The Baptist view of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church) constitutes one of the core distinguishing features of the tradition, and is fundamental to both its theology and its practices. This view is grounded in and focuses on local congregations of Christians, rather than some larger, collective organization or institution. It can be readily understood through the consideration of the Baptist view of the nature of the Church, the order of the Church, and the purposes of the Church.
First, according to the Baptist tradition, the Church consists of and in people. It is neither a building nor an organization. This belief is based in part on the root of the Greek New Testament term often translated "church," the term ekklesia. In general Greek usage, this term referred to an "assembly" or group of people.
Furthermore, the people thus identified are neither people in general nor "everyone"; rather, a particular subset or group of people is in view. The term ekklesia is derived from two Greek elements: the prefix ek- ("out of" or "out from") and the verb kaleo ("to call" or "to summon"). Thus, these people are "called-out ones." They are, as a group, a distinct community of people, and what makes them distinct is that they are called-out by God. According to Baptist belief, the ekklesia, the Church, this community of people, is what it is not by virtue of something that its people have done but by virtue of something that God has done; namely, God has called these people, saved them, and set them apart.
In the process of calling them and setting them apart, God gives new spiritual life, sometimes referred to by Baptists as being "born again" or "regenerate." This community, the church, thus consists entirely of people who are regenerate. It is particularly at this point that the matter of baptism is so important to Baptists. The church community is not a "mixed" reality, consisting of both regenerate and unregenerate people, but rather of regenerate people only. So, how is it known whether a person is regenerate and thus properly admitted into a church community? After a person's beliefs and life are examined and affirmed by the leaders of a church, that person is accepted for baptism and that person testifies to God's saving work in his or her life through the act of baptism.
Implicit in this is the fact that only persons old enough to make a conscious, intentional decision to entrust themselves to Jesus Christ, and a subsequent decision to be baptized, are in view here. The importance of this is manifest in the fact that in the Baptist tradition (as well as Anabaptist traditions), the people who constitute the church community are often referred to as "believers," and baptism is often referred to as "believer's baptism" or "adult believer's baptism."
Second, the Baptist view of the order (or polity or government) of the Church serves to highlight a number of important and characteristic Baptist beliefs. Each local congregation is autonomous. This autonomy has two dimensions: one ecclesiastical, the other civil. Each local church is independent, and there is no higher ecclesiastical authority or body, such as a synod or a denomination, to which it is subject. Baptist churches may be related to one another through voluntary participation in an "association" or "convention" or "fellowship," but they avoid the use of either the term "church" (because of their interpretation of New Testament passages that describe churches) or the term "denomination" (because this usually denotes a measure of external control over local churches) to refer to these larger, collective organizations. Baptists clearly stress the voluntary nature of participation in such an association.
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."
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?