Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #6:
Congregational Church Polity (not Presbyterian Elder Rule)
By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common (orthodox Nicean Christianity plus key Reformation beliefs) than beliefs on which we differ. Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians and Calvinists/Presbyterians. As evidence for this claim, I listed twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. Now, in this series, I am pointing out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/ Reformed tradition. These nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five point summary of Reformed soteriology (best known in the TULIP acronym–for a critique of five-point Calvinism from a centrist Baptist perspective see our book Whosoever Will). In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. The second Baptist distinctive addressed was the age (or state) of accountability; the third Baptist distinctive I addressed was believer’s baptism (or “the gathered church;” and the fourth Baptist distinctive was baptism by mode of immersion, and the fifth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterian Calvinism) was baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbolic ordinances, not sacraments. The sixth distinctive that I now address is congregational church polity.
Distinctive Baptist Belief #6:
Congregational Church Polity, Not Presbyterian Elder Rule
The early Baptist confessions consistently describe church governance as congregational. It is to local churches that Jesus has given “all power and authority” (Luke 9:1, cf. Matt. 18:18, 28:18), “which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline.” Bishops/elders should be chosen by “the church itself.” All church members are subject to “the censures and government” of the church “according to the rule of Christ.” Church members taking offense at the actions of other members should not act on their own, but should “wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.” At every point of authority, then, whether in choosing congregational leaders, practicing church discipline, or resolving problems, it was the church as a whole (not some smaller appointed group) which was authorized to decide the issue according to the mind of Christ. Likewise, the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statements refer to the local church as “autonomous” but operating “under the Lordship of Jesus Christ” through “democratic processes.”
The Baptist belief in congregational church governance has biblical grounding in decisions of local churches such as the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch appointing and commissioning their leaders (Acts 6:3-6, 13:1-3), the responsibility of performing church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 2 Cor. 2:4-9), and adjudicating doctrinal issues (Acts 15:1-29). Congregational governance is also the only viable church polity consistent and coherent with an interlocking nexus of other key biblically based Baptist beliefs: (a) local church autonomy, (b) soul competency, (c) the priesthood of all believers, and (d) the age of accountability.
Some (even some Baptists) mistake the democratic processes of congregational governance to indicate that just the church dictates what should be done, but this would be a misunderstanding of the doctrine. Each member is called upon not to vote his or her own opinion, but to seek the mind of Christ who is the true Head of the church. All members of a Baptist church are baptized believers. There are no infant “believers,” but only those beyond the age of accountability who have made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The Holy Spirit is present in all believers to guide them and instruct them, and thus each believer has Spirit-aided soul competency. Because each believer is a priest before God, there are no intermediaries needed to perform this task. No bishop, synod, or popish hierarchy can impose its will on the autonomous local church. Neither the Southern Baptist Convention, nor its President, nor any other group can impose its will on a local church. A church with aberrant beliefs might be disfellowshiped by other Baptist church associations or conventions, but the local church can still practice its beliefs unhindered as it feels led. Each believer is competent before God to seek God’s will as led by the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So, though democratic processes are utilized to achieve the result, it is not a democracy but a theocracy. Votes taken in church business meetings are not to determine the will of the people, but the will of God.
 To preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11. It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues. The next scheduled article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #7: Local Church Autonomy.”
 Second London Confession, Art. 26, par. 7; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 27, par. 7.
 Second London Confession, Art. 26, par. 9; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 27, par. 9.
 Second London Confession, Art. 26, par. 12; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 27, par. 12.
 Second London Confession, Art. 26, par. 13; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 27, par. 13.
 BF&M, Art. 6. For a biblical defense of congregational church governance, see the perspective of James Leo Garrett in Perspectives on Church Government: Five Views of Church Polity, with Daniel Akin, James Leo Garrett, Jr., Robert Reymond, James R. White, and Paul F. M. Zaul, ed. by Chad Brand and Stan Norman (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004); James Leo Garrett, Jr., “An Affirmation of Congregational Polity,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005):38-55; and Paige Patterson’s perspective in Who Runs the Church? Four Views of Church Government, with Peter Toon, L. Roy Taylor, Paige Patterson, and Samuel L. Waldron, ed. by Steven Cowan (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).