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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 6 "The Church"

"A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation."

This brief statement summarizes well a congregationalistic, credobaptistic doctrine of the local church. There is much I am in agreement with here: "associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ...seeking to extend the gospel...democratic processes...Its scriptural officers are pastors and of pastor limited to men..." etc. There are disagreements I have, though.

But before moving on to critique I will make some concessions here: 1) I have not adequately studied evangelical egalitarian interpretations of 1 Tim. 2:12 to be willing to die on the hill of limiting preaching/eldership to men, although the complementarian perspective on this issue seems more consonant to me with passages about the family like Eph. 5, etc., which I think are obvious in their complementarian thrust; 2) I have not studied scholarly defenses of congregational polity over against presbyterian polity, to which I tentatively hold at the moment.

It does seem to me, however (again from a place of not having studied church government very much yet), that the New Testament presents the local church as an entity which is not utterly autonomous in its governmental procedures, even though there is a strong democratic element, e.g. in the election of officers.

1) While the apostolic period was admittedly very unique in some ways with regard to the organization of the church, the classic proof text for Presbyterian polity, Acts 15:2, suggests that there may be a precedent for a sort of regional "higher court" of elders since Paul and Barnabas and others went up to Jerusalem to get a decision from the apostles and elders there with regard to the Gentile observances issue.

2) Several of the proof texts actually offered in this section of the BF&M point to the fact that democratic election of officers is complemented by a measure of top-down appointment or confirmation of the selections (cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14; cf. also Acts 6:1-6, esp. v. 6). This precedent of balancing bottom-up democratic election with top-down appointment/confirmation can be seen, from one perspective, to have been set as far back as Moses in the wilderness (cf. Deut. 1:13-15).

3) It does seem biblical, however, given the persistent pattern in Acts and the pastoral epistles of having a plurality of elders, that at least since the passing away of the apostolic age, or at very least after the unique needs of the first century or two of the Church's existence, there is no need or precedent for singular "bishops" to exercise a large measure of authority over a particular region of churches (as in episcopal polity).

The BF&M rightly identifies the two and only two "ordinances" or sacraments of Christ for the church: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Roman Catholic Church includes seven rituals under the title of "sacrament" in its complex system of the means of grace which operate ex opere operato. In contrast, all Protestants within the broadly Reformed stream of church history--even modern credobaptistic offshoots--only recognize those signs and seals of the New Covenant in Christ which Christ Himself directly instituted during His earthly ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 11; Matt. 28) as ordinances or sacraments regularly to be observed and administered by the Church. There are other means of grace, to be sure, but only baptism and the Lord's Supper qualify as the ordinances/sacraments officially administered by the New Covenant church which holds the "keys" of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 16, 28).

Connected to this issue, of course, is the question of credobaptism vs. paedobaptism. The BF&M states, of course, that "A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers." This statement limits true church membership to believers with a credible, visible profession of faith in Christ, and therefore by necessity excludes the infants and very young children of believers. Here is not the place for a fuller discussion of the evidence for and against covenantal paedobaptism (the next section of the BF&M focuses on Christ's two ordinances).

Suffice it for now to say that many committed, Bible-believing, evangelical Protestant Christians throughout the last 500 years have believed that the New Testament itself authorizes the baptism of the young children of one or more believing parent and recognizes their membership in the church. This doesn't necessarily mean they are already regenerate persons but says that they are true members of the covenant community who partake of and hopefully grow up "improving" (in the archaic sense of the term), by faith, its ordinary means of grace. Credobaptists are limited to applying much looser language of blessed "association" and "prospective membership" to the young children of church members. I believe this creates unnecessary biblical and practical tension in the way a church relates to the children of its believing members, and particularly in Christian parenting.

One final comment on the value of this section of the BF&M would be that I appreciate its affirmation of the category of the "universal church" including all the redeemed of all ages. This relates closely to the Apostle's Creed's affirmation of the "communion of saints." While we don't want to push this to a Romanist extreme of communicating with departed saints, as if we needed to ask them to pray for us or to even somehow exercise heavenly power in our favor, we should always bear in mind that the present Church Militant is not the full extent of Christ's body.

In sum, there is much commendable material in this section of the BF&M. My main lines of critique, from a Presbyterian perspective, have to do with how I perceive excessive individualism and autonomy in Baptist government and theology of church membership. To be sure, "In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord." However, I believe the New Testament continues a greater degree of corporate solidarity both in the family, and in the government of the Church beyond the level of the local church, than the BF&M perspective recognizes.

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