Sunday’s sermon is the third of four sermons throughout October on “Why Baptist?” or “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist,” acknowledging the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the contribution and witness of Baptists within wider Christian tradition. For earlier sermons, visit our sermon page.
The story goes that a person arrived to those oft-imagined pearly gates, where St. Peter greeted her and took her on a tour of Heaven. As they walked around on the streets of gold, the woman noticed groups of people, so St. Peter began to explain who they were.
“Episcopalians here…. those are the Catholics… the Methodists over there… the Lutherans over in the corner…” and so it went, everyone divided by affinity and denomination, until after walking a while, they arrived at a remote compound, surrounded by a high wall. From inside, voices could be heard.
“Who’s in there?” the woman asked.
“Shhh,” came the reply from St. Peter, “Those are the Baptists, but they think they’re the only ones here.”
Walker Percy imagined the scene a bit differently. Percy, one of the great American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century, was very familiar with Baptists in the Southern United States, and he knew plenty of Baptists who behaved just that exclusively, as though they’re the only ones here.
In his novel Lancelot, a character imagines the pearly gates and heavenly scene, and says, “If heaven is full of Baptists, I’d rather rot in hell.”
For Walker Percy, a perceptive interpreter of American society, the Baptists he had known throughout the South were a group he described variously as evangelistically repulsive, anti-Catholics, who are political opportunists, advocating scientific creationism in the public school system. (1)
Whether in heaven or on earth, we know there are a lot of ways to be Baptist, which often finds us searching for definition and claiming identity amidst a range of popular perceptions. This month we’re in the midst of sermons on our particular way of being Baptist, or “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist.” We’ve also been considering the theme on Wednesday nights with invited guests with connections to our church telling us why they’re Baptist. This past Wednesday, Rev. Seth Hix, Church Engagement Coordinator with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina joined us, sharing in part about some of his recent work talking with CBF churches throughout North Carolina. He surveyed around 100 people from various churches – a mix of pastors, associate pastors, and laypeople – looking for themes and patterns in their answers to questions about what “Baptist” means at their churches. After he recorded all the responses, Seth found that across the range of these 91 people, when asked about what Baptist meant to them and to their churches, one word was used more than any other: “not.”
“We’re not like those other Baptists…” they’d say. Or, “We’re Baptist, but not like you’d expect.”
There are all kinds of ways. But in claiming our way, wouldn’t you like to move past the defensive to the affirmative? Wouldn’t you rather be defined by what we are, instead of what we’re not?
Among the affirmations we can make is the overwhelming, overarching commitment to freedom that defines us. We are freedom-lovers, freedom-givers, freedom-ensurers, and nowhere is this any more true than in our theme today: the historic Baptist commitment to religious freedom for all people. As much as anything else, Baptist can be proud and proactively affirming of our support for religious freedom, not only for ourselves, but for all.
In 1920, George W. Truett, legendary Baptist pastor, stood on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol, claiming that religious liberty was America’s chief contribution to civilization, and then going on to say, “Historic justice compels me to say that it was preeminently a Baptist contribution… freedom of conscience was from the first the trophy of the Baptists…”
Truett’s claim is supported by others, including William Lee Miller, historian at University of Virginia, who saw the Jeffersonians and the Baptists as the two chief movements that shaped church-state separation. (2)
British theologian, H. Wheeler Robinson, said that the Baptists are distinct for being “the first to claim and the first to apply fearlessly the unfettered principle of freedom for religion.” (3)
Or in the words of Baptist historian, Leon McBeth, “In no other area has Baptists’ witness proved clearer and more consistent than in their struggle for the right of persons to answer to God and not to government for religious beliefs and behavior.” (4)
Baptists, historically, have been the strongest of advocates for this freedom of religion and from religion. The freedom of the soul and of the conscience so foundational to Baptist identity means that the soul cannot be controlled by the external. The individual cannot be controlled by the institution. Autonomy is primary over authority. Commitment is valued more than collective conformity. And, at our best, Baptists have advocated and worked to ensure that this freedom be true for all people of faith, regardless of religion.
As Truett said in 1920, “Baptists make the contention not only for themselves, but as well for all others – for Protestants of all denominations, for [Roman Catholics], for Jews, for Quakers, for Turks, for Pagans, for all people everywhere.” It is religious freedom for us, and no less for all.
For us and for all. Because if it’s not for all, how can it be for us?
This freedom is rooted in the historical context of Baptist origins some 400 years ago, but it is a theme much more enduring, as we have found the source for our convictions in the Scriptures we read and interpret freely for ourselves.
