Amos was the eighth century prophet from Tekoah, a village located in the hill country of Judah. God call him from tending sheep and fruit trees to preach God’s Word in Bethel, a center of Israelite religious life situated in the northern country of Israel. Amos declared the judgment of God upon Israel for their wicked living and distorted religion.
The message of Amos was not well received. The priest at Bethel, Amaziah, reported to King Jereboam the words of Amos. Amaziah confronted Amos, perhaps on the orders of Jereboam, and said: “Get out, you prophet! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do you prophesying there.Don’t preach any more at Bethel, because there is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:10-17). The king had heard enough of the prophet’s message, and he ordered his pastor to expel this itinerant preacher from the territory.
This was neither the first nor the last time that some civil authority has attempted to control the free exercise of religion. It is just one more illustration of how and why religion needs to be free in this world.
The marriage of religion and government was a standard feature of life in Israel. This is reflected throughout the Hebrew Bible. King David, the epitome of leadership, was called the “anointed one of God.” He was both spiritual and civil leader of Israel. Religion gave legitimacy to political power; and political power authorized religious values.
Priests and princes have always been tempted by this marriage of convenience. This has been true even within the Christian tradition. Constantine became emperor of the Roman empire in the year 312 of the Christian era. Later, he converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the empire. By the time of his death, he had assumed the role of leader of both church and state and had bound them in a powerful partnership that persisted through the Middle Ages.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century challenged much of Roman Catholic religion, but the marriage of church and state was not one of them. The Reformers made their own alliances with the regional princes of Europe. The growing nationalism of Europe, united with religious fervor, paved the way for one hundred years of religious wars.
While Catholics and Protestants contended for political power, another group quietly advocated the radical separation of church and state. These were the baptist people of Europe and England. They were Swiss Brethren, Anabaptists, Hutterites, Mennonites, Dissenters, Nonconformists, and Puritans. These baptist people believed that the best way to ensure authentic Christianity was to free the church from the state and free the state from the church.
This was the pattern they found in the New Testament. The early Christians had no political power or civil alliances. They were marginalized and powerless people, gathering in homes, in synagogues, at riverbanks, and in marketplaces. They confessed Christ as Lord, shared good with those in need, practiced self control, and advocated equality among all peoples in the sight of God. When they came into conflict with civil authorities, they asked the question: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19). The baptist movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attempted to restore this New Testament pattern, including the freedom of religious expression.
Roger Williams was one of the most famous advocates of this radical idea of religious freedom. He was a Puritan preacher who immigrated to the New World in order to find freedom in spiritual things. But he discovered that the religious leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, while rejecting the established Church of England, also rejected all who deviated from their version of Christian living. Williams fled to the wilderness, bough land from the Narragansett Indians, and settled the first colony known for religious toleration: Rhode island. There, Roger Williams wrote his famous books advocating what he called “soul-liberty,” the freedom of each settled to worship only as his or her conscience dictated. It was the first radical experiment in the separation of church and state.
Baptist people influenced the architects of the American republic in their ideas of religious freedom.Virginia baptist preacher John Leland personally lobbied James Madison who, in turn, drafted the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is the first freedom of the American people.
From time to time, baptist people are tempted to forsake their tradition of freedom and enter into alliances with secular power. Sometimes it appears to be in the best interest of both church and state. The church may want to assist the state in teaching and supporting moral and ethical values; or the state may desire the stamp of approval that the church can give.
In our day there is enormous pressure for baptist churches to accept an engagement right from the political authorities. Nowhere is this more at play than in the arena of public education. Many religious leaders, on the one hand, wish to influence what is taught and said (and prayed!) in public schools. These same religious leaders, on the other hand, want the government to support religious schools with tax money. Political leaders see this strategy both as a way to please a voting electorate and also as a way to address the very real issues of disorder and immorality in our country. While there is growing and legitimate concern about the need for religious values and voices to be heard in matters of public policy, the entanglement of church and state is a danger that baptist people have long protested.
Throughout the world, there has never been greater need for this baptist witness. Israel, Iran, and the old Soviet republics illustrate the damage to gospel witness when the state makes an alliance with a particular religious group. In Israel, it is the Jewish faith; in Iran,it is Islam; in the Soviet republics, it is the Russian Orthodox Church. In all these places, baptist people are being persecuted, and in some instances, even martyred. In all of these places, the cry is for freedom: religious freedom, spiritual freedom, church freedom, and soul freedom. The baptist conviction is this: God’s kingdom thrives best when local churches are free of control and intimidation, free to live out the gospel, free to preach the gospel, and free to call Jesus, Lord!
The best, most powerful contribution that baptist people can make to the peace and welfare of a nation is by establishing and maintaining congregations of people living in covenant agreement with one another and with the Lord Jesus Christ. These congregations thus provide, visible to the public, an alternative to the often immoral, irresponsible lifestyles hat may characterize a give community. This is, in essence, a counter-culture approach to the relationship between church and community and between church and government. This strategy protects the freedom of both the congregation and the civil authorities. This is the baptist way of being a Christian church.
Amos was a baptist preacher. He was free before God, free to receive God’s message and free to declare God’s message. Amaziah was pastor of the congregation in Bethel, but he seems to have sold his soul to King Jereboam. Likewise, the congregation at Bethel appears to have lost its freedom to hear and respond to the word of God because of their desire to please the king. But thank God the king could not squelch the preaching of Amos. While there was no baptist congregation, in Amos there was a baptist preacher.
I am reminded of another baptist preacher, John Bunyan. In seventeenth century England, his baptist way of following Christ aroused the ire of the ruling party. He spent twelve years in the local jail in Bedford. While there he preached the good news of Jesus Christ, and he wrote one of the most famous pieces of English literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Thank God for the examples of Amos the baptist prophet, John Bunyan the baptist preacher, and Roger Williams the baptist pioneer. They stir up within us the determination to treasure our baptist heritage of freedom. In this world, and in all places, let the church be free.