Several months ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Canadian Baptists in Nova Scotia — formerly the Atlantic Baptist Fellowship, newly renamed the “Canadian Association for Baptist Freedoms.” Baptists in Canada comprise only three percent of the religious landscape in an otherwise very secular culture. They, also, understand existentially what our exilic roots as Baptists were like and they take the last half of their new name—“for Baptist Freedoms”— very seriously. (By the way, they have a clever idea about how to solve our perennial church-state controversy occasioned by the insertion in the 1950’s of “under God” in the U.S. pledge of allegiance: Change it to read, “one nation, under Canada, with liberty and justice…” Canadians are not only very polite, they have a tart sense of humor, too.)
Yes, for the past 77 years the BJC — much like our Seventh Day friends and Canadian brothers and sisters — has understood that religious liberty is a fundamental right, not the product of governmental toleration. It is a natural, inalienable, full-orbed right that we receive as a good gift from God.
We Baptists have long called this right “soul freedom” —a God- infused liberty of conscience— the idea that each of us is created in God’s likeness, capable of a personal relationship with God. Even though nurtured by family and church, we come to God single file, one at a time, lovingly and volitionally. At our best, Baptists have championed soul freedom and religious liberty with unrelenting vigor for others as much as for ourselves. This is the distinctive Baptist contribution to the family of faith.
Closely related to “soul freedom” is the Reformation doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” It, too, has become a mainstay of Baptist thinking about the way we relate to God and how we do church. The idea is that each of us has direct access to God without the need for any go-between, except, of course, Christ himself — our great “high priest,” as the Book of Hebrews teaches.
We at the BJC believe that the best way to ensure the full measure of soul freedom and religious liberty, directly expressed, is by insisting upon the separation of church and state. Here we look for inspiration to John Leland. A Baptist evangelist from Massachusetts preaching in Virginia during the heady decade of the 1780s, Leland boldly advocated for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Leland reminded us that, “Experience has taught us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecution ever did.” He played a pivotal role in convincing James Madison of the need for a specific guarantee in the Bill of Rights protecting religious liberty. The first 16 words of the First Amendment provide: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
These words built a wall—or planted a hedge — by which we seek to protect the theological principle of soul freedom and the ethical mandate of religious liberty for all. The preservation of the rights of conscience and ability to exercise our religion freely is the goal; church-state separation is the political means that tends to ensure it.
So, we at the BJC file legal briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court, we testify before Congress, we advise the Administration, we give commentary to the media, and we speak out— even through Facebook and Twitter— proclaiming the message that any encroachment on our religious liberty is something that we cannot abide. Any holes in the wall of separation are invitations to mischief. And with our brand new Center for Religious Liberty, we expect to reach many, many more with that message. Thanks to a lot of you who helped us pay for it!
We are (and ought to be) free, indeed. But free for what? Is religious liberty an end in itself to be enjoyed for its own sake? Or does it lead to and find fulfillment in something else? I think the latter. We are free, in the words of Jesus’ great commandment, to love God and love one another. Even though we are at liberty to say “no” to God, the only choice that results in true freedom is for us to say “yes.”
My mentor and Baptist historian, Walter Shurden, has said there is a “Statute of Responsibility along side of the statue of Liberty in the Baptist house.” And he further has observed that, “Baptists have never shouted freedom to escape the will of God; they have treasured freedom so they could obey the will of God.”
Like a kite without a string, a ship without an anchor, a car without brakes, absolute freedom— apart from the tether of God’s law and love—leads to destruction, not true freedom. So paradoxically enough, we are the most free when we become disciples of Jesus Christ and servants of each other, as Paul taught us in the letter to Galatians.
The idea of the believers’ priesthood comes into play here, too. We’ve said that the priesthood doctrine means that we all have direct access to God. This is true enough, but it is not a complete picture. Our soul freedom and our direct access to God also must be seen in the context of the community – the church! The full idea of believers’ priesthood is not just that no one needs a priest; it is that every believer is a priest. The error of the church that the reformers protested 500 years ago was not so much the existence of the priesthood; it was the limitation of the priesthood to so few. All Christians should be ministering to each other, incarnating God’s love, spreading God’s grace, nurturing one another. The priesthood doctrine means the freedom of direct access, but it also impels us to be “priests to each other,” to use Carlyle Marney’s phrase, within the community of faith.
