Southern Baptists have identified their understanding of the biblical teaching concerning the church in Article VI of The Baptist Faith and Message, "The Church," declaring in part:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.
Those last two sentences capture the vibrancy and vitality shared by Southern Baptists throughout history concerning that which sets us apart from episcopal or presbyterian forms of church governance—congregational church polity. If our faith and message truly is that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are not only inerrant but sufficient, then the only proper sourcebook for guidance concerning the church's polity and practice is not whatever may be currently promoted by this expert or that consultant, but the self-attesting Word of God.
Early Indications From Acts
When searching the New Testament to determine the most biblically consistent form of church polity, several points become obvious. First, the early church, as seen in the opening chapters of the book of Acts, was organized as an assembly (ecclesia) of repentant believers in Jesus Christ who had been baptized by immersion as a public profession of their faith. In Acts 2, it is written of these earliest Christians that they had an unusual sense of fellowship and unity.
Next, we find statements indicating that these men and women were "together" in doctrine, fellowship, and financial support. They were conscious of being bound together as a community because they had been joined together to Christ in a covenantal relationship. God had provided leaders for these believers in the Jesus-trained and Holy Spirit-directed Apostles. This fellowship (koinonia) was so rich and meaningful to their lives that any notion of living out their Christian faith apart from the community was literally unthinkable. There was present a willingness to sacrifice the individual's desires and possessions to benefit others within the community—a striking contrast to the first-century context in which they found themselves, but also even to many so-called church "communities" today.
Yet it is important to remember that there was no coercion used by the Apostles to forcibly create this climate; these sacrifices were made voluntarily and resulted from the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of each convert. When Ananias and Sapphira attempted to deceive the community with respect to their giving (Acts 5), it was made known that they had lied to the Holy Spirit and they ultimately paid for their sin with their lives. Their sin was heinous because they lied to God; but what compounded the offense was that they were simultaneously lying to each and every believer there in Jerusalem, since God's Holy Spirit dwelt in each Christian. Every believer in the congregation was a part of the body, and to break the fellowship and unity of the church was to bring offense to both the Creator and the covenant community.
The early church quickly grew to number several thousand, and a conflict arose that would demonstrate powerfully how the believing community would address problems. Greek-speaking Jews who had returned from the Diaspora began to complain because the native Hebrew-speaking Jewish widows seemed to be favored in the daily food distributions (Acts 6:1-2). Up until this point this activity had been under the direct supervision of the Apostles. When confronted with this situation, the Apostles decided to have the congregation select seven men to put in charge of this food-distributing ministry. The passage of time has led many Christian interpreters to view these seven as the first "deacons," one of the two scriptural offices to be recognized within the church—the other being the pastor, also labeled "elder" or "overseer" (1 Timothy 3:1-13; cf. 1 Peter 5:1-4).
This incident reveals two valuable lessons about church polity. First, every member possesses dignity and worth, regardless of background, and should be acknowledged in that way. While there were differing ethnic and cultural backgrounds present in that congregation (itself a positive and healthy sign of the ministry of the New Covenant, cf. Galatians 3:28-29), one group felt slighted and did not hesitate to express its concern and seek redress. The Hellenistic Jewish believers were seeking to ensure that equality truly existed between the members regardless of race or language and believed they had a responsibility to bring their concerns to the attention of leadership.
Second, the congregation, not the Apostles themselves, selected the seven men. While embryonic perhaps, this incident in the life of the early church seems to indicate a form of governance that can best be labeled "congregational" in nature. Such an attestation illustrates Southern Baptists' conviction that final decisions affecting the health and well-being of the congregation are vested in and conveyed by the church body itself. Notice that in the congregation's affirming of the seven servants, there is no calling into question or undermining of the authority or ability of the Apostles by the body, but neither do the Apostles attempt to exclude the people from any meaningful involvement in this process of conflict resolution. There clearly exists a mutual respect between the leaders and those being led, which allows for a confident trustfulness to exist because of the firm assurance on both sides that it is the Spirit of God who is directing each and every one. This conviction is the essence of the Baptist distinctive of congregational church polity.
Lest one mistakenly think such a conclusion is premature, just a few chapters later in Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council decided to send a team of emissaries to communicate to Gentile believers that there was no need to conform to Jewish ceremonialism as a part of following Christ. How were the messengers selected? Luke records, Then the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, decided to select men who were among them and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:22, emphasis added). Again, this decision was not solely in the hands of the leadership, but was shared and ultimately confirmed through the entire body of believers—an increasingly diverse body given the effects of political persecution and geographical scattering (cf. Acts 8).
