From Church Competence To Soul Competence: The Devolution Of Baptist Ecclesiology -- By: John Hammett

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 03:1 (Spring 2005)
Article: From Church Competence To Soul Competence: The Devolution Of Baptist Ecclesiology
Author: John Hammett


From Church Competence To Soul Competence:
The Devolution Of Baptist Ecclesiology

John Hammett

Professor of Systematic Theology
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Post Office Box 1889 Wake Forest, NC 27588

The thesis of this paper is threefold: (1) that congregational polity in Baptist ecclesiology was undergirded, particularly in its early days, by a conviction that Christ had granted to each local church power and authority (what I call competence) to order its own affairs; (2) that over a long period of time, but particularly in the late nineteenth century, a variety of factors developed in American life that began to undermine the idea of church competence and replace it with an idea enshrined in the phrase “soul competence;” and (3) that this development should be regarded as a devolution in Baptist ecclesiology, for it seems linked to a variety of deleterious ideas and practices that have been and are continuing to weaken and trouble Baptist church life.

This threefold thesis will be developed in the three main sections of this paper, with each section devoted to one of the three aspects of the thesis. As the documentation will suggest, I am looking primarily at what has happened to Baptists in North America, particularly my own context of Southern Baptists. I do not know how applicable it will be to Baptists from other geographical contexts, but I believe it will have some relevance for most evangelical groups in the North American context, because the factors that affected Baptists were not completely unique to them.

Congregational Polity And Church Competence

It is almost unquestioned that congregational polity has been a characteristic part of Baptist ecclesiology since Baptists originated. R. Stanton Norman, in his analysis of Baptist literature on Baptist identity, summarizes his findings in this statement: “Writings on Baptist distinctives all contend for Congregationalism as the most appropriate form of church government.”1 This can be easily substantiated by a quick look at Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist literature on the issue of ecclesiology, and almost any Baptist church constitution and by-laws.2 From time to time the issue of ruling elders has received some discussion among Baptists, but elder rule has never been widely adopted by Baptists.3 Baptists may rightly be identified with congregational polity. How well they have practiced it is open to debate. Powerful pastors and dominating deacons have been all too common....

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