A Kerfuffle over “Church Autonomy” among Baptists

A Kerfuffle over “Church Autonomy” among Baptists December 14, 2016

A Kerfuffle over “Church Autonomy” among Baptists

My apologies to those of you who have no interest in Baptist debates, but they constitute a significant part of my life and, in my opinion, there is tremendous confusion adding fuel to the fires and generating more heat than light. So here, in a rare blog post about Baptist matters, I want only to shed some light and avoid generating more heat (which may be impossible).

As editor of the forthcoming 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States I cannot help noticing again something I have long known: that Baptists in the United States are very much divided. Many will not have fellowship with fellow Baptists due to what outsiders would probably consider relatively minor issues of doctrine and practice.

For example (just one out of scores I could mention), some Baptists in the U.S., under the influence of a theology known among Baptists as “Landmarkism,” consider the only church the local congregation, and therefore reject all ecumenical and cooperative endeavors such as Billy Graham evangelistic crusades. At the other end of that particular spectrum are Baptists who enthusiastically cooperate with other Christians, believe in the “church universal,” and even accept infant baptisms performed in other denominations as valid for Baptist church membership.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

            There are literally scores of Baptist groups (conventions/denominations) in the U.S. divided over many issues. Some of them do not prevent fellowship or cooperation; others do prevent them. For example, some Baptist groups in the U.S. started out as ethnic and some of those retain their ethnic roots and distinctives without those causing rejection of cooperation and fellowship with other Baptist groups. On the other hand, some Baptist groups will not have fellowship or cooperate with even other Baptist groups that are not premillennial.

It seems that every Baptist denomination in the U.S. occasionally, sometimes often, simply must fall into controversy within itself. (I will use the word “denomination” here for what Baptists prefer to call “conventions,” “associations,” or “conferences.”) It seems to be in Baptist DNA to divide over what non-Baptists and some other Baptists consider trivial matters.

There is a joke that addresses this tendency: A Baptist man was stranded alone on an island in the ocean for several years. (Think Tom Hanks’s character in the movie “Castaway.”) When his rescuers finally arrived they saw three huts the castaway had built side-by-side. They asked him what these are. He pointed at one and said “That’s where I live.” The rescuers then asked about the other two huts. The Baptist castaway pointed at a second hut and said “That’s where I worship.” The rescuers asked about the third hut and the man said “That’s where I used to worship.”

Sure, Baptists aren’t the only ones guilty of being fissiparous, but we (I am a Baptist and have been for most of my life and have belonged to several different Baptist denominations) seem to take it to our own extreme. There are somewhere around fifty distinct Baptist groups in the U.S. to say nothing about the numerous “unaffiliated” Baptist churches that shun belonging to any Baptist denomination. Most of the groups are small, but some are very large. It’s difficult to tell how many churches and members many have since many permit dual affiliation in which a congregation can belong equally to two (sometimes three!) Baptist denominations at the same time. (The Baptist church I belong to is a member of two distinct Baptist denominations.)

When the word “Baptist” is used many Americans think immediately of the largest Baptist group in the U.S. which is by all accounts the Southern Baptist Convention. They tend to think of it as very conservative—socially, culturally, theologically and politically. What most don’t know is that there are smaller, but yet fairly large, Baptist groups that consider the SBC “liberal.” And, of course, there are other Baptists who consider the SBC “fundamentalist.”

The world of Baptists in the U.S. is very much like a zoo to a non-zoologist (or at least to me): Many species that look alike but are actually incapable of reproducing. (I cannot tell the difference by looking between several types of snakes. This is actually somewhat important because one of them is poisonous and exists around where I live! No, I’m not comparing Baptists to snakes except in this one feature: some look alike to non-experts but to insiders are radically different.)

One thing all Baptists agree about (so far as I can tell and I’ve studied Baptists in the U.S. for many years) is what we call “congregational autonomy” or “church autonomy.” Not only is there no Baptist pope with real authority or power to control individual congregations; there is no hierarchy in any Baptist group (that I know of) that can control one. Every Baptist church (I suppose someone will come up with an exception because there is always an exception!) governs itself—unless it owes money to a denomination. When a Baptist church (under whatever name) borrows money from any organization that money comes with strings attached; a Baptist congregation that owes money to its denomination may not function totally autonomously until it pays off the debt.

Now, Baptists are not the only ones who enjoy, if that’s the right word, “church autonomy.” Many others do as well, but it is a doctrine among Baptists in a way not true of many other groups whose member congregations are free to govern themselves.

Baptist denominations are purely voluntary associations of autonomous Baptist congregations that cooperate voluntarily together for various purposes such as fellowship (at local and regional meetings), supporting youth camps, publishing, missions, etc. A Baptist denomination might require things of its member congregations such as reporting baptisms every year or donating a certain portion of its annual budget to its programs. So, you may be thinking: How is that consistent with “church autonomy.” Ah, the point is that a Baptist church may withdraw from its denomination (unless it owes it money) without any repercussions except hard feelings and inability to vote at the denomination’s meetings (of course). It can take all its property with it; so far as I know no Baptist congregation in the U.S. holds its property “in trust” for the denomination to which it voluntarily belongs (again, unless it owes it money). For whatever reason, or for no reason, a Baptist congregation can withdraw from a denomination, become totally unaffiliated, or join another denomination. It does that by a majority vote of the congregation, not by pastoral or other fiat. In fact, this happens all the time.

