Monday, April 23, 2007


(The following is an edited abridgment of a 32-page booklet by Rowland Croucher, 'Baptist Church Membership', available from the Australian Baptist Publishing House, Sydney).

Felix Mantz. He was a native of Zurich, and had received a liberal education. Having early adopted the principles of the Reformation, he became an intimate friend of Zuingli and other Swiss Reformers. But in the year 1522, he began to doubt the scriptural authority of infant-baptism, and of the Church constitution which then existed at Zurich, and he suffered imprisonment in consequence. After this he preached in the fields and woods, whither the people flocked in crowds to hear him, and there he baptized those who professed faith. For this the Zurich magistrates denounced him as a rebel, and about the close of 1526 he was apprehended and lodged in the tower of Wellenberg. On the 5th of January, 1527, he was drowned. “As he came down from the Wellenberg to the fish market,” says Bullinger, “and was led through the shambles to the boat, he praised God that he was about to die for His truth. For Anabaptism was right, and founded on the Word of God, and Christ had foretold that His followers would suffer for the truth’s sake. And the like discourse he urged much, contradicting the preacher who attended him. On the way his mother and brother came to him, and exhorted him to be steadfast; and he persevered in his folly, even to the end. When he was bound upon the hurdle, and was about to be thrown into the stream by the executioner, he sang with a loud voice: ‘In manus Tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.’ (‘Into Thine hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’) And herewith was he drawn into the water by the executioner, and drowned.”

“It is reported here,” says Capito, writing to Zuingli from Strasburg, on the 27th of January, 1527, “that your Felix Mantz hath suffered punishment, and died gloriously; by which the cause of truth and piety which you sustain, is weighed down exceedingly.”4 No wonder! Persecution will “weigh down” any cause. And Protestant persecution is the most hateful of all.

Baptists begin a discussion about themselves by trying to understand the 'Good News', the 'gospel'. In essence, Paul says (Philippians 2:10-11), the 'Good News' is that 'JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!' That's where Baptists start their thinking. This isn't just an abstract doctrine - it means that he's our Master, our King. We are his obedient servants, his subjects, who do what he commands. He is the ultimate authority for all thinking and acting. He is God the Son, through whom everything came into being and before whom everyone will ultimately 'fall on their knees'.

Jesus Christ is Lord - or 'Head' - of the Church, his Body. So Christians are people who both individually and collectively, are constantly asking: 'What does our Lord want us to believe, and what does he want us to do?'

This leads us to the Bible, in which the mind of Christ is revealed. The Bible is God's Word, his authoritative guide for our faith and practice. It is the inspired and trustworthy record of the mighty acts of God in the history of his people Israel and fulfilled in the life, teachings, and saving work of Christ.

So Baptists are encounaraged to be keen 'Bible people', seeking with and open and reverent mind to understand what God is saying to us today. Sometimes we won't find specific answers to all our modern problems there, but we'll always find God's guiding principles. The greatest principle, or commandment, said Jesus, is to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength'. And the second greatest: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself'.

For Baptists, then, God alone is the sovereign Lord. They have always tried to follow the apostolic principle: 'We must obey God rather than humans'. Baptists reject doctrines or practices which either contradict or are not in harmony with Christ's will revealed in the Bible. They have simply believed that most of the differences between churches would be resolved if apostolic principles and practices were held in their true scriptural relationship with one another. And so, for just about every question we reply with another: 'What does the Bible say?'

But this doesn't mean Baptists arrogantly believe they are the only ones who are right. No one (except God alone) has 'a monopoly on the truth'. We are humble fellow-learners with others who also submit to the truth of Scripture. And 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word'. A Baptist says with love, to another Christian: 'You are my brother/sister, not because we happen to agree on everything, but because we are both God's children'. This is why Baptists have produced written 'confessions' but never written 'creeds'. Creeds become 'locked into' the particular questions of one historical era, and later Christians may be asking some different questions. Further, creeds tend to make people 'exclusive' - if you don't dot all the i's and cross all the t's you're not acceptable. Baptists aim rather to be inclusive: our bond is simply our common relationship to Jesus Christ.

This leads us to another Baptist emphasis -

The Church = 'The Company of The Committed'

It is not uncommon for Baptist church constitutions to begin: 'The church shall be composed of those... who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord'. When Baptists throughout their history have been asked 'Who belongs to the church?' their response is always: 'Only those who've deliberately chosen to follow the way of Jesus - the "regenerate", those born again!'

Perhaps this can best be explained by taking a short journey into the past.

Baptists trace their spiritual history back to people like the 'Anabaptists' ('re-baptisers') in 16th century Europe. It was the time when Luther, Calvin, and other 'Protestants' urged people to go back to the Bible for their instructions about faith and living, and reject doctrines and practices in the Church of Rome which they believed were unbiblical. For example, they talked about 'the priesthood of all believers'. The Church of Rome made ordinary believers dependent upon the mediation of the priests, but these 'Reformers' proclaimed the right of every Christian to have access to God through the mediation of Christ alone. They encouraged ordinary people to read the Word of God (something rare - and even forbidden by the church authorities in those days). They said that every Christian has the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of Scripture, so God can speak to them by this same Spirit as they read the Bible. You and I don't need the authorities in the church to tell us what to believe - it's all there in God's holy Word.

The Anabaptists, however, said Luther and Calvin and the others didn't take their 'Reformation' far enough. They agreed that 'If it's in the Bible we believe it; if it isn't, we reject it, even though centuries of Christian history are behind a particular belief'. But they objected to the close alliance between church and state which had gone on for more than a thousand years. They also rejected infant baptism, which they believed, served to perpetuate state churches filled with nominal Christians.

Meanwhile, over in England, a 'Puritan' movement emerged within the Church of England, calling that church back to the Scriptures. One learned man, Rev. John Smyth M.A. (a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge University), became a city lecturer at Lincoln at the turn of the 17th century - a post which allowed him to expound the Scriptures to his townspeople who weren't satisfied with the teaching they were receiving in their churches. When things got 'too hot' for these Puritans, some went as refugees to Holland. There John Smyth continued to study the Scriptures, and with the help of some Dutch Mennonites (an Anabaptist group), came to hold certain convictions which Baptists have maintained ever since. In 1609 he became the leader of the first English-speaking 'Baptist' church.

He saw - with the Anabaptists - that 'established churches' weren't an apostolic idea at all. You become a member of these churches through infant baptism, and everyone in a particular community - or 'parish' - therefore almost automatically belonged to the 'parish church'. Now that's all wrong, these Baptists said. Only people who've had a personal encounter with Christ can belong to the church. You can't be born a Christian: at some point in your life you choose to belong to Christ's church, when you repent of your sins and commit your life willingly to him.

So Baptists have always been wary of alliances between churches and the state authorities. They've said governments shouldn't influence - or interfere with - the free choice people make about their allegience to Christ and the church. They have taken the idea a step further, too, and until recently, have generally refused government funding for their Christian ministries. (Today government grants may be accepted for educational and social welfare purposes, but not usually for worship and pastoral ministries.)

Because people willingly choose to belong to the church, a high standard of Christian behaviour and discipleship is expected of members of Baptist churches. Because they possess God's Holy Spirit, they should live on a higher plane than non-Christians. Sometimes 'church discipline' has to be lovingly but firmly extended towards those who bring the faith of Christ into disrepute by their disobedient behaviour.

Many Anabaptists and early Baptists were martyred (often by drowning, 'seeing they like so much water,' their enemies said) for these beliefs.

Who Runs the Church?

The short answer, of course: Christ does! It's his church. When members of his body meet, he's there with them. Christ is both the Lord of the redeemed person and the redeemed community. Both have his Holy Spirit to guide them, and are therefore sufficiently 'competent' to know his will. So local Baptist churches are 'autonomous' - they govern themselves. (Look up Acts 13:1,2 for a New Testament example of a local church acting on its own initiative.) Baptists therefore do not recognise the power of a bishop, synod, conference, or assembly to determine or overrule the decisions of a local church.

