The most significant all-together gathering each year for Baptist churches in New Zealand is our annual National Hui (aka Assembly), this year being held at Manukau City Baptist Church, 2-4 November. Each local Baptist church around the motu can send delegates as their representatives as we worship God, celebrate, and engage together on issues to do with the life and work of the Baptist ‘tribe’ of Christians in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This year the Hui theme is Baptists shaping our future | ngau nui, ngau roa, hei ngao matariki. Whether it's the next steps on our treaty journey, our young people, the constitution that shapes us, our posture in engaging with difficult conversations, stewarding our assets, ensuring our people and places are safe, or determining our hand-carved mission… it’s time to take some big bites to ensure gospel renewal of people and places in Aotearoa and beyond. The main sessions at Hui have pre-reading to help get Hui delegates up to speed, as well as to keep the ‘Team of 40,000’ Baptists informed on what is happening on their behalf at Hui. Below is a pre-Hui read that can feed into all four of the Big Bites that we’re taking together:

Big Bite 1: A posture of humility for difficult discussions

Big Bite 2: A new way of making decisions

Big Bite 3: A mechanism to ensure our people and places are safe

Big Bite 4: An alignment of our assets for gospel renewal

John Tucker is Principal of Carey Baptist College and member of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland.

A Baptist Way to Make Decisions

As Baptist churches, how do we make decisions? Or, more importantly, how should we make decisions? What does the Bible say? 

There is, it seems, a lot of confusion and misunderstanding within our churches around the Baptist vision of what it means to be the church and how we should make decisions. Three questions, in particular, stand out:

1.     Who should make the decisions in our local churches? (Does congregational discernment work in today’s complex world?)

2.     How can we support each other as local churches in our decision making? (Does Scripture really teach that local churches are “autonomous”?)

3.     What happens when we disagree with each other? (Does it mean we should leave our local church, or leave the Baptist Union?)

Let us address each question in turn.

1. Who should make the decisions in local churches? Does congregational discernment really work?

In many traditions, with hierarchical structures, the pastor or bishop is the supreme leader, and power flows down from them. This represents the secular model of authority, where, as Beasley-Murray puts it, “power is delegated from above, descending through a chain of command from the most powerful to the least.” For Baptists, however, the primary leader or CEO of any local church is not the pastor, or the elders, or a bishop, or a council, but the risen Christ in the midst of his gathered people.

This understanding of leadership is rooted in Jesus’ incredible promise in Matthew 18:20, where he says “[whenever] two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Note the context. Jesus is describing a church that is faced with a difficult decision. He does not command people to refer the matter to a bishop, or to a group of elders. Rather, he says, “Tell it to the church.” He promises to be present and make his will known as the members of his body physically meet together in his name to discuss the issue.

So, from the beginning, Baptists have believed that “authority finally lies with the rule of the risen Jesus Christ, who is present in the local congregation. This rule is not shared in the sense of being delegated to other individuals from above. There is no chain of command, no pyramid of power. Christ alone rules, and the task of the local church gathered in covenant community together is to find the mind of Christ. It must find his purpose for it as it comes together in church meeting.”[1] The primary locus of authority in a Baptist church is, therefore, the church meeting, when the members of the local church gather in Christ’s name to discern his will by prayerfully listening together to his Spirit’s voice through Scripture. In the early days of the Baptist movement: 

Church meetings were often part of what happened on Sunday. The church was gathered, offered worship, listened to scripture, heard sermons, offered prayer and shared communion at the Lord’s table. Together they would seek guidance for matters of faith and practice, discussing in this context what it was to worship, how their resources might be best used, who among the fellowship was in need of particular care and concern, who Christ had given them as ministers. This was the church seeking the mind of the Lord so that they might be his people. Such a vision has a high view of the people of God under the leading of the Lord, receiving together that Spirit-guided insight into the mind of Christ as he reveals it not only to the clever and powerful, but even to the simple and childlike (Mt. 11.25-30).”[2]

This practice of congregational discernment does not rest on just one verse.[3] It is the logical outworking of the Protestant Reformers’ belief in the priesthood of all believers. We affirm that the Old Testament distinction between priests and people has been superseded. Under the New Covenant every believer has the Spirit. We are all priests. Christ speaks directly to every believer, and so every believer in the local church can be the one through whom Christ speaks.[4] In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”[5] The reality is that no one person or leader in the church is competent on their own to discern accurately what Jesus is saying to the church. We need each other. Every voice is important. 

