Galatians 5:1, 13-16
1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
The fact that denominational affiliation is becoming more and more irrelevant to a person’s decision to attend a particular church is not news to anyone. The truth is, denominational affiliation doesn’t even figure into the equation according to Gallup surveys on American spirituality. Dating back as far as 20 years, those surveys give these figures on why people choose a particular church:
Sunday school: 3% – 6%
Drop in on own initiative: 3% – 6%
A particular pastor: 10% – 20%
A particular program: 10% – 20%
Invitation of a friend: 60% – 80%
While this church may be a Baptist church—and specifically an American Baptist church—this truth may hold little significance for many people in this congregation. More than likely, it is this church’s structures, programs, activities and people who keep people engaged. However, this church’s structures, programs, activities and people are most often present because of the denominational DNA that weaves itself through congregational identity and purpose.
I have been asked to spend the next four Sundays helping us connect a little better with our Baptist identity. We will be looking at four important freedoms that are in our Baptist DNA: Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Bible Freedom, and Religious 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.
Several years ago James Dunn, then executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, pointed out that Baptists have historically been a non-creedal people. “That’s not true,” he corrected. “Baptists have a creed: ‘Ain’t nobody going to tell us what to do!” In that sense, Freedom IS our creed. It is…the Baptist way! And soul freedom is essential. We, not our parents, our pastors, our presidents, or anyone else, can choose for us. We are free to choose, and so is everyone else!
So what is Soul Freedom?
A serious study of scripture shows us that God created us as free people, free to choose and free not to choose. In our Old Testament reading this morning, Joshua calls the people to choose. They had soul freedom; Joshua could not choose for them, neither did God choose for them. Each had to choose for himself or herself. In our Gospel reading, Jesus asked the question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Again, other people’s opinions and choices didn’t count. Nor did Jesus demand they make a particular choice. The choice was theirs, and theirs alone.
Soul Freedom, then, is the right and responsibility of each person to stand before God and make decisions about his or her relationship with God; it is the deep conviction that every man or woman has both the ability and the necessity to enter into direct saving relationship to God through Christ.
In early 17th-century England, Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, along with other Puritan dissenters, determined, through their study of scripture, that neither King James, nor any other person, could hold authority over the conscience (soul) of any individual. God had created humankind with free will to decide on how and with whom we might exercise our faith. At a time when the state church was governed by the King and the authority of a clerical hierarchy, Helwys and others said this cannot be. People could not be ordered to be a part of the Church of England, nor should they be. People must be free to choose or not choose as a matter of their own conscience.
As you might imagine, this Baptist notion of soul freedom was not popular with the ruling powers that be and by the winter of 1607–08, Thomas Helyws, John Smyth, and about 40 others fled to Amsterdam to escape persecution.
So what does Soul Freedom mean for us today?
It means you, and you alone, must choose to be a follower of Christ. No government agency nor church can demand your religious belief. Your parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, nor any other persons are unable to compel your belief nor determine your eternal destiny. God, who acts as a perfect gentleman, still gives you free choice and refuses to impose God’s will upon you without your consent. “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!” the Apostle says. The choice is yours.
But with freedom comes responsibility.
Some of you think it was Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who told Peter Parker that with great power comes great responsibility. But really, this is a thought that has been echoed throughout scripture. Moses called to the people of Israel on Moab, “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, in order that you might live.” Paul’s charge to the Galatians is a reminder that with their freedom comes responsibility: “…only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh.”
It’s like two ropes suspended above you, draped over a pulley. One is labeled freedom, the other responsibility. If you grasp only the rope labeled freedom, you will fall. Likewise, if you grasp only the rope labeled responsibility, you will also fall. You must grasp both ropes to remain aloft. You and I have free choice, but we also bear the responsibility of those choices!
So here is your choice. Hebrews 4:13-15 says:
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.
Acts 4:12 says: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
And those who reject Him, for whatever reason, face an eternity in the “outer darkness” of a place without the Light of Christ where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt.25:30). In other words, you have free choice, but your choice has a consequence.
And something else soul freedom means for us today: If you have soul freedom, so does everyone else. If you have the right and responsibility to choose, so does everyone else; YOU can’t choose for them. Even when we don’t agree with the choices others make, they still have the freedom to make those choices. And Baptists have defended the rights of others to choose, even in those places we disagree.
For example, I deplore the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Their hateful rhetoric demonstrates some of the most UN-Christlike speech and intolerance I have ever seen. Yet, disagree as I might, I still believe they have the freedom (not just constitutional freedom, but soul freedom) to choose such a path.
And it is our fierce adherence to soul freedom that enables American Baptists to be among the most diverse denomination in America. We allow people room to follow Christ as they are led by the Holy Spirit.
There are so many other implications to the Baptist Way of Soul Freedom.
- Soul Freedom informs our understanding of Believer’s Baptism and the reality of regenerate church membership.
- Soul Freedom pushes us into congregationalism as our manner of church polity.
- Soul Freedom cautions us against creedal statements and mandated confessions of faith.
- Soul Freedom declares that the ground is level at the foot of the Cross. No one stands above another in access to God or call to discipleship.
Soul Freedom is a part of our Baptist DNA. It is a part of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ. Listen to how The Message makes this declaration: Galatians 5:1, 13–16 (The Message)
1 Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness.
Beloved, I urge you today, make the choice you are free to make. Choose life. Choose to follow Christ. In the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God in heaven, I’m free at last.”
Amen. And so let it be.