Sometimes, however, these churches may cooperate, and form 'Unions' (there is a 'Baptist Union' of churches in each Australian state, in Australia as a whole, and in New Zealand). These associations of churches co-ordinate Baptists' joint efforts to obey the great commission. Such Unions may appoint officers to guide in specific areas of ministry such as home missions (helping younger churches to get going), overseas missions and training future pastors. There is no fixed plan or pattern here: these structures are very flexible, change from time to time, and differ in various countries.

Local churches - like individual Christians - need each other. The challenge facing us is to encourage self-governing churches to become more 'inter-dependent' rather than 'independent'.

The Baptist Unions (or Conventions or Associations, as they are called in some places) are mostly affiliated with the Baptist World Alliance, which has about 30 millian members in 117,000 churches. (The U.S. has the largest number - 25 million, followed by India - 815,000, U.S.S.R. - 545,000, Brazil - 464,000 and Burma - 358,000. Australian Baptist church members number about 53,000, New Zealand 18,000).

# Generally Baptists haven't been keen on 'organic' unity with other Christian denominations. Some Baptist groups have joined the World Council of Churches, while others feel they ought to preserve their distinctiveness by remaining outside such bodies. Baptists don't claim to be 'the only true church': they want to learn humbly from others. They believe that what unites Christians is far more decisive and basic than what divides them. However they have mostly felt that their special Scriptural insights are best preserved by staying 'Baptists'. What do you think? Is this likely to change?

How is a local church governed? Baptists are 'congregational'. They meet, free from any 'outside' control, to arrive at a consensus about God's will, through Bible study, prayer, and discussion. A British Baptist statement (1948) says such a church meeting is 'the occasion when, as individuals and as a community, we submit ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and stand under the judgment of God that we may know the mind of Christ'.

The aim of each congregation will be to reflect the character of Jesus in all that it does. So persons will matter more than agendas or programs or constitutions! We will love and respect those with whom we may disagree. Although Baptist church members' meetings are democratic (any member is free to speak on any matter on the agenda), they are really, in essence, theocratic (ruled by God), so members don't have the right to say anything they please - but only what is loving, constructive, true, and that which humbly seeks the mind of Christ. Because they affirm diversity within their Fellowships they will sometimes 'agree to differ - agreeably' on some issues. So Baptists have generally been happy with 'majority voting' on all but really major issues (which may require a large majority, or, occasionally, total unanimity). Some churches seldom take a vote - they will discuss issues until a general consensus is achieved, or failing that, will defer the matter for further prayerful thought and consideration.


Christ appointed leaders to serve the church. There's a list of these in Ephesians 4. Apostles, prophets and evangelists were generally 'itinerant' - they moved around among several churches. 'Pastor- teachers' were (and are) shepherds - feeding Christ's flock and caring for it. Their task: to equip all the members so that they will become spiritually mature.

Most Baptist churches have one pastor (although some are now appointing two or more). He or she is generally considered the leader, although neither the pastor/s nor any other person has the final word in the church's affairs: that's the prerogative of the members' meeting. Sometimes, therefore, the pastor is said to be 'the first among equals'. Pastors are servants of the church, but the church is not their master - Christ is.

The pastors' priorities: Bible study, prayer, and training others for ministry. They're a sort of 'player-coach' encouraging others to serve, witness and visit. Church members are not helpers of the pastor, so that the pastor can do their job; pastors are helpers of the whole people of God, so that they all can be the church (to paraphrase Hans Ruedi Weber). Pastors must be encouraged to keep themselves 'in training for a godly life', so the congregation will allow them time for study and reflection. Remember that your pastors are human: they, too, have doubts, fears, and frustrations. Please don't add to them! Francis Schaeffer says pastors often unwittingly break the tenth commandment - they are covetous of the successes or gifts of other pastors. Remedy? Affirm your pastor, so they know they're loved! If you appreciate them, tell them so!

