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Religion Library: Baptist

Community Organization

Written by: David Buschart

The second dimension of the Baptist notion of local church autonomy is embodied in the separation of Church and state, properly understood.While in no way commending a religionless or churchless civil society--in fact, quite the contrary is the case--the Baptist tradition has always been, and continues to be, an advocate of the separation of church and state.Local churches are not to be authoritatively overseen, particularly with respect to explicitly religious matters, by any level of civil government.Christ, and Christ alone, is ultimately the head of each local church, and he exercises direct headship over each church, "the body of Christ" (Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:11-13).Baptists believe that the good of both the churches and society at large is served by governments' recognizing and not interfering with churches' God-given freedom, for in such a context churches will thrive and, thereby, both the people of the society and the society itself whole will be well served.

A second characteristic of Baptist church order is grounded in the priesthood of all believers.This is the common Protestant belief, with some variations among various traditions, that each individual Christian is a priest in the sense that he or she is directly related to God through the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and that, as a result, each believer has both the possibility and the responsibility to be meaningfully engaged in the life and ministry of a local congregation.The Baptist tradition strongly emphasizes this belief and it is conceived in such a way that the members of local churches have considerable responsibility as individuals and considerable authority collectively, as congregations.This respect for the gifts and responsibilities of individual church members is often referred to by Baptists as "soul competence."

While Baptists place considerable emphasis on individual soul competence, they are also mindful of the fact that local churches are collective realities--the individual members collectively constitute a single "body" (Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:11-13).Furthermore, although often unknown to people outside, and sometimes within, the Baptist tradition, an important element of the life of many Baptist churches over the centuries and into the present is local church covenants.These covenants are written statements of spiritual and church-related obligations to which members of a local church commit.They are intended to provide guidance, accountability, and motivation in a way that encourages members to live God-honoring lives, both as individuals and as participant-members of a community of faith.

Third and finally, while there is not a distinctively Baptist view of the purpose and mission of the Church, some values that are common to many traditions of Christianity, including many Baptist churches, can be noted here.The ultimate purpose of churches is to glorify God (Ephesians 3:10-11, 21).One way to understand the fulfillment of this purpose is to think of the mission of a congregation in relation to three fundamental functions.First, a church glorifies God by guiding, providing opportunities for, and encouraging the worship of God among its members, both as individuals and as a community of faith.Second, God is glorified through the members of a church encouraging one another in the faith through such activities as fellowship, teaching, discipleship (or mentoring), and service to one another.Third, God is glorified when churches communicate the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are not part of the household of Christian faith.Thus, the purpose and the mission of the church can be conceived in terms of three trajectories: one that is God-ward, one which is internal or "inward," and one which is external or "outward."

Study Questions:
     1.    How do Baptists understand the Church? What is its purpose and mission?
     2.    What does the term ekklesia refer to? How do Baptists interpret this term?
     3.    Why is baptism important to Baptists?
     4.    In what ways are local congregations autonomous?
     5.    To what does “soul competence” refer? Why is this considered in conjunction with a congregation?


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