Unity in a Baptist Church?

Charles R. Phelps

FrontLine • March/April 2009

Some have said, “Baptist churches multiply by division!” Such an observation must not be taken lightly, for it was our Savior’s prayer that His disciples be models of divine unity reflecting the very tri-unity of the Godhead (John 17:22). The absence of unity in the church requires prayerful, Scriptural attention, for disunity is dishonoring to God.

The 133rd Psalm is a song in praise of unity. It begins with the wonderful words, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (As the father of two daughters and three sons, I’ve often said that the 133rd is my favorite psalm.) In this “Song of Degrees,” which was meant to be sung by Israelites during their pilgrimage feasts, David describes unity with two very powerful word-pictures.

First, the psalmist says that unity “is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard” (v. 2). At the anointing of the high priest the fragrance of the oil filled the air with unequalled sweetness. Even so, the unity of the saints is an undeniable fragrance of greater value than clean buildings, ecclesiastical furniture, and grand marketing schemes.

In verse 3 David provides a second word-picture comparing unity to “the dew of Hermon . . . that descended upon the mountains of Zion.” As the ice upon great Mt. Hermon melted, it watered the plains, and they became fruitful. Likewise, as the ice of hostility melts in the hearts of God’s people, there will be fruitfulness.

Psalm 133 teaches us that unity is the pungent fragrance of faith that makes fruitfulness possible.

Because our great High Priest prayed for unity and the psalmist shows unity to be a very powerful commodity, every believer ought to take seriously the often neglected portion of the typical church covenant in which we promise to “strive to sustain the unity of the saints.” While real Christian unity exists only where there is doctrinal harmony (Phil. 1:27) and fervent prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:1), unity thrives where Spirit-led, Scripturally-guided congregational church government is practiced.

Church government is a matter of great controversy in our generation. There are churches using business models and marketing schemes to impact their communities. Other churches appear to be personality-driven fiefdoms that prosper while the lord (note the small “l”) is present to direct the vassals. There are churches governed from the top-down under Roman rule and Episcopalian oligarchies, and there are others driven from the bottom-up by democratic forums lacking Biblical foundation—which appear to be nothing more than social clubs. Questions regarding elder government, the role of deacons, autocratic pastors, and parliamentary procedures give ongoing evidence of contemporary ecclesiastical confusion. I would like to suggest that the New Testament represents a beautiful balance of power between the pastor and the people. When this balance is understood and respected, the fragrance of fruitful unity can become the norm, not the exception (even in Baptist churches).

In Hebrews 13:7 and 17 believers are clearly instructed to follow the faith of their spiritual leaders by demonstrating consistent obedience and loving submission. Faithful leaders “watch for [the] souls” of those who follow them and will one day “give account” to the Lord for each soul that they have influenced (James 3:1). Spiritual leaders in the local church are to be respected for their work’s sake (1 Thess. 5:12, 13). Where there is no respect for the spiritual leaders in the local church (both pastors and deacons—1 Tim. 3:1–13; Phil. 1:1), there can be no hope of sustaining spiritual unity. Just as there can be no hope of harmony in a home where the husband and father is not respected, there can be no hope of unity in the congregation where those in positions of spiritual leadership are not revered. Most believers are well versed in this concept. Sadly, some are subjected to strong messages asserting that the authority of spiritual leaders should be respected even when the character of the “spiritual leader” is suspect. We must be clear, “bishops” (pastors and elders) must maintain a “blamelessness” (1 Tim. 3:1, 2) or be brought before the flock and admonished for their failures (1 Tim. 5:19, 20). Congregational unity cannot be sustained where there is no pastoral integrity.

Just as the congregation is to honor the spiritual leader (1 Tim. 5:17), the spiritual leader is to show respect to the congregation. Pastors (elders and bishops) are not to act as “lords” over “God’s heritage” but serve rather as examples (1 Pet. 5:1–3). Even the apostolic pastors who were used of the Spirit to give instruction to the churches in the pages of God’s Word allowed the Spirit of God to lead through congregational church government. There are at least six decisions that are to be made corporately and democratically by New Testament congregations. Let’s take a moment to review them:

Discipline of church members requires congregational consent.

The pastor alone, or in consultation with an official board, does not have the authority to mete out church discipline. The authority of church discipline resides within the congregation. In Matthew 18 our Lord said, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (vv. 15–17).

The apostle Paul clearly respected the authority of the assembled congregation to practice discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul addresses the entire congregation (not the pastoral staff or the deacons) when he declares, “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles” (v. 1). The Spirit’s instruction to the church in Corinth is very clear. “When ye are gathered together . . . deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (vv. 4, 5). As the New Testament reader arrives in 2 Corinthians 2, it becomes clear that the instructions of 1 Corinthians 5 were respected by the Corinthian congregation, for in 2 Corinthians 2:6 it is noted that their work was a “punishment . . . inflicted of many” (literally “by the majority”).

Church discipline is to be practiced by Biblically obedient, spiritually sensitive congregations. The pastor has no power to execute discipline. Such power resides within the congregation and is to be taken very seriously, for when it is exercised, the wayward are literally made unto us as “heathen” (Matt. 18:17) with the expectation that Satan will buffet them (1 Cor. 5:5).

Deacon selection requires congregational consent.

