In my childhood as a missionary kid, I grew up without a denominational connection. I was baptized in the swimming pool of my MK school in South India, having been examined by the elders of a Brethren Assembly, but it was a joint service with the non-denominational church in which I worshipped for much of my childhood, along with fellow MK school boarders.
Back in Canada, I later married a young woman who had grown up in a very fine Baptist congregation, and I was happy to join her there when we got married. That congregation eventually ordained me, and they later commissioned us as their missionaries. I remember being a bit stunned when I saw my ordination certificate to “the Baptist ministry,” because I thought I was being ordained to the gospel ministry. Nonetheless, I did know that I was being ordained by a Baptist congregation, and I had studied their tradition sufficiently to be happy with that identification. I had learned quite quickly that Baptists believed in the autonomy of the local church, and I did not find the doctrine problematic.
Since then, through years of teaching theology in trans-denominational settings, I have occasionally wondered whether the Baptist commitment to local church autonomy was either healthy or well grounded in Scripture. So I was ready to benefit from a paper by my friend Stanley Fowler (“An Analysis of Baptist Arguments for the Autonomy of the Local Church”), presented at the annual ETS meetings, in San Francisco last November. Recently, I gave his paper another close reading, along with his essay “Churches and the Church,” in Recycling the Past or Researching History? edited by Philip E. Thompson and Anthony R. Cross. I think that Stan has achieved his purpose very well, which is “to question the assumption shared by most Baptists that a strong doctrine of church autonomy is biblical, historically Baptist, and important for the health of the Church” (“Analysis,” 4 [from here on, page numbers will refer to the ETS paper]). For the benefit of possibly interested readers of this blog, I want to share the main points of Stan’s paper here, since it was his more recent presentation, although corroborative data can be found in his more extensive published essay.
The Baptist case for local church autonomy
Stan observes that “there is no standard Baptist rationale” for the common commitment to autonomous churches, and that “the concept is often assumed rather than defended” (5). But he pulls together helpfully the key supporting arguments that show up in Baptist literature.
- The narrative-historical argument posits that “there is no description of any kind of supra-congregational governance structures” in the NT, and so “no such structures should be created’ (5). This follows from a Baptist form of what Reformed churches call “the regulative principle,” namely that we should only worship God in the ways that he has commanded. Baptists often appeal to the same argument to support their rejection of infant baptism (5).
- The biblical picture of church discipline portrays the local congregation as “competent to carry out church disciple without any supervision from above,” as is seen in the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18, for instance, and in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5-6 (6-7).
- The Jerusalem Council is appealed to by all three common forms of church government. Episcopalians underline the key role of James, Presbyterans emphasize the participation of leaders (elders) from Antioch and Jerusalem, and Baptists focus on Luke’s mention of the whole church at Jerusalem. In that Baptist perspective, the final decision “represents the opinion of the church at Jerusalem, not a decision of a wider council. It is the answer of one local church to a question from another local church, not an authoritative statement of the whole Church” (8).
- In Revelation 2-3, which most scholars date in the late 1st century, the risen Christ “addresses each of the seven churches indvidually, with no reference to any kind of federation of the churches (‘the Church in Asia’)” (9).
- In the middle of the 19th century some Baptists “developed a new ‘high church’ ecclesiology for Baptists which affirmed, among other things, that the Bible contains no concept of a universal Church at all” (10). This position came to be known as Landmarkism, and it has had significant influence, even though it was formally adopted by a small minority of Baptist churches. From the Landmark perspective, the NT references which are not clearly to local bodies, “may plausibly be understood as generic or heavenly/eschatological,” in the same way that we might speak of “the family in contemporary Canada,” meaning the family as an institution, while referring to “families” (10).
- A sixth argument is pragmatically based in a theological concern, rather than being an explicitly biblical-theological argument. It arose in situations where Baptist associations were being dominated by elites who were theologically liberal, and the large but less powerful majority of members of congregations within those fellowships were concerned to protect doctrinal purity. An emphasis on congregational autonomy appeared to many to be essential to their efforts to prevent the liberalization of the entire fellowship of churches (11).
Fowler’s critique of these 6 main Baptist arguments for local church autonomy
Stan makes astute comments on key weaknesses in the arguments listed above:
- The narrative-historical argument “works only if one assumes as a second premise a strong form of ‘the regulative principle,’ and this is difficult to sustain. . . . Virtually no Baptist actually assumes that everything absent from the pages of the NT is thereby forbidden” (6). For instance, if the principle were rigorously applied, the kind of voluntary organizations for which Baptists value their associations would also be ruled out, since “there are no formal structures for mission or any other cooperative ventures” in the NT narrative.
