"Soul Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government."
Called by many names throughout Baptist history, soul freedom is the affirmation of the infinite value of the individual to God. As Shurden says, "Soul freedom affirms the sacredness of individual choice."
Although their traditional emphasis on the church also shows that individualism is not the whole picture, Baptists are highly individualistic and have worn this sometimes-accusation as a badge of honor. The value of the individual comes from the theological affirmation that every person is created in the image of God, making every person of infinite dignity and worth.
This dignity means that each person is competent to answer for themselves before God-- and not only competent, but responsible to do so. Baptists have long affirmed that every person must make significant choices for themselves and answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?"
Baptists affirm the individual over the institutional, believing that access to God is direct for each person. This does not mean, of course, that any human is self-sufficient, but rather that, as Shurden says, "Grace is always individually appropriated...we are saved one by one, person by person, individual by individual." For Baptists, religion and conversion are based on a personal experience of God.
For Baptists, faith is voluntary. We cannot make someone believe, and we definitely cannot make someone love God.
The individuality of faith also proclaims that there is no one conversion story. As Shurden describes, "If faith is personal and individualistic, it will always manifest itself in different shapes and forms and styles." Baptists do not affirm five things one must believe to come to God or a specific path that one must take to God, but only that each person must make their own decision about Jesus.
Soul freedom is the reason behind the Baptist insistence on believer's baptism. One cannot be born into the church, but each person may make a public declaration of their belonging in the community after choosing to follow Christ.
So what does this valuing of individuals mean for the university?
The individual is the business of Baptists as well as the business of higher education. Each affirms that every person has something to offer, a valuable piece of the picture of the image of God. And if each person is responsible for their own faith and understanding, then it is right to invest as much as we can in each individual in order to assist and prepare them in their decision making.
Baptists should be the first to empower their students and to take them seriously as people. Baptists should be the first to recognize each person's competence to make decisions about the most important things in life.
Baptists should be concerned with the educational investment which is becoming greater and greater for future students. Never again will students spend quite as much money and be shaped in their thinking and habits quite as much as they will in those four years. Thus, Baptists are an excellent choice to take seriously the task of shaping individuals to step up to the plate of human responsibility.
Yet, if Baptists continue down the slippery slope of creedalism, we will lose our distinctive value of the individual to the value of institutionalized ideas. We have already seen how recent changes in OBU and other SBC universities have diminished the capability of individuals to take responsibility for themselves. What decisions need to be made if others are telling me what actions I can and cannot take or what things I can or cannot believe?
It may be safer to control students, but as Baptists, we should take them seriously instead.