When the Lord Jesus Christ announced, I will build my church (Matt. 16:18), it was established as an absolute monarchy with Himself as the sovereign Head. As long as this supreme Monarch was physically present with the disciples, their commission and instructions were held in abeyance, waiting for the enabling Power for operation. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, however, and the ascension of Christ to the heavenly throne, the church could begin operating by the Spirit-filled direction of its entire membership. Augustus Strong says of this change, “While Christ is sole king, therefore, the government of the church, so far as regards the interpretation and execution of his will by the body, is an absolute democracy, in which the whole body of members is entrusted with the duty and responsibility of carrying out the laws of Christ as expressed in his word.”1
The typical forms of church government
Almost all forms of church government could be placed under one of four categories. 1) Papal. This is the Roman form of the church which is ruled by the Pope who proposes to have apostolic authority successively passed to him from Christ. 2) Prelatical. This is a human monarchy run by the prelates or bishops and has been mostly known as Episcopal. 3) Presbyterian. This is the rule of the church by the presbyters or elders in a human oligarchy. 4) Congregational. This is the rule of the church by the church in a democratic fashion. Though there have been combinations, variations and abuses of each of these forms of church government, the congregational has been the form taken by the great majority of Baptist churches throughout their history.
Because Baptists have believed that each member has received the Holy Spirit through a personal salvation experience, and has voluntarily been baptized and placed himself under the care of the church, his actions are the actions of a free moral agent before God. He is a believer-priest who can offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God. Richard Clearwaters wrote, “The only Biblical System is the Local Church as a pure democracy; self-owned, sovereign, and autonomous. The local church owned itself and controlled itself and its affairs by the democracy of its regenerated members who would be received into membership, after regeneration, by baptism.”2
Baptist history and confessions of faith
Baptist confessions are records of what churches have believed, not what they have to believe. They do, however, give us a history of beliefs of brethren who are like-minded. From a cursory reading of a book on Baptist confessions such as William Lumpkin’s, one will see the congregational principle throughout. Ridemann’s Rechenschaft (1540): “In its nature the church is spiritual, but concretely it is known as the pure sacred community.”3 The London Confession (1644): “Every church has power given them from Christ for their better well-being to choose to themselves meet persons in the office ….”4 The Second London Confession (1677): “To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind, declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needful, for their carrying on that order in worship, and discipline which he hath instituted.”5 The New Hampshire Confession (1833): “We believe that a visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by his laws; and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by his word.”6
In summarizing this history, Edward Hiscox, whose work has become a standard of Baptist churches for over one hundred years, writes, “This statement is broad and comprehensive, and needs not defense, but explanation only. That Independency is the true form of Church government, as opposed to Prelacy and Presbyterianism, will not now be argued, but is assumed, as accepted by all Baptists, taught in the New Testament, verified by history, and justified by the genius of the gospel itself.”7
The doctrine of Baptist churches commends it
The form of church government must finally be settled by the New Testament. A common interpretive rule for establishing church doctrine and practice is whether the doctrine or practice in question is taught by Christ in the Gospels, then practiced by the church in the Acts, and finally reinforced by the writers of the Epistles. The congregational form of local church government passes this test on every account.
Baptism. Christ gave His commission to the church, Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matt. 28:19). Immediately on the Day of Pentecost we find the church receiving members and witnessing baptisms, Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41). Paul asked the Corinthian believers, Is Christ divided: was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:13). Baptism is by the authority of Christ’s command for the benefit of the whole church.
The Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted His supper with the whole band of disciples: For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins (Matt. 26:28). At Pentecost, They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42). Paul questioned the Corinthians about their motives in the supper, When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:20).
Church Officers. Though there were no pastors and deacons while Christ was still with the disciples, the Lord prepared the disciples to feed His sheep (John 21); to not be rulers over His flock (Mark 10:42-45); to not be above their Master (Matt. 10:24); to serve others with humility (John 13:3-10). In Acts we find Judas’ replacement being selected by the whole group (Acts 1) and the church being instructed to, Look ye out among you seven men of honest report …. whom we may appoint over this business …. and the saying pleased the whole multitude (Acts 6:3-5). Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus regarding the selection of pastors and deacons was given for the churches to fulfill (1 Tim. 3, Titus 1).
