by Daniel R. Brown
Baptist churches prize the independence and autonomy of their local churches. They wear the doctrine of independence as the king wears his regal robe. Independence does not apply only to unaffiliated Baptist churches. Baptist churches that fellowship with associations, conferences, and conventions may lose some degree of their self-determination because of complications over property, missions, and the like; but even they insist on being independent.
Baptists have no pope, diocese, or synod. Baptist independence involves refusing ecclesiastical interference as well as political interference. Separation of church and state as a Baptist distinctive primarily reflects the need for the church to be free from state interference rather than vice versa.
This independence works both for and against Baptists. Filling pastoral vacancies and helping struggling churches are two areas in which independence creates difficulty. Independent Baptists do not always have the best track record when it comes to working with each other. The lack of perspective for the greater Body of Christ can cause us to have such a narrow focus that all we can see is our own ministry. A narrow focus upon our own ministry can lead either to a feeling of incompetence (inferiority complex) or to a feeling of arrogance (superiority complex).
I would like to emphasize one area within our polity in which Baptist brethren can and should depend upon one another. I am referring to church councils. Significant doctrinal issues have often been settled by the gathering of the greater Body of Christ to respond to doctrinal deviation. Such councils have usually been called in response to deep division within the church.
Baptist polity allows for at least two types of church councils. Both types exist in order to assist local churches. Neither type of council finds direct support from the New Testament, but both may be reasonably inferred from New Testament principles. Typically, these councils consist of two groups: a host church and a gathering of messengers who are invited by that host church. The host congregation will typically invite like-minded, fellowshipping churches to send their pastors and two messengers to sit in an advisory capacity for a purpose specified by the host church. The inviting church may, at its own discretion, invite other individuals to participate.
The first type of church council is the ordination council. In this case, a local church invites sister churches to provide advice in the examination of a man whom the local church believes to be called to ministry. The church asks the ordination council to provide expertise in areas in which the church members themselves might not be proficient. The council questions the candidate about his salvation, call, and doctrine. The council then offers an opinion to the church as to the advisability of proceeding with the ordination.
The ordination council provides a vital biblical function. Scripture cautions elders to use careful discernment before formally placing a man into the ministry (1 Tim. 5:22). The ordination council provides the ordaining church a wonderful opportunity to have elders from many congregations examine the man on whom they will lay hands.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a Baptist council in which the candidate was an older man who had begun his ministry as a Methodist pastor, had gone to a pastorate in a Bible church, and had recently been installed as pastor of a large Baptist church. The council was particularly interested in examining his Baptist beliefs and his suitability for the Baptist ministry. He did a great job of demonstrating that he understood the distinctions between denominations, having experienced them.
The second type of church council among Baptists is the recognition council. The recognition council is called by a prospective church prior to its chartering service so the council may examine and advise the church regarding its covenant, articles of faith, and constitution.
The recognition council serves two important functions. First, it can provide expertise and advice that will help the fledgling church prevent future problems. Changes in the church’s documents, and especially the doctrinal statement, can be made easily before the church is formally organized. Following the chartering service, however, such changes become more difficult to make.
In one recognition council that I attended, the missionary pastor had installed a form of church order that amounted to a cross between Presbyterianism and a dictatorship. While his intentions were admirable (he was trying to protect the church), his doctrine was not. A church may be irregular in doctrine or practice, or “out of order.” The recognition council can and should help with errors of faith and practice, many of which are committed unwittingly.
The second important function served by the recognition council is that it helps other local Baptist churches understand that the new church is indeed a Baptist church. This facilitates the process of fellowship with the new church, and it removes hesitation about recommending it to prospective members who move into that area.
Let me leave you with three final thoughts on church councils. First, the decisions of a church council are recommendations and nothing more. Councils do not legislate or adjudicate. Councils do not supersede the autonomy of the local church at any point. Baptists do emphasize the independence of the local church. Therefore, receiving the recommendations of a council might be prudent but is not binding.
Second, church councils are temporary, usually lasting only a few hours. The ad hoc nature of church councils requires certain parliamentary proceedings that are often misunderstood. The council, having never previously existed, votes itself into existence so that it can operate decently and in order just long enough to accomplish its assigned business before dissolving, never to meet again.
Finally, I believe the invitation to participate in a church council places an obligation upon the invited church. Every invited church has a fraternal responsibility to the inviting church to respond with its presence. This means attending and participating, even at the cost of time and finances. In fact, I think that an invited pastor is obligated to attend unless providentially hindered, especially if a prior working relationship exists between the churches. The next request for a council could come from you. Do you need others to help you? Brethren, we need each other.
Resources for additional study:
Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980).
Paul R. Jackson, The Doctrine and Administration of the Church (Des Plaines: Regular Baptist Press, 1968).
Fulke Greville (1554-1628)
Three things there be in Man’s opinion dear:
Fame, many Friends, and Fortune’s dignities;
False visions all, which in our sense appear
To sanctify desire’s Idolatries.
For what is Fortune, but a wat’ry glass?
Whose crystal forehead wants a steely back,
Where rain and storms bear all away that was,
Whose shape alike both depths and shallows wrack.
Fame again, which from blinding power takes light,
Both Caesar’s shadow is, and Cato’s friend,
The child of humour, not allied to right,
Living by oft exchange of wingèd end.
And many Friends, false strength of feeble mind,
Betraying equals, as true slaves to might,
Like Echoes still send voices down the wind,
But never in adversity find right.
Then, Man (though virtue of extremities
The middle be, and so hath two to one,
By Place and Nature constant enemies,
And against both these no strength but her own)
Yet quit thou for her Friends, Fame, Fortune’s throne;
Devils, there many be, and Gods but one.
|Dr. Daniel R. Brown is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He has a B.S. degree from Faith Baptist Bible College, M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min. degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He served as senior pastor at Kendall Park Baptist Church (Kendall Park, NJ). He also served at churches in Michigan and Texas and at camps in Texas and New Jersey. He and his wife, Mary Jo, have four daughters.|