Monthly Archives: December 2017

Mark 16:17-18: A Biblical Mandate for Handling Poisonous Snakes?

December 2017 Credo

The Practice of Snake Handling

The practice of snake handling, especially venomous ones, can be found in some churches as part of their worship service.  Although snake handling has resulted in deaths from snake bites, it is still being practiced as it is perceived by members of such congregations as a test or demonstration of the snake handlers’ faith.  The scriptural passage often cited to support this practice is Mark 16:17-18:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name … they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; … (Mark 16:17-18)

There are two main issues related to such use of this passage: (1) whether 16:9-20 is a latter addition or the original ending of the Gospel of Mark and (2) the interpretation of 16:17-18.

Is 16:9-20 the Original Ending of Mark?

Many English translations such as the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV and NRSV note that several of the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain 16:9-20.  Early prominent Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome either do not show awareness of 16:9-20 or note that 16:9-20 was missing from most of the Greek manuscripts of Mark.[1]  Many early copies of Mark containing 16:9-20 also have notes indicating the passage as a spurious addition.[2]  Thus, the external evidence (manuscripts) does not support 16:9-20 as original.

The use of literary criticism (internal evidence) also reduces the likelihood of 16:9-20 as the original ending of Mark, such as the incongruence between 16:8, describing fearful and fleeing women, and 16:9, which begins by presupposing the resurrected Christ, using a masculine, nominative participle “arising” (Greek anastas) to refer to Jesus with no male antecedent, to Mary Magdalene, who is described like a new character, though she has appeared just prior to this passage (15:40, 47; 16:1).  Other evidence include the use of numerous new words in 16:9-20 that are not found earlier, and themes that seem to contradict earlier themes, such as the prominence of charismatic signs in 16:17-18 in contrast to Jesus’ reticence to them (cf. 8:11-13).[3]

As such, both external and internal evidence point to 16:9-20 as a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.  However, the addition must have occurred quite early, as early as 145 CE in the Epistula Apostolorum 9-10.[4]

As for the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, the more likely possibility is that (1) 16:8 is not the intended/original ending of Mark than (2) it ending at 16:8.  The strongest evidence for the second view is that the earliest manuscripts ended at 16:8.  However, arguments for such a view, i.e. an open-ended ending, are mostly based on modern literary theory, especially reader-response theory, than the nature of ancient texts that usually state a conclusion, rather than suggesting them.[5]  Literary, linguistic and contextual considerations suggest that either the original ending was lost or the author of Mark was killed or interrupted before completing it.[6]

What does 16:17-18 Mean?

Mark 16:17-18 provides a list of signs of power accompanying those who believe, many appearing as miracles in other parts of NT but are here considered as signs of faith.  We will examine two of the signs: the handling of snakes and drinking of deadly poison.

The Greek term for snake used here, ophis, refers to a generic snake, not necessarily a poisonous one, unlike the term echidna, used in Acts 28:3-6 in the account of Paul miraculously surviving a poisonous serpent bite.  Interestingly, ophis is also used in Genesis 3 in the narrative of the temptation of the primeval couple by the snake.  This raises the possibility that the handling of snakes here could refer metaphorically to the overcoming of the curse of the serpent in the new age of salvation.[7]

As for the sign of drinking poison (Greek thanasimos), there are no other references in the NT concerning Christians drinking poison without any harm.  However, there is a reference to the same Greek term for poison used here, thanasimos, towards the end of the first century, by Ignatius in his letter to the Trallians, that is suggestive for understanding 16:17-18.

