A Baptist's Manifesto on Religous Liberty

Baptists, especially in America, have long held to the idea that God, and “God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it”. The history of the Church in America stands in stark contrast to the religious and ecclesiastical history of Europe, but in many ways maintains a common thread with the previous generations of Christians that goes back much further. In the recent political climate that many Christian in the world find themselves living in has sparked a renewed interest in a biblical model for religious liberty. In this paper, a historic Baptist understanding of religious liberty will be argued for by taking into consideration the exegetical, theological, and ethical implications of being a Christian living under a tyrannical government.
Baptists and Religious Liberty
Baptists gladly, and rightly affirm that government is not only a necessity, but also an institution created and ordained by God to protect those who do good, and to punish those who do evil. One must recognize that the terms “good” and “evil” should not be understood to be subjective in meaning, but should be interpreted as aligning with God’s objective meaning of good and evil. Where the distinction between the church and state must be drawn is at the critical juncture of compulsion and conscience. Article XVII of the Baptist Faith, and Message is built on the truth that “God alone is the Lord of the conscience”. This statement is grounded in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 in which Paul declares that the gospel of salvation is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”. Because salvation can be found in Christ alone, the bondservant of Christ is obligated to Christ not in his love for, but devotion to his Lord, and Savior.

The same could not be said for a government, for it was Christ alone in which died for the sins of the world in order to save some. In matters of conscience, the government neither literally, nor metaphorically, has any skin in the game, and therefore has no authority over the conscience. Likewise, Christians must rely upon the double-edged sword of the Spirit, not the sword of Caesar, for the conversion of souls, and the redemption of culture.

Since the earliest days of the English Baptist movement, the need for authentic religious liberty has been recognized by men such as Roger Williams and Obadiah Holmes who left home in England in pursuit of a land in which they could escape religious persecution. Southern Baptists have historically understood religious liberty as more than just legal toleration, and instead, they recognized that the very nature of being created in the image of God implies the respect of the intrinsic value and liberty of each individual. The famous Baptist preacher by the name of George Truett, while standing on the steps of the U.S. capitol building before a crowd estimated to be over 10,000 in 1920, declared, “It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and as long as he is not infringing upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices”.

