In Defense of the Baptist State

Baptists Have No Reason to Reject An Established Baptist Religion

In 1659 a group of Baptistic Congregationalists in London came together to compose a declaration disavowing many Anabaptist tenets which were falsely being attributed to them. Included in that declaration is the following statement:

Whereas we are further charged with endeavouring an universal Toleration of all miscarriages, both in things Religious and Civil, under pretense of Liberty of Conscience; it is in both respects notoriously false. And we do before the Lord, that shall judge both quick and dead, yea, before Angels and men, declare our utter detestation of such a Toleration; for in matters Civil, we desire there may not be the least Toleration of miscarriage in any, much less in our selves.

Nor do we desire, in matters of Religion, that Popery should be tolerated, the bloud of many thousands of the people of God, having been barbarously shed, by the Professors thereof; or any persons tolerated, that worship a false god; nor any that speak contemptuously and reproachfully of our Lord Jesus Christ; nor any that deny the holy Scriptures, contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God: And yet, we are not against tolerating of Episcopacy, Presbytery, or any stinted form, provided they do not compel any others to a compliance therewith, or a conformity thereunto: for whatever Composers of any form of worship, may possibly erre; it is derogating from God, and his holy Word, and injurious to men, to compel any to practice thereof.

This statement is, no doubt, reminiscent of Savoy 24.3:

Although the magistrate is bound to encourage, promote, and protect the professors and profession of the gospel, and to manage and order civil administrations in a due subserviency to the interest of Christ in the world, and to that end to take care that men of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish and divulge blasphemy and errors, in their own nature subverting the faith and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive them: yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them; there is no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty.

It is true that the Savoy Declaration at least materially differs from the Westminster Confession, the former presupposing a Presbyterian establishment and so speaking of the “duty [of the civil magistrate], to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed.” The Savoy Declaration on the other hand envisions a Christian commonwealth in which there is a broader toleration for errors in doctrine and worship such that Presbyterians and Congregationalists may exercise their convictions side by side. But the question to be asked here is whether this means that Congregationalists differed in principle from the Presbyterians on the issue of an establishment and in the point of toleration. That this is not so, I think that all one has to do is to look to the Congregationalists across the ocean, who in point of fact did establish Congregationalism and punished dissenters. Certainly the father of Congregationalism himself, John Cotton, saw nothing wrong with punishing those who “revile the religion and worship of God, and the government of the church, as it is now established.”

My point here is that the common position on toleration among the English Congregationalists ought not to be taken to mean that they were in principle opposed to establishing one denomination over the rest. Rather, Savoy argued that at their time and place such an establishment would not be for the common good of the commonwealth, and indeed would be contrary to it. Nor should, conversely, the American Congregationalists or the Westminster Presbyterians be seen to be opposed in principle to such a toleration. George Gillespie writes:

To establish by a law the toleration, liberty, and immunity of such a Sect or Way, so as all that will may join in it, is a thing of most dangerous consequence. But to permit such or so many persons of a Sect to enjoy the liberty of their own consciences and practices, with such limitations as shall be found necessary, is a tolerable Toleration, I mean a thing though not to be wished, yet to be allowed. The Romans in their Heathenish way did put a difference betwixt these two: when they abolished the Bacchanalian festivity and discharged it, they granted no toleration to such as pleased still to observe it: only they were content that some few upon leave first obtained from the Senate, and upon certain conditions, might be permitted to continue their own practice, as to their part.

And Johannes Althusius, although he focuses here on toleration of other religions, establishes the same principle upon which many denominations might be tolerated:

The magistrate who is not able, without peril to the commonwealth, to change or overcome the discrepancy in religion and creed ought to tolerate the dissenters for the sake of public peace and tranquility, blinking his eyes and permitting them to exercise unapproved religion, lest the entire realm, and with it the household of the church, be overthrown. He shall therefore tolerate the practice of diverse religions as a skilled navigator bears with diverse and conflicting winds and clashing waves. Just as amidst these winds and waves the navigator brings his ship safely into the harbor, so the magistrate directs the commonwealth in a manner that keeps it free from ruin for the welfare of the church.

Which, if true for other religions, holds all the more so for many different Christian denominations.

Ideally, a commonwealth would be religiously united. But things hardly ever play out that way. Therefore, prudence ought to determine whether a given commonwealth has an establishment or not. If there are many different Christian denominations within a given commonwealth who are able to live in peace and maintain the well-being of the commonwealth then such a tolerance as Savoy argues for is best (and in fact the establishment of one denomination over the others would hurt the commonwealth). But, conversely, if there is say, a nation of Baptists, and any dissent compromises the peace, unity, and well-being of the commonwealth, then an establishment would be preferable. It made sense for the English Congregationalists to advocate for a broader civil toleration of all orthodox Reformed denominations. It also made sense for the American Congregationalists to advocate for Congregationalism as the established church and to civilly punish those who dissented. Against the extremes of an all-or-nothing establishmentarianism and an in–principle disallowance of establishment lies a prudential particularism which best allows for the well-being of each particular commonwealth to be realized.

