Thursday, May 21, 2009

Baptist Distinctive 2: Liberty of Conscience & Separation of Church and State (part 1/2)

In my last post I dealt with the Baptist distinctive having to do with Scripture, this post will deal with what was most commonly called the "Liberty of the Conscience" or "Individual Soul Liberty" and is more often today thought of as the "Separation of Church and State." I hope I don't say this before every distinctive, but this is one of the most important differences between Baptists and other denominations, especially when Baptists were first conceived.

Oddly, I think that this distinctive could be one of the most persuasive as to why one should be a Baptist or at least appreciate them historically, but it is also the distinctive from which those who call themselves Baptists (at least in the States) have departed the most. As probably most of you know by now, I graduated from Liberty University, the HQ of the Religious Right. The Religious Right and Liberty University make claim to be both Christian and political institutions and apparently see these ends as consistent and congruous. Oddly, many of the leaders were Baptists. I remember hearing Jerry Falwell talk about "taking back America" and the "Baptist" school he founded was to be his primary avenue towards that end. Roger Williams, one of the first Baptists in America, would have rolled over in his grave!

I will approach this distinctive in much the same way as the last one. I will explain the distinctive and its historical development, develop how this distinctive works out (or ought to work out) practically, and then put forth some positives and some challenges that are tied with this distinctive.

Explanation of the Distinctive
In my last post I commented how Baptists' comments in the early stages of the movement were very harsh towards those of other viewpoints, particularly those of Catholic and Anglican persuasions. One can hardly blame them! They were quite severely persecuted from the beginning for their differences. Obadiah Holmes was whipped for preaching, baptizing and administering communion outside the Church of England, John Bunyan was thrown in jail for preaching without a license, and John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were forced to flee to Holland because of their dissenting viewpoints. In the U.S., Roger Williams, a Baptist for a time, was forced out of Massachusetts and into Rhode Island largely because he protested against the mistreatment of the Native American people by the Puritans. When one is under threat of physical harm, imprisonment and being forced from your home, one tends to be rather unreceptive to the idea that those doing it are part of any "true church"! That they are portrayed as "antichrists" should hardly be surprising.

Baptists saw the wars over religion and the harsh persecution of Christians by other "Christians" and wondered, understandably, how this could be consistent with the message of the Bible and the model of the early New Testament church. Following are some early Baptists on the matter of religious freedom.

Thomas Helwys:
...none should be punished with either death or bonds for transgressing against the spiritual ordinances of the New Testament and that such offenses should only be punished with the spiritual sword and with censures.

and later
If the kings people are obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king. our lord the king can require none more. For men's religion is between God and themselves. The King will not answer for it. Neither may the king judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least manner.

Roger Williams states, rather sarcastically one imagines:
...the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of protestants and papists (Catholics), spilled in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required not accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace (emphasis mine).

and later
I conclude ... that the Christian church does not persecute; no more than a lily scratches the thorns, or a lamb pursues and tears the wolves, or a turtle-dove hunts the hawks and eagles, or a chasts and a modest virgin fights and scratches like whores and harlots.

A bit later historically (1791), John Leland:
Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment,, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free....
...religion is a matter between God and individuals: the religious opinions of men are not the objects of civil government, or in any way under its control.

Finally, in a very important document from an American history standpoint, here is an excerpt from a letter written by the Danbury Baptist Association in 1801 to the recently elected Thomas Jefferson:

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty - that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals - that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions....

From Jefferson's reply:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between a Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State....

Baptists believe that one cannot force someone to believe. Baptists argued that not only should differing varieties of Christians be free to practice their faith in the way dictated by their conscience, but also "Jews and Turks (meaning Muslims)". Roger Williams argued that the Native Americans too should have religious liberty. Although this may seem like a given for most Christians today, historically it was not so. The idea of separation of Church and State, now taken for granted in the U.S., is a Baptist idea. It is God's job, not the job of the government, to judge a man's soul.

Before I move on, I feel I must point out that this does not mean that one could not be an elected official and a Christian or a Baptist. Early Anglican opponents often accused Baptists of this but it was a false accusation. Nor did Baptists teach that one should not submit oneself to the secular authorities, quite the opposite, in fact. Thomas Helwys emphasizes both of these points in his "declaration of faith":
The Magistracy is a Holy ordinance of GOD, that every soul should be subject to it not for fear only, but for conscience sake... They are ministers of God to take vengeance on those who do evil, Romans 13. It is a fearful evil to speak evil of them.... We should pay tribute, custom and all other duties. We are to pray for them, for GOD would have them saved and come to a knowledge of his truth.

