Religious Liberty - Baptist Faith & Message, Article 17
by Thomas Nettles
Professor of Historical Theology
Religious Liberty sprung fully panoplied from the earliest Baptist writings. Their doctrine of the church assumed that the Spirit, and he alone, used the power of biblical truth, normally through preaching, to produce the new birth. The composition of the church consists only of those born again under such influences; believers only, therefore, should be baptized.
The Spirit's sword, not the magistrate's sword, makes Christians. A church constituted by those whose consciences have been either forced or bribed by carnal power is not a New Testament church.
The General Baptists gave lengthy, cogent and gospel-centered arguments for full liberty of conscience, though their's was violated for this stance. John Smyth, in voluntary exile, wrote, "The prince must leave the Christian religion free to every man's conscience." Thomas Helwys said, "Let them be heretiks, Turcks, Jewes or whatsoever it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure." Leonard Busher wrote in A Plea for Liberty of Conscience that "no king nor bishop …is able to command faith; … it is the gift of God, who worketh in us both the will and the deed of his own good pleasure."
An anonymous General Baptist wrote Persecution for Religion Judg'd and Condemn'd. John Murton wrote in A Most Humble Supplication to the king, "Far be it from you to sit in the consciences of men, to be lawgiver and judge therein." John Spilsbury, the first pastor among the Particular Baptists, wrote, "No conscience ought to be forced in the matters of Religion, because no man can bear out another in his account to God."
Christopher Blackwood in The Storming of Antichrist asks, "Whether it be lawfull for any person whatsoever to compell the conscience?" He gives the answer, "It is not," followed by 29 reasons for such an answer. Roger Williams labeled the violation of conscience by the civil power The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience. John Clarke in his description of persecution in Massachusetts and his arguments against it calls conscience "a sparkling beam from the Father of lights and spirits that cannot be lorded over, commanded, or forced, either by men, devils, or angels."
All of these were written before John Locke perceived of religious liberty and as much as 160 years before Thomas Jefferson was able to distill it into law in Virginia. Rhode Island under the influence of Williams and Clarke stated in its charter, the one gained in 1663, "A most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with a full liberty in religious concernments." Those words, perhaps commonplace today, expressed a revolutionary understanding of society and reflected a worldview trained by the gospel and the ideal of a regenerate church membership.
The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message continues this historical witness when it states as its first sentence, "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."
The article strongly implies that creeds enforced by a civil power would be unwarranted and outside the bounds of legitimate government: "The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind."
The preface of the 2000 BF&M includes a wording on this issue more carefully constructed than that of the 1963 BF&M: "Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches."
Just as strongly, however, the confession encourages and approves the development of doctrinal statements derived from the Word of God and entered into voluntarily by churches for the sake of gospel witness. "The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends" and includes among these "the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power."
Though Baptists arose in the fires of persecution, endured them for the better part of a century in Old England, witnessed in spite of them in New England and suffered greatly under an established church in colonial Virginia, they have never desired special treatment from civil powers, only neutral protection of universal rights.
"The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work," the confession says. This echoes Madison's famous Memorial and Remonstrance, which echoed the concerns of Virginia Baptists in saying that when the civil authority uses religion as "an engine of civil policy," he thereby indulges "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."
Long and sad experience has taught Baptists and even the inside of a jail cell could not dissuade them from the truth of these two assertions of the BF&M: "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." John Leland's The Rights of Conscience gives the corollary to that concern in proposing the query, "Did not religion receive a deadly wound by being fostered in the arms of civil power and regulated by law?"
Along with such insistent refusal to obey the state in religious matters is the glad acquiescence to the necessity of governmental authority in the lawful regulation of civil society. "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."
No citizen is more loyal to the government or more zealous for the rights of others than a historically informed, gospel believing Baptist.
A well-ordered government should function "so that every church [and every religion enjoys] protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends." This commitment to freedom arises not from doubts concerning the clarity of divine revelation or a relativistic view of truth, but from the happy conviction that the gospel, and it only, is the power of God unto salvation.
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