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Baptist idea of religious liberty affirmed at doctrinal conference

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The historic Baptist concept of religious freedom expressed in the First Amendment is under attack from the American judiciary, Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Sept. 9.

Land was the keynote speaker at the seminary’s first Baptist Distinctives Conference, a two-day event that examined “The First Freedom” of religious liberty.

“The greatest threat to religious freedom in America are secular fundamentalists who want to ghetto-ize religious faith and make the wall of separation between church and state a prison wall keeping religious voices out of political discourse,” Land said.

More than 300 people, including registered conference participants, seminary students, faculty and staff were in attendance as Land presented his paper titled, “The Role of Religious Liberty in the Founding and Development of America.” Land told the conferees that America has been, is and always will be a “very religious” country.

“This drives post-modernists crazy because they think that as a country evolves, religious dedication should fade,” Land said. “Religious liberty is the unique Baptist contribution to the Reformation.”

Land traced the history of Anabaptists and Baptists to explain how they came to cherish — and even die for — the idea that government should not interfere with the people’s right to believe, or not believe, and practice, or not practice, whatever faith they chose.

He explained that as successful as the Protestant Reformation was in taking “church” back to the “primitive” New Testament model, magisterial reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were never “quite able to separate church from state.”

On the other hand, “Baptists understood that the ‘parish church’ concept was not biblical,” Land said. “This became the cause of Baptists.”

From Oliver Cromwell and the English Interregnum, to Baptists in the 1660s fleeing to Colonial America to escape religious persecution, to the stand Baptist pastors took to make sure the First Amendment was incorporated into the new U.S. Constitution in 1791, Land demonstrated that “current controversies” in America about the separation of church and state are nothing new.

“We have never separated religion from politics in America,” Land said. “In 1854, 3,000 New England clergymen signed a petition to the United States Senate demanding an immediate end to the practice of chattel slavery and denouncing the Missouri Compromise…. Pro-slavery senators urged the Senate to ignore the petition on the grounds of separation of church and state. But the preachers refused to shut up. They understood … that most Americans want to talk about God [in political discourse].”

Land said that Baptists have always believed that the state must be separated from the church largely because the state always “pollutes and corrupts the church.” Thomas Jefferson affirmed that idea in 1802 when he wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association saying that, “their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

But Land said that the Supreme Court’s modern application of that doctrine “is twisted” because Jefferson meant for the First Amendment to protect the church from the state, but not vice versa.

“The restrictions of the First Amendment are on the government,” Land said. “They are not on people of faith.”

Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson addressed the question of whether the concept of religious liberty is compatible with the doctrine of the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Patterson drew on personal experiences to explain that this question often arises from people of faith who are not believers in Jesus Christ. They often think that Christians want to restrict freedom of religion simply because Christians understand unbelievers are “going to hell” unless they believe in Jesus Christ.

Patterson turned to “the biblical witness” and “the historical witness” to refute that misunderstanding. He explained that belief in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation and a vigorous defense of religious freedom are not mutually exclusive.

“Jesus Christ does not favor coercion,” Patterson concluded as he reviewed passages on the life and teachings of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew and John.

Patterson acknowledged that an objection to that conclusion might arise based on the account of the Jesus driving out the money-changers from the Temple in Matthew 21:12-17.

But Patterson said that objection is invalid because Jesus was not addressing what to believe, and he was not even telling the money changers that they could not practice their trade. Jesus’ was concerned with propriety and practice of worship.

“Jesus Christ there was defending his Father’s house as a house of prayer for all nations,” Patterson said.

From history, Patterson outlined some of the works of Balthasar Hübmaier, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and other Anabaptists and Baptists to show that they uniformly taught both the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the peaceful coexistence of Christians with fellow citizens who “rejected the truth.”

He concluded from these scriptural and historical sources that Christians who embrace salvation exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ are the most effective advocates for religious liberty. Such Christians are confident that truth will triumph; they know that God will be the ultimate Judge; they understand that a free marketplace of ideas favors the most truthful arguments, and they rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to save people who hear compassionate, impassioned appeals.

“The government of the United States must constantly exhort and promote religious liberty around the world,” Patterson said. “And Baptists who embrace the idea of religious liberty must develop greater courage to advocate religious liberty.”

Malcolm Yarnell III, director of the seminary’s Center for Theological Research and of one of the conference’s organizers, said the conference served as a forum for Southern Baptist scholars to demonstrate that the idea of religious liberty is still held dear by Southern Baptists.

“Through this conference, we have affirmed loudly and clearly religious liberty as the first freedom promoted by Baptists,” Yarnell said.

Land and Patterson were joined by a panel of distinguished scholars.

The panel included Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and director of the Research Institute of the ERLC. He presented a lecture arguing that religious freedom is a fundamental right given by God, not just a temporal right conferred by culture.

Retired Judge Paul Pressler from Houston analyzed current developments in the approach the American judiciary is taking with religious liberty.

Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., discussed the dangers and consequences of viewing religion principally as a cultural concern.

Daniel Heimbach, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., explained the difference between religious liberty and religious autonomy.

In addition to these guest lecturers, Southwestern Seminary professors Yarnell, Emir Caner, Ben Phillips, Craig Mitchell, Thomas White and Gregory Tomlin presented papers at the conference.

White, who is also director of the seminary’s Center for Leadership Development, was delighted that 265 people registered for the conference. The center co-sponsored the conference.

“The event was a great success,” White said. “We exceeded our projected goal for our first conference in this yearly Baptist Distinctives Series and look forward to many great events in the years to come.”

Yarnell said the seminary already had planned a second annual conference. That conference, “Maintaining the Integrity of a Local Church in a Seeker Sensitive World: The Baptist Perspective on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Church Discipline,” is scheduled for Sept. 29-30, 2006.

“The purpose of the 2006 conference will be to help Southern Baptists rediscover the traditional Baptist understanding of baptism, the Lord’s supper and church discipline, each of which are integral to maintaining the distinctiveness of the regenerate church in obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ,” Yarnell said.

The scholarly papers presented at the first conference are being bound together and printed into a single paperback volume that will be available at reasonable cost to anyone interested in the subject of the Baptist view of religious freedom.

For information about registering for the 2006 conference or purchasing the book from the 2005 conference, contact Jennifer Faulk at [email protected].

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  • Brent Thompson