Understanding the different ways that Baptists cooperate with each other–an excerpt from RBP’s new book on Baptist distinctives.

Read about Bauder’s book Baptist Distinctives in “New Books for a New Generation

Baptists in America trace their movement directly to the first Baptist churches that emerged from English separatism during the middle third of the Seventeenth Century. From the very early years, they have wrestled with the problem of finding an organizational pattern that would allow them to work together in cooperative enterprises. Three particular needs have made this problem acute.

First, they have felt the need for interchurch fellowship, encouragement, and accountability. This need arises because Baptist churches must answer several very practical questions. Where will a church get its next pastor? Conversely, how will a minister find his next church? Whose ordination should be recognized as acceptable in the process of pastoral change? From what churches should a congregation accept members, and to what churches should it dismiss them? Whose discipline should a church recognize, and to what extent should the discipline of other churches be respected? To whom should Baptist churches turn when they need help and counsel? From whom should they expect it?

Second, Baptists share a responsibility to train the next generation of pastors for their churches. They must ask themselves how they can produce pastors who combine a profound grasp of Scripture and doctrine with a mastery of the necessary skills for effective ministry. While one might glibly suggest that every church ought to prepare its own pastors, the fact is that most churches are not equipped to teach Greek, Hebrew, exegetical skills, systematic and historical theology, and ministry technique. These deficiencies create a problem that Baptist churches must solve together.

Third, Baptist churches often find themselves faced with undertakings that are too large or complicated for most individual congregations. Some of these activities (like Christian camps) are pursued because they are useful rather than because they are Biblically mandated. Some, however, are actually essential to the functioning of a New Testament congregation. For instance, a church cannot claim to follow the pattern of the New Testament if it is not engaged in the work of worldwide missions. Yet most churches by themselves are simply not able to send a trained church planter with a family (much less a team of church planters with families) to an unfamiliar country halfway around the world. Sending foreign missionaries is a huge undertaking, well beyond the capabilities of most individual congregations.

Baptist churches have always tried to respond to these challenges cooperatively. Tasks that are beyond the ability of the single congregation have typically been accomplished by churches or individuals that have worked together. Baptists, however, have discovered that not every form of extra-congregational organization is acceptable. In structuring their cooperative endeavors, Baptists have historically looked to three New Testament principles.

3 principles of Baptist church cooperation

  1. Every Baptist congregation is autonomous and self-determining under Christ.
  2. The New Testament teaches a pattern of churches cooperating with each other.
  3. The local church is central to God’s plan for this age.

Warning: The enduring presence of original sin corrupts our attempts at organization!

The first principle is the autonomy of the individual congregation. Baptists believe that each congregation is self-determining under Christ. They have consistently rejected all schemes that would subject local churches either to external hierarchies or to internal monarchies and oligarchies. Amongst Baptists, the church means the members, not the officers or the structure. It is the church itself, the organized members, that possesses decision-making authority under Christ.

In the New Testament, individual congregations exercised authority to choose their own servants and to call them into account (Acts 6:1–6; 2 Corinthians 8:16–21; Acts 11:2, 18; 11:22; 13:23; 14:25–27). Never does the New Testament depict any individual imposing officers upon a church without the congregation’s consent. Granted, in a couple of instances Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:23) or Titus, acting under Paul’s authority (Titus 1:5), ordained elders. Even in these instances, however, the congregation almost certainly participated in the decision. To state it clearly, in the New Testament, pastors never choose pastors or deacons. Only congregations make those choices.

In the New Testament, congregations also exercised authority to receive, exclude, and restore their own members. This authority is glimpsed with special clarity in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul addresses the problem of scandalous conduct among church members. As Paul writes, the church is actually dealing with a specific instance of such conduct: a man who is cohabiting with his father’s wife. The striking thing about 1 Corinthians 5 is that while Paul instructs the congregation in their duty to disfellowship the erring brother (1 Corinthians 5:2–5, 7, 11–13), he himself does not remove the person from the congregation. Similarly, Paul does not simply declare a repentant member to be restored to the congregation, but he instructs the congregation in their duty to receive the person (2 Corinthians 2:4–11). The New Testament contains no examples of pastors receiving or dismissing members on their own initiative. Much less does it show outside officials interfering in matters pertaining to local church membership. This authority belongs to the congregation.

