Baptists have always had a keen sense of political consciousness and social concern. Certainly the separation of church and state is a commonly accepted Baptist distinctive. However, the very notion of separation emerged when European Baptists were active socially and politically.
In the 16th century, Balthasar Hubmaier, leader of a large Anabaptist community in the Czech Republic, took the view that political involvement was legitimate for Christians.
The changes in social relationships in mid-17th century England during Cromwell’s Commonwealth were largely due to the efforts of the Dissenters, amongst whom the Baptists were highly active.
Large parts of the constitutions of the United States and other Western liberal democracies came out of the radical thinking of this period. In the early 17th century, Thomas Helwys, a Baptist, called for complete freedom of conscience. Roger Williams, another Baptist, called for “soul freedom.” Such people fought for justice and human rights.
Closer to our own time, several Baptist leaders in Europe, especially in Britain, worked diligently for social changes in the early 20th century through the Liberal, Labor, Christian Socialist and various cooperative movements.
In Eastern Europe, the forceful atheism of the Communist regimes affected Baptist communities. Some communities “accepted the unacceptable,” allowing the government to enter the life of the church. In the mid-1960s, this led to either church splits or religious hypocrisy. Others, while keeping churches open and registered under communist supervision, kept meeting secretly in homes. Still others went underground and were severely persecuted as illegal sects.
In today’s Europe, this mixed heritage remains. Even with the newly gained freedom in the East, many Baptist communities are reluctant to engage in any political activities, let alone participate in the government or armed forces. Especially for smaller Baptist communities, the sense of powerlessness limits the Baptist vision of involvement.
But others (in Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and even Poland) are re-discovering the tradition of active political involvement and exercising influence at the level of the parliament.
If Baptists want to get away from the stigma of a sect, they must be publicly active and even politically involved.
Churches can be active by being present, visible and vocal, rather than being politically involved. But churches must be willing to meet society’s needs.
The real meaning of the separation of church and state in the Baptist vision is not a call for seclusion. What is at stake is Baptists’ resistance against direct government involvement in the life of the church.
At the same time, however, Baptists sense a call to change society for the better. Baptists’ prophetic participation in the life of a society is not a dilemma to be solved. It is a vision to be recovered.
Parush Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.