Chapter 4: BAPTIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH
Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
TOC Forward Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Aftward Appendix Glossary FAQ Bibliography (Start Page)
A regenerate people who have voluntarily entered into covenant
In the New Testament the term church designates God's people in their totality or in local assembly. The church is a fellowship of persons redeemed in Christ Jesus, divinely called, divinely created, and made one under the sovereign rule of God. The church as a local bodyan organism indwelt by the Holy Spiritis a fellowship of baptized believers, voluntarily banded together for worship, study, mutual discipline, Christian service, and the propagation of the gospel at home and abroad.!
The word translated "church" in the Greek New Testament ecclesia, means " called-out (or together) assembly." It was used in the Greek version of the Old Testament for the congregation of Israel. It was used in the Hellenistic world of that day for the assembly of all free citizens in a city-state. This is what came to be called in the Reformation a "gathered church" in contrast with those territorial churches which operated on the basis of cuius regio, eius religio, roughly meaning, whatever is the religion of the ruler, that will be the religion of his kingdom. It was later known as a "free church" in that it had no ties with the state.
The example of the way disciples were made and assembled in churches in the Book of Acts indicates that one came into the church after voluntarily accepting Jesus as the Lord and Savior and being drawn together by the Spirit. "Many of them believed his message and were baptized; about three thousand people were added to the group that day.... And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved" (Acts 2:41, 47, TEV). This produced a strong fellowship of believers who had a sense of interdependence and responsibility for each other.
It was not until much later when (Christianity became the official religion of the Empire under Constantine that voluntarism in church membership gave way to the system whereby anyone born into a family living in a given area was made a member of the church by infant baptism. The Baptist insistence on its members having the new birth prior to being baptized is their chief ecclesial distinctive. For this their Anabaptist forbears were mercilessly persecuted by both Catholic authorities and Protestant reformers. They comprised the "third wing," the "radical Reformation." Out of this came their immediate insistence upon the right of individual conscience and the separation of the Church from the State. This led normally to a congregational form of church government, for if each member is endowed by the same Spirit through a common birth and all have the same privileges, then they concluded that no one can be ordained to rule over the whole.
Some define the essential marks of the church as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." Others locate the church where "the Word is truly proclaimed and the sacraments duly observed." Josef Nordenhaug gives the Baptist essential: "Without regenerate church members a church lacks the hallmark of the genuine church. The members in it must be in a living relationship to Jesus Christ."2 So Baptists would tend to define the Church as people and what has happened to bring them together in Christ. They do not seek identity through creeds, or ordained hierarchy, or apostolic succession.
A. BECOMING A MEMBER OF A BAPTIST CHURCH
Baptists view the human experience as follows: one is born into a family and becomes a citizen of the state wherein he is born. As such he acquires family and citizenship responsibilities. By the new birth he is born into the Kingdom of God and assumes responsibility as a citizen of that Kingdom and as a child of God. By his free choice, then, he determines the will of God for his church membership and presents himself publicly before that congregation. He makes his "profession of faith" and asks for baptism and entrance into the fellowship of the church. The older practice was to require the one making profession of faith to stand before the congregation and "give his testimony" so that all would know of his conversion experience. In some countries, usually in mission fields, the candidate is required to enter a period of instruction lasting several weeks and then be examined by pastor and deacons before being baptized. A more lax practice in the United States assumes the candidate to have received sufficient instruction in the home, the church school, and by pastoral interview. When he then presents himself to the congregation, the church acts "to receive such a one as a candidate for baptism." The vote, having become less formal than before, now is more an affirmation of support and an acceptance on the part of the church to nurture the young Christian.
Once baptized, the church member may in due time "move his membership by transfer of letter to another church of like faith and order." Originally this was not considered a "certificate of baptism" or of church membership that was the property of the member. It was a letter of commendation to a sister church stating that the member was in good standingthat is, not having been excluded for due causeand recommending reception by the new congregation.
