When I tried to explain Baptist Freedoms to a newcomer to our church, the question was asked of me, “So you can believe anything you want?” I then realized that a more in depth understanding, and certainly a better way of expressing these concepts was necessary to avoid the “school’s out” reaction to Baptist Liberties. Other authors have taken on the task of expanding several of the Baptist Freedoms during this Lenten season on this blog and I hope that those postings, as well as this one, help to clear up some misconceptions about those liberties that may be held.
Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist Church in America in 1638, believed strongly in the separation of church and state. The basic concept underlying this belief was that no entity should come between an individual and his or her relationship with God. So it’s not hard to understand where the root of most all of the Baptist Liberties originates from. Church Liberty, or Church Autonomy, is a natural extension of the concepts of Religious Liberty, Soul Liberty, Scriptural Liberty and Priestly Liberty, all of which will be expanded in other postings to this blog.
An expanded definition of Church Liberty states:
“The local church is an independent body accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. All human authority resides within the local church itself. Thus the church is autonomous, or self-governing. No religious hierarchy outside the local church may dictate a church’s beliefs or practices. Autonomy does not mean isolation. A Baptist church may fellowship with other churches around mutual interests and in an associational tie, but a Baptist church cannot be a member of another body.”
The word “church” is often used to refer to an entire practice or denomination, such as “the Catholic Church” or the “the Presbyterian Church” meaning the entire body. Because of Baptist church autonomy there is no “Baptist Church” in the entire organizational sense of the word.
In practical terms, autonomy means that each Baptist church gets to select its pastoral leaders, determine its worship practices, decide on financial matters, and direct church related affairs without outside control or supervision. Baptist denominational organizations such as associations of churches and national conventions have no authority over an individual Baptist church.
Perhaps now you may have a little more in-depth understanding of the concept of Church Liberty, but in the words of Dr. Phil “How’s that working for you?” If each church is the highest authority, how can a national Baptist convention preclude women or gay pastors in the pulpit? How can one church or group of churches dis-fellowship another church? The greatest threat to Baptist church autonomy does not come from any national or local government, it comes from the Baptist churches themselves. When individuals or churches or associations or governments or conventions try to prescribe how a local church should conduct itself, the system fails.
Research on the internet, which is often questionable, shows that there are more than forty distinct Baptist conventions or groups active in the United States today. I think it’s fair to assume that several of these organizations were formed by splitting off from another because of some philosophical difference. It seems to me that we humans have a great deal of difficulty with the “live and let live” concept. We have seen doctrinal digging-in in our government as well as in religious affairs. Certainly the current political campaigns demonstrate this human failing clearly. Is it ego or is it fear? The fear of living side by side with those who are different from us can be a powerful force of separation. Our tribal instincts are strong and often preclude us from developing relationships that could be richly rewarding.
During this Lenten season I hope the concept of Church Liberty awakens a tolerance for others who may not practice their faith exactly as we do. Perhaps the words of Herschel H. Hobbs in his book “The Baptist Faith and Message” offer some valuable advice. “To many Baptists, autonomy has become anarchy. This is true when either a church or an individual Baptist says, ‘I can do as I please!’ Both should do as Christ pleases or wills.”