How religious liberty made me a Baptist: Part 1

May 6, 2020

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this considering I’m a professor at a Baptist seminary, but how I came to be a passionate Baptist was not because I thought baptism by immersion was the most compelling foundation. In a roundabout way, I became the convictional Baptist I am today because Baptist ecclesiology was the natural outcome of what I understood as the correct understanding and practice of religious liberty. That may sound confusing, so let me unpack it from the beginning.

I grew up in central Illinois going to a Southern Baptist Church (Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville). If you’re outside the geographic South growing up in church, you may have attended a Southern Baptist Church without any real sense of feeling explicitly Baptist. That’s because in the North, at least in my experience, we didn’t see ourselves as very much Baptist as much as we did just Bible-believing evangelicals. If you would have asked me as a teen if I were a Baptist, I would have answered “yes” but only because I understood that I was not Catholic. 

Feeling a call to ministry, I went to a Baptist college in southwest Missouri. Upon graduation, I went to the seminary where I now teach, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. At both institutions, I took Baptist history classes and became aware of our history and theological distinctives, which I appreciated at the time, but still did not feel overly zealous about. This was not the fault of the professors. Looking back, I recall my two Baptist history classes to be well taught and the professors passionate about their subject. Perhaps owing to my general immaturity, ideas like regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, baptism by immersion, local church autonomy, and religious liberty did not really animate me. That does not mean I disagreed with them; I did agree with them because they simply seemed biblical. But ecclesiology was not front and center in my earlier theological angst. Questions like Calvinism, inerrancy, and the Emergent Church were front and center. 

It was not until I “came of age” that my first jobs, incidentally, would lead me in a more fervently Baptist direction more so than my formal education in Baptist institutions. My first jobs out of seminary were for think tank and advocacy organizations that focused on social conservative causes like life, marriage, and, well, religious liberty. I had heard of the issue, but at the time, I did not understand the urgency of the issue. What is now a token issue of concern for evangelicals, a decade ago, was not. In 2008-2010, it was a different cultural climate. Much of the religious liberty challenges we’re encountering now were predicted, at the time, by documents like the Manhattan Declaration. This joint document of Catholic and Protestant luminaries declared in somber tones that were the government to continue its leftward lurch, a reassertion of religious liberty rights would be necessary as well as the possibility of civil disobedience. I knew I was treading in deep, turbulent waters. As I was getting my feet beneath me career-wise, I recall having to play catch-up on an issue that I was told was fundamental but was now threatened.

So, I got to work in both Kentucky’s capital and our nation’s capital on, among other things, religious liberty. I was largely unfamiliar with it, aside from what little I had learned about it in my Baptist history classes. It certainly was not, at the time, the top-tier pillar or foundation to my public theology like it is now. My work required me to read on the subject, and that’s what I did. It was not so much a heavy reading load in religious liberty theory (though there was that) inasmuch as I immersed myself in the advocacy world of social conservatism, which necessarily and rightly treated religious liberty as a lifeblood-like issue. It did not take long until I was convinced. Being someone enamored with the intersection of first principles, theology, and political philosophy, religious liberty afforded me the opportunity to merge together topics that I was already passionate about, but whose inchoate understanding still needed tuning.

As I would learn, the posture a state takes toward religion is one of the most decisive postures it will take in whether it will be broadly pluralistic and limited, or tyrannical and coercive. I would also learn that unless you have the requisite liberties to act on your convictions, then you cannot do much of anything, whether worship in your church or advocate in the public square. To not possess the freedom to act on one’s most primary beliefs means one is not free in even the most basic idea of the word. The idea that persons are endowed with self-seeking capacities that endear them to religion were making more and more sense. Life, I came to understand, required various types of liberties (speech, associational, religion) to make it meaningful and worthwhile. The presence of these liberties would decide what type of life someone would have in their community.

It led to a flood of first principle questions, among them: 

When I began to answer these questions, they led me in an inevitably and distinctly Baptist ecclesiology. It was in the Baptist tradition, which had helped birth religious liberty in North America through the likes of Roger Williams and John Leland, that I saw the principles of religious liberty most fulsomely applied. How so? Because the questions above are best answered in light of key Baptist ecclesiological distinctives that focus upon the individual and the associations they form in their life. 

Like an outwardly working concentric circle, religious liberty hinges upon an understanding of (1) individual assent, (2) group association, and (3) institutional distinction. These are reflected in the practices of individual conversion and regenerate church membership, which entails a distinction between membership in the church and membership in society, and the institution of the gathered church being distinct from the institution of the state. 

In the next post, I’m going to explain what these three principles mean in greater depth.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. 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