A Biblical Defense of that Baptist Distinctive
Freedom of Conscience
Pastor David Green

Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (II Corinthians 3:17)

Conscience Defined.

Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines it thus, “Internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong; or the faculty, power or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them. …..

The conscience manifests itself in the feeling of obligation we experience, which precedes, attends and follows our actions.

Conscience is first occupied in ascertaining our duty, before we proceed to action; then in judging of our actions when performed.”

First, what freedom of conscience is not:

Freedom of Conscience does not mean that we can ignore the commandments and principles of the Scripture and still expect God to be pleased. After all, conscience can be corrupted.

Titus 1:15 speaks of a defiled conscience and Hebrews 10:22 speaks of an evil conscience. So, we know that it is evil to murder, but some folks are not bothered by that. Their conscience has been corrupted.

Freedom of Conscience does not mean all churches have equal standing before God. After all, according to the Scriptures, Christ started His church during His earthly ministry. Anything else was not started by Him and logically then cannot be on equal footing as His church, spiritually speaking.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  (Matthew 16:18)

Some folks erroneously say that the church was built upon Peter or Peter's confession, but when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we must conclude that Jesus Himself is the Rock upon which He is building His kind of church. There is a reason He called it “my church.” Notice:

For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11)

Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,” (1 Peter 2:6-7)

The other “churches” we see in the world today cannot trace themselves back to Christ. Notice a few of them:

  1. Roman Catholicism: Developed over a period of time between 251 and 610 AD in Rome. Gregory the Great is their founder. They claim Peter as their first pope, but there is no proof of this either in history or the Bible.

  2. Lutherans: Founded in 1520 by a Catholic named Martin Luther.

  3. Episcopal Church: AKA Church of England, founded in 1534 by an adulterer known as King Henry VIII.

  4. Presbyterians: Founded in 1536 by that Catholic named John Calvin.

  5. Methodists: Started by John Wesley, a member of the Episcopal Church in 1729.

  6. Campbellites: AKA “The Church of Christ” started by Alexander Campbell in 1827.

Freedom of Conscience is not merely Toleration.

Toleration is mere permission, sufferance, and endurance, and implies the right to withhold or grant, to control or regulate. Liberty of Conscience is not mere permission to enjoy religious opinions, doctrines, and worship, but it is the right of conscience responsible only to God, and beyond the control or regulation of any human being or government.

Now, what freedom of conscience is.

Freedom of Conscience is a Baptist Doctrine.

There was not a government in the world that allowed full liberty of conscience to all men until a Baptist established the colony of Rhode Island.

At a great dining in England John Bright asked a Baptist statesman beside him: "What special contribution have your people made to the world?" "Civil and religious liberty," replied the statesman. "A great contribution," replied John Bright. Bancroft, in his history of America, declares: "Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists." - Distinctive Baptist Principles By B. H. Carroll

That the Baptists have been the pioneers and peculiar champions of religious liberty is a fact admitted and established by historians of other denominations. ….John Locke, to whom Lord Chancellor King attributes the doctrine of religious liberty, says, in his "Essay on Toleration," "The Baptists were the first and only propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty." The first modern treatise ever written on the subject of religious liberty was by Leonard Busher, a Baptist, in 1614. It is entitled, "Religious Peace, or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience." It was no plea for mere toleration, but for liberty of conscience in matters of religion for every human being. Here are some of its words: "That it may be lawful for every person or persons, yea, Jews and Turks, Pagans and Papists, to write, dispute, confer and reason, print and publish, any matter touching any religion, either for or against whomsoever." The Baptist "Confession of Faith," which was published in 1611 declared, "We believe the magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor compel men to this or that form of religion, because Christ is the king and law-giver of the Church and the conscience." - Baptist Principles, Practices and Polity by T. S. Dunaway, D. D., 1882

Rhode Island was the first time true freedom of conscience existed anywhere on the earth.

May 19, 1647, a government for the state was constituted and a code of laws was prepared. The constitution and code were probably written by John Clarke, pastor of the first Baptist Church in America:

The preamble:

The form of government established in Providence Plantations is democratical; that is to say a government held by the free and voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of the free inhabitants....And now, to the end that we may give each to other (notwithstanding our different consciences touching the truth as it is in Jesus) as good and hopeful assurance as we are able touching each man's peaceable and quiet enjoyment of his lawful right and liberty we do agree, etc...”

It closed with these words:

Otherwise than thus what is herein forbidden all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God. And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without the molestation, in the name of Jehovah, their God, forever and ever.”

Our own constitution of the United States of America has this first amendment in the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

What many folks may not realize is that this amendment was secured by Baptists. Particularly, John Leland and the Virginia Baptists had a lot to do with this... We shall leave that for another study.

Liberty of Conscience is Bible Doctrine.

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.” (Matthew 23:8-10)

In this passage, our Lord explicitly forbids His disciples, in all ages and nations to recognize the right of anyone to dictate to them in matters of religious faith or practice. And further there is a positive command that His disciples – no one who recognizes Him as Lord – should presume to usurp or favor the usurping of authority by someone else (such as a governmental authority.)

...Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” (Matthew 22:21)

It has been a Biblical practice of all the Lord's people to recognize a seperation of church and state. Notice from the petition to James I in 1620 by the Anabaptists when they wrote: “The vileness of persecuting the body of any man only for the cause of conscience, is against the Word of God and law of Christ.”

And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-20)

It was soul-liberty, inspired by the law of Christ which enabled Peter and John to make such a bold stand before the rulers of the Jews in their day.

Freedom of Conscience grants to all men every the civil right to exist and practice their religion as they see fit. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc all have the civil right to exist even though Spiritually they do not have the right to call themselves churches. Baptists have never denied to others the right to exist and preach the way they see fit. However, we must hold and deny they have any Scriptural right to to exist as churches of Christ. We also deny their right to be called or treated as churches of Christ.

This Baptist Distinctive comes from Almighty God, and as such it is an unalienable right. As such, the government has neither the power to grant the right, nor the power to remove the right.