In continuing to write about our Baptist distinctives, I would like to address our belief in individual church autonomy and the separation of church and state. We know that the Baptist denomination was founded on the idea of individual freedom. We have fiercely held to the tenet that we have the right to freely choose to love and serve God and to gather with like-minded believers in living out our faith. That independent streak led to a practice of Baptist churches being autonomous. Early Baptists felt it necessary to exhibit their freedom by structuring their congregations as self-sustaining entities with their own practices and procedures. The persecution that they had experienced at the hands of other denominations ( those with a top-down structure ) was one of the motivations for this decision. Church autonomy assured those early Baptists that no one could tell them where, when, how, or with whom they might worship. The church’s rules and regulations would be of their own devising, under the leadership of God.
Historically as a result each Baptist church selects its own preachers, determines its own style of worship, creates its order of service, plans church events, etc. Along with the freedom to decide these issues comes the responsibility to maintain the life of our church, to prayerfully consider what God calls each congregation to do. Our church has followed that same process by periodically spending time in reflection and prayer, to determine our talents and ways we may best serve our calling as Christians.
Separation of Church and State
The other part of our church autonomy is our firm belief in the separation of church and state. This too was motivated by the persecution inflicted on our early believers by churches that aligned themselves with the state, to then become de facto extensions of the government. With a church-state, top-down system, the priests must institute creeds to tell members what they can believe. Standardized procedures must dictate how to conduct church affairs, and tithes become mandated taxes. Then, of course, punishments must be inflicted if strict adherence to the rules was not shown. A church-state alliance generally attempts to do the thing that Baptists resist: it coerces people into church and once there, tells them how to worship. Typically, this happens when the church, fearing that people aren’t believing or acting the way the leaders want, aligns itself with the government. Government then has the power to enforce those beliefs on the people. It usually becomes an unholy alliance, based on fear instead of love. We believe that our relationship with God is a personal one, but conformity to standardized norms can tend to minimize our dependence on Him and subtly shift our allegiance to the state. Instead of listening for God’s prompts to our hearts, we eventually abdicate that practice to waiting on some church representative to tell us what God “says.” A state-run church becomes soul-less and God-less.
How thankful I am every day that Second Baptist has always been and remains to be a truly Baptist church, with its respect for the individual believer and its belief that God loves and cares for each of us equally. As Baptists we are all capable of listening for and discerning God’s will in our lives and in our corporate lives together and that our only leader is the Lord, not his “representative” or the state.
In closing this series of blogs about Baptist distinctives, I would like to include a quote by Herschel Hobbs from his 1971 book, The Baptist Faith and Message. I think it sums up the nature of Baptists historically.
“ Because of their insistence upon the competency of the soul in religion, the charge of narrow-mindedness in religion is a strange sound to Baptist ears. It is true that they hold to certain specific beliefs. They insist upon the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the scriptures. But they also insist that every man shall be free to decide for himself in matters of religion. Baptists have ever been the champions of soul freedom, not for themselves alone but for all men. Thus it is that Baptists believe that a person has the right to be a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Jew, infidel, atheist or whatever he chooses to be. Baptists believe that they are under divine compulsion to preach to all men the gospel as they understand it. But they endeavor to win men by persuasion through the power of the Holy Spirit, not through coercion of any kind.”