Prayer. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray He said, After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven (Matt. 6:9). Prayer is for any who know God as Father. In Acts, when Peter was miraculously released from prison, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying (Acts 12:12). Praying is the corporate business of the church. Paul wrote, I will therefore that men pray everywhere [or “in every place”] (1 Tim. 2:8). Baptists have never had priests who pray for them, but rather any member may lead them in prayer because prayer is a congregational activity.
Emery Bancroft concludes about the corporate nature of these activities, “The principle that definite observances are more properly performed by regularly organized and accredited bodies than by unorganized and unaccredited individuals.”8
The business of Baptist churches incorporates it
Paul R. Jackson writes concerning the business of the local churches,
Here the authority remains with the local church. Individuals or committees may be designated to perform certain responsibilities, but they are directly answerable to the church and to the Lord, Who is the Head of the church. No other center of power or authority is recognized. Baptists have always believed that this is the New Testament pattern of church government.9
Discipline. Perhaps no other business of the church displays the action of the whole church like church discipline. This was the first instruction Jesus gave to the church while He was still on this earth. Tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matt. 18:17). The Holy Spirit was the first to enact church discipline in Acts, which was incumbent upon the entire congregation (Acts 5). No clearer passage of congregational activity exists than when Paul instructed the Corinthians, …when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh …. do not ye judge them that are within? …. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person (1 Cor. 5:4-5, 12-13).
Missions and Evangelism. Like the subject of prayer, the evangelization of the world is the responsibility of every believer. Jesus commissioned the entire church to go into all the world and evangelize (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). When the missionaries were departing the church at Antioch, the whole church sent them away [lit. “released them”] being sent forth by the Holy Ghost (Acts 13:3-4). Paul told the Philippians that they were of one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27). It was the Thessalonian church that sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad (1 Thes. 1:8).
Instruction. Jesus commanded the believers to make disciples and then baptize and teach them (Matt. 28:19-20). After three thousand were converted at Pentecost, they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). It was by two laymen that the preacher Apollos was taught the way of God more perfectly (Acts 18:26). Paul instructed the Galatians that when one brother is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1), he (the one “being taught,” passive voice) should communicate unto him that teacheth (the one who “is teaching,” active voice) in all good things (vs 6). All believers are to be taught and to teach.
Business. We know that Jesus was pleased to have Judas act as the treasurer of the disciples, though He knew he was a thief (John 12:6). Jesus taught ethical principles for church business that would be acted upon when He was gone. In Acts the entire church was involved in selecting Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:21, 26); the whole church chose the first deacons (6:2-6); and the church bodies always heard the missionary reports (14:27, 18:22, 21:22). When Paul was preparing to take the offering to Jerusalem we find that helpers were chosen [keirotonew,, “to raise the hand”] of the churches to travel with us with this grace (2 Cor. 8:19). The erring brother at Corinth was held accountable by the many [pleionwn, the “majority”] (2 Cor. 2:6).
And so . . . . Before his retirement, theology professor Warren Vanhetloo wrote an article describing over twenty things churches do when they gather together. His concluding remarks are appropriate for our topic.
It seems encouragingly evident from this survey of congregational activities in the early New Testament churches (1) that there is nothing in Scripture which we do not customarily do today and (2) that there is nothing which we customarily do today which was not characteristic of the founding churches as God has given us record of them.10
Notes: 1. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1970) 903. 2. Richard Clearwaters, The Local church of the New Testament (Chicago: CBA, 1954) 38. 3. By William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1980) 40. 4. Lumpkin, 166. 5. Lumpkin, 287. 6. Lumpkin, 365. 7. Edward Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1946) 145. 8. Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968) 275. 9. Paul R. Jackson, The Doctrine and Administration of the Church (Schaumburg: RBP, 1997) 34-35. 10. Warren Vanhetloo, “Church Gatherings,” Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary Update (Spring, 1989).