At the same time, “church autonomy” in Baptist polity means that a Baptist denomination can expel any congregation it chooses to—usually by vote of the denomination at a called meeting of all delegates from member churches—for any reason. Just as the individual Baptist congregation has no formal obligations to the denomination (so long as it does not owe it money), so the Baptist denomination has no formal obligations to its member churches that are not voluntarily chosen by it (meaning by its member churches in a democratic process). Such denominational obligations to members would be stated in its constitution and/or bylaws and could be undone by a majority vote of the delegates from member churches at an annual or semi-annual business meeting.

Baptist groups expelling member churches is not rare; it happens with some frequency. Often, though, the Baptist church leaves before it comes to being expelled, so there is no open or public “kerfuffle” about it. However, when a Baptist church is expelled by its denomination, often the press gets involved and part of that is because the press rarely understands the nature of Baptist polity. Reporters and editors often assume, wrongly, that the denomination is going to take back the church property—something that can only happen if the church owes money to the denomination and the church property is its collateral. News reporters and editors rarely fully understand Baptist polity and so portray the expulsion of a congregation from a Baptist denomination as a dreadful event—as if the congregation’s rights have been violated. They haven’t been—unless the denomination’s constitution and bylaws were somehow violated in the process.

Baptists (and others) may strongly disagree with the reasons given for a Baptist denomination expelling a member church. They may also strongly disagree with a Baptist congregation’s withdrawal from its denomination. But that’s a different matter than the frequent mantra one hears “Violation of church autonomy!” During my life as a Baptist I have witnessed many examples of Baptist denominations expelling member churches for various reasons. Whether I agree with the reasons or not, I defend the right of a Baptist denomination to expel a member church just as I defend the right of a member church to withdraw from its denomination.

In other words, as a Baptist I might disagree very strongly with the reasons for a Baptist denomination’s expulsion of a church or churches from its membership while at the same time agreeing that it has that right because of the voluntarism underlying Baptist polity including church autonomy.

Let me give an example. Some years ago I belonged to a Baptist church whose denomination decided by majority vote at its stated annual business meeting to expel member churches that accept into full membership people without believer baptism by immersion (in virtually any church, not only Baptist ones). I strongly disagreed with that decision but at the same time defended the denomination’s right to do that. And the churches that were expelled as a result did not suffer anything other than loss of right to participate in the denomination. The expelled churches could immediately turn around and join another Baptist group or be totally unaffiliated.

In fact, in some places in the U.S., such Baptist churches expelled by their Baptist denominations remain members of their local Baptist associations which are often multi-denominational! (The local Baptist association in which I live includes even some non-Baptist congregations!)

My point is that I might strongly disagree with a Baptist denomination’s reason for expelling a member church while defending its right to do that without violating “church autonomy.” Expulsion of a Baptist denomination has no effect on its self-governing ability, its ownership of its own property, its ability to call its own pastor and decide on its own standards for membership, etc., etc. Every Baptist church decides those matters for itself (unless it owes money to the denomination in which case there may be strings attached).

I am not a Landmarker, but I do believe every Baptist church ought to hold its membership in a Baptist denomination somewhat lightly. By that I do not mean non-participation;  if it belongs to a denomination I would encourage it to support that denomination’s programs. However, what I mean is that no Baptist denomination is “the church” or “the kingdom of God.”

Recently I publicly defended a Baptist denomination’s right to expel certain congregations without expressing agreement or disagreement with its reasons. What I said (very publicly) was that, contrary to what some people were claiming, it was not a violation of “church autonomy.” I have been chastised, very publicly, for that as if I agree with the decision. Some good friends would rather I did not even defend the denomination by explaining that its decision does not violate church autonomy, as people quoted in the local press claimed. Feelings come into it: “We feel hurt by the decision so it violates ‘church autonomy’.” Perhaps I am “feelings challenged,” but I don’t think so. (I can’t watch an episode of “This Is Us” without crying!)

As a Baptist theologian, one of my duties is to correct misunderstandings of Baptist polity in the public press and elsewhere. I have done that several times during my life as a Baptist theologian and there have always been consequences. People who disagreed with what I said or wrote accused me of various things—now being uncaring and lacking in compassion. As a theologian it is not my calling or duty to express Baptist doctrine or polity based on feelings. I realize how that sounds, but I simply cannot base my decisions or explanations about doctrine or polity on feelings—others’ or my own. I have to attempt to set feelings aside and deal with even the most controversial issues with reason. The meaning of “church autonomy” in Baptist polity does not shift based on people’s feelings; it is what it is.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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