Uphold religious liberty for all, Baptists urge

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By Marilyn Stewart

NEW ORLEANS — Calling for Baptists to remember their roots as a “jailhouse religion,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Christians must be willing to be marginalized and offended for the sake of the Gospel.

The remarks came at Baptist Voices: Left, Right and Center, a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square that brought together Baptists from varied perspectives to discuss challenges to religious liberty around the world. Speakers included Moore, Gregory Komendant, Ukrainian Baptist statesman; J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and others.

Throughout history Christian leaders often found themselves on the “wrong side” of economic and political authorities for the Gospel’s sake, Moore said. He urged believers to “maintain a witness to religious liberty” and to remember what it means to “be a people of the jailhouse.”

Just as Paul and Silas chose to stay and share the Gospel with the Philippian jailer after God opened the prison doors with an earthquake, Christians must be prepared to give up rights so the Gospel can move forward, Moore said.

“This is why Baptists are committed to religious liberty. Because of how we believe the Gospel works,” Moore said. “The Gospel works by the addressing of the conscience person by person where individual people are made right with God and then brought into the community and into the people of God.”

Because salvation comes when the Holy Spirit convicts and changes the heart, Christians cannot rely on political or economic circumstances to advance the Gospel, Moore said.

“State power or economic power or community pressure can never turn people into Christians,” Moore said. “It can only make fake Christians.”

Moore distinguished between actions that offend believers and true persecution and warned Baptists against becoming an interest group that lashes out at those who ridicule the faith. In Acts 16 Paul demanded an apology from the magistrates not because he was offended for being mistreated as a Roman citizen, but for the religious rights of believers that would remain on in Philippi after he was gone, Moore said.

The Gospel compels believers to stand up for the religious freedom of all because freedom of conscience is precisely the environment where the Gospel will flourish, Moore said.

“We must be willing to be offended; we must be willing to be marginalized for the sake of the Gospel because we know that the Gospel has to go forward and often that is going to mean giving up our rights in many circumstances,” Moore said.

Christians are not Americans first, Moore noted. Believers are members of the global body of Christ, first, and must teach their children that the state has no authority over conscience and that the local church is an embassy of the kingdom of God, he said.

“I feel I have two callings,” Moore said. “One is to keep us out of jail and the other is make sure we’re willing to go to jail because there’s one thing worse than jail and that’s having a faith too safe to jail.”

Religious liberty abroad: Ukraine

Gregory Komendant, who serves at Kiev Theological Seminary and is the former leader of the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists, told the crowd his grandfather died in prison under the Stalin regime for allowing Christians to worship in his home. Komendant was baptized at night because daytime baptisms were forbidden, he said.

“It was a difficult time, but God was at work,” Komendant said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Komendant, said Jesus’ words through the apostle John in Revelation brought comfort: “‘Don’t be afraid. I have suffered … I hold churches, pastors and history in my hand.'”

During Stalin’s regime, “God was excluded from conversation” and churches were allowed to meet only in homes, Komendant said. Later, schoolteachers were placed at church doors to prevent children from entering, he added.

Komendant, who led the work of Baptists in the former Soviet Union, said that after Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow and meeting with Gorbachev two decades ago, doors opened for the Gospel and seminaries were founded. In the last decade, the Ukrainian Bible Society has distributed 10 million Bibles.

“We were once in prison, now we have the opportunity to share Jesus in prison,” Komendant said of Ukraine’s religious freedom.

Komendant said the Ukrainian Bible Society recently received a substantial order for waterproof Bibles for the military. He noted, “In Ukraine, we have perhaps more freedom for Christianity than even you have in the United States.”

At one time, Khruschev boasted that “the last Baptist” would be paraded out on television for all to see, Komendant said. He concluded that instead, “Khruschev is dead. Baptists are preaching on TV.”

A tie that unifies Baptists

The forum was a unique in the fact that it brought together Baptists from inside and outside the SBC to discuss this shared Baptist value.

“Religious Liberty has been a common thread throughout Baptist life since the very beginning,” said Lloyd Harsch, director. “We sometimes disagree on how to apply religious liberty in a particular context, but the idea itself has been a unifying tenet of Baptist life.”

  1. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, examined the state of religious freedom in America in light of the three clauses guaranteeing religious liberty in the First Amendment. Walker noted recent Supreme Court rulings and concluded that the “free exercise clause” and “church autonomy clause” have been upheld consistently. “We are doing well,” Walker said in regards to these tenets.

But in regards to the “no establishment clause,” whereby the government cannot advance or favor religion, Walker concluded the nation is doing “terribly and is losing ground.”

Walker cited the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the Town of Greece v. Galloway that upheld that the New York town’s practice of opening board meetings with prayer did not violate the no establishment clause. Walker said the Baptist Joint Committee viewed prayer in that context to be “impermissibly coercive to require those folks to undergo or to experience and participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise as a ticket to exercise and perform their civic responsibilities.”

Walker distinguished the case from that of the U. S. Congress opening in prayer, noting that the public is seated as observers of Congress rather than participants.

Suzii Paynter said religious liberty is not a fragile principle and encouraged listeners to practice liberty of conscience and engage others in conversation about the subject.

“God will use that conversation,” Paynter said. “The public square needs to hear the deliberative thoughts of religious liberty-conscious people.”

Other speakers included Mike Edens, NOBTS professor of Islamic studies; William Brackney, Acadia Divinity College, Canada; and Kenneth McDowell, Union Baptist College and Theological Seminary, New Orleans.

The lectures are available online at www.faith-publicsquare.org /past-events.html.