In the New Testament, bishops or elders (both words describe the same people) were the 'overseers' of the churches. These leaders 'work hard', perform pastoral duties and help make important decisions. Only those with the appropriate 'gifts' should be appointed elders - not just to 'fill the number'. It's better to have no elders than the wrong ones. Each elder ought to have a list of those they are shepherding, and these people know they can turn to their elder at any time. (A ratio of one elder to 12 persons or family groups is recommended.)

Deacons are 'servants'. Both Jesus and Paul used this word of themselves. Their tasks: administrative leadership, policy-making, and planning.

Both elders and deacons have 'spiritual' ministries. They are accountable to the church members. The personal and spiritual qualities of these leaders are spelt out in 1 Timothy 3: 1-13. Note that such appointments have nothing to do with age, sex, or status. Spiritual leadership is not for people who like to be 'bossy'; the badge of office for all followers of Christ is a towel! Both groups (if your church has both) ought to be commissioned by the congregation, who will pray for them earnestly. These 'servants' will lead by encouragement and example, rather than by coercion. They will generally plan openly rather than covertly. They will continually inform their people of their doings, and will invite feed-back from the members. Occasionally they will 'retreat' ('advance'?) for times of prayer, study and discusison.

# Discuss: Paul says (Galatians 3:28) that Jesus has healed divisions between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free-people, males and females. The early church was ahead of its time in granting 'personhood' to women, and many fulfilled public ministries. American Baptists (from 80 years ago) and Southern Baptists (from 20 years ago) in the U.S. have occasionally ordained women for pastoral ministry, as have Baptists in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and some Australian states. Leon Morris, an Anglican scholar, says women in the early church did more than 'keep silence when it was a question of expounding the Christian faith'. Some Baptists have emphasised the 'submission' and 'keeping quiet' passages. Others say that the principle of Galatians 3:28 is to be applied appropriately within each culture. What do you think?


Having pastored Baptist churches for 30 years, spoken to all the Baptist pastors' conferences around Australia and preached in about 200 Baptist churches, here are my suggestions about the issues Baptists are facing. They vary in intensity from state to state and church to church.

1. Baptist pharisaism. The essential issue here is the elevation of dogma or church rules over 'accepting' those whom God accepts (Romans 15:7). The two key issues are social justice (Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42) and open membership. Until recently Baptists were quite muted about their concern for the poor, and the causes of such poverty. Fortunately they are reading Jesus and the prophets again! On the issue of open membership, see my paper on the subject. Briefly, if Jesus said accepting people is more important than sticking to ordinances (even an important ordinance like baptism) then let's follow Jesus rather than the pharisees! Nothing can be added to grace, not even baptism. The Baptist principle of 'liberty of conscience' should apply here as everywhere else. A system which allows a sexually active young person or greedy adult to be a member of most of our churches (and they are!) but not a godly Anglican or Salvationist has got to have something wrong with it. Baptists have to be reminded they're Christians first, Baptists second.

2. The Leadership Ministries of Women. In the NT women were quite prominent in the churches, despite strong patriarchal cultures. Today, the church is creating a scandal by appearing to treat women as second-class citizens. Only two Australian Baptist Unions (Victoria and South Australia) recognize the pastoral leadership gifts of women: if God were to raise up a Deborah to lead the whole people of God today most of us wouldn't let him to it! We should be grateful God is not a legalist! (See my paper on Women in Leadership).

3. Charismatic Renewal. People who derive their security from the predictable institutions or dogmas they adhere to will always be threatened by notions of renewal, particularly radical renewal. The impact of charismatic renewal is no exception. The Holy Spirit is moving in dynamic ways through all the churches and in all the world, but traditionalists will find themselves opposing anything which is not part of their cherished history. Although the devil as well as the Holy Spirit is operative in some aspects of charismatic renewal, Baptists and others will need to be careful about the dangers of fighting God: they can't win! (See my paper 'Charismatic Renewal: Myths and Realities').

