In recent days, a growing number of Christians are pushing back against the Baptist principle of religious liberty of all people. Some of these believers are themselves Baptists with honest concerns. There are two common, sometimes overlapping reasons for this discomfort with religious freedom.
Some argue that to defend the freedom of those who embrace false religions is to inadvertently endorse those religions. Baptists should not be allied, for example, with Muslims who wish to build a mosque in a new community and spread their false beliefs. Others suggest that America is, or ought to be, a Christian nation. Therefore, to embrace full religious liberty and its close cousin, the separation of church and state, is tantamount to endorsing secularism.
Despite these concerns, religious liberty is not a new idea that is the result of progressive theological drift, the Trojan horse of religious pluralism, or the leavening effect of secularism. Defending religious freedom is part of the “DNA” of what it means to be a Baptist.
Religious liberty is a historical principle
Religious liberty is sometimes discussed solely as a product of the Enlightenment. Sometimes, state churches gradually embraced religious toleration. Other times, state churches were dissolved, and no form of Christianity was privileged. The modern secular state, with its commitment to religious freedom, represents a more advanced arrangement than backward cultures that continue to closely entangle religion and politics.
The heroes of this tendentious (and ethnocentric) narrative are philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire, politicians such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and documents such as the Act of Toleration (1689) and the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution (1791). The villains include the Catholic Church at all times and in all places, politically engaged evangelicals in the U.S., and many Jews, Muslims, and Hindus in non-western nations.
For Baptists, religious liberty is a historical principle that predates the Enlightenment. Our theological cousins, the Continental Anabaptists, and our ecclesial forefathers, the English Separatists, both championed this principle and influenced early Baptists. The oldest Baptist confessions affirm religious freedom, though they often focus more on freedom for Christians who did not belong to state churches. Later confessions written in contexts without a state church, including the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), applied the principle more broadly.
Even from our earliest days, Baptist thinkers applied the principle of religious liberty to members of other religions and no religion. Non-Christians should be free to believe whatever they wish about ultimate matters without their consciences being coerced by any human authority. There is a veritable Baptist “cloud of witnesses” that has written in defense of religious liberty for all from the 17th century to the present. Helwys. Murton. Williams. Backus. Leland. Truett. Mullins. Dawson. Land. These men and others have defended religious freedom for all, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves.
Religious liberty is a theological principle
Baptists have always tied religious liberty to a closely related idea: liberty of conscience. For example, the Second London Confession famously says,
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) echoes this language when it claims, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.”
Baptists sometimes call liberty of conscience soul liberty, soul freedom, or soul competency. Whatever term is used, the idea is the same. Every individual is accountable to the Lord alone for his or her convictions about ultimate matters. Each of us will give an account before God (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10) for our beliefs and actions. Religion is not a matter of proxy. No other individual can answer on our behalf.
Baptists talk a lot about following Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We emphasize having a personal relationship with Christ by grace through faith. We affirm that Jesus is not only the King of all, but he is also our King when we bow the knee to him in repentance and faith. For Baptists, religious liberty is a theological principle rooted in the Kingship of Jesus.
What a man believes about Jesus is the most important thing about him. One’s faith is not intended to be private, but it is always personal. Religious liberty for all protects the freedom for believers to follow King Jesus, without our consciences being coerced by a lesser authority. Religious liberty also protects the freedom of non-Christians to not have their consciences coerced in religious matters.
Religious liberty is a missional principle
The Great Commission is God’s command that his followers make disciples from among the nations. It is a thread that runs from Genesis to Revelation, though we often identify it with Matthew 28:18-20.
Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
For Baptists, religious liberty is a missional principle rooted in God’s character and his command to make disciples from among all peoples. When we defend the soul freedom of unbelievers to hold incorrect or irreligious views, we are not affirming their false beliefs. Rather, we are defending their right to be wrong, their freedom to be corrected through the preaching of the gospel, and our right and responsibility to proclaim the gospel to them.
To be clear, Baptists should be committed to the Great Commission even if religious liberty was outlawed tomorrow. In fact, Baptists in many other parts of the world are deeply committed to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, despite living under oppressive regimes that do not protect religious freedom. But even in those contexts, they advocate for religious freedom for all, so that they might be unhindered in their worship and witness, and so that unbelievers might be free to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now is not the time for Baptists to abandon our commitment to religious liberty for all. Rather, it is a time to patiently correct misunderstandings, answer honest questions, and make a renewed case for soul freedom. Religious liberty is a historic Baptist principle that is rooted in our theological commitments and helps animate our obedience to the Great Commission. May we continue to stand with those who have gone before us in defending religious liberty for the glory of God, the advance of the gospel, and the sake of human flourishing.