Edgar Mullins was the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I recently finished his classic The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908). His is a refreshingly simple exposition of Baptist Christianity. I’ll provide a sketch of Mullin’s position here, and note some of its implications and possible rebukes for modern Baptists in 2022 America.
Kingdom Principles and Polity
Mullins begins by presenting four principles for the Kingdom of God as guardrails for a biblical polity. They are:
Christianity is not about rote obedience, but a relationship between God and man. Because God is our Father, that personal relationship shapes how we respond to His laws—not as frightened slaves, but as obedient sons and daughters. “Those in the kingdom call God Father, and those who call God Father are swayed and molded by the laws which are of the essence of the kingdom.”1 All this presupposes we can know God, He can communicate and we can understand Him—revelation is possible. That revelation is in Christ, through the Scriptures:
The soul cannot thrive on abstract notions about God, just as a bird cannot fly in a vacuum, or a tree root itself in a bank of mist, or as a vine cannot climb a moonbeam. Christ made the idea of God concrete. Christ is God’s message to man. It is at this point that the authoritativeness and regulative value of the Scriptures come into view. The Scriptures alone enable us to maintain contact with the Christ of history.2
This all implies a revelation and a response, without the interposition of priests or efficacious sacraments. Christianity is a personal religion which asks for our faith:
Not faith in the sense of blind acceptance of hidden mysteries; not implicit faith in the sense of acceptance of the total body of teachings of an infallible church, but faith in the biblical sense of an intelligent response to the revelation of truth from person to person. This faith arouses the entire being, the intellect, the emotions, the will, and the moral nature.3
Polity matters, because the way we organize ourselves based on this common faith betrays what we think about the kingdom. After all, the church is “the social expression of the spiritual experiences common to a number of individuals.”4 So, the church must mirror the kingdom—and the kingdom is characterized by God’s Fatherhood, Christ as the only mediator, individual and independent capacity for God, and personal relationships. “The local church is like a leaf on the tree of the kingdom of God. As such it must reproduce in its own measure the outlines of the kingdom.”5
Mullins distills seven implications, or “laws” which he declared “must be respected in any and every ecclesiastical polity which can in any sense lay claim to biblical warrant …”6
The reader can consult Mullins for more detail. Relevant implications are (1) there is no caste system in the church, (2) Scripture is the vehicle for sanctification, not sacraments, (3) a church cannot interpose between the Christian and his Father, (4) dogmatism about a particular form of worship is fallacious,7 (5) and “nothing is more terrible in Christ’s teachings than his arraignment of merely ceremonial righteousness and empty orthodoxy.”8
This all leads to Mullins’ point—soul competency is the controlling principle of the Baptist faith. Everything else is a spoke around the soul competency hub. It is the sugar that sweetens the espresso. The leaven that makes the bread rise. Choose whichever metaphor you fancy—soul competency is “the thing.” It’s “the comprehensive truth” that encapsulates (1) the intellectual freedom of the Renaissance, (2) the principle of individualism, and (3) the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith.9
The competency of the regenerated individual implies that at bottom his competency is derived from the indwelling Christ. Man’s capacity for self-government in religion is nothing more than the authority of Christ exerted in and through the inner life of believers, with the understanding always, of course, that he regulates that inner life in accordance with his revealed word …10
Individualism is the watchword. Because man has free intellect, because he is personally accountable, then his salvation, his relationship with God, his faith community, his sanctification—all of it coalesces around soul competency:
The biblical significance of the Baptists is the right of private interpretation and obedience to the Scriptures. The significance of the Baptists in relation to the individual is soul freedom. The ecclesiastical significance of the Baptists is a regenerated church-membership and the equality and priesthood of believers. The political significance of the Baptists is the separation of Church and State.11
Thus, we come to Mullins’ axioms of religion, which are his apologetic for the Baptist expression of Christianity:12
Soul Competency or Bust
Baptists should agree, in principle, that the State mustn’t force religion on its subjects. The civic axiom (above), which Mullins labeled “Religio-Civic,” means “the State has no ecclesiastical and the Church no civic function.”13 This rule “has never parted company” with Baptist doctrine14—“there has never been a time in their history” when Baptist have capitulated on that score.15 Toleration is different than liberty—they are “poles apart.”16 Freedom means men are left alone to worship (or not) as they see fit.
What of the idea that government exists for moral ends? Mullins summarizes that argument:
If the government is for moral ends it is closely akin to religion in its function and purpose. Religion indeed is the best instrument for the realization and accomplishment of moral ends. Hence Church and State should be one, with the church subordinate as a part of the larger whole.17
To leap forward to 2022, should government promote or discourage abortion? A psychological basis for gender identity? Governments make and enforce criminal law, and those laws presuppose moral values—but whose values?
Mullins dismisses the very idea that Church and government ought to coalesce for moral values. “Americans do not deny that the ends for which government exists are moral, but they do deny that those ends are religious.”18 The two spheres are different, and they cannot formally touch. Mullins acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution is “grounded in essential moral principles,” and that government “is the expression of moral relations which necessarily exist in human society and created by God.”19 However, that doesn’t mean the Church has a role to play in legislating that morality.