Choosing leaders and disciplining members are the most important decisions that a church can make. If the congregation is qualified to make these decisions, then it is qualified to make any decision. By the same token, if no other authority has the right to impose these decisions upon a church, then it cannot rightfully impose any decision upon a church. The autonomy of the individual congregation needs to be non-negotiable in any form of Baptist cooperation.

A second principle also guides Baptists in mutual efforts. It is the New Testament pattern of autonomous congregations cooperating with each other. For example, the book of Acts narrates an ongoing exchange between Jerusalem and Antioch, in which the so-called Jerusalem Council (really a local church’s business meeting, Acts 15) is only one episode. The churches of Macedonia and Achaia clearly cooperated in a voluntary endeavor to raise funds for the poor saints at Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8; 9).

Not only congregations, but individual church members appear to have cooperated for the advancement of New Testament Christianity. For example, members from a variety of local churches cooperated on Paul’s missionary teams. Some of the specific individuals included Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, Demas, Secundus, Titus, Gaius, and Aristarchus, among others. These individuals joined and left Paul’s entourage at irregular intervals. Presumably each individual remained accountable to a sending congregation, but the group operated with de facto autonomy. Paul did not request a decision from the elders at Antioch for every step that he took. On the contrary, Paul’s circle displayed its own kind of organization and accountability. While it reported to churches, it operated independently of their direct oversight. In a sense, this circle could be called the first parachurch organization.

Voluntary cooperation between churches of like faith and order has good precedent in the New Testament. So does cooperation between members of those churches, even to the point of creating organization outside the churches proper. In these episodes, Baptists have found a pattern for their joint efforts.

The third principle to which Baptists have looked for direction in their cooperative work is the centrality of the local church in God’s plan for this age. The apostle Paul declares the local church to be the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). God has not ordained any other institution for the completion of His plan during the present dispensation. Sooner or later, the responsibility for the advancement of the Lord’s work must be shouldered by local churches. They must take leadership, and their prerogatives must be respected in any form of interchurch cooperation.

These are the three principles to which Baptists have appealed historically. A fourth principle also ought to be borne in mind, however. It is one that Baptists believe, but that they have too often neglected to reckon upon. This principle is the enduring presence of original sin.

Different schools of theology describe this indwelling sin differently: the sin nature, the flesh, the old man, idolatrous habits, etc. While they differ over nomenclature, all Baptists recognize that every Christian is engaged in an ongoing warfare against a persistent tendency to exalt self at the expense of Christ and to gratify temporal appetites at the expense of eternal priorities. Original sin is certain to manifest itself in all human endeavors of every kind. Christian endeavors are not exempt from this rule. Even in Christian organizations one should not be surprised to discover the centralization and abuse of power, the advancement of personal agendas through political machinations, and the attempt to control or manipulate others through a variety of indecorous means. In fact, all Christians should be constantly on guard against the temptation to resort to these sins themselves.

For Baptists, some form of mutual effort seems to be unavoidable. Coordinated effort without organization is impossible. Given that some organization is necessary, what form should it take? In answering this question, Baptists have experimented with several patterns of organizational structure. Six of the most important ones are described in the following sections. Before we decide what form of organization is best, we need to know what forms of organization have been tried.

Six Types of Baptist Church Organizations

Associational model—A fellowship of churches that choose to organize formally and to act in concert for the achievement of mutual goals. (The GARBC is organized as a fellowship of churches.)

Service organization model—Baptist churches cooperating together to support independent organizations such as mission agencies, colleges, and camps.

Approval system—Church fellowships formally recommending service organizations to their churches, a blend of the associational model and service organization model. (The GARBC used an approval system or partnership system through 2004.)

Preachers’ fellowshipA fellowship of individuals rather than churches, where the voting messengers are pastors of the churches that support the fellowship’s mission and schools (such as the Southwide Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Bible Fellowship).

Ecclesiastical conglomerate—Some large churches are capable of doing all of the tasks that usually require church cooperation, operating a campus that includes training institutes, seminaries, mission organizations, and media (such as Hamilton Square Baptist Church in San Francisco and Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga).

Ad hoc model—Churches cooperating together for specific purposes, without establishing any formal institutional structure. For instance, some U.S. churches helped Baptist churches in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

Lessons on Organization

Baptists have experimented with several forms of organization. Churches and individuals have worked together in associations, in autonomous service organizations, under the approval system, through preachers’ fellowships, in church-sponsored agencies, and on a simple, ad hoc basis. They have had centuries of experience with these forms of organization. They ought to have learned certain lessons by now.

