Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Baptist Identity - chapter four


"Religious Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion."

This may be the best chapter of the four, and it certainly deals with a topic that resonates (and has resonated) with Baptist people. Though Shurden generally maintains his 20th century bibliography, he here deals with more of the older Baptist writings, writers, and history before the 20th century. He introduces us to the idea of religious freedom, then proceeds to expose it under four heads: Historic Baptists and the Witness to Religious Freedom, Historic Baptists and the Foundations of Religious Freedom, Historic Baptists and the Meaning of Religious Freedom, and Baptists Today and Threats to Religious Freedom.

In the introduction, Shurden presents to us some of the different historical and biblical relationships between church and state, though he almost seems to think scripture has contradictory teachings in the matter: “Even scripture proposes diverse interpretations of this relationship (between church & state, rlv).” He probably means that different circumstances call for different responses: "No one model fits all circumstances and epochs of history...Often they (Baptists) have been 'Romans 13 People,' appreciative of civil government. Occasionally they have been 'Revelation 13 People,' opposing the state with their very lives. Most of the time, however, they have been 'Matthew 22 People,' legitimizing but limiting the state."

Under the next three headings, Shurden looks at the historic connection of Baptists and religious freedom. First, he notes that religious freedom inheres in Baptist belief, beginning with Smyth & Helwys, early American leaders such as Clarke & Holmes through Leland & Backus, and on into the 20th century. Shurden does not go beyond Smyth & Helwys to the Anabaptists or others because he believes Baptists began in England in 1600. He notes that the message of religious freedom for all "is much easier to hear and act upon when you are small and powerless. When a denomination gets large and powerful and courted for political reasons, the bells of freedom ring fainter and fainter." This is an astute observation (and possibly also a side shot at the SBC). Shurden believes, and I think accurately, that the anchor of the Baptist "passion for religious liberty" is found in "(1) the nature of God, (2) the nature of humanity, and (3) the nature of faith." Thomas Helwys' observation is probably most succinct, "mens religion to God is betwixt God and themselves."

The chapter points out the difference of the Baptist teaching of religious freedom and the plea of some for religious tolerance, as well as emphasizing that the Baptist plea has always been religious freedom for all. The Baptist idea of freedom of religion includes freedom for all religion protected by the state, and freedom from religion -- those who have no religion are guaranteed freedom in that. Shurden quotes John Leland, who argued, "Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing." Under the last heading, Shurden rightly warns us of threats today to religious freedom, whether real or imagined (I believe there are real threats, but that some are only imagined). Mr. Shurden is fully enamored with the phrase "separation of church and state" and seems to see threats to religious freedom even when the phrase is challenged. "Separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution and seems to have been coined by Thomas Jefferson when writing to the Danbury Baptist Association. It has been used to mean everything from what Baptists have always meant by religious freedom to an idea of fencing religion completely out of the public sector. But there are real and present threats to religious freedom in America. One Shurden points out is the Christian Reconstruction Movement. Even those who may not agree with Shurden should be aware of the possibilities and be ever vigilant against encroachment.

“Nationalism is not the faith of Christians...It is easy for a people -- even Baptist people -- to call for religious liberty when they do not have it...This was not self-serving expediency; it was principle! And it was principle applied to all people...What about Baptists today? Having become prominent and powerful, especially in the United States, are we still as committed to religious liberty for all persons as our ancestors were?”

Though we may not agree with Mr. Shurden on all the practical applications, I hope his question echoes in our hearts and becomes a meditation. Are we still committed to religious liberty for all?

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