A resource for Southern Baptists on religious liberty

December 6, 2022

Freedom to live according to one’s deeply held religious convictions is a tenant of Baptist faith. But why is that so? Below is a resource for Southern Baptists on religious liberty that explains how the Bible, Church history, and the Baptist Faith & Message informs this foundational position.

Government is ordained by God and exists to promote justice and order the civil sphere

Government is ordained by God for the promotion of civil order and justice in society. From the Noahic covenant, which served to set limits on how individuals interacted with one another after the Fall—requiring life for those who took a life—to Paul’s reminder to church at Rome about submission to government, government exists to punish evil doers and restrain injustice (Gen. 9:1-7; Rom. 13:1-7). 

Practically, this can mean everything from the building of roads and setting of safety standards as well as the just enforcement of laws and physical defense of citizens. As an institution of God, it is good for its own sake, not just as a result of the Fall and sin’s entrance into the world. Christians should desire the government to further justice and human flourishing as its proper end. 

God alone is Lord of the conscience. 

In the same passage where Jesus reminds his disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, he also says that there are things which belong rightly to God, not Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). This is a reminder that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and the government should not interfere with the sincere religious convictions of individuals. In the words of John Leland, Baptist preacher and religious liberty advocate, if the government won’t answer for a person before the judgment seat of Christ, it should not interfere with an individual’s religion in the present. 

Baptists have historically held that though the conscience is not infallible, recognizing that it can be malformed because of sin’s effects, it should be inviolable. When rightly normed by Scripture, individuals should live in accordance with conscience rather than do what they think to be sin (Rom. 14:1-12).  

Christians owe obedience to the state as a divine institution of God. 

As a divine institution of God, Christians are to give obedience to government when it exercises its power justly within its sphere of authority. The command to give obedience to government is not a blessing of all the uses of government’s power, but a submission to the authority established by God (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:14). Christians should resist commands from the government that call them to sin or reject the teachings of Christ. 

However, in other instances, Christians should willingly submit to the authority instituted by God, availing themselves of all the rights of citizens for protest and redress of grievances. They should do so while also praying for all authorities and leaders to further promote justice and justly govern society (1 Tim. 2:1-4).

The church and state should not be united

As the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 declares, “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal…”

Baptists have consistently held that the church and state are to remain distinct from one another, not to promote a secular state, but rather to prevent the unjust use of power by the state inside the church. As early American Baptist Roger Williams described it, the hedge of protection exists to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state. A state which can interfere with the church’s governance is one that will seek to corrupt and control the church based on cultural norms. 

As Baptists, we affirm that entrance into the church is not coterminous with entrance into the state, and reject any nationalized churches. Rather, Baptists have historically held that the church and state are distinct, even as they have called for Christians to seek the promotion of justice and virtue in the public square.

Religious liberty is the canary in the coal mine of societal health. A government which can attempt to control your devotion and worship is a government which seeks to control the most basic part of who you are. 

Religious liberty in Baptist history

This is why the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) states unequivocally that “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal.” That is a truth that has been preserved and defended by Baptists for over 400 years, from Thomas Helwys in England to Roger Williams, John Leland, and Isaac Backus in early America, and modern examples such as George Truett. When persecuted, especially under the hand of state or establishment churches, they reminded the state of the limits of its authority. Their advocacy was not limited only to self-interest, but a recognition that all have the right to worship God (or not) in accordance with their conscience because only the individual will stand before God and give an account for their soul. 

Helwys, one of the earliest English Baptists, issued what is likely the first call for universal religious liberty in the English language when he said, “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” This call would cost him his life because in doing so he would denounce the power of the king to jail and punish heretics with the power of the sword. 

Today’s challenges from within to religious liberty

Today, there are some who would have Christians believe that our current cultural situation’s antipathy toward Christian morality and biblical truth is too dire for us to uphold such principles as religious liberty and its relation to the liberal democratic order with an emphasis on individual rights and basic freedoms. They assert that the environment of classical liberalism is toxic to faith and has led to an increasingly secular square and the rise of an individualism unmired from notions of the common good.