We can see that there is not a place in Scripture where a coerced faith plays a role in God’s good purpose for Creation. Religious freedom begins scripturally with Genesis, as being made in God’s image is to be allowed choices and guided by free conscience. It’s a freedom found throughout the history of Israel, and echoed in the New Testament by Paul, who writes in Galatians, “For freedom, Christ has set us free… stand firm, therefore…” This freedom is heard in the call of Jesus, who does not compel or coerce, but calls out “Follow me,” as disciples follow him freely or not at all.
It’s the same freedom that is so powerfully claimed in our passage today, in Jesus’ assessment of the state. This passage in Matthew is the most oft-cited passage in reference to church-state separation as we understand it today. As George Truett once said, it’s “One of the most history-making utterances that ever fell from those divine lips…” This declaration: “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”
The Pharisees – the guardians of synagogue life – appear on the scene along with the Herodians, with a nationalist impulse tying them to the King. These authorities had already coalesced and been working to undermine the freedom flowing from the message of Jesus, forming a sort of church-state coalition that would ultimately conspire with the government and end in a Roman cross. But at this point, they hope their wits will do. They attempt to trick Jesus into either sounding like a full-blown supporter of Caesar that would lose his following of so many disenfranchised, or a treasonous tax-dodger who could be arrested on the spot.
But it turns out they are right about him, however patronizing they might have been in saying it. He does not show deference to anyone. He does not regard people with partiality, even the Emperor himself. “Look at the Roman coin. Whose face is on it? The Emperor’s. Then give him what is his, and give God what belongs to God!”
He doesn’t elaborate. There’s no speech or treatise. But with this proclamation Jesus clarified a very simple, basic principle: there are things that are Caesar’s, and there are things that are God’s, and we ought to keep them separated. It is as simple as the coins that jingled in their purses as they walked away.
Not a Caesar in Rome, nor a politician in Raleigh or Washington, nor preachers or leaders in any elevated position have any power over what we believe and how we practice our faith. Jesus said as much, setting a trajectory that would lead Christians ultimately to reform.
Because from the time of Constantine forward, a period of over 1,000 years, the followers of Christ seemed to forget some the freedom that defined the life of the Lord, and that his life ended for it, while 30 pieces of Caesar jingled in Judas’ purse.
From roughly 500 to 1500 A.D, much of Christianity in the West was part of a patriarchal culture dominated by top-down, hierarchical rule. As Baptist theologian Bill Hull has observed, “The monarch ruled the state, the pope ruled the church, and the father ruled the home.” (5)
500 years ago, in 1517 Martin Luther, building on the work of John Hus and John Wycliffe, shook the world when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, claiming that he valued his own personal understanding of the scriptures above the collective established understanding of the Church. Others such as a priest named Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and a lawyer, John Calvin, in Geneva followed Luther’s lead.
But within a generation, there was a group of still more radical reformers who didn’t think Luther and the others had gone far enough. To them, those original reformers had not carried their change to the point of freeing the church from its embrace by the state. Especially troubling was the fact that the early reformers retained the practice of infant baptism, which automatically admitted newborn citizens of their country into their churches, effectively leaving the state to determine Christian faith and commitment.
So these Believer’s Baptists weren’t reforming Catholicism, but intensifying Protestantism. In a sense, they were embracing continuous reform by reforming the Reformation itself.
Early Baptists were among those who separated, and even fled in some cases, wanting no part in what they perceived as state compulsion to belief. Among them were John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, with Helwys so committed to the notion of religious liberty that he wrote directly against the King, saying “Let the king not judge” anything related to faith and religion. “The King is a mortal man, and not God,” he wrote in The Mystery of Iniquity, “And therefore he hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them.” Helwys sent this to the king, encouraging that this freedom be extended to Christians and atheists alike. He was ultimately imprisoned for his perspective, dying in prison with his commitments.
But the spirit of religious freedom to which Helwys and others committed themselves spread across the Atlantic with those wondering what could be established in a land new to them. They arrived there, but they brought some of their problems with them. Some sought a new Israel, a Promised Land for a chosen people, a Christian nation preserved, endowed and guided by God.
But the Baptist Roger Williams was clear: there are no Christian nations. There are only Christian people united by Christ not by faith. Not by citizenship. Thrown out of Massachusetts Bay for his beliefs, he started a new colony with a new church: the First Baptist Church in America in Rhode Island in 1639. He founded it for people who were, in his terms, “distressed of conscience.”
It has ever been the foundation of why we’re Baptist: a belief in the primacy of conscience over establishment.
And it’s no less vital and important today, for we learn from our history that despite Jesus’ call to keep separate God and emperor, the forces seem magnetized and determined to connect in new ways. Like when we grant our much-touted religious liberty with reluctance when it applies to faith-based newcomers or outsiders. Or when we are tempted to take a cue from Constantine and live into the majority position. Or when we revert to an establishment position, and seek to legislate the things that are between the individual and God. There are still threats of covert alliances between state and church, and Herodians seem to appear even in places where freedom was once proclaimed.