Occasionally someone joins the church "by statement" that he has been a member of another Baptist church, which has since been disbanded and the records lost. Or, he may formerly have been a member of a Baptist church, then became a member of another denomination, and is now resuming his Baptist membership.
Baptist churches generally require baptism by immersion by a church "of like faith and order." When they ask one who has been baptized by another mode to be baptized by immersion, this is not to sit in judgment on the validity of his conversion experience. Since practically all communions consider the rite of baptism an initiation into the faith and life of the community, the church usually asks the believer coming from another denomination to accept the rite of immersion as a sign of full identification with this particular covenanted body. These traditional practices are not altogether uniform today, for Baptists also are experiencing some of the leveling influences in contemporary trends in American Christianity, especially in doctrinal discipline.
B. A BAPTIST CHURCH IS CONGREGATIONAL IN POLITY
On the recognition that the only authority over the church is Jesus Christ and in order to safeguard the competency of each believer, these Christians of like experience and faith come together in a covenant relationship to carry out the New Testament functions of a church. When a new church is "constituted," among other decisions a "Church Covenant" is adopted. This is not a creed in the sense of a minimum requirement of belief for entering and remaining in the membership. Nor is it a "confession of faith," which is drawn up by a church or group of churches in an association or convention. The latter spells out the beliefs held in common by a given body of Christians at a particular dated point of time. The covenant, on the other hand, is simply a brotherly agreement which pledges the members to mutual support, to a standard of behavior which reflects honor upon the body of Christ, and to an acknowledgement of responsibility for the support of the ministries and services the congregation seeks to fulfill. (See Appendix II.)
A confession of faith is also adopted at the time of constituting a new church. This is usually one which has been adopted by the association or convention with which the congregation intends to affiliate. Baptists do not accept such a confession of faith as authoritative except as the local congregation agrees to make it so for their own fellowship. Since the role of the confession of faith can be misunderstood or abused, it is important to give here a part of the preamble to the "Baptist Faith and Message" as adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in session, 1963:
Because there is one Lord over the church and because each member possesses the same competency of the soul, the logical form of church polity developed by Baptists is democratic. Every member is equal in rights, privileges, and obligations with every other member. This does not mean that there is not a division of the gifts of the Spirit, nor does it deny varying influence, but it does mean equality of privilege and rights. Among the members there will be many degrees of spiritual maturity, but the aid given the weak by the strong must always respect their integrity before God. Hence, leadership is based on persuasion in the Spirit and ability to inspire fellowship, and not upon authority of office or ordination.
The ultimate reason for democratic polity in the church is not because democracy is more efficient for it is generally less so. It is not necessarily more reliable, for the majority can surely be wrong at times. It is because this form allows the greatest freedom for the Holy Spirit to make his will known to the congregation and to provide for the continuing reform and revitalizing of the church. Baptists have experienced in the past much persecution or restriction of religious freedom in those countries where ecclesial control stifled the voice and will of the laity. Even within their own denomination their fear of clerical control has produced by-laws in most conventions that require a certain proportion of lay people to be elected to the boards and agencies of the convention.
It is possible, of course, under such polity for one man, pastor or lay person, or a small clique to lay hold on the church and control it. But sooner or later the Christian conscience of the people will rise up as they recall the words of Jesus, when his disciples argued over who should be the greatest, "The kings of this world have power over their people, and the rulers are called 'Friends of the People.' But this is not the way it is with you; rather, the greatest one among you must be like the youngest, and the leader must be like the servant" (Luke 22:25-26, TEV). Even Peter, the "chief of the apostles," appealed to his fellow-shepherds, "Do not try to rule over those who have been given into your care, but be examples to the flock" (I Peter 5:3, TEV).
