Can Missional Communities be Baptist?

Can missional communities be Baptist or are they by very nautre extra-denominational?

Church decline in the UK has been a common pattern across nearly all denominations and churches over the last 20-50 years. Average weekly attendance at the Church of England was 1,091,484 in 2011 this is down from 1,205,000 in 2000, a decrease of over 10,000 per year in the last 10 years[1]. This pattern is similar in other Christian Denominations. Within Baptist churches membership between 2005 and 2010 dropped from 207,777 to 197,871[2]. This has lead many churches to look at how they are doing, or not doing church, to see how they can respond to the society they are in, which their current ways of doing church are not reaching. The Church of England in 2004 launched ‘Fresh Expressions’. ‘Fresh Expressions’ is a network within the Church of England and Methodist Church which seeks ‘a new form of church for a fast-changing world that serves those outside the existing church, listens to people and enters their culture, makes discipleship a priority and intentionally forms Christian community.”[3] Similarly within the Baptist Union of Great Britain, or Baptists Together as it has recently been rebranded, the ‘Pioneer Collective’ was set up in 2012 for those within Baptist structures ‘whose calling is to go beyond the walls of the church to intentionally and creatively respond to the spiritual needs of our society.’[4] Pioneer Collective has a vision of sending 400 pioneers to set up new ways of doing church.

As we can see, there is a growing movement within the UK across all denominations to respond to society in a different way churches have historically. My questions is then, what do these new expressions, these missional communities[5], have to do to become a Baptist church or Baptist expression?

Many, quite rightly, may think that baptism is a key distinctive for Baptists. That baptism by immersion is one of the staples of being a Baptist church; after all, it is the name of the denomination. However, this is not something that is solely practiced by Baptist churches. Stephen Holmes in his book ‘Baptist Theology’ writes this:

‘Most Christians in the modern West, if asked what was distinctive about Baptist church life, would probably point to believer’s baptism. However, this practice is neither unique to Baptist churches nor at the heart of their understanding of what it means to be the church.’[6]

Although recognising that Believers baptism, that is Baptism for those who profess Christ as their Lord and Saviour, is vital and central for Baptists, Holmes wants to suggest that there is something about the way in which Baptists organize the church that makes them Baptist. Early Baptists reacted against the control of church teaching being dictated by the Bishops, the state and the King. Thomas Helwys in his book ‘A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity’ (1612) writes:

"If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.’[7]

Helwys here argues that anyone can go to God and not have to go through neither priest nor King and that faith is between the individual and God and should not be organised by the state. This understanding that the church should be wholly under Christ and not the King is worked out in the ‘First London Baptist Confession’ of 1644. The confession reads in section 10:

‘Jesus Christ only is made the Mediator of the New Covenant, even the everlasting covenant of grace between God and man…and be perfectly and fully the Prophet, Priest and King of the Church of God for evermore.’[8]

This is a key understanding for Baptist life. What is claimed in this confession is that the King has no authority over the church, as Christ is the true King. In the UK, although now it is only a ‘rubber-stamping’ exercise, the Monarch appoints the Bishops and Archbishops in the Church of England. This mean that back in the time of the early Baptists the King could appoint supporters of themselves and people to the office of Bishop and Archbishop who they waned to. The Bishop may feel they owe the King for putting them in that position and so they may put the interests of the King and state first rather than that of the Church.

Early Baptists believed, because no one had to go through someone else to get to God, that all believers were able to discern the mind of Christ and appoint those who they felt God wanted to lead the church, rather than a higher power doing it for them. Section 36 of the London confession reads:

‘XXXVI. That being thus joined, every Church power given them from Christ for their better well-being, to choose to themselves fitting persons into the office of Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons, being qualified according to the Word, as those which Christ has appointed in His Testament, for the feeding, governing, serving, and building up of His Church, and that none other have to power to impose them, either these or any other.’[9]

Stephen Holmes sums this up in more modern language when he writes:

‘A major ecclesiological distinctive shared by Baptists is congregational church government. This is the doctrine that the church is formed and led by mutual agreement of all its members. It does not need the authorisation (as from Bishop or presbytery) to be a true church of Christ, nor does it cede its affairs to a priest or a group of elders.’

