Cooperative Baptists in North Carolina are revising their “foundational statements” to delete traditional references to liberty of conscience and “soul competency” and assert the priority and authority of the community in matters of faith. Like the fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention, communitarians within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are determined to effect change within Baptist churches by redefining the traditional Baptist understanding of the “priesthood of the believer.”
Fundamentalists redefined “priesthood of the believer” to mean “submission to pastoral authority.” Communitarians are redefining “priesthood of the believer” to mean “submission to the authority of your church.”
Both are weary of the conflict of interpretations that are inevitable when finite and fallible human beings are passionate about reading scripture and living faithfully in accord with a revelation whose meaning is inexhaustible.
Both believe they are authorized to replace the Holy Spirit in the mind and heart of the believer. Fundamentalists replace the Holy Spirit with the authority of the pastor. Communitarians replace the Holy Spirit with the authority of the community. Either the pastor or your community serves to legitimate or delegitimate interpretations of scripture.
Neither fundamentalists nor communitarians make allowances for human imperfections. In the real world, both pastors and church communities often oppose valid interpretations of scripture and legitimate movements of God’s Spirit. That is why Baptists, historically, have been the Christian faith’s staunchest advocates for “liberty of conscience” or “soul competency.” Baptists, at their best, have always left room for the “prophets” – those who seem to be born out of due time because they are responding to a divine summons to serve the community in ways that challenge its consensus.
In my mind, it was a divine summons that led John Smyth to separate from the church of England and to adopt believer’s baptism. It was a divine summons that led Thomas Helwys to separate from John Smyth and return to England to start the First Baptist church in England. It was a divine summons that led Roger Williams to break with the state church in Boston and start the First Baptist Church in America. It was a divine summons that led John Leland in his struggle for religious liberty and his opposition to slavery. And, in more recent days, it was a divine summons that led Cecil Sherman, Daniel Vestal and others to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
If there is anything common to all these instances, it is that none of them were examples of submission to the prevailing opinion in their own community of faith. All of them are examples of submission to the authority of an inner voice that speaks in the heart and mind and conscience. In one way or another, all of them are examples of people who were constrained to obey God rather than men. All of them recognized that they would appear before the judgment seat of Christ and that when they appear there, they would all stand alone. No parents, no friends, no teachers, no pastors, no churches, and no denominations will be there to make excuses for them, -- and, they won’t be able to use any of these to make excuses for themselves.
Baptists, at their best, also realize that just as we are all called to be priests to each other, we are all also called to be prophets to one another. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all of us. We all must learn to interpret scriptures and discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our church community plays a prominent role in helping us develop these abilities, but our primarily accountability is not to our community. Paul tells us,“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:10) When we appear there, we will all stand alone. Christ will know how many times He spoke to our hearts and minds and consciences through the voice of the Holy Spirit. He will also know how many times we listened and heeded His voice, -- and, he will know how many times we turned away and followed a different voice.
This individual and personal accountability before God is why liberty of conscience should always be held inviolable. It is inviolable for two reasons. First, because no human being or community interprets the voice of God infallibly – whether that voice is communicated through scriptures, through the community, or through a still, small voice at the heart of your being. Second, because everyone is personally responsible for learning to listen to God’s voice and to interpret it for themselves.