This blog post originated as a response to my friend Kevin Riggs' article here: Kevin Riggs on Local Church Autonomy.
We should understand that our Baptist-oriented churches go back for centuries, and that we have fought many of the same battles before. Regrettably, we often try to re-invent the wheel, or we cast off tradition without having a clear understanding of why our Baptist forefathers forged the tradition and the logic undergirding their stances.
True, Baptists did not themselves discover the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer. Prior to the Baptist movement, Lutherans and Presbyterians rejected the mediation of human priests for the forgiveness of sin. But those Reformers did not see the implications of the doctrine on church governance--only Baptists did! The Lutherans and Presbyterians kept the power to govern churches in the hands of either the bishop and his diocese, or in the hands of the ruling presbytery. They did not divest governing authority
into the hands of the congregation so that even the least maidservant might be empowered to cast vision by the Spirit's leading. But Baptists did. Thus, the indwelling of the Spirit and the priesthood of every believer is the cornerstone of congregational government.
As a practical matter, how can a church practice congregational government if other congregations control it? I suppose it is possible that all the congregations of a Baptist denomination might send its representatives to the national convention to regulate life at each one of its churches. However, “possible” does not mean “practical.” Thus, historically our Baptist churches were built with local church autonomy--and this is an outgrowth of the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.
However, early Baptist churches realized that they desperately needed each other for many reasons. Consequently, rarely was a Baptist congregation ever formed without the consent and support of its regional ("local") association. These associations or conferences were designed to promote and coordinate evangelistic efforts in the region and (ultimately) around the world. A church cooperating with other like-minded churches in association could do much more together than they could by themselves.
In my purview, a Baptist association serves, by way of example, to assist local churches in scrutinizing new candidates for ministry. A local church has every right to ordain a minister, but cannot impose on other associational churches to accept his ordination. Rather, when the association does the ordaining, then the pastor receives recognition by other association churches (by prior agreement), as well as denomination-wide credentials. He has been examined not only by the local church, but by the whole association.
In my purview, associations large enough to employ personnel to support local churches and coordinate ministry should do so. Sometimes, this could be at the local association (New Orleans Baptist Association has a half dozen or so full-time staff to service 100+ churches), but sometimes this might be more applicable to the state convention. At any rate, professional staff might be invited to the local church to assist in implementation of evangelism strategies, inspire new ministerial outreach opportunities, mediate disagreements within the church, or to support the church in their search for a new pastor. The important principle, however, is that the association does these sorts of things without imposing itself upon the congregation.
It is a regrettable fact that some short-sighted pastor might get hot and bothered about some issue that culminates in his church leaving the association. Thus, in one fell swoop, one man burns up maybe 50 or 150 years of fellowship and cooperation between his congregation and the other 10 or 20 or 50 other churches in his county or river valley. With what will he replace this fellowship? With the one or two churches pastored by ministers of his own persuasion?
Ultimately, the best way to prevent such short-sighted, destructive actions is to have a healthy association. And the only way for our associations to be healthy is for competent men and women to invest themselves in the association. If your association is weak, double down your investment in it. Your own church might find itself in great need of the association in years to come.