Summary: Exploration of the congregational government in the apostolic church.
“In these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
There is a crisis in Baptist life today that cannot be resolved by bigger budgets, better programs or more sophisticated systems of data processing and mass communication. It is a crisis of identity rooted in a fundamental theological failure of nerve. The two major diseases afflicting contemporary congregations are spiritual amnesia (we have forgotten who we are) and ecclesiastical myopia (whoever we are, we are glad we are not like “them”). While these maladies are not unique to the people of God called Baptists, they are perhaps most glaringly present among us.
It is commonly said that Baptists practise a democratic form of church governance. This is not strictly correct, though the members of the Continental Congress during the formative days of the United States adapted Baptist polity as a model for the democracy practised by the American states. Democracy, as practised in the early days of the American Republic, is not the same democracy that is practised today. At the first, and as a significant aside, those who had nothing invested in the republic were not given a voice, though participants in democracy were enjoined to consider the need of all citizens when passing legislation. Democracy was about giving, not about taking.
Democracy assumes that the will of the majority shall rule over a political entity. The church is the Body of Christ; it must not be reduced to a political entity. The church is a spiritual entity with Christ Jesus as its Head. Therefore, the church is to model unity, submitting to the rule of God. The rule of God is exercised by the revelation of His will through the Word which He has given and under the guidance of His Holy Spirit. Above all else, the church that will be pleasing to the Lord God is to seek the unity of the Spirit. We do have a mechanism by which we can appeal to a vote in order to accomplish the work of God, but we should consider such remedy as a means of last resort—an admission of failure to achieve unity. Always and ever, as a community of Faith, our first priority is to seek the unity of the Spirit, discovering the harmony which characterises the presence of God, and expressing the peace which marks all His works.
Despite these issues, Baptist polity has stood as a foundation for our Faith since earliest days. The study of how we conduct our daily business and how we organise our congregations is worthy of our most careful study during this hour.
A BAPTIST CHURCH IS TO MODEL RESPECT FOR AND ACCEPTANCE OF EACH MEMBER. Foundational to the concept of the polity practised among Baptists is Christian courtesy. We are called to model respect for one another and acceptance of one another. Throughout the warp and woof of the fabric which constitutes the Church that Jesus built is mutual respect and trust. In the text before us, mutual respect had begun to break down, and the Christians were beginning to segregate into “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, “them” are not necessarily those outside the Body of Christ.
Our language betrays our heart, which is not surprising in light of Jesus’ words. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” That which comes out of the mouth is nothing less than the expression of what is in the heart. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” [MATTHEW 15:18, 19]. What is imperative for us to see is that the thought precedes the word, just as the attitude precedes the action.
If we think divisively, we will be divisive. If we endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit, we will be unified; it depends upon us—our attitude, our spirit. Perhaps the best way in which to avoid reducing others among the people of God to the underclass of “them” is to train ourselves to speak of Him. Whenever a church ceases to speak of “they” and “them” and begins to speak of “He” and “Him,” it is well on the way to being an apostolic church. I suggest that the world desperately needs to see at least one church which has adopted the language of Zion and seeks to unite the people of God.