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Independence and Interdependence: Towards a Harmonization of the Congregational Principle and Associational Relationships

Independence and Interdependence: Towards a Harmonization of the Congregational Principle and Associational Relationships

by Parmesh Venkatasami
Wychwood Baptist Church
edited by Lance Laughton

One of the defining characteristics of the baptist heritage is its position on church government. Congregationalism or the Congregational Principle emphasises the self-governing nature of each individual local church by its members. This principle is embedded in the constitution of many Baptist Churches and Baptist Associations. However, once we move beyond the local church context towards inter-church relationships, the congregational principle has little to say. The following paper aims to explore the intent of the congregational principle, as well as its limitations. The purpose of this exploration will enable us to extrapolate the essential elements of congregationalism in order to suggest a structure that naturally flows toward associational relationships while at the same time maintaining the baptist heritage.

In this paper, we will begin by defining the Congregational Principle by identifying the essential elements of this baptist distinctive. Secondly, we will consider the limitations of the Congregational Principle, particularly in relation to associational structures. Thirdly, we will explore the purpose of associational relationships by looking at two pillars which form the structure of an Association. Finally, we will make some practical observations for associational relationships which retain the key features of the Congregational Principle while empowering associations to fulfil their mandate. Our desire is to provide a clear, logical, and biblically balanced approach towards inter-church relationships amongst baptist church within South Africa. 

  1. Defining the Congregational Principle

The Congregational Principle is a summary statement which articulates a biblical conviction related to church governance or polity. It is stated as follows: 

The CONGREGATIONAL PRINCIPLE, namely that each member has the privilege and responsibility to use his/her gifts and abilities to participate fully in the life of the Church. We recognise that God gifts His Church with Overseers (who are called Pastors or Elders) whose primary function is to lead in a spirit of servanthood, to equip and provide spiritual oversight, and Deacons whose primary function is to facilitate the smooth functioning of the Church. This principle further recognises that each member should participate in the appointment of the Church’s leaders, and that the constituted church meeting, subject to both the direct Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture, is the highest court of authority for the local Church.

From this summary statement, we may ascertain at least three essential features or core elements that comprise the Congregational Principle. These are (1) The privilege and responsibility of the congregation, (2) The gifts of elders and deacons, and (3) The constituted church meeting. We will spend some time looking at each element. 

1.1 The Privilege and Responsibility of the Congregation 

The participation of church members in the life of the church is a natural expression of the redeeming work of Christ. Those who were once dead in sin are now alive to Christ (Rom 6:7-8). This new life is expressed within the community of those who share in the same saving power (Rom 12:1-8). When this redeemed community lives out this new life in Christ, under his Lordship, it is organically built up by its members. To put it another way, each individual believer is added to the church for the benefit and care of others. 

This language is reflected in Paul’s use of the body metaphor (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Co 12:12-14; Eph 4:4, 16). Just as each member of one’s physical body is essential for the health and function of the entire body, so every Christian is essential for the health and ministry of the church. This is why Pereira (2012:80) says, “The Body of Christ is a united organism; alive and able to be built up by its own members who use their spiritual gifts as they minister.” Each individual member, regardless of whether they are a leader or not, is responsible for the growth of other believers. This is often the way that God uses to enable believers to flourish within the community of faith. After all, each believer has a unique gift to contribute to the church. This contribution will include (but is not limited to) the appointment of her leadership, the maintenance of her membership, discipleship within the church, and witness to the surrounding community. It naturally follows that each member must be encouraged, and even expected, to participate in the life of the Church. 

1.2. The Gifts of Elders and Deacons 

The Lord has deemed it necessary that each church should have leaders, namely, elders and deacons. These leaders are gifts from the Lord so that the people of God may be cared for (Rom 12:7-8). Elders and deacons have been established by Christ for the spiritual oversight and practical wellbeing of the local church.