While there certainly were, in point of fact, those among the English Congregationalists, both Baptist and Paedobaptist alike, who were in principle opposed to the establishment of one denomination above the others, I will argue that such an opposition is misguided and completely unnecessary to any ecclesiological convictions whatsoever. In fact, what I will proceed to argue is that one who grants that the civil government may, in principle, punish such things as blasphemy, idolatry and the like (as was granted by all sides), has no consistent basis upon which to deny that the civil government may also, in principle, establish one denomination above the others and so punish secondary errors in doctrine and practice. Such an inconsistency I think may be discerned in Christopher Blackwood who affirmed that the civil magistrate may not punish “presenting ourselves at false worship…rotten communication…heresy, schism” while also affirming that the civil magistrate may punish those who “rail against Christ, or deny the Scriptures to be His Word, or affirm the Epistles to be only Letters written to particular churches.” The problem comes in that the allowance of the second necessitates the first insofar as Christianity must be defined (as Samuel Rutherford puts it, “Libertines say, they are only Hereticks or at least punishable by men, who deny fundamentals of Christian Religion, but are sparing to tell us what fundamentals, whether of law and known by the light of nature, or of Gospel known onely by supernaturall revellation, so that ere they finde the hereticke, they must show you the point they deny is fundamental”) and such a position creates an inconsistency when Blackwood goes to speak on toleration of Roman Catholics. John Coffey notes that, “In The storming of Antichrist (1644), Blackwood presented what appeared to be an argument against all persecution, and tentatively suggested that papists might ‘be borne with … in Protestant governments in point of religion’. But he then drew back, and implied that whilst differences over church order could be tolerated, error in fundamentals (such as that of the Socinians and papists) ought not to be permitted.” 

 In other words, the exact same principle upon which the early Baptists argued against the toleration of Roman Catholics, is precisely that which validates the permissibility of civil punishment of “non-fundamental” errors in doctrine or practice. The same reason, the same rationale which allows one to hold the former (that such opinions may be destructive to the well-being of the commonwealth), allows one to hold the latter. As Rutherford argues, “errors in non-fundamentals obstinately holden are punishable” 

With that said, I will now present the state of the question:

Must a Baptist, in principle, reject the civil establishment of their denomination and with it the civil punishment of errors in doctrine and practice?

I argue the negative.

First, from the outset, these two propositions are not contrary:

That baptism ought to be upon a credible profession of faith.

That the civil government may establish a denomination and punish errors in doctrine and practice.

Therefore, there exists a possible world in which both of these propositions are true. 

The reason there is no opposition between the two is because the first proposition, it is argued by those who assert it, depends upon positive law of the New Covenant. The second, it is argued by those who assert it, depends upon the natural law. While there is something intrinsically “Baptist” about the first statement, there is nothing intrinsically “Baptist” or “not Baptist” about the second because the second is a conclusion derived from one’s metaphysics, not one’s covenant theology, unlike the first. The first statement is only contingently true and could have been otherwise if God had so willed (similar to this statement: the polity of the church is congregational), but the second follows from the very nature of civil government.

This leads us to our next syllogism:

If the civil punishment of errors in doctrine and worship is justified by principles of the natural law, then it holds true both prior to and posterior to God’s determination of the nature of ecclesiastical polity.

But the civil punishment of errors in doctrine and worship is justified by principles of natural law, therefore, etc.

To the minor, here is Rutherford:

The sword is a means negatively to punish acts of false worship in those that are under the Christian Magistrate and professe Christian Religion, in so farre as these acts come out to the eyes of men and are destructive to the souls of these in a Christian society; Tis even so (& not otherwise punishable by the Magistrate;) for he may punish omissions of hearing the Doctrine of the Gospel and other externall performances of worship, as these omissions by ill example or otherwise are offensive to the souls of these that are to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godlinesse and honestie; nor does it follow that the sword is a kindly means to force outward performances, for the Magistrate as the Magistrate does not command these outward performances as service to God, but rather forbids the omissions of them as destructine to man.

Though in context he has in mind the punishment of those of other religions, this same rationale and principle (in that these “acts come out to the eyes of men and are destructive to the souls of these in a Christian society”) formally applies to why the civil magistrate is able to punish “lesser” doctrinal and doxological errors. Nature is end, and men by nature have established civil laws which forbid the teachings of things contrary to the established doctrine of the land even in “lesser points” for the well-being of human society.

