Southern Baptists have long been champions of Religious Liberty. So much so that article 17, of the Baptist Faith and Message is devoted to this specific issue. Article 17 says

"God alone is the 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 no 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."

As we delve into this topic this morning I want to begin where all of our study should begin: in Scripture. What biblical foundation do we have for espousing the position of Religious Liberty set forth in article 17 of the BF&M?

Like many other ethical positions we as Southern Baptists hold, they are drawn from scripture as a whole, rather than simply being from one or two specific passages of Scripture.

Jesus tells us that He is the author of freedom, both of conscience and of worship when in John 8:32 which says, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free," and in 8:36 where He says, "If the Son sets you free, you really will be free."

Jesus clearly separates the Church and the State in Matthew 22:21, where He says, "Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Paul instructs the Christians at Ephesus in I Timothy 2:1-2 to live in harmony with the government, even to pray for their leaders. He says, "I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings, and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity."

And the Apostle Peter spells it out even more clearly in 1 Peter 2:13-17 when he says, "Submit to every human institution because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority, or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For it is God's will that you, by doing good, silence the ignorance of foolish people. As God's slave's, [live] as free people, but don't use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor."

Of course, Romans 13: 1-7, as we studied last week, clearly tells us that as Christians, we have a responsibility to submit to the authorities God has placed over us and that God has ordained government to punish the evildoers and to reward those who do good.

These are just some of the passages whereupon this statement of Religious Liberty is founded, there are many others.

For the purpose of our study I want us to look at several of the statements made in this article and expound upon them briefly. We will set them within the context of statements which we believe.

I. We believe in religious liberty

It is to this end that article 17 begins with the affirmation that "God alone is the Lord of conscience." This conviction is at the very heart of all religious liberty, the idea that God alone is the Lord of conscience, the one Who, in His word, tells us what to believe and practice. Simply stated, Religious Liberty is the right of every person to worship God, or not, as they see fit, without any interference from the government, but under the direction of God, to Whom all of us will give account.

One of the great Southern Baptist preachers of the last century was George W. Truett, at the time the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. In 1920 Truett, delivered a sermon from, of all places, the steps of the United States Capital, if you can imagine. As he stood there preaching to somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand people, he summed up what most Southern Baptist believe Religious Liberty is.

Truett said, "It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of His conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty....Toleration is a gift from man, while liberty is a gift from God....God wants free worshipers and no other kind."

We do not believe people should be forced to worship God nor do we believe they should be, in any way, kept from worshiping God. As Baptists we have long been the champions of this kind of religious freedom, not just for Christians, but for all people.

It is interesting to note that it was Baptists who pushed for religious liberty with the framers of the Constitution of the United States. Dr. Jerry Johnson, a leading Southern Baptist ethicist, and President of the Criswell College in Dallas, notes that, "While most of the early American Colonies had official denominations, the Baptists worked with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to oppose state churches and to enshrine religious liberty in the Bill of Rights. John Leland was the most outspoken Baptist (preacher) on religious liberty and exercised considerable influence on Jefferson and Madison." Johnson says that Leland's argument was theological when he said, "Religion is a matter between God and individuals: the religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government, not in any way under its control."

This conviction that God alone is the Lord of conscience not only applies to religious liberty where our government is concerned. As Baptists we have always resisted any kind of hierarchical oversight from a denomination. The depth of our conviction runs so deep here that we strongly believe each local church is autonomous, retaining the right to affirm their own beliefs, doctrinally examine their own pastors and own their own property. Religious liberty is not only freedom from meddling governments it is also freedom from any kind of external religious body which would seek to force their creeds upon our conscience. The Baptist Faith and Message is a common confessional statement that each individual church adopts for itself.

As Baptists, who have often been the victims of religious intolerance, we believe strongly in religious liberty, that being the right to worship or not worship as directed by one's conscience not by the government.

II. We believe in the separation of church and state

While we define separation of church and state in one way, the secularists of our country have interpreted it another way, using it as an excuse to exclude any mention of Christianity from the public square. This is not what we mean.

As we seek to define the separation of church and state, there are several things to be considered here; first,

A. The state should protect the church's freedom to pursue its spiritual ends

We believe that it is our God given right to express our religious and moral views, and to worship free from any government interference.

  • This includes our children wearing t-shirts to school with religious messages on them without being penalized by godless or ignorant school officials.

  • It includes the right of our children to pray wherever and whenever they desire, without school officials illegally penalizing them for exercising their freedom of speech and religion.

  • It includes our ability to share the gospel of Jesus Christ without being labeled as intolerant because we hold that Jesus is the only way to heaven. One of the foundational tenets of our faith is the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to salvation. Increasingly, what we see as being the good news, the world sees as bigotry and intolerance. Religious liberty means the state has an obligation to protect our right to believe and preach and teach whatever we like.

  • It includes us exerting any political influence we may have as Christians to see candidates elected who hold our beliefs. Citizens who happen to be Christians should not be silenced as they seek to exercise their freedom of speech simply because that which they choose to speak is from a decidedly Christian worldview. Christians, or any other religious group for that matter, should not be penalized because they seek to place people in office who best represent their views. This is, after all, the basis of representative government. Increasingly we are seeing this idea propagated which says that all views are valid, unless of course it is a Christian point of view. This is contrary to what we believe. And for the record, it is contrary to what the founders of our country envisioned.

  • This also means that the government should not seek to thwart our free exercise of religion by denying our building permits with unfair zoning laws or seizing church buildings under the guise of eminent domain, as has happened to several churches in our country.

