On Sept 19, 1749 the Philadelphia Baptist Association affirmed its support for local church autonomy.
Why is that important? First, the Philadelphia Baptist Association became a model for Baptist life, and to a degree the American ethos, for centuries to come.
Second, it established that, unlike the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches, there was no hierarchy. No bishops or popes or patriarchs could dictate terms to the local congregation. The local congregation was free to set membership standards and hire and dismiss ministers as they saw fit.
I have said many times before that anything Paul could say about being a Jew I can say about being Baptist. There is no position in a Baptist church I have not held, not task I have not performed. At this stage in my life I have been involved with three different Baptist Conventions in the US (Southern Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the American Baptist Convention) and one outside the US (Ukrainian Baptist Convention). I know of which I speak.
In the SBC I have seen this principle terribly distorted. On the one hand churches are so free in their selection of ministers that ordination has become all but meaningless. On the other hand in the last twenty years or so the Convention hierarchy seems to have forgotten that they do not establish policy not doctrine nor do they have the authority to enforce such.
The ABC, however, seems to have found a middle way. There are ordination standards for the convention but local church autonomy is well intact as far as I can tell.
Being a Baptist Minister is an interesting thing, with its ups and downs. On the one hand no one outside the local church can tell me what to do and no one can tell me what to preach (nor would I recommend trying it) or believe. On the other hand no one outside the church can tell me what to do, there is no passing the buck. I have freedom and autonomy to look for and choose where I serve, but as a Baptist I lack any formal system to help my find those places and rely on ad hoc data bases and word of mouth. I have no real assurance of employment since I work for a church not a denomination.
The big problem, of course, goes back to the SBC. Since Baptist churches freely associate with who they wish, most people do not understand that there is a wide variety of Baptists. The SBC, being the biggest Protestant group in the country, gets all the press and thus form the popular image of what a Baptist is and does.
There is a bumper sticker that comes to mind “Not that kind of Baptist.”
I am Baptist. I am soooo Baptist. I believe in distinctive Baptist theology. I believe that I have the ability to interact with God on my own terms and come to an understanding of the Bible and tradition on my own. I believe that everyone else does as well. My expertise and calling makes me a guide, not an dictator.
What I do not believe in is the cultural Christianity that plagues not just Baptist life but much of Christian life in America. I do not believe in distorting faith to adhere to a political agenda.
I believe Grace and Love supersede all other considerations, without exception.
I also believe that there are those who think they speak for Baptists. That they speak for me.
I bring up the Confession of the Philadelphia Baptist Association on 1749 to remind them of a simple fact:
They do not.