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Polishing the Baptist Family Name - "independent Baptist"
Dr. Craig A. Sherouse
Lakeside Baptist Church, Lakeland, FL
Editorial Introduction: Dr. Craig Sherouse, became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Griffin, GA, in August, 2003. Prior to that he was the pastor of the Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeland, FL, where he preached this series of sermons. Dr. Sherouse graduated with both the M.Div. and a Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Seminole, FL.
Baptist pastor and educator, Brad Creed, tells about a significant archeological find he made at one of the churches he served as pastor. Thumbing through the yellowed pages of a book of minutes from the turn of the twentieth century he read the following: 5:30 P.M. Thursday, May 16, 1901. Ladies Missionary Society met at the church. Member present: Ida L. Stephens. Sang -- "All the Way My Savior Leads Me" and "Come Unto Me and Rest." Read James second chapter. Meeting adjourned. Signed, Ida L. Stephens.
Donít you like Idaís spirit! She was a good Baptist -- committed to being a part of a community, but independent. Involved in a network of cooperation for the cause of world-wide evangelism, but willing to go it alone if need be. Ida was a little "I" independent Baptist. It was Thursday night, and she was there! She knew her place!
I found my sense of place in church, or I should say, churches. My life has been centered in, around and by the ten local congregations I have been a member of or regularly attended. All were Baptist churches. All had a place in their name, a road, a location or a town. Each congregation was independent, but each was a close knit community. From them I have found my place as an autonomous individual who desperately needs community.
I like to call our kind "independent Baptists" with a small "I." There are capital I Independent Baptists. They are islands unto themselves. They participate with no other congregations, associations or conventions. They certainly donít mingle with the Methodists and Presbyterians. They donít do Ministerial Associations, Billy Graham Crusades or even Mayorsí Prayer Breakfasts. They do not want to risk their autonomy nor doctrinal integrity by having community with anyone other than their own. They are capital "I" Independent Baptists.
We are little "I" independents. We have all the autonomy and independent rights as any capital "I" Independent, but we also believe that we desperately need community. So we choose out of our independence to cooperate with other congregations, associations, conventions, alliances, fellowships and organizations.
The ten churches that have given me my sense of place have all been little "I" independent Baptist congregations. From them I have learned that I am a free soul, competent to make eternally significant spiritual decisions. But I also learned that I am a vulnerable, needy, lonely believer who needs other believers to help me get it right. I need to be centered. I need a sense of my place in both the plan and the people of God! I need to be a small "I" "independent" kind of Baptist!
Some people think of the church as a group of self-righteous religious folk who try to put everyone else in their place. My experience is that all ten of my congregations were full of people who knew they were sinners, but who wanted to help me find my place in the plan and people of God. I have been universally loved and encouraged in all of these churches, from the nursery through middle age. I found out a lot about people there. My first social interaction outside of my immediate family came there. And there I found an extended family, full of married women I called "Miss" and men old enough to be my grandfather that I called "Brother." I remember being welcomed and loved as I came to the nursery. But the earliest pain I remember was being kicked in the eye by Linda Kaye Johnson after I hid in a closet in the church nursery and scared her. I havenít tried that since! And there have been other hard life lessons I have learned in church - lessons about how to get along with people, how to confront people, how to care for and grieve and celebrate with people. I found my place in church, my place in an extended family.
I found out about love in church. I came to Christ as a child sitting in my pastorís study. He led me to understand how much God loved me and how He had sent Christ to die and be raised for me. The next Sunday I went down front and professed my faith and asked to be baptized and join the church. I had my first date at a church Valentine Banquet. I had my first kiss in the choir room. I met Beverly at a prayer breakfast in the Fellowship Hall Tuesday morning before high school. We taught Vacation Bible School together and became friends. One of my best friends from church arranged our first date. We were married in her sanctuary by my pastor. We were showered with gifts before our wedding. Our children were showered with gifts before their births and showered with love from birth until now by good congregations. Our childrenís babysitters, friends, faith and values were all radically shaped by Lakeside and two other congregations. And last summer two good congregations gave Alan and Jenny an incredible beginning to the next cycle of Sherouse family love. I found my place in church, my place in love with Beverly, Alan, Susan and now Jenny.
I found my voice in church. Miss Rosemary, Brother Bill and Brother Cal taught me to sing. Brother John helped me hear a call to vocational ministry and asked me to preach my first sermon -- seven minutes long! Donít you long for the good old days! Three college churches where I worked let me try out my leadership skills. During seminary, Rock Haven Baptist endured three pretty mediocre sermons a week from me for 5 1/2 years as I learned how to preach. Yet they encouraged me. They listened to me. And some times, they said they even heard the very Word of God!