[Reading this section reminded me of the controversy I stirred at a meeting of a group of Reformed Baptist pastors in Ontario, many years ago, when I proposed that Scripture does not prescribe a form of church government. I believe that we can derive principles for church government in the NT, but that we ought not to look for a norm in the biblical description, where I see variation from one time and place to another. The structure of the church should serve the pursuit of the church’s mission, but different contexts will bring about different forms. I do not find it either surprising or intrinsically problematic that episcopalian structures emerged under national kingship, presbyterian forms grew up when parliamentary forms were favored, and congregational structures have flourished in democracies.]
- In the argument that NT churches were competent to render final judgment in matters of discipline, Stan finds a “sweeping argument from silence” (7). He acknowledges that “discipline ought to occur at the level of the local church,” but denies that the NT asserts that to be the only level at which it should be exercised. He offers examples of situations which make wider action desirable such as: (1) a claim by a member of one church that he has been wronged by the member of another, or (2) concern that one church has wronged another church. “Furthermore, the biblical texts commonly utilized in this argument deal with issues of personal behaviour, but this does not touch on the whole issue of doctrinal accountability to the wider church” (7).
- Stan finds it difficult to correlate the Jerusalem Council “with a radical congregational autonomy” (8). The question was addressed to the apostles and elders (15:2). “The underlying assumption is that the churches everywhere should be united on this matter of doctrine and practice. The answer developed at the gathering is sent to churches beyond Antioch (vs. 23), “and the content of the decision is more than a simple answer to one question (vss. 20, 28-29).
- The argument from Revelation 2-3 is not commonly found in Baptist sources because it is “a particularly unconvincing use of the argument from silence” (9). Furthermore, “the fact that each of the letters is contained in a book sent to all of the churches might implicitly indicate some sort of mutual accountability” (9), a likelihood enhanced by the repeated injunction that every one should attend to “what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
- The Landmark argument, which identifies only local Baptist churches as true churches is especially peculiar, because it “isolates baptismal practice as the ultimately definitive criterion of a true church, in spite of the fact that the biblical images of the church are diverse and allow for multiple ways of identifying a genuine congregation” (10).
- However useful the appeal to local church autonomy may have been in combating liberalism in Baptist associations, its effectiveness doesn’t ground principled congregationalism. “Wider structures of doctrinal accountability could in fact be the means of defending orthodoxy, and one might argue that radical autonomy allows all sorts of doctrinal deviations to spread freely” (11).
A rationale for connectional structures
Not content merely to demonstrate the weakness of the biblical case made for local church autonomy, Stan identifies helpfully some benefits that can be gained from stronger connections between congregations. These are evident in Scripture:
- The NT indicates a concern for unity of faith and practice on important issues. Paul appealed to the churches in Corinth to pursue this together, revealing an assumption that mutual accountability existed between them (1 Cor 11:16; 14:33). This point has already been made in regard to the concern that Antioch and Jerusalem act in the same way regarding the important issue of the Law’s demands of Gentiles (Acts 15). Stan observes that an application of the principle of congregational autonomy, in that case, would probably have brought about Gentile churches and Jewish churches which had no tangible link to one another.
- For Paul, the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ is not simply about the connection between members within a congregation, it is about “the universal community of believers” (13; cf. 1 Cor 12:13, 28; Eph 1:22-23; 4:3). Paul urged the churches toward “full unity in the truth,” without specifying the inter-congregational structure which should be established to bring this about (13).
Stan also points out that the doctrine of congregational autonomy is something of a novelty in Baptist thought and practice, not the uniform tradition that many North American Baptists assume it to be, in ignorance that Baptist churches elsewhere do not share this ethos. An illustration of this global difference is seen in “The Baptist Doctrine of the Church,” which was adopted by the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1948, and which is expanded in the writing of British Baptist leaders such as Paul Fiddes and Nigel Wright.
When the Abingdon Association was founded in 1652, they formulated a positive rationale for association by applying the NT principles for interdependence between individual members of the church to the relationship between churches and the Church. They argued “that such association provides mutual care among the churches, establishes mechanisms for keeping the various churches pure in doctrine and practice, translates love for others from attitude into action, assists the local churches by wise counsel from the wider body of churches, and facilitates witness to the wider world” (14).
Pragmatically, Stan argues “that the absence of connectional structures is unhealthy for the churches, in that it fails to provide for inter-church discipline that all churches recognize as necessary in extreme situations” (15). He points out that efforts to maintain doctrinal purity by expanding statements of faith sometimes serve that purpose but they do so by shrinking the denomination. If churches had a prior commitment to accountability to the wider church, the structures established to implement that accountability might make it easier to bring erring congregations back to orthodox belief and practice.
As I said at the outset, I found Stan’s paper both informative and helpful. I welcome your comments on the biblical-theological validity and/or benefit of inter-congregational authority structures. I realize that this issue is very large, and it is emotionally charged, but that doesn’t make discussion futile, as we seek tangible means of fostering the health of the “one, holy, universal and apostolic church” that Christians have commonly confessed for many centuries. I would love to see a smaller gap between our confession and the visible reality in the church around the world.