In a recent article in Christianity Today, Russell Moore (President, ERLC) tackled the question, “Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?” Moore is unequivocal in his answer to that question: No. However, the article isn’t simply a “Stop Trump” propaganda piece. Moore writes, “When considering the question of choosing between the lesser of two evils, we must begin with what voting is within our system of government. In our system, citizen is an office; we too bear responsibility for the actions of the government. Just as the lordship of Christ made demands for public justice on office-holders in the New Testament (Luke 4:15), the same is true for those who rule as citizens.”
Aside from the ongoing debate over the definition of “evangelical,” the 2016 Presidential Election has also stirred discussion over civil responsibility. How are Christians called to exercise their vote? Or are they? The question presupposes a strong sense of responsibility. But it assumes more than that. If one is in fact deemed “responsible,” he or she must first be deemed “competent.” And herein lies the particularly Baptist idea underlying Moore’s powerful words. In a democracy – political or ecclesiastical – the notion of responsibility begins with rulership. And as thousands of Baptists peer into the political circus for our nation’s presidency, it’s important to understand why this election affirms what it means to be Baptist.
In his epochal The Axioms of the Christian Religion (1908), former President of Southern Seminary and statesmen E.Y. Mullins reflected upon Baptist history: “The sufficient statement of the historical significance of the Baptists is this: The competency of the soul in religion. Of course this means a competency under God, not a competency in the sense of human self-sufficiency.” (53) Mullins’ coined phrase “soul competency” has also been called the “freedom of the soul.” And while Mullins’ meaning was slightly different, the central idea was the inviolable, non-coerced nature of the will. In the words of Heinrich Bullinger, “One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept faith, for faith is a free gift of God.” (Der Wiedertaufferen Ursprung, etc.) The Baptist notion of freedom in “soul freedom” doesn’t connote stark individualism and self-autonomy; it points to the fact that no man can believe for another man. A parent for a child, for example. (Presbyterian) Or a church for a sinner. (Catholic)
In Axioms, Mullins goes on to state, “Democracy in church government is an inevitable corollary of the general doctrine of the soul’s competency in religion.” (55) In other words, when we recognize the soul’s competency for decision-making (e.g. faith), we then understand the congregation’s competency to decide its leaders. (This is not to mistake competency for proficiency) This is why Congregationalist policy is also a Baptist distinctive. It’s a natural outworking of soul competency.
This is also why the first Englishmen to argue for complete religious “freedom” was Thomas Helwys, the founder of the first Baptist church on English soil. In his A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611), Helwys contends, “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all.” (53) In order for a church to be a believer’s church, liberty had to be preserved. For Helwys, religious liberty wasn’t grounded in the autonomous nature of the self. Rather, as Russell Moore also reminds us, it’s in response to the Lordship of Christ. This is precisely why Baptists have historically been credited with pioneering American religious liberty. The Baptist denomination has even been called the “democratic religion.” (Wills, 1997) In his robust history Baptists in America (2015), Thomas Kidd observes, “Baptists have indeed championed religious liberty, always for themselves and often for everyone else.” (249) That’s because religious freedom doesn’t just recognize soul competency. It’s also the proper soil for evangelism. A state cannot engender sincere repentance and faith. Therefore, according to Mullins, “We may regard American civilization as a Baptist empire…for at the basis of this government lies a great group of Baptist ideals.” (255)
According to Mullins, the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of the believer is but an expression of the competency (or “freedom”) of the soul. For Martin Luther as well as Baptists, every believer is a priest with direct access to God through faith. For Baptists, that presupposes the competency of the soul, the responsibility of every believer to believe or reject Jesus Christ. Salvation may be through grace, but it’s also through faith exercised by the believer.
During this 2016 Presidential Election, no matter the candidate, Baptists should consider the privilege of democracy and religious freedom not just for their political benefits but for their underlying assumptions. By the grace of God, sinners are competent to make decisions for themselves. In the words of E.Y. Mullins, “the competency of man in religion is the competency of man everywhere.” (65-66) The idea of “soul freedom” should never evoke thoughts of human individualism or self-autonomy. In fact it should do the opposite, reminding us of the divine image we bear as competent vice-regents under the sovereign Lordship of Christ.