As evidenced in Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians, there seems to be a heretical cult related to “poison” that was affecting Christian groups.  Ignatius cautions the Trallians against the food of the heretics, mixed like deadly poisons (thanasimos) with honeyed wine (Ign. Trall. 6), in this case referring either literally to poison or metaphorically to heresy.  This raises the possibility of a similar understanding of deadly poison in Mark 16:17-18, which when combined with the prior understanding of ophis as referring to the curse of the serpent, suggests heresy to be the more likely reference.[8]


Thus, the reference to handling snakes and drinking poison in Mark 16:17-18 should be interpreted metaphorically as believers being freed from the curse of the serpent, with reference to Genesis 3, and being protected from heresy, rather than literally as a test or demonstration of faith.  The examination of this passage emphasizes the importance of understanding the meaning of a biblical passage with respect to the socio-cultural-historical context in which it was written to avoid misinterpretation and misapplication of biblical passages. Nevertheless, like the early church whose missionary gospel was attested by miraculous signs (cf. Mark 16:20), our interpretation does not rule out the possibility of such signs of power accompanying Christians in missionary contexts.  Rather than being tests or signs of faith, these signs of power serve to convince non-believers that the Christian God is real and more powerful than local religions, especially where the occult is prevalent.[9]

[1] Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 728.

[2] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 543.

[3] Strauss, Mark, 729; James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 498–99.

[4] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1985), 168.

[5] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 670–73.

[6] For more details, see Edwards, Mark, 501–3.

[7] Ibid., 506.

[8] Ibid., 506–7.

[9] Ibid., 507.

Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church. 

An Anatomy of Sexual Harassment

December 2017 Pulse 

There have been a slew of scandalous revelations of sexual harassment perpetrated by the who’s who in Hollywood and American TV that is truly disconcerting. From the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to the actor Kevin Spacey to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’ popular O’Reilly Show, disclosures of these scandals have appeared steadily and unabated almost every day.

Women in Singapore are not immune from this scourge. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), over half of the 500 people interviewed said that they have experienced sexual harassment in some form at work. The spectrum of abuses ranges from getting sexually explicit text messages to being inappropriately touched to rape.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the United States defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature’.

In a 2006 study conducted in the United States, Berdahl and Moore conclude that ‘women experienced more sexual harassment than men, minorities experienced more ethnic harassment than Whites, and minority women experienced more harassment overall than majority men, minority men and majority women’.

One of the myths surrounding sexual harassment is the view that it is all about the sexual needs and desires of the offender. Research has shown, however, that in most cases it is really about power and discrimination.

Sexual harassment is a sordid act that exploits an unequal power relationship, for example, between an employer and an employee. As the EEOC points out, in some cases the submission of the employee to sexually inappropriate conduct on the part of the employer is either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition for employment.

Sexual harassment is the abuse of power and a display of dominance over people whom the offender disrespects and consequently mistreats as mere sex objects. Violence against women is therefore the ultimate form of sexism and sexual discrimination.

The problem of sexual harassment, however, must not be analysed in isolation from the broader cultural milieu. In an interesting study entitled, ‘The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape’ (1981), Peggy Reeves Sanday argues quite persuasively that there are sociological and cultural impetuses behind violence against women in modern society.

Sanday identifies at least three characteristics of our modern cultural ethos that nurture such violence. The first is the violence that we find generally in war and aggression. The second is male dominance in our culture and society and the relegation women to subordinate roles. And, related to this, there is, thirdly, the institutionalisation of male activities and the exclusion of women from certain spheres of public life, like politics.

Even if one disagrees with Sanday on certain aspects of her argument, her general thesis is surely sound. The phenomenon of sexual harassment is undergirded by certain social and cultural factors.

Sexual harassment is an assault on the dignity of the victim. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings – male and female – are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This means that regardless of their unique individualities, all human beings possess an inalienable dignity and must therefore be equally valued.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed uncommon respect to women against the social conventions of the patriarchal society of his day. From the Samaritan woman at the well to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus showed love, compassion, understanding, sensitivity and forgiveness.

Christian writers such as Judith Balswick and Jack Balswick discuss the problem of sexual harassment in light of what the Bible has to say about justice. They conclude that ‘Biblical justice is oriented toward recreating communities so that each gender participates fully and equally in society’.

This is one aspect of the biblical concept of shalom. ‘When women are not free to live in their full femininity because they fear being sexually harassed’, Balswick and Balswick write, ‘there is no shalom’.

