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Local church autonomy makes cooperation stronger, say Southern Baptist leaders

"[Church autonomy] is why Baptists and Methodists dominated the frontier, because a church could spring out of nothing without anybody else's permission," says pastor and historian Bart Barber. BP file photo

NASHVILLE (BP) – There is an old, not-so-funny joke Southern Baptist preachers like to tell. It starts with this question: Where is the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention?

The unsuspecting joke recipient responds with Nashville, the home of the SBC Executive Committee. No, the old preacher says with a laugh, and he then gives his church’s address.

While the joke may not be all that funny, it does shine a light on a key distinctive of Southern Baptists, one that extends back to the early days of Baptists – and echoed by Southern Baptist pastors, seminary professors and denominational leaders today.

“As Baptists, in the very beginning, we’ve always held to this idea of church autonomy, or another term for it is independency,” said Geoff Chang, an assistant professor of church history and historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “Meaning that churches are at the end of the day, congregationally ruled under the lordship of Christ, meaning that there is no kind of bishop, there’s no presbytery, there are not even secular governments outside of the local church that can exercise authority over the church, in the most important things that the church believes, its membership, discipline, worship, and so forth.”

Chang notes that local church autonomy has its roots in the New Testament period but  got diverted as the state church developed following Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century. Autonomous churches don’t re-emerge until the English Reformation. Baptists come from the separatist wing of that reformation, which emphasized the independence of local churches.

The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, the official doctrinal statement of the Southern Baptist Convention, describes the church as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel.”

For Southern Baptists, this view of the local church has meant that neither the national convention, the state convention, local associations, nor the government can speak for churches or direct their actions in any way.

This goes back, Chang says, to ekklesia, the Greek term for church in the New Testament.

“I think one presumption I have here is every time I see the word church, especially in the book of Acts and in the epistles, I understand the word church not to be referring to some abstract institution,” Chang said. “As I understand the New Testament writers and their mindset, they’re thinking of that assembly of believers, those who have professed Christ, had been baptized, and are regularly assembling and gathering.”

Chang says the Southern Baptist belief in the autonomy of the local church is directly tied to the congregational form of government to which most Baptists subscribe.

“We have this congregational understanding of what the church is, and therefore the ministry of the church,” Chang said “This is sort of ownership by that congregation, so every time we call a pastor, every time we send out missionaries, every time we get to the ministry of the church, every time we get together to pray, every time we engage in discipleship and evangelism in the church, there’s a sense in which the church is not looking to outsource these things, but understand that this ministry belongs to us as a people, as a congregation. I think that’s really the heartbeat behind congregationalism. It’s an understanding that the church is the people.”

Gregory Wills, the dean of the school of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, says Southern Baptists have historically understood the authority of the local church in connection to its responsibilities to fulfill the commands of Christ given to the church.

“It’s not that we have the right to do these things,” Wills said. “It’s rather that we are responsible to these things. Each church is a steward of Christ commands, and each church will bear responsibility for how faithfully we obey Christ’s commands to the churches.”

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, believes not only is church autonomy biblical, but it has aided the Southern Baptist Convention as it has grown.

“In rapidly changing circumstances, like the American Frontier, local church autonomy proved to make churches very nimble to adapt to their circumstances without having to get permission from someone else,” said Barber, who holds a Ph.D. in church history from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I agree with the historian W.W. Sweet who said this is why Baptists and Methodists dominated the frontier, because a church could spring out of nothing without anybody else’s permission.”

As a local church pastor, Barber says he has friends in other denominations that must devote a significant amount of time staying in the “good graces” of their denominational hierarchy.

“Frankly, the interests of the congregation, the interests of the kingdom of God, do not always align with the interests of a denominational hierarchy,” Barber said. “I think that there’s something freeing and healthy about avoiding those kinds of ties.”

For most of Southern Baptist history, church autonomy and a commitment to cooperation have run parallel with one another.  While Southern Baptists have embraced a belief in the authority of every local church, they’ve also understood they can more effectively engage in their ministry and mission objectives when they work together with other like-minded churches. A church’s gifts to the Cooperative Program and annual missions offerings are voluntary. Churches pay no dues to a national, state or local body. Every church sets its giving commitments, based upon its priorities and missions strategies.

Some might suggest autonomy weakens the cooperative ministry of Southern Baptists, but Ryan Strother, executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, sees it differently. He points to the diversity of the convention, fueled in part by church autonomy, as a benefit.

“Where it makes our cooperative missions stronger is that when you think of Indiana, we have about 450 churches in our state convention,” Strother said. “Those are fully autonomous churches, and because they’re autonomous, their function, their structure and their unique DNA is able to come in and help strengthen other churches because they’re able to serve out of their giftedness as a church.”

Noting that the state convention can’t hire enough people to serve every need in Indiana churches, Strother says they are trying to leverage this diversity to connect local churches with specific strengths with other churches in the state that are struggling in that area. As they do this, they are seeing the value of autonomous churches working together to support a common mission.

Some have argued that the Southern Baptist Convention, state conventions and local Baptist associations have overridden the autonomy of the local church when they have dis-fellowshipped churches that act outside of the Baptist Faith and Message.

Barber believes this is a misunderstanding of autonomy. Autonomous churches can choose what churches they affiliate with. To not allow a Southern Baptist body to choose its affiliations is to disrespect the autonomy of the churches in that body.

Wills believes for nearly all SBC churches, there is no tension between the autonomy of the local church and the commonly held Baptist confessions that specific Baptist bodies have adopted.

“There’s no conflict, because each body is responsible for what its body’s mission and character is,” Wills said. “The church is responsible for its confession, the association responsible for its confession and membership. So if an association or a convention holds that our beliefs and what the Bible teaches are fundamental to our cooperation, our membership, our union. If they cannot then exclude churches, who disagree fundamentally with that understanding of the Bible, that then takes away the freedom of that group to determine its own membership.”

Strother believes the issue of church autonomy will becoming increasingly important in the future because of society’s distrust of authority and institutions.

“People want to know, who’s really in charge? Who calls the shots?” Strother said. “When they know that it’s in our church, we’re autonomous, so there’s nobody above our pastors or whoever, who’s saying, ‘You have to do these things,’ they feel like they’re not going to be pinned in necessarily to be forced to believe everything that some book of rules passed down from a denominational office says we have to believe.”

For more information about what Southern Baptists believe, read the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

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  • Tobin Perry