A question of identity: Can a person change his or her religion?

Nigel Owens officiating Ulster vs. Glasgow Warriors in October 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nigel Owens officiating Ulster vs. Glasgow Warriors in October 2014. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On Friday the implication was made by Rugby Union referee Nigel Owens that a person is free to change their religion. But is this true?

His comments were made in relation to Rugby Australia’s recent sacking of Israel Folau following his social media comments. Owens praised the action of Rugby Australia, saying that it sent a “clear message… that there are consequences for expressing those beliefs.”

“I cannot choose my sexuality; I can choose what religion I follow, I can choose what kind of person I am — I’m a good person — what sport I play. There are many, many things I can choose in life but my sexuality is not one of them, that’s what I’d like them to understand.”

Nigel Owens

In his statement, Owens went on to say,

“I respect their religion, I respect their beliefs and all I would like to ask is that they respect other people’s way of life and try to understand that it’s not a choice.

“I cannot choose my sexuality; I can choose what religion I follow, I can choose what kind of person I am — I’m a good person — what sport I play. There are many, many things I can choose in life but my sexuality is not one of them, that’s what I’d like them to understand.

“It’s a shame that it’s gone to this and none of us should take any pleasure in the fact that somebody has lost his job and lost his career.”

But is this true? Is a person free to change their religion?

Legally, of course, this is entirely true. I for one am very glad to live in a country which absolutely recognizes a person’s legal right to change their religion. This right has long been globally recognized by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[1] Article 18 of which states,

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.[2]

Contrariwise, some of the worst violence perpetrated against Christians in the world today is in countries which don’t recognize the legal right to change one’s religion, or where, for instance, it is illegal to preach the gospel to a Muslim (such as in Yemen, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia).[3]

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18

However, whilst it is and absolutely should be a legal right to choose one’s religion, from another point of view religion is not simply a choice.

I’m quite sure that if you were to ask the majority of observant Muslims whether following the tenets of Islam was a ‘choice’ for them — so that they were free to choose a different religion — the answer would be no. I’m quite sure they would say that Islam was absolutely a part of who they are, their identity.

Likewise, if you were to ask a practising Orthodox Jew, “Are you free to change your religion?” the answer would be no. They would say that being a Jew was part of who they are — it’s not simply some disposable addition.

So likewise with Christians. Being a Christian is absolutely part of who we are — it’s our identity.

I was struck recently by some words of the Christian martyr Perpetua. Perpetua was a young, well-educated woman with an infant son who was sentenced by the Roman authorities to be killed by wild beasts in the arena for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.

“‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’”

Perpetua, Christian martyr

When she was being pressed to renounce her Christian faith, her own father pleaded with her to give in to the demands of the authorities. She tells us her reply in her own words:—

‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?’ And he said, ‘I see it to be so.’ And I replied to him, ‘Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.’[4]

For Perpetua, being a Christian was absolutely part of her identity. It was impossible for her to renounce that identity — she would die rather than do so, and did die for it.

We see a very similar idea expressed in an account from the mid-second century which relates the martyrdom of the Christian bishop Polycarp of Smyrna.

In chapter 17 of the account, written by the church in Smyrna to the church in the city of Philomelium, we read,

“It is impossible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered… for the salvation of all who will be saved throughout the whole world, or to worship any other.”

Christians of Smyrna, 2nd century

It is impossible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered (the blameless one for sinners) for the salvation of all who will be saved throughout the whole world, or to worship any other. For him we adore as the Son of God. But we worthily love the martyrs, the disciples and followers of the Lord, on account of their extraordinary affection towards their King and Master. May we be made companions and fellow-disciples with them![5]

For the Christians of Smyrna, it was better to die by fire, as Polycarp did, than to forsake their King and Master, Christ. Christ was absolutely part of their identity.

So likewise for a young, Pakistani Christian named Nauman Masih. Nauman Masih’s story is truly tragic. Aged only fourteen, he was on his way home from the tailor’s where he worked as an apprentice, when he was set upon by two Muslim youths. In his statement to police he said,

“For Christians like Perpetua, Nauman Masih, and the believers in Smyrna in the second century, Christ is absolutely part of who we are. He is our identity, and — in this, non-legal sense — it is impossible for us to change and to worship any other.”

“Two people stopped me, while Muslims were going to their mosques and asked me whether I was from which religion. I told them that I am Christian. They started beating me and when I tried running, both boys started following me through the street and then they threw Kerosene oil on me and burnt me.”[6]

He died in hospital four days later, on 14 April 2015.

For Christians like Perpetua, Nauman Masih, and the believers in Smyrna in the second century, Christ is absolutely part of who we are. He is our identity, and — in this, non-legal sense — it is impossible for us to change and to worship any other.

The Apostle Paul puts it well in his letter to the Christians at Colossae. Speaking of when they became Christians (their ‘dying’ to the world and its values), he writes,

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Colossians 3:3[7]

Which brings us back to referee Nigel Owens’ comments. Respectfully I must say that his comments disappointed me. The implication of them is that sexual rights trump religious rights — an implication that was effectively denied (and in my view rightly so) by the ruling of the UK Supreme Court in the Ashers bakery case last year.

He may indeed not be able to choose his sexuality. But nor can we choose not to follow Christ. As Christians, Christ is our very identity. It is impossible for us to worship any other.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] In the UK this legal recognition applies under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

[2] https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

[3] https://listverse.com/2011/11/24/top-10-most-dangerous-countries-for-christians/

[4] https://etimasthe.com/2019/05/08/why-i-am-a-christian-11-they-loved-not-their-lives-unto-the-death/#PerpetuaFelicitas

[5] The Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 17. In Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1993), p.43. I have modernized the text slightly to make it easier for the English reader.

[6] https://barnabasfund.org/en/news/Christian-youngster-dies-after-being-burned-by-Islamists-in-Pakistan

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Colossians+3%3A3&version=ESVUK

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