On the other hand, under this polity it is also possible for the congregation to manifest such a stubborn spirit as to stifle the prophetic voice of the pastor and negate his leadership. The case of President Carter's home church in Plains, Georgia, is a good example of this. When blacks were refused admission to the membership, the majority of the congregation denied the leadership of the pastor and eventually forced his resignation. As often happens in such a situation, the minority felt they had no recourse but to withdraw and form a new Baptist church. But this does not always happen. A spiritual reversal on the part of the congregation and pastor together can often save the day. And it is always possible in this kind of polity for the Spirit to choose someone not previously in leadership in the congregation to lead the way to reconciliation and further progress.
There is an old saying among us, "Trust the Lord and tell the people." Baptist polity also calls for its reverse, "Trust the people and tell the Lord (in prayer)." Even though we know that a local church is a manifestation of the body of Christ, the Church which the Lord guaranteed that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18), yet we also know it to be a very human society, subject to all the stresses and strains of any other. It is the arena for both the clash and the fusion of the divine-human encounter. It can on occasion know the shame of the one or the glory of the other. Here, then, is where faith, both in God and in man, is called forth. And if the local church fail and die, people are hurt and disappointed, but Baptists are realistic enough to know that the Kingdom of God does not stand or fall with any one particular manifestation of the body of Christ.
C. THE MISSION AND FUNCTION OF THE CHURCH
In its simplest self-understanding, the ecclesia (the New Testament word translated "church") is called out from the world to hear the Word of the Lord and develop its people and resources to enable them to return to the world as agents of the Kingdom of God. The church, then, is a function of and servant to the Kingdom; it is not to be equated with it.
The church has three functions which can be described as centripetal:
There are three functions which are centrifugal:
A congregation that tends to be strongly centripetal will become self-centered and soon die by the Lord's word, "He that loveth his life shall lose it." A congregation that tends to be only centrifugal will soon prove its emptiness, that it is all sound and movement signifying little. It will become loveless in its proclamation, disillusioned in ministry to an unappreciative world, and divisive in its effort to establish new churches. But a Spirit-guided balance of these opposite forces will produce a hundred-fold in Kingdom influence and power in their field of the world.
In carrying out this mandate from her Lord, the church wild realize that it cannot serve the Kingdom alone. It will, therefore enter into cooperation with other churches, both within its de nomination and in the larger Christian community as the greater strategy of the Kingdom dictates. This we will discuss later.
D. THE OFFICERS OF A BAPTIST CHURCH
1. The Pastor. Baptists recognize only two officers in the New Testament: pastors and deacons. They understand the description of the pastor's function also under the other New Testament words, elder, bishop, and minister. Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars today agree the New Testament churches were very simple in their organization. Their "ministers" were more functional than official and usually drawn from their own fellowship. Even the distinction between clergy and laity was a later development after the apostolic age. Most agree now that arguments for ordination of different classes of ministers is for the most part a reading back into the New Testament of much later practices.
It should be apparent from the concept of the competency of the soul and the church as a regenerate people, In whom the Lord dwells through his Spirit, that the role of pastor in a Baptist church is primarily one of spiritual leadership. One way of describing the different aspects of his ministry is by means of the classic description of the functions of Christ: prophet, priest and king. Jesus said to all his disciples after his resurrection: "As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you" (John 20:21). Every believer has this basic three-fold role to play, but the pastor must both lead and equip his flock for this. If he is truly called of God, we believe that his gifts and calling will be apparent to the people of God. Paul speaks of Christ, "who Gave gifts to men'; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God's people for the work of Christian service, to build up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-12, TEV).
As prophet, then, the pastor proclaims the Good News in preaching and calls men to decision in behalf of the Word which speaks to their consciences (II Tim. 4:1-2).
As priest, he ministers to the spiritual needs of the flock as their shepherd ("pastor") and leads them in worship. "The Christian priesthood finds its distinctive function, therefore, not in acting from God's side in the offering of sacrifices on man's behalf; it rather acts from man's side, as it leads men in faith to present their bodies a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1)."3 He teaches and trains in order that they may be equipped to fulfill their own "priesthood of believers" in the world (Eph. 4:11-12).
