It must be made clear that this position is not borne of any lack of zeal for the Christian cause and mission. On the contrary. It is borne of conviction that, for the Christian cause, the Church is to source it in the only Power it should seek. And it is not in the sword. It is in Heaven’s power available to the Church through the Word and Prayer. Indeed, it must be said that the present evangelical intoxication with politics explains much of the powerlessness of the institutional church.
Just before the conclusion of the 18th Congress of the Philippines, it managed to get a legislation passed declaring every second Thursday of January as “Baptist Day.” As expected, the measure was met with celebration by many Baptists in the country. One enthused, “I thought I would never live to see this day!” It is taken as a great victory that government could pass a law in support of Baptists. Why would any Baptist be against it? I am a Baptist, and I am against this idea. I have a Baptist reason – which a good Baptist must always draw from the Scriptures. There is also the light of history.
Religious Freedom – Baptist Distinctive
A legislated Baptist Day violates one Baptist distinctive, namely, religious freedom. Religious freedom is not only the liberty of citizens to adopt their religious beliefs and affiliation. It is that, but Baptists have carried this further by underscoring the separation of Church and state. This means that one jurisdiction (state) should have no interference with the jurisdiction of the other (church). When the Founding Fathers of America were considering the building of their nation, they initially thought of recognizing a state church, patterned after much of nations in Europe, especially their colonial mother nation of England. The first choice was the Baptists. This would have been a lot superior to just a Baptist Day.
Baptists themselves, however, refused the distinction. It went against the grain of their long struggle in Europe for religious freedom. For what they suffered in a long period of persecution, they came to understand real freedom as not simply toleration of all religious beliefs, while government adopts a favored religious institution. Baptists learned that genuine religious freedom is only attained where government will have no interference with the church. In this, they differed with many of their brethren – Reformed and Presbyterian churches, to name some.
In America, under the able leadership of Isaac Backus (1724 – 1806), Baptists contended that religious freedom must mean no established Church should be adopted by government. Twenty-seven years after his death, the last state church was disestablished in Massachusetts in 1833. Historians recognize the role of Baptists in the ratifying of the very first amendment of the US Constitution that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Christian History Journal [ Issue # 6 “The Baptists” ] notes:
Although Baptists cannot claim all the credit for the triumph of religious liberty and separation of church and state in the United States, they played a key role throughout the nearly two-century struggle to enshrine these principles in the nation’s basic documents of freedom. As Anson Phelps Stokes, perhaps the most renowned church-state historian of this century wrote, ‘No denomination has its roots more firmly planted in the soil of religious freedom and Church-State separation than the Baptists. On the other hand, George W. Truett, in an historic address on the subject delivered in 1920 from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, called religious liberty ‘the supreme contribution’ of America to the rest of the world, and declared that ‘historic justice compels me to say that it was preeminently a Baptist contribution.’ Because religious liberty is the chief contribution Baptists have made to the social teaching of the church, and because its continuity is essential to proper church-state relations, each generation of Baptists is obligated to contend for it and to extend it to the next generation.
The champion of this separation of Church and State was Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third president of the United States. He was no Baptist; was not even an Evangelical Christian. But he had keen insight into the meaning of separation of Church and State. In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists on New Year’s Day of 1802, his words became precedent-setting:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
Power of the Church
There is just one more objection I must raise. Dependence on government for the advance of the Church betrays the lack of confidence in the only source of power for the Church – the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Christ. It must be made clear that this position is not borne of any lack of zeal for the Christian cause and mission. On the contrary. It is borne of conviction that, for the Christian cause, the Church is to source it in the only Power it should seek. And it is not in the sword. It is in Heaven’s power available to the Church through the Word and Prayer. Indeed, it must be said that the present evangelical intoxication with politics explains much of the powerlessness of the institutional church. It must be held with conviction that what we seek is the same as Paul’s: “Our gospel came to you, not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Our Baptist forbears flourished without seeking the assistance and interference of government on their behalf. Are we now to turn this around, and re-enter via the backdoor, seeking the interference of government? Does government have any power to make a particular day religious by legislated imposition? I say ‘No!’ That is why I reject the proposition that government may declare a Baptist Day.