A church is a voluntary society. Baptists believe that people join churches not by birth but by choice. People freely associate, and can freely disassociate. Voluntary societies cannot use force or coercion on their members; they can only persuade.
Having said that, a number of things need to be said to overturn the muddled thinking about liberty in Christ and ‘legalistic’ churches. A voluntary organization or society can define the rules of association as narrowly as it wants to. Depending on the nature of the organization or institution, it may not be wise to make those rules of association extremely rigid. But as long as people freely associate or disassociate, no one’s freedom has been harmed. Anyone who joins an intensely narrow church does so under no compulsion. If you voluntarily join a church or attend an institution which contains practices or beliefs that you know will violate your conscience, you cannot then claim that you have been oppressed or had your freedoms removed.
Voluntary societies do not have to tolerate what secular society tolerates. Because everyone is freely joining, voluntary societies can exclude plenty of behaviours and beliefs which they find intolerable, and include others they find desirable, or even essential. They can make intolerable behaviour unacceptable in written rules (however many they wish – hundreds, perhaps), they can form a church covenant to which members vow to pursue faithfulness, they can form a simple or detailed statement of faith and insist that members believe every sentence, or agree with it in spirit. They can remove people from their membership (so long as the due process is followed) for failing in these practices or dissenting in belief. What they cannot do is break the law of the land (insofar as it is consonant with God’s law), or go about such removal in a way that violates other Scriptures. None of this, in principle, violates anyone’s freedom. We might critique a church or institution for being overly rigid, unnecessarily exacting, or extremely narrow in its tolerance. We could equally critique the individual voluntarily submitting to such a church. But if people can freely join and freely leave, no one can accuse that church of being tyrannical or of bringing people into bondage.
With that in mind, we can refute a number of calumnies commonly thrown at conservative churches.
It is not coercive authority to teach God’s Word with well-warranted application, however detailed or practical it might get. Working God’s Word into areas of music, dress, entertainment, leisure, alcohol, use of technology and ethical matters is no violation of anyone’s freedom. Issues of conscience are not off-limits to the pulpit, as long as the teacher makes it clear that such is what they are.
It is not coercive authority for a church to discipline someone for verified, unrepentant sin, nor is it coercive to discipline someone who has left. Surely, the objector argues, there is no reason to discipline someone who no longer attends? This objection misunderstands what church discipline is for. It is not to ‘get someone out’, though the removal of a divisive person may be one of its forms (Tis 3:10). Church discipline’s primary function is to rescind the church’s acknowledgement of a person’s faith and baptism, and end its covenant with that person. This may take place even when the person continues to attend, and certainly takes place if he or she has left. No one is ‘controlling’ the individual in question – he or she is free to disassociate. But it is a spoilt child mentality to insist that churches must not discipline those who have left. Indeed, this would be curtailing a legitimate freedom of the local church – to receive and remove members.
Assuming that sin leads people into deeper bondage, faithful preaching and discipleship is not coercive, but liberating. What then would be genuine coercion and tyrannical leadership in the church?
First, if pastors lead through force, and not persuasion, this is coercive behaviour. Peter describes this behaviour as the opposite of leading through servantlike example and teaching, but by acting as overlords who dominate through the sheer force of their position and personality (1 Pet 5:3). Diotrephes is certainly an example of this (3 Jo 9-11). If members are removed by the fiat authority of the pastor, if a bully-pulpit shames and intimidates, if emotionally childish games of shunning and chumming train the members to comply, this falls short of the freedom of a local church.
Second, if the church’s statement of faith, covenant or constitution is altered without the consent of the church, this is coercive behaviour. Since these are the basis of the voluntary association, to alter them without congregational consent is to lord it over the people of God. If a pastor begins to disagree with these statements, he ought to offer his resignation. If the membership request that he remain and teach his dissenting views, they can then decide whether to accept his resignation or change their founding documents.
Third, if the pulpit stealthily extends what is fundamental to the voluntary association of the church, this is coercive behaviour. Now, in healthy churches, it is inevitable that the pulpit must teach more than what is contained in the church’s founding documents. Here the pastor will seek to persuade through the force of sound exegesis and clear reason. However, if the church does not embrace such teachings or practices, it is a matter of failed persuasion – not a matter of a member violating the church covenant. The pastor cannot enforce additional beliefs or practices as essential to church membership; to use the measures mentioned above is tyrannical.
Fourth, if matters of conscience are taught as if they are clear commands or prohibitions, the freedom to judge has been curtailed, and this is coercive behaviour. These matters of conscience deserve a full post.