I recently read Lee Canipe’s book entitled Loyal Dissenters: Reading Scripture and Talking Freedom with 17th-century English Baptists. It’s an incisive study of how early Baptists in England grounded their core convictions in the New Testament. Canipe examines three of these convictions at length.
The first is that “civil authority has no power over religion.” Since Ephesians 5:23 says, “Christ is the head of the church,” early English Baptists concluded that an arrangement in which a human being—such as the King of England at the time—acts as head of church and state is theologically inappropriate. They also cited James 4:12, asserting that “there is but one Lord and one lawgiver” in spiritual things, and that is Christ. They argued that civil authorities should not attempt to legislate matters of the soul.
The second conviction is that “persecution on account of religion is wrong.” Early English Baptists cited Luke 9:54-56 to support this position. In this passage, a certain Samaritan village is inhospitable to Jesus. His disciples James and John offer to call down fire from heaven to consume the village. But Jesus rebukes them, indicating that persecution of other religious groups is wrong. Early English Baptists also cited Matthew 13:24-43, the parable of the wheat and the tares. The point of the parable is that believers and non-believers should be allowed to intermingle, or “grow together,” until the final judgment. Therefore, there is no place for religious persecution. God will sort things out rightly at the right time.
The third conviction is “loyalty to the king, obedience to God.” The principal scriptures in this case were Romans 13:1-7, which commands submission to earthly authorities, and 1 Peter 2:17, which says, “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Early English Baptists argued that loyalty to the king is important, yet qualified by reverent obedience to God. Civil authorities are to be obeyed unless such obedience compromises the moral conscience and spiritual integrity of Christians, at which time “passive obedience” is appropriate.
The seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Thomas Grantham developed the concept of “passive obedience” as a way to fear God and honor the emperor when the wills of the two are at odds. This concept essentially states that when civil law and earthly authorities contradict the values and consciences of Christians, Christians are to disobey the law and accept the punishment for such disobedience. Disobeying the law in these cases is important because fidelity to God supersedes loyalty to state. After all, in Acts 4, the rulers told the apostles not to preach the gospel, and the apostles said, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” At the same time, passively accepting the legal consequences of such disobedience maintains a proper biblical submission to authorities. As Canipe notes, Grantham’s concept of “passive obedience” anticipated “by some 400 years the concept of nonviolent resistance advocated by Mahatma Gandhi in India, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.”
The witness of early English Baptists can encourage modern-day Baptist churches to continue supporting religious freedom, opposing persecution on account of religion, and walking the delicate line between loyalty to the state and obedience to God.
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN