The Freedom of the Gospel Community: Local Church Autonomy

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 20, 2008.]

This is the seventh article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Baptists have historically argued for what is commonly called the autonomy of the local church. Stan Norman sums up the Baptist argument nicely:

The New Testament presents churches that are independent and self-governing. The decisions of each local church are final because no authority higher than a local church exists. Local churches can join together for certain ministry, education, or benevolent endeavors, but these shared ventures occur because of the bond of a common faith and ministry. No church assumes any authority over another church in these joint, cooperative efforts.[1]

Baptists believe that the local church is the highest ecclesiastical authority on earth. We argue that no individual denomination, association, synod, presbytery, or diocese can impose its will upon a local church. Furthermore, we believe that each church is an autonomous congregation of believers and that every church is free to pursue its own spiritual agenda. Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue whatever gospel ends they deem appropriate, under the lordship of Christ as revealed in Scripture.

Some Baptists come close to arguing that local church autonomy means that a congregation can do whatever it wants to without consequence, but this is a misunderstanding of the doctrine. Gospel freedom must always be accompanied by gospel responsibility. While churches are free to pursue their own spiritual agenda, that agenda must be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. We would do well to ask “what has the Lord said about these matters” before we shout “you can’t tell my church what to do!”

Most Baptists agree that autonomy should not lead to isolationism; churches can and should cooperate together to accomplish gospel ends that could not be accomplished as effectively by individual churches. The historic Baptist practice of interchurch association is one way that groups of autonomous congregations have worked together for common gospel ends and helped safeguard a responsible, gospel-centered autonomy.

According to J. C. Bradley, “A Baptist association is a self-governing fellowship of autonomous churches sharing a common faith and active on mission in their setting.”[2] Chad Brand notes that the work of associations can be grouped into two primary purposes: provide fellowship among like-minded churches and facilitate evangelism of a larger geographic area than can be covered by a single church.[3] This so-called “associational principle” is also the rationale behind state and national Baptist bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention.

While churches are not to be controlled by a spiritual hierarchy, they can and should open themselves up to receive advice from other churches and groups of churches like associations and conventions. Aberrant churches can and should be disfellowshipped by sister churches because of differences of opinion concerning faith and practice. To exclude a church from cooperation does not infringe upon that church’s autonomy; an association or convention cannot force a church to do anything it does not want to do. Rather, exclusion is simply what results when a church is judged by other congregations as failing to balance freedom and responsibility. Autonomous churches should be held accountable by other autonomous churches so that all churches might better ensure that their agenda is a gospel agenda.

[1] R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 105.

[2] J. C. Bradley, A Baptist Association: Churches on Mission Together (Nashville: Convention Press, 1984), 15.

[3] Chad Owen Brand, “Toward a Theology of Cooperation,” in The Mission of Today’s Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues, ed. R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 163.

Practicing the Gospel in Community: Congregational Church Polity

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 29, 2008.]

This is the sixth article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Congregational church polity (or government) is the belief that the highest earthly authority within a local church is the congregation itself. Positively, congregationalism argues that a majority of the church’s membership determines the agenda of the congregation. Negatively, congregationalism contends that no pastor/elder, deacon, or committee can dictate policy to a church or assert absolute control over a congregation. Congregationalism assumes a regenerate church membership, and when exercised responsibly, is nothing more than the corporate living out of the gospel within the community created by the gospel.

Congregationalism makes some contemporary Baptists nervous; many of us have horror stories of contentious church business meetings. Others want to safeguard pastoral authority, arguing that congregationalism sometimes undermines the leadership of pastors/elders. While I am sympathetic to these concerns about how congregationalism is practiced in some churches, spurrious application of biblical principles should not lead to a rejection of those principles. In the New Testament, whether its the setting apart of church leadership (in the absence of apostles) or the exercise of church discipline, the final decision-making authority resides with the congregation itself.

It is important to understand that an affirmation of congregationalism does not necessitate the tyranny of the majority. Presumably, a church is attempting to submit to the lordship of Christ and is pursuing his will in all matters brought before the body. Furthermore, congregationalism does not mean that the church must meet in conference for every decision that is to be made. Presumably, every church invests decision-making authority in some leaders, whether they be pastors, other staff members, deacons, or certain committees. While both of these scenarios sometimes occur, we must remember that a divisive or ineffective congregationalism is evidence of a spiritually unhealthy church. To say it another way, troubled churches are often characterized (plagued?) by a corrupt congregationalism.

We must also understand that congregational church polity does not negate the authority of pastors/elders as they lead the church. Rather, congregationalism argues that pastoral authority is a derived authority, exercised under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to the whole church. Furthermore, healthy pastoral leadership should result in spiritual maturity among the members of the congregation, which should in turn result in a Christ-centered congregationalism. Biblically healthy churches must be willing to follow the (godly) leadership of their pastors, while godly pastors must be willing to lead in a manner that is consistent with the will of the (biblically healthy) congregation. Congregationalism reminds us both that pastors are not dictators and that churches are not ochlocracies.

As a closing note, congregationalism is closely tied to the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The priesthood of all believers affirms two realities. First, the doctrine argues that every believer has direct access to God because of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. Or, to say it another way, we do not need an earthly priest to serve as our mediator with God because we are in union with the one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).

Second, Baptists and most other Protestants argue against the existence of any special priestly class of Christians. Instead, we contend that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations. To affirm the priesthood of all believers is to embrace an “every member ministry,” even as we set apart some God-called individuals to serve as pastors (and deacons).