Yes, I found my sense of place in church. I found my voice. I found love. I found an extended family. I found a remarkable balance of autonomy and community. I found a lot of who I am and where I belong. So Iím pretty big on being a little "I" independent Baptist! Local congregations are the best places I know outside of your family to find your sense of place.
Ida L Stephens was an independent Baptist. I am one, and so are most of you. Idaís story, my story and your story really are stories of finding our sense of place through local congregations. The Baptist story is also a congregational story. The first Baptist church was formed by an uncommonly courageous pastor with the most common possible name, John Smyth. What a symbol for our sense of place: we have been a place for common people who exercise uncommon courage. Smyth and Thomas Helwys, a layman, led their congregation to migrate from England to Holland in 1607.
They were what we might call "second wave" English reformers. The first wave were Puritans who tried to purify the Church of England from within. When these efforts failed the second wave, called "Separatists," separated to form autonomous, free congregations. They wanted to be free from the prescribed order of worship in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. They wanted to be free from persecution, free from restrictions and regulations, free from governmental interference. They wanted to be free to order their lives and congregations around their own interpretation of the scriptures. Holland was a center of such freedom, so there Smyth and Helwys led around forty Separatists.
After two years in Holland, studying the scriptures brought Smyth to the dramatic conclusion that baptism should be administered to believers only. He then baptized himself, by pouring water over his head. Only later did Baptists recover the biblical practice of immersion. Smyth then baptized Helwys and all in his congregation who wanted believerís baptism. And thatís the beginning of our story. We found our sense of place through a congregation. Before there was believerís baptism, there was a free congregation. Before there was immersion there was a congregation. Congregationalism helped bring us into our place in the world.
Congregationalism says that every congregation is autonomous -- self-governing. The Episcopal form of church government vests authority in one person, a bishop. Congregations must conform to the teachings of the bishop. The Presbyterian form vests authority in a small group of elders who, along with a larger synod, composed of representatives from member congregations, rule the local congregation. The congregations are not self-governing, but have input. Congregationalism, in contrast, is not government by one or a handful, but by a church-full. Congregationalism says the local congregation has the power to choose and ordain pastors and deacons. The power to set membership requirements, to welcome and discipline its members. The power to chart its own mission, administer the ordinances, and select its own literature. The congregation has the power to designate its offerings, decide what other bodies it will cooperate with, what its doctrine will be, how it will worship and who its staff will be. It has the power to designate any of its members to carry out any of its functions. You donít have to be ordained or the pastor to baptize or preach or serve the Lordís Supper. You just have to be authorized by the congregation to do so.
Obviously, each of the three major forms of church government believes they are biblically based. We congregationally governed churches point to texts like Acts 15:22 that I just read. The early church had to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised and follow other Jewish regulations. A major meeting of the apostles and missionaries was held in Jerusalem. A recommendation was brought from this group to the Jerusalem congregation to send a letter to the Gentile churches asking four things of them: to abstain from eating meat offered to idols, blood and animals that have been strangled rather than slaughtered, and from sexual immorality. Otherwise, they could ignore the Jewish laws. But before the leaders sent the letter, the entire Jerusalem congregation approved it. The most critical decision early Christians made had to be congregationally approved! It wasnít enough for Paul, Peter, James and Barnabas to say so. The authority came from the Jerusalem congregation.
We congregationally governed churches point to other biblical texts. Matthew 18ís formula for handling church conflict authorizes the congregation to handle its own problems. Paul tells the Corinthians the same thing. In Acts 6 the congregation, not just the apostles, selected and laid hands on the seven deacons. In Acts 13 the church in Antioch called out and laid hands on Barnabas and Saul as missionaries. In I Corinthians 12-14 Paul talks about the church as a gifted body in the context of a local congregation. In I Timothy 3 the qualifications for overseer and deacons show the congregation is the body making those decisions.
We Baptists do believe in the Church universal, not just the church local. We do believe that we are a part of an eternal fellowship of all true believers that has no denominational nor geographical boundaries. We believe that heaven is the fulfillment of this universal church, and that there is a present ecumenical reality that we need to celebrate and participate in. But we very much put the emphasis on the local congregation rather than the universal, invisible Church. And we do this because we believe that is a biblical emphasis. Of the 110 times the word "church" is used in the New Testament, almost 95 of those times it refers to a local congregation. So we Baptists have tended to put at least 90% of our emphasis on the local congregation, rather than the church universal.
Because of these texts, we believe that congregations are both competent and responsible to make their own decisions! We do not believe that the majority is always right. Sometimes the minority discerns Godís will where the majority is culture-bound and fearful. But we do believe that the odds are greater at understanding Godís will through congregational polity. If all believers are priests with competent souls to make their own spiritual decisions, putting all of those decisions together should be a good way to hear what God is saying!
