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SBC leaders urge vigilant defense of liberty

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of every American to worship without government interference, and Southern Baptist leaders want it to stay that way.

Baptist statesmen in the late 18th century led the fight to ensure that religious liberty — often referred to as “the First Freedom” — was secured for all American citizens. However, attacks on this bedrock freedom continue even today. “Thought crimes” legislation is winding its way through the political process of the U.S. Congress, and there is even a court challenge to the internal governance of a local congregation in its handling of a discipline matter within its fellowship.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed by the House would expand categories covered by the law to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” among others. Conservative leaders describe it as a Trojan Horse that would lead to stifling religious speech as has happened in Canada, Sweden and Britain.

The pending decision in Penley v. Westbrook could have sweeping effects on church life in the U.S. The pastor of an evangelical nondenominational church attempted to biblically discipline a female member who had signed a membership covenant submitting to church discipline and subsequently was found to be involved in adultery. Repentance and restoration did not occur and after the pastor informed the congregation about removing her from fellowship, she sued. The trial court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals of Texas, however, reversed the trial court and declared that Penley could proceed to trial.

“First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty” is a timely collection of essays published by B&H Academic reminding Baptists about the importance of religious liberty and offering insights about current perils to our free speech heritage. It is the first volume of compiled essays from the annual Baptist Distinctives Conference held each fall on the Fort Worth campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Co-editor Malcolm B. Yarnell III, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Seminary, asserted that the struggle for religious liberty is intimately connected to Baptist identity. “It was among the baptizing churches that the conception of universal religious liberty arose,” he said. “Yet religious liberty is historically insecure without our constant diligence. This book provides the opportunity for today’s leading Southern Baptists to indicate our deep commitment to defending religious liberty.”

Thomas White, vice president for student services at Southwestern Seminary and co-editor, agreed. “We must support and defend these beliefs establishing a free marketplace of ideas where the exclusivity of Christ can be claimed without fear of coercion or accusation of treason. I am proud to follow in the footsteps of my Baptist forefathers who also defended these beliefs.”

In addition to White and Yarnell, contributors to the book include a variety of conservative leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention:

— Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, portrays the historical events that led to establishment of religious liberty at the founding of America.

— Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research and director of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, provides a doctrinal perspective that gives definition to the doctrine of religious liberty.

— The Honorable Paul Pressler, former member of the Texas legislature, judge of the 133rd district court and justice for the 14th court of appeals, provides a personal perspective of the preservation of religious liberty in the judiciary in America.

— Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., examines the state of religious liberty in contemporary culture.

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

— Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, seeks to answer whether the belief in religious liberty and exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ are mutually exclusive or biblically harmonious.

— Emir F. Caner, dean of the College at Southwestern, examines whether religious liberty can be created in Islamic countries.

— Craig Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Seminary, discusses the universal nature of religious liberty as it relates to the concept of natural law.

Jason G. Duesing, chief of staff in the office of the president at Southwestern, served as the third co-editor and authored the volume’s introduction. He explained that one of the purposes of this collection of essays is to remind “Baptists in the 21st century of the price that was paid by their forefathers for the establishment and defense of religious liberty.”

“To be sure, there were people of various religious and denominational preferences that Providence used to implement the religious freedoms now enjoyed by all,” Duesing wrote. “But for Baptists to overlook the contribution of their own would be a travesty. May those who read this volume not only honor [our Baptist forefathers] but also the Creator who made them, redeemed them and gave them hearts to establish the first freedom.”
“First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty” is available online at www.LifeWayStores.com.

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  • Brent Thompson