What is the Baptist approach to public issues? We all know there isn’t one—there are many perspectives!
The joke that wherever there are three Baptists there are four opinions may reflect on our notorious disunity. But it also points to a dearly-held Baptist distinctive, the freedom of conscience.
Here’s one Baptist’s opinion on some principles we ought to bring to public issues.
The commonwealth of God
God’s desire is for all to live in a new order of relationships as a result of being transformed by Jesus Christ. So we must engage with public issues. God’s new order is not just ‘vertical’ but ‘horizontal’ in scope.
God is a God of justice and mercy, valuing every person infinitely. God expects us to treat others fairly but also forgives those who repent. This restorative justice balances judgement and grace. It calls us, in our engagement with public issues, to discern when to punish evil and when to show mercy.
Defending the poor and weak
Justice involves actively taking the side of those who will be crushed by the powerful. It is not biased—that is, it is fair—but it does take sides.
We follow the man who called us to love our enemies. We Baptists like to think we are returning to New Testament Christianity, but so far few of us have taken up the non-violent call of Jesus. We are also called to pursue reconciliation as a way of life. In Australia the central issue in this regard is that of indigenous reconciliation.
The first Baptists in 17th century England suffered under state religion and lived and died for religious freedom. I hope Baptists today don’t forget this. I hope that even when we disagree with others we will fight for their right to believe what they do. Some Christians are talking these days as if Muslims have no right to practise their religion in Australia—but we Baptists can never take this line and be true to our heritage.
We must remember that, combined with the early Baptists’ freedom of conscience was a strong commitment to discern the will of God together as a congregation.
Separation of church and state
Related to freedom of religion is the Baptist belief that the state should not interfere with the way we practise our faith. In order to remain free, we may find we need to turn down government support for our schools or welfare programs.
This does not mean, however, that we don’t engage in public issues. Baptist churches, their state unions and the Baptist Union of Australia ought to hammer out the policies we believe flow from our Christian commitment. And then we ought to argue our case in the marketplace of ideas.
We will be most effective when we are united as Baptists or, even better, as Christians, or even better again, alongside citizens of goodwill.
So Baptists differ from their historical cousins, the Anabaptists, who tried to withdraw from society. Like the Evangelicals of 19th century England, along with our enthusiasm for evangelism we have a history of social engagement as well.
I’ll be delighted if other Baptists share this position, but I also welcome some good old Baptist debate on it.