This is the key distinctive of a Baptist church, established or missional. For Baptists the understanding that we are a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), that all members of a local church has not only the right but ability to discern the mind of Christ on all matters of the church, from mission to finance, is crucial. I would argue that without this specific distinctive, of congregational government, one couldn’t claim to be a Baptist church. This leads me to the question, how would this work out in a missional community or pioneering expression of Church?

I pastor a pioneering expression of church. I work among some of the poorest and most marginalized people in my community from various faith backgrounds and cultural backgrounds. We meet in a home church, 8-10 people gathered in a living room to share food and read the Bible and discuss it together. The community did not appoint me as their pastor, I turned up and gathered a community, the youth group did not appoint me as their youth worker, I turned up and gathered a community. This, then, doesn’t seem very Baptist. However I would argue it is it just doesn’t look like the normal model. In a traditional Baptist church, to work out their understanding of Church government, the church will normally hold members meetings, anywhere from 4 to 12 a year. During these meetings, if done well, a church will agree financial policy, missional aims, appoint leaders of the church and discuss other matters as they arise. In a missional community, this can be a difficult model to follow. Many missional communities, such as mine, have a much more fluid, diaspora community. Where people will commit for a short while then leave for a short while, before, usually repeating that cycle again. It is however my experience that in these small gatherings it is easier to enable the community to own and not just be apart of the decision-making, but be the decision makers themselves. We do not have church meetings every other month, but every week, they aren’t however labeled as church meetings. Every week we look at how we can impact the community around us, we share the teaching and leading of the group amoungst ourselves and collectively appoint people to lead certain projects within the wider community and if/when I move on, the community will hopefully continue to run in a similar way.

On further from that, the priority of the church meeting is to discern the mind of Christ together. In Baptist thought, the idea of the church meeting is not to express personal preference and to act in a democratic way but in a Christocratic way, that’s to say it is not the ‘rule of the people’ but the ’rule of Christ’. The purpose of the church meeting is to seek the rule of Christ for the local church. Holmes, on the church meeting, writes:

‘The church gathers corporately to seek to hear its Lord’s voice and to commit itself to obey what it has heard. Where is it practiced, the insistence on finding consensus in a church meeting reflects this: church members are called to submit themselves to the will of Christ, not to indicate their own preference and desire’[10]

I have experienced in church meetings, in their traditional format, that people often try to take control of the meeting or want to express their view in a way, which is not constructive but damaging. It has been clear to me that personal preferences not the mind of Christ is being promoted. This, I would argue, is because church members are only given small amounts of time to reflect and pray about the issues being discussed and they may feel that having a say on church matters only 4 times a year means they only have limited time to express corporately their feelings. Dr Nigel Wright in his series commissioned by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, ‘Baptist Basics’, writes of the church meeting:

‘Church Members meetings do not always get things right. Since we are all limited, seeking the mind of Christ does not guarantee infallibility. We only ever operate within the light we have and that means we can be wrong’[11]

Whenever flawed people gather to try and understand the workings of a perfect God, people will get things wrong. However I feel that in the way we conduct congregational government within our missional community, there is less damage when people do get things wrong. Upsets and disagreement, if handled badly, can lead to church splits. If though, like we do, one has constant dialogue, discussing issues frequently and openly with much time for prayer before, during and in between discussions, the mind of Christ can be discerned much more effectively than by gathering just 4 times a year.

