The ongoing internal fuss among Southern Baptists about their ERLC and IMB signing amicus briefs in a Muslim mosque case illustrates the need for Baptists to reassess and reengage their views on religious liberty. Religious liberty is an important Baptist tenet, yet it is not our only tenet! We also believe (at least some of us do) that only the God of the Bible should be worshipped, and that Jesus alone is the way of salvation. Think about it. Denominations that suppose “all the roads lead to Rome” and that all religions are equally valid don’t have any trouble harmonizing the truths of exclusive salvation and free exercise of religion. For them they never come into conflict. There is no exclusivity about which they are concerned.
If there is spiritual adultery – unfaithfulness to God – and religious liberty is biblical, where do supporting religious liberty and avoiding spiritual adultery properly intersect? We must harmonize them in the truths of the Bible. We must protect religious liberty, but not promote spiritual adultery. There are at least seven biblical principles that we should recognize, understand and harmonize in order to have a well-rounded view of religious liberty.
- God ordained three basic institutions: the home, civil government, and the church (e.g. Genesis 2:18-25, Matthew 16:18; Romans 13:1).
- God alone deserves worship. (Exodus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 4:10; Acts 5:29).
- God requires that He be worshipped in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24; Joshua 24:14; 1 Timothy 1:5).
- Jesus is the only way of salvation. (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
- There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4-6; Hebrews 8:6).
- Faith is a gift of God that cannot be forced or compelled by man (Ephesians 2:8-10; John 5:40; Philippians 1:29; Hebrews 11:6; Zechariah 4:6).
- We should not unequally yoke with unbelievers, neither bid God speed to Christ deniers (2 Corinthians 6:14; 2 John 10).
God ordained three social institutions – the home/marriage/family, authority/civil government, church/pure religion – whose purposes are complementary but are nevertheless distinct. Every person is subject to these authorities, but these authorities themselves are answerable to God and governed by His Word. The home, the church, and the civil government are sovereign in their respectively assigned spheres. Civil government is not self-existent. It is animated and authorized by God. God ordained governmental rule in contrast to anarchy, in order to promote good and punish evil – but not to take the place of the family or the church.[i] Government operates in the temporal realm and should only have passing acquaintance in the spiritual realm.[ii] Should the civil government infringe on the faith of the individual or the beliefs & practice of a local church, the duty is to obey God rather than man.[iii]
God – the creator of heaven and earth – He alone deserves and requires worship. It is a sin to worship anything or anyone else – any so-called god, any man, any created thing. This is undisputed throughout the Scriptures.[iv] “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” “Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust, and respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.” (Psalm 40:4). Almost all religion of the world – some so-called Christian and otherwise – coalesce in this sin by refusing to bow in worship to the Lord God of heaven and earth.
God who alone deserves worship requires that He be worshipped in Spirit and in truth – not in lifeless ritual, outward conformity or feigned faith.[v] The heart of state-supported religion by compulsion or religious through persecution is to compel the outward man to conformity with the prevailing creed. This is anathema to New Testament Christianity. It cannot produce spiritual worship. George W. Truett cautions, “Persecution may make men hypocrites, but it will not make them Christians.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who changes hearts, not the civil authorities (John 6:63). One must worship and serve God through a good conscience, in sincerity.
Jesus is the only way of salvation. He declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Jesus is the door: those who enter by him shall be saved. There is no other way to be reconciled to God. The early disciples knew there was no other salvation anywhere in heaven or earth. Under that conviction, they proclaimed the gospel without the use of coercion and gladly suffered persecution.
Not only is Jesus Christ the only way of salvation, he is the one and only mediator between God and men. The government cannot stand in that place between God and man, neither the home nor the preacher – not even the church![vi] Those who would force, coerce and compel others to worship God against their consciences stand in the place of Christ – yea, they seek to supplant him.
