SBC President Bart Barber on why religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive

June 30, 2022

Bart Barber has only been the Southern Baptist Convention president for a few weeks, but already he has seen and commented on the historic Supreme Court ruling about abortion and fielded various questions about SBC life. An important topic he recently took on, especially in light of controversies among Southern Baptists, was religious liberty. Below, he expands on this important freedom, explaining why it’s so important to Baptists, how we can grow in our understanding of it, and why Christians should be encouraged. 

Lindsay Nicolet: Will you explain what religious liberty is? And why is it a Baptist distinctive?

Bart Barber: A person enjoys religious liberty if he may change his religious beliefs or religious affiliation without changing his relationship with the governing authorities over him. Religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive for several reasons:

First, together with the earliest Anabaptists, the 17th-century Baptists and their successors found religious liberty in the text of the Bible, demonstrating it from passages like the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and Jesus’ statement that his kingdom is not of this world. 

Second, Baptists have found religious liberty to be a correlate of our basic evangelical belief in conversionism—the idea that no one can enter the kingdom of God except by way of voluntary, uncoerced conversion suggests that there is no value in having the state attempt to coerce religious affiliation. 

Third, the beleaguered Baptists of the 1600s and 1700s were well acquainted with the fact that governments empowered to protect or privilege Christianity always wind up being governments who persecute true Christians. 

Fourth, historically speaking, we find religious liberty affirmed throughout the various Baptist confessions of faith that our family of churches has drafted from time to time down through the centuries.

LN: There has been outrage in recent years among Southern Baptists because of advocacy work on behalf of people of other faiths. Can you explain why this outrage is unnecessary?

BB: Supreme Court cases are not about the individuals involved; they are about the ideas involved. Pro-life Americans rejoice over the recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization even if they have never lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and have never known anyone who lived there. The importance of the case is found not in the individual organizations involved but in the fact that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are no longer the law of the land. I am thankful that people who had no connection to Jackson submitted amici curiae briefs to help bring about the end of the Roe/Casey regime.

The same thing is true about religious liberty cases. Do you cherish the right to go door-to-door to share the gospel? That idea was secured in American law because of a case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Were you thankful when the Supreme Court ruled in Tandon v. Newsom to permit California churches to gather for indoor worship? Look at the cases that the court cited as their reasoning behind that ruling. They include everything across the spectrum from Roman Catholics to practitioners of the voodoo-like religion Santeria. To a California church who is frustrated because restaurants and movie theaters are open but the state keeps their buildings padlocked, they don’t care that the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah case involved pagan chicken sacrifices; they just care that the ideas of religious liberty won the day back then and that the success of those ideas means that they get to gather for church.

LN: How can Southern Baptists grow in their understanding of religious liberty? What are some core texts or resources that you think Baptists could read to gain a better understanding of religious liberty?

BB: Roger WilliamsThe Bloudy Tenant of Persecution is just what we need today, but it unfortunately is quite a difficult book to read. I say that it is just what we need because it lays out the biblical case for religious liberty, and in my experience, we have more people who know the philosophical theory of religious liberty and the historical tradition of Baptist belief in religious liberty than we have people who understand the case that early American Baptists like Williams made from the Bible for religious liberty.

A more recent and more accessible book-sized work I would recommend would be The First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty by Duesing, White, and Yarnell. The recent volume Islam and North America: Loving Our Muslim Neighbors by Micah Fries and Keith Whitfield contains a chapter I contributed on the question of religious liberty.

For shorter resources, the ERLC’s website contains a number of very helpful articles addressing various aspects of religious liberty.

LN: As we live and witness in an increasingly pluralistic society, why can we be joyful and filled with peace instead of fearful and angry?

BB: Apart from coercion and without any help from the state, people are accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has overcome the world. He is preparing us a place. We are the spiritual descendants of martyrs, and look how they have overcome those who went to war against them! Have faith that, as he did with Gideon’s army, God will have his victory in ways that make it absolutely clear that he had no need of governments or the schemes of men.

LN: Have Baptists understood religious liberty to be a right which has no limits? If there are limits, what are they?

BB: Roger Williams used the image of Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments as an illustration of this. For the “first table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with God, the government has no authority to govern. For the “second table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with one another, Williams believed that the government does have the authority to govern. Sharing the gospel in Africa, I’ve met people who have performed religious rituals involving human sacrifice. Is that a religious practice? To be sure, it is. But it involves taking the life of another person. Baptists would say that the government has the right to limit religious liberty in a case like this one.

When the Supreme Court applies “strict scrutiny” to law that limit people’s free exercise of their faith, they usually come up with rulings that are comfortably compatible with the Baptist view of religious liberty.

LN: As you look at the state of religious liberty in the U.S., what do you see as the largest cultural or legal threats? Are there places that are going to be clear points of conflict in the coming years?

BB: I once said that the points of tension in American law regarding religious liberty have been soldiers, schools, solicitation, sister-wives, sabbaths, sacrifices, surgeries, sex, and ’shrooms. I could go into detail about each one, but instead I’ll just mention the ones that I believe present the greatest likelihood of future conflict.

Schools have been the major locus of conflict about religious liberty since Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. I think that contest is waning. Culminating in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, there may be a workable solution coming into place in which students and teachers are free to exercise their faith while the official educational program of public schools must avoid scholastic content or policies that favor any system of religious belief over another.

What is displacing the topic of religion in the public schools as the major area of unrest is the burgeoning conflict between the sexual revolution and the exercise of religious faith in the workplace and in the public sphere. Whether we are talking about the baker Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission or the Catholic Social Services organization in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, cases are on the rise pitting the new laws about sexual orientation and gender identity against people trying to exercise their faith.

LN: July 4th is coming up. How can Christians rightly celebrate this holiday, understanding the importance of religious liberty at the heart of it?

BB: I understand people’s concerns about the danger of letting patriotic elements get out of hand in a worship service. Any worship service in which Jesus is not the hero of the service is a false worship service. And yet, with that having been said, if Jesus can be the hero of a story in which someone’s cancer goes into remission, someone’s slavery to an addiction is broken, or someone’s sacrificial giving is given back them them by the Lord’s hand—if testimonies or sermon illustrations about any of those things would be welcome in a worship service, I think Jesus can be the hero of a story in which believers in this country are enabled by our constitutional liberties to gather for worship and to send missionaries around the world proclaiming the gospel. 

Our Constitution does not confer upon us the right to serve God. We would do that even if it were illegal to do so. Rather, our Constitution means that we need not hide while we worship, plant churches, and train and send missionaries. That freedom not to hide has meant much greater effectiveness for American churches. That’s something worth celebrating.

LN: What words of encouragement and advice do you have for us as we seek to follow Christ faithfully?

BB: We have religious liberty not because governments encountered the dormant compassion in their hearts but because they confronted the weakness in their arms. They put true followers of Jesus Christ to the rack, burned them at the stake, drowned them in the Limmat River, and fed them to the lions. Still, they were never able to prevail against Jesus’ Church. The power of the gospel has vanquished every petty tyrant who has come up against it. Be strong and take courage.

Photo Attribution:

Baptist Press

Bart Barber

Bart Barber has served as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, since 1999. He is married to Tracy (Brady) Barber. Bart has a B.A. from Baylor University in their University Scholars program, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Ph.D. in … Read More

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the editorial director for the ERLC. She oversees the day-to-day management of all content and resources from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author

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