Thanks to all the flesh and blood people who’ve phoned, emailed and chatted to me in the last few weeks regarding my “slow slide off the face of the earth”. I’ve taken a bit of a “blogging sabbatical” brought on by a decision faced by my wife and I regarding our involvement in the establishment of God’s kingdom. Truthfully I’ve been a bit too introspective to produce anything of any literary value of late. Thanks for your patience. God willing I’ll be back soon. Until then: this article was written by Christo Beetge*. There’s only one more installment to go!
More and more it seems to be the case today that people who call themselves “Baptists” or “Methodists” or “Presbyterians” are unable to define what they mean when using such specific terminology. This confusion and historical ignorance reveals itself further in the fact that people seem to be unclear as to the differences between these various ecclesiastical groupings. This means that if I were to say in conversation that my roots lie in the “Brethren Church” or the “Church of the Nazarene” (for example), it is unlikely that I would actually have communicated anything meaningful by saying so.
More and more people are keen to believe that being a “Christian” is all that matters, and that we should not bother to define our terms. A moment’s thought would reveal the folly of such simplicity. Even the word “Christian” is a technical term, laden with some freight. If you want to communicate something by using the term then you need to answer the question, “But what do you mean by calling yourself a… (Christian, Baptist, Methodist, etc)”. It is to help bring some clarity to the term “Baptist” that this series of articles has been written. These articles have sought then to answer the very reasonable question, “What freight is implied by the term ‘Baptist’?”
Thus far eight issues have been raised. I have argued historically that Baptists are a peculiar group of believers who hold in common a commitment to a bouquet of convictions called ‘Baptist Principles’. To this point we have mentioned and briefly discussed the following:
- The Direct Lordship of Jesus Christ – every believer must by definition have a direct and unmediated relationship with God the Father by means of the Person and work of God the Son;
- The Priesthood of all Believers – every believer is a priest unto God;
- The Congregational Life – because every individual believer has this direct access to God through Christ and is enabled by the indwelling Spirit to be a priest unto God, such members have the right and the responsibility to participate constructively and definitively in the life of the local congregation;
- The Authority and Sufficiency of the Bible – all matters of Faith and practise must be regulated and shaped by direct reference to the written Word which God has inspired, inscripturated and preserved for our eternal good;
- The Priority of Verbal Proclamation in worship and service – since saving faith comes from hearing the Word of God, our activities in mission, evangelism and discipleship must be heavily centered upon verbal proclamation and application of all of Scripture;
- Regenerate Church Membership – only those who are willing to make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ and who engage in good works may be considered as members of a local church;
- Separation of Church and State – the authority of civil authorities is limited to civil matters, and must not encroach upon the authority of parents in the home nor on the authority of believers in the local church;
- The Two Ordinances – only two ceremonies were ordered by the Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, namely baptism of confessors in Christ by immersion in water, and the eating of the Lord’s Supper as an act of remembrance in which Christ Jesus is present.
Before we mention one further Baptist Principle here (leaving a final one for the fifth and concluding article in this series), let it be stated again plainly, that all Christians, by definition, will hold to a selection of the above convictions. None of these principles is unique to those who use the name “Baptist”. But what is unique is that Baptists, by definition, hold to all ten of these principles, and these convictions shape local Baptist churches and flavour their ethos and approach.
Furthermore, let it also be stated again, that the word “Baptist” is not a political or denominational designation. It is possible to be authentically ‘baptistic’ without actually using the word “Baptist” in your churches name. Too many people seem to think that you can only be a “Baptist” church if you belong to some formal grouping like the Baptist Union, or some grouping of that kind.
Well, now to the ninth Baptist Principle. Although baptistic churches, emphasising as they do the significance of the local church, have emphasized inter-dependence and sought not to be isolationist or sectarian in their independence, we none the less want to remain committed to the idea of autonomy. By the notion designated by the phrase, “the autonomy of the local church”, Baptists certainly do not want to suggest that one local church has absolutely no need of other like-minded Baptist churches.
In fact, this inter-dependence is the very reality that lies behind co-operative associations like the Sola 5 family. It is simply a logical fact of economy and limited resources that means that in order to be productively engaged in world missions and theological education, each local church will need to pool its limited resources with those of other like-minded congregations. But, (and here’s the point), this associating of ourselves together for the purpose of greater strategic involvement in missions and training, must not be allowed to develop into some ecclesiastical structure that will ultimately supersede the local church in authority.
To put it plainly: There is no “Head Office” to which the local “branch” like BBC is accountable. Or to state it slightly differently: When BBC gathers as an assembly of formal members and God is present by His Spirit, then there exists no higher ecclesiastical authority on earth! The pope of Rome is only head of the Roman Catholic Church – He has absolutely no authority outside of the his ecclesiastical structure.
Thoughtful readers will immediately see the significance of the issue discussed last time, under the heading “Separation of Church and State”. No one has the right, according to the baptistic understanding of God’s delegated authority to the local church and her office-bearers, to interfere in our local church affairs. The reason for this is that we simply do not see anywhere in Scripture that there is another strata of authority under which the local church falls.
Two Scripture issues immediately bear mentioning. The first is the fact that the seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were addressed not to the organization but to seven individual local churches. These local churches were recognised by God the Spirit as separate entities. They had specific strengths and weaknesses and needed individual attention by their ever-present Lord and Master. They were “the seven churches in Asia”, not “the church in Asia”.
The second Scripture issue is the church Council convened at Jerusalem in Acts 15. Many local churches in the various regions to which the gospel had spread were facing a common threat from Judaizers (i.e. those believers of Jewish origin who wanted to impose certain Jewish practices upon new converts to Christ). This matter was referred back to the gathered apostles in Jerusalem. The question then, is this: “Does Acts 15 not run counter to our baptistic conviction regarding autonomy?”
Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian synods, for instance, would argue against Baptists on this matter, suggesting that there is indeed a layer of authority that supersedes the local church. Baptists would hold rather that the Jerusalem Council is an example of co-operation for the sake of clarity, involving a unique group of Apostles. Today, we have the completed canon of Scripture (rather than the authoritative office of “apostle”). Whilst a gathering of spiritually mature representatives from various local congregations (such as their Elders) may benefit each local church by applying their collective wisdom to a matter, they may not impose their will on any local congregation. Rather than hierarchical structures, Baptists delight in the promise of the Lord Jesus that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).
Baptists feel very strongly that the emphasis should be kept at the level of the local church acting as a body with the unmediated wisdom and direction of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Head of the Church and will direct affairs in local churches by means of the Spirit through the agency of the written Word. (I trust that increasingly it is becoming clearer how inter-woven the logical connection is between these various Principles?)
Having raised these issues of conviction then, again the question must be asked: “Are you a Baptist? Or do you just happen to worship at a church with that name?“
* An article, written by Christo Beetge, and published in 5 parts in the Brackenhurst Baptist Church’s monthly in-house publication entitled Pastors’ Pen. This publication is produced by the Elders, with a view to stimulate congregational discussion and debate and to promote rigorous Christian discipline in reading and thinking.