AT THE CORE OF CONGREGATIONAL POLITY
On Occasion, people will ask about how and why a Baptist church functions the way it does. Usually, this comes in the form of questions like who’s really in charge of the church? Or Who makes the decisions and plans ministry of the church? They are asking what their church polity is? Polity is the operational and governance structure of the church or denomination. Church Polity denotes the ministerial structure of a church and the authority relationships between churches. In Christian churches, we find at least three mainline polities; Episcopal, Presbytery, and Congregational.
For the next few weeks, I will be writing about our Baptist form of Polity. Baptists have, since their early beginnings have practiced Congregational Polity. When we look at Congregational Polity as Baptist, we must consider three theology roots in our Baptist distinctive. These are Believers Baptism, Priesthood of the believer, and Soul Competency. These three distinct theologies are unique to each other, yet they are bound together at their core in Congregational Polity. A church that wants to have a disciple-making heart portrays each one of these distinctive theologies to their congregation.
Historically, Baptists form out of two groups; one group from the European mainland and the other a group of English separatists looking to escape the Church of England in the 1600s. In 1607, a small group of English Separatists led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys journeyed to Holland to avoid religious persecution in England. There they meet up with Menno Simons (the leader of the Mennonites). They would become what we know today as the Anabaptists. For two years, Smyth studied the Scriptures and came to the peculiar conclusion that the administration of baptism was to believers only. Unfortunately, some Churches of the middle ages had come to use baptism to control the populace rather than introduce them to a new life in Christ. Smyth's breakthrough caused him to baptize himself, Thomas Helwys, and some 40 other congregation members. Their movement was the beginning of the first Mainland Europe Baptist church.
By baptizing believers without permission from a government official or a bishop, Smyth's congregation joined the "free churches" movement. They called them the "free" churches because they refused to conform to any established church's doctrines and practices. Like other reformers, early Baptists felt they should order their churches' governance and develop their beliefs based on Scripture alone.
The word “Baptism” comes from the Greek word baptiz, meaning “to dip, submerge, or immerse” in water. In the New Testament, there are two nouns translated as “baptism.” Baptismos, the act of baptism (Heb. 6:2; 9:10), refers to Jewish ablutions or ceremonial cleansing. And Baptisma, the act of baptism, appears in the New Testament twenty-two times (check your concordance). The New Testament distinguishes between John's baptism and Believers’ baptism (Acts 19:3-5). John's baptism signified repentance or readiness to participate in the kingdom of God. Believers' baptism symbolizes the redemptive work of Christ in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Believers’ Baptism also tells of the believer’s death to the old life and resurrection to walk in a new life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:4-6; Col. 2:12). It also encompasses faith in the coming resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:13). Another Baptist distinctive is that the New Testament knows nothing of infant baptism. In the New Testament, baptism is always a believer’s baptism of immersion, never by sprinkling or pouring.
Distinctive to Baptist is both the mode and method of Baptism. Baptism occurs only for those that are a believer. The New Testament baptism has at its core a proper manner and an appropriate meaning. The mode is an immersion (going under) in water and emersion (coming out) from water. In this action, we find the symbolism of one’s death to self, a burial, and a resurrection to a new life in Christ. A clear example of how one begins one's life following the life of Christ by symbolically following His example. Christ's death, burial, and resurrection were not symbolic but actual events completed on our account. Christ knew no sin, but He willingly took on our sin, paying the price for that sin (Rom 6:3-11). The mode of baptism then must reflect that meaning.
The Baptist method of Baptism has always been a person immersing another person under the water; the technique is not dunking yourself. In 1616 John Smyth, one of the first Baptists, found himself in a situation where there was no one there to baptize him, so he did have to baptize himself. In 1616 early Baptists (English-Separatist) began to ask two questions about baptism. Who was the proper administrator of baptism? And who was the appropriate recipient of baptism? The problem of proper administrators among early Baptists was a reaction to their having been baptized as infants in the Anglican church by Anglican clergy. Over time, the proper administrator's question would become associated with an ordained person administering the baptism (We will come back to ordination later in the series). Many early Baptists were not keen on the idea since it lent itself to St Augustine's theology of secessionism as if the administrator emitted some grace in the action. By the 1700s, Baptists began to associate the baptism's quality with the secessional position of the one doing the baptism. In the end, Baptists tend to reject as New Testament baptism anything that changes either the method or the meaning.[i] Yet if, as a congregation, we are to practice and teach “Priesthood of the Believer,” shouldn’t the priest in training practice the mode and method of baptism?
