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Not Your Mother’s Baptist Church: Religious Freedom

Matthew 7.12


James and Thomas had a fundamental disagreement.

James was a pretty big supporter of the power of the king.  He believed that the king had ultimate authority over peoples’ lives.  In fact, he believed that he had the authority over people’s religious lives, their souls even.  James believed that the king had been appointed by God and therefore had power over his subjects regards to their spiritual faith and practice.  He believed that the king had the power to tell them how to worship (and how not to worship), to force them to support with their money the religious organization that the king chose, and to show their allegiance to whatever faith the king demanded.  In fact, he believed that the King had the right to proclaim which version of the Bible they were to read!

Thomas disagreed.  He felt that people had the right to choose the way that they worshipped.  He felt that they should not be forced to give money to support a religious organization that was not their own.  He felt that allegiance is up to the individual, and not up to the king.  In fact he said, so, when he wrote, “if the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”  The King “has no power over the immortal souls of his subjects.”

Here is the problem.  Thomas was Thomas Helwys, a Baptist pastor and one of the original founders of the Baptist tradition.  And James was King James – the guy whose Authorized Version of the Bible is sometimes named after him – and he didn’t much like Thomas telling him what he could and couldn’t do.  So, he threw Thomas in prison, where he sat until he died.


A less than auspicious start to the Baptist faith…and to the sermon for that matter.  But even though most of us would say we agree with Thomas and not James today, especially as Americans and especially as Baptists, the reality is that the principle that Thomas fought and died for is still under attack.  But it isn’t always simple.

What about the woman who was persecuted at work for wearing a traditional Muslim head covering?  Why should we as Baptists protect the rights of someone of a different faith?

Or what about the atheist who doesn’t want to stand up in school and say the pledge of allegiance?  We believe in “under God,” so why would we protect the rights of one who is so opposed to that which we hold dear?

Or what of the Johnson Act?  Historically, churches are not required to pay taxes, as long as they don’t actively campaign politically.  But for the first time in decades, some are suggesting that we overturn that act, so that churches can say whatever they want.  Of course, that means that pulpits will become a place for political stump speeches, and churches will be pass-throughs for campaign dollars, and only the strongest and richest voices will be heard.  But Christianity is pretty strong here in the U.S., so would that be a bad thing?  Why should we protect the rights of minority voices when we are the majority?

See, these are not necessarily simple questions, and there are not necessarily simple answers.  Why should we protect the rights of those who are fundamentally different than we are?


“Why should we, indeed,” asked many of the faithful during the time of Christ.  Perhaps you have heard of the Sadducees.  This was a grouping of Hebrews that were tied to the aristocracy of the day.  They were the rich and powerful, and aligned with the even more rich and more powerful within the Roman power structure.  Their power came from the families to which they belonged, and the power of the Temple.  The Sadducees and the Temple authorities had aligned themselves so close to the Romans that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.

They were the ones who would later on say, “we have no king but Caesar.”  They believed that God had anointed Caesar king and anointed them to protect his power.  They stood on top of the power of the Temple Mount, physically and figuratively, and said this is who you have to be.  This is the way you have to worship.  This is the allegiance to which you must pledge.

They relied upon the twin fists of dominating power and coerced faith.

But then this guy named Jesus showed up.  Jesus climbed to the top of another mountain…and preached a very different message.  We call his message the Sermon on the Mount, and it was the beginning of his ministry of a very different set of values.  In the middle section of that sermon, beginning in chapter 5.17 and ending in 7.12, we hear this radical ethic that Jesus proclaims.  The section starts with a proclamation that he is not inventing a new faith, but is fulfilling the faith of his people from the beginning.  He states in 5.17 “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.”  And he goes on to explain what he means.  “You have heard it said…but I tell you…”  He parses these examples of how people have misread and misunderstood the law and the prophets in order to protect their own self-interest.  In other words, there is a mountain and there is a way of living that proclaims that when you are in power, you use that power to overcome and defeat.  You use that power to dominate.  You use that power to exploit.  You use that power to lord over.  But here on this mountain, I am proclaiming that that way of living is not what God intended, not what the Scriptures intended.  Instead, there is a new way.  “but I tell you…”  And at the end of lining out that new way, he proclaims, “therefore, the law and the prophets proclaim that you must always do to others what you would have done to you.”  There is a new way of being, which is really the old way of being that God intended in the first place, but we lost sight of on top of that other mountain.