As king, he exercises leadership and provides discipline, not as "fording it over the flock," but as servant of all (I Peter 5:23). The motive power of this kind of kingship is redemptive love. The "rod and staff" of his shepherding (Ps. 23) is the Word, patiently and lovingly pressed on the flock. His authority is the evidence of the Holy Spirit speaking and working through him. The people respond by the discerning of the Spirit dwelling in them (I Cor. 2:13-15).
To qualify for this role, the pastor is expected to have experienced a calling of the Lord. This inner sense of divine call should be strong enough to commend him to the congregation of which he is a member. At his request and often on his testimony I of a call publicly the church will vote to "license" him to the ministry. This is simply a letter of commendation to other churches stating that his own congregation believes in his Christian character and recognizes the potential of his divine calling.
With this calling there also come the gifts and endowments of the Spirit to enable his ministry. He is expected to "improve the gifts" by prayer, study of the Word and preaching and teaching whenever there is opportunity. Now more than ever, he is expected to pursue a full education, both in the liberal arts in a college or university and in the ministerial arts in a seminary. However, with their free polity and authority for ordination resting solely in a local church, Baptists have never been able to require education before ordination.
Usually during these days the young minister will take a wife and begin his family, for Baptists believe the marital experience helps to fit the pastor as leader and counselor to his people. Of course, this consumes time and diverts attention away from his ministry. But with the congregation sharing the larger function of ministry, the pastor is more and more looked upon as the leader and equipper for ministry. In early days and smaller churches the attitude all too often was "we pay you to do the work of the ministry; don't rely on us!" His wife, too, was looked upon as an unpaid associate pastor, or at least one who would busy herself in the music, education and women's work of the church. Today, more realistically the pastor's wife is given more freedom to assume the normal responsibilities of other church members.
Let us assume the one who has been licensed to preach is now in school. For his practical experience as well as his livelihood, he may preach before a congregation "in view of a call to be a pastor." If the church decides to call him, then they will also call for his ordination. This may be referred out of courtesy to his home church where he was baptized, or to the church where he is presently a member, or they may take the responsibility themselves.
The congregation that agrees to ordain him then issues a call to neighboring Baptist churches to send their ordained peoplepastors and deaconsto form a "presbytery" for the purpose of examining the candidate and making recommendations (I Tim. 4:14). This calling of a presbytery is more than just seeking wise counsel. It is a recognition that upon his ordination the minister will go on to serve not only the church that has called him, but also the wider fellowship of Baptists through his continuing ministry for life.
The presbytery either privately or publicly (and sometimes both) will question the candidate on his "experience of grace" (his salvation), his sense of divine call, his basic Christian beliefs, his commitment to the Baptist faith and fellowship, and his vision of mission to the world. When the presbytery is satisfied, they recommend to the congregation that the "brother" be ordained. The congregation then votes their acceptance of this and instructs the presbytery to proceed with "the laying on of hands." After exhortations and a prayer of dedication, each member of the presbytery as well as sometimes other members of the congregation comes by the kneeling candidate and as he places both hands on his head he whispers a prayer or a word of support.
The rite of "laying on of hands" is usually not considered to bestow the gift of the Spirit but only to publicly acknowledge that the Spirit has already evidenced his calling through the person's life and testimony. The rite, therefore, carries no sacramental powers or magisterial authority. Since all authority for religious rites and ordinances rests in the congregation, the call to become a pastor of a church carries with it the authority by the congregation to baptize and to administer the Lord's Supper However, lacking a pastor, the congregation is free to appoint one of its own members or a visiting minister (or lay person) to lead in the observance of either ordinance. This ordination is considered to be for life, but upon grave cause it can be revoked only by the church where he is a member.
Today most Baptist churches extend an "open" call to their pastor. There are still several thousand small Southern Baptist churches that continue the former practice of an "annual call" a kind of vote of confidence, or facing such, a termination of the call. The congregation sets the financial support and any other guidelines for the functioning of its pastor and may review these from time to time.
