Here we go again: a Southern Baptist Church finds itself having made an unpopular decision. The internet, and presumably other venues that run slower, are exploding with rebuke or defense for the decision.
And then up pops a rebuke to those who issue the rebuke: “You’re violating the principle of Local Church Autonomy!” in an effort to shut down any correction or argument. The rebuke runs against even words, be they spoken, written, or typed, and states that no one ought to try and correct a local church unless they are a part of that body. Let’s take this apart and see how it holds.
Note: Yes, this is brought on by the situation discussed here on SBCVoices.However, let’s look at the whole principle, because it comes up from time to time and relates to issues from theological debates to improper behaviors and worse. So, let us examine what Local Church Autonomy is, ought to be, and what it is not and ought not be.
Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message states this: (copied from SBC.net)
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. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.
This is the official statement of agreed belief from the Southern Baptist Convention on what a church is. Additionally, we need to have Article XIV in front of us, on Cooperation:
Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.
In summary, the idea presented here is this: The Southern Baptist Convention cannot force a church to make any specific decision or take any specific action. In essence, the Southern Baptist Convention may set the rules for being counted as a cooperating church with the national entity, but cannot force a church to comply or not comply. Overall, we may simply state that this church is not welcome to participate/cooperate with the rest of the churches.
What does this mean, practically?
1. There is no mandatory statement of faith for Southern Baptist Churches. Seriously–though most of us would expect that a church planted by funded missionaries of NAMB/IMB would operate with the current BF&M as their doctrinal statement as long as they are funded by our cooperative program dollars, there is no requirement on existing churches that they adopt any doctrinal rule. You can be an SBC church without any written doctrinal statement, you can have a huge one–the SBC itself does not mandate. Why? Because the SBC respects the autonomy of a local church to set their own standard. The SBC has, autonomously, chosen the BF&M as its standard.
2. The SBC does not own the property of any local church. Some former missions/church plants may have clauses in their property titles that revert the property back to the SBC/NAMB/State Convention if the group leaves the SBC, but the church itself is not the building, either. Moreover, typically those agreements are entered into voluntarily (the funding may be dependent on it, but the church could have started without any exterior funding) by the local body. Because each local group should hold the title to their property, there is no economic blackmail that the SBC can hold over a church for their choices.
3. Autonomy runs both ways: the church is free to do as it pleases, and so is the SBC. That being, the SBC can set its own rules and guidelines for who the Convention as a whole associates with. The benefit of being an “official” SBC church can be debated later, but it should be clear that just because a church claims to be in the SBC does not mean the SBC must accept that church.
Herein lies our overall problem, though: we are more connected than our by-laws and constitution formally make us. Any action of a “Southern Baptist” church can bring discredit upon all of the churches in the SBC. Any questionable action at the SBC level can bring ridicule to the individual churches. Yet it takes a slow process for any action to be corrected. This benefits us as a whole because it allows for any party that has taken a disreputable action to repent and correct their behavior. For an example, consider that the ERLC had time to investigate and institute corrective action earlier this year.
However, the slow pace of action can frustrate us in the heat of our passions. The result is that our rhetoric heats up quickly, but then it flashes and we move on to the next big scandal. Since there is no “on-going process” we do not go back and revisit those issues that had us upset last month.
In short, yes, every church has autonomy. So does every entity. However, that does not mean that we cannot attempt to influence the decision-making process of a church body. We cannot veto a church’s decision, but ultimately the remaining 40,000+ churches have the right to decide they will not freely associate with a church that chooses to openly embrace a sinful decision.
Further, it does not follow that the elected leadership of the SBC should remain silent in the face of issues within the family. They have no personal power to enforce any action, but instead of a wider platform to make known the issues that we face. For an elected leader of our convention to remain silent in the face of publicly known church actions is not only unwise, it should be unacceptable. That doe snot mean we expect those leaders to go looking for trouble, but when it hits the paper, something must be said.