If you were to ask someone where the headquarters of the Baptist church is and they were to guess Nashville (Southern Baptists), Atlanta (Cooperative Baptists), Valley Forge (American Baptists) or Dallas (Texas Baptists), they would be incorrect.
The headquarters for the Baptist church is established in each self-governing congregation.
The roots of self-governance in Baptist history
As Baptists were emerging in the 1600s, early leaders like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were reacting against the monopoly the Catholic church had throughout much of Europe and the infighting and political fighting that resulted from established state churches in places like England.
In the established state churches in Europe, ecclesial authorities told the church what to believe, how to function and who to select as pastors and church leaders. Baptists came to believe no ecclesiastical or governmental agency ought to dictate how a local church organizes to carry out its mission and ministry.
Baptists swung the pendulum significantly away from state or denominationally controlled governance to leadership gathered locally and independently under the Lordship of Christ.
For Baptists, the church is a fellowship of baptized believers who are priests. Therefore, church governance is not in the hands of a few but in the hands of all the members of the church.
Baptists believe each church is led best when, under the Lordship of Christ, it can select pastoral leadership, determine its form of worship, decide financial matters and direct church-related affairs without outside control.
The significance of self-governance in Baptist churches
By holding to the autonomy of the local church, Baptists believe the best way forward for the church is to yield to the leading of Christ to contextualize ministry locally.
This is why you can go to one Baptist church and find a hymnal, while another Baptist church utilizes screens—or even phone apps. Some have women pastors, while others forbid such a position for women. Some churches are formal, with many wearing coat and ties, while others are casual. Some choose to cooperate with other groups nationally, others do not.
In Baptist life, no two Baptist churches are the same, which makes for a distinctive and unique ability to contextualize ministry based on a congregation discerning the will of God.
The difficulty of self-governance in Baptist churches
If religious liberty was Baptists’ hill to die on, local church autonomy has been Baptists’ double-edged sword to wield.
When local church autonomy is sharp, Baptist churches serve under the Lordship of Christ as self-governing servants for their Lord, their community and other churches.
However, local church autonomy also has been invoked to abdicate ethical and moral responsibilities.
For years, many Southern Baptists—under the guise of “local church autonomy”—have balked at any notion of working together to stop clergy who are convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse. Sometimes, local church autonomy has led to passing the buck on such moral and ethical responsibilities.
A direction to take self-governance in Baptist life
The most important question for Baptist churches to answer is not who has the control or power but, rather, how will we steward the authority and power Christ has given us.
Unfortunately, local church autonomy has been a blind spot for many Baptist churches that has been invoked—much like the argument of states’ rights—to abdicate responsibility when it comes to moral and ethical issues deemed unimportant. In many cases, it has led to an arrogant and callous spirit that says, “Don’t tell me what to do.” For some, local church autonomy has led to churches becoming isolated islands.
Local church autonomy must not allow for Baptist churches to be selfish separatists.
Baptists initially swung the pendulum to allow for a more organic, robust movement of God’s people unleashed for ministry and mission. However, the unintended but understandable consequence has been a failure to work together when it comes to issues of clergy sexual misconduct.
The pendulum needs to move from autonomous churches to autonomous churches working collaboratively, cooperatively and morally. This should be easy for Baptists who have been notorious for rallying together for missions and evangelism.
We need Baptist churches who are free and under the Lordship of Christ to serve God, neighbor and world.
We need a more generous, humble orthopraxy when it comes to a willingness to cooperate for the good of all sister churches and to ensure our collaborative efforts bear Christian witness.
We need one another. We cannot fail our brothers and sisters in Christ under the guise of local church autonomy.
John Whitten is lead pastor of the gathering, a minister of Pioneer Drive Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, and is a member of the Baptist Standard board.