An essay by Ian McDonald, the Research Officer in the Faculty of Technology, Engineering & the Environment at Birmingham City University in the UK. He is a member of the UK Baptist Historical Society, Strict Baptist Historical Society and Chapels Society. He is an active member of City Church, Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @IanCMcD
The Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) remains the home of the majority of Baptist churches in England and Wales. The Union, formed in its present state in 1891 by the merger of General and Particular Baptist groupings, consists of approximately 2,150 churches, with a total membership of 140,000 individuals.1 It is a member of the European Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance. Outside the Union, a number of Baptist churches remain totally independent of any wider fellowship, grouping or associations (for example the Metropolitan Tabernacle, famously pastored by C.H. Spurgeon), whilst others coalesce around the Grace Baptist Assembly – 63 churches attended the 2013 Assembly2, although many more are members of its three local associations. This Assembly first met in 1980 when it succeeded two bodies which had ceased to operate – the Strict Baptist Assembly and the Assembly of Baptised Churches holding the Doctrines of Grace. Additionally, 97 churches coalesce around the ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ Gospel Standard magazine and subscribe to its Articles of Faith.3
In addition to these distinctly Baptist organisations (although of very different theological stripes!), a significant number of self-identifying Baptist churches are affiliated to the non-denominational Fellowship of Independent Evangelical churches (FIEC), which was founded in 1922. One such example is the East London Tabernacle Baptist Church (see my piece in Baptist Studies Bulletin Vol.12 No.10 on Archibald Brown).
The FIEC explains its purposes as follows:
“We have a particular concern to promote, encourage and support independency. We believe that independent ecclesiology is the most biblical, and therefore most effective, pattern for local churches. FIEC seeks to develop the best possible models of independent church life, robustly defends the biblical principles of independency ……..We aim to inspire, train and support gifted men and women for independent ministry.” 4
FIEC, whilst not being a denominational body, aims to provide independent churches with many of the benefits which those churches which are a member of a denomination do benefit from, for example, training and legal advice.
“There are many benefits in linking your church to FIEC – gaining a national voice, ministry support, shared resources and more.” 5
Ninety-five out of the FIEC’s five hundred and fourteen churches self-identity as Baptist churches (i.e. have the word ‘Baptist’ in their title) – this equates to 18.5% of the Fellowship’s affiliated churches.6
THE FIEC AND THE BAPTIST UNION OF GREAT BRITAIN
It is interesting to compare the theology and statements of belief of the FIEC and the Union. The Union is entirely non-confessional, its churches have to sign up to a simple Declaration of Principle:-
“That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.
That Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of those who have professed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who ‘died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day’.
That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world.”7
The FIEC has a more detailed statement, which would be rightly interpreted as a summary of conservative evangelicalism, and states in its introduction:
“The churches of FIEC are committed to these truths of historic, biblical Christianity. Below is our Doctrinal Basis.
We also have accepted statements on Gospel Unity, Women in Ministry and Same Sex Marriage, to which our member churches agree to abide. These are intended to bring clarity to our life and ministry as a Fellowship, not to be raised to the level of our Doctrinal Basis”.8
The accepted statements state their rejection of ecumenism and partnering with more ‘liberal’ churches, their rejection of women as pastors or elders, and their rejection of same-sex relationships. They differ from the Union on the first of these two points.
CASE STUDY OF E.J. POOLE-CONNOR, FOUNDER OF FIEC
The pathways and journeys of Baptist churches to the FIEC will be various; however regardless of their route, it is safe to surmise that they are unhappy with the Union and its theology and/or see unity around conservative evangelical beliefs as more important than Baptist unity. An example which can be used as a case study is that of the church of E.J. Poole-Connor, founder of the FIEC. Poole-Connor, in his book Evangelical Unity (later summarised in A Heart for Unity) records his own experiences of journey towards non-denominationalism and the foundation of the FIEC. Poole-Connor was baptised as a believer but records “I do not think I had very strong convictions on the matter.” He attended Keswick Conventions and heard Bible teaching from “men drawn from various sections of the Christian church.” Whilst pastoring a small Baptist church in Surbiton, London, Poole-Connor became president of the local Free Church council. He discovered that the members were more united by opposition to the Church of England than they were on Gospel issues, and many ministers had “modernist views.” He also found the Union to be “strongly leavened with the same influence.” Eventually he resigned his pastorate, and later founded the FIEC as a body which, although not a denomination, uniting evangelical churches who, whilst not all agreeing on church governance and church ordinances, did agree on the key tenets of evangelical Christianity.9
During the 1970s and 1980s, ecumenism gathered pace in Britain and this let to Baptists facing the decision as to whether to join together with Roman Catholics in local ‘Council of Churches’. This led to a number of churches withdrawing from the Union. One such example was that of Wem Baptist Church, in the county of Shropshire on the English-Welsh border. By 1974, the church had appointed a minister accredited by the FIEC and gradually they withdrew from the Union altogether as ecumenism gathered pace. The church is now affiliated to the FIEC. Other churches, such as Foleshill Baptist Church in the city of Coventry, withdrew from the Union yet remain unaffiliated to any alternative body or grouping.
Whilst being a highly important issue, it would be wrong to say dissatisfaction with the Union caused by the rise of ecumenism and “modernist views” was in anyway new, the famous Downgrade Controversy which led to the resignations of CH Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle and Archibald Brown’s East London Tabernacle, was caused by the growth of liberalism in some parts of the Union many decades earlier.
The FIEC is a far more likely destination for churches who chose to leave the Union than the Grace Baptist grouping due to the fact that it is open to evangelicals who believe in both limited and general atonement, whilst the Grace Assembly is a strongly Calvinist assembly and retains its belief in Strict Communion.
It should also be noted, that whilst the FIEC is not a Baptist organisation, the vast majority of its churches are to one extent or another ‘baptistic’ in their practice, so the FIEC is not, therefore, a totally surprising home for more conservative Baptist churches.
It would be interesting to conduct further research into the reasons why these Baptist churches are choosing to affiliate to the FIEC – are they mostly former Union churches? If so, why did they leave, or were they independent Baptist churches who saw the chance to network with likeminded conservative evangelical churches, regardless of denominational ties and forms of church governance.
1 Baptist Union of Great Britain (2013), ‘Who are Baptists?’ (http://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/220484/Who_are_Baptists.aspx) Accessed 15th December 2013
2 Grace Baptist Assembly (2013), ‘All things to all men?’
http://www.gracebaptistassembly.org.uk/gba/index.php/category/2013-assembly#cReg Accessed 18th December 2013
3 Gospel Standard Trust, List of Chapels’, (Harpenden; Gospel Standard Trust Publications, 2013)
4 Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (2013), ‘About Us’
(http://www.fiec.org.uk/about-us) Accessed 22nd December 2013
5 Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (2013), ‘Join Us’
(http://www.fiec.org.uk/about-us/join-us) Accessed 22nd December 2013
6 Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (2013), ‘Our Churches’ (http://www.fiec.org.uk/churches) Accessed 20th December 2013
7 Baptist Union of Great Britain (2013), ‘Declaration of Principle
(http://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/220595/Declaration_of_Principle.aspx) Accessed 24th December 2013
8 Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (2013), ‘Beliefs’ (http://www.fiec.org.uk/about-us/beliefs) Accessed 23rd December 2013
9 E.J.Poole-Connor, A Heart for Unity, (Market Harborough; FIEC, 2011) (Reprint of sections of Evangelical Unity