When a church becomes pastorless, the congregation appoints a "pulpit" or "search" committee to seek out a new man After considerable investigation and personal interviews with prospective pastors, the committee recommends and the congregation votes to call or to reject the recommendation and send the committee back for further search. In the change of pastorates both the man and the congregation try to discern the will of the Lord while taking into account many human factors and forces
In all this discussion of the call and function of a minister, I have assumed the office of pastor to be filled by a man. For some time now churches are recognizing the proper ordination of persons to many different kinds of ministryevangelists, missionaries, educators, chaplains, musicians, social workers, administrators and others. Further, a few churches have accepted women for ordination, usually for other types of ministry than the pastorate, but there are also a few women serving as pastors in some Baptist denominations.
2. The Deacons. The other office calling for ordination in a Baptist church is that of deacon. The New Testament pattern for this service is found in Acts 6:1~. Seven men were appointed to a ministry of daily service (drakonia) to the widows of the congregation so that the apostles could devote more time to prayer and the service (again, diakonia) of the Word. The moral and spiritual qualifications of deacons are given in I Tim. 3:~13. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe, "our sister," is described as a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (drakoros in Greek is both masculine and feminine). Recognizing that the predominance of men in the church in New Testament times was the heritage from Judaism and reflected the mores of the day, some Baptist churches are beginning to ordain women to the diaconate.
Nowhere in the New Testament is the role of deacons described beyond a general ministry. Thus there has been wide flexibility in interpreting their work. An older generation of Baptists spoke of deacons as serving two tablesthe table of the Lord, in serving the Lord's Supper, and the table of the pastor, in helping with the business affairs of the church. As churches grew large and complex there has been a tendency on the part of some to act like a "board of directors," even to requiring that all business of the church be approved by the deacons before being brought to the congregation. In recent times, however, there has been growing a greater emphasis upon the role of ministering to the needs of the congregation. Some churches divide the membership into groups and assign a deacon to serve as a kind of under-shepherd of his group. More and more churches are following patterns in business and government in assigning internal functions to committees that report regularly to the deacons and/or the congregation.
As in the case of pastors, deacons are examined for their qualifications and then ordained. This is for life, upon good Christian character, and the rite also includes the "laying on of hands" by a presbytery, usually drawn solely from the ministers and deacons of the ordaining church. But this does not mean that a church must appoint them to continuous service, nor that the church which they later join must use them on their "active list." Churches today are growing in their practice of electing deacons to serve for a definite period, usually three years, with the option of reelection to another term, after which they are assigned to an inactive list for at least one term before being reactivated. The diaconate is not considered a stepping-stone or a prerequisite to becoming a pastor.
The character and vision, the dedication and work displayed by the group of deacons in a Baptist church can often have greater long-range influence upon the character of the church than I any other factor. The pastor naturally sets the tone and provides the chief charisma of leadership. Often the reputation of the I church in the community and the denomination derives from I him. But all of this goes for little unless he has the strong support and exemplary activity before the rest of the congregation of his deacons.
We have spoken of two ordained officers of a Baptist church. In the growing complexity of life and work in churches today much of the leadership will be done through lay people in Sunday School, training programs, the graded choirs, missionary and service organizations. To provide leadership and training to such a large number of lay people often requires a multiple staff of professionally trained ministers.
Here is the genius of much of the Baptist success. A large corps of lay people are continually being enlisted and trained for service in the congregation and for witness and ministry in the community beyond. The snare in all this, of course, is that the system can become so cumbersome that it consumes all its energies and resources in keeping the machinery going with little energy left over for the world outside.