God has purposed that the local church should be cared for and watched over by the under shepherds of Christ (1 Ti 3:1-7; Tit 1:1-5). As under shepherds, the liberty and limitations of the office are delineated by Christ himself. This can most evidently be derived from the threefold offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. As a prophet, an elder strives to minister truth both publicly and privately, through the preaching and ministering of the Word. As a priest, an elder intercedes on behalf of the flock through prayer. As a king, an elder upholds righteousness through godly living endowed with wisdom (Mbewe 2011:41-42).

The term ‘deacon’ literally means, “one who serves” (BDAG 2000:230). Immediately, this emphasis dismisses any idea that the role of a deacon is restricted to purely practical obligations. MacArthur (2008:241) highlights that, “It is a role of service, of sacrifice and of commitment to others’ needs.” The duties of deacons range from charge over the sick and needy members, to counselling and even pastoral assistance by alleviating the elders of any practical distractions (Hiscox 1980:111). Mbewe (2011:57) identifies four aspects in respect to the role of deacons. Firstly, it is very specific. Secondly, it is internal. Thirdly, it is non-policy. Finally, it is recurrent. 

Even though qualifications for elders and deacons may seem similar, it is essential to recognise that elders are called to the ministry of the Word and prayer while deacons relieve them from unnecessary administrative duties, thus facilitating the smooth running of the church (Acts 6:4).

In the process of nominating her leaders, the church prayerfully recognises those who are first and foremost called by God through the discernment of His Word. In the case of elders, Hiscox (1980:100) observes that, “He is placed over the Church by both the Head of the Body [Christ], and by the free and voluntary act of the body itself” (emphasis added). The expectation would be for the eldership to lead the church in the process of discerning the will of God through the Word of God. In this sense, the congregation then holds the eldership accountable, by Scripture, to the exercise of their responsibilities (Acts 17:11). Newton (2005:58) points out that in the early church, “Congregationalism certainly existed, but not to such a degree that the public assembly literally ran the church.”

It is worth noting that the exact application of the Congregational Principle may differ from church to church. For example, the nomination of deacons in one church may originate from the current leadership, while in another church the nomination may originate from the membership. In both churches, however, the final decision is made at a constituted church meeting. Both churches function within the Congregational Principle because both understand the authority of the constituted church meeting, even though their application of the principle may differ. We will not be able to conceive of every possible nuance that may be practiced in a local church, but we do believe that the core elements of the Congregational Principle are essential. Where these core elements are upheld, the church may be deemed to be Congregational.

1.3. The Constituted Church Meeting

The authority of the local church is derived from the Word of God. As such, the local church, so far as it submits itself to the Word of God, is the highest court of authority in ecclesiastic affairs. It must not be misconstructed that the Congregational Principle affirms a democratic concept. Instead, the church must be seen as Theocratic. That is, the church is under the Kingship of Christ in its decision making process.

Jesus alludes to this when he says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:19-20). When the church gathers in the name of Christ it possess a unique authority before God because of Christ’s special presence. The church is more than a social meeting. It is a gathering with great authority. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith emphatically states that: 

To each church so gathered according to the mind [of Christ] as declared in his Word, the Lord has given all the power and authority required to conduct the form of worship and discipline which he has appointed them to observe. He has also given commands and rules for the right and proper use of that power (BCF 26:7; emphasis added).

In other words, the local church’s authority emanates from its submission and obedience to the mind of Christ as articulated in his Word. This authority has liberty and limitations, as the proper use of its power may only be delineated from commands of God. Dever and Leeman (2015:77) assert, “Congregationalism locates authority in the church as a whole as it follows the directives of its Lord in the Scriptures. Elders and deacons provide leadership and guidance in the church’s work.” The responsibility lies with the entire congregation for determining and implementing the will of Christ. Principle and Practices for Baptist Churches: A Guide to the Administration of Baptist Churches, the standard textbook for Baptist Principles still used at the Baptist Theological College, states: 

Baptists claim that a Christian Church is a congregation of baptised believers associated by mutual covenant, self-governing, and independent of all others; having no ecclesiastical connection with any other, though maintaining friendly associational intercourse with all of like faith and order. It has no power to enact laws, but only to administer those which Christ has given (Hiscox 1980:144).  