In Ephesians 5:11, we read: ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them’. In the case of sexual harassment, not only must Christians have no part in it, they also have the moral duty to report such offences.

This is important because there is a tendency in our society to respond to allegations of sexual harassment with what some have described as ‘automatic defensiveness’. There is also a tendency to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or to simply dismiss the allegation. Such approaches give the impression that the victims of sexual aggression and abuse are not valuable, that they simply won’t be believed.

Large organisations are known to cover up sexual offences, especially if the perpetrators are significant or key figures. While this is true in secular organisations, it is unfortunately also true in the Church – the scandalous cover-up of the offences of predatory paedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is a case in point.

A biblical response to sexual harassment, however, must not only focus on the harassed. It should include the harasser and the community in which the harassment took place.

Failing to show genuine concern for the harasser is in some ways to ignore his (or her) humanity. And failing to take into consideration the responsibility of the community where the harassment occurred is to fail to create a social space where such offences are taken seriously and prohibited.

As Balswick and Balswick put it, ‘A biblical response to sexual harassment involves redress and restoration at both the interpersonal and community level. A concerned response is incomplete if it focuses only on the victim and offender; it must also seek the restoration and peace at all structural levels’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


December 2017 Pulse

In its September 24, 2017, issue, The Mirror reported that a sex robot called Samantha has gone on sale in the UK for £3,500. Samantha, which can be purchased at Vibez Adult Boutique in Aylesford, Kent, ‘has a brain and can interact with you’, write Stephen Beech and Natalie Tipping. She can even switch ‘between a family mode and a sex mode setting’.

The idea of fabricating a woman to meet the needs of a man is not new; its origins can be traced to ancient Rome. For example, In Metamorphoses the Roman poet of erotica, Ovid, tells the story of the sculptor Pygamalion, who fell in love with the ivory statue representing perfect womanhood, which he names Galatea. The goddess Venus brings the statue to life and Pygamalion marries her.

With the ascendance of AI and social robotics, the Galatea myth has become a reality.

The philosophical, ethical and social issues generated by the advent of sex robots or sexbots have received serious attention by roboticists and ethicists in the rapidly expanding branch of ethics called roboethics.

Writers in this field have identified three possible uses of sexbots. Some have argued that sexbots can be used to help with the treatment or therapy of patients with diverse conditions in hospitals or homes. It has even been suggested that these robotic dolls could be made available to sex offenders and paedophiles during their incarceration.

Others have suggested that some individuals might find these lifelike silicon androids useful for physical or emotional companionship. Still others maintain that sexbots could one day replace human sex workers and prostitutes.

Very few Christian ethicists have thus far reflected on the theological, spiritual and ethical issues surrounding this application of social robotics. This would require nothing less than a robust account of the Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

For the purposes of this article, however, it is sufficient to stress that the Bible and Christian tradition teach that sexual relationships must be confined to a man and a woman – a husband and his wife – who are joined together in the covenant of marriage.

More to the point, the Bible clearly teaches that humans are allowed to engage in sex only with other humans. The Bible therefore prohibits and condemns bestiality as the perversion of nature and an abominable sin (See Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; Deuteronomy 27:21).

While the Bible does not deal specifically with the question of having sex with a machine – for obvious reasons – what it has to say about human sexual relationships can be brought to bear on this issue.

What follows is an attempt to highlight some of the grave concerns of this particular form and application of social robotics.

The first thing to note is that the relationship between the human user and the sex robot is an ‘I-It’, not an ‘I-You’ relationship. The interaction between the human and the sexbot is unidirectional and asymmetrical in that the machine is entirely oblivious of the overtures, desires and affections of its human user.

AI and sophisticated robotics can create what scholars have described as ‘an anthropomorphic illusion’ that may fool the user into thinking that the simulacrum is the real thing – that the sex robot is human ‘in some sense’. But the fact remains that the sexbot is a machine, albeit one that is programmed to mimic human responses and expressions.

