The name Baptist stands for a set of principles and practices. Those who use the name are attempting to copy the order of the New Testament churches. The principles and practices are known collectively as the Baptist distinctives. Together, they distinguish Baptists from other varieties of Christians.
What are these distinctives? They include the following: (1) the absolute authority of the New Testament in all matters of church faith and order, (2) pure church membership, (3) believer immersion, (4) individual Christian competence, (5) congregational polity, and (6) the separation of church and state. Genuine Baptists recognize and attempt to implement all of these distinctives, while non-Baptists reject at least one.
Over the past couple of decades, evangelicals have increasingly rejected congregational polity. Influenced partly by Plymouth Brethren ecclesiology, they have asserted that the church should be governed by a self-perpetuating body of elders rather than by ordinary church members. Examples abound. Mal Couch has written extensively against congregational polity in his book, A Biblical Theology of the Church. Dan Wallace has stated his reasons for rejecting congregational polity in an article entitled, “Who Should Run the Church?” Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Church reveals his views in a blog post, “Congregationalism Is from Satan.” It is worth noting that the hubris of MacDonald’s title (and post) is often reflected among those who advocate Plymouth Brethren polity.
Opponents of congregationalism offer several arguments to support their position. Two are of special interest. First, they suggest that only elders, and not ordinary believers (whom, as they note, Scripture compares to sheep), possess the spiritual competence to make decisions for the congregation. Second, they point out that the New Testament never depicts congregations voting, but rather portrays elders ruling—and on their view, elder leadership (“ruling”) consists in making decisions for the congregation.
The Plymouth Brethren contempt (and it is contempt) for ordinary Christians is entirely at odds with the New Testament. Paul clearly stated that Christ has become wisdom to all believers (1 Cor. 1:24). He further taught that the Holy Spirit has been given to all believers for spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 2:12). He considered even the Corinthian congregation to possess the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Even the least esteemed were, in his opinion, qualified to judge disputes between Christians (1 Cor. 6:4). The church at Corinth is not exactly known for its advanced state of maturity, but Paul certainly recognized the spiritual competence of its members. Besides, if sheep lack competence to make spiritual decisions, then so do elders, for they are also the Lord’s sheep (Jn. 10:16).
Furthermore, the New Testament actually depicts congregations making their own decisions. To be sure, these decisions are often influenced by the judgment and teaching of apostles and others—but Baptists have never suggested that congregational polity obviates pastoral leadership. The point is that congregations participated seriously in the decisions that affected them.
For example, the Jerusalem church was asked to select the seven servants who administered the daily distribution (Acts 6:1-6). The same congregation sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:19-24). Later, the congregation at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to investigate doctrinal deviation at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-3), and the Jerusalem congregation authorized both the response to this investigation and the messengers who delivered it (Acts. 15:22). Later still, the congregations of Macedonia elected a brother to travel with Paul to oversee the offering for Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:18-21).
Congregations are also expected to maintain their own discipline and to call their own members into account. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about this topic (1 Cor. 5). In the text, Paul intimates that the erring brother ought to be put out of the church’s fellowship. Nevertheless, he does not cast the erring brother out, nor does he instruct the elders to do it. Rather, he lays this responsibility upon the assembled congregation, the gathered church as a whole. He clearly states that the congregation possesses authority from Christ to make this decision (1 Cor. 5:4-5).
How did New Testament congregations make their decisions? We get a glimpse of the process when Paul deals with the restoration of a repentant church member. This individual had sinned in the past and was disfellowshipped by the congregation. Paul states that this discipline was meted out “by the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6, NASB). In other words, New Testament churches had some mechanism by which the individual members could register their support or lack thereof for specific actions. That mechanism is precisely what is called a “vote,” in whatever manner it was conducted.
Clearly the New Testament recognizes the competence of congregations to make serious, spiritual decisions. In fact, the New Testament actually vests congregations with the authority for at least some of the most important decisions. Those decisions were made by the agreement of the majority. In a biblical church, at least a significant segment of the decisions will be made by the congregation.
Incidentally, a recently-published volume is of great value in understanding how decisions were made by New Testament churches. Written by Jeff Brown and published by Wipf and Stock, Corporate Decision-Making in the Church of the New Testament is a significant contribution to the discussion. The book was originally Brown’s Ph.D. dissertation at Central Seminary. His careful discussion of the New Testament text is matched by his charitable treatment of alternative views.
The churches of the New Testament made their own decisions. The New Testament contains no example of a decision being enforced upon a local congregation apart from its consent. Nevertheless, a question should still be answered about the selection of pastors. Did not Paul and Barnabas appoint elders? Was not Titus supposed to ordain elders in every city? This question will be addressed in the next Nick of Time essay.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
from “A Prayer for Holiness”
Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)
Lord help Thy poor children to be holy. Oh! keep us so if we are so; keep us even from stumbling, and present us faultless before Thy presence at last. We pray for friends that are ill, for many that are troubled because of the illness of others. We bring before Thee every case of trouble and trial known to us, and ask for Thy gracious intervention. We pray for Thy ministers everywhere; for Thy missionary servants. Remember brethren that are making great sacrifice out in the hot sun or in the cold and frozen north. Everywhere preserve those who for Christ’s sake carry their lives in their hands.
And our brethren at home, in poverty many of them, working for Christ, Lord accept them and help us to help them. Sunday-school teachers, do Thou remember them; and the tract visitors from door to door, and the City missionaries, and the Bible women, all who in any way endeavour to bring Christ under the notice of men. O, help them all.
We will offer but one more prayer, and it is this. Lord look in pity upon any who are not in Christ. May they be converted. May they pass from death to life, and they will never forget it; may they see the eternal light for the first time, and they will remember it even in Eternity. Father help us; bless us now for Jesu’s sake. Amen.