A sermon by Rod Benson
What makes us who we are? What distinctive passions and practices shape our identity as Christians who are known as Baptists?
Over the past four weeks we have examined four qualities, traits or practices that make us who we are as Christians of a particular stream within global Christianity. We share a passion for reading the Bible, together and individually, with an expectation that the living God will speak to us in some way through our reading – confirming long-held beliefs, challenging our thoughts and actions, and perhaps inspiring us with fresh wisdom and insight and hope for the new journey that lies before us.
We share a passion for conversion and baptism: for the “new birth” of which Jesus spoke Nicodemus, and that every genuine Christian experiences; and the confirming symbol of that regeneration demonstrated through the practice of immersing the new believer in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We share a passion for costly discipleship: we are not “cultural Christians” but radical and active followers of Jesus Christ. Although salvation is received freely through God’s grace, we gladly pay a price for our faith, expending significant effort and sacrifice to grow the church of God, and extend the kingdom of God, and contribute to the mission of God in the world.
We share a passion for the “priesthood of all believers,” and a commitment to serve and lead as God prepares and gifts us. While we have designated leaders, God calls all of us to a place of service in his kingdom and his church, including this local church. Find your place here, and joyfully serve.
Finally, as we come to the last in our series of talks, we look at a particular passion for the genius of the church in its local form: the local congregation, and its governance, and its responsibilities.
Let me say three things clearly at the start:
- Baptists are committed to the principle of the autonomy of the local church, while at the same time freely and voluntarily joining in fellowship with other churches and associations of churches which share similar beliefs and practices and goals.
- A church constitution must never take the place of Scripture in church governance. While we are never free to change the text of Scripture, a constitution is merely an instrument for getting things done well. If it needs to change, it must be changed.
- A local church needs to modify its leadership and governance structure in response to changing congregational size and other factors which may impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of its mission. No organisational structure or leadership style is mandated by Scripture or tradition. Find what works well for the challenges ahead, and get on with the mission of the church.
So what does the passage selected for today’s Bible reading (Ac 15:22-35) have to do with this passion for the local church? This passage is part of Luke’s account of the first general council of the church, where the first generation of believers gathered to resolve the theological issue of what to do about Gentiles who were turning to God and turning up at church. The chapter flows as follows:
- defence of the need for a general council with representatives from various local church congregations (vv. 1-5)
- outline of the debate (vv. 6-21)
- resolution of the issue (vv. 22-29)
- outcome of the decision of v. 29 (vv. 30-35)
As John Stott observes, the Jerusalem Council “secured a double victory – a victory of truth in confirming the gospel of grace, and a victory of love in preserving the fellowship by sensitive concessions to conscientious Jewish disciples.”
The aim of the council was not unity at any cost, but discerning God’s will together. Like the narratives in Acts 2 and 4, Luke presents us here with another foundation story of the church, indicating how the autonomy and interdependence of local congregations of Christians works in practice, in the face of a significant threat to unity, fellowship and cooperation. At the end of the day, though, all those who participated in the council went back to their own homes, and their own congregations.
That was then: this is now. How does the story of the early church help and challenge us today, as we seek to obey God and pursue best practice? The Bible remains our supreme guide for church life, as it does for personal and family life. The basis of our association is our unity in Christ. Faith and fellowship belong together. We necessarily depend on one another. There are visions that need to be tested, decisions that need to be made, discipline that needs to be administered.
In Baptist Basics, John Weaver sets forth some helpful commentary and context:
The Reformation of the 16th century saw the rediscovery of the church as a community of believers gathered out from the world, seeking the will of God together. Anabaptists on the continent [Europe] and later English Baptists had grasped a new way of being the church of Christ. A Baptist confession in 1677 stated that a Baptist church is the gathered community of those who “willingly consent to walk together … giving themselves up to the Lord and to one another.” A widely used Baptist Declaration of Principle says, “Each church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer [God’s] laws.”
The church is seen as the assembly of those who truly believe, the gathering of the committed, a community of disciples covenanted to walk together in mutual correction and discipline with Christ as the head.
When the church meets to receive reports and make decisions, as we did here last Sunday afternoon, we fulfil a vital role together in the expression of our freedom and responsibility as followers of Jesus.
The church meeting is not a democratic assembly which seeks a majority vote on all issues that are brought before it. It is a gathering together of believers in the presence of Christ (Matt 18:19-20) seeking a common mind – a consent about the mind of Christ. If there are votes to be taken the meeting must be aware of the maturity and insight of the voices behind the votes. One vote is not as good as another in the gathering of the church, even though it may have the same numerical value. Consensus means consent, the authority to act, even when as an individual I may not agree.
It is not a perfect system; no human system can be. Weaver again:
We can still get it wrong. Sin will show up in arguments. Power struggles, envy and jealousy will sadly exist. People will want to avoid difficult decisions, such as discipline, and fill agendas with trivial issues that should have been delegated. Others will want to conduct the meeting like a political debate or a secular business meeting. Church meetings are the high risk zone of our Baptist church life. They are places where we must learn to disagree in Christ, and be prepared to consent to his will expressed through the meeting of his people, even when we are opposed to the decision.
Every human community requires wise leadership and good governance. But there is something unique and beautiful, and exciting, when the church of Jesus Christ gathers to make decisions: “Those who place their faith in Christ are now citizens of the new, heavenly Jerusalem and have already begun to gather there.”
We enjoy that heavenly city and its blessings, in a small but real way, as we meet as a local church. As the eminent Baptist theologian and New Testament scholar D.A. Carson observes,
[E]ach local church is not seen primarily as one member parallel to a lot of other member churches together constituting one body, one church; nor is each local church seen as the body of Christ parallel to other earthly churches that are also the body of Christ – as if Christ had many bodies.
[E]ach church is the full manifestation in space and time of the one, true, heavenly, eschatological, new covenant church. Local churches should see themselves as outcroppings of heaven, analogies of “the Jerusalem that is above,” indeed colonies of the new Jerusalem, providing on earth a corporate and visible expression of “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
As Baptists, our supreme commitment is to the Triune God. As Baptists, as a result of that supreme commitment, we are also committed to the Holy Scriptures, and therefore to an active, regenerate, local church.
We organise our common life in the form of autonomous, independent yet interdependent congregations in order to pursue our God-given, biblically informed purposes of worship, fellowship, discipleship, service and mission.
On reflection, as a person who has chosen to cast their lot with the non-conformist movement, and as a Baptist by conscience and not by accident or inheritance, I agree with Stephen and Kirk Wellum when they say:
[t]he church will not fully live up to everything our glorious God intends for it to be in the now of redemptive history unless we organize ourselves in congregational terms. May our gracious triune covenant Lord enable us to do so, ultimately for his glory and also for the good of the church.
Sermon 669 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 1 May 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 John Stott, The Message of Acts (Leicester: IVP, 1990), p. 257.
 David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 442.
 John Weaver, “The church meeting,” in Derek Tidball & Gerald Ball (eds), Baptist Basics (Sydney: Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996), p. 21.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Stephen J. Wellum & Kirk Wellum, “The biblical and theological case for congregationalism,” in Mark Dever & Jonathan Leeman (eds), Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), p. 56.
 Carson, “Evangelicals, ecumenism, and the church,” in Kantzer & Henry (eds), Evangelical Affirmations, p. 366, quoted in Wellum & Wellum, op. cit., p. 57.
 Wellum & Wellum, p. 78.