Liberty of Conscience: in-house debates, questionable beliefs, and iron sharpening iron
Thanks to a recent movie release, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have exploded with posts from the Christian blogosphere going back and forth on views of eschatology. In the best circumstances, such discussions should drive believers to the Scriptures. They should compel us to sit and discern which teachings come from the text of God’s Word and which come from human tradition.
And, within the realm of orthodox Christianity, they should fall on the liberty of conscience before God with respect to doctrines that are secondary in nature – especially as Southern Baptists, considering the importance liberty of conscience has played within our denomination historically.
To paraphrase the Bard, “I grant I am a layman,” but until very recently I was under the impression that these assumptions were universal. Especially among Southern Baptists.
Thanks to Army living, I haven’t had the benefit of a long-term church home for quite a while. The longest we’ve been in any congregation has been a couple of years. Regardless of where we’ve been stationed, we’ve always sought out Southern Baptist churches. The reason for this is first and foremost the tradition of liberty of conscience that is ingrained in Southern Baptist heritage. The Baptist Faith and Message states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.”
Of course, the internet isn’t a flesh-and-blood congregation. Behind a screen and keyboard, it’s easy to feel that battle lines are being drawn over issues, rather than varying perspectives being contributed. When reading many of the conversations, in the form of both articles and comments, the heat involved has been stunning.
This is not to suggest that there are no limits on individual beliefs. Obviously, I’m talking about non-essential theology. There are certainly doctrines that are pernicious. The ideas that Jesus and Satan were spirit-brothers, that Sunday worship is the mark of the antichrist, or that Mary herself was immaculately conceived and therefore equally a mediator between God and man, those are dangerous teachings that should be refuted soundly.
The Deity of Jesus, the inerrancy of Scripture, the fallen nature of man, and the exclusivity of salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone – these are our hills to die on.
Secondary doctrines, such as the theories of eschatology, are not.
Is evangelism less necessary whether you are a premillenialist or an amillenialist? Of course not. Is corporate worship? Is discipleship? Is the pursuit of personal holiness? Are these “questionable beliefs”? Obviously not. Genuine believers with good-faith intentions can fall on any side of this discussion. To accept this as true eliminates any fear of these concepts entering the public arena.
Iron Sharpening Iron
When we remember our Scripturally-based emphasis on liberty of conscience, these discussions take the nature of Iron Sharpening Iron, as they are supposed to. Elevating secondary doctrine to equal importance as primary doctrine causes unbiblical division.
And regarding the discussion, or cinematic portrayal, of these secondary doctrines as dangerous because they might confuse other believers (never us, of course!) mirrors the errors of the Roman Catholics, believing we are the better gatekeepers of the dissemination of “acceptable” doctrine for the masses, rather than allowing for the Holy Spirit to lead each individual believer’s discernment…even if that Scripturally-led discernment leads someone to a different positioning on periphery doctrine.
As the saying goes, “On the essentials, unity. On the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” The belief of liberty in non-essential doctrine is one of the richest parts of our unique heritage as Southern Baptists.
Baptisthistory.org says it well: “The Baptist history of liberty urges three key points: (1) Declare Christ as Lord. (2) Approach life with an open Bible and an open mind. (3) Do freedom Baptist style—choose liberty of conscience.”
It bears repeating: Choose liberty of conscience.