Robot ethicist John Sullins asks if it is ethical to create humanlike robotic sex dolls in the first place. It would be ethically objectionable, Sullins argues, if the illusion of humanness is used to ‘fool people into ascribing more feelings to the machine than they should’. Put differently, from the standpoint of ethics, the illusion of humanness that sexbots present can be said to be in some profound ways disrespectful of human dignity and agency.

This brings us to the question whether the use of a robot for sexual gratification can be properly described as ‘having sex’ in the conventional sense at all. At its most fundamental level, the sex robot is nothing more than a very sophisticated version of cruder forms of sex toys. This has led ethicists like Sullins to argue that using a robotic sex doll (with low level AI) is just an elaborate act of masturbation.

A number of ethicists have argued that sex robots have accentuated harmful stereotypes of women, especially women’s bodies. Roboticist Kathleen Richardson has pointed out that the representation of sex robots is usually based on pornographic images of women. She added that these robots reinforce the view of the female body as a commodity and encourages coercive attitudes towards it.

In a paper presented at a robotics conference, Sinziana Gutiu argues that ‘sex robots, by their very design, reinforce the idea that women are subordinate to men and mere instruments for the fulfilment of male fantasies. This type of harm has been explored in the context of pornography and is reproduced by the advent of sex robots. Like pornography, use of sex robots sexualises rape, violence, sexual harassment and prostitution and eroticizes dominance and submission’.

Scholars argue that the use of a sexbot is in many ways more harmful than viewing pornography because the user is physically and emotionally more intensely engaged. Sex robots provide a nearly complete sexual experience in a way that viewing pornography does not. Consequently, as Gutiu points out, ‘The user is therefore more likely to ascribe and internalise a primarily sexual and submissive purpose for women, through direct sensory experience’.

Sex robots will not only harm the user but also the wider society. The individual who uses a sexbot is engaged in a dehumanised form of sex and intimacy. Repeated exposure to this perverted form of sex would dehumanise the user. In fact, the more ‘humanised’ the android – that is, the more powerfully it presents the anthropomorphic illusion – the more dehumanising it is for the user.

Gutiu provides a list of possible harms: ‘Negative effects include alienation and seclusion from society, stunted emotional development, and an inability to compromise or handle rejection. A person’s need for sex with a robot could suggest a sign of physical and emotional withdrawal from efforts to connect intimately with humans’.

Blay Whitby and Kathleen Richardson concur.

‘An individual who consorts with robots rather than humans’, Whitby asserts, ‘may become more socially isolated’. Richardson maintains that the reason why intimate relations with robots will lead to isolation is because ‘robots are not able to meet the species specific sociality of human beings, only other humans can do that’.

‘User’s repeated interaction with sex robots’, Gutiu adds, ‘will solidify antisocial habits and confirm their fragility and unwillingness to overcome personal social challenges’.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Faithful Presence

December 2017 Credo

Reader’s Question: How can I be a faithful witness for Christ to my sceptical friends and colleagues?

In 1 Peter 2:9, we have one of the most remarkable descriptions of the Church in the New Testament. Writing to Christians who were dispersed in various parts of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Peter reminds them of their true identity as God’s people by using some of the most evocative imageries from the Old Testament.

‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession’, writes Peter. Christians are chosen and called by God to be his own people and possession. They must therefore reflect the holy God whom they worship and serve.

In this verse, Peter also makes it quite clear that Christians are set apart by God for a purpose. The English Standard Version translates the rest of verse 9 thus: ‘that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. The NIV puts it differently: ‘that you may declare the praises …’

I personally prefer the way in which the King James Version renders this verse: ‘that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’. The reason for my preference will be revealed shortly.

Whichever translation we use or prefer, the main point of this verse is clear. As God’s chosen people, Christians are also witnesses of God’s grace, mercy and love. To be a Christian is to be a witness for God.

But how are Christians to be good witnesses in a society whose outlook and values are often inimical and even antithetical to the Gospel?