It is this aspect of the priesthood of all believers that intersects with congregationalism. Baptists argue that congregational polity is simply the most consistent application of the priesthood of all believers. Our priesthood is practiced within the context of the gospel community, under the lordship of Christ, in accountability to one another, following the leadership of our pastors. This whole process has the gospel at its center, and it is only when congregationalism is untethered from the gospel that things get dicey. So let us labor for a gospel-centered, Christ-exalting, balanced congregationalism in our churches.

[Note: For more information about how Baptists have understood and applied the priesthood of all believers, I recommend Malcolm Yarnell’s fine essay “The Priesthood of Believers: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Royal Priesthood,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches (Kregel, 2007).

Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Need for Gospel Consistency

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 16, 2008.]

Students of history know that there are two long-running debates among Baptist Christians that began in the mid-17th century and continue to the present day. The first debate has been common among many groups of Protestants: Calvinism versus Arminianism. The second debate is almost totally unique to Baptists: the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is a topic that I have written on in the past. While I do not believe this debate is the most important issue facing contemporary Southern Baptists, it is nevertheless an important question that is worthy of our attention. We might consider this a necessary excursus that develops from my previous article on baptism.

Until the rise of the parachurch movement during the mid-20th century, most Christians have argued that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. All agree that this is the order portrayed in the New Testament and makes good logical sense because virtually everyone believes that baptism marks the public entrance into the church, though obviously there is considerable debate about the proper mode and subjects of baptism. Until the late 1800s, a majority of English Baptists argued that baptism is prerequisite to communion. In North America, with the exception of the Free Will Baptists, most Baptists argued for the chronological priority of baptism until the mid-20th century. In some places in the American South and Southwest, this view is still almost universal. The idea that baptism is prerequisite to participation in the Lord’s Supper has been called a number of names, including closed communion, close communion, strict communion, and restricted communion.

But from at least the second generation of Baptists, there has been a minority report that has argued that regeneration alone is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Over time, this minority report has become majority practice among Baptists in both Britain and (probably) America. The view that all Christians can participate in the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their baptismal status, is most often called open communion, though it is a modified form of open communion because the ordinance is still restricted to believers. Only liberal Baptists (and other Christians) invite all people to the table, irrespective of their spiritual condition.

There are many noble reasons for holding to an open communion position. Proponents argue that the ordinance is intended to signify the unity of believers in Christ, so to forbid some Christians from participating in communion puts a breach in Christian unity. Others argue that allowing unbaptized (non-immersed) Christians to participate in communion is a sign of brotherly love that may help convince some of them to eventually submit themselves to New Testament baptism. Some concede that closed communion appears to be the New Testament practice, but argue that since we live in a world where more than one practice is called baptism, the charitable thing to do is allow Christians who we believe are unbaptized to participate in communion. Open communion advocates often point out that it is the Lord’s Supper, so who are we to tell those who belong to the Lord that they cannot participate in the ordinance?

Though I am sympathetic to the desires behind these arguments, I think closed communion is the more consistent position. The Lord’s Supper is surely a picture of our unity in Christ, but advocates of non-New Testament baptism are the ones who severed that unity with the advent of infant baptism and other practices foreign to the biblical record. Baptistic Christians are not the ones who are sectarian in the matter of baptism, though we are (at the moment) in the minority among professing Christians. To quote the Baptist Faith and Message (2000):

Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

The hope that inviting unbaptized Christians to the Lord’s Table may convince some to be biblically baptized is dangerous logic, in my opinion. This is the same logic used by colonial New England pastor Solomon Stoddard when he argued that communion could be a “converting ordinance,” so unbelievers should be invited to the Table. The result was not mass conversions, but a church filled with unregenerate members. I suspect that churches that practice open communion in hopes of changing the minds of pedobaptists will find that they make lots of pedobaptist friends, but few of them submit to believer’s baptism by immersion.

The argument that we should be charitable because we live in a world where a plurality of baptismal practices prevail seems particularly weak. The fact that there is one Lord, one faith, and many baptisms in our contemporary context does not change the biblical record. Obedience to Scripture seems more important than contrived unity, which would be the case with any unity that is based on a practice not commended in Scripture. I personally think open communion is such a practice. And concerning the idea that it is inappropriate to ban Christians from the Lord’s Table, I would respond by agreeing that it is the Lord’s Table, which is why it is of utmost importance that we practice the ordinance in the way the Lord has willed it to be exemplified for us in His Word, lest we find ourselves disobedient to the Lord.

This discussion is not exhaustive, and there are several other arguments that could be made (from both sides), but in keeping with the theme of this series, I think the most important reason to reject open communion is that it seems to make the ordinances inconsistent with the gospel. To be more specific, open communion severs the ordinance that marks our formal entry into the gospel community (baptism) from the ordinance that signifies our ongoing sanctification within the gospel community (communion). The picture of the gospel painted by the ordinances is smudged whenever we treat baptism and the Lord’s Supper as practices that are virtually independent of each other. Baptism marks the public beginning of the Christian’s life in the community of the gospel, the church. Communion marks the Christian’s ongoing identification with that gospel community and the Lord who formed her. For this reason, I prefer to call the view that baptism is biblically prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper consistent communion, because it is only in this practice that the ordinances are truly consistent with the gospel they portray.

In closing, I am not convinced that one’s view of the relationship between baptism and communion should be a bar to cooperation among Baptist Christians. Though I affirm consistent communion and am a member of a church that requires baptism before communion, I believe that my church can cooperate with sister churches that have a different understanding of this matter. But the fact that this issue is (in my opinion) secondary in nature does not render it unimportant. Baptists desire to be obedient to all that Christ commands, so it is incumbent upon us to discuss this matter biblically and charitably, in the hopes of one day arriving at greater consensus on this issue, for the glory of God and the health of our churches.

[Note: I have previously addressed this topic in a more substantial manner on behalf of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can click here to read that White Paper, titled “Baptism as Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.”]rpg mobile game