This vision of congregational discernment does not mean the absence of human leaders. The New Testament teaches that Christ gives leaders to the church.[6] As Baptists, we have always recognised this fact by appointing pastors, elders, and ministry leaders. And we expect them to lead. But one of the ways they lead is by helping the community to listen together to the word of Jesus in Scripture and through one another. Baptists, then, have “a dynamic view of authority in the community, in which oversight flows to and fro between the personal and the communal, since the responsibility of watching over the church belongs both to all the members gathered in church meeting and to the pastor.”[7]

If this practice of congregational discernment is so central to our understanding of the church, why has it fallen out of favour in so many of our churches? One of the main reasons is the mismatch between theological vision and lived experience. We have not practiced congregational discernment wisely. As a result, members’ meetings in local churches have often been ugly and painful experiences, causing many Baptist leaders to conclude that congregational discernment simply does not work. Here, briefly, are some of the things that we have done wrong:     

> We have confused congregational government with congregational management. As Steve Holmes says, “Part of the problem of our current practice of church meeting is that we routinely within the meeting second-guess matters that should properly be devolved to subgroups.”[8]

> We have turned what is meant to be a family meeting into a formal debate encrusted with complex rules around motions, amendments, resolutions, voting. This prevents many people who are not comfortable with such rules from speaking in church meetings.

> We have allowed the practice of voting to produce meetings marred by power blocs and bitter debates. This is tragic. Our Baptist forbears did not begin to use voting until the early nineteenth century. At that time the English parliament permitted only the wealthiest five percent of men to vote. Baptists, by contrast, when they adopted this practice of voting in church meetings, chose to open the ballot to all church members – male and female, rich and poor, old and young. Voting was our way of declaring that every voice matters when we gather together to seek Christ’s will. Over time, this practice has tended to produce bitter debates between different groups trying to win a vote. But the practice of congregational discernment does not have to mean bitter formal debates decided by a majority vote. The church is not a democracy. It is a Christocracy. The goal when we gather together is not to win a vote and impose our will, but to listen to the voice of Christ and submit to his will. 

> Since the 1970s and 1980s many New Zealand Baptist churches have modelled their leadership structures on the corporate world. According to this paradigm, the pastor is the CEO, the elders are the board, and the members of the church are effectively shareholders. As a result: “Most items on the agenda are reports of what has been done by those in leadership, or proposals sponsored by the church leaders. Thus, any intervention from the floor beyond expressions of support or appreciation, or requests for clarification, is already cast in an adversarial light, as a challenge to the leadership.”[9] No wonder modern church meetings have often generated ugly and painful debates in which we do not seem to hear clearly the voice of Jesus in our midst.

If we were to facilitate church meetings in which Christ speaks through the members of his body, what would it involve? Here are four suggestions:

1.     Make a distinction between the routine management of the life of the church and the task of discerning the mind of Christ. Technical and administrative issues (such as the colour of the carpet in the foyer) can be left to appropriate sub-groups within the church to make the necessary decisions. Focus church meetings instead on the task of discussing and discerning Christ’s will on issues that require prayerful and biblical reflection.

2.     Frame meetings with worship, the word, and prayer. As Holmes says, the mind of Christ can only be discerned through the hearing and application of scripture. Consequently, “the reading of scripture, and indeed its exposition (what is the role of the preacher if it is not to help the church to discern the mind of Christ?), should be central parts of our practice of church meeting. … Worship and the word must be so located as to shape modes of discussion and decisions made.”[10]

3.     Look for ways to promote unheard or marginalised voices. Who are the people who never take the microphone at your church meetings? According to Steve Holmes, “If we have not heard prophecy from our daughters as well as our sons, if the visions of the young and the dreams of the old have not both been shared, if those who are most like the slaves amongst us, female and male, have not proclaimed the word of God, then we have not received the promised gifts of the Spirit to the church. If the proud are not scattered, and if the powerful remain on their thrones, then Christ has not come amongst us.”[11]

4.     Experiment with creative ways to facilitate discussion. “We are so shaped by our culture, however, that it will require patience, and sensitivity, and imagination, to let the silenced voices be heard and to quiet the cacophony of those (like me) who occupy positions of social advantage. Almost inevitably there will be a need for small groups, so that every voice may speak; even then the reporting process needs to be handled well, or the culturally dominant voices will unconsciously be returned to their positions of power.”[12] Make space for open-ended discussion. The church’s leaders should bring to church meetings questions for discussion and exploration, and not just motions demanding a vote and a decision.