In many of the recent discussions on religious liberty, the doctrine of soul competency and the historical Baptist distinctive of the priesthood of the believer has often been overlooked in favor of following the advisements of political and ecclesiological leaders. Many young Southern Baptist seminarians would be shocked to learn that Baptists from the beginning “have been separatists rather than establishmentarians; advocating religious liberty rather than the establishment of a state church”. Baptists have long understood that because each person is responsible before God for their actions, it is necessary for men to be free from compulsion from the state in matters of conscience.
Do What is right, and Never What is Wrong
Within American evangelical popular culture, Romans 13:1-7 has been the center of many conversations between friends, church staffs, political pundits, and wide array of other groups in discussing the relation between church and state. Due to recent government-mandated lockdowns of churches, some have begun to question whether or not it is necessary for the Christian to willfully submit to a government in all areas of life, even if it means closing the doors of their church. For the sake of clarity, and the pursuit of righteousness it seems best to begin this quest for truth by understanding first, what government is, and second what is government supposed to do. In many ways, this particular passage in Romans can provide the answers.
The first truth that can be gleaned from Romans 13:1-7, is seen in (vv. 1-2) by the apostle Paul informing the church in Rome that God has appointed human government as his “servant”. Later, Paul adds that not only is human government His servant, but it is part of God’s common goodness bestowed upon mankind. Because God has appointed the government, resisting the government can be seen as resisting God and those who resist God will be judged. John MacArthur commented on this passage saying that “All people, especially Christians, are to be subject to human government” and he added that the word “subject” was used to bring to mind the absolute obedience that a soldier might have for his commanding officer. Furthermore, by obeying the government, one can keep a clean conscience.
There have been various attempts in seeking to discern what influenced the apostle Paul to exhort the churches in Rome to submit to the authorities. One scholar suggested that what Paul teaches in this passage would have been understood against the passages in the Old Testament that taught Israel to respect governing authorities while in exile. An example can be found in Jerimiah 29:7, which teaches obedience and the need to pray for authorities. This passage reads, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on behalf of it for its welfare will be your welfare”. Stanley Porter was quoted as having written, “The important implication is that unjust authorities are not due the obedience of which Paul speaks, but rather are outside the boundaries of necessary obedience. Romans 13:1-7 is a text which only demands obedience to what is right, never to what is wrong”.
The apostle Peter echoes Paul’s teaching on this topic saying in 1 Peter 2:14, that the purpose of the government was to “punish those who do evil”, but the apostle Peter gives one exception. In Acts 5:29, Luke recorded Peter saying that “We must obey God rather than men”. Several passages within the Old Testament attest to this idea that followers of God should obey the government, but if the government is operating and ruling contrary to the Law of God, one must obey God, before men. Considering this as the starting point of this discussion on the role, and purpose of government, one would be prudent in understanding the Christian’s ethical obligations to a government.
From on Ethical Perspective
Throughout the Old Testament, there was always an understanding that the security of the nation of Israel was highly dependent upon on their national obedience to the covenant that God had entered into with them. Israel had a high degree of national interest in obeying the law. Furthermore, the Old Testament prophets implied that obedience to God would be of long-term interest to the nation of Israel, even though obeying God over the laws of the other nations might be accompanied by short-term adversity, and persecution. God sent prophet after prophet to tell the nation of Israel to turn away from the pollution and wickedness of following the gods of other nations, and to turn back to Him.
A key distinction should be made between the Law of God, and every other set of laws from ancient times, until now because the person who stands behind the Law is God, while man is behind every other law. Even though obedience to the Law was certainly understood as one of the means by which Israel would be set apart from every other nation, obedience was not seen as an end in itself. Obedience to the Law was most directly understood as a personal expression of one’s loyalty to God Himself because it is God who stands behind, and defines all the precepts of the Law. This concept is figuratively, and literally takes on flesh in the New Testament in the form of Jesus Christ who is known as the perfect prophet, priest, and king. A distinctly Christian ethic demands that Christians willingly pick up their cross, and follow Christ in spirit and in deed in such a way, that regardless of the consequences that comes from a civil government, the Christian will seek to do the will of God that is clearly revealed in Scripture. Jesus Christ did everything “as it was written”.
Paul, a Roman Convict, or a Slave of Christ?
The apostle Paul was no stranger to a Roman jail cell, and his ministry was one marked by incarceration for doing what was right in the eyes of God. Paul was unrepentant of his sins against Rome, and famously wrote to the church in Philippi while in chains saying, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which have happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ”. Paul would later remind them to do likewise saying, “let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” and to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the gospel”.
The apostle Paul was essentially using military terms, instructing them to hold the line and to not flinch, or waver, as the enemy approaches because if they do, it is a sign of perdition and lack of faith. In fact, to the surprise of many modern evangelicals, Paul boldly declares, “For you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” and Paul describes this suffering as the same kind of suffering that he is experiencing. From this it should be clear that incarceration, persecution, and possibly death should be expected for a disciple of Christ serving the Lord in the face of a tyrannical, secular government.
Finally, the apostle Paul, in his farewell address to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, that is recorded in Acts 20:17-28, told the elders there that day that he was “innocent of the blood of all men”. He could say this because despite experiencing many trials and tribulations at the hands of the religious leaders of his day, he “kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, publicly from house to house”. As he left Ephesus, he told them that he was going to Jerusalem, “bound by the Spirit” not knowing anything that would happen to him except that in every city that he came to, “nothing but chains and tribulations” awaited him. Paul continued to preach the gospel despite enduring harassment and incarceration at the hands of the Roman government saying that “none of these things move me, nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus Christ”.
The book of Acts is a clear example of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ in that it makes men act upon their Christian convictions. Beliefs are things that are argued for, but convictions are things that are often died for. The apostle Paul, along with the majority of the Twelve in the end, died for their Christian convictions at the hands of a secular governments. All the early disciples had to do was simply stop sharing the Gospel, and bow before Caesar in order for their lives to have been spared, but they never backed down.
Treason in the Christmas Story
In the days of Herod, the king, the Magi, or wise men, came from the East in search of Jesus after they had seen a new star in the East. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they came to King Herod and asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Matthew 2:3-4 describes King Herod as being troubled at the news of the birth of Christ, the savior of the world. This seems quite strange because, after all, why would a sinner in need of the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins be troubled at the birth of the prophesied Messiah. A person might say that Herod did not know that this Jesus that was born, was indeed the Messiah, but this could not be the case because at the news of Christ’s birth, he immediately consulted with the chief priests, and scribes in order to determine where the Messiah was to be born. The most astonishing thing of all, is the fact that King Herod, the Pharisees, and the scribes did not saddle up, and go worship the Messiah in whom they should have been expecting. Instead, Herod already sought to kill Jesus then, because for Jesus to be King, was to commit treason against Herod.
Defying Tyrants is Obedience to God
The Christian must recognize that governments and leaders are indeed ordained by God to punish those who do evil, and praise those who do good. A Christian should be obedient and give honor to the government in order to live a quiet life, but under no circumstance should the follower of Christ obey the government in doing something that is sinful. In the present context of American evangelicalism, it has become popular to say that blindly obeying the government is simply loving your neighbor well. Indeed, Jesus said Himself to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s” and the government deserves respect, obedience, and taxes, but never at the expense of giving God His glory.
Many within the evangelical community today suggest that Christians should stop resisting the whims of culture in regards to clinging tightly to the doctrinal and biblical convictions that stand opposed to the beliefs of humanistic, secular governments. There are even some evangelicals that suggest a Christian cannot say he is being persecuted for his convictions because he can simply stop, and obey they government. Blasphemy! For “anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two-or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who trampled the Son of God underfoot and counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of Grace”. Instead, the follower of Christ should “hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.
A Christian must be ready to die on every hill for the truth of the gospel of Christ, and every Christian should praise God that Jesus didn’t have that same attitude, because if He did, He would have never been willing to die on a hill called Mount Calvary. When Christ was being captured by the Roman centurions to be taken to be put on trial, and later crucified, some of His disciples drew out swords to defend Christ against his capture, but Jesus rebuked them. Christ told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword”. In light of this, the Christian is not to live in open rebellion against their government, but the Christian must also recognize, that if they are to live by the Word of God, that is sharper than any two-edged sword, then it should be of no surprise when the Christian is martyred by the tyrant’s sword.

  Article XVII. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000

Sanford H. Cobb, The Rise of Religious Liberty in America: A History. (New York: MacMillan & Co.) 1902, 1
Article XVII. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000
1 Peter 2:12-17 NKJV
Jerry A. Johnson. “Religious Liberty” found within, Douglas K. Blount, and Wooddell ed., Baptist Faith and Message: Critical Issues within Americas Largest Protestant Denomination. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield), 2007. 171
John 12:26
Ibid., 172