In his book entitled To Change the World (2010), James Davison Hunter advances the notion of ‘faithful presence’ to depict how Christians should conduct themselves in the world. Although Hunter’s book addresses a number of important issues related to culture and society in late-modern America, I would like to commandeer this concept to respond to the concerns of the reader.

What does Hunter mean by ‘faithful presence’ and what does this concept suggest?

Faithful presence refers to the particular way of being in the world that Christians should embrace, a kind of presence that makes them the true embodiment of the divine love and mercy they have by grace received, and therefore faithful witnesses of God.

‘Faithful presence’, Hunter explains, ‘means that we are to be fully present to each other within the community of faith and fully present to those who are not. Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer: we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives towards the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love’.

Faithful presence, therefore, presents a very simple idea: that Christians bear witness to God simply by being who they are – God’s holy people. But at the same time, faithful presence also presents a great challenge to Christians because it insists that Christian witness has to do, not just with what Christians say, but by the way in which they conduct themselves in the world.

This is the reason why I prefer the KJV rendering of the second half of 1 Peter 2:9. God’s chosen people are not simply to ‘proclaim’ or ‘declare’. They are to ‘shew forth’ the praises of God, that is, they are to glorify God with their manifestly doxological lives. Christian witness has to do with much more than the words that we speak.

The New Testament repeatedly emphasises the importance of Christian conduct. How Christians behave and the values they uphold play an important part in shaping the unbeliever’s view about Christ and the Christian faith.

Christians are therefore exhorted to let their light shine ‘before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). And here in 1 Peter the apostle writes, ‘Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation’ (1 Peter 2:12).

Hunter suggests, quite helpfully, that Christians should be witnesses within their own spheres of influence. ‘[F]aithful presence in the world’, he writes, ‘means that Christians are fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighbourhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work’.

But in bearing witness to the Lord by being faithfully present with their family, friends, colleagues, etc., Christians must always be careful to conduct themselves with humility, gentleness and respect.

Even when the Christian is explaining and clarifying his faith, or, as Peter puts it, making a ‘defense’ to those who enquire about his hope, he should always do so with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15). He should always be civil and patient, and he should never be aggressive, boastful or quarrelsome.

This means that in explaining and clarifying his faith to the unbeliever, the Christian is not at all interested in just winning the argument. His supreme concern is to make a clear and faithful presentation of what and why he believes.

Even more profoundly, the Christian wishes to share with the unbeliever his redemptive and transformative relationship with God in Christ. The Christian faith is not just a concept, an idea or a system of thought; it is a relationship.

In addition, as the expression faithful presence stresses, Christian witness has to do with more than words – it is fundamentally about how the Christian lives his life in the world, in the presence of those who have yet to experience the saving grace of God.

Finally, the Christian who witnesses for Christ to friends, colleagues and members of his family should always remember that God is with him. God himself is faithfully present and at work in and through the life of his obedient witness.

By being faithfully present in this way, the Christian allows God’s love and grace to be made manifest and mediated to the people around him.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


Religious Tolerance and Limited State Bureaucracy

December 2017 Feature Article

Religious tolerance is a tenuous legacy of democracy as state bureaucracy instinctively extends its power to regulate all aspects of the life of its citizens. As such, a moral citizenry needs to be motivated by cogent arguments in order that it may press for institutional safeguards which would prevent state bureaucracy from encroaching on religious freedom. In this regard, John Locke is a towering figure in providing philosophical foundations for a limited state bureaucracy that respects the independence of religious institutions and promotes religious tolerance.

For Locke, man needs protection for his life, liberty and property. It is essential that every man enjoys natural rights to these goods in order that he may serve society. These rights are claimed on the basis of natural law, that is, God’s law prescribed to all men at creation. Since these rights are natural, they are inherent to every individual. As inalienable, they cannot be transferred or forfeited. Locke emphasizes that these rights are pre-political; they are not given by the state, nor can the state take them away.

