Individual Soul Liberty | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 6: Individual Soul Liberty

Individual soul liberty is a subject that is difficult to treat due to several factors. It somewhat overlaps the concept of the priesthood of the believer; it can easily be misunderstood and misapplied; and it is a concept that is universally held in theory but generally rejected in practice among independent fundamental Baptists.

Definition: Every individual, whether a believer or an unbeliever, has the freedom to choose what his conscience or soul dictates is right in the religious realm. Soul liberty asks the believer to accept responsibility for his own actions and not try to force anyone else to do or believe anything contrary to his own conscience. However, this liberty is not a justification for disobeying God. The believer must still act according to the principles of Scripture and honor the doctrinal position of the Bible-believing Baptist church to which he belongs.


Individual soul liberty is a particularly Baptist principle. Most denominations attempt to exercise control over their members to some extent, but Baptists limit such control by demanding that every believer is ultimately responsible to God. Individuals have the right to disagree with others, follow their own conscience, and not feel compelled to adopt any views they disagree with. This does not suggest that every believer is a “lone wolf” or that believers need not submit to the leadership of their church. Soul liberty simply asserts that every believer has the right to act in accordance with his own conscience, and that no one can force anyone to believe or act against his theological viewpoint.

When studying the individual priesthood of the believer, we found that no believer has the right to impose views, practices, etc., on any other believer. The priesthood of the believer and individual soul liberty overlap a bit as they both deal with the issue of freedom within the confines of the will of God.

Unfortunately, soul liberty is not a popular idea in many Baptist congregations. Of all the Baptist distinctives, this issue of soul liberty is probably the one most fraught with difficulties, discrepancies, and disagreements. Leaders often give no room for personal convictions that may differ from their own viewpoint. Believers are often quick to judge, to criticize, and to give an opinion where not is asked for. Issues that should be minor may rise to a level where anyone who takes another position becomes the enemy. The church’s responsibility is to clearly present the Scriptures so as to convince believers of their need to submit and obey. Nevertheless, the church should not threaten, bully or intimidate its members into submission. Christians should desire to live godly lives because they are freely convinced that they ought to do so, not because someone forces godliness upon them.

There appears to be widespread ignorance of this Baptist distinctive, at least in practice if not in belief. Since it is a biblical issue, it is certainly worthy of serious study and consideration.

Texts:

John 21:22 Jesus saith unto him, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”

Rom. 14:5-12, 21 One indeed esteems a day above another day; and another esteems every day alike. Let each one be fully assured in his own mind. He who regards the day regards it to the Lord; and he not regarding the day, does not regard it to the Lord. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, does not eat to the Lord, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For both if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. . . . But why do you judge your brother? Or also why do you despise your brother? For all shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ. . . . It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything by which your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.

Acts 15:39 And the contention was so sharp between [Paul and Barnabas], that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus.

The Bible makes abundantly clear, especially in the New Testament, that each individual is responsible for himself before God, and that we are to convince rather than compel others regarding their religious views and positions. Persuasion, not force, is the biblical way.

This distinctive teaches that each believer has the right to shape his own beliefs and live his Christian life according to the dictates of his conscience and his interpretation of the Word of God. While others have the right (and may have the obligation) to correct another’s doctrinal errors and to rebuke flaws in his Christian life, no one has the right to force another to abandon or adopt a particular belief or practice.

