AT THE CORE OF CONGREGATIONAL POLITY (PART 3)
This month as we continue our journey of looking at Baptist and Congregational Polity, we will look at a very Baptist distinctive called Soul Competency. The competency of the soul holds historical significance to Baptist. Baptist theologian, E. Y. Mullins's position, says, Soul Competency means a competency under God, not a competency in the sense of human self-sufficiency.[i] The Soul’s Competency is not about sinfulness or human ability, or moral living in the theological understanding. It is a clear call and response to the Scriptures on the life of a human being.
E. Y. Mullins believed the formation of the competency of the soul under God was both exclusive and inclusive as a distinctive contribution of Baptists to religious thought.[ii] Soul Competency as a New Testament principle is at heart the teaching of Christ restoration of humankind’s relationship to God. A relationship requires a response, and the soul must be competent to respond. The soul's competency excludes all outside human interference, no episcopacy, no infant baptism, no religion by proxy. Religion and faith are personal matters between the soul and God.
In the Lordship of Christ, we see two separate principles significant to the New Testament concepts: "the priesthood of all believers” and "soul competency." We looked at Priesthood of the Believer in an earlier piece. Soul competency is the idea that God has endowed individuals with the ability to decide matters of faith for themselves. The Baptist principle of believer's baptism acknowledges soul competency.
Early Baptists asserted that baptism "requires faith as an inseparable condition." They expected that people would recognize their sin's conviction and repent of their sin and respond to God freely in faith. Soul Competency is not self-sufficiency; instead, it is a gift of God. Soul Competency means every individual has the freedom to hear God's call and to respond to that call in faith because God has provided the opportunity. Soul competency is the only free will we exercise.
Both the Old and the New Testament give examples of soul competency. The scriptures' stories regularly reveal people have freedom of choice, and people are accountable to God for their choices. For example, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments assumed the people of Israel's competency to understand the commands. Along with the freedom to accept or reject the commands, indicating a human being's competency to make decisions.
With acceptance came blessings, and with rejection came curses. The Suzerain Treaty format so often seen in the Old Testament gave the vassal king a clear choice, obey and be blessed or reject and be cursed. They were revealing an assumed competency and freedom of choice (Exodus 20:1-17). On the way into the Promised Land, Joshua declared to the people of Israel, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15). This challenge would have been meaningless if the people had no competency or freedom to choose as individuals and as a community.
Also, the New Testament affirms soul freedom. Jesus asked the question, “Follow me,” with the assumption that individuals had a God-given competency to decide to follow him or not. He indicated that persons were free to believe or not believe, but that freedom had accountability for their choice (John 3:16-21). Jesus never coerced or forced persons to follow him. Some believed and followed, but some did not (Matthew 19:16-22).
The Apostle Paul wrote, “I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience? (1 Corinthians 10:29 ESV) And he pleaded with the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 NIV). Leaders in the New Testament churches modeled soul competency. They never forced anyone to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. The early church resisted religious and governmental authorities who tried to force them not to believe and speak for Jesus (Acts 5:17-42). If anything, like with Hymenaeus and Alexander, they were pushed out so they might feel the wound in their conscience of being outside the fellowship (1 Tim 1:19-20).
Some will contend that such freedom limits God’s sovereignty. Baptists believe the sovereign Lord of the universe chose to create human beings with freedom of choice when following Christ. The Bible supports both the sovereignty of God and the soul freedom of humans. The struggle becomes apparent in the age of enlightenment. Here the idea of soul competency leads to human arrogance and pride. If correctly understood, it should lead to humility. All human ability is a gift from God, including freedom of choice.
The danger of soul competency is subjectivism and hyper-individualism. They afford accompanying neglect of the importance of the community of believers. But adequately understood in the context of congregationalism, soul freedom exercised in the accountability of a community of believers allows us to love one another (John 13:35, Gal 5:13, 1 Thess 4:9, Heb 10:24, 1 John 3:23).
The doctrine of Soul Competency unlocks the doctrine of regeneration, justification, and separation of Church and State. Regeneration is the blessing that occurs as a result of the soul’s direct dealing with God. Justification follows simultaneously with, if not close behind, as regeneration seals the assertion that human beings and God were meant to communion together. The idea of a State church portrays the assumption that man is incompetent in religion. As these doctrines unfold, they assert the soul’s competency to respond directly with God in the initial salvific act.
To have a regenerated church-membership follows the necessity of a regenerated individual life. Yet, Soul competency looks further than individualism; it embraces the capacity for action in social relations on the individual. The church is a group of individuals in a relationship to sustain each other (Not what the church does for the one, but what each one does as the church). They organize to meet individually and collectively the great commission of Christ (Matt 28:18-20). As regenerate, Christ indwelling, competent soul individuals, the Church as a collective becomes a democratic priesthood of all believers.
E.Y. Mullins put it this way, “Man’s capacity for self-government in religion is nothing more than the authority of Christ exerted in and through the inner life of believers, with the understanding always, of course, that he (the believer) regulates that inner life in accordance with his (Christ) revealed word.”[iii]