It may be fair to say that Hiscox’s definition weighs heavily upon local church matters, while being light on inter-church relationships. This imbalance, however, is in no way a reflection on Hiscox, but a consequence of the nature of the principle itself. In other words, the Congregational Principle does not speak to the matter of inter-church associations or relationships. 

So far, we have observed that the Congregational Principle consists of three essential elements. Firstly, the privileges and responsibilities of the congregation. Secondly, the gifts of elders and deacons. Thirdly, the binding nature of the constituted church meeting. After exploring each essential element, what becomes immediately obvious is that the Congregational Principle is purely concerned with the form of governance pertaining to a local congregation. It is not interested in providing guidance for structures outside the church. 

  1. The Limitations of the Congregational Principle 

If the Congregational Principle is purely concerned with the governance or polity of a local church, does this mean it has no benefit for inter-church relationships? Or, to frame the question in another way, what are the limitations of the Congregational Principle? 

In its purest sense, the Congregational Principle is a principle directly related to the congregation. To try and apply the principle outside of that context can only be done by way of extrapolation. That is to say, the essential elements of the Congregational Principle may be applied in an inter-church structure, but the structure itself cannot assume a form of authority over the church. The A/U may rightly believe that each member church has privileges and responsibilities. That each member church should participate in the appointment of the A/U’s leaders. And the decisions taken at a constituted A/U meeting are binding. But these are all matters pertain to the A/U in question, not the local church. 

This is not the way that the Congregational Principle is understood or practiced at the national level of the Baptist Union. The status quo is best articulated by Pereira who writes: 

In the context of the Principle of Congregationalism, the assembled congregation is the highest court of authority; and it follows more broadly, that the assembled body of churches is the highest court of authority for that particular association of churches. When it comes to the affairs of the local church, then it is the assembled congregation. When it comes to the affairs of the local denomination, then it is the assembly of the congregation-mandated representatives of the represented churches. So, the authority goes wider as the assembly’s representation goes wider (2012:81). 

The limitations of the Congregational Principle quickly become apparent when reading Pereira’s assertion. In fact, this statement is in conflict with another baptist principle relating to church autonomy, “The CHURCH…is fully autonomous and remains so notwithstanding responsibilities it may accept by voluntary association.” At first glance, it may be difficult to reconcile the two affirmations made by this principle. On one hand, the church is autonomous. While on the other hand, it is obligated to fulfil any responsibilities it may accept by voluntary association. Does this mean that the church must trade its autonomy when joining an association or the Union? It shouldn’t. What follows are two hypothetical scenarios that are intended to bring the limitations of the Congregational Principle to light. For the sake of these scenarios we will assume doctrinal unity. 

2.1. Scenario 1: The Ministerial Committee Investigation 

The ministerial committee of the Union begins an investigation into one of the pastors on their ministry list. After months of diligent examination, the ministerial committee concludes that the pastor is guilty of misconduct. The ministerial committee disclose their findings to the leadership team of the Union who agree with their conclusion. The leadership team then decide to take the recommendation to the national assembly. At the assembly, the constituency vote to have the pastor removed from the ministry list. Is this decision by the national assembly meeting binding on the local church in which the pastor is employed? 

Regardless of the misconduct of the pastor, whether it is a matter of theological difference or something more serious, the national assembly has no authority to remove the pastor from his office in a local church. By implication of the appointment of a pastor by the congregation, it stands to reason that the dismissal of a pastor is made by the congregation as well. This is the outworking of the second essential element of the Congregational Principle. The national assembly may remove the pastor’s name from their ministerial list, which will have further practical implications (eg. the pastor cannot be appointed in any representative role of the association), but this decision is not binding on the church. The Union may only make recommendations to the local church, which it should take seriously; but the authority for the local church lies within its constituted meeting.