Limitations on Soul Liberty

  • Soul liberty is never a justification for disobeying Scripture. An individual may choose to disobey, but soul liberty does not justify his disobedience. Liberty is not a license to sin.
  • Soul liberty does not grant the right to do something which will harm another’s walk with God. Mature believers should not flaunt their freedom or use it to the extent that it upsets or offends a weaker believer. See Rom 14:19-23.
  • Soul liberty does not make the Christian a law unto himself. We are part of the body of Christ, and that partnership in the body is realized through participation in the local assembly. We have an obligation to give to and to gain from that assembly. Soul liberty does not revoke our commitment to church life.
  • Soul liberty does not permit a believer to disregard others’ liberty. Our liberty stops where it infringes on another’s right to exercise his free choice. Each believer must allow other believers to exercise Christian liberty.
  • Soul liberty limits how believers interact with one another. In regards to the errors of others, believers are limited to correction, rebuke and moral persuasion. One should not attempt to force his beliefs or standards on another. He can teach and advise but not compel.
  • Soul liberty demands that individuals be free to hold their own standards and convictions even when they diverge from the “conventional wisdom.” All standards, convictions and viewpoints should be based squarely on clear biblical teaching rather than on someone else’s ideas.

To summarize, we can say that we are quite strictly limited from interfering with the liberty of another and even more strictly limited from totally free exercise of liberty ourselves. Individual soul liberty is very much a “mind your own business” (or “What is that to thee?”) principle.

The implications of soul liberty are several, including at least the following:

  • Believers are free to choose their actions and beliefs according to the dictates of their consciences as guided by the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and good teachers.
  • One believer’s set of standards and/or theological ideas may differ from another believer’s set. One must allow for differing levels of spiritual maturity, opinion, education, and conviction. It’s unwise to force an artificial uniformity over everyone.
  • Liberty does not excuse disobedience. One cannot disobey the clear teaching of Scripture by appealing to his freedom of conscience. One’s conscience must bow to biblical authority.
  • A believer’s ultimate accountability is to God and not to other people. Others may offer rebuke and correction only when necessary and appropriate.
  • Churches still have influence over individual believers; however, that influence is through persuasion, not through force. Believers may disagree with their leaders and refuse to follow them under certain circumstances.
  • One should allow room for others to practice liberty, especially in areas not directly addressed in the Bible. Grant some leeway in allowing others to decide what is and what is not a significant issue.
  • Many of the issues that so stridently divide believers are really matters of liberty and conscience rather than clearly defined black and white issues of right and wrong.
  • The proper exercise of soul liberty presupposes and actually requires a strong personal relationship with the Lord. As believers spend time with Him, they sense their own limitations and weaknesses, and become far less prone to being judgmental of others.

As mentioned above, soul liberty is often misunderstood and more often not allowed in many conservative churches. Strong leaders tend to portray a “my way or the highway” style that will not put up with dissenting opinions. Some even exalt their own personal standards to the level of biblical principle, and anyone who disagrees is seen as “liberal.”[1] Soul liberty comes into play in areas the Bible does not address either directly or in principle. Christians have freedom to come to their own conclusions on such matters. Church leaders may teach and advise on such issues, but they should not force members to subscribe to convictions without biblical warrant. Baptists have historically allowed members to exercise their liberty of conscience.

Soul Liberty and the Church

There are times when believers can and should refuse to follow the leadership of their pastor(s). One should not follow a blind guide into the ditch (Luke 6:39). One need not subscribe to false or inaccurate doctrine. One need not feel compelled or forced to do anything against his own theological position. One need not participate in anything he deems to be foolish, dangerous, or inappropriate. However, a believer should be open to learn and to follow the leadership of his pastor(s). Churches should allow some “wiggle room” so individuals can hold theological viewpoints that may differ somewhat from the official position of the church. Churches should also not dictate behavior on matters that the Bible says nothing about. Churches may advise and suggest on such matters, but they should not force compliance when there is no direct biblical teaching. If a believer finds that he is constantly at odds with church leadership, he should find another church. Generally speaking though, a church member should seek to follow the leadership of his church.

Perversions of Soul Liberty

Soul liberty is neglected or misunderstood because it is easily perverted. One way that soul liberty is perverted is that individuals may see themselves as not subject to any kind of discipline, teaching, or persuasion. It’s easy to develop a “just me and my Bible” attitude, where one refuses to acknowledge anyone else’s influence. Such a person may drop out of church altogether because he refuses to be taught or led. One might even argue that soul liberty leads to the fracturing and fragmentation of Christianity. However, believers must submit to the Bible and to legitimate spiritual leadership from pastors and others. Believers must seek to balance their own personal spirituality with the requirements of church authority. To refuse such leadership and teaching is to pervert the doctrine of individual soul liberty.

