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Church and State

Religious liberty consists of the civil magistrate's comprehending and acknowledging that it has no rightful authority over a man's soul. A proper understanding of religious liberty requires the civil authority to understand that a man's religious beliefs are beyond the purview of the state. Consequently, the state authority does not merely tolerate religious beliefs and activity, nor can it grant the right of religious freedom. All that the state can do legitimately is to acknowledge man's inherent God-given right to worship God in his own way, as well as the right not to worship at all.

One of the great Baptist gifts to the Reformation Heritage is a full awareness that for individual believer priests (1 Peter 2:5), (1 Peter 2:9) ) to "work out" their "own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) they must be unhindered by governmental interference.

Early in the seventeenth century the great English Baptist, Thomas Helwys, penned the first published plea in the English language for religious liberty in his A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity when he declared in 1612 that the King of England was a mere man and had no authority over men's souls "for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves."

In New England, Roger Williams took up the plea for religious liberty which led to the establishment of a colony, Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island), where men enjoyed complete religious liberty. The Baptist concept of religious liberty was buttressed and fortified by a deep-seated belief in the New Testament, with its lack of church-state entanglement, rather than the Old Testament, as the manual for faith and practice in the New Covenant of Christ and His Church.

The commitment to religious liberty and the consequent belief in the separation of church and state need not, however, imply that religious views should not inform political issues. Religious liberty requires an absolute separation of the institutions of the church and the state. However, the biblical dictums concerning the Christian's obligation to support civil magistry (Luke 20:25): (Romans 13:1-7) guarantee the absolute inseparability of religious values and political issues. The Christian not only has the right, but also the duty to bring his or her religious convictions to bear upon the political issues of the day. Religious liberty means freedom for religion, not freedom from exposure to religious activities. To argue that a person's views are disqualified from the political and social arena because they are based on religious convictions is not state neutrality, but government censorship.

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