2. How can we support each other as local churches in our decision making? Does Scripture really teach that local churches are “autonomous”?

On the basis of Matthew 18, Baptists believe that final authority over any local church rests not with a bishop, national council, senior pastor or a group of elders. Rather, it rests with the risen Christ who promises to be present and make his will known whenever that church gathers together to seek his will. The members of every local church are, therefore, accountable ultimately to Christ and to what they discern he is saying to them when they gather in his name. In that sense they are free – free from external coercion. This is reflected in clause 3 of the Constitution of the Baptist Union: “The Union fully recognizes that every separate Church has liberty to interpret and administer the laws of Christ, and that the immersion of believers is the only Christian baptism.”

The freedom of the local church to discern Christ’s will is not, however, an unbridled autonomy. From our beginnings, we have recognised that every local congregation needs to draw on the wisdom and insights of other congregations. Consequently, Baptist churches have gathered together in regional or national hui to listen together to the risen Christ in their midst. In 1644, for example, representatives of several Particular Baptist churches met together in London to produce a Confession of Faith. They declared (cl. 47):

although the particular Congregations be distinct and several Bodies, every one a compact and knit City in itself: yet are they all to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all means convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affairs of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head.

By the 1650s this cooperation or association became more formal. In 1652, for example, a number of Baptist churches around Abingdon formed the Abingdon Association of Baptist churches. They gave three reasons for associating together: first, to provide advice on controversial matters which could not be resolved by one church on its own; secondly, to give financial support to any congregation in need; and thirdly, to plan together, for the greater glory of God, anything which required “the joint carrying on of the work of the Lord that is common to the churches.” Theologically, they justified this associating together in these terms: 

There is the same relation between the particular churches with each other, as there is between particular members of one church. For the churches of Christ do make up but one body or church in general under Christ their head.... We conclude that every church ought to manifest its care over other churches as fellow members of the same body of Christ in general.

In other words, they were reasoning that 1 Cor. 12 has an application beyond the local church. Just as individuals in a church are members of one body and need the other members, so too local congregations are members of one body and need other congregations to help them discern the mind of Christ. Associating with other churches is not optional; it is part of being the church. Like the different parts of a body, we need each other. This was the conclusion of Baptists in America. When forming regional associations, they pointed to the practice of the New Testament church. In Acts 2, 6, 13, and 15, representatives of the churches gathered together in Jerusalem or Antioch to discuss issues, discern Christ’s leading, and fund common work.

For strong biblical or theological reasons, then, Baptists have always been committed to interdependency. Baptists do not believe in the “autonomy of the local church.” In recent times, many of our church constitutions have begun to use the language of autonomy. This is unfortunate, because such language does not accurately capture our theology of the church. It is not used in any Baptist confessional statement before 1908. And it is found nowhere in Scripture. While it reflects cultural and philosophical currents in the southern states of the USA, where it first emerged, it does not reflect the Bible’s teaching about the church. To be autonomous literally means to be “self-ruled,” which absolutely denies both the lordship of Christ over every local church and our mutual interdependence as members of his body. 

Therefore, as Baptists, we believe that while the members of a local church might well have the responsibility under Christ to determine what he is saying to them on a particular issue, they will seek the fellowship and guidance of others. They will ask if their decisions, yet to be enacted, also seem good to the Holy Spirit at work in their sister congregations. This is rooted in the humble recognition that they need the wisdom and insights of others in the one body. “Interdependence of congregations, not independence, is more faithful to the Baptist vision of church.”[13]

Sometimes, however, local churches can become so sick that they no longer have the capacity to seek the guidance or support of other churches. What steps could we take as a union of churches to ensure that these faith communities receive the help they need? Here are two simple suggestions. First, we could agree to insert in our church constitutions a clause to the effect that when matters of serious division arise, the church’s leadership may – and will, when required by say 25% of the membership – seek mediating help from regional or national Baptist leadership. Secondly, we might also agree to include a further clause along these lines: “The National Leader of the Baptist Union of New Zealand may call a special church members’ meeting by making announcements, or arranging announcements to be made, on at least two Sundays prior to the meeting. The National Leader or nominee will chair such a meeting.” 

