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Radical Religious Liberty!


Passage: Galatians 6:7-10

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Stephen Graham

Religious liberty is a cherished Baptist distinctive we have chosen to define us as a people.

George W. Truett, from just down the road in days now gone by, called religious liberty “the first trophy of Baptists.” We were among the first to call for radical religious liberty. From the earliest period Baptists challenged prevailing religious and political establishments, insisting that the state could judge neither the heretic nor the atheist.[1]

350 years ago, Roger Williams stepped ashore in Providence, Rhode Island, to shape a new colony and raise high the banner of religious liberty. He knew, too well, what life without religious liberty was like! Fleeing Europe to escape civil religion, he found the same kind of official religion in the colonies. With it, came the same kind of persecution for dissenters that had existed on the other side of the ocean.

Williams responded to this by establishing a society free of religious persecution.  The colony of Rhode Island refused to support churches with tax funds as other colonies had done. The practice of any religion was safeguarded. All were welcome. Because of his influence a person could refuse to attend worship without legal recrimination.

Williams made a clear distinction between religion and government that eventually found its way into the Constitution; a radical new approach that brought clarity to our definition, our heritage, as Baptists. May we never forget our ancestors who stood for religious liberty, and the wonderful freedom that is ours.

In his book on Galatians, Free in Christ, Warren McWilliams explores this freedom as Christians encountered liberty in Christ. We are to grow and mature as those who have been released from bondage. 

Galatians is called the “gospel of freedom.”  What would it mean for us to understand this radical truth? Paul writes: “For freedom, Christ has made us free!” (Galatians 5:1). This challenge for first century Christians is no different than the challenge for us. We must exercise our freedom responsibly. Paul had a vision of the revolutionary freedom in Christ where there was now neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free.  In Christ there is no division.  We are all one in Christ (3:28-29).

God gave us freedom! Our marching orders are to exercise, protect and advance freedom for all. 

Gardner Taylor, known as the dean of American preaching,” understood that the separation of church and state was important, “So the church will have swinging room to act upon the state!” He doesn’t stop there. With a keen sense of history, he insists, “We have separation of church and state so neither can hold the other in a bear hug.”

Baptists have reasons to desire not just toleration, but genuine freedom. We were a minority and depended on liberty to pursue our goal—to worship God according to conscience without interference, to organize, to witness to what they believe in, and to win others.

Free to worship God according to conscience without interference!

Our freedom does not license us to run from issues. The world is our parish. Our Christian ethic demands that every part of life be brought under the scrutiny of the living Word of God. Carlyle Marney talked about the profound burden of freedom. An “essential anxiety” of our human experience stems from having to choose between right and wrong. The choices are difficult to make. Being free in Christ means that God does not force us to choose. It is God’s intent that we be free. We must stand for freedom for others and as well as for freedom for ourselves. We are called to accept the joy and the pain of human freedom.

Free to organize!  

To be free we must be free to fail. In the Second London Confession of 1677, they said, “God alone is Lord of the Conscience.” We are free not to believe as well as freedom to believe. We answer to God alone. Our inner sanctuary is reserved for us alone. Neither the state nor the church nor any other human agency can determine what we must believe. We alone decide if we will live our lives from the vantage point of a relationship with God.

God said, “Let is make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). We are not robots. God does not impose faith. God waits for us to voluntarily respond. It seems this was an enormous risk on God’s part. Out of love God created those who, in turn, could love freely as God loves. Free to put our best efforts into organizing for the purposes of being the people that we believe God is calling us to be.

Free to witness to what we believe in! 

We believe and espouse our belief in religious liberty wanting freedom for others so that we too might have that same freedom. We are to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. Our freedom demands that we stand for the freedom of others.

I painfully recall having lunch with a visiting minister and a deacon while in my first pastorate. I was young and used that as the excuse for my silence when the discussion turned racial. The deacon expressed a strong racial bias. I was embarrassed for us all; embarrassed for what the visiting pastor would think of our church; embarrassed for the attitude of our deacon; and embarrassed for me because I was too scared to say something, too uninformed to be able to think of a single solitary thing to say with any kind of diplomacy. I failed to try at all. I should have witnessed to our belief, to give voice to our belief in the freedom of our brothers and sisters created in the image of God.

Good Baptists have modeled the way for us. John Bunyan spent twelve and a half years in prison because he refused to be silenced. John Leland preached through the windows of the Culpepper jail in Virginia. He would not be quiet about his passionate belief against religious repression and coercion. Fortunately, he had powerful friends in Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes came to hear him preach, and James Madison. Leland agreed to support Madison as a representative to Congress with the stipulation that Madison would back an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Free to win others!

Standing tall for the freedom of others may be the best way for us to witness in our belief in Christ who has set us free!

This day of celebration for religious liberty is an appropriate day for us to be encouraged to keep after it. Like contiguous circles of a rock thrown into a pond, freedom gives shape to freedom. Paul gives expression to the freedom we give up close is the freedom that expands beyond.

“So, let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance let us work for the benefit of all, for the freedom for all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith!” (Galatians 6:9-10).

[1] Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003), p. 9.