The Story: Two recent events highlight that being a Baptist is incompatible with being a theonomist or Christian nationalist.
The Background: During their recent annual meeting, representatives for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued a resolution “On Christ’s Sole Lordship Over Every Human Conscience.”
The resolution highlights the importance of personal accountability before God and the role of personal commitment in believer’s baptism, references the rejection of external authority by early Baptists, and emphasizes the freedom of conscience and the supremacy of Christ in matters of faith. The text also references the Baptist Faith and Message, which affirms the indwelling of God the Son in believers, the lordship of Christ over each congregation, and the sole authority of God over the conscience.
Additionally, the resolution affirms the lordship of Jesus Christ over every human conscience and emphasizes the obligation of believers and churches to obey Christ alone as Lord. The statement reasserts the Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the right to free religious expression without interference from the state. The resolution rejects any attempt to undermine the sole lordship of Christ over consciences and emphasizes that Christian authority must always be exercised under Christ’s lordship and for God’s glory. The resolution concludes by reaffirming the commitment to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Savior and to invite people to have their consciences renewed through faith in him as Lord.
The next day, Baptist pastor-theologian and TGC Council member John Piper published an essay titled “‘My Kingdom Is Not of This World’: The Lordship of Christ and the Limits of Government.”
The essay discusses how Christ intends to accomplish his saving purposes in the world without using the sword of government to support the Christian religion as such—or any religion. The article focuses on eight clusters of texts that lead to the thesis that Christ’s kingdom isn’t of this world. For example, Piper points out that Christ’s statement “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) means his kingdom isn’t narrowly defined by the boundaries of any earthly nation or government. The essay explains that while Christ’s kingdom is active in this world, and will one day come with power, its power is not of this world.
“The civil government may rightly pass laws that make the spread of the Christian faith (and other faiths) easier (for example, laws protecting free speech and free assembly),” writes Piper. “That is not what the New Testament opposes. The New Testament opposes Christians looking to the state to teach, defend, or spread ideas or behaviors as explicitly Christian. The sword is not to be the agent of the Christian religion as such—that is, as a religion.”
What It Means: In most years, Baptists highlighting traditionally Baptist distinctives—such as freedom of conscience, believer’s baptism, and opposition to the enforcement of religion by the state—wouldn’t be noteworthy. But the current era has seen a resurgence of impulses that are in direct opposition to Baptist beliefs and yet are being embraced by adherents of that tradition.
These impulses are found in movements associated with theonomy, Christian Reconstructionism, and some strains of Christian nationalism (CN). Theonomy, as Andrew Walker explains, is a theological program believes that civil law should follow the example of Israel’s civil and judicial laws under the Mosaic covenant. Christian Reconstructionism was a small but influential theonomist movement that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, elements and ideas of that fading movement have been grafted into the forms of Christian Nationalism that advocate, as Patrick Schreiner says, a fusion of Christianity with American civil life. (Hereafter, when I referring to Christian Nationalism I’m talking about this fusionist variety.)
A prime example of theonomic ideas is the promotion of what Doug Wilson and others call “mere Christendom.” This would be, Wilson writes in his book Mere Christendom, “a network of nations bound together by a formal, public, civic acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the fundamental truth of the Apostles’ Creed.”
Wilson, the most prominent advocate of the view known as general equity theonomy, cofounded New Andrews College, where he serves as the chairman of the board of trustees. The school recently hired Joe Rigney after he resigned as president of Bethlehem College, where Piper is chancellor. In announcing the transition, the board of trustees for the college pointed out that “President Rigney has deepened and clarified his theological and philosophical views in ways that are out of step with several distinctives which Baptists have historically viewed as biblical.”
Two key differences they noted were Rigney’s views on infant baptism and his “recent emphasis on a hoped for eventual Christianization of all of society, including the civil government” which “put him significantly out of step with other leaders of the school who would warn against the use of civil authority to establish Christianity as an official religion.”
Last year, Rigney wrote on Twitter, “I’m advocating for classical Protestant political philosophy, which believes that the state and civil society should be ordered to God and should promote true religion. Some call that Christian Nationalism. I prefer to call it classical Protestantism.”
What sets Rigney apart is that he appears to recognize that Baptist distinctives—including freedom of religion for other faiths and opposition to paedobaptism—must be set aside when advocating for “mere Christendom.” Many Baptists in America seem to believe they can embrace fusion of Christianity with American civil life and still claim to be Baptists. But this is a category error—being a Baptist and being a theonomist or the fusionist form of Christian nationalist are categorically incompatible.
The problem is some Baptists (and those who identify as nondenominational but are part of the Baptististic tradition) have adopted a common but fallacious way of reasoning: “I prefer to believe A and I prefer to believe B, therefore beliefs A and B must be compatible.” But theonomy/CN isn’t at all compatible with the Baptist view of conscience or of the essential nature of believer’s baptism.
The incompatibility with conscience is obvious (as Piper and the SBC resolution make clear), but the latter may require more explanation.
While not all (or even many) paedobaptists embrace theonomy/CN, all consistent theonomists and fusionist Christian nationalists embrace paedobaptism. As Scott Aniol has observed, “This theology is necessary for the idea of Christendom implicitly in that to achieve mere Christendom, you essentially ‘baptize’ the nation first (public acknowledgment of Christ’s Lordship), and then you press for conversions (internal conviction of Christ’s Lordship).”
In this present era, the commitment to these principles of the Baptist tradition is being tested. We are seeing a shift in thinking among some of our own, a shift that is in direct opposition to the principles that Baptists have traditionally held dear. It is a crossroads of sorts, and the decisions we make now will determine the future course of our faith tradition.
We must recognize the inherent incompatibility of theonomy with our Baptist beliefs. It is not enough to simply ‘prefer’ to believe in both—we must understand how and why they are fundamentally at odds. We cannot, for instance, claim to uphold the values of religious liberty for all while simultaneously advocating for a fusion of Christianity with civil government. For example, the Baptist Faith and Message, clearly states the adherence to a “free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” (Article XVII). And as Piper notes his essay, “the words of Jesus in John 18:36 are a warning to all his followers to resist the temptation to treat the sword of civil government as a Christian agent to advance the saving rule of Christ.”
Those of us from the free church tradition have traditionally rejected theonomic views because we found them to be both incompatible with our understanding of New Testament theology and because we’ve found them to be unworkable, as proven time and time again throughout church history.
But “unworkable” isn’t the same as “heretical.” Since it isn’t an inherently unorthodox view, many who claim to be Baptists are eager to give the Christianization of civil government another try. However, before doing so, they need to drop the Baptist label. If you want to be a theonomist or fusionist Christian nationalist, you have to stop being a Baptist. You can choose to be one or the other, but you can’t (consistently) be both.
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