Soul Competency: An Abiding Principle of Faith
In the early days of the religious denomination that was later called, “Baptists,” there was one abiding principle that guided the way that these believers thought about faith. It was this principle that defined how they understood the role of clergy, how they related to others outside their local congregation, how they defined the polity that would guide their governance, how much importance they would place on the role Scripture, and how they would engage in secular politics. Interestingly, this guiding principle has been largely forgotten by many Baptists. In fact, I imagine that if you asked ten Baptists to list the one abiding principle that has shaped Baptist faith and polity, there would be only one or two that would answer correctly. Have you guessed the answer yet?
The answer is Soul Competency; the belief that the individual soul is competent that stand alone before God and to answer directly to God for faith and practice. These early Baptists were insistent that God speaks directly to each individual soul and that Christ is the only mediator necessary to interpret God’s Word and will for themselves. Each individual is then solely responsible for their beliefs, even when wrong. This doctrine resists any attempts to coerce faith by outside religious or political forces. Faith is the sole domain of a free conscience.
The result of the doctrine of soul competency has had some practical results. For instance, the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers is a direct result of soul competency. If no mediator is necessary for the individual to interpret God’s Word, then each believer becomes a priest in the truest sense of the word.
Another result of this doctrine is the primacy of Scripture. If each person is solely responsible for their beliefs and practices, then it is imperative that each believer be grounded in Scripture. Consistent with this belief, Baptists have made the preaching of the Word central to their worship and Bible study central to their discipleship.
The rejection of creeds as a requirement for membership is another practical result of the doctrine of soul competency. Creeds may be helpful as a statement of faith, but they are not required for church membership or participation in church programs. Each individual must decide the creed by which they will live.
The idea of congregational church polity is another direct result of soul competency. The decisions of the church are made by vote of the whole congregation. Each individual is able to interpret God’s will for the congregation and invited to express that interpretation via an individual vote.
Finally, the strong support of the Separation of Church and State has resulted from this doctrine of soul competency. The early Baptists in Virginia, led by Baptist pastor John Leland, were instrumental in insisting that the new Constitution of the United States would not be ratified without a Bill of Rights that included the Separation of Church and State. These early leaders understood that faith cannot be coerced. In her biography of James Madison, Lynne Cheney writes about John Leland, “Second only to his dedication to saving souls was Leland’s determination to see religious liberty prevail. ‘Should not government protect all kinds of people, of every species of religion, without showing the least partiality?’” (Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, p. 167).
As our society becomes more pluralistic and as we continue the conversation about Church and State, this doctrine of soul competency is one that we need to reaffirm and better understand. Sometimes our history can inform our present in ways that are more necessary than ever.