Should Southern Baptists defend religious liberty?

In January a preacher, known well to Southern Baptists, argued that we should not. He said, “Religious freedom is what sends people to hell. To say I support religious freedom is to say I support idolatry. It’s to say I support lies. I support hell. I support the kingdom of darkness.”

But that preacher is not our authority. The Bible is. And in a familiar passage, the Bible says:

I am the LORD your God.

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.

It appears the Lord does not tolerate religious liberty. So then, should we?

Southern Baptists wrestle with this question. Some have opposed religious liberty for other faiths. We have argued over legal briefs, construction permits, and cemeteries—right here in Texas. Some Southern Baptists dismiss these questions as if the answer were obvious.

Andrew Walker does not dismiss them. In his new book, Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age, Walker confronts them with biblical arguments.

Now, I am not talking about straightforward prooftexts. Instead, Walker builds a sophisticated case, grounded in biblical-theological themes—specifically, eschatology, anthropology, and missiology. I will tip my hand. You should read this book, especially if you do not like defending religious liberty for non-Christian faiths. Now, the book distills Walker’s doctoral dissertation, so it is understandably dense. Read slowly and reflectively, and it will reward you.

I can offer only the briefest summary of those biblical-theological themes. The eschatological theme examines limits to the authority of human government. “By giving judgment to Christ alone at the end of history, Christians can allow for wrong belief. This is not out of indifference but because Christianity believes that judging, ending, and redressing all wrong belief cannot be achieved fully either in the present era or by human hands” (77).

The anthropological theme affirms that all human beings are made in God’s image. So “all humans are made to know God. Everyone, however, must reach this destiny of their own accord with the freedom they possess as an image bearer” (141). Religious liberty creates space for humans to act as God designed—free moral agents, not sub-human droids.

In the missiological theme, Walker means to convince us that “a government that refuses to totalize its jurisdiction and works within its limited confines is acting justly…. [A] limited state is…a faithful steward of the authority that derives from God” (153).

To summarize, Christians should advocate for religious liberty because God designed human beings created in his image to respond without human compulsion. Government in this age ought to punish evil actions, but never an evil heart. Except for Israel under the Old Covenant, God has never authorized government to rule the conscience. Scripture affirms that the Old Covenant is obsolete. Only theocracies are authorized by God to compel worship. America is not that.

Notice, this is a limited government argument. Christians believe that God reigns over human government. Human government only possesses authority that God directly grants. Walker’s exegesis reveals that God has not given human government power to restrict religious worship—even when humans worship in ways God will one day judge.

Several years ago, a messenger at the SBC annual meeting asked a leader, “Do you actually believe that if Jesus Christ were here today that he would…stand up and say, ‘Well, let us protect the rights of those Baal worshipers to build temples to Baal.’” We have encouraging news: One day Jesus Christ will be here. He will level every temple to every false god, down to the last pebble. But we await that day. We have no right to claim authority that belongs to Jesus Christ alone.

You will not agree with every facet of Walker’s argument. This review does not allow space for detailed analysis. Nor does it allow us to hear from diverse Southern Baptist theologians and ethicists Walker cites to reinforce his case—Barrett Duke, Jonathan Leeman, Carl F.H. Henry, Daniel Heimbach, Evan Lenow, Al Mohler, Jason Duesing, and Paige Patterson. And this is different from the common-sense case we often hear: Christians should defend religious liberty for all, or we will inevitably lose our own. That is a fine argument. But Walker’s is bigger. It is more thorough. And it is more biblical.

Walker’s guidance to us springs from hope in the omnipotence of our glorious Lord. “For a Christian, religious liberty expresses confidence in the gospel. The gospel needs no accomplices. It is independent from artificial supports that would attempt to bolster its credibility. The gospel needs not the bejeweled trappings of salesmanship or a sword-drawn threat” (161). Let us give thanks for religious liberty, let us never trust in it, and under the Golden Rule let us grant to others what we desire for ourselves.

Ben Wright
Cedar Pointe Baptist Church
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