Trends in Baptist Polity
by Bill Pinson
What are the trends in Baptist
polity? The answer depends on what is meant by “trends” and “polity” and
which Baptists are being discussed.
What the Terms Mean
“Trends” are gradual changes,
not sudden or cataclysmic ones. They may be good or bad, helpful or harmful.
They may be caused by external factors, such as sociological shifts, or
internal ones, such as those brought about by dynamic leaders or the growth
refers to the ways Baptists organize both within churches and among
churches. Although the words “doctrine” and “polity” are sometimes used
interchangeably, they really are quite different although inextricably
related. Doctrines are those basic beliefs held by Baptists. Baptist polity
rests on these basic beliefs. Polities include a regenerate church
membership, congregational church governance under the Lordship of Christ,
autonomy of churches and voluntary cooperation. Baptists have held to each
of these polities in general terms while often debating specific meanings.
Internal debates coupled with external forces bring about trends.
different kinds of “Baptists” exist. The principles delineated in this
article apply to many Baptist traditions. Thus this brief presentation
dealing with a few recent trends in Baptist polity is an oversimplification
of a very complex subject.
Trends Regarding the Baptist Polity of a Regenerate Church Membership
The polity of a regenerate
church membership has cost Baptists dearly. In the time when union of church
and state dominated Europe, governmental and ecclesiastical rulers reacted
violently to the insistence by Baptists that persons should be free to make
voluntary choices concerning religious belief and that only regenerate
persons should be members of churches.
In spite of
horrible persecution, Baptists endeavored to achieve a regenerate church
membership. Persons were accepted as members only after giving evidence of
their commitment to Christ. Members were subject to discipline by the church
and sometimes were dismissed from the fellowship for failing to live up to
Baptists still give lip service to the concept of a regenerate church
membership. However, a number of factors indicate that Baptists are falling
short of this goal, such as the lack of participation by members in the life
of the church, the large number of non-resident members, the failure by many
to live by Christian standards, the meager financial support given by a
majority, and the lack of commitment to evangelism and missions by large
factors cause this trend. A spirit of super toleration and non-judgmentalism
prevails in our society. This attitude undercuts evaluating persons in
regard to church membership, both those who seek membership and those who
are already members. Other factors include the pressure for increased
numbers of members, the baptism of very young children into church
membership, and acceptance of persons as members from churches of other
denominations that do not hold to a regenerate church membership.
Trends in Regard to the Baptist Polity of Congregational Church
Based on doctrines such as the
Lordship of Christ, soul competency, and the priesthood of all believers,
the polity of
congregational church governance prevailed among Baptists even in the
crucible of persecution. At the time Baptists were emerging as a clearly
defined denomination, most other denominations maintained a hierarchical
structure. In contrast, Baptists insisted that a true church was composed of
persons who voluntarily gathered together and governed themselves under the
headship of Christ. Baptists held tenaciously to the conviction that each
person and all persons had equal voice in the governance of the church.
Congregational governance shows signs of erosion. For example, a number of
pastors claim authority over the church, elders govern in at least a few
churches, in some congregations a handful of people exercise control, and in
most churches only a minority of church members participate in business
meetings. The causes of these trends include apathy on the part of church
members, a CEO concept of the role of the pastor, an interpretation of
Scripture that gives to pastors special authority, a failure to maintain a
regenerate church membership, and a large increase in the size of the
membership of many churches.
Trends in Regard to the Baptist Polities of Autonomy and Voluntary
The polity of autonomy is
closely related to the polity of congregational governance. Just as each
Baptist believer priest with soul competency is equal to all other Baptists
in a church, so each church is equal to every other church. No church or
ecclesiastical organization has authority over a Baptist church. Churches
can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary
cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity
calls for freedom from governmental control. Certain trends test these
years large numbers of persons have come into Baptist churches from other
denominations in which a hierarchy of control exists. Sometimes these
persons believe, erroneously, that a church ought to obey resolutions or
actions taken by a state or national Baptist convention.
The growth of denominational
entities such as Baptist conventions can lead to efforts to control local
congregations. If such entities begin to provide funds for churches, a
tendency may develop to dictate to the churches. Of course, churches do not
have to accept the dictates, but in order to receive the funds, often they
some seem to view the conventions as being made up of churches rather
than individuals; attempts by conventions to dictate to churches
beliefs or practices could undermine autonomy. However, a convention is also
autonomous and ought to be able to determine the entities with which it will
efforts exist to subvert religious freedom and separation of church and
state. This may well lead to a decline in the autonomy of churches from
These Baptist polities were
preserved by generations of faithful Baptists suffering harsh persecution.
Are they worth the price to pass them on to the generations to follow?
William M. Pinson, Jr., is Executive Director Emeritus of the
Baptist General Convention of Texas; Distinguished Visiting Professor,
Baylor University; and Volunteer Director, The Texas Baptist Heritage