The necessity for collective protection of private property and adjudication of social conflict requires a ‘social contract’ to form a civil government. Locke emphasizes in his Second Treatise on Civil Government that only state authority, exemplified by the magistrate, had its origins in the social contract. Furthermore, only part of a person’s rights is surrendered to the state in the contract.

The logic of Locke’s argument for a limited state leading to relative political and religious freedom is encapsulated in his classic work, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The Letter provides a framework for peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the destructive Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Locke was also fully aware of the struggle of the church against the state after the Restoration of the monarchy. Erastianism was then the accepted ideology for the state which wanted control over ecclesiastical matters where the crown controls the cross, and the church is merely a handmaiden of the state.

State bureaucratic control has proven to be destructive for the church when the paternalistic authority of the crown emasculates the power of the clergy and suffocates spiritual initiative from the laity. Furthermore, violence is brought to bear upon any nonconformist or dissenter to royal patronage. They could be fined, have their property seized and even be thrown into prison.

Locke’s Letter was an exercise to defend freedom for the church to manage its internal affairs and to fulfill its spiritual vocation. Since the debate was directed at state religious bureaucracy, Locke naturally argued from premises that were informed by Christian faith. Locke gives four reasons for religious tolerance:

First, Locke challenges traditional alliance between the crown and church where common believers and the clergy submits to the crown with its implicit claim to infallibility. However, this hierarchy is unacceptable to Locke on grounds that if human knowledge remains uncertain, it is wrong for the authorities to enforce fallible truth claims and beliefs. Locke’s caution springs from his awareness that human intellectual capacity and moral discernment is vulnerable to corruption because of vested interests.

Second, Locke argues for toleration as this was the example set by the Apostles. He emphasizes in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works, not by force, but by love…gathering them [the nations] into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.”[1]

Religious compulsion enforced through ecclesiastical decrees which are no more than human responses to mediated revelation is inappropriate. Locke looked to public truth arrived at through reason and logic instead of religious authority founded on dogma to provide a secure and sufficient foundation for social order. He argues that the state rightly exercises its authority in protection of life and property, but as a fallible human institution it should refrain from imposing religious beliefs.

Third, Locke appeals for religious toleration for pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, the recent history of England has demonstrated that coercion to compulsory uniformity only leads to social unrest. On the other hand, toleration promotes peace and prosperity.

In a lengthy passage he argues that matters of faith are beyond the authority of the magistrate and that compulsion towards outward conformity only undermines sincerity which is essential for genuine faith, “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.”[2]

Fourth, Locke argues for tolerance based on the rights of conscience. It was evident to him that genuine faith must be sincere. “It is in vain for an unbeliever to take up the outward show of another man’s profession. Faith only, and inward sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God.” That is to say, sincerity rather than truth itself is the effective criterion for salvation.

Locke therefore asserts that “the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force: but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”[3] Locke stresses the state should respect the church as a voluntary society of men “joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God…No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church then is a society of members voluntarily uniting to this end.”[4]

A caveat is here in order – the Lockean argument for freedom of conscience should not be taken as an excuse for unfettered individualism. On the contrary, Locke’s argument for freedom is a premise for responsible freedom that was already an essential element of human relationships before the social contract. Obedience to one’s conscience is not an act of withdrawal from society so much as an act of freedom that empowers the believer to take the initiative to serve society.

As Robert George explains, religious freedom enables members of society to organize and carry out various welfare works, including health and educational services, which effectively limits the scope of government and the power of the state. “Religion provides authority structures and, where it flourishes and is healthy, is among the key institutions of civil society providing a buffer between the individual and the state.”[5]

For Locke, the right to conscience is the right to do what one judges to be one’s obligations to fellowmen in the light of one’s religious commitment.

[1] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 215, 217.

[2] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 218-219.

[3] A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 232, 219.

[4] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration ed. Ian Shapiro, pp. 220-221.

[5] Robert George, Conscience and its Enemies (ISI Books, 2013), p. 114.

Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.