Summary: The role of conscience in interpretting Scripture.

Freedom of Conscience

On January 5th 1527 Felix Mantz, who was one of three of the initial leaders of the ‘Anabaptist’ movement in Switzerland during the reformation, was charged with re-baptising people. The Magistrate condemned him because in the Magistrate’s opinions Mantz’s doctrines were contrary to Scripture, contrary to the entire Christian tradition, and furthermore caused nothing but uproar and disunity . He walked to the river with courage, praising God and preaching to his assembled audience, all the while being encouraged by his mother and his brother. Upon Arriving at the lakes edge he started to sing his favourite Latin hymn of praise. He was tied up and thrown into the icy waters of Lake Geneva. He was the first ‘Protestant’ martyr, killed at the hands of Protestants.


Everybody born in the West in the 1500’s was a member of church. There was no separation between the church and the state. The kings ruled the church under the pope. The Baptists in England and the Anabaptists before them in Europe believed in a church that was made up only of those who had decided to become a follower of Jesus. Everybody was a ‘Christian’. Everyone was baptised as a baby. However not everybody was a ‘follower of Jesus’.

These (ana)baptists believed that the church should be made up of people that have made a decision to follow Jesus. Their belief was based on the understanding that the Bible was the sole authority on matters of religion or religious conscience. Which came first is a matter for debate, but both are fundamentally important to understand what Baptists are about. We will be talking more about the concept of the church in the next few weeks.

So how were they to determine who was a ‘follower of Jesus’ or really a Christian from the mass of people in society? For the early Baptists it was done through a decision to take baptism. They saw in the scriptures that baptism was a decision people made and they sort to do likewise. This decision led to great suffering. Why? One reason was that there was no sense in amongst those who ruled that people should be able to make such decisions. It was seen as an act of treason and rebellion. It was seen as undermining society. Baptismal records were the only records people had of existence. If people were undermining these records, through starting their own, or not having their kids baptised, how could any ruler know who was who? There are a number of other reasons, for example under Papal law the farms had to give ‘the tithe’ one tenth of all produce to the church. These people rejected the Catholic Church’s use of the Old Testament and hence rejected these laws as well. These people were costing the society money. These rebellious people must suffer. And suffer they did. Like the way that we have just read.

Last week we looked at the concept of Scriptural authority, that Scripture is the way through which Jesus rules over his church. Today we are looking at how that plays out in the lives of the individual. There are really two concepts which are important and we will look at them both together.

The first is the idea of soul competency. What that means is that God has gifted each person with the ability to read and with the help of the Holy Spirit understand scripture. The second idea comes along with that, is that if we can read and understand then we should have the freedom to act according to that, our conscience becomes the basis for interpreting Scripture. And I think we saw that in some of the passages that Leni read for us today. (1 Cor 8:7-11, 1 Cor 10:23-31, 2 Cor 4:2)

It doesn’t mean that everybody will have complete knowledge of Scripture, but that God will speak to them, through the Scripture, through his Holy Spirit, in a way in which each person will know enough to have a relationship with him, like Jesus did, and through that relationship go to heaven. This was in reaction to the prevailing view of the church which was that only the ‘authorised’ teachers could read, interpret and understand the bible. This is still current in some people’s thinking today.

In Scripture we find teaching on how we do things when we gather. How we should live our lives. How we enter into a relationship with God. These things are all written about in Scripture and people during the Reformation started to read the Scriptures and started to think, ‘I can understand this. This doesn’t match with what the church is telling me to do. I think I’ll do things differently, the way I think Jesus taught they should be done.’ And they thought that others should likewise be free to do things the way they think the God, through the Scriptures has taught us to do things.

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