Summary: Without religious liberty, there can be no true worship of God.
“Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
“You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Religious liberty is not simply an ecclesiastical truth debated among churches; religious liberty is headline news. As an example of the veracity of this assertion, note some of the headlines which crossed my desk in a single day.
Indonesian Laws Fuel Violence against Religious Minorities
Religion-related conflicts on the rise in Indonesia
Indonesian Churches Banned from Streets with Islamic Names
Pakistani Christian Attacked for Evangelism
Christian Convert Arrested in Tehran
Somalia Islamists Prevent Starved Christians from Receiving Food Aid
Hindu Radicals Ransack Churches, Beat Up Clergyman in Karnataka
Three years on from pogroms, Christians still living in fear
Catholic church attacked in Pune, India
Christian Worshippers Brutally Beaten by Vietnamese Police
I maintain files detailing persecution of Christians on my computer. Persecution ranges from oppressive regulatory laws to slavery, forced conversion and execution. Among those files are accounts of Muslims persecuting Christians, accounts of Hindu persecution of Christians, accounts of Jewish persecution of Christians, and perhaps surprisingly, accounts of Christian persecution of Christians. I also have accounts of Communist inspired persecution of Christians and a number of files detailing governmental controlled persecution of Christians—even in North America. It is as though Jesus’ Words were being played out before my eyes. Jesus warned His disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of My Name” [MATTHEW 10:22 NET BIBLE]. Christians do not seek persecution—we seek peace with all people—but persecution comes because of Him whom we serve.
Of all the foundational truths which have marked Baptists as a distinctive people, the doctrine of religious liberty has had the greatest impact on Christendom as a whole. It seems safe to say that this one issue is most readily threatened in our world by government, most appreciated by Christians, and perhaps least understood by religious leaders. State religions inevitably employ government to coerce compliance with the tenets of that particular religion and to oppress all other forms of worship.
The concept of the separation of church and state is based more on principle than on proof texts. To be sure, Jesus’ words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [MATTHEW 22:21], constitute a clear statement of the principle. The record makes clear that the early Christians were good citizens in matters deemed important by the Emperor [ROMANS 13:1-10; 1 PETER 2:12-17]. Even some early Roman writers testify to this fact. Only when Caesar tried to claim for himself the position of God did Christians refuse to obey. The record of Roman persecution of Christians is too well known to require further word here.
The great ideal for Baptists is a free church in a free state. For Baptists, the verses of our text have become the watchword for our advocacy of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. Listen again to those words of the text. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” It is not my intent this day to present an exposition of these verses; but rather I seek to present the argument based upon the Word of God which impels Baptist people to champion the concept of religious liberty.
In the past several weeks, I have presented the case for the form of church which characterises Baptists throughout the world, and especially here in North America. We believe in a regenerate church membership and we believe in congregational church polity. We are convinced that those who unite with a church must be born from above, testifying to this rebirth through baptism. We insist upon believers’ baptism. All this is in contradistinction to the model of multitudinist churches as exemplified in the state churches of Europe. This is in contradistinction to the hierarchical models of ecclesiastical polity demonstrated among the mainline denominations of our own nation. This is in contradistinction to the pædobaptists and their rite of infant baptism.
Years ago, at a notable dinner in London, the world-famed statesman, John Bright, asked an American statesman, himself a Baptist, the noble Dr. J. L. M. Curry, “What distinct contribution has your America made to the science of government?” To that question, Dr. Curry replied, “The doctrine of religious liberty.” After a moment’s reflection, Mr. Bright made the worthy reply, “It was a tremendous contribution.”
Indeed, the supreme contribution of the New World to the old is the contribution of religious liberty. Historic justice compels me to say that it was pre-eminently a Baptist contribution. Dr. George Truett, citing the American historian, Mr. Bancroft, says, “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.” John Locke stated, “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.”