At first glance, such a clause might seem to subvert or deny the freedom of the local church. But it need not. Any church would be perfectly free, once the meeting was convened, to close the meeting without further action if that seems best to them and the Spirit. In many instances, however, such a clause would be a helpful mechanism for the wider body to assist a struggling local church. We might also envisage similar provisions to make our churches more safe for those who are vulnerable. We could, for example, agree to include in our church constitutions a provision guiding the selection of new sole or senior pastors. Such a provision could (a) require the selection committee to first consult with a Baptist leader operating at regional or national level before making any recommendation to the church members, and (b) commit the church to only appointing a pastor who is registered by the Baptist Union and therefore more likely to be a safe and effective pastoral leader. 

3. What happens when we disagree with each other? Does it mean we should leave our local church, or leave the Baptist Union?

This might all sound very good. But what happens when we cannot make a decision? What happens when the members of a local church gather together to seek Christ’s leading and they cannot agree as to what he is saying? What happens when churches within the Baptist Union cannot agree with each other on a particular issue? Maybe they disagree over how to interpret certain Scriptures, or how to understand the place of te Tiriti o Waitangi, or how to manage and deploy the resources held by our regional associations? What then?

This takes us right to the heart of what it means to be Baptist. As Baptists, our one great taonga, our one great distinctive, our one great contribution to the wider body of Christ, is our radical vision of what it means to be church. When the Baptist movement began in the early seventeenth century, the Protestant churches of Europe were all state churches. Everyone born in England, for example, had to belong to the Church of England, whether or not they were a Christian. (If people refused to participate, they could be imprisoned, tortured and burned at the stake.) The early Baptists looked at these churches – full of sheep and goats, mostly goats – and decided that this is not the kind of church that Christ envisioned. A true church, they said, is a community of radical disciples who are committed to God and to one another, whatever it costs them. 

Notice the double commitment: both to God, and to one another. The Protestant Reformers, reading their Bibles, had realised that in Jesus Christ God had reached down and made a new covenant with his new people. Alongside this vertical conception of covenant, a number of separatist groups in early seventeenth-century England were beginning to use the word “covenant” in a horizontal sense to denote the agreement that members of a congregation sometimes made between themselves to “walk together in the ways of the Lord and watch over one another in love.” It was Baptists who brought these two dimensions of covenant more closely together than any other Reformation group. They fused together the vertical and horizontal, because they recognised that to be in a covenant relationship with God in Christ necessarily means being in a covenant relationship with his covenant people. 

Consequently, Baptists say that if you want to experience the liberating grace of Christ, you need to give yourself to the other members of his body in a local committed community. You need to walk with them and hold on to them – not just with those you like, but with those you do not like; not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. That is why throughout history, whenever Baptists formed churches or joined churches, they drew up and signed written covenants in which they solemnly promised to “give [themselves] to the Lord and to one another.” It is why Baptists, in local churches and regional associations, entered into solemn covenants with one another to “walk together” come what may. Here is an example of one such covenant, from Cambridge Baptist Church in the Waikato:

We the undersigned having mutual confidence in each other as believers in the Lord Jesus, agree to unite together to form a Baptist Church ... We promise by the help of the Lord to watch, in love, over one another, seeking each other’s good, bearing with each other’s weaknesses, and by every means in our power endeavouring to promote the glory of our common Saviour, and the salvation of precious souls.

It is this practice of covenanting together that underlies our modern practice of church membership. Unfortunately, membership in most Baptist churches today has become a pathetic parody of what our forebears practised. Becoming a church member today can feel more like getting your name on the electoral roll (with a right to vote at church meetings) than giving yourself to walk with a particular group of believers in a costly, counter-cultural commitment. This is a concern.

Reflecting on the remarkable rise of Christianity in the first three centuries, Rodney Stark writes that “Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community.”[14] A community that was too attractive for people to ignore. He is right. Jesus said: “It is by your love for one another that the world will know you are my disciples.” One of the best missional strategies we can adopt is to recover the Baptist vision of walking together as a costly, counter-cultural commitment to a particular body of believers.