Instead, these critics call for a state project that will provide a moral framework supporting the church—though they are conspicuously quiet about which denomination should be preferred. As one author stated recently, the greater problem to be faced is the sexual revolution and gender confusion of our age, not the fear that one religious group will force another to conform.

The sexual revolution is deeply concerning, and Christians should oppose it and limitations on religious liberty at the same time. Baptists can do both without any problem or need to look to other traditions. A commitment to religious liberty is not just a practical outgrowth of Baptist persecution, but a result of Baptists’ commitment to reading and interpreting the scriptures. Those are the same scriptures that tell us that gender and sexuality is part of God’s good design.

Those who think that Baptists are incapable of meeting the challenges of the day without changing their tactics should remember that our weapons have always been spiritual, not simply temporal. 

Just as we oppose gender ideology that seeks to conform the body to a mistaken understanding of self, Christians should oppose any attempt to coerce the soul and force outward conformity. Those who call for such coercion are saying either that these heretics are misguided and in need of correction which the state can provide or that outward religious action is more important than true religious conviction. Thus, they would use the state to make hypocrites, choosing outward conformity over sincerity of belief.

A lesson from the Reformation 

Again, a perspective of church history can help us to understand that the ability to conform our outer worship to our inner understanding of what God requires has been a hard fought battle. In England, after the break from Rome, there were intense periods where the established church fought over whether certain outer liturgies were essential to the faith or adiaphora (things left to conscience and personal preference). At various points, certain forms of dress and use of particular prayer books were the established practice, and nonconformists were persecuted and stripped of their rights and titles and positions in the church. 

The established church often told this small group that these were matters which did not cause any damage to the soul. You can still preach the gospel, just do so in a miter (a headdress worn by bishops). You can still offer the sacraments, just make sure that you are using the liturgy from the official prayer book. But the nonconformists boldly refused, saying that they intended to carry the reformation to its fullest extent and that these actions were not just adiaphora. The response of the church was to jail, persecute, and in some instances execute these nonconformists. For the state church, the threat of heterodox belief and practice was reason enough to warrant persecution, and when they controlled the levers of state power they were all too keen to enact it.

As Baptists, we know how this story plays out. What begins with compulsion on non-believers ultimately ends up as compulsion on believers of a different tradition, with the circle growing ever smaller and smaller. But it is not out of practical self-interest that Baptists push against trends of illiberalism and state-sanctioned coercion. It is a recognition that we live not in the inaugurated reign of Christ, but rather in the time between Christ’s ascension and return, the already-not yet. In this time of contestation, we recognize that religious liberty (and the value of principled pluralism) are the framework in which we operate. The state cannot coerce belief, but the church can persuade individuals. 

Those, who would flee to the government for state support, such as theonomists who seek to enshrine Old Testament laws in American civil law, betray their own fear of the weakness of their positions. In the words of John Leland, another Baptist defender of religious liberty, “Truth disdains the aid of the law for its own defence … it is error, and error alone, that needs human support; and whenever men fly to the law or sword to protect their system of religion and force it upon others, it is evident that they have something in their system that will not bear the light, and stand upon the basis of truth.” 

A commitment to blessings and principles of religious liberty is a recognition that neither the state, or any state-sponsored church, will answer for our souls on Judgment Day. We will stand there alone, answering for our own actions. Thus, it is a recognition of the limits of government power to bring about the kingdom. We must not buy the lie that the canary is a lamentable, but necessary sacrifice in the fight against secularism. Because an environment too toxic for religious liberty is an environment that seeks to trade the power of God for the power of the state. And that is a bargain no Christian should make.


Baptist Faith & Message (2000): Article XVII. Religious Liberty

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. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Matthew 6:6-7,24; 16:26; 22:21; John 8:36; Acts 4:19-20; Romans 6:1-2; 13:1-7; Galatians 5:1,13; Philippians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; James 4:12; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 3:11-17; 4:12-19.

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