Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer are two sides of one doctrine that Baptists cherish. Indeed, they make up part of the matrix known as the Baptist distinctives. Soul competence teaches that individual Spirit-indwelt believers can read and understand Scripture for themselves, using the means He has given. The priesthood of the believer means that every individual believer in Christ can approach God directly through the High Priestly work of Christ. Whether we are dealing with the Word or prayer, a New Testament believer is not dependent on human intermediaries between himself and God. The work of salvation is so thorough a work that if a Christian makes right use of the Spirit’s appointed means, he lacks nothing to worship God directly.
Unfortunately, these doctrines are easily misunderstood, or misapplied. When populism is part of the cultural air we breathe, such misunderstandings become almost inevitable. The most infantile of these misunderstandings is the person who opts for ‘home-church’, or Internet-church, or some other excuse to be anti-ecclesiological, and reject authority. Here the person dismisses the need for corporate worship, instruction by pastors, service to the body, or shared life in Christ, all in the name of the believer’s priesthood. Such abuses of the doctrine are easily spotted and easily refuted.
A more subtle form of this misunderstanding is the believer who thinks that if God has granted direct access to His presence, and an ability to understand Scripture, then anything worth knowing is within the immediate intellectual grasp of every believer. The logic is arguing from the apparently greater to the apparently lesser: if knowing the greatest thing – the Gospel – is open to even a little child, then there cannot be lesser things worth knowing which are harder to understand. Emerging from this attitude will be the populist suspicion of philosophy, of theology, of disciplines of thought, of advanced studies, of intellectuals and of academia in general.
The mistake the populist imports into his theological method is to assume that there is a proportional relationship between clarity and importance: the more important something is, the clearer it must be, and the less important, the more difficult it may be to understand. Were we to consistently embrace this view, we would have to conclude that the doctrines of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and election are of minor importance due to their difficulty. In reality, crucial doctrine is often enough not simple or even perspicuous.
The correct approach is to recognize that nearly everything worth knowing has multiple levels of deepening complexity and sophistication. A five-year-old can grasp substitution in the Gospel, and simultaneously doctors in theology may give themselves to decades of studying its meaning. These levels of complexity apply whether we are speaking of biblical doctrines, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, music, the arts, or any area of knowledge in God’s created order. This naturally invites the question, “But how much of this complexity do we need to know?”
God has so made the world and limited man that we each need to specialize in some domain of human life. We need some to give themselves to knowing the human physiology, so as to become experts in medicine and healing. We need some to give themselves to the physics of motion, so as to become engineers. We need some to give themselves to understanding the market, so as to become experts in economics. And we need some to give themselves to the study of music, painting, poetry, literature and architecture, so as to become experts in the arts. No one can master all the realms of knowledge in the short lifespan appointed to us. It is one of God’s mercies to the world: forcing interdependence, trade, and learning.
This is the doctrine of vocation. God calls and equips humans to function well in some area of human life, to bring order and meaning to some section of the created order (1 Cor 7:20-21). Not only so, but God invests His world with meanings, laws, ‘secrets’, which become the duty of man to learn, master and teach others (Prov 25:2).
The answer to the question, “how much of this complexity do we need to know?” is answered by the doctrine of vocation. If you are a doctor, you need to be an expert on health, since that is your calling. If you are not a doctor, you need to know enough about health to stay reasonably healthy, and you need to know when to consult a medical expert. We don’t sneer at doctors and call them elitists; we are thankful that when our basic competence in health and medicine can take us no further, there are experts to do just that. The same is true for engineering, financial planning, software development. And buckle your seatbelt – the same is true for theology, music, poetry and literature.
Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer does not remove the need for pastors, nor for professional theologians. Similarly, the fact that every individual Christian can lift his or her voice in sincere praise does not remove the need for art critics, composers or poets.
In the end, I have never met a consistent populist. I have never met the man who was willing to do surgery on himself, act as a lawyer for every one of his contractual agreements, and write his own software. He is usually selectively populist: sneering at theologians, composers, critics, pastors, but happy to accept expert opinion in other areas of his life. If he would accept the doctrine of vocation, he could reconcile the priesthood of the believer and soul competence with the authority of expert opinion, even in matters that touch the soul. He would see, in a word, that no one can know it all. It is an act of humility to accept your own limitations, and learn from those called to be authorities in some domain of human knowledge.