(The following is an edited abridgment of a 32-page
booklet by Rowland Croucher, ‘Baptist Church Membership’, available
from the Australian Baptist Publishing House, Sydney).
Baptists begin a discussion about themselves by
trying to understand the ‘Good News’, the ‘gospel’. In essence,
Paul says (Philippians 2:10-11), the ‘Good News’ is that ‘JESUS
CHRIST IS LORD!’ That’s where Baptists start their thinking.
This isn’t just an abstract doctrine – it means that he’s our
Master, our King. We are his obedient servants, his subjects,
who do what he commands. He is the ultimate authority for all
thinking and acting. He is God the Son, through whom everything
came into being and before whom everyone will ultimately ‘fall
on their knees’.
Jesus Christ is Lord – or ‘Head’ – of the Church,
his Body. So Christians are people who both individually and collectively,
are constantly asking: ‘What does our Lord want us to believe,
and what does he want us to do?’
This leads us to the Bible, in which the mind of
Christ is revealed. The Bible is God’s Word, his authoritative
guide for our faith and practice. It is the inspired and trustworthy
record of the mighty acts of God in the history of his people
Israel and fulfilled in the life, teachings, and saving work of
So Baptists are encounaraged to be keen ‘Bible people’,
seeking with and open and reverent mind to understand what God
is saying to us today. Sometimes we won’t find specific answers
to all our modern problems there, but we’ll always find God’s
guiding principles. The greatest principle, or commandment, said
Jesus, is to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with
all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’.
And the second greatest: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.
For Baptists, then, God alone is the sovereign Lord.
They have always tried to follow the apostolic principle: ‘We
must obey God rather than humans’. Baptists reject doctrines or
practices which either contradict or are not in harmony with Christ’s
will revealed in the Bible. They have simply believed that most
of the differences between churches would be resolved if apostolic
principles and practices were held in their true scriptural relationship
with one another. And so, for just about every question we reply
with another: ‘What does the Bible say?’
But this doesn’t mean Baptists arrogantly believe
they are the only ones who are right. No one (except God alone)
has ‘a monopoly on the truth’. We are humble fellow-learners with
others who also submit to the truth of Scripture. And ‘God has
yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word’. A
Baptist says with love, to another Christian: ‘You are my brother/sister,
not because we happen to agree on everything, but because we are
both God’s children’. This is why Baptists have produced written
‘confessions’ but never written ‘creeds’. Creeds become ‘locked
into’ the particular questions of one historical era, and later
Christians may be asking some different questions. Further, creeds
tend to make people ‘exclusive’ – if you don’t dot all the i’s
and cross all the t’s you’re not acceptable. Baptists aim rather
to be inclusive: our bond is simply our common relationship to
This leads us to another Baptist emphasis –
The Church = ‘The Company of The Committed’
It is not uncommon for Baptist church constitutions
to begin: ‘The church shall be composed of those… who have accepted
Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord’. When Baptists
throughout their history have been asked ‘Who belongs to the church?’
their response is always: ‘Only those who’ve deliberately chosen
to follow the way of Jesus – the "regenerate", those
Perhaps this can best be explained by taking a short
journey into the past.
Baptists trace their spiritual history back to people
like the ‘Anabaptists’ (‘re-baptisers’) in 16th century Europe.
It was the time when Luther, Calvin, and other ‘Protestants’
urged people to go back to the Bible for their instructions about
faith and living, and reject doctrines and practices in the Church
of Rome which they believed were unbiblical. For example, they
talked about ‘the priesthood of all believers’. The Church of
Rome made ordinary believers dependent upon the mediation of the
priests, but these ‘Reformers’ proclaimed the right of every Christian
to have access to God through the mediation of Christ alone. They
encouraged ordinary people to read the Word of God (something
rare – and even forbidden by the church authorities in those days).
