The Four Fragile Freedoms of Baptist Spirituality
In the past few months, I’ve tried my best to condense into a couple of articles the rich, detailed, and complex history of the Baptist movement in England and America. I’m not sure I’ve done the project justice, but there are numerous volumes about Baptist history on the internet or from Baptist publishers. While there are resources readily available, one has clarified the issues for me far better and in a more succinct fashion than any other. Dr. Walter Shurden, executive director for the Center for Baptist Studies has written an invaluable book, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, that every Baptist should have in their personal library. In it, Shurden outlines four freedoms that we, as Baptists, take for granted. We will begin looking at these issues in brief in the coming months: 1) Bible Freedom, 2) Soul Freedom, 3) Church Freedom, and 4) Religious Freedom.
Bible Freedom is the most basic freedom for Baptists and is defined as the right of the individual believer to interpret Scriptures for herself without the interference of church authorities, institutional hierarchies, or biblical hyper-literalists. For Baptists and other denominations, the Bible has been the final authority for most Christians’ faith and practice since the Reformation. It is the one privilege Baptists have historically insisted upon as the basis for their efforts at Church reform. But once again we must guard against extremes and temper all interpretations with the witness of other Christians throughout history.
Soul Freedom is probably the most fragile of freedoms facing Christians today. Those claiming authority over interpretation of the Scriptures have always formed creeds that they expected all Christians adhere to, sometimes under pain of severe penalty and even death. Sometimes we simply cannot adhere to creeds formulated by others either because the Spirit is confirming another path or because of faulty interpretations of Scripture. When our conscience becomes convicted by the Holy Spirit, we are then waging a battle for soul freedom. Without the freedom to formulate our own beliefs, we are severely curtailing the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives and giving undue power to leaders.
Church freedom is the right of each church, under the Lordship of Christ, to ordain its own ministers and to decide its own structure, order of worship, and membership requirements. Churches are also free to participate in larger associations in order to further the work of Christ’s kingdom. Most major battles in church history have been fought over the concept of church freedom, even going so far as to split the church over the issue of music in worship! The most notorious split was the Great Schism of 1054 when the Roman bishop, opposed by the Patriarch of the Eastern Church, set himself above all other bishops because of the interpretation of a clause in the Nicene Creed, churches have fought over structure and leadership ever since.
Religious Freedom is the right of individual Christians and, ultimately, all people of faith, to worship without the dictates or intervention of the state or state-sanctioned religion. Religious freedom must be fought for regardless of whether we agree with another’s religion or not, because when we limit another’s religious freedom, we limit our own. History has proven that limiting or directing faith by force through existing governments or church hierarchies has given birth to some of the darkest periods in church history. Mixing religion and politics never works. Therefore, theocracy and religious freedom are mutually exclusive concepts. Theocracy should never be encouraged because of the human tendency to lord it over others unfairly.
There are many more resources available to Baptists to begin their own study of the history and spirituality of our denomination. To get you started, I encourage you, if you are online, to go to http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/certificate/ index.htm and begin your own course of study. On the web site you will also find numerous links and resources to further your study. Judson Press, the American Baptist publishing organization also may be contacted for resources. May God bless you on your journey and thank you for indulging my passion for reading and research.
“…For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience?” 1 Corinthians 10:29b