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A Free Church in a Free State

As we celebrate the birth of our nation, we are reminded how fortunate we are to live in a country where individuals are free to worship God as conscience dictates. When religious leaders attempted to trap Jesus on the controversial question of paying taxes to Rome, Jesus responded by distinguishing the divine authority that belongs to God from the political authority conscripted by Caesar. “Render to God what belongs to God, and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”

Our Baptist ancestors distinguished the devotion due to God from the worldly demands of Caesar by championing the separation of church and state as a guiding principle. In 1773, Colonial Baptist, Isaac Backus, defended the position of historic Baptists before him who championed separation of church and state as a foundational principal essential to assure religious liberty for all people:

Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state . . . . God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government.

Religious advocates like Backus and Enlightenment thinkers like President Thomas Jefferson agreed on the principal of a free church in a free state, even though they did not share the same ideological premises. Consistent with the reasoning of Backus and others before him, including Puritan preachers like Roger Williams, President Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of the principal of separation of church and state to the interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when he wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1801:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

The First Amendment includes religious liberty as a “first freedom” in the Bill of Rights by juxtaposing two clauses commonly known as the Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishing of religion”) and the Free Exercise Clause (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). Each clause complements and counterbalances the other, thereby promoting government neutrality in matters of religion.

The Former Executive Director of The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Rev. Brent Walker, explained during the 2013 Shurden Lectures the way the two clauses of the First Amendment work together to guard our freedom when religious liberty questions arise:

Both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses – no establishment and free exercise – are essential to ensuring religious liberty. They stand as equal and counterpoising buttresses upholding the wall of separation between church and state as the means to the end of ensuring religious liberty for all. A proper understanding of the institutional and functional separation of church and state, therefore, requires government to facilitate religion without advancing it; protect religion, but without promoting it; lift burdens on the exercise of religion, but without extending impermissible benefits.

Defending religious freedom means that we must be prepared to recognize the rights of others who claim a religious faith other than our own and also those who claim no religion at all. Freedom of religious expression in a free state is consistent with the historic Baptist belief that faith in Jesus is voluntary. Authentic Christian faith is never a forced faith. Genuine faith in Jesus is freely accepted by free individuals before God; it cannot be conscripted by governmental force or devalued by relying of the favor of state power.

Religious freedom advocates such as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty continue to monitor court cases that involve questions of religious liberty. The Baptist Joint Committee is also a valuable educational resource for churches that champion religious liberty for all people. From its inception, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has recognized the Baptist Joint Committee as an important partner and advocate. It is important for Cooperative Baptists to remain vigilant in their advocacy in order to protect against “slippery slopes” that might throw the two religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment out of balance, thereby diminishing the value of one clause to the detriment of the other.

We live in an age when many church leaders are tempted to look to the government to favor, promote, or prefer a particular religious aim or purpose. As we face a tide of cultural change in the United States, it is easy for Christians to mistake the loss of cultural influence and power as a loss of religious liberty. Followers of Jesus should neither lose heart nor be misdirected by those who would like to conscript the power of the state as an ideological tool of the church. Instead, we should look to the example of the earliest followers of Jesus who founded the first Christian communities by trusting in the God’s Spirit without the aid of state power.

When we freely express our faith in ways that are neighborly and respectful of the rights of others, we honor a gracious Savior and Lord who pointed us towards a heavenly authority that commands our ultimate allegiance. Jesus succinctly expressed the way we should prioritize to follow God’s rule and reign in our lives above all else when he said, “Your heavenly Father knows all the things you need. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all the things you need will also be provided for you.” Matthew 6:32-33.

As we continue to discover in our time what it means to render to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, may we be guided by the same Spirit of Truth that led our Baptist ancestors to reject a religiously coercive state and to shun both the hostility and favoritism of political authority, by championing the free and neighborly expression of faith among us. May we continue to exercise our rights as citizens by speaking prophetically, independently, and freely to our state and national leaders as our conscience before God dictates, consistent with Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we express our patriotic sentiment and celebrate the birthday of our country, let us give thanks for a free church in a free state, and commit ourselves to defending the liberty of all people in matters of religious conscience and practice.

-Bart McNiel, Associate Pastor

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