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CBF workshops examine ‘tension’ between freedom & orthodoxy

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Baptist polity involves a fundamental tension between community standards of orthodoxy and individual freedom of conscience, according to presenters at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala.

Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Bill Hull, research professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., spoke of this tension during workshops June 25-26.

An irresolvable tension between individual autonomy and submission to the Christian community is fundamental to Baptist polity, Leonard said.

Such polity makes division within the church highly probable, he said. But it is the most effective way to organize congregations in a postmodern culture that values both individual convictions and vibrant community.

“Baptist polity is terribly messy, even unruly,” he said. “It is predicated on an untenable tension between individualism and community. Indeed it is so untenable … as to make conflict and schism … not merely possible but probable, indeed in many cases essential.

“It is at times unworkable, but yet it may be central to the future, indeed the survival, of the church in the western world.”

The tension between individual and community can be seen in the way Baptists approach Scripture, Leonard said. Baptists simultaneously insist that individuals are free to interpret Scripture as their consciences dictate and that the community should define the bounds of orthodox interpretations.

Another example of the individual-community tension is the manner in which Baptists admit new members to churches, he said. Baptists extend membership only to “those who can confess a personal experience of grace with Christ,” yet the church votes on whether a person’s confession is credible.

In addition to the tension between individuals and congregations, Baptist polity also fosters tension between congregations and associations, Leonard said. But in associations local churches are always free to make decisions independent of associational control, he said.

“These Baptists, while committed to the autonomy of the congregation, developed associational relationships with other congregations…. They never thought one church was independent of others. Yet even the associational relationships were not permitted to undermine the uniqueness of the local church,” Leonard said.

Because of local church autonomy, individual congregations should be able to take either side of a controversial issue and still maintain fellowship with the denomination, he said.

“Currently, debates over ordination of women, Bible, ministerial authority, inerrancy, homosexuality, abortion, baptism, denominational participation, use of confessions and other controversial issues divide individuals, churches and denominations,” Leonard said. “Congregational polity means that … individual churches can make choices on either side of controversial issues without necessarily dividing the whole denomination.”

Ultimately, believers can place varying degrees of emphasis on individual freedom and conformity to standards of orthodoxy and still be considered historically Baptist, Leonard said.

As Baptists struggle with the tension inherent in their polity, they will be able to relate to and reach postmodern culture more effectively, he said.

“Baptists … at their best recognize what we’re calling a postmodern tension as opposed to the hierarchies being created … out of an Enlightenment context,” Leonard said.

Hull told workshop attendees that Baptists must find a balance between rigid orthodoxy and “freedom to break new ground.”

“Baptists have tried to balance the freedom to break new ground with the focus of what is at the heart of our faith,” he said. “And CBF … has basically tried to define that tension as ‘free and faithful Baptists.’ In those two words we are trying to get the balance.”

Some scholars have erred on the side of freedom by redefining Jesus in a radical and unbiblical way, Hull said. A group of scholars, for example, claims that Jesus was not truly God and that he was married to Mary Magdalene, he said.

Others have erred at the opposite extreme by insisting on a rigid adherence to orthodoxy, Hull said.

“All of these people that are going to fill up the press with all of this new stuff (about Jesus) have gone far too far, and I don’t think the 2 billion Christians in the world can do it that way,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t want to go into just a rigid orthodoxy.”

One common violation of freedom lies in establishing a paradigm of male domination in the church, Hull said. By restricting the pastorate to men, many “fundamentalists” subordinate women in an unjust way, he said.

“The most progressive churches are now giving women full equality to minister just like men have always ministered,” said Hull, whose daughter serves as a pastor.

Eventually civil lawsuits could force male-dominated churches to grant women more freedom, he said.

“We’ve come a long way partly because the law has caught up with us, partly because there is gender discrimination,” Hull said. “And I don’t know when we’re going to have a major case, but the churches aren’t going to win it with gender discrimination.”

Restricting the office of pastor to men is problematic because it elevates a manmade standard of orthodoxy above the historic Baptist principle of freedom, he said. A similar restriction of freedom occurs when conservative Southern Baptists attempt to make belief in the inerrancy of Scripture a qualification for denominational service, Hull said.

“After they tried for a decade to make inerrancy the watchword boundary definition and found they couldn’t do it because even the inerrantists didn’t agree on what inerrancy meant, they changed,” he said. “And what is now the primary boundary definition? It’s the subordination of women.”

In all matters of faith and practice Baptists must look to the Scriptures as an authoritative guide, Hull said. Baptists must also, however, strike a “balance between structure and spontaneity,” he said.

“We need to avoid the rigidities of orthodoxy, but I think we need to avoid the flabbiness of self-discovered religion.”