Thomas White, Jason Duesing, and Malcolm Yarnell have edited a spirited collection of essays that originated as papers presented at the Baptist Distinctives Conference in September of 2005. White, Duesing, and Yarnell serve us in this volume by allowing all of us not able to attend the conference the opportunity to read not only their thoughts but those of Barrett Duke, Paige Patterson, Richard Land, Craig Mitchell, Daniel Heimbach, Russell Moore, Emir Caner, and Paul Pressler.
First Freedom lets us listen in on a great conversation.
Wishing that I could have been there for a Q&A session, I asked the editors if they would grant a text-interview on the book, and they graciously agreed. The interview takes us beyond the actual contents of the book, which you’ll enjoy reading. The responses below are keyed to the initials of the editors: TW—Thomas White; JGD—Jason Duesing; and MBY—Malcolm Yarnell. Lord willing, Parts 2 and 3 will be posted in coming days.
Interview with the Editors of First Freedom
What is the relationship between the church’s responsibility to proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and the defense of religious liberty? Is there a tension between our mandate to preach the gospel and our appeal to unbelievers in authority that they preserve religious liberty?
MBY: This is a great question. Our primary obligation in glorifying God is to proclaim the gospel, and this assumes that people have the liberty to respond to that proclamation without coercion. Dr. Patterson’s essay makes clear that religious liberty and salvation exclusively in Christ are not incompatible concepts but necessarily intertwined. As he states at one point, “Christians embracing the exclusivity of Christ as the only saving and accurate expression of the true and living God are properly the most effective advocates of absolute religious liberty.”
TW: I believe the Baptist position on the separation of church and state and religious liberty allows the tension to be solved. Because of the separation of church and state, a rejection of the Christian religion is not a rejection of the state and thus treasonous. With the proper view of separation of church and state the offer of Christianity is truly voluntary and protects even the rights of the heretic to be a heretic. In addition a truly Christian understanding recognizes that a real decision can only be made voluntarily and not forced. Thus, I believe that only those countries without a separation of church and state see an unsolvable tension between preaching the gospel in authority and preserving religious liberty.
JGD: If you mean by tension that it is paradoxical to expect an unbeliever to preserve religious liberty, i.e., how can we expect those dead in their sins and therefore opposed to Christ and his disciples to preserve a higher morality that cannot be understood apart from Christ, then I think the tension is only apparent but not real. The Lord has always worked through governments and individuals who were opposed to him to protect and preserve that which is necessary to fulfill his purposes. To ask those unbelievers in authority to work to preserve the first freedom of religious liberty does not ask them to do something of which they are not capable or would have no interest. Nor does it, in my opinion, hinder their possible future acceptance of the gospel message.
For example, let’s say I am successful in petitioning my unbelieving local city official to work to ensure that the pastors at my church have equal opportunity to engage students at our local high school or invite them to upcoming church events in the same way other civic groups or other religious institutions might have access. This may cause him to add a mental gold star to his understanding of a heavenly works system of approval and therefore actually harden his heart to the work of the Spirit, but at the same time it gives me and my fellow church members more opportunities to talk to him about his false understanding of eternity and the reality of his sin. Extrapolate this to the largest of scenarios and I think the same conclusions apply. The tension is only apparent. In reality, the more we work with those in authority to see the necessity of implementing religious freedoms the more opportunities we have to share our perspective of why this is essential.
2. What is the “payoff” of this collection of essays for the ministry of the local church? More specifically, are these essays mainly to inform us of our Baptist heritage and thereby make us more informed (which is valuable in itself), or is there a particular impact that these essays could and should have on church ministry?
MBY: These essays will, no doubt, inform the churches of their Baptist heritage; however, their primary purpose is to remind the churches of the importance of religious liberty as a Christian doctrine and as a practical principle. Part of the beauty of the Christian message is that it respects the personal freedom of the people who are its evangelistic subjects.
TW: In addition to informing the reader of our Baptist heritage, these essays discuss a scriptural defense of the Baptist position. In particular, the proper interpretation of the wheat and tares is discussed as well as Jesus’ comments that His “kingdom is not of this world.” These essays will give preachers the understanding to defend from Scripture the position of religious liberty and separation of church and state. In addition, the essays address issues such as current court cases, and religious liberty in a Muslim context that will help pastors address questions and issues of church and state in local churches.
JGD: The audience we had in mind for this volume from the beginning was pastors in the local churches. One of the strengths of this volume is the variety of the types of chapters. Some are more academic, some are practical, and some are conversational. My friends who are pastors are regularly dealing with the issues discussed in this volume whether it be relationships with local school boards, dealing with church members and their questions of the extent to which they can share their faith at work, or even the broader question of what exactly does it mean to identify yourself as a Baptist. The impact I would hope this volume would have is manifold:
- Pastors would find edification and enjoyment from reading whatever chapters stir their interest—we believe regular interaction with books can be used to encourage, embolden, and educate.
- This book would then find a ready spot on the pastor’s bookshelf where it can serve as a future reference for questions asked—we believe these chapters will have a long and relevant shelf life of helpful influence.
- This book would introduce pastors to broader teaching and writing ministries of each of the volume’s contributors. Some of these men need no introduction while some of them are Bible-believing Christianity’s best kept secrets. If this book serves merely as a door through which someone first learns about the work of Russell Moore or Emir Caner then we as editors are deeply honored.
- Finally, this book would find a place in starting for some and furthering for others the vital conversation of whether or not it is important or necessary to identify yourself with the Baptist tradition—i.e. what is a Baptist? Why should I be a Baptist? Religious liberty, while championed by many, is historically a Baptist distinctive. It is not our purpose to recover this as Baptists for the sake of boasting, rather for the purpose of uncovering our rich heritage for a generation largely unaware. We hope this volume helps explain not only why we think religious liberty is important, but also why the fact that it is a Baptist distinctive is important as well.