Ethics and Community


The leadership of a Baptist church usually consists of one or more ordained, professional ministers or "pastors," as well as a board consisting of elected members of the congregation and some of the pastoral staff. This leadership is exercised in the context of a "congregational" form of church government, about which some observations should be noted at the outset.

As the label suggests, a "congregational" form of church government is one in which the members of the church (the congregation) actively participate in the oversight and life of the church. Members are to participate in all major decisions bearing on the life and work of the church, with many major decisions being determined by means of congregational. Local church constitutions stipulate the terms of this process, regarding such matters as identifying the types of decisions that require a congregational vote, defining the quorum needed to take a vote, and stipulating the percentage of votes needed to determine various types of decisions. This form of church government is grounded in a high view of the priesthood of all believers and, at least in the Baptist tradition, a belief in individual soul competency.

This empowerment of the congregation is, nonetheless, combined with leadership exercised by ordained clergy. As with other aspects of the tradition, the process of ordination is centered on a specific local church, and a Baptist minister is ordained by one, and only one, congregation. Because of the autonomy of individual Baptist churches, there is no single regulated process by which all Baptist ministers pursue and obtain ordination. However, there are some widely common characteristics and steps in the process.

Candidates for ordination emerge from within the context of a local church. Ordinarily, this occurs as an individual begins to realize an inner sense of "call" from God and as leaders and other members of the individual's local congregation similarly consider the possibility that this person may be "called by God" for vocational Christian ministry. If, after deliberation and prayer, there continues to be a mutual sense of call, the leadership of the church brings the individual before the entire congregation for their consideration. If the congregation affirms by vote the call, the candidate formally enters into the ordination candidacy process.

This is one of the points at which variations within the congregational form of government in the Baptist tradition become manifest. In Baptist churches which are fully independent (that is, churches which do not belong to any type of association or convention), the candidate formally enters the ordination candidacy process, usually by preparing a document that includes a description of sense of call, theological beliefs, and philosophy of ministry. Some Baptist churches voluntarily collaborate with other local or regional Baptist churches to form a committee on ordination that advises the churches represented on the committee. Finally, churches that are part of a larger association or convention of Baptist churches, inform the association or convention of the person's candidacy, followed by varying degrees of guidance and participation in the ordination process.

Once the candidate has prepared and submitted their paper, had an initial interview, and received preliminary affirmation, the home church of the candidate then invites representatives of other Baptist churches to participate in an ordination council. This council consists of both clergy and laypersons. Having received the candidate's paper in advance, on the appointed date the council convenes to examine the candidate. Members of the congregation of the candidate's home church are usually welcome to attend the session. The session gives the candidate the opportunity to address the council on the matters set forth in the paper, and allows council members to examine the candidate with appropriate questions. It culminates with the deliberation and decision of the council as to whether or not to commend the candidate for ordination, which decision is then communicated to the candidate's home church. Ordinarily, churches accept the council's decision, but in keeping with the Baptist principle of the autonomy of the local church, the decision is, strictly speaking, a recommendation, with which the candidate's home church may or may not concur.

In accord with the Baptist emphasis on the supreme authority of the Bible, with particular emphasis on the New Testament, the qualifications by which candidates are evaluated are drawn from the New Testament, with 1 Timothy 3:1--4:16 being foundational. These qualifications include such matters as integrity of life and conduct, both internally and externally, within the church, in society, and in one's home; holding to sound doctrinal beliefs; and above all, submission to God's will.

If a candidate is approved for ordination, a ceremony is conducted at the candidate's home church on a subsequent date. These ceremonies often include the reading of the council's decision as well as that of the local church, a sermon on aspects of vocational ministry preached by a member of the clergy, and a "charge" (or exhortation) to the person being ordained (the ordinand) and to the local church congregation. The ceremony culminates with the leaders of the local church and ordained clergy who are present laying hands on the ordinand, as indicated in scripture (1 Timothy 4:14, 5:22). This symbolizes the bestowment of authority, the continuity of the faith, and enablement for ministry. Once ordained a person may serve in the local church that ordained them, or, through a recognition of this ordination, another Baptist church of like theology and character.

Baptist ministers are most often referred to as "pastor." In many African American Baptist churches, the minister has the title of "Bishop," but his formally designated authority remains, nonetheless, limited to the local congregation of which he is a part. In either case, the minster's role is envisioned primarily in terms of leadership. They are responsible to guide, teach, and spiritually care for the members of the local congregation. They are not regarded as mediators. As noted above, Baptists have a high view of the priesthood of all believers and of individual soul competency, and, in accord with this, each individual should and can engage God in Christ directly. This is to be done in the context of the fellowship of a local church, often informed by a local church covenant, but ultimately the individual church member stands directly before God.

Study Questions:
     1.     What does a congregational form of church government imply?
     2.     Why does the Baptist tradition employ both a congregational model of leadership and ordained clergy?
     3.     Describe the process of ordination within the Baptist tradition. What qualifications are necessary within the candidate?
     4.     What are the duties of the Baptist pastor?

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