Further Developments From Paul's Epistles
As one continues to read the New Testament, one finds that Paul the Apostle wrote a number of letters to different churches to correct false teachings and resolve various problems that had arisen. Probing deeper, we discover that Paul's methodology implies that he recognized the churches as congregationally structured. Consider how he addressed his audience in the openings of his nine church-related epistles:
To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints (Romans 1:7)
To God's church at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called as saints (1 Corinthians 1:2)
To God's church at Corinth, with all the saints who are throughout Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1b)
To the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2b)
To the saints and believers in Christ Jesus at Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1b)
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons (Philippians 1:1b)
To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae (Colossians 1:2a)
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1b)
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:1b)
The thoughtful observer will notice that when Paul was moved by the Spirit of God and situations at hand to write his epistles, he always directed them to the churches as units, not primarily—much less exclusively—to their pastors and leaders (only Philippians contains any explicit leadership reference). The salutations—combined with the instructions that followed—revealed Paul's affirmation that the congregation as a whole had responsibility in the ordering of its internal affairs. Had this not been so, he would have addressed his letters to the leadership alone.
In addition, though each of the seven churches Paul corresponded with shared a common confession of faith and understanding of salvation, each one grew and developed as an autonomous local body. There was no religious hierarchy that bound these churches together. Rather, each one was self-governing, Spirit-led, and subject to none but the Lord of the church Himself, Jesus Christ. As each congregation's needs and concerns were different, they received different apostolic exhortations which were committed to the whole body for action or adjudication.
The matter of church discipline vividly illustrates this claim. In 1 Corinthians, Paul confronted a variety of spiritual, moral, and ethical derelictions present in the church, going so far as to call for excommunicating the unrepentant among them:
I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—by no means referring to this world's immoral people, or to the greedy and swindlers, or to idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a reviler, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what is it to me to judge outsiders? Do you not judge those who are inside? But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
The key question from a polity standpoint is who does "you" reference in Paul's counsel? A prima facie reading of the text cannot draw any conclusion other than the entire congregation is in view here, not simply the leadership. The whole church is called to exercise discipline, which follows directly from Christ's teaching on conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20. The body of believers is the final court of appeal, or "where the buck stops" biblically.
The application we glean from this truth is that each local New Testament church is ultimately accountable and answerable to the Lord for its conduct and actions. Again, it is the indwelling Holy Spirit who makes this possible. A strong confidence in the power of God is critical here, for the natural temptations of the flesh can often lead one to want to "run" the church for one's own power and out of a spirit of possessiveness. Oftentimes overt or covert efforts by individual members or leaders to control congregational life serve as the basis for rejecting congregational governance. Yet, we should not "throw the baby out with the bathwater," as the cliché goes.
What made the congregational form of government work then, and what makes it work now, is the biblical understanding that every true child of God is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and is a believer-priest (1 Peter 2:5-9; Revelation 1:6). The historic Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of believers has too often been misinterpreted as support for a radical individualism and antinomian autonomy (i.e., "Ain't nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe!"). But correctly understood, it instead conveys a corporate dimension of responsibility to fellow believer-priests within whom the Spirit dwells. Each one has direct access to Christ the Lord as Head of the church, and is accountable to Him. Since the Head has direct connection with the body, and vice-versa, it seems inappropriate biblically and theologically to argue for the insertion of a "neck" of pastors or leaders through whom Christ must first go to get to the body, or to whom believers must yield, irrespective of the Spirit's prompting.
For fear that someone might be tempted to draw a wrong conclusion that the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the dimension of pastoral authority are inherently incompatible, the Southern Baptist Convention spoke to this issue in 1988 with a strongly-worded resolution which explicitly stated that "the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in no way contradicts the biblical understanding of the role, responsibility, and authority of the pastor" and affirmed "the truth that elders, or pastors, are called of God to lead the local church (Acts 20:28)." The point is not to negate pastoral leadership, but to underscore the value of church members themselves in the direction and decision-making processes of the local church. Like many other seeming biblical teachings, some "tension" between these two "poles" should not be unexpected, but rather should be healthily maintained by leaders and laity alike.
As the early church, the members of the congregation trusted the Holy Spirit's leadership to rightly guide and direct them; and so should Baptists today. To infringe on the power and prerogatives of the Holy Spirit in the life of an individual believer or the corporate life of a local church can bring tremendous consequences. Is it easier perhaps to appoint a handful of people to make all the church's decisions? While it might be more efficient and expeditious, it is not biblical in the sense of conforming to the New Testament example. Can a local church function with an "elder-rule" leadership model? Yes, but it will lack the fullness of God's blessing and the shared ownership and investment that comes from every believer carefully following the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Any attempt to minimize or marginalize the Holy Spirit's role in bringing the believing body together to make decisions that will ultimately affect the life and work of that congregation will only be done to the detriment of the church.
May Southern Baptists continue to affirm and uphold this precious doctrine of congregational church polity!
Floyd A. Paris is pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland, Kentucky, and president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.