They said that every Christian has the Holy Spirit who inspired
the writing of Scripture, so God can speak to them by this same
Spirit as they read the Bible. You and I don’t need the authorities
in the church to tell us what to believe – it’s all there in God’s
The Anabaptists, however, said Luther and Calvin
and the others didn’t take their ‘Reformation’ far enough. They
agreed that ‘If it’s in the Bible we believe it; if it isn’t,
we reject it, even though centuries of Christian history are behind
a particular belief’. But they objected to the close alliance
between church and state which had gone on for more than a thousand
years. They also rejected infant baptism, which they believed,
served to perpetuate state churches filled with nominal Christians.
Meanwhile, over in England, a ‘Puritan’ movement
emerged within the Church of England, calling that church back
to the Scriptures. One learned man, Rev. John Smyth M.A. (a Fellow
of Christ’s College, Cambridge University), became a city lecturer
at Lincoln at the turn of the 17th century – a post which allowed
him to expound the Scriptures to his townspeople who weren’t satisfied
with the teaching they were receiving in their churches. When
things got ‘too hot’ for these Puritans, some went as refugees
to Holland. There John Smyth continued to study the Scriptures,
and with the help of some Dutch Mennonites (an Anabaptist group),
came to hold certain convictions which Baptists have maintained
ever since. In 1609 he became the leader of the first English-speaking
He saw – with the Anabaptists – that ‘established
churches’ weren’t an apostolic idea at all. You become a member
of these churches through infant baptism, and everyone in a particular
community – or ‘parish’ – therefore almost automatically belonged
to the ‘parish church’. Now that’s all wrong, these Baptists said.
Only people who’ve had a personal encounter with Christ can belong
to the church. You can’t be born a Christian: at some point in
your life you choose to belong to Christ’s church, when you repent
of your sins and commit your life willingly to him.
So Baptists have always been wary of alliances between
churches and the state authorities. They’ve said governments shouldn’t
influence – or interfere with – the free choice people make about
their allegience to Christ and the church. They have taken the
idea a step further, too, and until recently, have generally refused
government funding for their Christian ministries. (Today government
grants may be accepted for educational and social welfare purposes,
but not usually for worship and pastoral ministries.)
Because people willingly choose to belong to the
church, a high standard of Christian behaviour and discipleship
is expected of members of Baptist churches. Because they possess
God’s Holy Spirit, they should live on a higher plane than non-Christians.
Sometimes ‘church discipline’ has to be lovingly but firmly extended
towards those who bring the faith of Christ into disrepute by
their disobedient behaviour.
Many Anabaptists and early Baptists were martyred
(often by drowning, ‘seeing they like so much water,’ their enemies
said) for these beliefs.
Who Runs the Church?
The short answer, of course: Christ does! It’s his
church. When members of his body meet, he’s there with them.
Christ is both the Lord of the redeemed person and the redeemed
community. Both have his Holy Spirit to guide them, and are therefore
sufficiently ‘competent’ to know his will. So local Baptist churches
are ‘autonomous’ – they govern themselves. (Look up Acts 13:1,2
for a New Testament example of a local church acting on its own
initiative.) Baptists therefore do not recognise the power of
a bishop, synod, conference, or assembly to determine or overrule
the decisions of a local church.
Sometimes, however, these churches may cooperate,
and form ‘Unions’ (there is a ‘Baptist Union’ of churches in each
Australian state, in Australia as a whole, and in New Zealand).
These associations of churches co-ordinate Baptists’ joint efforts
to obey the great commission. Such Unions may appoint officers
to guide in specific areas of ministry such as home missions (helping
younger churches to get going), overseas missions and training
future pastors. There is no fixed plan or pattern here: these
structures are very flexible, change from time to time, and differ
in various countries.
Local churches – like individual Christians – need
each other. The challenge facing us is to encourage self-governing
churches to become more ‘inter-dependent’ rather than ‘independent’.