2.2. Scenario 2: The Association’s Leader Appointment 

The time has come for the national assembly to appoint a new leader. A number of names have come to the search committee who have narrowed them down to two options, Candidate 1 and Candidate 2. Both candidates have years of experience. The search committee is confident that either one will help the Union move forward. At the meeting, the majority (75%) of the assembly vote for Candidate 2. Should the minority (25%) accept this decision as binding? 

As this matter pertains to the structure of the Union itself, the minority should submit to the decision of the majority. As the search committee was confident in both candidates, the vote relates to a matter of preference, not a matter of conscience. If the minority believe, however, that this decision will lead the Union in a direction that they are not comfortable with, a local church may decide to leave the association at a constituted meeting.

These two scenarios help us clarity the distinction between the Congregational Principle and voluntary inter-church relationships. If a matter pertains directly to any one of the three essential elements of the Congregational Principle, any decision taken at an associational meeting or national assembly cannot be understood to be binding. If a matter pertains to the structure or practice of the A/U itself, this should be understood as binding as long as the local church chooses to remain in membership. Must the church, then, trade its autonomy when joining a regional association or national union of church? No, not at all. But understanding and delineating different levels of interaction is crucial to upholding the Congregational Principle. 

  1. Inter-Church Associations

So far we have observed that the Congregational Principle is purely concerned with ecclesiastical governance or polity. While the essential elements can be extrapolated to  both the regional association or national union, the decisions of  such meetings are binding   on congregations to varying degrees. Having said that, we firmly believe that local churches should work together to fulfil the Great Commission. How then can we work towards harmonising the Congregational Principle with inter-church relationships? 

In the first place, a brief survey of the New Testament will highlight the various ways churches related to one another. Different churches shared love and greetings (Rom 16:16; 1 Co 16:19; 2 Co 13:13; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4). They shared preachers and missionaries (2 Co 8:18; 3 Jn 5-6). They supported one another financially with joy and thanksgiving (Rom 15:25-26; 2 Co 9:12). They imitated one another in Christian living (1 Th 1:7; 2:14). They were cautioned about whom to receive as teachers (1 Jn 4:1; 2 Jn 7-8). The New Testament also indicates that the early churches in the same geographical region had some sort of relationship with one another (Gal 1:2). The thrust of these passages highlight one thing, local congregations in the New Testament period were integrated with one another. 

Based upon the weight of biblical evidence, our baptist forebears who framed the London Baptist Confession of Faith wrote: 

Each church and all its members are obliged to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all Christ’s churches everywhere. At all times churches should assist all believers within the limits of their area and calling in exercising their gifts and graces. Therefore, when churches have been planted by the providence of God so that they may enjoy the opportunity and advantage [of fellowship], they should seek fellowship amongst themselves to promote peace, increase love, and mutual edification (26.14).

This sentiment quickly spread across the Atlantic, where first step that baptists took toward inter-church relations was the formation of associations. The Philadelphia Association was formed in America in 1707 (Pinson 2010:nn). Those who organised the association made  it clear that they had absolutely no authority over local churches. The association existed primarily for fellowship and discussion of issues confronting churches. Following this initial associational germination, baptists then began to establish entities, such as conventions or societies. These organisations would often have a single focus, such as foreign missions, home missions or publications. From the start, these organisations were not established for the churches to serve them. Rather, they were established to serve the churches. Over time these societies merged into conventions (what we would call the Union). A convention solicits and combines support for various efforts of the denomination, such as missions, education, benevolence and publications rather than for a single issue.

Following this rich history, South African baptists have gathered around the three essential functions of, “kerygma (proclamation), koinonia (fellowship) and diakonia or diaconal service” (Scheepers 2008:123). We would go so far as to say that a local church will best fulfil the Great Commission when it is connected with other like-minded local churches. If this is true, what needs to be established by an association or the Union for the Great Commission to be achieved? We will unpack two necessary pillars: firstly, shared doctrinal confession, and secondly, shared commissional goals. There is significant overlap between these two pillars, however, we believe that some distinction, for the sake of practicality, needs to be made. Evaluating these principled structures is how the local church should decide how it works with other churches. 

