I received this by email – I know the source, a reliable one. He did not want to publish with his name attached because of personal relationships.
Southern Baptists hold to autonomy steadfastly, defiantly, obstreperously, and obnoxiously. It is not only part of our common statement of belief but also part of our DNA as Southern Baptists. Local church autonomy means that every crossroads, white frame Baptist church, every county seat ‘Fust’ Baptist church, every hipster PizzaSojourn Church is a law and unit unto themselves. The church arranges for their own clergy, pastor, and staff with a system that need suit no one other than themselves. The church may fire ministers on whatever basis satisfies a majority of the congregation.
It is an axiom of Southern Baptist life that no one – not the convention president, not our chief executive in Nashville, not the CEO of the state convention, not the Associational Missionary, not the megapastor nearby, and sometimes not even Jesus Himself – tells the tiniest, most dysfunctional Southern Baptist church what to do.
Sometimes we are not well-served by our autonomy. Consider the following scenario, fictional but a frequent occurrence in SBC life.
The church calls a new pastor. He is young and energetic. He has some formal training but not an abundance of experience, especially in a church this size. He preaches adequately, though not as skillfully as some predecessors. He generally relates well to members of the congregation and especially well with younger people in the community. There is a decided lack of administrative ability but church leaders feel optimistic that he can learn and grow and that laypeople and committees can work to cover this deficiency.
Over a period of time, other issues arise. There is a vague, undefined discomfort generated by the pastor’s familiarity and contact with younger women in the church. In time a report of blatantly inappropriate contact with one of these surfaces. An investigation is made but no concrete, specific evidence is put before the pastor or church leadership. The matter is dropped. Another similar incident surfaces. It is investigated. The second credible report of inappropriate behavior by the pastor push matters beyond a point of remedy. The pastor is counseled to resign, with a severance. He resigns. Church leaders know the issues. Some others in the church and community are aware as well.
Chances are, this pastor will pursue another church. The search committee for a new church will investigate the resignation and maybe contact the minister’s former places of service.
It is highly likely that contact persons in the previous church will minimize the difficulties and offer a neutral, “It just wasn’t a good fit” or “the pastor made some mistakes”. There is a decided reluctance to be completely forthright.
In our system of autonomy there is no body that receives reports of ministerial conduct. In our system, there is no clearinghouse for ministerial credentials. In our system there is no body that would enforce any system of restoration and rehabilitation for clergy who have moral failures.
Our loosely linked system of churches, associations, state conventions, seminaries and colleges has no clergy union, guild, or organization that can evaluate ministers for even a minimum level of morality, competence, and fitness for the pastorate.
If a man is ordained and has some level of theological training he has all the credentials most churches require. Revocation of ordination is virtually unheard of in the SBC. While church discipline is now practiced on a far more widespread basis than in previous years, the nature of discipline is such that it is mainly used by clergy leading churches to discipline disapproved laypeople, not churches disciplining clergy. After all, when the pastor leaves, he is no longer subject to discipline by the church in which his sins and offenses occurred.
In sum, our system of local church autonomy is very weak when it comes to identifying and removing clergy who have disqualified themselves by either sinful behavior or by failing to exhibit the biblical qualifications for pastor/elder/overseer.
Local church autonomy at its worst.
For this system to work in such occasions everyone has to be honest and forthright. Almost invariably, they are not. As a consequence, we pass along men who should not even consider another church staff position.
There are times when Methodism and other connectional, hierarchical systems look attractive.