One of the most uniquely Baptist distinctives is the autonomy of the local church. Autonomy of the local church means that each local church can run and govern itself without a governing body or any other church making decisions for another congregation. Unlike some other Christian denominations, the Baptist belief in the autonomy of the local church means that each individual congregation owns its building, hires its ministers and staff and can do whatever the congregation moves it to do- as traditionally these churches have been governed as a direct democracy.
Autonomy of the local church seems to be a straightforward issue, however there is more complexity in this issue than one would think. Two examples will illustrate. In 2009, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas published a church directory with pictures of gay and lesbian couples. This post is not about whether Broadway Baptist Church’s actions were right or wrong but what the reaction was- because Broadway Baptist Church (at that time) was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is an organization that churches choose to affiliate with, that helps bring churches together toward common goals- which hopefully is to further the message of the gospel. In the case of Broadway, the SBC decided not to allow their representatives to come to the annual meeting. The church was essentially kicked out of a group they voluntarily joined. How does this mesh with the autonomy of the local church? Doesn’t each local church get to decide who is a church member and who gets their picture in the church directory?
Example two. While traditionally, Baptist churches have been governed by the members of the congregation a new trend is emerging that challenges that historical approach. More and more churches are moving toward systems of governance in which the pastor or pastors decide what the church is going to do and then inform the congregation. I was on staff at a church that was congregationally led and there were times when it drove me nuts because decisions did not happen quickly and the ministers (as the “professionals”) had to carry out the decisions of the congregation (the “non-professionals”). I wanted and believed that more staff control would be better and make everything more efficient. Now, as I am on the other side as a congregation member, I definitely see strengths and weaknesses with both approaches. More than that I see how both approaches can be abused- either by the congregation or by the pastor/ pastors. You can read my post “The Secret Society of Mega-Church Pastors” and see one case where, I believe, pastoral governance is being abused. How does church governance play into the autonomy of the local church?
The issue of autonomy of the local church is also related to the emerging practice of satellite campuses where a lead pastor becomes like a bishop over a diocese of churches. How much control should a main campus have over a satellite campus? How much autonomy should a satellite campus have while still being connected to the main campus church as well as the other satellite campuses? How does geography play into it? What about satellite campuses in different states or different countries?
These are all important questions and they are questions that we face but that did not have much bearing for the Church we see in Acts and Paul’s letters. We see local churches helping one another but the first century Church did not have denominational conventions or churches with multiple satellite campuses. Thoughtful and engaged church members, however, need to ask and think about these questions and their implications for the future of the church, the future of the gospel and the future of the, primarily Baptist distinctive, autonomy of the local church.
© Ryan Vanderland 2014