Another perversion of soul liberty happens when believers neglect their responsibility to encourage, warn, exhort, and rebuke one another. If one thinks that he has no right to advise a fellow believer, he will never confront him about his sin. Soul liberty should not prevent a Christian from his duty toward other believers. However, one must insure that he is confronting someone over a genuine sin, not over an issue of personal freedom.

A third misuse of this doctrine occurs when believers are unconcerned about their testimonies. That is, they care little about what other believers think of them, and they may prove to be poor examples and even stumbling blocks for weaker brethren. Such people become defiant in the flaunting of their perceived freedoms. But Paul teaches that believers should do nothing that would cause a weaker believer to stumble or be offended (Rom 14:21). Believers must insure that they don’t tempt fellow Christians to violate their consciences. One should practice his soul liberty in a quiet, respectful, non-offensive way.

A fourth perversion of soul liberty occurs when churches allow eccentric and even heretical views to exist without properly addressing them. That is, if each believer is allowed his own opinion and viewpoint, and if the church does not demand that members adhere to a common set of beliefs, then the church will soon degenerate to the point where there is no agreement on doctrinal issues. The church as a whole must demand that believers subscribe to basic biblical teachings and to those distinctives that characterize the church. Every member must subscribe to and support the doctrinal statement of the church. However, a church should not intimidate its members or force them to adopt any teaching or practice that lacks solid biblical support. Those who don’t agree with what the church teaches or stands for are free to find another church.

Conclusion

Baptists have historically insisted that every individual has the liberty to choose what his conscience or soul dictates is right in the religious realm. Soul liberty asks the believer to accept responsibility for his own actions and not try to force anyone else to do something contrary to his own conscience. Refusal to acknowledge and accept the concept of soul liberty, and failure to grant it to another, is actually a doctrinal violation.

One of the difficulties of the Christian life is to balance one’s own personal standards, convictions and doctrinal views with those held by his church. On the one hand, each individual believer is responsible for himself before God. He must be free to develop his own unique set of beliefs and standards. On the other hand, the believer is (or should be) a member of a church, and that church imposes its standards and beliefs upon the believer. Believers must seek to integrate and harmonize personal spirituality and church life so that what they believe personally is what their church stands for and teaches as well.

Discussion:

  1. Can one excuse his sin by appealing to soul liberty? No, it’s not a license to sin.
  2. Can one disobey his pastor(s) because of soul liberty? Depends. If the pastor is wrong, then yes. If you choose to disagree/disobey, you’d better have a solid biblical reason for doing so. In most matters, one should seek to follow his pastor’s leadership.
  3. When is it inappropriate for one believer to try to make another believer change? If the issue involved is not clearly biblical or ethical. Without biblical guidance, each believer is free to do as he thinks best. No one should attempt to force him to change.
  4. Is it ever appropriate for one believer to rebuke another believer? Yes, whenever someone is in clear violation of a biblical principle, believers have a right and responsibility to call fellow believers to repentance and change.
  5. How can soul liberty be perverted? By using it as a license for sin; by using it to lead weak believers astray; by using it to disobey legitimate leadership; using it to reject legitimate church authority or sound theology.
  6. Suggest some example issues in which soul liberty comes into play. Going to movies, watching TV, playing cards, dancing, music, styles of dress.

[1] The word “liberal,” when used in a theological context, applies to those who reject the Bible and the central teachings of Christianity, even though they may think of themselves as Christians. One should not use the word “liberal” to describe a genuine believer whose standards and convictions happen to be a bit more generous than one’s own. A more accurate term is “new evangelical” or just “loose.”