  • And it means that the government should censor the pulpits. As the moral tide of our country falls, increasingly preachers who stand against immorality and wickedness will become the targets of those who object to anything being called a sin. Under the guise of being politically correct, laws have already been passed in Canada, which prohibit pastors from preaching against homosexuality. As Southern Baptists we believe such laws violate our God given right to take Him at His word. The government has no business telling us what can and cannot be preached from our pulpits.

Be believe the state has a responsibility, a God given responsibility, to protect us as we seek to live out our faith in public. Our religious freedom is not based on the laws of men, in truth it is an unalienable right granted to all people everywhere by God. Good government has the responsibility of protecting that God given right.

B. The state should not favor one religious group over another

There are some in our country who think that separation of church and state means that the state must be godless. This was never the intention of the framers of our Constitution. Whether or not its adherents like to admit it, the fact remains true that Atheism is a religion unto itself. Since the separation of church from state means that the state will not favor one religious group over another, it stands to reason that Atheism, being a religious belief system should not be favored over Christianity. Thus, we would content that for the state to hold that and act as if there is not God, would be to establish Atheism as the state religion.

Dr Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee, in his book, The Divided States of America traces the history of the phrase "separation of church and state" back to colonist Roger Williams in 1636 who claimed that the wall was to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state and not the other way around. When newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson used the phrase to address a group of oppressed Baptists in Connecticut in 1802, it was at a time when Connecticut had a state tax-supported religion, which by the way was Congregationalist. The separation of Church and state was meant to protect the church from the state. It was never intended to establish a godless state.

C. Christians should not look to government to carry on the church's work

As Baptists, not only do we object to a church which is governed by the state, we also reject the idea of a state which is governed by the church.

One scholar notes that it is an interesting fact of history that one may find examples of civil governments that have officially, Lutheran, Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim, or even Atheist (as in the case of France). However, no civil government has ever been official Baptist. This is no accident. By definition, no government could ever be genuinely Baptist because Baptists reject the notion of an official state church or an official church state.

As Christians we do not believe in a theocratic government, that is, a government which is ruled by religion. We have but to look to some Islamic countries today and to the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages to see what happens when people try and use government to carry out the work of the church, or try to enforce the laws of their religion on those who do not believe. We do not believe in making converts at the edge of the sword. We have never advocated coercion of any kind in matters of faith.

We believe that God's work is accomplished by God's people through the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the enforcement of civil authorities.

Part and parcel to this concept of the separation of church and state is the belief that the State should neither impose penalties for religious opinions nor should it impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.

Jesus did not look to the Roman authorities to further His kingdom, neither did the disciples, nor did Paul, the most prolific writer among all the apostles. In fact, Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world. We do not believe civil government should be used to carry on the work of the church.

One of the dangers inherent in allowing the government to in any way get involved with the work of the church is that if you are not careful, they will begin to control the church. As one writer notes, government shekels often lead to government shackles.

Only when Jesus returns and establishes His throne will government truly be free from the vice and corruption of fallen men. Then and then alone will

D. Christians have a responsibility to the state

As Christians, scripture clearly tells us that we have a responsibility to submit to the state, to pay our taxes, to serve when asked to serve, but also, because we are salt and light, we have a responsibility to speak the truth in love when our government is wrong on moral issues.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the issues of abortion and homosexuality. As Christians, while we are to submit to the government's authority, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and to the truth of His word.

In Acts chapter 4, when Peter and John were ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, Peter and John answered them in verses 19-20 saying, "Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard."

And in Chapter 5, after having been arrested for continuing to preach Jesus, Peter said, "We must obey God rather than men." Philippians 3:20 tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. When the laws of man violate the laws of God, as citizens of heaven we must obey the laws of God.

Sometimes this means Christians must be involved in civil disobedience. But civil disobedience must be clearly based on God's word, not on the predilections or opinions of man. As Christians we should be model citizens but we also have a responsibility to be the conscience of our nation as well.

III. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal

This speaks to a state and a church wherein the church is free from the influence of the state but at the same time, because the members of the church are citizens of the state, is free to influence the state towards righteousness but not to control it.

Again, Dr. Richard Land has already done some good thinking in this area. He says that governments can take one of three distinct approaches to church-state relations. The first is avoidance - completely removing any recognition of the church and creating a secular society, exemplified by France. The second is acknowledgment - a government affirmation of the majority religion, such as Iran.

What we need, Dr. Land suggests, is accommodation, a middle way between the other two. This approach provides healthy pluralism in which all views are allowed, encouraged, and respected and a healthy respect for the value of religion in America's past, present, and future that permeates society. Americans should be able to bring their religiously informed moral values to public policy discussions.


At the end of the day we have to say that religious freedom is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that it affords us the privilege to worship God as we wish, where we wish and with whom we wish, without fear of punishment, castigation or reprisal. While we acknowledge this as a God given right, it is none-the-less a unique phenomena. Looking back over the course of history, few people have ever had as much religious freedom as do those of us who are citizens of these United States of America.

But the problem with blessings is that, when they are taken for granted, they can become a curse. Like a child who was reared on a trust fund and never learned to work, thus never learning the true value of money, many Americans have no concept of how truly precious and unique our religious liberty is. And, taking it for granted, they fail to protect it against the encroaching tide of secularism that is swiftly rising in our land. As Christians we must let our voice be heard. As salt and light in our culture we must be faithful to the responsibility God has given us.

The best way to do that is to vote for those who will uphold our freedoms and who best represent our values. Exercise our religious liberty by getting involved in a local church and winning our country to Christ, one soul at a time.

Let's pray