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Free To Be…The Baptist Way: Religious Freedom

Rev. John Williams

Matthew 22:1522

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

I have greatly appreciated that Pastor Matt specifically asked that I spend some time this summer helping us look more closely at our Baptist identity and connect a little better with our Baptist DNA.  You have listened to three messages about the important freedoms that make us who we are as American Baptists: Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, and Bible Freedom. These are critical to who we are as Baptists and have been since Smyth and Helwys separated from the established state church to follow scripture and conscience and created this movement we call Baptist.

And now I have the privilege to bring this series to a close and talk about Religious Freedom.  I’m in good company. In 1612, Thomas Helwys published A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity in which he wrote an appeal to King James I arguing for liberty of conscience.  Helwys sent the king a copy of his book, in which he said: “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.”  King James was so grateful for Helwys’ candor that he had him thrown into Newgate Prison, where he died in 1616 at about the age of forty.  Religious freedom was not a popular subject then, and can sometimes be a difficult one today.

I began this series mentioning that James Dunn, then executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, pointed out several years ago that Baptists have historically been a non-creedal people, but then corrected:  “That’s not true, Baptists have a creed:  ‘Ain’t nobody going to tell us what to do!”  In a very real sense, Freedom IS our creed.  And religious freedom is essential.

Religious Freedom—the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.  

I came across a quote from Philip Yancy just yesterday.  He says: “I see the confusion of politics and religion as one of the greatest barriers to grace. C.S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of ungrace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.” When we talk about religious freedom we talk about the fact that religion and politics are not the same. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and we give to Christ what is Christ’s. When Jesus responded to the Pharisees and Herodians with that statement, He literally shut their mouths.  They had no response. The idea of a separation of religion and government was unheard of.

In 1920, Baptist Pastor George W. Truett declared: “‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ is one of the most revolutionary and history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once and for all, marked the divorcement of church and state.”  For Baptists, the concept of such religious freedom rests, not on political theory or on human documents, but on the word of God.  The Baptist belief in religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of church and state, come from the Baptist commitment to the authority of the Bible and our understanding of soul freedom.  The very nature of the gospel and of church calls for such a relationship. 

The Bible reveals that humans are created by God with a competency to know and follow his will (Genesis 1:27).  Following God’s will should be (and IS) a free choice, not coerced by neither church nor state. 

Salvation in Christ is the result of free choice to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8–10). Therefore, no government (whether religious or secular) should ever interfere with the free proclamation of the gospel or with the freedom of people to accept or reject it.

Likewise, churches ought to be made up of people who have freely chosen to be baptized and to gather together (Acts 2:41–42).  People are to support the churches by voluntary contributions of tithes and offerings, not government imposed taxes (II Cor. 8:1–15).  Only Jesus is to be Lord, never any government or ecclesiastical organization (Ephesians 4:11–16; Philippians 2:8–11).

We tend to take such things for granted now, living as we do with Constitutional protection against such things.  These were the very things that ignited the passions of our Baptist forbearers, like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, to separate from the established state church and incur the persecution of government and church officials alike.  “Give to God the things that are God’s” would have been their clarion call to all who would be followers of Jesus.  The Baptist passion for religious freedom is anchored to the nature of God, the nature of humanity and the nature of faith.  God, not nations or courts or human law, is the ultimate source of liberty. And this is the freedom Baptists claimed and insisted upon in the formation of this country.

John Leland, Isaac Backus, Roger Williams—early Baptist forbearers of this notion of religious freedom—were such powerful voices that the first amendment to the constitution was written and ratified to respond to this call to freedom.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”   This is one of the debts that our nation owes to the people called Baptists.

But let me also point out, separation of church and state does not absolve us from our godly duty to be good citizens and to use whatever means God has given us to speak truth to power and live as salt and light in our society.  With Freedom Comes Responsibility.

As with all four of the Baptist freedoms we’ve looked at these past four weeks, Religious Freedom is a fragile freedom.  They are all fragile because the great temptation of many American Baptists is to ignore the responsibilities they impose.  Probably not the first to say it, Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying that “With freedom comes responsibility.”  Our responsibility is to know who we are and what these freedoms mean.  Our responsibility is also to live out these freedoms in our life and faith.  The responsible action that goes with Religious Freedom insists that we understand and maintain the separation of church and state; recognizing that the state cannot and must not impose its authority, against or for, any religion, even Christianity.  And that means the freedom we claim for ourselves belongs to everyone else, not just those who believe like us. Religious Freedom is a right and a matter of principle, for all, not just a few or a majority. 

Now this is a hard thing, for there are Christian voices out there, and some are Baptist, who insist we live in a Christian nation and call for everything from returning prayer to public schools to insisting presidential candidates hold certain religious views in order to be president.  But be careful; whose prayers will your children be forced to pray in school? Who will determine the “right” religious views for candidacy? Harry Truman once said: “Those who want the government to regulate matters of the mind and spirit are like men who are so afraid of being murdered that they commit suicide.” 

So what is in the DNA of First Baptist Church that makes this church so special?  Without a doubt it is faith in Jesus Christ. That is primary, for we declare with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength that Jesus is Lord.  But linked to that faith in Christ are the four Baptist freedoms:

Soul Freedom—the understanding that every person has the right to make a free choice when it comes to matters of faith.  No creed, no clergy, no government official has the right to force faith on anyone.

Church Freedom—the local church is free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine who they will be, what they will do, and with whom they will associate.  The local church is free to determine its membership and leadership, to order its worship and work, to ordain whom it perceives as gifted for ministry, male or female, and to participate in the larger Body of Christ. 

Bible Freedom—the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians, using the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture. 

Religious Freedom—the freedom of all individuals and groups to hold, publicize, and propagate their religious beliefs and practices and to conduct their religious affairs without external restraint or limitation, and with equality of civil rights, so long as they do not interfere with the rights or liberties of other people.

And what will you do with those freedoms?  Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in his book, Man’s Search for MeaningFreedom is not the last word.  Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.  The positive aspect of freedom is responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.  

The call of God upon our lives as American Baptists is to hold our Baptist freedoms, our core values, in high regard, not merely as beliefs, but as those principles by which we responsibly live out the truth and power of a life transformed and set free by Jesus Christ.

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