The other distinctive I believe a local missional context must have to become a local Baptist church is that of a committed focus on discipleship leading to mission. This flows out of the community, as we have discussed, discerning the mind of Christ together. Holmes writes:

‘”Visible saints, walking together in the ways of the Lord and watching over each other’: this definition of holiness is irreducibly corporate. Specifically, Baptists find sanctification within the community of the local church and not elsewhere’[12]

Holmes argues that we have a duty as Baptist Christians to ‘walk together in the ways of the Lord’ to help one another in the faith and care for one another. This understanding is the crux of Christian discipleship in Baptist understandings. The church corporate, the body of Christ with the ability to seek the mind of Christ, is there to encourage one another and help one another into deeper discipleship of Christ. Many Christian traditions focus on withdrawal as a key element to deeper discipleship. One need only to think of the desert Fathers withdrawing into the desert for deeper times of prayer and solitary time with God or indeed the rise of retreat days and weeks over the last 10 years, where people withdraw from the day to day to spend time alone with God. Baptists, however, acknowledging that these practices can be useful, want to have a focus on the gathered body helping one another to follow Christ more closely. Holmes, writing on Baptist discipleship, writes:

‘God, for Baptists, is encountered and known in a gathered community and, indeed, by a gathered community; the lone believer is at least profoundly disadvantaged in his or her discipleship.’[13]

This close community and focus on discipleship is not however just for the sake of the individual believer but so that they can be strengthened and encouraged in Mission. Paul Beasley-Murray in his book, Radical Believers, wants to argue that mission is intrinsic to what it means to be a Baptist:

‘Evangelism is part of the Baptist way of life. It is significant that in the relatively brief ‘declaration of principle’, adopted by the Baptist Union of Great Britain as its basis of union, the third and final principle declares: ‘It is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelization of the world’ [14]

We see here from the end of the Declaration of Principle the focus on being a disciple, that deep following of Christ, which leads to taking part in sharing the gospel, the focus on mission. This can and will look very different for each believer but it is still the responsibility of each believer to do. I believe that this commitment to deep discipleship and mission is in many ways much easier for missional communities to live out. It is their sole aim, usually, to be missional. At my community everything we do as a community and in our individual lives is to bring glory to Christ and introduce people to him. We have an understanding that Christ sends all his people to ‘do the work of the evangelist’ (2 Tim 4:5) and to help people once they have made a commitment to follow Jesus to do that themselves in a way which suits their personality and their gifting’s. Early Baptist William Carey, known as the pioneer of the modern missionary movement[15], saw mission as vitally important to the Baptist way of life and travelled to Kolkata, India in 1793 to preach the Gospel to the people of India, after setting up ‘The Particular Baptist Missionary Society for the Propagation of Gospel amongst the heathen’ in 1792[16]. This missionary body was formed almost 100 years before the current Baptist Union of Great Britain was formed in 1891[17]. We can see from this that Baptists from their earliest beginnings were committed to mission, to sharing the good news of Jesus anywhere they felt God wanted them to. Concluding his section on mission, Beasley-Murray writes:

‘Baptists are unashamedly a missionary people. They have always been passionately concerned with sharing their faith and to demonstrate Gods love for all.’

To conclude, it is my firm belief that for any missional community to become a local Baptist church they must be committed to mission and discipleship, but that the mission of that local community must be decided by the local church and through being governed by the members of that local community they seek the mind of Christ for that local community.

[1] ‘’ as viewed on 18/03/15

[2] As viewed on 18/03/15

[3], as viewed on 18/03/15

[4] as viewed on 18/03/15

[5] When using the term “Missional Community’ I mean a community of Christians that ‘do’ church differently to an established church that generally meet in a church building on a Sunday.

[6] Holmes, S. Baptist Theology, T&T Clark, London, 2012, 89.

[7] Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, 1612. (Mercer University Press, Georgia 1998, 53.)

[8] as viewed in 18/03/15

[9] as viewed on 18/03/15

[10] Holmes, 102.

[11] Wright, N. Baptist Basics: The Church Members Meeting, BUGB, Didcot, 2009, 5.

[12] Holmes, 155.

[13] Holmes, 155.

[14] Beasley-Murray, P. Radical Believers, The Baptist way of being Church, BUGB, Oxfordshire, 2006, .125.

[15] Ibid. 125.

[16], as viewed on 19/03/15

[17], as viewed on 19/03/15

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