Our Fragile Freedom

This sermon was preached at St. Andrews Baptist Church, Columbia, SC on 3 July 2011.

If I were to ask each of you the difference between baptists and methodists or presbyterians how many of you would be confident in the answer you could give?

When you compare the various protestant denominations you find that any theological differences are minute and that there really aren’t very many doctrinal differences either. Sure one denomination may stress the free choice of humans a bit more than the sovereignty of God or vice versa but there simply are not very many substantive differences between us. The natural question, then, is why are we baptists and not some other denomination?

For most of us it is because we grew up in a family that went to a baptist church and when we began making that decision for ourselves we went where we felt comfortable. Most of us have tackled the question of why we are Christian but I doubt very many of us have seriously asked why we are baptist. This morning I want to take these few moments that we have together to ask ourselves what makes us baptist and what that should mean for how we live out our faith.

Matthew 22:15-22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

So, what makes us baptist? A few years ago I began asking myself that very question. I grew up in a fundamentalist baptist church and took on that identity early in life, but as I got older and began to ask questions and look at things from a different perspective I realized that I didn’t line up with just about anything that that church stood for. I differed from them on many theological and doctrinal points as well as many social issues. So I began to consider other denominations, specifically ones with which I lined up better on social issues since, as I said before, the theological differences are minute. But the more I looked at non-baptist churches I realized just how baptist I really was; not in the fundamental and judgmental way that I was previously, but in the ways that lined up with historic baptist principles.

The main principle that baptists have historically championed is freedom. This principle resonated with me, partly because I don’t like anyone telling me what to do and partly because it seemed like the best way to be the people of God. There are four main freedoms that baptists have historically stood for: soul freedom, bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom. These are what I would call baptist distinctives. It is our focus on the freedoms of individuals, churches, and others that makes us uniquely baptist.

I am going to focus only on religious freedom this morning because I believe the example of Jesus and our unique baptist heritage have important implications for this aspect of our faith, which I believe is in danger of becoming extinct.

When Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes he gave a simple but profound answer:

Matthew: 22:19-21: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The message from Jesus was clear: government must not be involved in religion and religion must not be involved in government. The first part of that clause is usually easy for people to grasp, for no one wants the government involved in their religion. We do not want the government telling us when we can worship, where we can worship, how we should worship, or whom we should worship. In this day in age where many Americans want the government less and less involved in their lives in general it is not difficult for them to accept the message of Jesus that the government must not be involved in religion.

It is the second aspect of that clause though – that religion must not be involved in government – that many find difficult to accept. Our faith holds great importance in our lives and influences how we perceive situations, how we respond, and how we prioritize. Why, then, would we not want our Christian values influencing the way our government is run? Surely Jesus didn’t mean that our faith shouldn’t affect how government is run, some will say. But we must look at what the text says and not what we wish the text said.

The question to Jesus was, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” He was being asked this question as a religious leader and he was expected to respond as a religious leader. They were asking Jesus, the religious leader, to weigh in on the appropriate practices of the government. They were asking Jesus to involve religion in government, but Jesus would not fall for the trap. Jesus instead advocates a separation of religion and government. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

History has shown us that nothing positive ever comes from the mixing of religion and government. The Catholic church had almost absolute power for centuries over civil governments because there was no separation between religion and government. Some Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria that mix religion and government have become oppressive to numerous groups within their societies because religion is influencing, and in large part controlling, the government. The story is different in our country, though. We have a separation of church and state built on the First Amendment to our Constitution that forbids the government from “making [any] law respecting an establishment of religion” “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is, our government cannot do anything to favor one religion over another and neither can it prohibit anyone from practicing his/her religion.

There are some today who would have you believe that America was founded as a Christian nation and should become one again. But that is a blatant rewriting of the history of this country and pushes toward an end that I believe is wholly against what God desires not only for us as Christians, but for all people. Furthermore, we as baptists have a responsibility to fight for this fragile freedom that we have, for it is our ancestors who fought so hard to give us this freedom in the first place. Baptists like Roger Williams and John Leland laid the foundations for the religious freedom that we enjoy, and often take for granted, today.

Williams, one of the founders of Rhode Island and a Baptist minister, said in “A Plea for Religious Liberty:

God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

Leland, a baptist minister in Massachusetts and Virginia, said that “the notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever.”

In 1779 Thomas Jefferson even wrote in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that:

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Our baptist predecessors and others of the founding fathers were aware of the dangers of letting religion and government to be intertwined for they had suffered persecution by the state and the church because of their stance on religious liberty, but in the end their view won the day.

“The theocratic experiment of John Cotton and the New England Puritans,” however” lost out in the constitutional debate. Americans do not have a Christian nation in any legal sense.” To be sure, many in our country are very religious. In just about every poll nearly 3/4 of the American population identify as Christian, but the fact of the matter is that “we have a constitutional democracy dedicated to real religious liberty for everyone, not just Christians” (Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, Religious Liberty Council Issue Guide: Advocating Religious Liberty in the Public Square, 2.).

