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Free To Be…The Baptist Way: Church Freedom


Rev. John Williams

Matthew 18:15-20

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

2 Corinthians 3:17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.


It is my understanding that our early American Baptist History is marked with a bit of controversy, conflict and tension.  (I know that comes as a great shock to some of you….to others, not so much.  After all, I’ve often said where two or more Baptists are together you have a potluck supper, an offering, and a fistfight.)

In 1845 the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (today’s International Ministries) determined that it could not, and would not, appoint missionaries who were slave holders.  The result of this decision was the withdrawal of the Baptist churches in the South and the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptists of the North did not immediately form their own convention but remained a loosely knit federation of societies and associations.

It wasn’t until May of 1907 that the Baptists of the North founded the Northern Baptist Convention, now known as the American Baptist Churches, USA.  Why did it take over 50 years for this decision to be made? Were they just being typical Baptists; slow to embrace change of any kind? 

From what I have been told, it was the influence of our understanding of soul freedom that necessitated such a cautious approach to something as radical as the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention.  One of the natural outgrowths of soul freedom is our notion of Church Freedom, the autonomy of the local church. The fearful rallying cry against the formation of the Convention sounded something like this:  “We will not have a Baptist Pope telling our churches what to do!” AND “There will be no Baptist Vatican to which our churches must answer!” Obviously these fears were allayed and we have successfully overcome a system of hierarchical overreach. 

So another part of our Baptist DNA weaving itself through the life of American Baptist congregations, the second of four Baptist distinctives we will be discussing, is our notion of Church Freedom or the Autonomy of the Local Church.

Church freedom is the idea that local churches are free and independent, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine who they will be, what they will do, and with whom they will associate.  No bishop or pastor, no civil leader or magistrate, no religious body or convention of churches can tell a Baptist church who it can hire, who it can ordain, how to order its worship, or what ministries it can undertake.  The individual members, under the Lordship of Christ and in prayer and discussion with one another, make the decisions for each local church. This is called local church autonomy, or “Church Freedom.”

The New Testament readings this morning speak to us, in part, about how the church is to operate.  In Acts we see the formation of the first congregational community and note their commitment to Christ, to one another, and to the study of Scripture; seeking all the more to understand who God had called them to be.  In the Gospel reading, Jesus gives us an understanding of the authority that is present in the local church. It is within that small gathered community that things are “bound” and “loosed.” Jesus reminds us that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present.  Paul reminds us in II Corinthians (3:17) “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Because of Christ’s presence in the gathered community of believers (the local congregation, the local church) there is a freedom and authority that is God-given and Christ ordained.  There was no priestly order to which the church need turn for direction and permission to act—because Jesus Christ has made us ALL to be priests. When Baptists talk about the priesthood of all believers they do so from our understanding of soul freedom and our understanding of Church Freedom.

In our Old Testament reading this morning we hear Isaiah’s prophecy of the new thing God is doing among God’s people.  On the Day of Pentecost God certainly did something new. God created the church, replacing an old system of priestly hierarchy and centralized authority with a new “household of faith” populated by “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we might] declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into His wonderful light.”  (I Peter 2:9)  The church is God’s new thing; not only the Church Universal made up of ALL believers, but the church local, made up of groups of people in a certain time and a certain place who are commissioned to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in their own context.

So why is Church Freedom important to us today?  If you’ve attended only one church or one type of church for your entire life, you may be surprised to find out that other churches operate differently from our own church. There are the three basic ways people have understood church, thus informing their structures of church government or polity:

Episcopal:  A single leader, the bishop (Greek episkopos) exercises rule over the whole organization.  We most often think of the Roman Catholic Church when we think of this understanding of church. 

 Presbyterian:  In the presbyterian system, each church is governed by a session made up of the pastor(s) and elders who are the representatives of the church.  The churches in an area form a presbytery, which meets occasionally to decide on policy issues for all the churches in the area organization. Presbyteries combine to form a synod, and synods combine to form a denomination.  Pastors and Elders, the Session, (not members) make decisions for a local congregation. Those session members join with the session members of other congregations to create the presbytery, which crafts policy for the congregations in the area.  The synod includes representatives from the presbyteries to form the denomination, which again sets policy and determines the order for its congregations.

Congregational: Finally, there is the Congregational understanding of church.  The local church congregation governs itself. There is no higher governing body over each individual church.  The members of the church vote on all the major decisions facing the church without any influence from anyone outside the church.  It is within this understanding of church that church freedom or local church autonomy flourishes.

It’s important to us today because it is only from within the context of Church Freedom that a local congregation can appropriately proclaim and live out the gospel message in the unique context in which it finds itself.  Does Valley Forge [the location of the American Baptist Churches USA headquarters] understand the unique qualities that make up a city like Lawrence, KS? Does Valley Forge know what kind of worship best speaks to the heart and soul of those who gather at 1330 Kasold Drive each week? Should a denominational executive tell this congregation who must be our pastor and how much money we must give to support world missions?  It is the local church, IN ITS COMMUNITY, that best understands the needs of that community and how, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, it can best respond and share the good news of Jesus.

Remember that there is responsibility that goes along with freedom.  For us to be a free church we must also be a responsible church. We are responsible to understand and interact with the community around us so we can best understand the needs to be addressed.  We are responsible to listen to the voice of the Spirit of God, to whom we are accountable. R. Stanton Norman, in his book, The Baptist Way:  Distinctives of a Baptist Church, writes:  “every church is free to pursue its own spiritual agenda.  Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue whatever gospel ends they deem appropriate, under the lordship of Christ as revealed in Scripture.”

We are responsible to BE the church in this time and place and we do that best when we engage on a personal and congregational level, not a distant denominational and hierarchical level.  For that reason we are involved in ministries like LINK, Harvesters, Family Promise, Habitat for Humanity and others. A free church is not a lazy church; a free church is a response-able church!

Another thing needs to be mentioned about Church Freedom.  While we claim autonomy and independence, we recognize there are some things we cannot and should not do alone.  Therefore, we choose interdependence and association as a way of life as American Baptists.

  • By choice we are related to a wider family of American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas:  The American Baptist Churches of the Central Region.
  • By choice we are related to a wider family of American Baptist churches in the United States and Puerto Rico:  the ABC, USA.
  • By choice we support the ministries of the American Baptist Home Mission Society and American Baptist International Ministries.
  • By choice we connect with American Baptist Women’s Ministries and American Baptist Men’s Ministries.  
  • By choice we are in relationship with a host of other institutions, schools, networks and agencies that help us do ministry more effectively.

Our interdependence and association is not some hierarchical network with someone speaking down to this local church.  Rather it is a grass-roots endeavor that enables partnership, resources, and greater accountability as followers of Jesus Christ.

So we claim church freedom only because this is the most appropriate way for a people who have been created free to live out the calling of Christ in community with one another.  This kind of church life is not to be taken lightly. It comes with great responsibility to take your church membership seriously and to be engaged in the ministry to which God has called us as God’s free church.  The church of Christ cannot be bound by walls of wood or stone…or outside influence, but has been set free in Christ to be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever we are.

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