3.1. Shared Doctrinal Confession 

Meaningful inter-church relationships can only take place where there is a shared doctrinal conviction on core theological issues. To put it another way, local churches must believe the same thing concerning central doctrines of the Christian faith. If the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, inter-church associations must guard its theological integrity, not compromise it. Mbewe highlights the implications of this as he writes: 

If your inter-church association results in your hiding the basic tenets of the faith so that you do not offend anyone, you will be hiding these same truths from those who need to know them and pass them on to the next generation. This is a very unhealthy inter-church association (2011:229).

Simply put, if any discussion beyond baptist distinctions and evangelical theology is deemed to be divisive, the association or union has been reduced to social, rather than doctrinal unity. If the basic tenants of the faith cannot be clearly and boldly articulated, the Great Commission is in jeopardy. This means that clear and biblically sound summary statements relating to  key doctrinal features should be found in an association’s or the Union’s statement of faith. These must include statements on Scripture, the Trinity, Creation, the person and work of Jesus, the Gospel, the Church, Ordinances, and Eschatology. 

“No creed but the Bible” is often sprouted at this point to defend a loose and unclear doctrinal basis. We can appreciate the genuine desire which such a claim embodies, but such a claim is not only self-contradicting (the statement is a creed itself), it is dishonest. Carl Trueman highlights that: 

Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creed and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true (2012:16).  

Following Trueman’s observations, the best thing an A/U can do is hold to a clear, biblically saturated, and bold doctrinal statement. This gives the local church a clear understanding of what the A/U believes, while at the same time avoiding theological skepticism. It enables the local church to evaluate an A/U based on its convictions pertaining to central doctrines. These statements will, over time, need to be updated and clarified due to the development of language and cultural norms. But this is a necessary process for theological integrity of the A/U and the wellbeing of the church. 

It is true that different levels of cooperation are possible based on different levels of doctrinal and ecclesial unity. Two baptist churches can work together to share the gospel and plant churches. A baptist and a presbyterian church can work together to share the gospel but not plant churches. A baptist church and a gospel-denying “church,” baptist or otherwise, can work together to care for the poor. Nevertheless, the basis for each of these levels of cooperation comes back to shared doctrinal confession. 

3.2. Shared Commissional Goals 

In addition to a shared doctrinal confession, inter-church relationship should also be based upon shared commissional goals. Both pillars are vitally important. Doctrinal conviction without commissional goals reduces the association or union into an ivory tower. Commissional goals without doctrinal convictions will cast the association or the Union into disarray. 

By commissional goals we are referring to activities and pursuits that aid the fulfilment of the Great Commission. These goals may be expressed in different ways, depending on the context of the A/U itself. Moreover, these goals may change over time depending on the needs that arise. For example, the A/U may see the need to address theological training for pastors with the rise of critical race theory or gender-fluidity. The goal in this instance would be to better equip pastors to minister effectively in their local church. Another need that the A/U may identify is the planting of churches in an area with no evangelical witness. The A/U may facilitate inter-church relationships in order to establish a health church in the area. The goals of the A/U may extend to the publication of theological literature, youth ministry, and even legal issues such as insurance and retirement for pastors. This also means that each goal will not receive that same attention and resources all the time. If training on critical race theory or gender-fluidity have been achieved, time and resources should be diverted elsewhere. Nevertheless, the A/U must have shared commissional goals.

Paul Spear (2018:203) highlights three ways in which shared commissional goals can be achieved. (1) Identify what you are doing and why you are doing it; (2) Put in place clear pathways of authority and accountability for decision making so that something can actually get done; (3) Ensure that any project is clearly accountable to the churches involved so that they remain the primary point of human authority. Where there is no clear set objective by the association, its goals will be determined by a free-for-all. Those with the loudest voices will receive the most attention. This is not helpful or beneficial to the churches within the A/U. 