The Baptist Unions (or Conventions or Associations,
as they are called in some places) are mostly affiliated with
the Baptist World Alliance, which has about 30 millian members
in 117,000 churches. (The U.S. has the largest number – 25 million,
followed by India – 815,000, U.S.S.R. – 545,000, Brazil – 464,000
and Burma – 358,000. Australian Baptist church members number
about 53,000, New Zealand 18,000).
# Generally Baptists haven’t been keen on ‘organic’
unity with other Christian denominations. Some Baptist groups
have joined the World Council of Churches, while others feel they
ought to preserve their distinctiveness by remaining outside such
bodies. Baptists don’t claim to be ‘the only true church’: they
want to learn humbly from others. They believe that what unites
Christians is far more decisive and basic than what divides them.
However they have mostly felt that their special Scriptural insights
are best preserved by staying ‘Baptists’. What do you think? Is
this likely to change?
How is a local church governed? Baptists are ‘congregational’.
They meet, free from any ‘outside’ control, to arrive at a consensus
about God’s will, through Bible study, prayer, and discussion.
A British Baptist statement (1948) says such a church meeting
is ‘the occasion when, as individuals and as a community, we submit
ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and stand under the
judgment of God that we may know the mind of Christ’.
The aim of each congregation will be to reflect
the character of Jesus in all that it does. So persons will matter
more than agendas or programs or constitutions! We will love and
respect those with whom we may disagree. Although Baptist church
members’ meetings are democratic (any member is free to speak
on any matter on the agenda), they are really, in essence, theocratic
(ruled by God), so members don’t have the right to say anything
they please – but only what is loving, constructive, true, and
that which humbly seeks the mind of Christ. Because they affirm
diversity within their Fellowships they will sometimes ‘agree
to differ – agreeably’ on some issues. So Baptists have generally
been happy with ‘majority voting’ on all but really major issues
(which may require a large majority, or, occasionally, total unanimity).
Some churches seldom take a vote – they will discuss issues until
a general consensus is achieved, or failing that, will defer the
matter for further prayerful thought and consideration.
Christ appointed leaders to serve the church. There’s
a list of these in Ephesians 4. Apostles, prophets and evangelists
were generally ‘itinerant’ – they moved around among several churches.
‘Pastor- teachers’ were (and are) shepherds – feeding Christ’s
flock and caring for it. Their task: to equip all the members
so that they will become spiritually mature.
Most Baptist churches have one pastor (although
some are now appointing two or more). He or she is generally considered
the leader, although neither the pastor/s nor any other person
has the final word in the church’s affairs: that’s the prerogative
of the members’ meeting. Sometimes, therefore, the pastor is
said to be ‘the first among equals’. Pastors are servants of the
church, but the church is not their master – Christ is.
The pastors’ priorities: Bible study, prayer, and
training others for ministry. They’re a sort of ‘player-coach’
encouraging others to serve, witness and visit. Church members
are not helpers of the pastor, so that the pastor can do their
job; pastors are helpers of the whole people of God, so that they
all can be the church (to paraphrase Hans Ruedi Weber). Pastors
must be encouraged to keep themselves ‘in training for a godly
life’, so the congregation will allow them time for study and
reflection. Remember that your pastors are human: they, too,
have doubts, fears, and frustrations. Please don’t add to them!
Francis Schaeffer says pastors often unwittingly break the tenth
commandment – they are covetous of the successes or gifts of other
pastors. Remedy? Affirm your pastor, so they know they’re loved!
If you appreciate them, tell them so!
In the New Testament, bishops or elders (both words
describe the same people) were the ‘overseers’ of the churches.
These leaders ‘work hard’, perform pastoral duties and help make
important decisions. Only those with the appropriate ‘gifts’ should
be appointed elders – not just to ‘fill the number’. It’s better
to have no elders than the wrong ones. Each elder ought to have
a list of those they are shepherding, and these people know they
can turn to their elder at any time. (A ratio of one elder to
12 persons or family groups is recommended.)
