A.) The Limitations of Governing Authorities over the Church
We must be in subjection to our governing authorities for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:5). But not in all things. Our consciences should not be subject to governing authorities in religious matters. Our government has no jurisdiction over Christians in matters of faith. This is what the separation of church and state means. It doesn’t mean God and His moral law should be separated from politics. It does mean the government shouldn’t tell its citizens what to believe and do in religious matters. Their sphere of authority is civil, not spiritual. They are to be guardians of our temporal welfare, not our eternal welfare. Their job is to maintain peace and order in society, not the church.
They have no authority to enact laws pertaining to the worship of God. Our consciences cannot be compelled or coerced by the government when it comes to our beliefs and practices. They cannot tell us how to “do church”! This is left entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and Master and King of the Church. He has the sole right to institute laws in matters of faith and worship. He tells us who to worship, how to worship, and when to worship. As Robert Baillie said, “. . . the great law for matters of religion is this, Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind of the truth of what he believes without any control from any upon earth;”.
This principle is even enshrined in our nation’s laws.
Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786): “[no man] shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1791): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
These laws were influenced in large part by Baptist/Congregational beliefs, not Presbyterian ones. The Reformers and the original Westminster divines were opposed to this limitation of government over the church.
For example, John Calvin said, “Now, when the true God is known, and the certain and sure rule of worshipping him is understood, there is nothing more equal than that which God commandeth in his law, to wit, that those who bear rule with power (having abolished contrary superstitions) defend the pure worship of the true God. . . . But nothing is more absurd than to leave the worship of God to men’s choice.”
Also, the original Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) in Chapter 20, Paragraph 4, on Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience states: “IV. And because the powers which God has ordained, and the liberty which Christ has purchased are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.”
Why does our Baptist Confession of Faith omit this paragraph completely? We could simply say because the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order omits it. But the real reason is that it destroys the Baptist and biblical understanding of liberty of conscience for New Covenant Christians. It states the civil magistrate has the power to punish its citizens in spiritual matters. Any who publish or practice views which are contrary to the known principles of Christianity (infant baptism?) or disturb the peace and order of the church (by refusing to baptize infants?) may lawfully be called to account and punished not just by the church but by the civil magistrate.
I heartedly commend the revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith done by the American Presbyterians in Philadelphia in 1788 to delete this final phrase. And I am thankful to read a modern Presbyterian like Chad Van Dixhoorn say, “. . . The civil government should not be called to punish spiritual sins. . . . Christian monarchs should not meddle with the affairs of the church (as they sometimes have done),”. The Christian conscience and the Christian church are to be left alone by civil authorities in order to serve and worship God according to what they believe the Scriptures teach. This is the will of God for Gentile governments in the gospel age. And we must utterly oppose any attempt by our government to exercise power over what God has called us to do as a church!
B.) The Unity of Christians in the Church
This chapter in the Confession also helps us maintain unity in the church. A good slogan for any church to live by is, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity”. For our purposes, the phrase “in non-essentials liberty” deserves consideration. Non-essentials are things not clearly laid out in the Scriptures (things not commanded or forbidden) and do not impede the truths of the gospel. Historically they have been called adiaphora, or things indifferent. Things like dress, cosmetics, food and drink, sports and entertainment, health and medical decisions, occupations, financial planning, insurance, education, etc. would fall under this category.
The apostle Paul teaches us about a non-essential thing in two places:
1 Corinthians 8:8: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”
Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Things such as food and drink do not affect our standing before God. They do not make us holier or more sinful if we partake or abstain. These things are still grounded in and guarded by moral principles (such as prohibitions against self-harm and gluttony), but the Scriptures give us liberty in the application and practice of things like these in our lives.
So, what should be done when brothers in the church disagree on things like these, especially the precise application of these things? For instance, how should brothers treat each other when one feels strongly about not drinking alcohol and another sees no problems with doing so?
If the issue is truly non-essential (and that needs to be discerned first & foremost), they should follow the instructions of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8-10 & Romans 14-15 concerning the weaker & stronger brother. In these passages we are told that the weaker brother was convinced that to eat meat sacrificed to idols in the marketplaces was sinful and therefore chose to eat only vegetables. The stronger brother, on the other hand, knew that idols were nothing and had no scruples giving thanks to God for the meat and enjoying the meat. How were they to live in harmony with one another in the same church? The apostle Paul gives these instructions:
1.) Do not fight and quarrel with each other but accept and welcome each other:
Romans 14:1: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”
Romans 14:3: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”
Romans 15:7: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
2.) Do not despise each other but patiently serve each other:
Romans 15:1: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”
3.) Do not selfishly insist on your own way but deny yourself:
Romans 14:13: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
Romans 15:2: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
1 Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
1 Corinthians 10:24: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
1 Corinthians 10:32-33: “32Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
4.) Do not flaunt your freedom but keep it private:
Romans 14:22: “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.”
