[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.
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.” 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. 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.
 R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 105.
 J. C. Bradley, A Baptist Association: Churches on Mission Together (Nashville: Convention Press, 1984), 15.
 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.