The Freedom of the Gospel Community: Local Church Autonomy

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[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

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[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).

The Community of the Gospel: Regenerate Church Membership

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[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 July 22, 2008.]

This is the third post in a series dedicated to the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. My previous post argued that Baptists should primarily embrace a Protestant Christian identity that is nuanced by a cluster of ecclesiological distinctives that have historically been associated with the Baptist tradition. Beginning with this post, the rest of the series will address those historic Baptist distinctives.

The foundational theological distinctive among Baptist Christians is a commitment to a regenerate church membership. My colleague John Hammett goes so far as to call regenerate church membership “the Baptist mark of the church.”[1] Proponents of this position argue that a local church’s membership is to be comprised only of individuals who have been born again and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Why Regenerate Church Membership?

It is worth asking why Baptists consider regenerate church membership to be such an important doctrine. There are at least two reasons. First, as Protestants, Baptists adhere to the Scripture principle and believe that biblical doctrine and practice trumps all religious traditions, creedal documents, and private theological opinions. This means that Baptists believe in a regenerate church membership because we honestly believe this practice is both taught and modeled in the New Testament.

But there is a second reason for our commitment to regenerate church membership. Simply put, Baptists believe that a church that practices regenerate membership is more consistent with the gospel than a church that grants any form of membership to non-Christians. Baptists believe that the local church is the community of the gospel, and as such it ought to be comprised of individual “gospel people” who have voluntarily covenanted together as a local expression of the body of Christ.

Alternatives to Regenerate Church Membership

There are several alternatives to regenerate church membership. It is worth briefly discussing two of these alternatives: pre-Christian and non-Christian membership.

A form of pre-Christian membership is practiced in many pedobaptist churches whenever an infant is sprinkled and declared to be baptized or christened. Whether the child is considered a “covenant child,” a child of the Roman Catholic Church, or the pedobaptism is considered the first step in the child’s (presumptive) regeneration, the result is the same: a membership-like status has been conferred on an individual who has not confessed personal faith in Christ.

To be fair, most pedobaptist groups employ some type of confirmation or other spiritual right-of-passage before an individual can become a full member of the church. But by “baptizing” infants and making a distinction between the spiritual status (or at least the spiritual potential) of the children of Christians versus the children of non-Christians, a quasi-membership status has been granted to an individual based upon something other than that person’s faith in Christ.

Many mainline churches practice an openly non-Christian membership. In some congregations, faith in Christ is not a prerequisite to church membership. Many liberal churches do not even affirm the concept of a personal faith in Christ, instead opting for vague concepts like following their interpretation of Christ’s ethical teachings. Some even totally jettison traditional Christianity and opt for some form of soteriological pluralism. Non-Christian membership is generally not practiced among evangelical congregations.

Baptist reject both pre-Christian and non-Christian membership. We do so because these practices both fail to reflect the New Testament pattern and undermine–and sometimes sever–the relationship between the gospel and the church. Only those who claim to embrace the gospel are to be included in the community of the gospel.

Preserving Regenerate Church Membership

Although some other Christian groups affirm a regenerate church membership in principle, Baptists argue that baptistic Christians most consistently adhere to regenerate church membership. Though we may fail at times, we honestly try to “practice what we preach” when it comes to this ecclesiological distinctive. We do this through at least three practices, two of which are discussed below (the other is discussed in the next post).

The first practice is the adoption of local church covenants. Historian Charles Deweese defines a church covenant as “a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith.”[2]

Baptists churches have been adopting church covenants since our inception in the 17th century, having imported the practice from our English Separatist forefathers. Among Southern Baptists, most churches drafted their own covenants until the latter half of the 19th century. In the years after the Civil War, many churches simply adopted the covenant that was included in J. Newton Brown’s Church Manual of 1853 and reprinted in J. M. Pendleton’s Church Manual of 1866.

Comparatively few Southern Baptist churches placed great value on church covenants for most of the 20th century. Most churches included a covenant in their legal documents; often the Brown/Pendleton covenant. Some churches, especially newer churches, did not even bother adopting a covenant. Fortunately, in recent years many churches have reemphasized the “owning” of a church covenant as a precondition of membership and an aid in promoting meaningful church membership.

The second practice, which often accompanies the adoption of local church covenants, is the exercise of redemptive church discipline. Church discipline has received a great deal of attention in recent years among both pastors and scholars. In 2008, the SBC adopted a much-discussed Resolution on Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration at the annual meeting in Indianapolis.

According to Theron Price, church discipline is intended to help preserve three principal concerns of a local church: [3]

  1. The purity of her doctrine, which is threatened by heresy
  2. The holiness of her members, which is threatened by sin
  3. The unity of her fellowship, which is threatened by schism

Church discipline is not intended to be punitive, but rather is meant to be redemptive. To say it another way, church discipline is intended to be a means of grace in bringing about conviction and repentance in the life of the offender. This is true of both Christians and non-Christians. Church discipline helps to convict and correct genuine believers who are promoting doctrinal error, engaging in ongoing, unrepentant sin, or undermining the unity of the church. Church discipline also helps to remove potentially unregenerate people from church membership by excommunicating incorrigible individuals, thus providing one important safeguard against non-Christian membership.

Historically, church discipline was greatly valued by Baptists; one only needs to read local church minutes or associational minutes from the 18th and 19th centuries to see that church discipline was a priority. Like church covenants, church discipline was largely ignored during the 20th century but has been reemphasized among many Southern Baptist churches over the course of the last generation.

Conclusion

Baptists believe that New Testament churches were covenanted communities of individuals who had embraced the gospel. And we believe our own churches should be as well. As the Baptist mark of the church, regenerate church membership is the central Baptist distinctive. The other historic Baptist distinctives only function correctly and consistently when churches are comprised of genuine believers. When this is not the case, the other distinctives are misunderstood, corrupted, or ignored. Many of our own contemporary problems in local churches can likely be traced to a failure to seriously maintain a regenerate church membership while practicing, at least in theory, other Baptist distinctives.

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Notes:

[1] John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Kregel, 2005), 81.

[2] Charles W. Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990), viii.

[3] Theron D. Price, “Discipline in the Church,” in What is the Church? A Symposium of Baptist Thought, ed. Duke K. McCall (Broadman, 1958), 164.