Deacons are ‘servants’. Both Jesus and Paul used
this word of themselves. Their tasks: administrative leadership,
policy-making, and planning.
Both elders and deacons have ‘spiritual’ ministries.
They are accountable to the church members. The personal and spiritual
qualities of these leaders are spelt out in 1 Timothy 3: 1-13.
Note that such appointments have nothing to do with age, sex,
or status. Spiritual leadership is not for people who like to
be ‘bossy’; the badge of office for all followers of Christ is
a towel! Both groups (if your church has both) ought to be commissioned
by the congregation, who will pray for them earnestly. These ‘servants’
will lead by encouragement and example, rather than by coercion.
They will generally plan openly rather than covertly. They will
continually inform their people of their doings, and will invite
feed-back from the members. Occasionally they will ‘retreat’ (‘advance’?)
for times of prayer, study and discusison.
# Discuss: Paul says (Galatians 3:28) that Jesus
has healed divisions between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free-people,
males and females. The early church was ahead of its time in
granting ‘personhood’ to women, and many fulfilled public ministries.
American Baptists (from 80 years ago) and Southern Baptists (from
20 years ago) in the U.S. have occasionally ordained women for
pastoral ministry, as have Baptists in Britain, Canada, New Zealand
and some Australian states. Leon Morris, an Anglican scholar,
says women in the early church did more than ‘keep silence when
it was a question of expounding the Christian faith’. Some Baptists
have emphasised the ‘submission’ and ‘keeping quiet’ passages.
Others say that the principle of Galatians 3:28 is to be applied
appropriately within each culture. What do you think?
CHALLENGES FACING BAPTISTS IN THE ’90’S
Having pastored Baptist churches for 30 years, spoken
to all the Baptist pastors’ conferences around Australia and preached
in about 200 Baptist churches, here are my suggestions about the
issues Baptists are facing. They vary in intensity from state
to state and church to church.
1. Baptist pharisaism. The essential issue here
is the elevation of dogma or church rules over ‘accepting’ those
whom God accepts (Romans 15:7). The two key issues are social
justice (Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42) and open membership. Until
recently Baptists were quite muted about their concern for the
poor, and the causes of such poverty. Fortunately they are reading
Jesus and the prophets again! On the issue of open membership,
see my paper on the subject. Briefly, if Jesus said accepting
people is more important than sticking to ordinances (even an
important ordinance like baptism) then let’s follow Jesus rather
than the pharisees! Nothing can be added to grace, not even baptism.
The Baptist principle of ‘liberty of conscience’ should apply
here as everywhere else. A system which allows a sexually active
young person or greedy adult to be a member of most of our churches
(and they are!) but not a godly Anglican or Salvationist has got
to have something wrong with it. Baptists have to be reminded
they’re Christians first, Baptists second.
2. The Leadership Ministries of Women. In the NT
women were quite prominent in the churches, despite strong patriarchal
cultures. Today, the church is creating a scandal by appearing
to treat women as second-class citizens. Only two Australian Baptist
Unions (Victoria and South Australia) recognize the pastoral leadership
gifts of women: if God were to raise up a Deborah to lead the
whole people of God today most of us wouldn’t let him to it! We
should be grateful God is not a legalist! (See my paper on Women
3. Charismatic Renewal. People who derive their
security from the predictable institutions or dogmas they adhere
to will always be threatened by notions of renewal, particularly
radical renewal. The impact of charismatic renewal is no exception.
The Holy Spirit is moving in dynamic ways through all the churches
and in all the world, but traditionalists will find themselves
opposing anything which is not part of their cherished history.
Although the devil as well as the Holy Spirit is operative in
some aspects of charismatic renewal, Baptists and others will
need to be careful about the dangers of fighting God: they can’t
win! (See my paper ‘Charismatic Renewal: Myths and Realities’).
