by Matthew Y. Emerson
Is there a Baptist contribution to political theology? Yes. And it should be called, “Baptist Prophetic Witness.”
In an essay I recently presented at the ERLC Research Institute, I referred to three common points of political theology among early Baptists: the affirmation of government as divinely instituted and empowered, the need for government to provide religious liberty for all, and the obligation of Christians to dissent from governmental participation and subjection if and when a particular government acts immorally. Here I want to provide three coordinating points—historical, biblical, and theological—for this argument that will provide a more robust Baptist political theology than was possible in that necessarily attenuated and narrow essay (which will be published in a volume edited by Andrew Walker in due course, I hope).
First, I mention some historical observations. Baptist political theology has remained remarkably consistent. Its only rivals for consistency in terms of Baptist distinctives are local church autonomy and credobaptism. Virtually every other area of Baptist thought has seen shifts in positions held, from single pastor models v. plurality of elders to Calvinism v. non-Calvinism to associationalism v. landmarkism to revivalist worship v. more traditional liturgical forms. We could go on. But credobaptism, local church autonomy, and Baptist political theology have remained consistent. Regarding the latter, the three elements evidenced in early English Baptist life are also found in a variety of other periods of Baptist life, although with different levels of emphasis.
As I mentioned in a footnote at the end of my essay, American Baptists by necessity had to emphasize almost exclusively arguments regarding religious liberty. Perhaps this is due on the one hand to their persecuted context, and context they shared with English Baptists, in conjunction with the comparatively minor presence of Anabaptists in the Colonies. Whereas seventeenth century English Baptists had to articulate their political theology while fighting on two fronts – making sure they weren’t mistaken for Anabaptists on one side and arguing for religious liberty on the other—early American Baptists only had to fight regarding the latter. But that does not mean that American Baptists, or subsequent global Baptist movements, argued that government was not ordained by God or should be eschewed entirely. Far from it. Because of this consistency, credobaptism, local church autonomy, and Baptist political theology should be seen as the primary markers of Baptist identity and practice.
Of course, we need to say at this point that Baptist political theology is a marker of Baptist identity and practice ultimately because it is biblical. Baptists are a “people of the book,” and because of our primary commitment to sola scriptura we functioned during the Reformation and still do now as, to quote Nathan Finn, a “restorationist movement within the Reformation.” In the area of political theology, early Baptists and their heirs have employed a common set of biblical texts to support their doctrinal positions. Regarding the divine institution of government, Romans 13:1-4 is often employed. But it is usually closely followed, especially in the confessions surveyed in my essay, by 2 Pet. 2:13-14. These two texts coordinate the Baptist affirmation that government is divinely instituted and therefore to be obeyed and prayed for, with its insistence that government should be resisted if it behaves in immoral fashion. We could also mention with respect to the latter texts like Revelation 17–18, where the Seer’s cry to the church to “Come out, come out of her, my people!” is in reference to the political and economic oppression of Rome.
The biblical mandate for the church’s political theology is prophetic—promoting the good to the government and decrying the evil of the government. The third aspect of Baptist political theology, religious liberty for all, is related to these first two biblical affirmations of the church’s witness. It is good for the government to allow persons and churches to believe and practice freely, since every individual stands accountable before the Lord on their own. And it is evil for government to require particular religious beliefs or practices, since only Christ is Lord of the Conscience.
This brings us to the third coordinating point of Baptist political theology, the properly dogmatic location of our tradition’s thought. We need to mention first that religious liberty and its constitutional corollary, the separation of church and state, are rooted in a fundamental Baptist theological principle, namely freedom of conscience. This is actually true of all three Baptist distinctives; credobaptism affirms liberty of conscience with respect to personal conversion, local church autonomy affirms liberty of conscience with respect to congregational polity, and religious liberty and its constitutional corollary, separation of church and state, affirm liberty of conscience with respect to both the individual’s and the church’s relation to the state.
