Trends in Baptist Polity
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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 of organizations.
            “Polity” 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.
            Scores of 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 expected standards. 
            Today 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 numbers. 
            Numerous 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 Governance

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 Cooperation 

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 polities.
            In recent 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 must.
            Furthermore, 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 voluntarily cooperate.  
            Finally, 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 governmental control. 


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?  Yes!

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 Center.