Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #7:
Local Church Autonomy (not a Hierarchical Denominationalism)
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, the fifth Baptist distinctive (in contrast with Presbyterian Calvinism) was baptism and the Lord’s Supper as symbolic ordinances, not sacraments; and the sixth Baptist distinctive addressed congregational church polity (in contrast to Presbyterian elder rule). With the seventh distinctive, I examine the autonomy of the local church, as opposed to a hierarchical denominationalism.
Distinctive Baptist Belief #7:
Local Church Autonomy, Not Hierarchical Denominationalism)
The BF&M describes the church as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers.” Each Southern Baptist church is independent and it would not be overstating the case to say, radically autonomous. Local churches voluntarily cooperate with Baptist associations, state conventions, the national SBC, and other entities — and it is the voluntary association and cooperation of Southern Baptists that have allowed them to accomplish great things in education, benevolent efforts, and world missions that atomistic independent churches simply cannot accomplish alone. However, in terms of authority, the organizational flowchart of the SBC is a pyramid in which ultimate authority and freedom to act reside in the local churches at the base, not an inverted pyramid with all the power at the top. No denominational official, whether associational, state, or national, can impose anything on an autonomous Southern Baptist church, even when that church is practicing things that are outside of the BF&M. The associations and conventions may refuse to seat messengers from these churches at annual meetings, or even withdraw fellowship from them, but no Baptist entity can force a local church to change any policy or practice.
Even the various associations and conventions draw all of their guidance and authority from “messengers” (similar to delegates) appointed by and representative of local Baptist churches. But the associations and conventions cannot in turn impose regulations on the local churches. Properly speaking, associations, state conventions, and the SBC itself only truly “exist” the two or three days in which the church-elected messengers are convened in annual session. Resolutions approved by messengers of SBC annual meetings, though often hotly debated and highlighted in press reports, have literally no force or authority over local churches. They are simply the expression of opinion of that group of messengers at that time.
Some Baptist churches (especially those in the “Landmarker” tradition) take local church autonomy to an even higher level in relation to the two ordinances. The American Baptist Association not only denies “alien immersion” and practices “closed communion,” but is also opposed to any mission board or denominational entity outside the local church. Southern Baptists are not immune to these beliefs; in fact, the Arkansas Baptist Convention (SBC) articles of incorporation includes the proviso that “The Baptist Faith and Message shall not be interpreted as to permit open communion and/or alien immersion” (though these requirements are not universally practiced by all SBC churches in the state).
In relation to baptism, a LifeWay study in 2007 revealed that 16 percent of the Southern Baptist pastors polled would require rebaptism even of persons who had been immersed after conversion in another Southern Baptist church — again, underscoring the autonomy of each local church. Since most Baptists view scriptural baptism as a prerequisite for membership in a local church, 74 percent of the pastors would require rebaptism of a prospective new member who had been immersed after conversion in another church that does not believe in eternal security, 87 percent would require rebaptism of a prospective member who was immersed after conversion in a church that believes baptism is required for salvation, 97 percent would require rebaptism for a prospective new member who had been baptized by sprinkling or pouring after conversion, and 99 percent would require rebaptism if the prospective new member had been baptized as an infant by sprinkling, pouring or immersion.
Likewise, in relation to the Lord’s Supper, many churches impacted by the Landmarker tradition practice “closed communion,” in which only members of that local church are invited to participate in the Supper. The majority of Southern Baptist churches practice “close communion,” that is, that only members of Southern Baptist churches (or those with like faith and practice) are invited to participate. A few Baptist churches practice “open communion,” allowing any believer to participate. The point of this survey is not to debate the issues of alien immersion or closed communion, but to underscore the strength of belief in the autonomy of the local church in the Baptist tradition.
In contrast, beyond the local church, Presbyterian churches are guided and their property owned by presbyteries, synods, or councils. Although these meetings have representatives from local churches, the broader entities can impose rules and regulations on the local churches, and their properties seized. That could never happen in Baptist life. One expression of local church autonomy is its ability under God’s leadership to choose its own leadership. As Dunaway noted, Baptists do not have a requirement for a seminary-educated ministry. This is only one example of many requirements that could only be imposed by a “top-down” denominational structure, not “bottom-up” structure like that of Baptists. Local church autonomy is a keynote of Southern Baptist life.
 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. 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 #8: Two Scriptural Officers, Not Three.”
 BF&M, Art. 6.
 The majority of the Arkansas convention voted in November 2007 to remove this stipulation requiring “close communion” and disallowing “alien immersion,” but it did not receive the two-thirds vote necessary to change it. See Charlie Warren, “Arkansas Baptists Reject Amendment,” Baptist Press, November 8, 2008. For an argument for retaining the “close communion” language, see Jimmy Millikin, “Why We Should Sustain Article III, Section 1 of the Articles of Incorporation,” on the All Things Baptist blog, November 5, 2007.
 “LifeWay Christian Resources Follow-up Poll Examines Hot Topics,” The Christian Telegraph, September 17, 2008.
 The role of synods and councils in Presbyterian life is delineated in the Westminster Confession, Art. 31, “Of Synods and Councils.” This article was deleted in the Second London and Philadelphia confessions.
 Dunaway, “Why Baptist and Not Presbyterian,” in J. M. Frost, ed., Baptist Why and Why Not (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1900), 135-136.