4. Institutional Renewal. About 95% of Australian Baptists agree with the statement 'There's something wrong with the way our church business meetings are conducted'. The 5% who enjoy power-broking or have an excess of spare time on their hands or enjoy the thrill of swaying the voting intentions of others will derive some enjoyment from church business meetings. Baptists have equated congregationalism with democracy: modern notions of democracy are not biblical. Baptists also have forgotten that the NT has three forms of church government - episcopal, presbyterian as well as congregational. Baptists have also allowed their adherence to a notion of 'the priesthood of all believers' to contaminate their polity: believers should not use church meetings as a forum to be negative. Church meetings exist for information-dissemination (what God is doing amongst us), celebration (worshipping the Lord who is the head of the church) and discernment (prayerfully finding the will of our Lord in specific situations). Whilst the method of decision-making will vary from culture to culture, and issue to issue, neither democracy nor unanimity is appropriate in every situation. (Democracy may mean the leading families rule; unanimity may leave us all at the mercy of the 'nut' who will vote 'no' to everything!).

5. Ecumenism. Baptists may have some justifiable reasons to be leary of some things the World Council of Churches does. But they have no justifiable reason for non-cooperation with others who 'acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour Lord and God, according to the Scriptures'. We must not do anything to negate our Lord's prayer 'that they may be one'.

6. Evangelism. The idea of 'seeker services' is not new: it was there in apostolic times, according to Michael Green (Evangelism Through the Local Church). Neighbourhood 'coffee 'n dessert' nights, friendship services, Christianity Explained courses - these and many other tools are available for us to reach out to those the New Testament calls 'the lost'.

7. Clericalism. The Christian Brethren movement have had a valid objection to 'clergy running the church and denying others a ministry'. Baptists are still plagued by clericalism, whereby pastors accrue power rather than disseminating it. The task of church leaders is to train and empower others for ministry, not do it for them! (See ch. 31 'Ministry as Empowerment' in my Your Church Can Come Alive).


The Baptist Heritage, H. Leon McBeth (Broadman, 1987): a comprehensive 850-page overview of Baptist history and emphases, mainly from a North American perspective.

Challenge to Change: A Radical Agenda for Baptists, Nigel Wright (Kingsway 1991) 'calls for consensus over constitution, power over programme evangelism, and makes a case for Baptist bishops'.

A Community of Believers by Charles W. Deweese (Judson, 1978), a good general handbook, with a useful discussion on 'church covenants'

Growing on Together (Baptist Union of NSW), a simple, readable paper-back written by Australian Baptists.

Church Members'Kit, produced by the pastoral team of the Blackburn Baptist Church (13 Holland Rd, Blackburn, Australia. 3130).

Studies in Baptism by Basil S. Brown (Clifford Press, Melbourne), a 32-page summary of the meaning of Baptism by a former Australian theological college professor.

The Church, a Baptist View (Gordon W. Martin), Authority, a Baptist View (B.R. White), Freedom, a Baptist View(J.H. Briggs), Baptism, a Baptist View (John W. Matthews), Children in the Church, a Baptist View (D.F. Tennant), Ministry, a Baptist View (John F. Nicholson), booklets produced by the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland. (Australian agents - Clifford Press, Melbourne)

The Baptist Church Member (Baptist Church Life and Ministry, Victoria), 9 studies for prospective members. Available through Baptist Book Stores.

The Water that Divides by Donald Bridge and David Phypers (IVP, 1977), a good discussion of the pros and cons of baptism and the open/closed membership question.

A History of the Baptists by R.G. Torbet (judson, 3rd Edition), a good general history.

Baptist Confessions of Faith by W.L. Lumpkin (Judson 1959), a more comprehensive volume.

A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice: Revised Edition by Norman H. Maring and Winthrop S. Hudson (Judson Press, 1991).

(Also check out the web site http// for the ABC/USA.)