end up deciding you just can’t attend your cousin’s same-sex wedding (and being criticized for it), it might help you to know you aren’t alone.  (Or, perhaps, you will be criticized by your Christian friends because you attend the wedding–even though your decision is made with a clear conscience that it is the right thing to do.) Or perhaps criticism comes because you have put your children in public schools under Core Curriculum standards.   Many Christians have suffered for their freedom to act in “things indifferent.” ( I am not saying that the wedding is an indifferent matter, but your decision to attend is a personal choice.)

What Are Matters of Conscience?

Our conscience tells us what is right or wrong.  But because we are sinners, it is not always right.  “Let your conscience be your guide” will sometimes fail you, especially if you have failed to use the Bible as your standard to determine right from wrong.  In this case of our “burning issue,” you might have false guilt if you decide to attend the wedding when family or church leaders oppose you.  Sometimes our consciences condemn us without any scriptural reason.

Martin Luther and John Calvin were both champions for liberty of conscience in the 1500’s.  Their fight for liberty was not about “things indifferent” (issues to which the Bible does not speak directly) or even secondary issues where the Bible is unclear but about the main themes of the Bible.  The Catholic Church had abused its own standards for years by telling people what they could and could not do or believe about indifferent areas as well as biblical doctrine.  After “discovering” justification by faith, Luther was repeatedly asked by agents of the Pope to recant.  The gospel was not a matter on which the Bible was silent but even here Luther’s response was that he could do nothing against his conscience.  On June 15, 1520, he was excommunicated and all his writings were ordered burned.  Even though the matter was neither indifferent or secondary but, rather, the main theme of the Bible, he suffered because to recant would be against what he had concluded was the right thing to believe.  More than 300 men and women were burned between 1547-1553 in England and Scotland for their acceptance of Luther and Calvin’s teaching, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.  This was suffering for the truth, for Reformation, but not for indifferent matters.  That was to come later.  Acting with a clear conscience was still a part of it.

Imagine being burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English!  Or for not supporting private masses for the dead.  William Tyndale (1536) and Anne Askew were killed during the reign of the English King Henry VIII.  Later, the placing of Fox’s Book of Martyrs and the English Bible in each parish church led to the Reformation in England and Scotland.  At last, average people could read the Bible for themselves and they concluded justification by faith was the true gospel.  These were not matters of indifference or even secondary issues, such as church government or baptism, to which biblical principles can be applied yet remain debatable.   The Bible is not silent on the gospel!  Do you have a right attitude toward the opinions of others in indifferent or secondary issues?  The lessons of history are pretty clear.  Involving the government in matters of faith is a big mistake!  Splitting families or churches over indifferent or secondary issues is disruptive and does harm to the gospel.

England forgot some of these lessons.  By the 1660’s, laws were passed requiring the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to be used as the only source of doctrine and worship (instead of the Bible).  About 2000 pastors were ejected from their pulpits because they refused to go along with that. Many other laws followed as restrictions and punishments.  You could not attend Oxford or Cambridge or the private schools preparing you for higher education.  You could not vote or hold public office. You could not preach or pastor without official approval.  It was not until 1689 that these punishments were lifted.  (If you want to see how this affected a life, read “Matthew Henry,” in my book on Warm-hearted Calvinists” posted on this site.) 

The “burning issue” in those days was whether your conscience would allow you to accept the government telling you what you had to believe about God and how you would worship Him.  This was a classic example of passing judgment on people who were within their rights to differ with the majority opinion on secondary and indifferent matters.  God used this suffering to lay the foundations for the revivals that came to England, Scotland, and America in the 1700’s.  (See S.M. Houghton, Sketches From Church History, (  This suffering was known in America and so the First Amendment to the Constitution sought to free individuals from such abuse by the government.

