How religious liberty made me a Baptist: Part 2

May 7, 2020

Read part 1 here

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. 

Individual assent

As I began to understand religious liberty at its most philosophical core, an emphasis was placed on the individual’s stance before God: nothing is to stand between the individual and God, not chiefly the state, nor the family. Known as “Soul Competency,” this was and is the most important principle to religious liberty from an anthropological perspective.

As free agents, individuals have to voluntarily come to religious truths based on their own grasp of its truth and its merits. Every individual, on their own terms, has to give an account for who they believe God to be. I cannot make that decision for others, nor can others make that decision by proxy for me. The reality of accountability and forewarning of judgement is baked into the idea of religious liberty. As the New Testament speaks of a day of individual reckoning, each person has to answer for their conscience (Heb. 9:27). If God is the rightful judge, human institutions, by writ of their own infallibility, cannot be. A person can be instructed and argued with, but their conclusion about who God is must be their own decision with their own volition and will. A certain individuality punctuates religious liberty without devolving into individualism. Religious liberty implies a conversionary foundation; not religion by osmosis or absorption. Individuals have to arrive at conclusions consciously. 

This meant and still means that forms of baptism and church membership that do not hinge upon the individual’s expressed faith are invalid in my view. This is why Baptists have put an emphasis on the notion of being “born again” to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 2 Cor. 5:17). Authentic faith is self-chosen and results in the growth of new affections. We do not merely shuttle between belief and unbelief. We believe a radical disjunction has occurred for Christ has “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). This idea of conversionary primacy looms supreme in discussions on religious liberty because it understands both coercion and nominalism as co-equal threats: if there’s a religious body with people who have not made the same profession of faith or who have made such a profession under false pretenses, how can I be sure that the community is composed of authentic believers united around the same truths and mission? This reality rules out any religious body that practices infant baptism since infant baptism attempts to effectuate some type of covenant membership without individual assent even being possible.

Group association

The necessity of justification by personally-believed faith led me to a very important conclusion in my ecclesiology: The best form of ecclesiology is one composed only of those individuals who have joined together under the same banner of explicit conviction and profession. Membership in the church is not just generic membership in a social organization. It’s a body of believers united around the same mission and purpose. Thus, only those believing the same truth about Jesus Christ should be baptized and recognized as members of the local church assembly. 

This is known as regenerate church membership. Such a practice reflects the argument for believers’ baptism, another key Baptist distinctive. It means that forms of ecclesiology that consider members to be those who have not personally assented to Jesus’ kingship and experienced regeneration are not true members of the church and not eligible for baptism. The church is not an exclusionary society, as salvation is available to all who call on Christ. It is, however, exclusive, on the grounds that its make-up consists only of those sharing a commitment to common truths. Only those consciously expressing faith may be baptized, which makes up the true church. From there, regenerate church membership establishes the practice of church discipline, because it is only those members who are truly considered regenerate that are held accountable to the community’s standards of sanctified fellowship.

It is the distinguishing marks of the church’s essence and practices that establish the need for religious liberty in order for the church to be true to its calling before God and humanity. The church has a separate authorization and separate practices from the society around it and the government above it. Christians intermingle with the rest of society while understanding themselves as sojourners and exiles.

Institutional distinctions

Regenerate church membership implies that the church is not thus simply synonymous or coterminous with the state or society around it. One is not a Christian just because they live in a country influenced by Christianity. Rather, to be a Christian is to be part of a called-out body, the church, which is distinct from other types of associations and autonomous, another Baptist distinctive. The church, being an institution of professed faith marked out by believers’ baptism, exists by right of its own authorization, not the state’s allowing or calling it into existence. The church and state are both divinely authorized, but with distinct callings and jurisdictions. The church is on mission in society and is concerned with the eternal destiny of humanity; the government is concerned with temporal affairs, like making sure that wrongdoing is punished, and laws exist which make society inhabitable. In past arrangements, where church and state often overlapped or were formally united with each reinforcing and intermingling with the other, Christianity was ameliorated to the culture around it and used as a prop for social uniformity. 

If someone one was to ask me how to destroy a vibrant church, my answer would be a combination of infant baptism and church-state union. These, together, would unravel religious liberty by unraveling the cohesiveness of regenerate Christian identity and ecclesial distinction. Here, cultural preferences are deemed sufficient enough to make someone think they are a Christian while church membership is diluted down to membership in society. One of the greatest arguments against the union of church and state is the history of the union of church and state, which has produced dead churches and pseudo-Christians.


For fear of being misunderstood, I am not arguing that other ecclesiastical arrangements are hostile to religious liberty. I am thankful for godly Presbyterians, Lutherans, and others who stand for religious liberty. My argument is, rather, that a rightly ordered account of religious liberty bears the richest fruits within a Baptist ecclesiology.

Religious liberty implies a recognition that individuals make conscientious decisions to participate in group associations that have different requirements and different callings than are synonymous with the rest of society and the state. In my view, this leads one to the four walls of a Baptist church.

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