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The Autonomy Of The Local Church And Free Will Association

Thu. Jun. 01, 2017By: Marc Bertrand

CLRA Confession Article VIII

Few subjects produce such heated debate amongst Baptist churches in the 21st Century as the matter of church autonomy.  It is broadly acknowledged that autonomy is a distinctive of Baptist churches that sets it apart from other families of churches, yet the meaning and extent of autonomy is not always agreed upon.  Some churches and associations seem to hold autonomy as the ‘cardinal’ distinctive of the church, while others seek to find some means to maintain doctrinal accountability alongside local church autonomy.  To this end, we see that many Baptist denominations have historically set autonomy in tension with a principle of free-will association.

In this article, let us examine the biblical instruction to the churches regarding autonomy and then seek to interpret these texts through the lens of history by considering the earliest known Baptist confession of 1644, the more broadly known 1689 London Baptist Confession, and the application of these ideas in our Canadian context of churches and associations that eventually gave birth to the BCOQ/CBOQ (Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec/Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec).  The convictions recorded in the CLRA Statement of Faith are drawn from these sources.

Church polity is difficult to demonstrate conclusively from scripture.  The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church draw on various passages of scripture to support Popes or Bishops or Presbyters being set over groups of churches.  The Baptist distinctive of autonomy asserts that Christ alone is the head of the church.  In the CLRA Statement of Faith we articulate the claim this way: “We affirm that every duly gathered local church, according to the mind of Christ declared in His word, has been given all power and authority which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which He has instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.[1]

I. A Biblical Argument for Autonomy and Free-Will Association

There are few passages of scripture that address church polity directly, although we see throughout the book of Acts that churches were established in distant locations and elders appointed in every city (Acts 14:23), we are not given a detailed explanation of their organization.  There are a few passages that Baptists point to in support of a church directly under the headship of Christ, consider Colossians 1:18 – He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  Here we find the evidence for Christ alone as the head of the church.  Consider also 2 Corinthians 8:18-19 – With him [Titus] we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.  And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will.  This passage demonstrates that the churches have the authority to appoint and send a representative, the implication being that they are constituted with autonomous authority under Christ to make such decisions.  They have not been compelled to act, they have acted with liberty. 

The above passage also connects well to the associational principle: consider 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 – We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.  One sees here that while these congregations are independent, they chose to share in the burden of other congregations. 

Under the topic of autonomy, one often also finds the teachings on soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers.  Soul liberty is well defined in Romans 14:10, 12 – Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God… So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.  This passage, and others like it, teach that each person is responsible before God for their own actions and must not be compelled by another to believe or act against their own conscience, this is commonly referred to as ‘soul liberty’.  The priesthood of all believers is not held by Baptists alone but is common to all reformation churches and is most clearly declared in 1 Peter 2:9-10 – But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. This carries the idea that no Christian requires a human mediator or priest but may go directly to God.

On the basis of these passages Baptists recognize that God has given all the authority necessary, under Christ, to the local church.  We also see that it is a biblical practice for the local church to ‘freely associate’ with other churches.

II. Autonomy and Free-Will Association in Baptist History

Let us turn now to consider the earliest history of the Baptist Churches to examine the practices they adopted in regards to both autonomy and free-will association.  We recognize that these early Baptists perceived autonomy as a distinctive that set them apart from the Roman Catholic church and also the Anglican and Presbyterian Churches.  The first confession published by Baptists was released in 1644 and sets forth some of the earliest markers of a unique Baptist understanding of the church.  In article XLVII of the 1644 Confession we read: “…although the particular Congregations be distinct and severall Bodies, every one a compact and knit Citie in it selfe; yet are they all to walk by one and the same Rule, and by all meanes convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affaires of the Church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their onely head.[2]  We see in this statement, (written before English spelling was standardized), that the Baptists held a distinctive view of the autonomy of the local church yet held it in tension with free-will association to ensure accountability and assistance in ‘needful affairs’ for each congregation.  It is clear that they have neither Pope, nor Bishop, nor Presbyter, but Christ as their ‘onely head’.

Forty-five years later the more famous London Baptist Confession offered 15 articles on the governance of the church in the 26th Chapter of the confession.  The confession speaks of Jesus as the Head of the church in article 4; of those called out of the world for ministry in the church in article 5; of every member as a ‘saint’ in subjection to the ordinances of the gospel in article 6. 

Central to the discussion of autonomy is article 7 given here in entirety: To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.[3]

The principle of free-will association is also articulated in article 15: In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order; it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers[4].  There is a tension established between autonomy and association, with the greater weight being given to autonomy.  The association may not exercise ‘church-power’ over the autonomous local church, but it may offer ‘advice’ and ‘report to all the churches concerned’.

III. Autonomy and Free-Will Association in Canadian Baptist Churches

Turning to the Canadian Baptist Churches of Upper Canada/Ontario in the 19th and early 20th Century we see how these distinctives were applied in the churches and associations that our own churches have sprung from.

The most prolific association in Southern Ontario, the Grand River Association, (which eventually divided in two (GRA North and South) and then divided again to form the basis of today’s Oxford-Brant, Norfolk, Niagara Hamilton, South Central, Owen Sound and Georgian Bay Associations) held autonomy and free-will association together in tension.  The constitution of the Grand River South Association, available in the Canadian Baptist Archives, contains the following articles addressing the subject of Autonomy and Free-Will Association:

Art. II. This Association shall be composed of Strict Communion Baptist Churches, who hold in substance the following doctrines: -

The being and unity of God; the existence of three equal persons in the Godhead; the divine inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as complete and infallible rule of faith and practice; the total moral depravity and just condemnation of all mankind, by the fall of our first parents; the election of grace according to the foreknowledge of God; the proper Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-sufficiency of his atonement; (unclear word) and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, justification by grace alone; perseverance of the Saints; immersion only baptism; believers the only proper subjects of baptism; the Lord’s Supper, a privilege peculiar to immersed believers, regularly admitted to Church fellowship; and the religious observance of the first day of the week; the resurrection of the body, the general judgment; the final happiness of the saints, and the eternal misery of the wicked; the obligation of every intelligent creature to love God supremely; to believe what God says, and to practice what God commands.