This Baptist distinctive is why a local Baptist church will have no problem asking an individual about their baptism before joining a local congregation. Like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, Baptist churches administer baptism to their members based on their believing profession of faith. As autonomous churches that practice a particular means and method of baptism, Baptists take specific responsibilities to administer baptism with intensifying responsivity to the regenerate church.
Baptism is not Regeneration; they are closely related and sequential. Article 4 of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) treats regeneration and conversion as part of one event: considering regeneration neither as before nor subsequent from conversion. Regeneration and conversion are concurrent realities of the beginning of salvation. The BFM does separate the biblical concept of salvation into four categories: regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. All equally a part of the salvific process.
Baptism for the Baptist is the response to God’s work of regeneration, a response to God’s call to “Follow Him.” Regeneration is an act of God, not an act of man (John 1:13). Humankind is merely responding to the grace so freely offered by Christ. Since regeneration is by grace (Eph 2:8-10), baptism does not produce, aide, or complete it. Baptism is the symbol of the experience, not its source or means (Rom. 6:4-5). John 3 calls this the “new birth.” Here the soul is cleansed of sin and made new, made fresh by the Holy Spirit. In regeneration, the penitent believer receives a new nature. Then by justification and sanctification continues their development into glorification. Thus, the disciple-making process begins before conversion and only ends upon arrival in the New Kingdom either by death or second advent.
Simply put, regeneration is a change of heart produced by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin. The sinner, responding to conviction, demonstrates repentance toward God in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. At which point, submitting to baptism and becoming a part of a local body of believers to live out their calling of service to the Kingdom of God.
The Scripture does not set forth an exact order of salvation to describe salvation. The Scriptures convey the process of salvation through stories of people. The individuals’ story portrays the church's and the world’s witness of their changed lives' baptism and experience. It is their testimonies that endear them to their faith (Rev 12:11). Even the first generation of reformers refused to speculate on the order of salvation. They have gone so far as to warn about such speculation. Assuming the order of salvation is always problematic. Some have shown an inclination to speculate in the name of systematic theology.
The church has a responsibility to recognize that regeneration involves a moral and spiritual renewal of life's will and purpose. In the natural birth, we are born in sin - with a sinful nature (Psalm 51:5; John 8:44), we are dead in our sin. Because of this position, it is necessary to be born from above if we are to possess God's character and become sons (children) of God (John 1:12-13). Through regeneration, God imparts to us his nature, and we become “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). To be “born again” or “born from above” is a spiritual change fashioned by the Holy Spirit. Satan's child becomes a child of God (1 John 3:10). The church is the gathering of those “born from above” and must act accordingly (1 john 3:4-10).
Though born into apparent relationships, a group of natural-born relationships: family and nation with a certain ability, learning, wealth, status position in society, does not assure anything. Only a regenerate church of those born anew have any assurance, the assurance of Christ Himself. In the new birth, each one achieves citizenship to the kingdom of God (cf. John 3:3). We must be born all over again or anew. Each of them having traded a stone heart for a heart of flesh. Taking up their cross and following daily the instructions of the Father in Heaven.
A regenerate church is not a church of numbers. It is a church that takes its responsibility to make-disciples, bringing people into the Kingdom of God's citizenship. The church - meaning its members – disciple people to recognize their sins, submit themselves to the Holy Spirit's regeneration, and identify with Christ through baptism. Baptism is not the church making a claim on an individual; it is the individual’s submission to the Holy Spirit of God. Baptism is joining God’s Kingdom. The work of that Kingdom is the preparation for the advent of Christ returning as King to establish His Kingdom forever.
[i] Hobbs, Herschel H.. What Baptists Believe . B&H Publishing Group.