Again, if the establishment of one denomination above others is justified on the basis of natural principles, then any given denomination can agree to the argument.

But the establishment of one denomination above others is justified on the basis of natural principles.

Therefore, etc.

Next, any evil outward action harmful to the well-being of the commonwealth is in principle punishable by the civil magistrate.

The teaching of doctrinal error is an evil outward action harmful to the well-being of the commonwealth.

Therefore, etc.

To the major, speaking on the extent of the authority of civil government, Van Mastricht says that “The magistrate has no authority over the soul and conscience of a man, but he nonetheless does have it over his tongue and hands, and thus he can just as well punish a heresy by which his subjects’ soul is destroyed, as a robbery by which their body is destroyed.” You will say, “but what about private actions?” Flynn Evans, in his excellent article on John Cotton’s political thought, explains that “for Cotton and his fellow Puritans, there was no such thing as a wholly private act. Exercising conscience always existed within the public realm in light of how the stability of the commonwealth was predicated upon the diligent inculcation of biblical praxis for each of its members. Sanctification would come to society through the interpenetrating pursuits of godliness attained in each of its institutions. If one member faltered without discipline, then the whole of the commonwealth’s spiritual welfare would be at risk.” The civil government very much has an interest in such “private” actions insofar as they may affect the well-being of the commonwealth, and so can in principle be punished.

To the minor, I cite Rutherford again: the toleration of the high places are as inconsistent with peace, destructive and injurious to soules, especially in the godly, as scandalous to other false teachers, as these non-fundamentall sins. Once again, the exact same reason that it is permissible to punish blasphemy, idolatry, and errors in fundamental points of doctrine and practice holds true also in the case of heresies, and errors in non-fundamental points of doctrine and practice. Both are destructive to the well-being of the commonwealth, both being scandalous, offensive, and harmful to the souls of Christians and thus corrosive of civil society.


If the civil magistrate is in principle unable to outlaw an outward work, it will be because such a work possesses an intrinsic right.

But the teaching of errors possesses no intrinsic right (the reason being because this is an evil work and evil has no intrinsic right).

Therefore, the civil magistrate is not in principle unable to outlaw the teaching of errors.

Heresy is an evil outward work. This is also clearly true of any false teaching on any point of doctrine and practice. Since such things are evil works, they do not have the backing of the authority of the Law of God behind them and so they have no intrinsic right to be civilly protected. Here I assume that liberties are grounded in rights. That which lacks any intrinsic right possesses no intrinsic liberty and so can in principle be outlawed. But nothing evil can possess any intrinsic right since a right is that which is just and evil is unjust. Therefore, etc.

Justification for the civil magistrate outlawing any given error in worship may be argued as follows:

The civil magistrate can punish unlawful worship. 

X is unlawful worship.

Therefore the civil magistrate may punish X.

The major is admitted by all in virtue of admitting that the civil magistrate may punish idolatry, as the Baptist declaration mentioned at the beginning of this article itself says. The justification for this comes from the first and second commandments.

You will say “but the civil magistrate cannot know what is or is not unlawful worship” First, this is false since insofar as the civil magistrate possesses special revelation, he has the ability and duty to determine what God has or has not revealed. Rutherford says that the magistrate must be certain that “that his mandates are known to be agreeable to the Word of God, and proposes them to the subjects to be obeyed.” Gillespie recognizes that “if the Magistrate be Christian, it is incumbent to him so to administer that high and eminent vocation of his, that Christ may be glorified as King of the Church, and that this Kingdom of Christ may flourish in his Dominions” The magistrate as a Christian magistrate is not only capable of knowing what true and false worship is but has the duty of acting accordingly. Second, this argument proves too much since in order for it to succeed in its goal of showing that therefore the civil magistrate must leave what is contested to be revealed worship up to everyone’s own judgment and not punish it, idolatry would be justified simply on the basis of one claiming that God has revealed it (and again on this way Roman Catholicism could not be punished). 

