Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Does Denying Religious Liberty to Muslims Violate the Baptist Faith and Message?


OK. I was just going to leave the body of the post at that one-paragraph, one-word response, but after a few minutes' reflection, I've decided that when nothing more needs to be said, I'm just the guy to say it.

Here is the full text of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message (emphasis mine):

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.

So, I intend to demonstrate three points (being a Baptist preacher). First, I intend to show that Article XVII explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims. Second, I intend to show that all of the information that we have about Islam today is information that was available to Southern Baptists in 2000, 1963, and 1925 when they drafted and revised The Baptist Faith & Message (and, indeed, was even available before then, when Baptists first developed their articulation of the biblical doctrine of universal religious liberty). Third, I intend to demonstrate that affirmation of religious liberty is not an area at which The Baptist Faith & Message departs from Baptist confessionalism, but that this is a sentiment broadly affirmed by other Baptist confessions of faith.

All of this will take me more than a single post to complete. Also, I write this series of posts leaving unsaid some important things because I am depending upon my readers to look to what I have already written on this topic. For example, it hardly matters what The Baptist Faith & Message says if we have not first considered what the Scriptures say. Fortunately, I have already made that case in a way that no one has yet been able to answer (not because I'm so good, but because the biblical witness is so clear and the arguments against religious liberty are so specious). I don't feel any need to republish what I have already published about the biblical justification for our belief in universal religious liberty.

I will therefore turn my attention to the first point. The Baptist Faith & Message explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims.

Consider the wording of Article XVII.

  1. "The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." These words are plain enough on their face. Examining where they stand in the historical development of Baptist doctrine makes them even plainer.

    1. "The state has no right to impose penalties…" John Leland authored The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in which he put forth the view that every person's religious conscience lies beyond the scope of governmental authority. That's an important point and I don't want you to miss it: If the government gives you the death penalty for going one mile an hour over the speed limit, it has abused authority that it rightfully possesses. The government has the authority to govern aspects of your behavior, including the way that you drive an automobile on public thoroughfares; it just shouldn't abuse that authority by doling out extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions. But Baptists have long said that religious liberty doesn't belong in the same category as that. When it comes to my theological convictions, government has no authority at all. Government does not grant the right to religious liberty and it cannot take it away. It is an inalienable right, alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Before we even talk about what the penalties are and before we even talk about what the opinions are, from the get-go, the state has no rights over anyone's religious conscience.

    2. "…to impose penalties…" Here is religious liberty defined simply: Changing my relationship with God doesn't lead the state to change its relationship with me. The history of Baptist persecution at the hands of other American Christian denominations and the history of Baptist responses advocating for religious liberty make clear what has counted as inappropriate "penalties" for us. Imprisonment? Yes. Executions? Yes. But also, inappropriate taxation and inappropriate restrictions on the construction of houses of worship have long been misdeeds that Baptists have opposed as a breach of government's obligation to leave unfettered the religious consciences of men.

      If you went to seminary and studied Baptist History, you may recall learning about The Clarendon Code. The Church of England employed these laws to persecute Baptists. Among them was the Five-Mile Act, which denied Nonconformist pastors the right to reside (and have their house-churches) anywhere within five miles of locations where they had previously been caught worshipping. Baptists rightfully opposed these efforts to regulate away religious liberty.

      So, back-door attempts to use governmental regulation to restrict religious liberty have long been on Baptists' radar as inappropriate "penalties" used to quash religions that the state did not favor. The Baptist tradition of opposing these inappropriate penalties runs straight through The Baptist Faith & Message.

    3. "…to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." I submit to you that "of any kind" means…wait for it…of any kind. Does "of any kind" include Islam? By any plain reading it does, but we need not speculate. Leland wrote "The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, [Muslims], Pagans and Christians." Here Leland has given us a list of what "all" means, and it includes Muslims (to use the old terminology, "Turks"). Roger Williams wrote "It is the will and command of God, that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most Pagan, Jewish, [Muslim], or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries" (spelling updated). Williams has told us what "of any kind" means, and it includes Muslims.

  2. "and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power." Again, the wording of the article is not difficult to understand. Religious opinions can change over time. People form their own religious opinions and they propagate them, influencing the formation of other people's religious opinions. We are conversionists; our entire system of belief is based upon the idea that people's religious opinions change.

    That includes lost people. Lost people sometimes get saved. Amen? You know, Muslims are not beyond the power of the gospel. The Lord's hand is not shortened so that He cannot save Muslims. But even apart from the salvation of lost people, lost people sometimes shuffle among systems of religious belief while they form their own religious opinions.

    To suppress religious liberty for Muslims is to suppress religious liberty for every American. The lost American who is nominally Presbyterian (but spiritually lost) today might choose next week to convert to Islam. From the moment that you restrict religious liberty for Muslims, you restrict it from Presbyterians, too. Yes, they have the freedom to continue as Presbyterians without fear of governmental reprisal, but the liberty they had once enjoyed (to convert to Islam without governmental interference) even Presbyterians no longer enjoy. Although I know as a theological truth that I, having been genuinely converted, cannot (by means of spiritual boundaries) convert to Islam, so far as the government is concerned, I presently have the full religious liberty to do so if I so choose. If the government were to take away religious liberty from Muslims, I myself no longer have the religious liberty (as far as the government is concerned) to choose to convert to Islam without suffering reprisals from the government.

    The Baptist Faith & Message supports my right to form my religious opinions. I have the right to form them in both bad ways and good ways. God may interfere with that formation. My parent may interfere with that formation. By God's grace a church might interfere with that formation. Government, we believe, must not interfere with it.

So, this is what The Baptist Faith & Message says about religious liberty—it affirms it as pertaining to all religions without exception, and the authors of those words penned them in an environment in which no Baptist was arguing that Islam was not a religion. I do hope that Southern Baptists will not treat The Baptist Faith & Message (not to mention the New Testament) in the same manner that Ruth Bader Ginsburg treats the Constitution. The Baptist Faith & Message cannot mean today what it cannot have meant in 1925, 1963, and 2000. It meant then, and it means today, that we support religious liberty for all religions, Islam included. Anyone who denies that religious liberty should extend to Muslims is in strong and direct opposition to Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message.

This series of posts is occasioned by reports that An IMB trustee from Tennessee has resigned from the board because he disagreed with the IMB's affirmation of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message. Really, the story goes no deeper than that. We had somehow elected an IMB trustee who did not affirm The Baptist Faith & Message. The aftermath has illustrated for us why a confessional basis for denominational service is both helpful and necessary. That we had governing one of our institutions a trustee who opposes the IMB's confessional standard is a situation that is bound to lead to conflict, and it did. He resigned, and that was the right thing to do. We should be careful to replace him with someone who agrees with our denomination's statement of faith.

I presume that the pastor in question is a good man, a good pastor, a devout Christian, and a man with whom friendship would be a blessing. Those things are true of a whole lot of people in the world who cannot affirm The Baptist Faith & Message.