The right of every American to worship without government interference is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and Southern Baptist leaders want it to stay that way. Baptist statesmen in the late 18th century led the fight to ensure that religious liberty – often referred to as “the First Freedom” – was secured for American citizens. Sadly, the meaning and enforcement of religious liberty, particularly in American courts over the past 50 years, has become complex, nuanced, often confusing, and frequently government favoring.
A recent case in Texas highlights this problem. Before joining CrossLand Community Bible Church, a non-denominational, evangelical church in Fort Worth, Peggy Lee Penley signed a membership covenant. This was required of all adults who desired church membership. In it, she expressly agreed to submit to biblical church discipline. Penley apparently later engaged in an adulterous relationship. The church’s pastor, C.L. Westbrook, followed principles of biblical church discipline, seeking her repentance and restoration, but without success.
As a last resort, Pastor Westbrook wrote a letter to the congregation removing Penley from church fellowship, citing unrepentant adultery as the reason. On the basis of that letter, Penley sued the pastor for defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and negligence. The trial court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals of Texas, however, reversed the trial court and declared that Penley could proceed to trial.
Last fall, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments in the pastor’s appeal in the case captioned Penley v. Westbrook. The religious liberty issue before the Texas Supreme Court is whether the trial court (i.e. the government), due to the First Amendment, has any jurisdiction over how a church practices biblical church discipline. A decision is still pending.
“First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty,” is a timely collection of essays published by B&H Academic reminding Baptists of the importance of religious liberty. It is the first volume of compiled essays from the annual Baptist Distinctives Conference held each fall on the Fort Worth campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1851, English Baptist historian E.B. Underhill famously stated in his volume on religious liberty, “[B]aptists became the first and only propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty. For this they suffered and died. . . . We honor them.” Following in Underhill’s footsteps, scholars from Southwestern Seminary have compiled and co-edited “First Freedom.” According to the introduction, the volume was assembled “to edify and encourage local churches, their pastors, and citizens at large in their understanding of . . . the gift of religious liberty.”
Co-editor Malcolm B. Yarnell III, assistant dean for theological studies at Southwestern Seminary, asserted that the struggle for religious liberty is intimately connected to Baptist identity. “It was among the baptizing churches that the conception of universal religious liberty arose,” he said. “Yet religious liberty is historically insecure without our constant diligence. This book provides the opportunity for today’s leading Southern Baptists to indicate our deep commitment to defending religious liberty.”
Thomas White, vice president for student services at Southwestern Seminary and co-editor, agreed. “We must support and defend these beliefs establishing a free marketplace of ideas where the exclusivity of Christ can be claimed without fear of coercion or accusation of treason. I am proud to follow in the footsteps of my Baptist forefathers who also defended these beliefs.”
Besides White and Yarnell, contributors to the book include a variety of conservative leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention:
--Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, portrays the historical events that led to establishment of religious liberty at the founding of America.
--Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research and director of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, provides a doctrinal perspective that gives definition to the doctrine of religious liberty.
--The Honorable Paul Pressler, former member of the Texas legislature, judge of the 133rd district court, and justice for the 14th court of appeals, provides a personal perspective of the preservation of religious liberty in the judiciary in America.
--Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., examines the state of religious liberty in contemporary culture.
--Daniel R. Heimbach, professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., discusses the difference between religious liberty and religious autonomy.
--Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, seeks to answer whether the belief in religious liberty and exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ are mutually exclusive or biblically harmonious.
--Emir F. Caner, dean of the College at Southwestern, examines whether or not religious liberty can be created in Islamic countries.
--Craig Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Seminary, discusses the universal nature of religious liberty as it relates to the concept of natural law.
Jason G. Duesing, chief of staff in the Office of the President at Southwestern Seminary served as the third co-editor and authored the volume’s introduction. He explained that one of the purposes of this collection of essays is to remind “Baptists in the 21st century of the price that was paid by their forefathers for the establishment and defense of religious liberty.”
“To be sure, there were people of various religious and denominational preferences that Providence used to implement the religious freedoms now enjoyed by all,” Duesing wrote. “But for Baptists to overlook the contribution of their own would be a travesty. May those who read this volume not only honor [our Baptist forefathers] but also the Creator who made them, redeemed them, and gave them hearts to establish the first freedom.”
“First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty” is available online at www.LifeWayStores.com.