I conclude that a Baptist need not reject the civil establishment of their denomination and with it the civil punishment of errors in doctrine and practice. This is not, of course, to say that I am actually advocating for a Baptist state, as it seems to me that such an arrangement would almost never be actually ideal in practice, but it is to say that Baptists have no good reason to rule this out in principle. A primary concern of mine has been to explicate the reasons behind why establishments themselves are permissible. I have chosen this path, as I believe that many objections lodged against the permissibility of a Baptist establishment are more fundamentally misunderstandings about why establishments are permissible in the first place and would render Presbyterian establishments equally “inconsistent”. It is not as though positive laws of the New Covenant demand that there be an establishment or that errors in matters of faith qua errors in matters of faith must be civilly punished as though they were directly crimes against God and His special revelation or that the Gospel imports new principles into politics. Such ideas would be, and in point of fact were, vehemently rejected by all the Reformed Orthodox. Such objections reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the Reformed position itself and such tenets as arbitrarily limiting the power of civil government so that they lack power over the tongues of men or have no duty to care for their citizens’ souls or to eschew scandal reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of civil government itself which no doubt could only have arisen in a post-enlightenment context. In short, if Baptistism is not inconsistent with nature, neither is it inconsistent with an establishment.

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Brandon Corley

Brandon Corley is a graduate from The Master's University with a degree in Biblical Studies. He is currently a prospective student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He can be found on Twitter/X @BrandonCorley99

2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Baptist State

  1. The Anti-Christian Nationalist streak in Baptist circles is real and as a Reformed Baptist who adheres to Christian Nationalism it’s encouraging to see a “For-Reals” Baptist defending establishmentarianism. We need less dispensational Nickelodeon Baptists and more William Wolfe, Dusty Deevers, and Brandon Corley types to push against Regime-Evangelicalism.

  2. Your article argues for the possibility of a Baptist state religion, a stance that inadvertently highlights the contradictions and errors of the Reformation. From a Catholic perspective, this position underscores a fundamental misunderstanding: the existence of one Divine Truth and the necessity of a single, unified ecclesiastical authority to uphold it.

    The Catholic Church teaches that there is only one Divine Truth, which is safeguarded by the Church established by Jesus Christ. This belief is rooted in the understanding that truth is singular and cannot contradict itself. Consequently, the proliferation of denominations with contradictory beliefs is inherently illogical and not representative of the one Divine Truth. The Reformation, which sought to break away from the Catholic Church, has led to the fragmentation of Christianity into over 40,000 denominations, each claiming to hold the truth. This splintering is evidence of the error of breaking from the unified Church.

    The article suggests that a Baptist state religion could be justified on the grounds of natural law and the civil punishment of doctrinal errors. This notion mirrors the historical role of the Catholic Church, which has maintained a single, ruling body—the Vatican—to preserve doctrinal purity and unity among believers. The irony is clear: the article’s advocacy for a singular religious authority within a Baptist framework echoes the very structure that the Reformation rejected. This highlights the Reformation’s failure to recognize the necessity of a central authority to maintain the integrity of the faith.

    By promoting the idea of a state-endorsed Baptist religion, the article inadvertently acknowledges the need for a singular, authoritative body to govern religious practice and doctrine. This is precisely what the Catholic Church provides through the Vatican. The Catholic Church has consistently claimed to be the one true Church established by Christ, a claim validated through miraculous events and the continuity of apostolic succession. These elements serve as divine endorsements of the Church’s authority and its role as the guardian of Divine Truth.

    Recognizing multiple denominations with contradictory beliefs undermines the concept of one Divine Truth. If there is one truth, then logically, there can only be one true Church that fully embodies and teaches that truth. The Reformation’s legacy of denominationalism contradicts this principle, as it implies that truth can be fragmented and that contradictory doctrines can coexist within the Christian faith. This is a fundamentally flawed notion, as truth, by its nature, is absolute and cannot be subject to personal or collective interpretation that leads to doctrinal divergence.

    The Catholic Church stands as a testament to the necessity of a unified religious authority. It is through this unity that the Church has been able to preserve the faith across centuries, remaining true to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. The miraculous events associated with the Catholic Church, such as the incorruptibility of certain saints’ bodies, Eucharistic miracles, and Marian apparitions, provide further validation of its divine mandate. These occurrences are seen as signs from God, affirming the Church’s role as the custodian of the one Divine Truth.

    In contrast, the Reformation’s departure from the Catholic Church has resulted in doctrinal chaos and the erosion of a unified Christian witness. The existence of tens of thousands of denominations is not a testament to the flourishing of Christian faith but rather a sign of disunity and doctrinal confusion. Each denomination, while seeking to adhere to its understanding of the faith, ultimately contributes to a fragmented representation of Christianity that is far removed from the unity Christ desired for His Church.

    In conclusion, the argument for a Baptist state religion, as presented in the article, inadvertently underscores the error of the Reformation and the necessity of a unified ecclesiastical authority. The Catholic Church, through the Vatican, continues to uphold and represent the one Divine Truth, a truth that cannot be fractured into multiple, contradictory doctrines. The proliferation of denominations since the Reformation is evidence of the need to return to the unity and authority of the Church that Jesus established, which through miraculous validation, remains the true representative of Divine Truth.

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