Before moving on it may be helpful to pause at this point in order to address the question of constitutional authority between local churches and A/U. Must a local church, for example, have the same Statement of Faith as the association in its own constitution? The answer is not as simple as we would like it to be. 

Some associations require that a local church must have the same Statement of Faith. This is done in order to protect the theological integrity of the association as well as other churches. Other associations simply affirm that the Statement of Faith of a local church should not contradict that of the association. While others will consider the application of each church on a case by case basis, determining whether their statement is acceptable or not. 

As a rule of thumb we suggest the following. When a project is undertaken within a church, the constitution of the local church holds authority (independence). When a project is undertaken through an association, the constitution of the association holds authority (interdependence). A church, therefore, should be very careful to join as association with a weak doctrinal confession and loose commissional goals.

3.3. Associational Relationships Beyond the Local Church: Acts 15 

In many ways, the challenges faced by inter-church associations today are not a novel experience. Even in the early church we find one particular example of one local church helping another. Acts 15 becomes an interesting case study in our pursuit of harmonising the Congregational Principle and associational relationships.

The church at Antioch had to wrestle with the implications of Jew and Gentile forming one new man in Christ (Gal 3:28). Through the preaching of the gospel, many Gentiles were  added to the church at Antioch, however, there is no indication that they had been circumcised when they joined the Christian fellowship (cf. 11:20f). This was disturbing to some Jewish Christians who came from Judea and insisted that circumcision in strict obedience to the Jewish law was necessary for salvation (v.1). This group, known as “Judaizers” also carried influence in Galatia at this time. In effect, the Gentile Christians in Antioch were being told that, without following the system of Jewish ritual observance, they could not be considered Christians.

In order to bring clarity to this issue, the whole congregation at Antioch sent both Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. When the delegation arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by “the church and the apostles and elders” (15:4). The apostles took the lead in the discussions that followed while “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened” (15:12). As important as this council was, it was not closed to non-apostles and non-elders. At the end of this discussion, James had provided a suitable solution that undermined neither the Gentile mission nor the fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The apostles and elders come to one accord (vv. 23, 25). Then “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” determine how to reply to Antioch (15:22). Hiscox (1980:154) says, “One independent Church, wishing advice, sought the counsel of another independent Church, in whose experience and wisdom they had more confidence than their own.” Spear (2018:194) says the same, “One of the key principles of independency is that the Lord provides for the needs of the church. One of the means he uses is other independent churches.” 

When Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch, the whole congregation is gathered before the letter is read, indicating that they were accountable not to the leadership but to the entire church (Acts 15:30). This pattern is witnessed earlier as Paul and Barnabas report back to the church after their first missionary journey (Acts 14:27).

This example from the early church maintains the integrity of  the Congregational Principle while highlighting the need for and benefit of Associational Relationships. Based on all that we have considered so far, we will now explore some practical implications. 

  1. The Local Church and Associational Structures 

In providing some practical suggestions in moving towards a harmonisation of the congregational principle and A/U relationships, we believe that it is best to clarify some misconceptions that may exist in the minds of some. What follows are four questions concerning the practicalities of inter-church relationships.

4.1. Voluntary or Coerced? 

As inter-church relationships develop to what extent can a such a relationship be considered as voluntary? In other words, are there situations in which a church can be coerced (forced) to stay with the A/U in question? Sadly, the answer is yes. 

Churches may feel forced to stay with an A/U if the property deeds for the church remain with the A/U. A local church may feel that it must “go along” with the decision of the A/U, fearing that the property may be taken away from the congregation if they don’t. 

Such coercing may extend to other areas such as ministerial recognition or qualification for acceptance into the pension fund. While these aspects may be spoken of as incentives, it is of crucial importance that they do not compromise the autonomy of the local church. 

