Last year was very significant in Baptist history as we marked 400 years since the first Baptist church was founded on English soil. Thomas Helwys (1575-1616) and a small group of Baptist separatists founded the church around 1612 in Spitalfields in the east-end of London.
Since then, Baptists as a Protestant group have survived various religious persecutions. Key elements of Baptist identity such as believers’ baptism, separation of Church and State, the right for every believer to read the Bible and have access to God, are values shared with other separatist groups such as Anabaptist, Mennonites and some Puritans. The priesthood of all believers is another identity shared with other dissenters, but the expression of that through the church members meeting is one of the distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology. The idea of every believer voting or having a say in church matters, irrespective of their gender or class, was radical when it began.
In addition, the Baptist idea of the church members meeting ensured that it was not only people in ordained ministry who could decide church affairs, but that every believer has the right, by virtue of being a Christian, to discern God’s mind and will (Christocracy not Democracy). This was counter-cultural in a period when church governance was dominated by Bishops, synods and clergy in general.
Since celebrating 400 years of our history as a denomination, I have been reflecting on one of the distinctive elements of our beloved church and how it is being reshaped. This is the congregational type of church governance expressed through the church members meeting... which is being reshaped or totally abandoned in the many new Baptist churches in London. The Baptist churches reshaping this are largely churches with Christians who have come from South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. These congregations are vibrant, energetic and dynamic, and the majority have members who have come from a Pentecostal or Charismatic background. Sometimes the leaders of these churches have also come from a Pentecostal/Charismatic background. These churches have brought fresh energy and cultural diversity into London and have bore fruit in the ministry there.
But as they have brought fresh expressions of church, they have also brought a Charismatic style of church and church governance akin to independent Pentecostal Churches (hence the term, ‘Bapticostal Churches’). This is seen through church leaders being empowered to take decisions, as opposed to the Baptist model of congregational governance. One might think that such congregations would certainly not be happy with that, but the truth is they are happy that the leaders are taking the initiative to lead.
This style of leadership is partly influenced by the cultures within the congregation. Take for example, a Baptist church with Ghanaians or Nigerians as the majority of the congregation. Culturally, many are inclined to respect elders or any person in the place of authority. Some might view this as negative, as it can lead to autocratic leaders and this has certainly occurred in some cases. However, there are positives of this cultural trait. One of these is strong leadership that is not constantly hindered by members having to vote on everything, including minute details such as what colour the wall of the church should be!
Ecclesiologically, this style of leadership encourages visionary leaders who are empowered to act without being prevented by church members who might not get along with them. It must be mentioned that this style of church governance, while pronounced among these churches, is not limited to them as there are Baptist churches with white majority congregations who prefer and adhere to this type of church leadership.
In addition, other church traditions and church governance such as Episcopal style of leadership are similar. The Baptist churches that practise this style of leadership do so because some of them have been frustrated by lack of progress made under the congregational governance. I am not at all advocating that charismatic style of leadership is better than congregational form of church governance or vice versa. I am simply articulating that as we continue to reflect on our history, it is worth considering whether more Baptist churches, particularly those in London, will change what has been considered as fundamental to Baptist DNA.
Whichever way we head, one thing is sure and that is that the Baptist concept of the autonomy of churches enshrined in the Declaration of Principle can allow for both church ecclesiologies to exist within our Union... or among Baptists Together!
The Revd Israel Olofinjana is an ordained and accredited Baptist minister and pastored Crofton Park Baptist Church before becoming the Team Leader at Catford Community Church in September 2011.
He is Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background. He holds a BA (Hons) in Religious Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and MTh from Carolina University of Theology (CUT).
He blogs and is the author of Turning the Tables on Mission
Picture: Master isolated images/freedigitalphotos.net