E. THE CHURCH: GOD'S PEOPLE IN THEIR TOTALITY
It will be noted that our discussion of the Baptist faith has been moving from the individual to the corporate, from the smaller to the greater. So we have moved from the concept of the church as a local congregation to the Church as the universal body of Christ. Historically, however, the Baptist confessions of faith reversed the order. For example, the Second London Confession was drawn up in London in 1677 by a group of more than one hundred Particular Baptist churches (i.e., those Calvinistically-oriented who held to God's choice of "particular" individuals for salvation). This confession with few changes came to the United States and was adopted as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, 1743, which for more than a century was the standard of Baptist churches. The London Article 26 on the Church reads as follows in the opening paragraph:
1. The Catholick [sic] or universal Church, which (with respect to internal work of the Spirit, and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the Elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that dwelleth all in ally
It is interesting that this concept of the Church universal dropped out of subsequent confessions, due largely to Landmark influence (see below, Part III), and was not restored until the 1963 confession adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention. Then Article 6 added to the main paragraphs on the church as local this statement: "The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages."
One of the greatest theologians of the Church that Southern Baptists have produced was William O. Carver, professor of missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, during the mid-twentieth century. His chief contribution to biblical scholarship came in his commentary on Ephesians, The Glory of God in the Christian Calling (Broadman, 1949). In it he defined the Church, as found in Ephesians and Colossians, as "the spiritual Body of the Christ, constituted of all who are children of God through the calling of God and by their 'faith in the Lord Jesus.' This Church is conceived as organic with the Christ, his Body in the world, in the process of redemption, in the unfolding of history. In this sense, the Church is not organized, has no human head or headship. It is, as such and as a whole, no more concrete or visible than the Christ himself is concrete and visible in the sense world."5
It is into this Church that each believer of whatever Christian name is brought into the body of Christ by his salvation (not necessarily by the rite of baptism, as will be seen later). Carver elsewhere says, "Under the impulse of the Spirit, this member of the spiritual church voluntarily takes his place in the local fellowship and assumes his responsibility as a Christian in that church, for that local church is a concrete, organized expression of the one spiritual church."0 So, then, one becomes a member of the Church as the body of Christ by the divine action and a member of the local church by his voluntary choice and commitment.
Over the Church no congregation, ordained person or hierarchy has any authority or control. Over the local body of believers who come together in covenant relation, the congregation accepts responsibility for the admission, nurture and discipline of each member.
Because Baptists have long endured persecution and restriction by a Church that claims authority over all citizens of a given state, they are exceedingly wary of any church which seeks to proclaim itself as the one, true church in universal, institutional form. Because of the nineteenth-century influence of Landmarkism, which taught that only through baptismal succession from the New Testament period could true local churches claim validity, Baptists are still divided over the proper distinction between the Church and the churches.
Another theologian has sought to harmonize these two concepts of the Church:
The church is truly known only to faith, because it is constituted in and by the Holy Spirit. For this reason it may in one sense be described as invisible. But the church becomes visible in churchesin actual, visible, local companies.... The church is manifested and embodied in churches.... Its proper members are chosen by him, not by us. But the membership of local churches, which believers do control, must be determined by a sense of true churchmanship; i.e., churches mustso far as it is possible for us to make them sobe reflections and embodiments of God's church.7
Baptists generally have not bought the "branch theory" of the Church, i.e., that each church and denomination are but branches of the one Church. Russell Shedd makes it clear when he says, "The local church is neither a part nor a fraction, but the whole Church locally embodied."8 Carver makes a strong plea for Baptists to make more of the whole Church. "In view of the biblical figure of the church as Christ's bride, the insistence of some that all uses of the term 'church' in the New Testament refer only to local organizations becomes absurd almost to the point of sacrilege, attributing to Christ a bride in every locality where a church is found.... How can one conceive of independent local bodies as growing into 'one holy temple of God in the Holy Spirit,' especially when the whole context of the paragraph [Eph. 2:19-22] emphasizes the unity of all members of the new human race produced by the cross of Christ?"9
The relevance of this struggle over the understanding of the Church in the churches will be seen again in our later discussion of the attitude of Baptists toward the ecumenical movement. It helps to explain also why Baptists will continue to live in the tension between their cherished freedom of the individual as expressed in an autonomous local church and their growing sense of responsibility for "God's people in their totality."
Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998
©Copyright 1998 All rights
Reserved. C.B Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052