Baptists, Catholic Church, Christianity, Church & State, controversy, freedom of belief, freedom of speech
One complaint made when Christians wax lyrical about the virtues of freedom of speech and belief is that when we were in the driving seat, we were not too keen on these things; whilst, as a Baptist, I could make a perfectly good argument that, never having been in any driving seat, at least in the UK, we’ve never been that way, I know what those who use that argument mean, and it maps on to what theophiletus wrote when he wondered how far the impetus towards the bad things in our society comes from the fact that ‘so many so-called Christians have been hateful rather than loving’? That is a good question and one we should ask ourselves.
If the Catholic Church had not lost its dominant position in so many States, would it really be in favour of freedom of belief? If it had the power to do so, would it outlaw homosexuality and imprison homosexuals. If it could still get the State to burn heretics at the stake, would it do so? If the Anglicans could force Baptists to pay tithes or go to gaol, would it do what it used to do? Would the C of e still want an Anglican polity in which Papists and Nonconformists were beyond the pale? How convincing is it when a group of folk who used to burn each other because of beliefs, bang on about being persecuted for believing as they do? Indeed, where did the idea of a dominant public ideology come from, if not from Christianity? The Roman Empire allowed a whole variety of beliefs, and as long as you were willing to say that the Emperor was a god and sacrifice to him, they more or less let you be. That was not true of the Roman Catholic Church, or of the Eastern Orthodox Church, nor was it true of Geneva in Calvin’s time. In fact, until the 1960s, the RCC did not profess a belief in freedom of belief and religion, and where, as in Spain, it had real political influence, it was not welcoming to Protestants. Its treatment of the Jews in medieval Spain, or of the Huguenots in seventeenth century France are not the brightest moments in its history.
So, our enemies have, I fear, a point. When institutional Christianity was in a dominant position, one heard very little from it about how much it believed in free speech and freedom of belief; indeed, it was not terribly keen on the idea of freedom at all. All that said, it must be admitted by most folk that Christianity has learned a great deal in the last half century of so, and one of the things it has learned is what the Dissenting sects could have told the RCC and the C of E had they not been busy persecuting us, which is that attacking people because of what they believe is a double-edged sword; once someone else holds it, it can be turned on you; as it is being.
One of the virtues of times of chastisement is that, if one will, one can learn things which times of prosperity do not teach you. Christians are no more immune than the rest of humanity from the corrupting effects of power. Now it is stripped from the great churches, they too can learn from the stripes and from eating the bread of sorrow. It is through love and our example that we help bring men and women to Christ, nt through pomp and glory and power; we can let the secularists make that mistake, and by our faithful witness in times of trial, provide an example of what Christ does for you.
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