June 19, 2019

The Orthodox Doctrine of Local Church Autonomy and Accountability

While I surmised previously in an ERLC essay that the Baptist doctrine of local church autonomy was being misused to shield sexual abusers, it became increasingly apparent at the turn of the year that this was indeed and tragically the case. Through two ground-shifting series of articles published in the first case by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and in the second case by the Houston Chronicle, Baptists learned to their horror that their churches were being used for gross evil rather than for anything good.

After some Baptist pastor theologians and academic theologians stated publicly as individuals that local church autonomy should not be so employed, Dr. Bart Barber, Dr. Nathan Finn, and I decided it would be helpful to ask the Southern Baptist Convention to address this critical theological issue as a body. It was a privilege to work together with this distinguished pastor-theologian and this dynamic academic administrator in bringing clarity to one of the most important theological crises of our day. 

The resolution we submitted was slightly amended in friendly ways by both the Resolutions Committee and from the floor. It was then adopted unanimously by the Southern Baptist Convention. Before the three of us submitted the resolution, we agreed that the fourth Resolve contained the key issue. Local church autonomy, properly understood, must never be divorced from mutual accountability under Christ. Scott Gordon, a pastor and messenger, noted and approved the same emphasis from the floor of the convention. Gordon's motion to amend the title to include "Accountability" was heartily approved.

It is thus appropriate that pastors and theologians and denominational servants of the churches now make sure that they present local church autonomy in its proper biblical and Christological frame. This ecclesiological doctrine is not about an individual person's autonomy, nor is it about a particular human community's autonomy. This longstanding Baptist doctrine is about the mutual submission of Christians living in covenant under the loving Lordship of Jesus Christ. As the seventh Whereas indicates, the doctrine of local church autonomy must remain subordinate to Jesus, who is always the only Lord of all his churches. 

Those who divorce local church autonomy from the Lordship of Christ have, if I may say so, adopted an exalted and self-centered view that draws more upon Pelagian soteriology and Enlightenment anthropology than upon any theology that is recognizably Christian. Kudos to the Resolutions Committee, led by the highly capable Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, Dr. Curtis Woods, and to the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention for advancing the cause of Christ through clarifying what the doctrine of local church autonomy means and what it doesn't mean. 

Either we who are Southern Baptists will get this correct, or we will face the judgment of the One who deeply loves his "little ones" and will avenge them.

On Local Church Autonomy and Accountability

WHEREAS, The biblical doctrine of local church autonomy is based in the local church’s covenant with God in Christ (Matthew 18:18– 20; 1 Peter 3:21), Jesus Christ being the eternal and only Head of His church (Ephesians 1:22–23; 2:19–22; 5:22; Colossians 1:18); and

WHEREAS, Local church autonomy is exercised through congregational processes (Matthew 18:15–17; Acts 5:12; 6:3–6; 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 5:11–13), with reference to other churches (Acts 15:1–2, 22–23, 30; 1 Corinthians 11:16; 14:33), and only for the purposes determined by God for His glory (Ephesians 3:21); and

WHEREAS, Baptist churches appoint leaders who are charged with care for the souls of those in their congregations (Acts 6:1–7; 20:17, 28; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1–2); and

WHEREAS, The doctrine of local church autonomy is a cherished and inextricable part of the historic faith of Baptists, being expressed as early as the 1644 London Baptist Confession; and

WHEREAS, The cherished doctrine of local church autonomy is confessed by Southern Baptists in The Baptist Faith and Message, with each church governed by the Lordship of Jesus Christ and exercising its autonomy through congregational processes (Article VI); and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists have confessed local church autonomy is to be exercised with reference to other churches, stating in the same article, “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation”; and

WHEREAS, The historic doctrine of local church autonomy likewise places every church under the universal headship of Christ and refers the churches to one another, as expressed in the 1644 confession, “And although the particular Congregations be distinct and several Bodies, every one a compact and knit City in itself: yet are they all to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all means convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affairs of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head” (Article XLVII); and

WHEREAS, Recent news stories make it painfully clear that some Southern Baptist churches have failed either to choose fitting persons to be set apart for ministerial leadership, to discipline ministers and other church members properly, or to communicate from church to church the unfit condition of some ministers, and that some church leaders have failed voluntarily to submit themselves to others for spiritual accountability; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019, reaffirm our doctrine of local church autonomy under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, which must be exercised through congregational processes with the leadership of scriptural officers and with reference to other churches for the glory of God alone; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm the autonomy of the local church must never be understood apart from being a gift of God in Christ, who grants His church authority for His purposes alone and only according to His ways; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we reject the concept of local church autonomy as mere “self-rule,” for Christian authority may never be exercised apart from Christ’s Lordship and must be exercised only for God’s glory as revealed in the Word interpreted by the congregation led by the Holy Spirit; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we affirm that local church autonomy is compatible with the mutual accountability to the Lord of all the churches, especially those churches of like faith and practice that voluntarily cooperate through associations and conventions for the sake of better fulfilling the Great Commission (see The Baptist Faith and Message, Article XIV); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we warn those who would misuse local church autonomy as a license for sin that God will judge both shepherds and the wolves who abuse the vulnerable sheep in the flock (Ezekiel 34:1–24); and be it further

RESOLVED, That God explicitly instructed His churches to be careful when setting apart individuals for ministerial leadership, appointing ministers in their churches, and monitoring the continued integrity of these ministers (1 Timothy 3:1–7; 5:22; Titus 1:5–9); and be it further

RESOLVED, That every local church must carefully determine whether a professed minister or Christian transferring from another church is worthy of reception in their own congregation; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we as Southern Baptists hereby repudiate any who seek to use the cherished doctrine of local church autonomy as a means of hiding the sins of ministers and others in the church who abuse, sexually or otherwise, “the little ones” of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:6–10).