That’s what he does in 5.43, in the middle of this passage.  Because, sure, we must treat others in the way that we would be treated.  But, at the Two Way this week, folks pointed out that the Golden Rule by itself in a vacuum can still be pretty narcissistic: “what I consider good for me becomes the measure of good for everyone.”  In other words, if we translate the Golden Rule literally, we can demand for others some pretty unhealthy demands, simply because we demand the same for ourselves.  Which is why Jesus sets forth this radical ethic in 5.43: the Rule of Love: “You have heard it said that you love your friends and hate your enemies, but I tell you to love your enemies.”  In other words, we must fight for justice in ways that are not only good for us as individuals, but for entire communities, especially for those who are the most oppressed and vulnerable in our midst.

Jesus raises up the word of the prophets who told the people of God, “you must care for the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the weak, the vulnerable, because we were once those things when we were in captivity in Egypt.  Because we were once oppressed, we must live in a way that refuses to oppress others.”  Jesus proclaims in 7.12 that this is what the law and the prophets were all trying to get across: that when we are powerless, we must proclaim freedom.  And when we are powerful, we must proclaim freedom all the more!  “That is the way of this mountain,” says Jesus.

And not only is that the way of the law and the prophets, and the way of Jesus, but that is the way of Baptists.  From the very beginning!  Thomas wrote to James these words:

“Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertaines not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure”

In other words, we don’t just fight for the freedoms of those with whom we agree.  In fact, to be Baptist – and I would argue that to be Christians following the Golden Rule and the Rule of Love – means that we must fight for the freedoms of those with whom we disagree.

  • And so, Baptists have fought for the right of the woman wearing the Muslim head scarf. Because the Golden Rule and the Rule of Love tell them to.
  • And Baptists have fought for the right of the atheist to not say the pledge of allegiance. Because the Golden Rule and the Rule of Love tell them to.
  • And Baptists have fought to protect the Johnson Amendment, and to keep politics out of the pulpit. Because they have been religious minorities and know what it is like when the Sadducees take over!  We were founded by a guy who ended up in prison because he didn’t agree with the king.  But he was convinced that every person is a child of God and that faith cannot be forced or coerced or bought by the highest bidder.

Because the Baptist principle of religious freedom proclaims that you fight for the freedom of others, even when you disagree.  Especially if you disagree!  Because we were once religious minorities, therefore we must fight for religious minorities today!

Be they Muslim.  Or Hindu.  Or atheist.  Or heretics or Turks or Jews or whatsoever.  Because it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with them.  The Golden Rule and the Rule of Love tell us that this is what our faith is about!

And so, the sermon that started with some pretty bad news, at least for Thomas Helwys, ends with a celebration.  Because when Thomas began the Baptist tradition with these words, he created a thought virus.  A new way of thinking that wound its way throughout the centuries:

To Baptist John Leland, who convinced James Madison that the Bill of Rights needed to include religious freedom.

To Baptist Issac Backus, who fought with John Adams that a state-sponsored religion, that people were forced to support with the money and their allegiance, was a bad idea.

To Baptist Roger Williams, who founded a colony on the idea that everyone gets to worship and practice their faith in the way that they find meaningful.

To Baptists in the Baptist Joint Committee, an organization that fights on Capitol Hill for the rights of religious minorities, whether or not they agree with them.

To each and every one of us, who today take these thought viruses of the Golden Rule and the Rule of Love and we translate them in practical, radical, life-altering ways in our church and in our community and in our world.


Today, I ask which mountain will you stand upon?  The mountain of top-down power and coerced faith?  The Temple Mount of the Sadducees that proclaims who faith must look like?  Or will we stand on top of the Mount of the radical ethic of Jesus?  Will we proclaim freedom for all of God’s children?  May we today demonstrate the Golden Rule and the Rule of Love in all that we do and all that we say, that the world might be transformed by the love of Christ!

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