Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience: A Baptist Distinctive Grounded in the Imago Dei

A passion for religious liberty and freedom of conscience runs in the veins of Baptists. It is actually in our DNA! Our forefathers and mothers fought and suffered for this inalienable right because they knew and understood to truly love and worship God is to love and worship Him freely. Coerced love is an oxymoron. It is nonsensical. We must be free to love our God without intimidation because it is a divine right granted to us by our Creator as His imagers. This is why we persuade others to trust Christ with the Word and not the sword!

Southern Baptists are firmly committed to this proposition for all persons. Indeed, we are willing, like those who have gone before us, to fight for and even suffer for every person’s right to believe or not believe according to their conscience. So important is religious liberty to us that we have an article in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message specifically dedicated to this conviction. There we read:

XVII. Religious Liberty

God alone is Lord of the 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. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of 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.

Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Matthew 66-7, 24; 16:26; 22:21; John 8:36; Acts 4:19-20; Romans 6:1-2; 13:1-7; Galatians 5:1, 13; Philippians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; James 4:12; 1 Peter 2:12-17; 3:11-17; 4:12-19.

This is a wonderful statement of faith and conviction. God alone is Lord of the conscience. Not any man. Not any government. The government is to keep its nose out of the church’s business and we will honor and obey the government as long as what it requires is not contrary to the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture. All men should have “the right of free and unhindered access to God…and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion…” What we ask for ourselves we gladly grant as a right to others.

George W. Truett, renowned pastor of FBC Dallas, TX from 1897-1944 said, “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first trophy of Baptists” (citing American historian George Bancroft). I fear this trophy is in serious danger of being snatched away in our day. Rumbling in our governments and courts signal that a “religious liberty tsunami” may be on the near horizon. For the sake of our nation and the nations, we cannot sit on the sideline or be silent. My friend Russell Moore, President of the ERLC, says, “We [Baptists] have a history of being irritants” when it comes to religious liberty. Irritants, let us rise up and seize the day!