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Baptist Bites: Faithful Freedom vs. Antinomianism

     Last month, we covered the founding of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as a colony by Roger Williams. We took special notice that religious freedom was fixed into the DNA of the colony from the beginning.  Each resident was to “freely have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious discernment.” [from the 1663 Charter] That’s a decent way of expressing a distinctive of Baptist belief—we call it “soul freedom.” This is the right and competency of each Christian to read, interpret and apply Scripture in the service of Christ. We believe that the Holy Spirit makes this possible. He teaches us the meaning of God’s Word, applies it to our individual lives, and bends our consciences toward a life of obedience.  It happens on an individual level, but while we hold this distinctive to be important, it opens us to complications and abuses that must be wisely navigated—especially in our current times.  But I’ll turn to history to supply a couple of good illustrations.

     We’ve focused on the spiritual journey of Roger Williams for a few months, noting his evolution from Anglicanism, to Puritanism, to Separatism. His bold advocacy for religious freedom put him on a collision course with both Church and State in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and led to his banishment. He escaped to the land we now call Rhode Island and began the formation of a new colony.  Three years after his exodus, Williams acknowledged that he had developed Baptist convictions and formed the First Baptist Church in America. He had become convinced that believer’s baptism was specified by Scripture, so he asked a man named Ezekiel Holliman to baptize him by immersion (Holliman had been a lay leader in Williams’ Salem congregation). Williams then re-baptized Holliman and about 10 others.

     Having rejected the authority of the Puritan church, however, Williams quickly ran into the same catch-22 that John Smyth had encountered decades before. He became concerned that his baptism was invalid because it was administered by someone outside the line of apostolic succession that the Anglican church believed they had.  Williams had been baptized by a mere layman, after all. Without the spiritual pedigree offered by his denominational roots, how could his baptism be true? He came to believe that his baptism was false, as was the baptism that he had administered to the others. It caused him such anguish and confusion that a mere four months after Williams had founded the first Baptist church in the New World, he left it.  He studied and sought any other church bodies that preached apostolic doctrine with legitimate apostolic authority, but of course he couldn’t find any religious body that met his standards. Williams remained outside any church membership for the rest of his life, observing the Lord’s Supper with his wife only.  You can see that when Williams broke from the authority of church hierarchy and embraced his own freedom to interpret Scripture, his Christian walk hardly became simpler. If anything, things became so complicated for him that he couldn’t find his way out of the maze he’d constructed in his own mind.  This shows the trouble we can encounter without the collective study and discernment of a fellowship prayerfully seeking the mind of Christ in a given area.

     The second example is from the life of Williams’ good friend and fellow pastor, John Clarke. He founded and pastored the second Baptist church in America at Newport, Rhode Island. Upon arrival in the New World, Clarke joined with a body of believers in Boston and made friends who were embroiled in what was known as the Antinomian Controversy. Clarke’s friends included leaders of a movement which advocated “free grace.” Adherents of this theology believed that Christ’s grace in salvation was so all-encompassing that it did not depend at all on the believer’s outward behavior—our actions can neither save us nor keep us saved. Pastor John Cotton was the main preacher of this theology, and it seems that John Clarke sympathized with it as well.  Pastor Cotton was supported by a small band of leaders representing the clergy, laity, and even political authority. (The colony’s governor at the time, Henry Vane, was a supporter.) The biggest lightning-rod of this movement was a woman named Anne Hutchinson, a formidable woman with a strong mind and strong convictions. She taught, and probably preached, on behalf of the movement in her own home.  Under her leadership the movement grew, but in her boldness, she seemed to take John Cotton’s teachings farther than her pastor had intended. She took the “free grace” emphasis to the point that amounted to “antinomianism” in the eyes of prominent church leaders in the colony. “Antinomian” means “opposed to the law.” If they were right, it amounted to a violation of the command Paul gave in his letter to the Galatians (5:13) – “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh…”

     The free-grace movement was the minority voice in Massachusetts.  Most Puritan clergy agreed that Christ’s grace alone could bring salvation: we cannot make ourselves more worthy of it by our works.  However, they taught that after new birth in Christ, our natures are changed so that we begin performing works of righteousness in gratitude and service to Christ.  Indeed, those works are fruits that signify that our faith is genuine (Eph. 2:8-10; James 2:17-18). They saw these “Antinomians” (coined by them as a derogatory term) as a threat—and the traditional faction had the power in the Colony.  In 1637 Governor Vane was voted out of office and he returned to England in disgrace. He was replaced by John Winthrop, an ardent conservative.  Both Church and State officials united in purpose to break and banish the “Antinomians.” Trials were held, and harsh sentences were handed out to every leader and supporter they could find.  They were disarmed, deprived of voting privileges, excommunicated from the church, and banished from Massachusetts.  One of the most fiery and publicized trials was that of Anne Hutchinson herself, whose intelligence and confidence enabled her to carry on a verbal fencing match with her accusers for some time.  But as the pressure mounted, she admitted to another belief that she’d been teaching for some time: many of her teachings came by direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, and such revelations were of equal weight to the Scriptures. This was of course complete heresy to the ears of her tribunal, and Anne was excommunicated and banished forthwith.

