The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Cooperative Autonomy
The fourth traditional Baptist distinctive is often called local church autonomy, which is the idea that every church is free to determine its own agenda apart from any external ecclesiastical coercion. To say it positively, churches have the freedom to go in whatever direction they believe the Lord is leading them. Put more negatively, no denomination or convention or association can force a church to do something it doesn’t want to do.
Some Baptists, especially in North America, have stressed that local church autonomy means every church is independent of other churches and that any ecclesial relationships beyond the local church are undertaken for purely pragmatic purposes. For example, you often hear Southern Baptists argue something like this: “The local church is primary, but we ought to cooperate in associations or state conventions or the SBC because we can accomplish more for the kingdom when we work together than when we go it alone.” While I appreciate the self-evident fact that we can do more when we link arms with other churches, I’m not convinced local church autonomy necessitates this sort of strident independency.
Historically, both Particular and General Baptists in England embraced a view of autonomy that didn’t entail independence. Both groups valued congregational freedom, but they also affirmed a robust doctrine of the church universal that affirmed that Baptists were but one part of Christ’s visible church on earth. In fact, it would be fair to say that for the first couple hundred years of Baptist history most Baptists argued that individual congregations were visible expressions of the one church. Because of their ecclesiology, they affirmed the necessity of associational arrangements, not only for pragmatic considerations, but because cooperation is healthy and embodies the type of unity that will one day characterize Christ’s church. In other words, associational cooperation said as much about ecclesiology and eschatology as it did missions and fellowship.
This view of ecclesiology carried over into colonial North American, especially in New England and the Middle Colonies. The churches of the Philadelphia Association adopted a lightly amended version of the Second London Confession, including its affirmation of the universal church and associationalism. Jon Butler has demonstrated that Baptists in the Connecticut Valley went so far as to embrace a semi-connectional ecclesiology. Yes, these Baptists affirmed local church autonomy. But they didn’t affirm local church sovereignty, nor did they view cooperation as merely pragmatic. Local churches were free, and local churches needed each other as part of the wider church.
Most British Baptists continue to affirm the older ecclesiology, but during the course of the nineteenth century a majority of American Baptists moved in a more independent direction, especially in the South and Southwest. There are probably many reasons for this. The American emphasis on freedom and individualism certainly played a role—these themes were frequently applied to both congregationalism and local church autonomy. So did Landmark sectarianism, especially the frequent (but not uniform) denial of the universal church. Both liberalism and fundamentalism contributed to the trend—while the movements differed greatly on doctrinal matters, both were thoroughly modern in that they placed a high premium on personal and congregational autonomy, albeit unto different ends. The post-1925 tendency to equate cooperation with financial stewardship put the nail in the coffin of the older view.
Autonomy shouldn’t mean independence. Churches can and should cooperate with like-minded sister congregations so that they can do more together than any one church can do alone, but this isn’t the only reason churches should cooperate. Local churches don’t exist in isolation, but in most places they are part of a the body of Christ in that county, town, or city. Baptist churches in particular are that arm of Christ’s body that honestly believes their baptismal practices look more like the New Testament and better reflect the gospel than some of the other limbs. The fact is, we need each other. We need to sharper each other theologically. We need to come alongside each other when hurting churches have needs that can be served by sister congregations. We need to be humble enough to ask for help, selfless enough to serve sister churches, and biblical enough to heed the sound counsel of sister churches who point out errors and faults in theology or methodology.
In the same way my fellow church members contribute to my sanctification, so your church should contribute to my church’s sanctification, and vice versa. At the end of the day, congregational freedom is about gospel freedom—the freedom to advance a gospel agenda and the freedom to walk together with other local gospel communities. When Baptists are at our best, associations, state conventions, and national conventions help us to cultivate this sort of gospel-centered cooperative autonomy.
I know the vision I’m laying out here will strike some readers as distinctively un-Baptist, in part because it doesn’t sound like the way most North American Baptists think about autonomy and cooperation. But Southern Baptists in particular have the potential to embrace the older, healthier understanding of cooperative autonomy. The theological renewal that began with the Conservative Resurgence (including our renewed, though partial confessionalism) and the missional renewal of recent years ought to flow together in a healthier ecclesiology that champions autonomy without independence and cooperation without mere pragmatism. It will take unlearning some bad hermeneutical habits and denominational traditions, but I’m hopeful we can get where we need to be on this issue.
Note: This is the eighth post in an ongoing series on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Earlier posts in this series include: