One of our Baptist pastors had a theological question. Our college Principal, Dr John Tucker answers this below.

Question from a Baptist pastor:

I’m writing in regard to some of the changes the government have announced and the implications this may have for us as churches both practically and theologically.

In our response to the proposals against incitement of hatred and discrimination, there were two Baptist distinctives that caught my attention.

  • The separation of church and state.
  • ‘Individual Soul Liberty’, or the right of each person to believe and live their lives according to those beliefs, even if we don’t agree with them.

During COVID-19 Alert Levels, with the government mandating the collection details of all those attending our church services, with the threat of fines etc, how does this sit with individual soul liberty?

In reality, I am aware that we will know most of the people coming to worship with us. Also, the majority will not object to scanning in through the COVID-19 QR code.

However, what of those who for reasons we may not understand, don’t want to comply. It may be mental illness and somewhat paranoia, or they don’t want to have their identity known, or… If for genuine reasons they don’t want to sign in, and we believe they can hold differing beliefs, do we have to say they are not able to attend our services, because they have different beliefs. Or am I reading too much into these Baptist distinctives?

Please hear that in reality this is not likely to happen, but rather it is the principal behind it that I am concerned about. If we need to comply here, what is the next step we need to comply with that may also go against what others believe. Do we then exclude them as well?

I figure if I have this question, there may be others who are wondering the same thing.

Response from Dr John Tucker, Principal, Carey Baptist College:

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this question. It’s very encouraging to hear of a pastoral leader wanting to draw on the resources of Baptist ecclesiology to think through a contemporary ministry issue.

I think it’s important to be clear about our theological distinctives. As Baptists, we have a distinctive vision of the church. We believe that the church consists of believers, people who have freely entered by faith into a covenant relationship with Jesus and one another. To be authentic, church membership and worship must be freely chosen, not coerced.

From this understanding of the church, we have argued, firstly, for the separation of church and state. By this we mean that the government should not attempt to mandate church membership or worship. And we have insisted, secondly, on freedom of conscience (or, better, freedom of religion). By this we mean that all people must be free under the law to choose their own religion, to make up their own mind about matters of faith and worship.

In America, some Baptists have reframed freedom of conscience in terms of ‘soul competency’ or ‘soul liberty’. This notion of the autonomy or freedom of the individual imports Enlightenment ideas about individual autonomy that actually conflict with the Baptist vision of church. It’s not biblical to argue for the absolute freedom of individuals in the church to believe or do whatever they like. As Baptists we believe that some beliefs are right, and some are clearly wrong. But what we do insist on is the freedom of all individuals to choose their faith, without external coercion from civil authorities. That’s what we mean by separation of church and state, and freedom of conscience.

Now, that said, I don’t see how the government’s requirement that churches record the details of those who attend their worship services violates either of these two convictions. The government is not, with its COVID-scanning regulations, forcing people to adopt a particular faith or religious conviction. It is not mandating what we believe or how we worship. It is simply asking church communities and worshipers to take certain precautions to facilitate the safety of those around them, much as it does with laws concerning occupational safety and health. Of course, if we want to flout this law, we can, but I don’t think we can justify it on the basis of Baptist theology!