Religious liberty is truly a Baptist distinctive. Baptists were instrumental in the inclusion of the religious liberty requirements in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ironically, the greatest violation of human rights in the world today is quite likely the persecution and violation of religious liberty of Christians. There are also attacks on religious liberty in the U.S.
The Bible provides a basis for religious liberty. Jesus delineated between the spheres of authority of the church and state when He said, ”…Then render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
While Jesus does not mention the church in this passage, it is surely included. It does belong to God. He establishes a liberty of conscience. The state must not prohibit or interfere with an individual’s relationship with or belief in God, for that matter any aspect of living out one’s faith in God.
The church and the state (government) as visible institutions are to be separate. Jesus had already stated in Matt. 16:18, that the “confession” of Jesus, Son of God, the Messiah, is the foundation upon which He will build His church. It is also the center of the Gospel, which the church is commanded to proclaim and live out (Matt. 28:18-20).
The State must allow the church the freedom to pursue that mission. The government has legitimate God-given authority, but it has no authority equal to God’s. When Jesus gave us the Great Commission, He declared “All authority in Heaven and Earth has been given to me (Jesus)…” (Matt. 28:18).
God establishes governments, and He gives them their purpose which is at a minimum to punish evil and reward good (Rom. 13:1-7). Their authority is not unlimited, and when it prohibits the preaching and living out of the Gospel, it has violated its limits of authority. In Acts 4 and 5, the religious authorities violated the religious liberty of the apostles. Should the government mandate us to violate the commandments of God and the preaching and teaching of the Bible, we, too, must obey God.
Governments should ensure religious liberty. Expressed in the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, they must provide the “free exercise” of religion. We must be free to believe, proclaim, worship, have a public voice and to live out our faith. Any suggestion that the First Amendment is merely a provision to provide freedom of worship is a misrepresentation and erroneous limitation of its meaning.
Article XVII. BF&M presents our Baptist confession on Religious Liberty. It begins, “God alone is the Lord of 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.” There is much that follows in that article, and it ends “A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right to 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.” Religious liberty is to be granted to everyone, regardless of their religion or lack of religion.
There is no religious liberty if someone is prohibited by the government to change his or her religious beliefs. While Colonial Baptist John Leland was an important proponent of religious liberty for all people and religions, he was at the very same time an evangelist, seeking to invite all people of all religions to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Religious liberty serves the proclamation of the Gospel to the whole world.