Thursday, April 26, 2007


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 - unless in exceptional circumstances - 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, in New Zealand, and in fact in over 200 nations around the world). These associations of churches co-ordinate Baptists' joint efforts to obey the great commission. Such Unions may appoint leaders 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 37 millian members in 158,000 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?)

Next time: How is a local church governed?

Rowland Croucher

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