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Articles

3 reasons Baptists should hold to religious liberty for all

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June 30, 2022

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.

Conclusion

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.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is senior fellow for Religious Liberty of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He serves as professor of Faith and Culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. His most recent book is "Fulfilling the Great Commission: Essays in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24