So, what happens when, as local church or union of churches, we are not able to reach a decision? What happens when we disagree with each other? Does it mean we should leave our local church? Is it a sign that our church should withdraw from the Baptist Union? No! Only a very clear denial of Christ’s gospel would justify the abandonment of our covenant commitments to one another. As members of Christ’s body, we are bound to each other by a covenant of love and faithfulness. We need each other – and each other’s insights. Abandoning Christian brothers and sisters with whom we disagree would be a denial of our understanding of the church and the gospel. In the midst of disagreement, we must keep walking together, and keep listening to one another:

We are a people who gather together to seek Christ’s will for our life and mission, and we do this by prayerfully listening to Scripture in the context of community. These twin poles of Scripture and community are both crucial. To either discard Scripture while embracing community, or to embrace Scripture while discarding community, is to betray the covenant bonds which Christ has established. 

Being Baptist means both submitting to Scripture in the midst of community, and listening for the voice of the living Word in both. This can be difficult. It is tempting to marginalise or abandon those who understand or apply the Scriptures in ways that we do not. But it is often through sustained and patient conversation, listening respectfully to the voice of counter-testimony, that we come to fresh insights about the gospel and its claim on our lives. At their best, such intensified conversations are not a source of warfare, but gospel growth.… We are called to be “on the way and in the fray” with God and one another, whether comfortable or not.[15]

Conclusion

As Baptist churches, how then do we make decisions?

1.     In our local churches, we gather together in Christ’s name to discern his Spirit’s voice as we listen together to Scripture and one another. Congregational discernment is biblical, and it works. If the way we have practised it has not worked, it would be better to change the way we practice it than throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

2.     As local churches we gather together in regional associations and as a national union to seek Christ’s leading and to support each other in our decision-making. Scripture does not teach that local churches are “autonomous.” We are members of one body, the body of Christ, and we need each other. 

3.     When we disagree with each other, that is not a signal or an excuse to leave our church or abandon our Union of churches. It is a call, instead, to persevere with one another, to honour our covenant commitments to Christ and to each other. As we walk together, and listen together, the Lord will guide us.

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Hui Programme

The Hui programme is online here.

Other Pre-Hui Reads

A posture of humility for difficult conversations (pre-Hui read: Big Bite 1) by Christa McKirland

A new way of making decisions together (pre-Hui read: Big Bite 2) by Peter Crow and Wayne Schache

A mechanism to ensure our people and places are safe (pre-Hui read: Big Bite 3) by Geraldine Crudge

An alignment of our assets for gospel renewal (pre-Hui read: Big Bite 4) by Charles Hewlett and Wayne Schache

He Koronga Maatou – We have a dream (pre-Hui read: Baptist Māori) by Luke Kaa-Morgan

He Rito: The future of the church (pre-Hui read: Our young people) by Ethan Miller

The morning after (pre-Hui read – Arotahi) by Kelly Enright


Photo: Hui 2023 artwork

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Footnotes:

[1] Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003), 85-86. 

[2] Brian Haymes, Ruth Gouldbourne, and Anthony R. Cross, On Being the Church: Revisioning Baptist Identity (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 51.

[3] In the book of Acts, for example, the church is often seen to act collectively after meeting together for discussion. In Acts it is as a community that they appoint officers (6:1-7), administer finances (11:29-30), admit members (15:1-35), and commission missionaries (13:1-3). See also 1 Corinthians 5:4-5.

[4] See John 14:26 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

[5] Matthew 11:27.

[6] Hebrews 13:1.

[7] Fiddes, Tracks and Traces, 87.

[8] Stephen R. Holmes, “Knowing Together the Mind of Christ: Congregational Government and the Church Meeting,” in Questions of Identity, ed. Anthony R. Cross and Ruth Gouldbourne (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2011), 173. 

[9] Holmes, “Knowing Together,” 182.

[10] Holmes, “Knowing Together,” 186-7.

[11] Holmes, “Knowing Together,” 187.

[12] Holmes, “Knowing Together,” 187.

[13] Haymes, Gouldbourne and Cross, On Being the Church, 53.

[14] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 208.

[15] Andrew Picard and John Tucker, “Together on the Way and in the Fray: Does Being Baptist Have Any Relevance Today?” New Zealand Baptist132.1 (2016): 22-24.

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