Completing a threefold cord with the two previous principles, faith is a gift of God that cannot be forced or compelled by man. Pilgram Marpeck wrote in 1531, “All external things including life and limb are subjected to external authority. But no one may coerce of compel true faith in Christ, for it is concerned not with temporal but eternal life.” Salvation is of the Lord. God grants the gift of faith by which we receive his grace. It is not by the works of the one who has faith, neither can it be the work of another man forced upon the one who would have faith. It is the work of God, not man, that we believe on him whom he has sent – Jesus Christ (John 6:29). As individuals we seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness; as churches we preach the gospel, baptize and teach the commands of Jesus. The world is at enmity with God and His righteousness; we must not be complicit with the world. There is a command to preach the gospel; there is no command to compel others to accept it.
We are commanded “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” Further, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine [of Christ], receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:” The biblical principle of separation is as equally true as the principle of religious liberty. It is therefore important that we as Baptists promote and protect religious liberty without aiding and abetting false gods and false worship.
Religious liberty and salvation in Christ alone are not conflicting convictions. Understood rightly, they are complementary and compatible. We will find the harmonization of promoting religious liberty while avoiding spiritual adultery through understanding and rightly applying the principles of the Bible. These facts or principles include that God ordained the institutions of the home, civil government, and the church; that God alone deserves worship; that He must be worshipped in Spirit and in truth; that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and the one mediator between God and men; that faith is a gift of God; and that we should not unequally yoke with unbelievers, neither bid God speed to deniers of Jesus Christ. Following these principles, we humble ourselves to worship the God of heaven and earth in Spirit and in truth. We desire to inoculate against feignedly worshipping God or promoting feigned worship. We will separate ourselves from and neither further nor promote the cause of any doctrine or practice that denies our Lord Jesus Christ. Since faith is a gift of God that cannot be forced or compelled by man, we will not use or promote any religious or secular methods that compel others to an outward conformity of faith apart from the work of God. We leave them alone to answer before God, for all must “give account of himself to God”. (Romans 14:12)
[i] Romans 13:3-4 shows government’s responsibilities to punish evil deeds and to render justice. The work of civil government is to promote public order and support the common good – enforcing a system of worship is not one of the responsibilities. The rule of civil authority is not absolute. Only God’s moral law binds our consciences. Obeying God may mean disobeying lesser authorities (Cf. Dan. 3:1-30; Acts 5:29). Government authority ends when and where it contradicts God’s moral law or positive institutions.
[ii] For example, they can protect the conscience while not establishing one religion over another. In recent discussions of religious liberty, some Baptists have shown a preference for a “sort of” theocracy, in which some kind of evangelical Christianity might hold sway (“…God expects all nations to politically recognize Christ as LORD and to confidently govern accordingly”). I feel this is the view of a small minority. Most are just chafing from the rubbing together of the importance of avoiding spiritual adultery. They are not sure how that agrees with certain acts of support for religious liberty. Most Southern Baptists have no interest in a theocracy – many just don’t think their entities should file briefs in support of a mosque.
[iii] God’s kingdom and his people are “not of the world.” The kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world are distinct, and operate in different spheres on different principles. The sword of the kingdoms of this world is a sword of steel, but the sword of the kingdom of heaven is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The sword of the kingdoms of this world operates in the temporal realm, enforcing outward conformity and punishing evildoers and lawbreakers. The sword of the kingdom of heaven operates in the spiritual realm, convicting and convincing sinners in their hearts and souls. There is neither precept nor example of the Lord’s New Testament churches exercising rule by the sword belonging to the flesh. They have been given one sword. They strike with the sword of the Spirit.
[iv] Exodus 34:14 “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:”
[v] This is not to say there is no form or ritual at all in true religion – such as baptism – but that form alone will not suffice.
[vi] Look not through the annals of church history for a church wedded to the state, for there you will find Rome and her offspring. Look for the “not many mighty, not many noble” that God has called; for the poor of this world, rich in faith; for the persecuted, suffering Christians who take not away the coat, but give away the coat and the cloak also; for the meek who smite not on the cheek, but turn the other cheek to the smiters.