Where Church Autonomy Ends

I am the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church.  Baptists throughout their history have distinctly held to a belief in church autonomy. 

That is, Baptists reject the idea that a hierarchy should be able to dictate to local churches what they can and cannot teach or do.  This belief stems from the notion that Jesus is the only Head of the Church, and every believer in Him has access to the very presence of Almighty God (Matt 16:18; Col 1:18; Heb 10:19-22; 1 Peter 2:9).

I believe in local church autonomy, but from time to time something happens that forces me to think deeply on just how far we should go to defend this doctrine.

Today I read an article in the August 7, 2012 issue of the “Western Recorder,” the newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.  In the article, we are told that a Southern Baptist church in Crystal Springs, Mississippi refsued to allow a black couple to wed in their facility – and only informed them the day prior to the cermony!

Apparently, the pastor of said church performed the ceremony at a nearby African-American church when he heard that a few members of the white church he pastored objected to having the wedding in their facility which they claimed had never in their history allowed a black couple to web in their church building.  The pastor felt his job was on the line, so the wedding was moved one day before the wedding date. 

So many things about this story trouble me deeply that I scarcely know where to begin this critique!

First, there is the issue of racism clearly and openly existing in the membership of this church that no doubt claims to believe the Bible, which says God “made from one man [blood] every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26).  That dark-skinned couple differed from them in only one primary respect – the amount of melanin in their skin!  My Bible says that open sin in the ranks of a church must be addressed through the vehicle called “church discipline” (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5).

Second, there is the issue of a few “loud” and no doubt well-established (aka “power-brokers”) clearly running this church.  Where is the Elder leadership?  Where are the rest of the members who should have stepped up and defended their pastor and lovingly but firmly rebuked this vocal few?  This incident shows so much of what has been wrong in far too many of our Southern Baptist churches for several generations now.  How is it that a pastor felt seriously threatened in his job security by what was called in the article a “handful of church members”?  This is a local church in disarray.  God help them.

Third, there is the issue of a pastor not taking a strong stand for biblical truth.  I do not ever like having to accuse a fellow-pastor.  The situation he was put in was no doubt extremely difficult.  But, that does not change the fact that His calling from God is lead that church to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  Oh how our churches need pastors who will stand in the gap even at the risk of their jobs, yeah even their lives! 

This whole thing has made me sad this morning.  I grieve over the condition of so many of our Baptist churches.  Generations of doctrinal liberalism and matriarchal leadership and power-broking and unbiblical ecclesiology (not to mention man-centered sotierology) have left their marks.  Is it any wonder so many of the young men I knew in seminary wanted to go into church planting rather than face the prospects of being hired by a church like this one in MS?!?

And, I must ask myself, where does a local church’s autonomy end?  Biblically, I think the answer is clear: No church claiming the Name of Jesus ever has the right to defy His Lordship and Headship by rejecting His teachings.  A church’s autonomy ends as soon as it violates the clear teachings of Scripture!

Church Autonomy is precious to me in many ways, as a Baptist and a Christian and an American who appreciates our God-granted freedoms.  But, we must all remember autonomy can be dangerous, too.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask the pastor of this church in MS.

Or, ask Adam and Eve.   

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