NASHVILLE (BP) -- Rising death tolls in Iraq and Syria, where Muslim extremists are killing in the name of their faith, represent a stark contrast to the relative lack of religiously motivated killing among modern Christians -- a contrast that seminary professors say is attributable to the principle of religious liberty.
Religious violence declines wherever religious liberty "has been preached and practiced," Rick Durst, professor of historical theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. He added that Baptists have played a significant role in establishing religious liberty as a tenet of modern Christianity.
Baptists "have asserted from the beginning that the Gospel does not need government preference, that the conscience is inalienable and what we really need is a free church in a free state," Durst said.
The history of Christian violence
Christians used to kill with some frequency over matters of doctrine. There was the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin's Geneva, England's notorious Bloody Mary, the drowning of Anabaptists, the Crusades and more.
Timothy Paul Jones, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty member and author of "Christian History Made Easy," told BP "it was the intermingling of church authority and civil authority that made it possible for persons who claimed to be Christians to have the state execute others who also professed Christ."
Civil and church authority first mixed in the early fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and made it the empire's preferred religion. Perhaps the first case of one Christian executing another occurred in the late fourth century when Emperor Magnus Maximus beheaded an eccentric ascetic named Priscillian.
Donatists -- fourth- and fifth-century Christians who held that clergy who renounced their faith under persecution could never administer the sacraments again -- claimed that some of their leaders were executed. But no other sources corroborate their account and it may be an embellishment, Jones noted in written comments. Donatists were persecuted and some may have died in prison without being executed.
Durst, who believes Donatists were executed, agreed that the mingling of church and civil government helped turn Christians from a persecuted sect into a power group prone to persecute. Read More