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.

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