Second, regarding theological method, early Baptists, and indeed many subsequent Baptists did not hold to a naïve “no creed but the Bible” aberration of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Instead, their confessions, including the affirmation of government as ordained by God, were rooted in the Christian tradition and reflective of other Christian confessions of the era. The idea that Baptist theology must reject any sense of tradition in order to be truly Baptist is rooted in revisionist history and a defective theology of tradition rather than in Reformation principles, Baptist identity, and biblical teaching, and this is no less true in the area of political theology. Early Baptists were dependent upon the Christian tradition for their affirmations of government’s divine institution and role to promote the good and defend against evil, and so in this sense they exhibited a catholic spirit in their reception of the tradition. But Baptist thought regarding religious liberty and the separation of church and state has also influenced other traditions. This is true in Protestantism and, incredibly, even in Roman Catholic thought, which up until their interactions with China last week could hardly be called Erastian in any meaningful sense in most aspects of its global presence. Baptist political theology is thus also catholic in its persuasion of other Christian traditions to its position, especially with respect to religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
Baptist Prophetic Witness
This brings us back to our opening statement—there is a Baptist contribution to political theology, and it should be called “Baptist Prophetic Witness.” I use this term to draw our attention back to the Bible, and especially to the OT prophets and their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ as described in the fourfold Gospel corpus. We could summarize the OT prophets’ work as promoting the good, decrying evil, and working against injustice, all in a political mode. That is, their messages were directed not to isolated individuals but to the king, the representative of the people and the one responsible for enacting their laws, and to the corporate people of God. When the prophets promoted the good, they did so with political mechanisms and structures in mind—precisely because God’s Law for Israel had those same mechanisms and structures in mind in its stipulations. When the prophets decried evil, they did so because the king and/or his people had transgressed God’s Law for the nation of Israel. And when the prophets worked against injustice, they did so by calling out corrupt political machinations and structures. In short, they called for individual repentance in a corporate context, and so individual repentance included addressing systemic injustices, promoting the good through political systems, and decrying the evil perpetrated by individuals in those systems.
In the Gospels, Jesus does the same, as do his disciples. One only has to think of John the Baptist’s confrontation of Herod or Jesus’ critiques of the Sanhedrin to realize that the last of the prophets and Israel’s Messiah did not eschew their forbearers’ political prophetic voice but fulfilled it. They continued to promote the good by caring for the oppressed, the poor, and the prisoner. They continued to decry evil in their leaders. And they continued to work against systemic injustice. What else would we call Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple or his woes to the scribes and Pharisees? The difference in the Old and New Testament modes of political engagement is not that it exists in the OT and doesn’t in the NT, but that it is limited to a particular geopolitical nation in the OT and is global as Christ’s church is global in the NT. Because of this ecclesological shift, political theology has to move from the Israelite theonomy of the Old Testament to the “elect exiles” and “strangers and aliens” identity of the New Testament. We are citizens of particular countries, but even more importantly of the city yet to come. Thus we are not called to make any particular nation-state into the kingdom of Christ, but we are still called to exhort particular kingdoms to live and move and have their being in the world as Christ has made it. Recognition of this simultaneous identity as citizens of particular nations and of the far better country that is Christ’s kingdom in the new heavens and new earth calls Christ’s church everywhere at all times to acknowledge particular governments’ institution by God to promote good and defend against evil and to cry out against political injustice perpetrated by governments and other corporate systems.
This kind of political participation is exemplified by one of our earliest Christian documents, the Epistle to Diognetus, which says:
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. (Diog. 5:1-5)
It is in this vein that I think we are justified in calling the Baptist contribution to political theology, “Baptist Prophetic Witness.” Baptists, with the church catholic, acknowledge that governments are instituted and empowered by God to promote good and defend against evil. But, like the OT prophets of old and their culmination in Israel’s Christ, Baptists have also led the way in political dissent, both in terms of religious liberty and in terms of political and social action in the face of injustice. From Thomas Helwys’s imprisonment for the sake of his conscience to Obadiah Holmes’ whipping in the face of Bay Colony persecution, from the eighteenth century Baptists’ care for illiterate children through the innovation of “Sunday School” to Charles Spurgeon’s care for the poor, from William Carey’s opposition to Sati to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement, Baptists have been political prophetic witnesses who promote the good, decry evil, and work against injustice, particularly with respect to religious liberty, in political modes. This is part of our identity and our contribution to the church catholic.