Moderate Baptists have distinguished themselves from their more conservative and fundamentalist brothers and sisters for a generation through their elevation of freedom of conscience to a near-absolute good. While the conservatives who came to dominate the Southern Baptist Convention increasingly focused on defining and requiring (their particular version of) doctrinal orthodoxy, moderate Baptists proclaimed that freedom of individual conscience before God is a more distinctive Baptist principle than doctrinal conservatism.
Next-generation Baptists have sometimes raised questions about this relentless focus on freedom. Even those generally sympathetic to the moderate side have asked searching questions about the adequacy of freedom alone as the highest principle of moderate Baptist life, and have proposed other models for what ought to be central to Baptist identity.
I think that these questions about freedom do not go away; indeed, they should not go away. But today I want to say a word on behalf of a very rigorous understanding of freedom of conscience in Christian life and our institutions. It is indeed a sacred value and one that easily disappears if not protected vigilantly.
Freedom of conscience in a Christian context means that each individual who has committed to follow Jesus Christ is understood to be answerable fundamentally to Christ himself. Freedom is not mere personal autonomy — nor is it license to believe, say or do just anything. But when a Christian community values freedom of conscience it recognizes that the individual alone will give account of himself or herself before God on Judgment Day. It recognizes that the community must protect the space in which each individual Christian can determine what pattern of belief and action is required of him by his Lord.
To value freedom of conscience in this sense strengthens rather than weakens commitment to the Lordship of Christ. It is precisely because Christ is Lord, and precisely because the believer stands in a living relationship with a living God, that freedom of individual conscience must be protected. The community dare not stand as an obstacle to the believer’s obligation to follow Jesus as faithfully as he or she knows how.
Most Christian communities have interpretive traditions that are broadly agreed upon in the community and that guide the exercise of individual conscience. Baptists have long agreed, for example, on the high role of Scripture and the only secondary role of church tradition. These interpretive traditions help hold faith communities together and set parameters that can help order the religious life of individuals.
But such parameters, while helpful, cannot resolve every issue. They cannot prevent sharp differences of opinion on a wide range of issues that arise in Christian thought and practice. Some Christian communities respond to these often-quite-uncomfortable differences by trying to come up with an expansive set of standards for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
But these often end up tyrannizing individual responsibility before God.
I would even dare to suggest that these standards can at times make it impossible for Christian communities to hear any new word from God’s Spirit at all. For there are many examples of times in which God’s transforming word was first heard by scattered Christian outliers and rejected by the community as a whole until somehow it finally broke through — with the path usually littered by the scarred bodies of the original outliers who received the word ahead of others.
Think about the way racism infected Christian doctrine in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. In many contexts, racism was viewed as a theological truth and segregation as a Christian moral requirement. Congregational or even university or seminary settings in which Christian leaders could challenge this misguided racist orthodoxy without fear of losing their jobs were rare. God couldn’t be permitted to speak a new theological or moral word. It was too dangerous to the status quo.
The same thing happened 20 years later in relation to the role of women in Christian communities and families. I was among those who had to leave Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s because my understanding did not match with the new orthodoxy, which changed overnight.
I am grateful currently to be in a congregation and a university in which expansive understandings of freedom of conscience before God are embraced. I am free to follow my conscience where it leads. I may misunderstand what Christ requires of me, but the space for me to do so is protected. This is a rare, precious, and fragile gift. I hope no one takes it for granted. I sure don’t.
David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. This column is distributed by ABP.