     Anne Hutchinson ended up in Rhode Island because of its religious freedom protections, and although John Clarke hadn’t been a central figure, he could see the writing on the wall: he would not be welcome in Massachusetts.  He also moved to Rhode Island, where he founded and pastored the church in Newport in 1644. He definitely led the church with the same sort of “free grace” emphasis, and he did give place to the leading of the Holy Spirit in church meetings. Believers were allowed to speak, or “prophesy” as the Spirit led. “Prophecy” did not mean predictions of the future, or secret information revealed by the Spirit (unrelated to Scripture) though: it strictly meant short exhortations on Bible passages to edify the church. People were allowed to speak on the Scripture under consideration, as the Spirit provided insight, and it was done in an orderly manner.

     Clarke’s Newport Baptist church was the only congregation that arose in the antinomian controversy that thrived, and I think that’s because Clarke found a balance point between unrestrained “soul freedom” and faithfulness to Biblical authority.  He avoided the confusion Roger Williams encountered when he would not trust in the Biblical discernment of any group but insisted on his own—and he and his wife ended up isolated. He also avoided the bold autonomy of Anne Hutchinson, who came to believe the insights supposedly given to her by the Holy Spirit were of equal weight to written revelation.  Clarke nurtured a church culture that gave believers a chance to speak as the Spirit led, but kept it controlled and life-giving by insisting that it center on  the final authority of God’s Word.

     These historical examples are important for us today, amid a postmodern culture where all truth is believed subjective.  There is no recognition of a universal standard of truth. In this climate we Baptists, with our emphasis on soul freedom, are constantly under pressure to fall to the spirit of the age. When “my truth” and “your truth” can be diametrically opposite yet seen as equally “true,” soul freedom can easily be confused with unbridled antinomianism.  If we make personal autonomy the end-all of how we judge what it true, the only possible outcome is to be blinded, lost at sea as we are “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14). God does not want us swept up in this hurricane of untruth—there have to be guiding stars which we can all see and navigate by. For Baptists, the North Star is God’s written revelation to us, the Bible. That is the final authority, the one fixed point that orients everything else. But we know that we have to understand it properly, not to take it out of context so that we end up at the destination we wanted to go all along. There are triangulation points we should heed. Baptists are locally autonomous; like Smyth and Williams, we look to no creed or magisterium to decide matters for us. But we also strive to remain interdependent between congregations. We have gatherings between our congregations for fellowship, equipping, discernment, and for accreditation of our pastoral leaders. In that way congregations influence one another to stay true to God’s Word. Within our own congregations, we believe that each believer can be given insight to the meaning and application of the Scriptures under consideration. We actively encourage those insights as the Spirit shares them among us. But we also trust in the Holy Spirit to lead us to the truth together,  and agree that the plain meaning of God’s Word is the one standard that all teachings must adhere to. In this way we test every spirit, as the Bible instructs, and rely on the power of God the Holy Spirit to lead us unfailingly to the Truth, instead of conflicting personal “truths” that will keep us in the dark.  The Lord wants us to shine a light that is clear, not hazy, and to sound a trumpet with a certain note on central matters of the Gospel. Baptists must keep the proper balance between soul freedom and Biblical authority to maintain the witness that our culture so desperately needs today.

Your Brother and Servant,

Pastor Scott.

Note: my sources for this article include The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness by H. Leon McBeth (Broadman Press, 1987), and Baptists in America: A History by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Series Introduction

Overview of Formative Baptist Beliefs

Anabaptist Forebears

John Smyth and the English Separatists

Thomas Helwys

Particular Baptists and Immersion

Theocracy and Persecution in the New World

Roger Williams’ Formative Years

The Good and the Bad of Roger Williams’ Separatism

Roger Williams’ “Dangerous” Ideas

Religious Freedom in Providence Colony

Faithful Freedom vs. Antinomianism