For example, they ought to have learned something about institutional loyalty. People love to attach their loyalty to bricks and mortar. Barring that, they will fasten their loyalty to an individual or an organizational structure. The actual nature of the structure does not seem to matter very much. People can be as loyal to a service organization as they can to a convention. They can be as loyal to an entrepreneur as they can to an emperor.

Assuming the best, an organization that Baptists create will be founded on certain principles. The loyalty of the founders will be to those principles. As the organization increases in age, size, wealth, and influence, however, it begins to create a certain attraction to itself. People begin to transfer their loyalty from the founding principles to the organizational structure itself. (This insight is borrowed from Dr. George Houghton of Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary, who used to articulate it in his courses on church history.)

As this transfer takes place, the organizational structure can provide a shelter for doctrinal deviation or immoral conduct. Loyalty to the organization comes to be perceived as loyalty to truth. Leaders who promote the organization effectively are granted certain exemptions from accountability. That is one way in which ecclesiastical politicians maintain their power within Baptist organizations.

Carnally ambitious people are able to use any structure or any position to leverage themselves into power. The form of organization does not much matter. Any organization at all, even informal organization, provides a venue for climbers.

Once climbers have entrenched themselves in positions of power, abuse is almost inevitable. The leadership of the organization begins to perceive questions as challenges, and challenges as opposition. Whether the power structures are formal or informal, they can be used against the perceived opposition. Those whose loyalty is genuinely to the founding principles of the organization are faced with three wretched choices. First, they can simply walk away and start over—but starting over is no guarantee that the same thing will not happen again. Second, they can stay in the organization and quietly go about their business—the very thing that abusive leaders hope they will do, for quiet loyalists really make up the backbone of abusive power. Third, they can initiate action against the abusive leadership, which will inevitably precipitate an internecine war and transform the entire organization into a politically charged institution, whoever wins.

Given these risks, why bother with organization at all? Why not simply retreat into local churches and do the work of God? Could complete and actual independence be the answer? A positive answer to this final question will raise certain problems.

First, complete independence will severely restrict what most churches are able to accomplish. How do they intend to sustain missionaries on the field? How do they intend to train their own next pastor? Perhaps some churches will be able to accomplish these objectives, but many will not.

Second, creating an independent church is more difficult than it sounds. If any members join the church from outside, they will bring baggage with them. They will have attended this or that college. They will know this or that missionary, sent to the field through this or that agency. They will want to listen to this or that preacher. Even if the membership of the church is restricted to new converts, they are going to pick up books or hear religious broadcasts that introduce outside elements into the congregation.

Autonomy is not independence. While Baptists can and should have autonomous churches, none of those churches is truly independent. Given membership transfers, pastoral exchanges, shared challenges, and the influence of mass-produced Christianity, cross-pollination between churches is inevitable. Churches and parachurch institutions interact with one another. No church can avoid the intrusion of influences from outside the congregation (even the churches of the New Testament could not avoid these influences). Independence is an illusion. The only answer is to have a trained congregation that is mature and discerning enough to look out for itself.

Given the presence of original sin, Baptists can expect to meet with disappointment in all institutions, whatever organizational model they employ. Therefore, they should regard all institutions (whether associations, preachers’ fellowships, conferences, conventions, mission agencies, seminaries, or colleges) with a measure of suspicion. They should never drop their guard.

Regardless of which model Baptists follow, they should recognize that they are building institutions in the absence of much New Testament instruction. Consequently, Baptists should hold their organizations with trembling hands. They should be prepared to discard or destroy them quickly when necessary. Institutions are useful only as means to an end, but never as a necessary implementation of New Testament polity. Baptists should never confuse their agencies with their churches.

The institutions that become politicized most quickly and most viciously are the ones that tie participation in decision making to financial support. When these institutions become doctrinally or morally aberrant, churches or individuals often withhold financial support. By withholding finances, these people or churches automatically lose their voice in setting the organization’s policies. They are excluded from the opportunity to help correct the problem. Such institutions generally end up being run by the people with the least conscience.

The most important lesson is this. Original sin is at work in all humans. For that reason, no structure will provide a permanent safeguard against the infections of doctrinal deviation or moral misconduct. The participation of people with integrity is the only bulwark against the deterioration of both agencies and churches.

Kevin Bauder (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is research professor of systematic theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn. This article is an excerpt from RBP’s new book on Baptist distinctives, which will be released in June.

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