4. Institutional Renewal. About 95% of Australian
Baptists agree with the statement ‘There’s something wrong with
the way our church business meetings are conducted’. The 5% who
enjoy power-broking or have an excess of spare time on their hands
or enjoy the thrill of swaying the voting intentions of others
will derive some enjoyment from church business meetings. Baptists
have equated congregationalism with democracy: modern notions
of democracy are not biblical. Baptists also have forgotten that
the NT has three forms of church government – episcopal, presbyterian
as well as congregational. Baptists have also allowed their adherence
to a notion of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ to contaminate
their polity: believers should not use church meetings as a forum
to be negative. Church meetings exist for information-dissemination
(what God is doing amongst us), celebration (worshipping the Lord
who is the head of the church) and discernment (prayerfully finding
the will of our Lord in specific situations). Whilst the method
of decision-making will vary from culture to culture, and issue
to issue, neither democracy nor unanimity is appropriate in every
situation. (Democracy may mean the leading families rule; unanimity
may leave us all at the mercy of the ‘nut’ who will vote ‘no’
5. Ecumenism. Baptists may have some justifiable
reasons to be leary of some things the World Council of Churches
does. But they have no justifiable reason for non-cooperation
with others who ‘acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour Lord and
God, according to the Scriptures’. We must not do anything to
negate our Lord’s prayer ‘that they may be one’.
6. Evangelism. The idea of ‘seeker services’ is
not new: it was there in apostolic times, according to Michael
Green (Evangelism Through the Local Church). Neighbourhood ‘coffee
‘n dessert’ nights, friendship services, Christianity Explained
courses – these and many other tools are available for us to reach
out to those the New Testament calls ‘the lost’.
7. Clericalism. The Christian Brethren movement
have had a valid objection to ‘clergy running the church and denying
others a ministry’. Baptists are still plagued by clericalism,
whereby pastors accrue power rather than disseminating it. The
task of church leaders is to train and empower others for ministry,
not do it for them! (See ch. 31 ‘Ministry as Empowerment’ in my
Your Church Can Come Alive).
The Baptist Heritage, H. Leon McBeth (Broadman,
1987): a comprehensive 850-page overview of Baptist history and
emphases, mainly from a North American perspective.
Challenge to Change: A Radical Agenda for Baptists,
Nigel Wright (Kingsway 1991) ‘calls for consensus over constitution,
power over programme evangelism, and makes a case for Baptist
A Community of Believers by Charles W. Deweese (Judson,
1978), a good general handbook, with a useful discussion on ‘church
Growing on Together (Baptist Union of NSW), a simple,
readable paper-back written by Australian Baptists.
Church Members’Kit, produced by the pastoral team
of the Blackburn Baptist Church (13 Holland Rd, Blackburn, Australia.
Studies in Baptism by Basil S. Brown (Clifford Press,
Melbourne), a 32-page summary of the meaning of Baptism by a former
Australian theological college professor.
The Church, a Baptist View (Gordon W. Martin), Authority,
a Baptist View (B.R. White), Freedom, a Baptist View(J.H. Briggs),
Baptism, a Baptist View (John W. Matthews), Children in the Church,
a Baptist View (D.F. Tennant), Ministry, a Baptist View (John
F. Nicholson), booklets produced by the Baptist Union of Great
Britain and Ireland. (Australian agents – Clifford Press, Melbourne)
The Baptist Church Member (Baptist Church Life and
Ministry, Victoria), 9 studies for prospective members. Available
through Baptist Book Stores.
The Water that Divides by Donald Bridge and David
Phypers (IVP, 1977), a good discussion of the pros and cons of
baptism and the open/closed membership question.
A History of the Baptists by R.G. Torbet (judson,
3rd Edition), a good general history.
Baptist Confessions of Faith by W.L. Lumpkin (Judson
1959), a more comprehensive volume.
A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice:
Revised Edition by Norman H. Maring and Winthrop S. Hudson (Judson Press, 1991).
(Also check out the web site http//www.abc-usa.org for the ABC/USA.)