And therefore they may be members of the Church of CHRIST, retaining their Magistracy, for no Holy Ordinance of GOD debars them from being a member of CHRIST'S Church....

This is getting too long for one post. I am aware that I am far too longwinded. I will save the rest of this for another day. I have most of it written already, but will give you all a chance to read part 1 first. In the meantime, I would welcome your comments and your thoughts on the following.

-Before I give you my positives and negatives, I would love to hear yours. Is this a good distinctive? Why/Why not? What are some potential difficulties?

-How true do you think today's "Baptists" are to this historical distinctive?

Quotations taken from: Readings in Baptist History Joseph Early Jr (editor) Nashville, TN: B&H Press, 2008.


Sabrina said...

Very ironic to read that the Baptists helped to ordain the separation of church and state, because most Baptists, as you put it, believe that we should return to American's roots as a Christian nation. Um, what? How does true redemption through politics work? Can you show me some proof that the gospel helped shaped this nation?

Even from the little bit that I know of the history of church and state separation or lack thereof, Christendom has always turned into an ugly and monstrous thing, not representing Christ at all. If Christ came to change the world through politics, wouldn't he have come as a Zealot?

So, I guess I would say this is a good distinctive, but I can see people taking it to the extreme in separating politics from faith altogether.

As I heard someone say once, "are you an American Christian, or a Christian American?"

faithbornfromdoubt said...

I'm a Christian who just happened to be born in America.

I think I've already tipped my hand, but this is a place where I think many, of not most, of America's Baptists have really lost their way... especially the SBC

Sabrina said...

I'm in total agreement. It's probably one of the main reasons why I've hated calling myself a Baptist.

Pat Park said...

As a distinctive this one must be carefully handled, and understood from the historical context from which it was birthed. The harsh time from which these thoughts came are not matched by the efforts of those in the "political machines" of today. Historically speaking this came out of time when Christians were persecuting other Christians over faith practices, and using the government systems to do it.

Sabrina's use of the word Christendom is key and its practice as Sabrina states has always been ugly. And one cannot change or win the world through politics and governement.

But do not throw the baby out with the bath water. This is not a cry for Christians not to get involved in the political arena and to stay silent. Particularly not in a nation such as ours where the individual can speak.

Be carfeul how we apply this one. And how we speak of others who are involved in the politics of the nation.

Anonymous said...

drats! here i was thinking i only was one post behind and you snuck a new one in here! but these are getting shorter so i may be alert enough to read the next one too. woohoo!

i really, really appreciate these posts, as they are giving me a much needed refresher. i remember being struck with the whole church/state separation deal when i was reading abt it for class, and how funny it is that baptists (as well as many other christian groups) today are so passionate about how america's moral decline can be traced to this kind of separation which includes/influences taking prayer out of schools and the whole pledge of allegiance controversy.

i understand and appreciate why the distinctive came about. i also see the benefits that such a stance promotes. but i don't think you can end it there. there are instances where it is necessary for christians to cross that line and stand up for something that has tremendous moral consequences. there are times when we do have a responsibility to be involved so that the right thing is done. we are not called to be completely passive either and to be cowardly wimps when clear injustices or violations of human decency, for lack of a better term, are being carried out, which is what i feel would be the downside of what the distinctive would tend to foster.

i agree with what pat said: "This is not a cry for Christians not to get involved in the political arena and to stay silent." unfortunately, what many baptists are doing today is not what i picture as being responsibly involved in the world of politics either. there is a kind of groupthink mentality present that usually ends up coming across as highly intolerant and judgmental due to personal preferences rather than genuine conviction informed by scripture (not to say that having the latter will foolproof us against accusations that we are judmental). this is accompanied by a haughtiness and superiority that turns my stomach and makes me run hard and fast in the other direction to disassociate myself with such a group.

anyway, this is becoming way longer than i intended so i'll close with this thought. politics is not the one way to influence the world "for Christ.". nor is it an acceptable substitute for evangelizing to people (which is a belief i suspect some christians tend to hold to in motivating them to become active in the political arena). nor is it a justifiable way to announce to the world that you are a christian and as such different from the world. oh we are so great, and moral, and redeemed aren't we? sorry, my disgust with that line of thinking couldn't be contained. well, so much more could be said but i have already run my mouth for far too long now, so the end.

About Me

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul