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.

GCRTF Report Challenges to all Southern Baptists (4): Challenges for Local Associations and State Conventions

GCRTF Report Challenges to all Southern Baptists (4): Challenges for Local Associations and State Conventions

By Danny Akin and Nathan A. Finn

From almost the very beginning of our movement, likeminded autonomous Baptist churches voluntarily cooperated through local associations in evangelism, church planting, mercy ministries, and doctrinal accountability. In part because of their aversion to the societal method of cooperation, by the 1820s the Baptists of the South were further cooperating through state conventions. In 1845, they applied this convention method across the entire South when they created the Southern Baptist Convention. Each of these networks was autonomous, but they partnered together through various collaborative ministry arrangements and (since 1925) the Cooperative Program to proclaim the gospel in every part of America.

To this day, most Southern Baptist churches are simultaneously involved in a local association, a state Baptist convention, and the SBC. Though we work for a national ministry, we believe that associations and state conventions are key Great Commission partners that are especially important to a GCR because they are “closer” to most of our churches than any of our national ministries. If we are going to more effectively push back the lostness, then associations, state conventions, and the SBC are going to have to renew their commitment to work together for the sake of the Great Commission and come up with creative ways to advance the gospel to those places with the least access to the good news.

The GCR Task Force has offered a number of challenges to local associations and state conventions in the hope of encouraging a renewed commitment to Great Commission priorities and cooperation. For local associations, the GCRTF recommends the following:

  • Enthusiastically embrace the missional vision and core values of the SBC allowing them to guide your work and set your priorities.
  • Adopt the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as your confessional basis of association and adopt some shared core values and priorities that characterize the cooperating churches of your association.

There are still some associations that are theologically out-of-step with the doctrine and priorities of the wider Southern Baptist Convention. While the strategies and emphases of each association is necessary contextually, if we are to work together more effectively we must share a common theology and a common commitment to revitalizing and planting healthy, reproducing Baptist churches everywhere. The above challenges represent an important step in that direction.

  • Organize quarterly associational prayer meetings for the conversion of the lost and the planting of sound churches in the underserved and unreached areas of North America and around the globe.
  • Work with state conventions and the SBC to set aside January of every year as a month of prayer for the conversion of unreached people groups around the globe.

Eight years before William Carey and Andrew Fuller formed the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, they issued a “Prayer Call” to the Northamptonshire Association. Once a month the association gathered together to pray for the conversion of the heathen, and many of the prayer warriors were convinced these “concerts of prayer” played a key role in birthing the modern missions movement in the English-speaking world. We believe a similar prayer movement could play a key role in bringing about a similar missions movement, and associations (and state conventions) have the opportunity to be catalysts in bringing this about.

  • Plan at least one annual foreign mission trip and one annual North American mission trip and encourage all the churches in the association to participate, especially smaller churches.

Many smaller churches lack the resources to regularly engage in short-term mission trips, but many associations plan annual trips and encourage their member churches to participate. The GCRTF calls upon all associations to engage in this vital ministry as a way to mobilize all their churches for the sake of the Great Commission.

  • Develop associational collections of evangelism and discipleship resources and regularly inform the churches about the availability of such resources.

Many associations maintain a resource library that they make available to the churches. This is a helpful ministry. It would be an even more effective ministry if associations purchased the best resources for their libraries (including books and curricula not tied to a denominational program or initiative) and regularly made churches aware of the material available to them.

  • Work with cooperating churches to plant at least one new church a year in an underserved area within or near to the association.
  • Work with cooperating churches to plan at least one mercy ministry focused outreach event every year.

Evangelism, church planting, and mercy ministry are part of the original DNA of associations. Unfortunately, for almost a century many associations have majored on denominational promotion while putting less emphasis on gospel-centered ministries. Healthy associations will assist member churches in planting new churches, evangelizing their region, and finding ways to redemptively meet the physical needs of others.

For state conventions, the GCRTF recommends the following:

  • Embrace with enthusiasm the missional vision and core values of the SBC allowing them to guide your work and set your priorities.
  • Adopt the Baptist Faith & Message [2000] as a confessional basis for cooperation and adopt shared core values and priorities that characterize cooperating churches.

The same principle applies to state conventions as associations: the more we agree in theology and priorities, the better we can cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission.

  • Make church planting a priority and develop church planting partnerships with North American urban centers and underserved regions outside of the Southeast and Southwest.

A growing number of state conventions have prioritized church planting in recent years. We rejoice in this. But most of this church planting has taken place in the regions where Southern Baptists are the strongest. While we need to plant new churches in the South and Southwest (especially among minority people groups and in urban centers), it is those in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, West Coast, and Upper Midwest who have the least access to healthy gospel churches. This is especially true of the major cities. The older, larger state conventions must partner with newer, smaller state conventions and NAMB to plant more churches in those places that have the greatest need. We would suggest that for every one church planted in a Deep South or Southwest state, ten churches should be planted outside the South. That is a bold goal but one we should pursue with passion and intentionality.

  • Determine to return to the historic ideal of a 50/50 Cooperative Program distribution between the state convention and the SBC.

The GCR is all about getting more financial resources to the nations. The initial GCR Declaration argued that Southern Baptists get excited about three things in particular: international missions, church planting and theological education. Moving toward this historic goal will allow us to do all three of these vital ministries better. For those of us who serve Southern Baptists in the seminaries, it means we can continue to offer the best theological education as the lowest possible tuition rates with a missional strategy in mind: students graduating DEBT FREE and therefore enabled to go immediately anywhere in the world on assignment for King Jesus!

  • Hold state convention colleges and universities accountable to Baptist convictions and an authentic Christian worldview education. Baptist colleges and universities must inculcate a Great Commission mindset in their students and deploy them worldwide in short-term missionary service.

There are still many state colleges and universities that receive Cooperative Program funds but do not represent the convictions and priorities of most Baptists in their respective states. Every Baptist school should be moving toward a greater commitment to orthodox theology, a Christian worldview, and a Great Commission mindset. Those schools that choose to chart their own course rather than represent their constituencies should be changed through appropriate measures or have their CP support terminated and reinvested in other biblically faithful ministries.

  • Eliminate programs that do not directly assist local churches in fulfilling their biblical mandate to make disciples of all people.

Every state convention should examine its various programs and assess the degree to which those programs are equipping churches to fulfill the Great Commission. It is entirely possible that every state convention has at least some ministries that are good, but are not focused upon the most important priorities. If state conventions are willing to make some hard decisions about outdated or unnecessary ministries, then churches will almost certainly become increasingly supportive of the work of their respective state conventions.

  • Work with local associations and local churches to plan regional evangelism and discipleship training events on at least a semiannual basis.

More state convention resources need to be used in partnering with local churches and local associations in planning regional evangelism and discipleship ministries. These ministries should be orthodox, practical, and contextual, meeting the churches “where they are.” While traditional preaching-oriented evangelism conferences are helpful in many ways, we believe churches would also benefit from more localized conferences that focus on equipping. Every church is different, and state conventions (and associations) must get creative and help churches move beyond a merely programmatic approach to evangelism and discipleship and help them embrace a more missional, organic approach to reaching the lost and discipling the saved.

  • Encourage state convention children’s homes to consider deep investment in Great Commission adoption/foster ministries that connect children with Baptist families within the state.

There has been a growing emphasis on adoption and orphan care in recent years, much of which has been born out of a renewed commitment to the clear articulation and practical application of the gospel. Many Southern Baptists have become leaders in this movement. One of the most significant mercy ministries in many of our state conventions are children’s homes. Though it will necessarily vary from state to state, it would be a tremendous Great Commission ministry if children’s homes make it a priority to connect orphans and foster children with Baptist families who are burdened to adopt and/or embrace foster care. We are excited as we think about the ways the Lord could use this ministry!

  • Recognize the powerful witness of Disaster Relief programs as Southern Baptist have touched millions of lives in the aftermath of disaster and in a moment of acute need.
  • Develop and celebrate mercy ministries which can be used as avenues for churches serve others and open doors for evangelism.

Disaster Relief, which is coordinated through state conventions in cooperation with the NAMB, is one of the most recognized ministries among Southern Baptists. It is perhaps the most visible way that Southern Baptists serve as the hands and feet of Christ to those in need. Disaster Relief should continue to be a central ministry among state conventions and, when possible, further expanded. Other mercy ministries, which will vary from state to state, should also be championed as we try to love our neighbors by both living the gospel and preaching the gospel. We repudiate the unbiblical division between evangelism and social justice, and hope that state conventions will take the lead in helping our churches embrace both of these gospel priorities for the sake of the common good and for the furthering of the gospel among all men.

Baptist Identification and Article IX

As many BtT readers know, no section of the GCR Declaration has caused more angst than Article IX: A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure. While Morris Chapman has recently come out against the current movement because of Article IX (though one could argue he voted for it before he voted against it) and other SBC leaders have signed the Declaration with caveats (not necessarily related to Article IX), by far the most vocal critics of the GCR document have been “high-ranking” employees of state conventions. While a handful of state convention leaders have signed on, a number of state convention executive directors have complained about the movement in Baptist Press, email circulars, and Baptist state paper articles and interviews. I’ve also talked to a number of state convention employees, in several different states, who either (1) strongly agree with their leadership and oppose the GCR or (2) support the GCR but are unwilling to do so publicly because they do not wish to openly disagree with their bosses.