1 Corinthians 8:9-10: “9But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?”
1 Corinthians 10:28: “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of [his, not your] conscience—”
In essence, never budge on the principle of your freedom in Christ, but be pliable in your practice of your freedom before other Christians.
If hardened legalists sneak in to steal our freedom and enslave us, the gospel compels us to stand firm in our freedom before them. Martin Luther says, “On the one hand, the Christian encounters the stubborn and obstinate ceremonialists. Like deaf adders, they do not want to hear freedom’s truth, but instead they boast about their ceremonies as the means of justification, imperiously commanding and insisting on them quite apart from faith. . . . Against these people one ought to resist, do the opposite, and boldly offend them, so that they do not mislead many others as well by this ungodly opinion. In their presence it is appropriate to eat meat, to break fasts, and for the freedom of faith to do other things that they take for the greatest of sins.”
But if weak and ignorant brothers are incorrectly troubled and offended by our actions, the gospel informs us to be willing to forgo our freedoms out of love for them. Martin Luther goes on to say, “On the other hand, the Christian encounters the simple, uneducated, ignorant, and (as Paul calls them) weak in faith, who cannot yet understand this freedom of faith, even if they want to. Care must be taken not to offend these people but to defer to their weakness until they are more fully instructed.”
Do not slavishly submit to another’s conscience but be sensitive to it. If we do these things, we will respect each other’s convictions and pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding in the church even if we do not see eye-to-eye on non-essential things (Romans 14:19).
C.) The Freedom of Christians in Their Own Lives
Christian freedom gives us individual freedom to freely follow God. Our standard is no longer the traditions of men, the convictions and expectations of others, or even our own thoughts and feelings. Christ has freed us with His precious blood from all other rules and standards and regulations to follow the perfect law of liberty. God alone is the Lord of our conscience, and His law is our ultimate standard.
I like what The Pulpit Commentary states concerning how liberating our liberty in Christ is when it says, “The mere fact that another person thinks that we are doing wrong does not furnish the smallest proof that we are doing wrong. We stand or fall only to our own Master, and our consciences are free to form their own independent conclusion.”
As we follow God’s law, we can know that He is pleased with us, no matter what others think. And while we are living within the parameters of God’s law, we can live freely! God’s law is a law of liberty, not drudgery or slavery. Within the confines of God’s law, there is freedom to enjoy God’s gifts, there is freedom to try new things, there is freedom to pursue things that please you, and there is freedom to do what we wish. As Christians, God does not overburden us (like our federal government does) with mundane and meticulous rules and regulations! Instead, He gives us 10 commandments to follow which are for our good!
Matthew 11:30: “For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
Psalm 119:45: “and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought Your precepts.”
Think of the law of God like a fence, but not a fence which makes up a cage but a fence which marks off a wide and blessed field we have freedom to run in! If you hop over that fence, you should rightly feel guilty and repent. But if you stay inside the fence, there is no reason to condemn yourself for things that God does not condemn you for! Don’t feel bad about doing things that God has not told you are bad. Don’t make laws for yourself that God doesn’t make for you.
If you are one who struggles with false guilt, when it sets in ask yourself questions like, “What law am I living by?” “Whose expectations am I trying to meet?” “What standard am I holding myself to?” “What voice am I listening to?” “Who told me this was right or wrong?” If it is God’s Word rightly understood and applied, then listen to it! But if it comes from somewhere else, we as Christ’s sheep must refuse to give heed to its accusations and slavishly follow it.
Jesus teaches this very thing in John 10:2-5: 2But He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To Him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice. 5A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
May God help us to know Christ’s voice and follow Christ’s voice and reject all others! This is the liberty which Christ has purchased for us!
 Robert Baillie, Anabaptism, 55-56. Quoted in Renihan, For the Vindication of the Truth. Baillie was actually attacking this view that he said was brought from “the Anabaptist schools”, but I think in general it accurately represents the modern Baptist position on the government and liberty of conscience.
 John Calvin, comments on Acts 18:12-14.
 Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 272.
 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, 34, [para. 119].
 The Pulpit Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:29. Of course, our own independent conclusions are not independent of the Word of God but absolutely dependent on it!