It is as a consequence of these historical events that the Westminster Confession and the Baptist Confession of 1689 (and the New Hampshire Confession in America) included a chapter on Christian Liberty,

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.  So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience:  and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (italics, mine. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20:2)


Perhaps you will have an experience like mine.  I was once in a church where the pastor’s wife had a controlling personality.  It was her way or the highway.  When I would not go along with her edict to attend her Bible classes, she told others that I was obviously not a Christian.  So the other women drew back from me.  I wasted a lot of time wondering if I’d really become a Christian as a child and feeling isolated.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering for Christian liberty.  My judgment was that it was just not in the best interest of my children for me to attend those long morning Bible studies where there were no activities planned for them.  I preferred for them to play at the park or in the pool.  It was an indifferent matter; the Bible gave no clear commands either way.  My conscience just would not let me impose a long, boring, indoor morning on my girls.  But, I suffered a lot until I met Pastor Ernest Reisinger who gave me a copy of these Confessions of Faith and took time out of a very busy schedule to explain Christian liberty to me.  A friend of mine loved the song, “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles.  It is an allegorical song picturing a personal relationship with Jesus.  But, her church leaders did not like it because it was low on doctrine.  So, in a high-handed use of their authority, they offended her greatly by telling her how awful the song was and she should not sing it or teach it to her children.  She liked the song.  She did not like being told what she could sing in her home.  It was an abuse of her liberty in an indifferent matter.

What Does This History Have To Do With My Children?

They need to know some of the broad sweeps of Christian history.  If the experiences of the 1500’s had been remembered, then the 16 and 1700’s would have been very different.  Surely we won’t make the same mistakes again!  Why not order Sketches From Church History, by S.M. Houghton at ( for your home library.  It is the best easy reading history of the Christian church I’ve used.

You or your children may have to suffer a little one day for something  you or they decide is right to do or say.  But, understanding Christian liberty will be a comfort during those days.  Think about the Bible’s teaching:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls.  And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand….Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind….Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;…So then each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:4-12).




I hope you will join with me this fall in a study of the Lord’s Prayer. Our goal will be make sure we are praying according to the will of God. That way we will have confidence that God hears us and that our requests will be granted (I John 5:14-15). That kind of confidence should help us a lot in this day of terror attacks and random violence. How do we pray in times such as these?

Let’s travel back in time…want to come along? Thomas Watson, an English Puritan of the Seventeenth Century, wrote The Lord’s Prayer in 1660. I will use this as my main source. Don’t be surprised if you have a bad taste in your mouth about Puritans. It is just a result of slander against them by many who are ignorant of what they were really like. Thomas Watson was a warm-hearted Calvinist. He was educated at Cambridge, then pastored St. Stephens Church in London for seventeen years before being kicked out of the Anglican Church for refusing to go along with a government prescribed order of worship in the Act of Uniformity 1662. He believed it violated his freedom for the State Church to require certain prayers and an order of service for the local parish. He felt he would be departing from the Bible’s prescription for the local church if he went along with the new rules. He chose not to violate his conscience for the sake of position or reputation. He lost his job, his home, and his reputation. Two thousand others did the same. It was a sad day for the British Isles; they proceeded down the path of cold orthodoxy evidenced by a decline of moral standards and heart religion which really was not checked until the revivals of John Wesley and George Whitefield in the 1730’s. Watson, and many of the others, including John Bunyan and John Milton, took up their pens. Most of Watson’s writings were published after the Toleration Act of 1689 which allowed them to publish their views. Come along. I will simply summarize what Thomas Watson wrote and apply it to our lives today. You can order your own copy at or Amazon.

Don’t think God will hear you just because you pray a lot or use empty words that make you feel smart! Jesus said, “After this manner, pray…” The Lord’s Prayer is to be our pattern, the model we follow for all of our prayers; the ruler we use to see if we are praying according to the will of God. “The Ten Commandments are the rule of life, the (Apostle’s) Creed is the sum of our faith, and the Lord’s Prayer is the pattern of our prayer,” said Watson. This pattern consists of a preface, six petitions, and a conclusion. Read and memorize Matthew 6:6-13 so that you can pin this pattern to your own prayers. Begin now to actually use it that way instead of just reciting it without much thought. We will probably be surprised at what that reveals about our current prayers.

They need a pattern to follow too. Help them to memorize The Lord’s Prayer and say it regularly in your home. Before Christmas, we should all know more of what each piece of our pattern means, and then we can explain it to them. The first step is to pray the prayer together in our homes. Sing it too. When your lower elementary child can’t think of a prayer, use the Lord’s Prayer as an echo. Have them repeat each phrase after you as an echo until they can say it on their own. Or sing each phrase and listen to their echo. Later, switch and let them sing and you echo. You are giving them a tool they can use for the rest of their lives…a pattern for all of their prayers.

In times like these of growing violence and uncertainty, we certainly need to be praying according to the will of God. Get ready to pin these pattern pieces on!