Art. IV. This Association shall fully recognize the power and independence of the Churches, and in no case exercise any authority or jurisdiction over them.  Nevertheless, it shall have a right to drop from its fellowship, any Church connected with it, which shall neglect to present itself for two successive years; or which, in the opinion of the Association, may have essentially departed from the faith.

Art. IX. If any Church of this Association shall become corrupt in doctrine or practice, it shall be the duty of some sister Church having knowledge of the fact, to labour with said offending Church; and if satisfaction is not obtained, to “take one or two” more sister Churches, and if they shall judge that there is sufficient ground for the Association to suspend fellowship, and shall so report and testify, then it shall be the duty of the Association to withdraw fellowship, and publish the fact to the world, unless said offending Church shall give satisfaction to the Association.[5]

One can see from Article II that the basis of their free-will association is a strong statement of shared beliefs.  Without the foundation of a strong doctrinal agreement the following articles in the constitution become impotent.  Article IV recognizes the autonomy of the local church and sets it in tension with free-will association, maintaining the right of the local church to hold views contrary to that of the association, while maintaining the right of the association to “drop from fellowship” such churches after following the steps contained in Article IX.  This is a very Baptistic solution to the problem of theological disagreement.  In non-autonomous denominations the denominational leaders might have power to confiscate property, building or monies and to depose leaders and appoint new ones in their place.  In the Baptistic model the association retains the right to “withdraw fellowship, and publish the fact to the world.”  Yet the autonomy of the ‘dropped’ church remains intact.

Lest anyone believe the Grand River Association’s constitution was an anomaly, consider these excerpts taken from other Canadian Baptist associations: The Peterborough Association retained the right to drop from its connection any Church which, “…in the opinion of the Association, may have essentially departed from the faith… and to exclude from a seat in its meeting any minister or delegate who is manifestly corrupt in either theory or practice; the fact in either case may be ascertained in any way not inconsistent with the Gospel.”  The Walkerton Association called it a ‘duty’ to withdraw fellowship from churches corrupt in doctrine and practice and publish to the fact to the world, unless the offending church should give satisfaction to the Association.  The 1837 edition of the Upper Canada East Associations constitution gives a utilitiarian clause for dropping heretical churches and then a detailed article on how one church shall address their concern to another church.  The Amherstburg Association Constitution speaks of churches being ‘excommunicated’ for ‘walking disorderly’ and ‘refusing to give satisfaction.[6]

This was not merely a theoretical practice.  In the 1861 minute book of the Grand River North Association the Baptists ‘drop’ a church from fellowship for ‘doctrines subversive of the gospel’:

XI. On call of the Moderator for the Waterloo church.  Bro. Davidson reported that Bro. Patton, Caldwell and himself (according to appointment of the Association at last year’s meeting), visited that church, and found that they had adopted doctrines subversive of the gospel, whereupon it was,

XII. Moved by Rev. T.L. Davidson, seconded by Deacon Baker and carried unanimously that said church be struck off the list of Baptist churches composing the Association.[7]

Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Baptists of 19th Century Canada and their 21st Century descendants is the central place that the very word autonomy holds in the modern context and its scarcity in 19th and early 20th Century constitutions, by-laws and writings.  Those sceptical about this claim are welcome to examine the extensive holdings of the Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College.  Is it possible that the idea of autonomy may hold a nearly idolatrous grip upon many 21st Century Baptist Churches?

Conclusion – Setting Autonomy and Free-Will Association in Healthy Tension

The CLRA Statement seeks to maintain the historic tension between autonomy and free-will association with weight given to autonomy.  How does this apply practically?

Baptist churches often use their autonomy to join free-will associations with churches of like faith forming associations and denominations. If a disagreement arises, the offending church is to be given opportunity to turn aside from their course.  If the church will not turn aside, they may use their autonomy to withdraw from the association, or the association my decide to drop them from fellowship.  The autonomy of the local church is not and should not be violated in this action.  The association cannot insist upon a certain teaching or forbid a certain teaching.  The association cannot interfere with the calling of pastors, elders or deacons.  The association cannot seize buildings or lands or monies.  But the association can insist that all autonomous churches in fellowship abide by the terms of their association or be dropped from fellowship.  This is the delicate tension of autonomy and free-will association amongst Baptist churches that the CLRA Statement of Faith seeks to present.

Marc Bertrand


[1] “CLRA Statement of Faith”

[2] Barry White, “The Origins and Convictions of the First Calvinistic Baptists” Baptist History and Heritage Vol. 25 No. 4, (October, 1990): 46.

[3] “1689 Baptist Confession: Chapter 26”

[4] ibid

[5] Grand River Assoc. North Clerk, June 19 & 20, 1857, Minutes of the Grand River Association, North of Regular Baptist Churches at their First Annual Meeting, (Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College), p. 12-14.

[6] Accessed from the Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College from the Constitution of the Peterborough Association of Baptist Churches, Walkerton Association of Baptist Churches, Upper Canada East Association of Baptist Churches and the Amherstburg Association of Baptist Churches.

[7] Caldwell, Rev. W.A. Clerk, June 28 & 29, 1861 Minutes of the Grand River (North) Association of Regular Baptist Churches at their Fifth Annual Meeting, (Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College), p. 3-4.

Category: General

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