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Andrew Fuller on Contemporary Progressive Baptists

Many progressive Baptists in the American South, who normally prefer to be called moderates, have argued for many years that the sine qua non of the Baptist tradition is religious freedom, particularly embodied in the right to private interpretation of spiritual matters. This aberrant view of Christian freedom, which is typically linked to a perversion of the priesthood of all believers and "soul competency," has been used to justify progressive views on a number of issues. A recent example will suffice.

Just this past month the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina excluded the Myers Park Baptist Church of Charlotte from convention membership (read about it here). Myers Park has been openly supportive of the homosexual agenda, and for years unrepentant homosexuals have been allowed into the church's membership and have served in leadership positions. The members of this church have argued that homosexuals should not be treated as spiritual outcasts, noting that Jesus accepted outcasts and loved all people. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that Jesus did so uncritically, which of course redefines the nature of the gospel itself. But Myers Park, like many progressive churches, argues that it should have the right to read Scripture in any manner they wish without fear of any recrimination from other Baptist churches. In other words, Myers Park is arguing that their private interpretation of Scripture is an inherent right that trumps any sense of inter-church accountability.

Since there is nothing new under the sun, it should surprise no one that the arguments used by progressive Baptists are not novel. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, there were Christians in England that similarly argued for the right of unfettered private interpretation. Andrew Fuller offered some thoughts on these moral and theological libertarians, and his words are just as relevant 200 years later. Please note I have retained the original spelling and fonts.

The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be THE RIGHT WHICH EVERY INDIVIDUAL HAS TO THINK AND TO AVOW HIS THOUGHTS ON THOSE SUBJECTS, WITHOUT BEING LIABLE TO ANY CIVIL INCONVENIENCE ON THAT ACCOUNT….But of late the subject has taken another turn, and men have pleaded not only an exemption from civil penalties on account of their religious principles, in which the very essence of persecution consists, but also that they are not subject to the control of a religious society with which they stand connected for any tenets which they may think proper to avow. The right of private judgment now frequently assumed, is a right in every individual who may become a member of a Christian church to think and avow his thoughts, be they what they may, without being subject to exclusion of admonition, or the ill opinion of his brethren, on that account. Any thing that is consistent with this is thought to be consistent to spiritual tyranny, and repugnant to that "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." But this appears to be highly extravagant, and is what no man can claim as a right. The following considerations are submitted to the reader.

First, The supposed right of the individual is contrary to the principles on which Christian churches were originally founded….Hence it appears that admonishing or excluding from the primitive church those who held pernicious errors was not reckoned to be subversive of the right of private judgment; and the churches being exhorted to such discipline by the apostles was exercising no dominion over their faith.

Secondly, Not only is this supposed right of private judgment inconsistent with apostolic practice, but it is also contrary to reason and the fitness of all things….A community must entirely renounce the name of a Christian church before it can act upon the principle here contended for; and those who entirely reject Christianity ought, nevertheless, to be admitted or retained in fellowship, if they choose it; seeing they have only exercised the right of private judgment!

To say that no person is better or worse in a moral view, whatever be his principles, is to say that principles themselves have no influence on the heart and life; and that amounts to the same thing as their being of no importance. But if so, all those scriptures which represent truth as a means of sanctification ought to be discarded; and all the labours of good men to discover truth, and of the apostles to disseminate it–yea, and those of the Son of God himself, who came into the world to bear witness to the truth–were totally in vain.

[From "An Inquiry into the Right of Private Judgment in Matters of Religion," in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, pp. 447-49.]