Anything that may be deemed as coercion must be removed from A/U models in order to uphold the autonomy of the local church. If any financial aid is provided to churches, or if any benefits are provided to pastors, the expectations of the A/U should be clearly communicated to the local church so that she may be clearly aware of the decisions she makes. Furthermore, these expectations should be limited in its time frame or outcome (eg. loan to be paid off in x amount of time). 

4.2. Top-Down or Bottom-Up? 

In our pursuit of moving towards a harmonisation of the congregational principle and inter-church relationships, we must devote some time to the structure of associational models. There are two prominent models which an association can adopt: A Bottom-Up Structure or a Top-Down Structure. 

4.2.1. A Bottom-Up Structure 

A Bottom-Up Structure has as its central concern the authority and autonomy of the local church. As such, the local church appoints its representatives to both the regional association and national union. Regional associations will facilitate various activities between churches in order to achieve its shared commissional goals. The national union will facilitate this on a much wider scale. Nevertheless, both the regional association as well as the national union are held accountable by its member churches. 

Figure 1: A Bottom-Up Structure 

Another key distinction of the bottom-up model is the autonomy of the regional association.  The leaders of the association are appointed by member churches of the association, not an outside body. Furthermore, the representatives of the association to the Union will be approved by its member churches. In this manner, the regional association is always held accountable to its member churches, rather than the national union. Simply put, the A/U exists to serve the local church. 

A bottom-up structure appears to be the most natural model following the Congregational Principle. It retains the autonomy of the local church while also empowering the regional association through its member churches rather than the national assembly. 

4.2.2. A Top-Down Structure 

The Top-Down Structure has as its primary concern the implementation of its objectives. The national assembly, rather than the local church, becomes the highest court of authority. The national association will work through regional associations in order to achieve its objectives at the local church level. 

Figure 2: A Top-Down Structure

The distinguishing feature of the top-down model pertains to the regional association. No longer is the regional association autonomous and accountable to its member churches, rather it is tasked by and accountable to the national association leadership. In contrast to the bottom-up structure, the local church now exists to serve the A/U. 

A top-down structure is virtually synonymous with a presbyterian structure. The elders of a local church form a session which possesses authority over the local church. Multiple sessions will form a presbytery, which possess authority over multiple churches. Multiple presbyteries will form the general assembly which possess authority over churches in the nation (Grudem 2020:1138). 

In 2018 a dramatic shift was approved by the Baptist Union Assembly which reshaped its structure enormously. Two crucial features, from the Baptist Union Constitution, are worth mentioning. Firstly, the paragraph recognising the role of independent territorial associations (eg. KZNBA, BNA, WPBA, BBA, etc) on the Baptist Union executive was removed. It read: “Representatives from and elected by each Territorial Association to reflect the total constituency of the Association, based on the principle of proportional representation. The formula to be determined by the Assembly from time to time” (9.2).

This statement recognised the independent and autonomous nature of regional associations. It upheld the authority of the association meeting in appointing its leaders and thereby its representatives to the Baptist Union executive. This is not longer the case. Instead, what are now called “Networks,” are amalgamated into the Union. Its leaders are appointed by the National Ministry Council for approval at the Assembly (see bylaws 4(5)(a)). 

Secondly, networks are accountable, not to the local church, but to the National Ministry Council. Paragraph 13.5 states: “All Networks are accountable to the National Leadership Council.”

The omission of paragraph 9.2 and the inclusion of paragraph 13.5 bring to light a transition from a bottom-up structure, which naturally flows from the Congregational Principle, to a top-down structure, similar to a presbyterian model. This is not a small matter of concern, and perhaps one that was overlooked by baptist churches in their desire to see the Union move forward. 

4.3. Bound or Free? 

The final question regarding regional associations and the national union is, “Must a local church belong to one?” While it may be true that ecclesiastical isolation and lack of accountability are not ideal, it does not mean that a local church must belong to an association. In other words, a local church can, in theory, belong to a regional association without belonging to the Union (and vice versa). Again, this is not the understanding of the Baptist Union as seen in paragraph 13:4: “It is compulsory for each member church to be a member of a regional network.”

