It has been said that New England town hall meetings are the world’s purest form of democracy. What about Baptist church business meetings? The floor is open, every baptized believer has voice and vote (well, there usually are certain age restrictions, but theoretically, you might maintain that if someone is old enough to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, they ought to be able to vote on a church budget!), and the majority carries the day.
Earlier this summer at the “Mission Summit” of American Baptist Churches, USA, in Overland Park, Kansas, Carol and I witnessed the 375th anniversary celebration of the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island, AKA the First Baptist Church of America. Their pastor, Rev. Dan Ivins, previously senior pastor of this congregation, is the successor to an unbroken line of pastoral leaders since Roger Williams in 1638! But of course Baptist pastors — and lay leaders — serve at the will of the congregation. Baptist churches practice a democratic, congregational form of government.
History teaches us that the first modern Baptist churches arose a generation before Roger Williams in England and The Netherlands, when believers came together in covenant with one another and the Lord to constitute local congregations. This was in intentional contrast to the common practice of both medieval Catholics and early modern Protestants, for whom those born into and resident within parishes (geographical units) were presumed to be part of the parish. Technically, these early Baptist congregations were functioning democracies: self-constituting, self-governing, one person-one vote. Or were they?
One can make a powerful argument that the Church of Jesus Christ is more properly understood as a monarchy. Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Philippians 2:9–11), he is the visible and tangible presence of the eternal Creator (Hebrews 1:1–3) and we owe him absolute, unquestioning allegiance (Luke 9:57–62). And the central theme of Jesus’ original preaching was the dawning of the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” (Mark 1:14, Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 6:33).
Many of us as modern Americans recoil from the idea of monarchy; it smacks of arbitrary tyranny and extreme class prejudice. But it is interesting for me to recall that many thinkers throughout history have felt the same revulsion for democracy. Aristotle, for example, felt that some men (yes, “men,” not “people”) were suited by nature to rule, others to follow, and still others were, by nature, slaves. Democracy, for Aristotle, was mob rule, the worst form of government.
In the pages of the New Testament, we see hints and fragments of many forms of church government, and — sometimes — the reflection of our own social location. Local congregations select and send out missionaries (but at the command of the Holy Spirit!) (Acts 13:1–3). Respected, Godly leaders seem to exercise authority over clusters of congregations and geographical territories (1 Peter 1:1ff). And leadership terms such as “elder,” “bishop,” “deacon” and “pastor” are used with a fluidity that defies our modern definitions and applications.
Still, we can know some things with certainty. Jesus Christ is the one Lord to whom we owe absolute loyalty, indeed, to whom we owe our very lives (Galatians 2:19–20). And in Christ, we enjoy a fundamental equality in our diversity (Galatians 3:28), and a supernatural unity through the Holy Spirit who brings us together and distributes gifts among us (1 Corinthians 12:4–13).
This spiritual truth has lots of practical implications in the life of the Church. Among them is our privilege and obligation, in the Baptist tradition, to be present and accountable when our congregation makes decisions about leadership, programming and the use of our resources, and carries out those decisions in mission and ministry. Soon the “dog days” of summer will be over and our congregational life will be regaining momentum. Can we count on you?
—Dr. David L. Wheeler