While any observer of Baptist life knows there is a bit of tension between some of the state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention (for a variety of reasons), you may be interested to know that this is nothing new. Ever since Southern Baptists adopted the Cooperative Program and then tasked the state conventions with determining the amount of CP funds they pass on to the SBC, there have been discussions–sometimes heated–about percentages, priorities, and programs. Note the following quote from the mid-2oth century:

[O]ther Baptist bodies in Southern Baptist life have been jousting with the agencies of the Convention during the entire existence of the general body. State conventions, for example, have been very active in asserting their prerogatives in relation to the larger body. It is certainly true that the state bodies are no less centralized than the Southern Baptist Convention. In many respects they have seized the initiative in outlining the program to be carried on. The division of Cooperative Program funds rests also upon their initiative. These state bodies have a geographical and traditional proximinity to the people, and although Baptist principles clearly assert that all bodies, whether association, state, or southwide, stand at an equal distance from the local congregations, there continues to exist a basic state loyalty that stamps that body as a primary area for cooperation. This, of course, is no new problem.

Robert A. Baker, “Reflections on the Southern Baptist Convention,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 6, no. 2 (April 1964): 21.

Some things never change. Putting aside my obvious sympathies for the GCR for a moment, I want to make an observation as a historian and a somewhat informed observer of current SBC life: one’s personal understanding of “Baptist identification” (not to be confused here with “Baptist identity”, which is related more to beliefs) could significantly influence how one thinks about the GCR.

I have argued in the past that there are several different “layers” of Baptist polity and different Baptists identify with different layers. Some of us are merely “First Baptist” Baptists–our only connection with any element of Baptist life is our local church membership. This is likely where the overwhelming majority of our churches’ (active) members are. This is the way things ought to be because the local church is the only layer of our polity ordained by our Lord and essential to the Christian life. This is most assuredly enough. But many folks also identify with any number of other layers as well.

Some of us are both “First Baptist” Baptists and “Local Association” Baptists. In addition to our connection with our local church, we are at least somewhat involved with the work of our local association through annual meetings or (more likely) outreach events, mercy ministries, or camps. I would argue that from the 18th century until the mid-20th century most Baptists who cared about any layer of polity besides their local churches cared about their associations. It’s only as the associations have become simply the “bottom rung” of the denomination–a result of programs such as the $75 Million Campaign, the CP, and A Million More in ’54–that many associations have lost some of this loyalty. (In some places associations never lost this.)

Some of us are also “State Convention” Baptists because we attend annual meetings or (more likely) send our kids to state colleges, attend Sunday School and/or evangelism training, participate in disaster relief, or live in Baptist retirement homes (to name a few examples). As Robert Baker noted in the aforementioned article, there is also a long tradition of Baptists identifying more with their state conventions than the SBC proper. Part of this is because the state convention is “closer” that the SBC (at least for most folks). Keep in mind also that our oldest state conventions are also found in states that were part of the old Confederacy and have historically instilled a sense of state loyalty among their respective citizenries. Many folks in this category consider themselves to be North Carolina Baptists, which by virtue of the CP also makes them Southern Baptists.

Finally, some of us are also “Southern Baptist” Baptists because we attend the annual meetings or (more likely) appreciate the boards and seminaries of the SBC. Many Baptists in this category are members of churches that get fired-up about our mission boards and/or have pastors and other staff who regularly brag on their seminary of choice. Many folks in this category consider themselves to be Southern Baptists who happen to live in North Carolina, which in most cases also makes them North Carolina Baptists via geography.

I’m really just thinking out loud here, but I am convinced that at least some people react to the GCR the way they do because of the layer(s) of Baptist polity with which they choose to identify. This is obvious with paid employees (like seminary presidents and state executive directors), but I think it is also at least potentially true of “normal” Southern Baptists who are engaged in the life of the wider denomination. Many of the pro-GCR people I meet most definitely think of themselves as Southern Baptists first and state convention or association Baptists second (if at all). Many of the anti-GCR people I meet think of themselves as state convention or association Baptists first and Southern Baptist second (if at all). And most people I meet just consider themselves to be members of their local Baptist church and are blissfully unaware that there is even a debate.

I don’t want to paint too broadly–I know there are plenty of exceptions to what I’ve written. There are plenty of other factors, including loyalty to specific entities, Convention politics, following the opinions of favorite leaders, theological convictions, and vocational self-preservation. But I think Baptist identification influences how at least some Baptists think about the GCR, especially Article IX.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of Louisville. I am thankful that many of our churches are already in the midst of local versions of a Great Commission Resurgence. This is enough because the local churches are the only layer that ultimately matters. But I do hope that God will allow our shared denominational ministries, in every layer of our polity, to be a part of what He is already doing in so many of our churches.

Lord willing, I will see many of you in Louisville.