Thatís really where Smyth and Helwys came from in becoming Separatists and then Baptists. They simply wanted the freedom to be left alone to listen to God and do as a congregation what they heard Him saying. They wanted to be little "I" independent Baptists! They wanted their congregation to be made up of born again, alive in the Spirit believers, worshiping God as they felt led. They didnít want to be baptized as infants into a state church and assigned to a parish congregation based on where they lived. They didnít want to be governed by a bishop who told them how to worship from a prescribed prayer book! They wanted to be a "Believerís Church," a gathering of those who voluntarily receive Christ as Savior and covenant together to be a community, a family. They wanted people like Ida L. Stephens and me and you to be able to find our place within the plan and people of God Ė to become autonomous believers within community.
I want to close with what I think are the three biggest threats to a congregationally governed church. One threat is to become denominationally centralized. Congregational autonomy means that we must remain little "I" independent Baptists. We must not be isolated from other Baptists nor the wider Christian community, but we also must not surrender our autonomy and creativity to become a mere local denominational franchise. This is church, not McDonaldís!
You can go into a McDonaldís anywhere in the world and the Big Mac will taste almost exactly the same. But you ought to be able to go into a Baptist congregation and taste the unique flavor of that local congregation. We are not "McBaptists!" We are not even "McCooperative Fellowhsip Baptists" or "McSouthern Baptists" or "McNational Baptists" or "McAmerican Baptists!" There is such as thing as "the Roman Catholic Church," or "the Evangelical Lutheran Church," or "the United Methodist Church." However, there is no such animal as "The American Baptist Church" or "The National Baptist Church" or "The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Church" or "The Southern Baptist Church." The only "the" in Baptist church life is THE local Baptist church! The various associational and convention structures are subsidiaries of the local Baptist churches, not vice versa! And to maintain the strength of our system we must maintain the centrality of the local congregation, not the centrality of the conventions!
A second threat to a congregationally governed church is when the congregation allows an individual or a group to usurp the congregationís authority. Baptist deacons are not to function as a "board of directors," making all the decisions for the congregation. No single power group or family group controls the congregation. No pastor in Baptist life can become a dictator. taking over the decision making process of the congregation. Much of what I am reading these days suggests that this is the #1 problem in Southern Baptist congregations.
One of my favorite professors, Henlee Barnette, said it this way: "Have you noticed that when a minister begins to play God, he winds up acting like the devil?" A congregationally governed church can only be the church it is intended to be when the congregation governs Ė when the pastor, deacons and all others exert their influence and leadership, but submit their will to the will of the body.
The third and greatest threat is to become an "unbelieverís church." A parish of the state church in Scotland developed a serious problem. The noted poet Robert Burns was buried in their cemetery. Everybody in the community wanted to be buried in that cemetery with Burns. So the church posted a sign on the cemetery fence: "This cemetery is reserved for the dead now living in this parish." The greatest threat we face is to become a cemetery reserved for the dead now living in it Ė a church full of unbelievers.
That has been the greatest problem with the European state, parish church system. That is certainly one reason that the European church has declined so dramatically. But why do we Baptists claim twice the number of members as ever participate in our congregations? The church cannot survive if it is filled with unbelievers. Congregational government is no guarantee of life in the church. But a place in the church of the living Lord Jesus Christ must be reserved for only the eternally living Ė for those who have been born from on high by the grace of Christ.
The biggest threat to our church and any church is for us to quit telling the gospel, the old, old story of Jesus and his love. So, letís go back over the basics another time. God loves us and has a wonderful plan for each of our lives. But we have wrecked Godís intentions by sin. We have willingly chosen to put our will over the Fatherís. We are caught in a web of sin that stretches all the way back to Father Adam and Mother Eve. And we cannot get ourselves loose, we cannot save ourselves. So God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to live a sin-free life and die a death that pays the penalty for our sin. God raised Jesus from the dead to give us Christís victory over sin and death, and He offers us Christís very life. But we must respond. We must admit our sin and need. We must believe that Jesus is Godís Son and our Savior and that God raised him from the dead. And we must confess Him as Lord of our life.
Would you do that today? Thatís what the true church is made of, however it is governed. The true church is a Believerís Church. And part of what we believe is that it is critical for believers to connect publicly and locally to the church. Would you do that today? We need more little "I" independentt Baptists like Ida L. Stephens! Ida knew her place! It was Thursday, the Ladies Missionary Society meeting night, and she was at the church! We need more of us to simply know where we belong! We need more of us to find our sense of place through the church, like I have Ė our place in the plan and people of God. See, it is Sunday morning, decision-making morning, and you are at the church!