Engagement, and continued commitment, with an A/U should be carefully thought through by a local congregation. Ideally, the church should partner with associations or a union whose doctrinal confession (Statement of faith) and commissional goals are not in contradiction with their own. In this way, a local church can be confident that as the A/U comprises of other like-minded congregations it will be able to fulfil what it believes to be its mandate. It would be hard, perhaps even impossible, to engage in church planting efforts if a congregation holds to Biblical inerrancy while the association or Union does not, or has a vague position regarding salvation. If, however, the A/U has clear positions on key doctrinal elements, a local church can be confident that other churches who are in the A/U hold to the same position. 

In addition to this, it must be understood that a church is free to leave an association or the Union whenever it chooses. The association or Union cannot assume that simply because a decision has been taken by the majority of its constituency that all the churches within the A/U are bound by this decision. As we noted earlier, the binding nature of inter-church decisions is not always as clear as we would like it to be. Nevertheless, a local church’s relationship with an A/U is always free not bound.

  1. Conclusion

Our exploration of the Congregational Principle has revealed one resounded truth, the local church is God’s representative authority on earth. No isolated christian, social agency, political party, or religious association has been given this privilege. This high privilege, however, cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, the church is best able to fulfil her high calling within inter-church associations. According to Dever and Leeman: 

A healthy church is one that understands both its independence and its interdependence with other churches. Because it is independent, it works hard to equip itself for the work of apostolic office…Because churches are interdependent, they work together for fulfilling the Great Commission. They pray for, encourage, challenge, and support one another because they know that the success of one is the success of all, and the defeat of one is the sorrow of all (2015:380). 

A healthy understanding of the Congregational Principle as well as a healthy understanding of Inter-Church Associations is crucial. Various inter-church relationships are facilitated by regional and national associations. This may take the form of combined services, outreach events, financial aid, church planting, and even theological clarity. But it must be stated that these efforts do not touch upon elements of church polity or government. Hiscox (1980:149) helpful concludes, “Fellowship and fraternal concord may be strengthened; the helpfulness of the one and gratitude of the other may be increased, but the one is none the more independent, nor the other any less so, because of these friendly interchanges.” Our desire is to see biblically healthy inter-church relationships. This can only happen, we believe, through the two pillars of shared doctrinal confession and shared commissional goals. Furthermore, the structure which the Union adopts is crucial. The Congregational Principle and the autonomy of regional associations must be recognised and respected. 

  1. Bibliography 

Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: Chicago Press.

Baptist Union of Southern Africa. 2018. Constitution and By-laws.

Dever, M. and Jonathan Leeman. 2015. Baptist Foundations : Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age. B&H Academic.

Grudem, W. 2020. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 

Hiscox, Edward T. 1980. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches: A Guide to the Administration of Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel. 

MacArthur, John. 2008. The Master’s Plan for the Church. Chicago: Moody. 

Mbewe, Conrad. 2011. Foundations for the Flock: Truths About the Church for All the Saints. Hannibal: Granted Ministries Press. 

Newton, Phil A. 2005. Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership. Grand Rapids: Kregel.

Pereira, G.C. 2012. “The Role of the Leader in the Context of Congregationalism” in The South African Baptist Journal of Theology. pp. 78-93. 

Pinson, W. M. 2010. Baptists and Voluntary Cooperation. viewed 28 July 2021,https://www.baptistdistinctives.org/resources/articles/baptists-and-voluntary-cooperation/

Scheepers, A. 2008. A Critical Analysis of the Structural Dynamics Operative within the Baptist Union of Southern Africa (BUSA) from 1960 – 2005 and an Evaluation of these Dynamics in light of the BUSA Ecclesiology (masters thesis, University of Pretoria, Pretoria).

Spear, P. 2018. “Gospel Unity: The Blessing of Inter-Church Fellowship” in Pure Church: Recovering God’s Plan for Local Churches. London: Grace Publications. 

Trueman, Carl R. 2012. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton: Crossway. 


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