Pastor’s Friday Comments (03.15.19)

 

 

 

 

In a recent conversation with a young minister, I heard him say, “I have never been more grateful for the autonomy of the local church.” The context was a discussion of a denomination with a more hierarchical structure making a decision with which neither of us agreed, but to which, had we been pastors in that group, we would have been compelled to adhere.

That’s not the way it is for us Baptists, at least not for historical Baptists. (Southern Baptists seem to think differently these days.) We have no bishops, denominational structure, conference, or other institution to which we must conform. Under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, congregations make their own decisions related to everything from who belongs to who serves on staff to how the money is spent to what colors we paint the walls.

I’ve always felt that I benefit personally from this structure. Knowing my personality, in a more top-down environment I would always be on the outs with the bishop and I would never get to serve a great church like Parkway.

One of the clear advantages of local church autonomy is that we are able to respond to what is happening in our own community and within our local culture. We don’t have to find ways to conform to a one-size-fits-all way of doing anything.

But local autonomy cuts both ways. With freedom comes responsibility. We can’t look to anyone else to tell us what to do. Whether determining what ministry partners we will support or responding to social issues or creating a worship style, it’s all up to us — again, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. So it requires an intentional, prayerful consideration of how God is leading us, not mediated through any other authority.

A complication to this approach is that, as historical Baptists, we also subscribe to the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Each of us is responsible both for our own relationship with God and our own response to God’s leading. Not even the local church can tell us what to believe or how to act. That puts the onus on you and me to pray earnestly for God’s leading in our own lives and to determine the congregation with which we will commit to serve.

Quite often someone who doesn’t understand Baptists will ask me, what is your church’s stand on so-and-so? And unless we have taken some specific action or developed a stated policy on that particular issue, I have to say, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them — each and every one of them.”

I can usually tell you (especially after over fifteen years as pastor here) what the general consensus of the congregation is. I can tell you how many individual members feel about an issue, but I can’t give you the church’s stance because, in many cases, there isn’t one. Each of us — under the leadership of the Holy Spirit — makes up her or his mind (or they don’t) and we have the freedom to associate with one another without insisting on agreement on every issue.

A phrase attributed to Augustine, among others. is, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” It’s a great way of being church, so long as we can agree on what is essential and what isn’t. I’ll stick to this: “Jesus is Lord.” For the Christian, anything beyond that is simply commentary springing from that fundamental statement.

If Jesus is Lord of your life and you come to a different conclusion on some issue than the one to which I have come, I’ll have to live with that. I’m content that the Holy Spirit of Christ has led you to believe as you do. I’m not saying that you’re right and I’m wrong or vice versa. I’m only saying that we are both sincere in seeking the Lord’s leading. If that’s true, you’ve got to let any discrepancy go.

There’s a lot more work to the congregational approach, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t always get it right. It is also really hard keeping independent-thinking people who often disagree on the non-essentials inside the same tent. However, if we can keep in mind the final part of the maxim I quoted above, “in all things charity,” I believe we’ll stay together and thrive. Whether or not that happens is up to each of us. That’s part of what being both Christian and Baptist is about.