In the early verses of Acts 6 the multiplication of ministerial responsibilities was answered by the dividing of ministerial duties. As the widows complained because they were neglected, the apostolic pastors of the church of Jerusalem did not allow their plight to be unanswered. Instead the apostles suggested that the congregation “look” for those qualified to serve the needs of the Grecian widows (v. 3). Acts 6:5 specifically tells us that “the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose [a Greek word meaning “to elect”]” the men who would serve as the first deacons of the “First Church.” While the apostles enjoyed the capacity to prophesy and perform confirming miracles, they did not take to themselves the task of selecting servants within the local assembly. They respected the Spiritled congregation’s ability to select the right men for the task at hand.

During the time I served as pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, New Hampshire, we rewrote our church constitution to take the selection of deacons out of the hands of a “Nominating Committee”; instead, the congregation would select the deacons by simply placing names on blank ballots that were distributed on election night. The congregation was reminded of the character traits set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Acts 6 for those who would serve as deacons. After Biblical instruction was given, the members of the congregation were asked to simply list on their blank ballots the names of those who they felt were best qualified to serve. The congregation always demonstrated Spirit-guided wisdom in their selection, and there was never any reason to suspect that I, as their pastor, influenced the election for some personal advantage.

Dissemination of the gospel through missionary endeavor requires congregational consent.

In Acts 13 the church at Antioch becomes the first missionary- sending church. As the Spirit of God moved within the congregation (Acts 13:1–3), Barnabas and Saul were “separated” for the work God wanted them to do. At the conclusion of their missionary journey the workers demonstrated their accountability to the congregation by returning and rehearsing the wonderful works that God had done (Acts 14:26, 27).

While pastors and deacons should certainly be involved in praying for, preparing and presenting missionary candidates, it remains the responsibility of the congregation to disseminate the gospel message through the sending of democratically chosen missionaries.

Deciding who the elders (pastors or bishops) should be requires congregational consent.

As the congregationally-sent missionaries were reviewing the work that had been accomplished (Acts 14), they made certain that it would be perpetuated by ordaining “elders” in “every church” (v. 23). The word translated “ordained” in Acts 14:23 is a very picturesque Greek word, cheiroteneo. Cheiroteneo is a composite of two words, cheir, meaning “hand,” and teino, meaning “to stretch.” The verse is literally picturing the stretching of hands within a congregation as a vote was cast. (Note that this same word cheiroteneo is translated as “chosen” in 2 Corinthians 8:19 to describe a congregational election of a man who would be given the responsibility of distributing collected funds. In 2 Corinthians 8:19 cheiroteneo is translated “chosen.”)

The New Testament allows the congregation to select its own leaders. Both deacons and pastors were elected by the congregation. Pastors and deacons were not chosen by the apostles but rather by Spirit-led democracies (see Acts 6 and 14). Encountering this truth caused the congregation that I led in New Hampshire to make yet another change to our constitution. Instead of the senior pastor selecting those who would serve as assistant pastors, the senior pastor now introduces all candidates for pastoral offices within the assembly. The congregation voices its pleasure through a democratic vote.

Doctrinal statements require congregational consent.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts a council is called because of a dispute brought into the church by Jewish believers who taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. As the apostles worked with the churches to clarify the doctrine of salvation, they respected democratic church government. Acts 15:3 tells us that the representatives of the church were “sent” under the authority of the church in Antioch. (This same word for “sent” is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:11 to describe how God will send a strong delusion upon those who will believe a lie and in Mark 5:12 when the Savior sends the swine into the sea.) The “whole church” in Jerusalem was made aware of the doctrinal decision being rendered (see vv. 12 and 22). Ultimately, the “whole church” sent “chosen” (elected) men back to Antioch with their verdict. While the apostle Paul would be the channel through which the Spirit of God would explain the doctrines of salvation in the great books of Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians, the great apostle submitted himself to the work of the democratic council of the church when a doctrinal statement for the assembly was being hammered out.

While pastors are given extraordinary gifts as teachers (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2), they must respect the congregation’s authority to review, revise, and release doctrinal statements.

Dispersing funds requires congregational consent.

Every member of the Corinthian church was to bring an offering for the collection on “the first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2). The offering received was to be carried exclusively by the member who had been “approved” (1 Cor. 16:3). The “approval,” or selection, of the treasurer was clearly the task of the entire congregation (see 2 Cor. 8:19, 23). These verses may well make a case for the congregational election of a church treasurer and certainly present an argument for the congregational oversight of the church’s finances. In 2 Corinthians 8:20, 21 the apostle Paul, through personal example, provides counsel for pastors who would handle church finances wisely. Simply stated, Paul kept his hands off of the church’s money in order to avoid blame and provide an honest testimony before God and man.

It would appear that the some of the weightiest decisions that the church makes are not to be made by a committee or by the pastor but by the democratic work of the congregation. The New Testament presents a beautiful balance of power. While the spiritual leaders of the congregation are to be held in high regard by the flock, the democratic government of the congregation is to be respected by those who serve as spiritual leaders.

The deacons of the church that I served in New Hampshire served communion to the congregation. I fondly remember being overwhelmed often as these godly servants moved toward the communion table to assist me as I led the united assembly in remembering the Lord’s sacrifice for our sins. My respect for our congregation was deep and genuine. Many times the congregation’s Spiritled wisdom was demonstrated through the difficulties of church discipline. This dear democracy had voiced its opinion through the selection of these dear godly deacons and even by selecting me to be their spiritual leader. Yes, we had discussed difficult doctrinal themes and published them in our constitution for all to consider, and we had carefully considered where we would send our offerings and which missionaries should be supported. But through it all, God brought unity. Unity in a Baptist church! It’s not an oxymoron; it’s our Savior’s plan so that we can know that “with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).

Dr. Charles R. Phelps serves as pastor of Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, IN.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)