Wednesday, December 19, 2007

This is Part 20 of a continuing series of articles examining the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. This statement of faith was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting on June 14, 2000 “to set forth certain teachings which we believe.”

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.*

Baptists have historically championed the separation of church and state. Just because that expression has been abused, does not mean that it is not a valid belief. But we need to understand what that phrase truly means and why we ought to embrace it.

We do not subscribe to the separation of church and state because it is stated in the United States Constitution. Despite the common perception, it is not there. The reason we have and should stand for religious liberty is that it is true to the teaching of the New Testament.

In Scripture we find that we are free to choose—we can receive Christ or reject Him. We can love God or turn from Him. That is the powerful gift of choice that our Creator has endowed upon us. Love cannot be coerced, or it ceases to be love. If I compel a woman to surrender to my embrace, it isn’t love—it is rape. God would never force Himself upon us—but, we must live with the consequences of rejecting Him should that be our choice.

True to that spirit, we cannot compel the citizens of the United States to become Christians. The church cannot impose its will on the people by force. It has been tried in Europe and has failed—both the church and the state come out losers in such an arrangement. In so many of those countries you have a state church that is an empty shell—a fa├žade of faith in a massive cathedral—cold and silent—having lost its prophetic voice and become wed to the government. Those same governments have become secularized and are increasingly hostile to God and His moral decrees.

Our Baptist forefathers, along with dissenters of other denominations, formed a powerful catalyst when they arrived in this country seeking religious liberty—freedom to practice their faith according to the dictates of their conscience. By the providence of God, such a nation was established.

In the correct sense of the word, America was birthed as a Christian nation. That doesn’t mean that everyone who founded the United States was a Christian, or even that the majority were. It means that this nation was begun with laws rooted in the moral law of God—acknowledging Him and His Providence. The underpinnings of our society are fundamentally connected to faith.

Yet that same God permits us to follow Him or forsake Him. Sadly, many have. As a consequence we see a vocal and powerful group, hostile to faith that promotes separation of church and state as the detachment from God and government. Such a distortion of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution would been horrifying to the men who penned the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The secularist who owes his freedom to adopt such a perverse philosophy by that very means now undermines the foundation of that religious liberty established by the Creator! Repeated assaults have been made to strip away the mention of God from the public arena, to ban the name of Christ from the public square and seal Him up behind the walls of a church building. There is no reading of the founders of America that can lead one to such conclusions. It is revisionist history—it is militant secularism.

The implications are that from a Christian government designed to open doors to the expression of faith, guaranteeing freedom to belief or even disbelieve, we have moved toward a government that seeks to close those doors and keep Christians out of politics, the Bible out of schools, morality out of laws—God out of government. Christians know that we cannot compartmentalize faith—we cannot make a distinction between the secular and sacred. If our faith is real, then it affects all we do—how we vote, whom and what we support, our obedience to the laws of the land, praying for government leaders, and the like.

God has established human government. It has its role. It functions best when a moral environment is provided that causes faith to flourish due to the freedom it affords. If the pendulum swings to the wedding of church and state or the isolation of God from government, then the citizens suffer.

This is an important year—an election year—and believers need to be involved in the decision. We may not always like our choices, but we should prayerfully make the best ones we can while we still can. God has called us to be salt and light. Our intent is not to become a Baptist Taliban—that is an oxymoron. Christians have the right to be involved and the church has a right to speak to the issues of the day. But, we do realize that even though government has a role, there are limits to what it can do. The state can never bring in the Kingdom of God. It is the responsibility of the church to change hearts—one at a time—through the Gospel of Christ, freely shared and freely received. If we fail to exercise our responsibility and rights as citizens of both the United States and ultimately the kingdom of God, then we will lose the opportunity to continue to exercise those liberties.

* 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. (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000)

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