Adopted June 2019 by the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama.

June 14, 2019

Two Letters from Birmingham: Pursuing Biblical Justice

During the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, our churches' messengers did many good things. For instance, we finally began addressing the sexual abuse crisis. Much attention was also given to the indispensability of women in our churches. Again, our President, J.D. Greear, reminded us that our constant theme must be the "Gospel Above All," even as we address gospel issues created by errant anthropologies with us since our denomination's foundation.

However, one convention action that deserves more attention, but has not yet received it in the news and social commentary, concerned the struggle for biblical justice. The juxtaposition of two letters from Birmingham should help put more light on something that requires emphasis. These letters remind us of the need to take positive action in undoing the effects of evil anthropologies.

The First Letter from Birmingham

It should not be lost upon us that 56 years ago, in the hot summer of 1963, Birmingham was seized by non-violent demonstrations after the city fathers failed to stem the tide of unconscionable bombings of churches. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Atlanta to help put the spotlight on the horrific problems faced by a huge segment of the Christian population of this city. But rather than listening to King, Birmingham's authorities unwisely threw him into jail.

Adding salt to King's wounds, a group of white Christians who sought to support his goals asked him to be more patient in the pursuit of justice. The letter King wrote in response to the white moderate Christians has since become a classic text. Filled with biblical and theological reflections on the theme of pursuing justice in the midst of an unjust society, reading it again brought me to tears. King's rebuke to the white moderates, who were generally friendly to him, was necessary. That letter grips the soul of this privileged white man. For instance, he rebukes those Christians who blithely dismiss the suffering of others:
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.
Many white Christians have been complicit in keeping civil rights from their fellow human beings and, even more hypocritically, from their own Christs' blood-bought Brothers and Sisters. Today, it is clear that many of us who are Southern Baptist lament the evil of racism, but there remains much to do. The evils of racism and misogyny and sexual abuse, evils which have often been downplayed even denied, must become objects of identification, rebuke, and repentance whenever they arise among us. King's letter from the Birmingham jail rightly calls predominantly white Christians to embrace their responsibility.

The Second Letter from Birmingham

Another letter from Birmingham was written this summer. However, rather than coming from a single man in the unjustly imposed confines of a jail cell, this letter came from a group of men and women who worked diligently in the self-imposed confines of Birmingham's conference center. The Resolutions Committee of the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, chaired by the highly capable Curtis Woods of Kentucky, crafted a resolution that deserves more attention than it has yet been given.

Resolution 7, entitled "On Biblical Justice," offers a timely reminder that pursuing justice remains an integral aspect of Christian responsibility in this world. Drawing upon Scripture and the Baptist Faith and Message, the resolution was adopted overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly by the messengers in 2019. While there have been advances since 1963, this letter indicates how much more work we have to do in advancing human flourishing among the precious beings who bear the divine image and live in our cities, states, nations, and world. Among the many truths brought forward in this resolution, the final whereas reminds us that biblical evangelism and biblical justice are integrally intertwined:
WHEREAS, Our witness to the truth of the gospel includes obedience to Christ demonstrated in giving our lives to evangelize the lost around the world and in becoming involved with the struggles of our neighbors as well as our believing brothers and sisters (Genesis 18:19; 1 Peter 2:11-12);
Notice another wise balance among the resolves, this time showing that the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the true pursuit of justice must be held together among Christians. In one resolve, inappropriate ideas are rejected; while in the very next resolve, Christians are reminded of our responsibility to pursue justice:
RESOLVED, That we reject solutions for social brokenness that depend upon ideas that are antithetical to the Christian faith, for they ignore the lasting transformation only found in the gospel; and be it further
RESOLVED, That in light of the urgent needs in our world, we commit to address injustices through gospel proclamation, by advocating for people who are oppressed and face wrongs against them, acting justly in our own dealings, and by insisting that spheres of society should operate according to “principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love” (The Baptist Faith and Message, Article XV);
Even as we focus on preaching the gospel and advancing truth, let us not forget that advancing biblical justice is a necessary part of our remit in this fallen world. Kudos to the men and women of the Resolutions Committee of the SBC for the fine work they have done in reminding us of so many critical truths in their fine batch of resolutions, including the continuing pursuit of biblical justice.

Thank you, Southern Baptists, for the way you addressed so many important issues this year. Among them, thank you for adopting this second Letter from Birmingham. Perhaps the great civil rights leader, himself a Baptist minister and very capable theologian, might approve of the progress we have made, but doubtless he would rightly remind us we have further to go.