Many people believe Baptists are a fiercely independent people – not only as individuals, but also as congregations.
One reason for this opinion is the impact of American Baptist theologian and former BWA President E.Y. Mullins who, in his 1908 “Axioms of Religion: A New Interpretation of the Baptist Faith,” controversially identified “soul competency” as “a distinctive contribution [by Baptists] to the world’s [religious] thought.”
Another is the vaunted claim, signaled clearly in 1611, when the congregation led by Thomas Helwys issued “A Declaration of Faith of the English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland.”
The declaration asserted that Baptist congregations are autonomous entities. As article 12 of the declaration puts it, “no church ought to challeng anie prerogative over anie other.”
From the beginning, Baptists have claimed that each individual needs to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the process of conversion.
Baptists have also believed that each local church – that is, each gathered group of believers covenanted together with God and with each other as a community of faith – is competent, under the lordship of Christ and in dependence on the Holy Spirit, to discern the will of God for its ministry as a local church.
It is also empowered to invite into its ministerial leadership those whom the Lord chooses for this purpose.
Each local church fellowship is an expression of the body of Christ and, as Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 1:13, the body of Christ cannot be divided. For this reason, each local church shares an integral bond with other local churches and together they are the body of Christ.
In other words, there is a sense in which, by participating in the one reality – they enjoy an existence in Christ – each local church bears witness to the one body of Christ, which is the church.
As the Bible makes clear, “We were baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And it is this one body that is called “the church of God” (Galatians 1:13).
In order to give expression to the one church of Jesus Christ, each church needs other churches.
Baptists are indebted to the American theologian Dale Moody for helping us understand that to claim that the local church is completely autonomous is to fail to do justice to the full New Testament teaching concerning the church.
Baptists have long emphasized their mutual relationships and interdependence.
As the British historian W. T. Whitley said in 1932, “From the beginning Baptists were not ‘Independent’; they always sought for fellowship between the different churches, and they were very successful in arranging for permanent organization.”
Moody continued, “[A]s soon as the slackening of persecution permitted not only freedom of action but also the keeping of records, the churches grouped themselves and arranged for regular meetings. This has always been a Baptist characteristic.”
Long before Jean Jacques von Almen said in 1970 that “the local church is wholly church, but it is not the whole church,” Baptists were applying the logic of this claim to individual congregations.
From as early as 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in England stated in the celebrated Article 47 of what has come to be called the “First London Confession of Faith” that “Although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, everyone as a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsell and help one of another in all needful affaires; of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head.”
Eight years later, the Abingdon Association in England affirmed the urgent need of Baptist churches “to hold firm communion with each other.”
Over the years, churches existing in close geographical proximity have affirmed their inter-relationship and have developed patterns of cooperation deriving from their fellowship.
This has happened trans-locally in regions and nations and, with the passage of time, internationally, both at the continental and the worldwide levels.
More reflection needs to be given to the precise nature and meaning, not simply the purpose, of Baptists associating at the global level.
Baptist interdependency is capable of bearing the burden of the associational obligation that celebrated Baptist historian William Brackney had in mind when, writing about associations, he emphasized the need for Baptists “to learn again how to wrestle in love with difficult issues and to celebrate one another’s successes and bear one another’s burdens.”
It is unclear whether the Baptist World Alliance mission statement balances the obligation of life together with common service to the world to the glory of God.
“Networking the Baptist family to impact the world for Christ” is how the BWA mission statement reads. I am not convinced that the verb “networking” captures and conveys the breadth and depth of interdependency that is one critically important dimension of Baptist life.
The verb focuses on a functional objective, which can easily be reduced to collaboration born out of self-interest or the awareness of the resources that are accessible through contact with others.
Any group of people can network with each other. The word “networking” does not seem to be capable of bearing the theological weight of Baptists’ existence in Christ and the obligations, not simply the voluntary actions, which flow from this.
If only texts such as Romans 15:26-27 and Galatians 6:2 would feature more prominently when Baptists discuss the relationship that exists among their churches.
Hardly can one identify a greater need of Baptists today than to rediscover Baptist interdependency – an interdependency that rejects cultural imperialism, paternalism and neo-colonialism, a true interdependency that is untainted by notions of empire.
Neville George Callam, a Jamaican, has been serving as general secretary and chief executive officer of the Baptist World Alliance since his election in Accra, Ghana, in 2007. A version of this article first appeared in the January-March 2017 edition of Baptist World magazine – a publication of the BWA. His writings can also be found on his blog. You can follow BWA on Twitter @TheBWA.
Editor’s note: A series of articles informing churches about the BWA and encouraging participation in the annual BWA Day observance to be held on Feb. 4-5 in 2017, has been published in the past week.
The articles in this series are: