The defining organizational or structural unit of the Baptist tradition is the local church congregation. The autonomy of local congregations is one of the hallmarks of the Baptist tradition, and, consequently, there is very little hierarchical or centralized authority or organization.
Unity within the Baptist tradition is understood to be spiritual (and to some extent doctrinal), not structural or organizational. All collaboration or cooperation beyond the local church context is voluntary, and this voluntary character is often emphasized. There are regional, national, and even global organizations of Baptist churches. These include conventions or associations such as the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Baptist General Conference, as well as the global Baptist World Alliance. The conventions and associations function much like traditional Christian "denominations"; however, in principle Baptists generally do not accept the notion (or terminology) of denominations because they are suggestive of hierarchical authority over local congregations--which Baptists categorically reject.
Given this understanding of unity and its corresponding structure, which is anchored in local congregations (thus, a "congregational" form of church government), divisions within or from the Baptist tradition are not usually thought of in terms of "schisms" or "sects." The ultimate freedom and independence of each local congregation, be it old and established or new and emerging, are respected. This does not mean that there is not some measure of external engagement and accountability. Many, perhaps most, Baptist churches choose to be formally related to other Baptist churches, through, for example, conventions or associations such as those mentioned above.
In choosing to participate in such a convention or association, a church agrees to various forms of doctrinal and/or organizational commitments. However, it is always reiterated that such commitments are voluntary on the part of the local church, and that each church is always free to dissent or withdraw from the organization. Thus, rather than being viewed as schism or the creation of a sect, such a withdrawal is understood to be one of the potential outcomes of honoring local autonomy.
Some of the same principles and values can be observed within the context of local churches themselves. Baptists stress the voluntary nature of local church membership. No one is to be (nor can anyone be) coerced by any authority, either ecclesiastical or civil, to become a member of a church. Many Baptist churches have local church covenants, the terms of which are agreed to by the members of that church. By becoming a church member and signing on to such a covenant, a member thereby makes a variety of commitments to the beliefs and practices outlined in the covenant, and submits to a measure of accountability to the local church community and its leadership. Here again, however, the voluntary nature of this commitment is always borne in mind, and members remain free to withdraw from the covenant and membership.
In all of this--the membership of individual persons in a local church, the terms of local church covenants, the membership of local churches in conventions and associations, the participation of conventions and associations in the Baptist World Alliance--the recognized standard for belief and practice is the Bible. Thus, from a Baptist perspective, the most important question is not whether a particular group constitutes a "schism" or a "sect" (although Baptists recognize that there can be such) but whether or not a group's beliefs and practices are in accord with the teaching of scripture. To believe or practice in a manner contrary to the Bible is, first and foremost, to disbelieve or disobey God, whose Word and words are communicated through the Bible.
Many, perhaps most, Baptists combine their belief in the autonomy of local congregations with a strong sense that there is a larger, universal Christian Church (though they may not use the term "Church" for this universal reality). In so doing, great stress is placed on the fact that this universal Church is a spiritual reality; it is not and cannot be an organizational or structural reality this side of eternity, and no attempt to achieve it should be made. Thus, given this view of the Church combined with the Baptist emphasis on the Bible, those Baptists who would use the term "sect" would likely reserve it for groups that claim to be "Christian" but embrace beliefs and practices that are clearly contradictory to scripture. And, because Baptist ecclesiology (that is, doctrine of the church) is anchored in the local church, the term "schism," if used at all, would likely be applied to a withdrawal from or an excommunication from members in a specific local church.
1. Why does the tradition of congregational autonomy limit talk of schisms?
2. How is unity within the Baptist tradition structured?
3. Do Baptists value the institutionalization of their tradition? Explain.
4. What is the purpose of the local church covenant?
5. Why might it be said that Baptists are not concerned with schisms or sects?