It does not follow, however, that because an institution is the expression of moral relations in one sphere that it is meant to promote moral ends in all spheres. Church and State might in a perfect society coalesce into one; but meantime their functions must be kept separate.20
Each body has its specialization, and it ought to remain that way. The Church deals with souls, and the government with laws. The church is a voluntary society, and once the church becomes the government it becomes coercive—it is no longer voluntary.21 So, for example:
- Religious educational institutions must never accept funds from the government—it would be a “flagrant violation.”22
- Compulsory bible reading in school is wrong, because Baptists “respect the consciences of all others.”23
Mullins, writing in a bygone age, admits that schools have a duty to instill moral values but insists that morality can be taught without reference to religion “within certain limits.” He reasons, “[m]oral teaching is not objectionable even to atheists.”24
Questions for 2022 America
If we follow Mullins, as he wrote in 1908, these are but a few of the implications:
- Baptists must not advocate for Christianity as an established religion. This kneecaps the ethos of at least 80 years of patriotically infused Christian expression in certain corners of American evangelicalism.
- Baptists cannot advocate for explicitly Christian morality. It is unjust to force religious values on other people—else they would not be free.
- Baptist churches and schools must never accept Federal funds. It is doubtful many such institutions would survive. Churches which accepted government monies during the pandemic are in grave error.
- Baptists must stop all efforts to teach creationism in public schools.
- Baptist must cease all textbook wars and critical race theory fights with local school boards.
In short, Baptists must largely withdraw from public advocacy for Christian values. I’m not saying this. I’m saying Edgar Mullins said this.
And yet, Mullins also wrote that changing circumstances always force Christians to dig into Scriptures and find what had been there all along, to address current threats:
Christianity is like a knife of many blades and other devices to be used in turn as need arises. There is this difference however. In Christianity many of the blades are concealed from view until new emergencies bring to light their presence and use. Every interpretation of Scripture assumes, or should assume, the divinely adapted fitness of Scripture to human need. History reacts upon and explains exegesis in many ways, just as the growth of a tree reveals what was lying potent in the seed, and as the progress of a building sheds light on the preliminary plans of the architect. Thus we are slowly obtaining an exposition of our exegesis.25
So, in 2022 America, is the Baptist principle of soul liberty in the civic sphere outmoded? Can Mullins be laid to rest on a dusty shelf; a quaint relic from a more innocent age? If the implications I noted are correct (and perhaps they aren’t), then how should that force convictional Baptists to re-evaluate their stance vis-à-vis the State?
Kevin Bauder, in a modern treatise on Baptist polity, has advanced far beyond Mullins because he lives in a modern context. He suggests Baptists appeal to “natural order”, and not the scriptures. “When they enter the public square … they are obligated to justify civil laws by some appeal to natural order. This takes hard thinking and careful argument. That failure to do this thinking and to make these arguments is a species of intellectual laziness.”26 He explains “[t]he New Testament never charges Christ’s church with the duty of establishing righteousness through legislation …” The existence of a natural order means common decency is possible, and “Christians are not obligated to impose more than that level of decency within the public square.”27
Bauder does not specify whether he refers to natural law, or a general call to “the way things are.” It is likely the former. Is such a tactic still persuasive and effective, in our 2022 context? Is that tactic “not enough?”
Baptists have framed soul competency in opposition to a State church, yet Mullins wrote during a time when, as George Marsden notes, America still blessed an emerging secularism with Christian symbolism.28 A Christian ethos was “the State,” in a manner of speaking. The “convictional glue”29 of society is no longer “Christian,” but something else entirely. Because the foe now is not an imposed flavor of “Christianity,” but a religion altogether different, does the soul competency wine need a new wineskin?
It is clear Baptists have a “complicated” relationship with soul competency, the State, and moral legislation. Baptist individuals, churches, and institutions which follow partisan political impulses in 2022 America are acting less like Baptists, and more like Americans. To a Baptist, that can’t be a good thing.
1 Edgar Mullins, The Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1908), p. 29.
2 Ibid, p. 30.
3 Ibid, p. 33.
4 Ibid, p. 35.
5 Ibid, p. 36.
6 Ibid, p. 38.
7 Regarding the “freedom of worship” law, which Mullins labeled “Worship: Freedom of intercourse between the Father in heaven and the child,” he explained, “[t]his excludes of course the limiting of acceptable worship to particular places, or through human mediators, or by means of physical appliances,” (Ibid, p. 38).
8 Ibid, p. 41.
9 Ibid, p. 57.
10 Ibid, p. 55.
11 Ibid, pp. 56-57.
12 “These six simple propositions are as six branches from that one trunk of New Testament teaching. Let us come, then, to the axioms …” (Ibid, p. 73).
13 Ibid, p. 185.
14 Ibid, p. 188.
15 Ibid, p. 189.
16 Ibid, p. 49.
17 Ibid, p. 193.
18 Ibid, p. 194.
19 Ibid, p. 195.
20 Ibid, p. 195.
21 “The Church is a voluntary organization, the State compels obedience. One organization is temporal, the other spiritual. Their views as to penal offenses may be quite different, that being wrong and punishable in the Church which the State cannot afford to notice. The direct allegiance in the Church is to God, in the State it is to law and government. One is for the protection of life and property, the other for the promotion of spiritual life. An established religion, moreover, subverts the principle of equal rights and equal privileges to all which is a part of our organic law. Both on its political and on its religious side the doctrine of the separation of Church and State holds good. Civil liberty and soul liberty alike forbid their union,” (Ibid, p. 196).
22 Ibid, p. 197.
23 Ibid, p. 197.
24 Ibid, p. 198.
25 Ibid, p. 13.
26 Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), p. 141.
27 Ibid, p. 141.
28 George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 2006), p. 49.
29 “Every culture and society exudes a certain convictional glue, an undergirding outlook on life and reality that preserves its cohesiveness. When that adhesive bond deteriorates, the sense of shared community tends to come apart at the seams,” (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 44.