Baptists And Religious Liberty

  • Category: Religion
  • Words: 901
  • Grade: 100

        Baptists of the seventeenth century confronted religious restriction from all sides, both from government and the church. No other group advocated complete soul liberty. Baptists called for religious freedom, not only for themselves, but for every religious group. Their basis for this was in the way they read the Bible. Like all people Baptists went to the Bible with lenses that refracted the truth of God to them in a certain way. Leon McBeth pointed out that seventeenth century Anglicans tended to read church-state issues in light of the Old Testament. Baptists went to the New Testament to persuade others of the separation of the civil and spiritual kingdoms. Advocating religious liberty never meant that Baptists denied proper authority to civil rulers. Baptists taught that every person should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13). Baptists saw two spheres in the Bible. Romans 13 was for the civil, but James 4:12 "There is one lawgiver and judge" that is, the Lordship of Christ, was for the church.
        Baptists anchored their passion for religious liberty to the nature of God, and the nature of humanity. Religious freedom, said the early Baptists, is rooted in the nature of God. A Sovereign God who dared to create people as free beings is portrayed in the Bible as a liberating Deity. Throughout the Old Testament, God is set against persons and institutions that restricted the freedom of God's people. And the complete thrust of Jesus' ministry was to free people from all that would hold them back from obedience to God. God, not nations or courts or human law, is the ultimate source of liberty.
        Baptists also based their call for religious liberty on the biblical view of persons. Created in the image of God, a human being is the crowning work of God's creation (Psalm 8). To deny freedom of conscience to any person is to debase God's creation.
        Baptists called for religious freedom because of their ecclesiological convictions. Just as salvation was the work of God but never imposed, the church was the work of the Holy Spirit but one was never coerced in it. Baptists believed that response to God was highly personal and individualistic. Not only was it impractical and unscriptural to attempt to legislate such a spiritual relationship, it would be completely impossible to do so.
        Early Baptists used exceedingly practical arguments in support of their contention for freedom of conscience. Thomas Helwys claimed that religious persecution was both unnecessary and ineffective. He said that the spiritual kingdom did not need the aid of the state. Moreover, rather than producing religious uniformity and protecting civil loyalty, persecution drives people to do the opposite, confirming them more solidly in their judgments.
        Virginia approved a declaration of religious liberty in January, 1786, and the Constitutional Congress followed suit under the leadership of Madison and Jefferson who later spoke eloquently of a "wall of separation" that should exist between church and state. An amendment was added to the Constitution of this new and different land: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
        This simple but profoundly important amendment was intended to guarantee that:

"¢        Congress would not make any religious group or church the established or favored or official church for the nation;
"¢        Citizens would not be required to pay taxes to support any religious establishment; religions would be free to support themselves by their own constituents, but government funds would not be used to support religious causes or institutions;
"¢        Congress or government officials would not interfere in doctrinal disputes; no one group's dogma would be made law for everyone; nor would everyone be forced to believe or live any particular doctrine;
"¢        Dissent on religious opinion could not become the basis of criminal prosecution;
"¢        Government would not interfere with religious exercises; it would occupy itself with maintaining domestic tranquillity and defending the country against enemies both domestic and foreign;
"¢        The people were to be free to be religious or not religious; the government would not force religion whether in doctrine or in practice upon anyone. Religion was to be entirely voluntary. Government would use its coercive powers only for the interests of state; it is not a religious body. Prayer and doctrine are not in its jurisdiction.
                In this ammendment was fashioned a new relation between religion and politics. There was no longer the fear of the executions for heresy; gone were the tears of broken homes and tortured bodies for those who dared dissent; gone were the days of paying taxes to support religious causes through government channels.
                The task of the government was to preserve and protect this arrangement of religious and secular affairs. The courts were appointed guardians to assure strict adherence to the "wall of separation" that should exist between the powers of church and those of the state. Congress was carefully restricted in the types of law that could be imposed upon the citizens.
                The covenant was dearly won. But religious tolerance was and is a fragile possession. Its protections lie in the First Amendment, an informed Supreme Court and judicial system, a friendly and supportive Congress and Executive Branch of government, and the mutual agreements of the various sects and denominations in America.
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