There are competing definitions of what “religious freedom” means, for there are all kinds of ways to claim “religious freedom,” and all kinds of Baptists who do so. So as we claim it, in our particular way, we must recall that we are not the only ones here. We are not primary to any other tradition or privileged over any other religious claim. This freedom cannot be for us, unless it be for all. Religious freedom cannot simply act in service to the majority, but especially to the minority, the persecuted, the overlooked, the despised and the feared.
Lest we forget, you used to have to be a member of the state church to even be elected in office. But not any more.
In our own country, the state church of Massachusetts was supported with tax dollars until 1833. Not any more.
In Maryland non-Christians were not tolerated, and in revolutionary era Virginia, Baptist preachers were arrested for disturbing the peace.
In Quaker-controlled colonial Pennsylvania you had to be a Christian to hold office.
So we must not forget that we are not far from those places of establishment, where church and state can collude.
We must not forget that evangelism – the proclamation of good news boldly and vividly – works where there is religious liberty, and where people are free to believe and choose faith in Christ as a vivid and inspiring gospel amidst a pluralism that is itself a mark of freedom.
We must not forget that the Statue of Liberty does not say, “Give me your tired, poor Christians” but all of those yearning to be free.
So we must not forget that religious freedom should be placed alongside other civil rights guarantees on behalf of those who need it most, and never in service to discrimination or as a threat to basic rights for any.
As Christians, proclaiming a gospel of salvation for all, we surely want good news to spread everywhere, but we must not forget that we don’t ask for state support direct or implied to make it so.
When you believe something strongly and you’re in the majority, you have the option to be dominant to people who disagree with you. But we must not forget that’s not the best of who Baptists have been. We have been about freedom. It’s a religious freedom that is always threatening to those who would shape society into their own image, or want to see their face on the coin, or their name privileged in the letter of the law.
But we must not forget what Jesus said: There are things that belong to the Emperor and things that belong to God, and for the sake of a kingdom not of this world, the two should remain separate.
At our best, Baptists have not only remembered this, but proclaimed it boldly.
“The government has no more to do with the religious opinions of [people] than it has with the principles of mathematics.” These are the words of John Leland, one of the most inspiring voices for religious freedom in the 18th century. He was a Massachusetts Baptist, who started 9 churches in Virginia in the 1760s and 1770s. He was an outspoken opponent to church and state being one. He didn’t think the state should dictate who could do marriages, for instance. He didn’t think you should pay taxes to support the church. He opposed such alliances at every turn.
When the constitution came up for ratification in VA, Leland was vocally against it on the basis that there was no explicit provision for religious freedom. James Madison, who was in the same district as Leland, thought such freedom was implied, but Leland thought it needed to be outlined specifically.
Madison and Leland were both running to be a delegate to the ratification in the influential state of Virginia, and everyone knew that LeLand would not support the new constitution if elected. A Captain Smith sensed the mounting tension and wrote a letter to Madison. He said, essentially, “Come home. There’s a Baptist preacher badmouthing the constitution.”
The story goes that Madison heeded Smith’s advice, and came back home, where as his first stop he went by Leland’s house about midnight. They were seen walking out into an oak grove where, ostensibly, they discussed their differing views. Leland was unbending in his insistent that there must be an explicit provision for religious liberty.
We don’t know what was said. But we do know they met, as we also know that soon after their meeting, Leland withdrew his name from delegate election and supported James Madison, which many assume is because Madison promised him that as soon as the constitution was ratified, he would present a Bill of Rights, with the first amendment being a provision of religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
JM Dawson – the first executive director of the Baptist joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. – once said, “If you were to ask the researchers of the world who was responsible for the guarantee of religious liberty in the United States of America, the prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’ But if you were to ask James Madison this same question, he would quickly say, ‘John Leland and the Baptists…’”
May we be no less committed in these critical times, knowing, in sum, we’re not the only ones here. Freedom can only be for us, if it be for all. And “For freedom, Christ has set us free.” It’s a conviction we hold not in spite of the fact that we’re Baptist, but precisely because of it.
- Summarized by Walter Shurden in “How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State.”
- William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic, 83.
- Wheeler Robinson, The Life and Faith of the Baptists, 123.
- Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 252.
- William E. Hull, The Baptist Experience.
- Joseph Martin Dawson, Baptists and the American Republic, 117.
Hull, William E. The Meaning of the Baptist Experience. Baptist History & Heritage Society, 2008.
Leonard, Bill J. Baptist Ways: A History. Judson Press, 2003.
Parry, Pam. On Guard for Religious Liberty. Smyth & Helwys, 1996.
________. An Introduction to Baptist Principles. Baptist History & Heritage Society, 2005.
Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Smyth & Helwys, 1993.