You see, we cannot simply fight for religious freedom for ourselves and no one else, for that would not be true freedom. It is precisely this religious freedom that allows us to worship freely, without fear of government interaction and retribution – just like we are doing today. Further, it is an unjust and an unethical people that think they deserve a certain freedom that others do not. When we claim that America is a Christian nation or that Christianity should be the state religion or assert that only Christians should hold public office we are rewriting history, forsaking our baptist heritage, and “consigning all who profess a different faith or no faith at all to second-class citizenship” (ibid.).

Neither the facts of history, the genius of our Constitution, nor the principle of Christian charity will allow such a view to stand.

Freedom, though, is not just a baptist distinctive, it is at the very core of who we are as Christians. Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 5:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (5:1).

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:13-14).

Freedom, as Paul frames it here, has two facets. The first is what you are free from. Paul’s specific argument in Galatians was about circumcision and how closely gentile converts had to follow the law. Paul was asserting that gentile converts were free from the burden of the law. The second facet of the freedom about which Paul speaks is what the gentiles were free for. That is, gentiles, because of this freedom which they possessed, were free to love one another just as they love themselves. Paul joins Jesus in referencing the Shema as the greatest commandment and in recognizing that the natural by-product of the freedom that the people of God have is love for God and love for others. Our freedom is not to be used as “an opportunity for self-indulgence,” but rather as an opportunity to lovingly serve others.

Just as we do not want religion pushed on us, we should not push religion on anyone else. As baptists we know better than most that authentic worship of God can only happen when an individual has made the conscious decision to worship God. As one baptist said, “If faith is to be valid, it must be voluntary” (Walter B. Shurden, “How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State” in Walter B. Shurden, ed., Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. (Macon, GA), 22.).

This is nothing new to us as baptists. We have long celebrated the individual’s freedom to choose God or not to choose God. Going all the way back to our reading of Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’”

From the beginning God, the creator, gave those persons created in the divine image a choice to worship or reject the very One who gave them life. The Bible is full of stories of people who reject God. To turn their backs on God was their choice, a choice that God never, even in the gravest circumstances, denied (Carolyn DeArmond Blevins, “Freedom is a State of Mind” in Walter B. Shurden, ed., Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. (Macon, GA), 46.).

George Truett was a Texas baptist preacher in the early 1900s and it was after him that the divinity school at Baylor University was named. Here is how he understood the baptist conviction of religious liberty:

…it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of conscience, and, as long as one does not infringe upon the rights of others, one is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. . . . It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel people to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not belong and in whose creed they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind (George W. Truett, “Baptists and Religious Liberty” in Walter B. Shurden, ed., Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. (Macon, GA), 63.).

So then, what are the implications of this for how we should live out our faith in the context of our current conversation about the baptist heritage of fighting for and supporting religious freedom and our text from Matthew 22 in which Jesus advocates for keeping government and religion separated? It means that we celebrate the fullest meaning of religious liberty: freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. It means that we reevaluate how intimately tied we allow our faith and our national pride to get. It means that we continue to fight for everyone to have the same freedoms we desire and enjoy and that we work to make sure no religion, even if it is our own, is privileged over another. We as Christians are called to love, not to denigrate; we are called to work for peace, not hate; and we are called to fight for the equality of everyone.

All of this does not mean that we cannot take pride in our country or that we cannot celebrate and honor our public and military servants. We can and should do that and we have national holidays designed to do just that. This does not mean that we can’t say, “God bless America,” though I think it does mean that we should perhaps think a little before we say that and, on the one hand, realize just how much God has blessed this country and, on the other hand, start asking God to bless all countries and all people.

I know this message is counter-cultural and it goes against the deep-seated links that most of us who have grown up Christian in the south have between our faith and our country. This should not surprise us, though. For the very life and message of Jesus were counter-cultural.

Please do not hear this as any sort of lack of national pride or patriotism. My maternal grandfather served in the Korean War, my paternal grandfather served in World War II, and my brother served in the Air National Guard. On top of that, I have had the paperwork filled out to enlist and have opted out for various reasons. I am very proud to be an American and cannot say enough about the bravery, valor, and sacrifices that our country’s military personnel and their families make.

Also, please do not see this as a political message. My message today is almost never the politically-correct thing to say and my experience has taught me that it is even more politically incorrect in our Christian sub-culture. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is our heritage as baptists and it is who we are supposed to be as Christians.

We are Americans, but first and foremost we are the people of God. And if we are to fully be the people of God and if we are going to protect our fragile freedom, then we are to live out the Golden Rule, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are to fight for true freedom and true equality for others just as we do for ourselves, and we are to hold firmly to our Christian convictions that everyone, everywhere is a child of God and deserves to be treated equally with respect, dignity, and love.

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One thought on “Our Fragile Freedom

  1. Wonderfully written, powerful and thought provoking. I am proud of you son, it is great to have such a heart warming yet heart wrenching topic as this; you make us all accountable and require us to think deeply. Just what we need!

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