And, yes, sometimes limitations on our freedom legitimately come from government. The First Amendment freedoms — including no establishment and free exercise — are not absolute. The wall of separation of church and state is not impenetrable. Sometimes it’s more like a chain link fence. You cannot exercise your religion in a way that harms others. You don’t have a free speech right to shout fire in the proverbial crowded theater, or under the press clause to publish malicious lies in newspapers even about public figures. Your First Amendment right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances is subject to reasonable time, place and manner of restrictions. And, shall we all say it, eight months after that terrible day in December at Sandy Hook, this goes for the Second Amendment too! No absolute right to own or use weapons intended for no purpose other than the wholesale slaughter of God’s children on the field of battle.
It’s important for us to understand and practice these truths about our freedom in a way that serves others and respects the common good.
It’s important because our God-given freedom — if self-absorbed and indulgent — will be short-lived. We must be willing to give each other the freedom we desire
for ourselves. And fight for it! If it is to last for any of us, it must be preserved for all of us. My rights are no stronger than your courage to stand up for them; your freedom is no more secure than my willingness to defend it.
It’s important because nothing less than the advancement of the kingdom of God depends on it. God works though the church and bestows spiritual gifts on all of us to be used in serving God and serving each other. The scriptures teach no one here has all the gifts, but everyone here has at least one gift. And this means that if God’s purposes are going to be accomplished in the Twin Cities and Washington, D.C. and around the world, we are going to have to pool our gifts, to work together in a coordinated way under the leadership of the Holy Spirit through the church of Jesus Christ.
Finally, let me say we serve and respect the rights of each other not only in the church, but we, the church, must serve the world. Baptists, at our best, have been able to transcend our narrow tribalisms and engage the world in service as much as evangelism.
Baptist freedom fighter Roger Williams, for example, was concerned not only with ensuring religious liberty for Quakers and other theological misfits along with Baptists, but he argued vociferously with the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts Bay Colony in favor of fair treatment for Native Americans. That was another reason the Puritans chased him off to Rhode Island!
John Leland was not only interested in evangelizing the Virginia Piedmont and lobbying James Madison for the First Amendment. He also spoke out against slavery, calling it “in its best appearance, a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, inconsistent with republican government, destructive of every humane and benevolent passion of the soul, and subversive to that liberty absolutely necessary to ennoble the human mind….” (Letter of Valediction) (emphasis supplied) Leland was way ahead of this friend Thomas Jefferson on this score!
German/American Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch was the preeminent theologian for the social gospel movement in the late 19th Century. In his book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch wrote that “the social gospel is a vital part of the Christian conception of sin, and any teaching on the sinful condition of [humanity] and on its redemption from evil which fails to do justice to social factors must be incomplete, unreal and misleading.” (p. 167) Rauschenbuch put feet to his scholarship by serving as pastor in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City’s West Side for most his career, not far from where Metro Baptist Church is today.
J.M. Dawson, the BJC’s first executive director, was thought by some to be pretty close to a Christian socialist. In his book, America’s Way in Church, State, and Society, he embraced the social gospel and rejected runaway individualism. Rather, he called for Christians to roll up their sleeves and get involved in working for social justice. Acknowledging that “Christ never endorsed any particular economic system,” (p. 102) Dawson called for responsible stewardship of our wealth for the benefit of the poor and for the challenging of economic structures that stand in the way.
And, more recently, however history regards Baptist Jimmy Carter as president, it certainly will report he is one of the best former presidents that we’ve ever had. Carter’s commitment to a variety of social issues including fair housing through Habitat for Humanity, the elimination of poverty around the world through the work of the Carter Center and his never-ending labor for peace in the Middle East provide a template for all Baptists — regardless of political persuasion — to embrace and follow as we think about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our Lord.
Yes, we at the BJC worry a lot about our freedom. We hope that we have done well in upholding the Baptist notion of soul freedom, seeking to protect religious liberty and defending the separation of church and state. Precisely because of that freedom, our priesthood is possible; uniquely through serving one another and all of humankind, we find true freedom. And so it comes full circle, doesn’t it?
Let me conclude with the words to a hymn titled “In Christ, Our Liberty,” by Lester Bork, and it captures perfectly what I’ve tried to say this morning:
We bind ourselves in freedom’s chains; The cross has set us free.
God’s anvil forged each link with love in Christ, our liberty.
Tho’ creeds and laws imposed by pow’r May mock equality,
Our trust in Christ and Christ alone will keep our spirits free.
We have no need for priest or king To intercede for souls;
To live for Christ our covenant, to die to self our goal.
His call to us is servanthood, Not false humility.
Until we die to love of self, We are not truly free.
Now free in Christ It’s time to stand, It’s time to stand and cry
That freedom will not live beyond Our willingness to die.
May the loving God who has made us free give us the courage to be slaves for Christ. And may the Holy Spirit empower us to exercise that freedom to serve God by serving one another, and the world, now and forever more. Amen.