What We Believe- Article VI, The Church (part 1)

After a weeks hiatus we are returning to our look at the Baptist Faith & Message and what it says (or doesn’t say) as our standard doctrinal confession in the Southern Baptist Convention. This week we will be analyzing the sixth article of this document dealing with the church, both local and universal. In the first part we will observe the church local:

VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

One should probably start in their analysis of this passage by taking it to be the minimum definition which the SBC believes is required for a body of believers to be considered the church. If this is the case, we must look at each portion of the article and ask if that indeed is part of the minimum criteria for a church as displayed in the New Testament, and then in the end if there is still more that needs to be said.

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation . . . ” This we believe to be true, in light of the fact that people in the NT, though given instruction at times by the Apostles, were free to practice the actions of being a church through the observance of the elders which had been appointed to them. They are clearly local as the fact that there are letters addressed to local churches by both Paul and by Jesus attests.

” . . . of baptized believers . . . ” A place I would turn to justify the idea that the members of a local congregations must be baptized believers is in Acts 2. Verse 41 says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Clearly by the context this here means “there were added to the church . . . ” and so here we see the practiced (and thus prescribed?) order: belief, baptism, membership in the church.

” . . . associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel.” It is important that the church be alike in beliefs. I am first among those who dislike denominationalism and think that churches today are too at ease breaking away from a denomination than standing and fighting for orthodoxy, but at the same time, the denominations exist to help us align more closely with a specific set of doctrinal beliefs. This is also the point of confessions which people ascribe to, such as the BF&M. If the church is to be unified, then it must be in accord on its doctrine, and this means obeying the words of Paul when he says, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

observing the two ordinances of Christ.” By the language of Acts where we see the churches baptizing new converts who then become members, and by that in 1 Corinthians 11 where it talks about the Corinthians “com[ing] together as a church” (v.18) and partaking in the Lord’s Supper, we would agree that the church is called to observe both of the ordinances established by Christ and the Apostles in the NT.

governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word.” All of this I would classify under having a high view of Scripture, a trait promoted by 2 Timothy 3.16-17 when it says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.” This is the Great Commission/Acts 1.8, a command which was given to the disciples and early followers and was carried out by the gathering of people at different times and places. Christ gave this in a unified context (the church), and hopefully every effort will be made to maintain this unity in its fulfillment.  Working to fulfill the Great Commission is a must for any NT church.

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processesIn such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.”  I believe the call for the church to fall under “the Lordship of Christ” is clear by the teachings about Christ being given as “as head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1.22; which is addressed later as well in Article VI).  However, I am unsure of any clear verse teaching democratic decision making in the church, though would be glad to be corrected if one exists.  This does not mean that I do not feel it is the best form of rule, but I simply am unable to justify that as a hard and fast requirement of the church for myself.  Thus, moving on to the idea of “each member [being] responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord,” I do not think this applies in any more specific sense in the church than it does in general in the life of a Christian, which is supposed to be lived under the declaration that “Christ is Lord” (Romans 10.9).

Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”  I agree with this wholly.  It is a shame that we must make a declaration about the exclusion of women from the pastorate, particularly since this means we are singling out one among many qualifications for an elder in the church, but at the end of the day I am glad that the SBC is not leaving that one up for interpretation, since many interesting interpretations abound.  Still, there needs to be sufficient emphasis on the qualifications for elders, and the fact that the BF&M does not include Titus 1.5-9 among the supporting Scripture for this article is frustrating.  We must not skip on the required criterion for our leadership, as their qualification and purity are of utmost importance both for our local congregations and for the cause of Christ in the world.

Concluding this all, I can not think of anything right off which I feel is missing from the minimum definition leveled here, though I did point out one or two places where I felt they went too far.

Defining the church is of greatest importance for Christianity.  Many today are wont to recreate “church” in a fashion and practice which is in no way biblical or beneficial for the Christian believer, and without a firm idea of what we are to be looking for, we have no standing for declaring that body to be illegitimate.  This is a rampant problem and one that needs to be addressed more fully as time goes on.

2 Responses to “What We Believe- Article VI, The Church (part 1)”

  1. Keith Walters Says:

    I too think it is interesting that “democratic process” is specifically mentioned but is unspecified in Scripture. I also appreciate that concerning officers they forbid women from entering the pastorate but not the diaconate. However, as deacons in most SBC churches actually function as elders I think they would do well to define the offices of pastor and deacon in their next revision. Furthermore, I find it unusual that they chose the term pastor. While it is the most prevalent term for this office in modernity it is the least frequent in Scripture; overseer or elder would be a better choice. I am also unsatisfied in the failure to mention the plurality of pastors/elders, which is also clear from the vocabulary of Scripture.

    My question for you would be how, with such a definition of the local church as autonomous, did the concept of mission church or missionary church, where a non-autonomous church plant functions under the leadership of an established church begin? Furthermore, should such non-autonomous churches be recognized as churches by the SBC and what moves should be taken to see church churches move towards autonomy?

  2. Todd Burus Says:

    Keith,
    If you didn’t know already, I would like to note that the 1925 version contained the titles “bishops, or elders,” the NH Confession says “Bishops, or Pastors,” and the AoP say “Bishops or Elders.” Then, for some reason, in 1963 we decided to adopt simply “pastors,” which is where we are today. I do not know why this was historically, though I’m sure the distancing from bishops, which oddly was in all three, had to have something to do with the Catholic and/or Episcopal churches.

    As for non-autonomous missionary churches, I do not know where this concept began. I do know that according to some I’ve spoken with, once a church is operating and performing the ordinances then it should be given autonomy, and thus the idea of a functioning missionary church plant should be short lived. This might have ramifications for multi-site churches like Mars Hill or The Village, churches I would argue have a biblical basis, but I believe there are probably some lines that can drawn in regards to primary teachers and the practice of the ordinances which would distinguish between the two.

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