Posted by: Robin Foster | November 27, 2007

The Baptist Faith and Message Defines the New Testament Church

On a previous post, the discussion wandered off the topic, but it was respectful and I felt that the discussion itself was a benefit to the Kingdom.  The discussion got me to think about the Baptist Faith and Message and how it defines a New Testament Church:

“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”

Question, “Does the BF&M limit its understanding of a New Testament church only to those who fall under this criteria, or are Baptists allowed to state that those who don’t fall under this criteria can be called New Testament churches?”


  1. Robin, you asked;

    “For example, are all the decisions handled by the eldership?”

    I believe it is never practical that all decisions be handled by the elders/pastors. Our leadership is very deliberate to emphasize unity based upon scripture alone and not feelings. I have found from experience that uneasy feelings typically emanate from misunderstanding or ignorance. So we try to be very careful that explain everything we do in light of scripture.

    How would the church handle a decision they felt was not the will of God that the elders made?

    First of all …. The will of God is never a mystery. This is the thematic teaching of Acts 6. So it is incumbent upon the elders/pastors/teachers to pray, teach and explain the gospel and mission of the church at every opportunity. I have found that when the gospel and mission is lost to discussions about building programs, bowling alleys, basketball courts, etc. there is a high level of anxiety because of preferences.

    Consequently, we have found a great deal of peace where the gospel and mission minded member begin to crowd out their opinions with affection for God. This in turn brings about the results in Acts 6, where the body is pleased, ….even without a vote.

    There are obviously a lot to discuss about how this plays out…

    But if the Elders/Pastors/Teachers make a bad decision or teach something heretical, we repent and forgiveness is pursued. (Matthew 18)

    We are really trying to serve each other so far… 🙂


  2. Robin,

    Thanks for the response and question…..I might have a few other things to add in the near future…..but Joel has obviously seen the good and the bad on this one…. and I concur. It is imperative that the pastors edify the body, which is the key to cooperation and to the commission of our Lord. “Feed My Sheep”


  3. Joel

    I think you have described to me what would be the minimum structure before it would fall into an elder “our way or the highway” scenario. I would have no problem ministering in a church like that, but would prefer to see a system that would have a little more congregational input to the direction of the ministries in the church. Either way, I believe the system you described is fine within the SBC context of the BF&M.

  4. Thanks for the response.

    Regarding both your concerns and your question for Chris, I can speak to how we tried to balance between “authority” and “accountability.”

    Our elders had much more authority. They made decisions regarding small-group literature (in concert with our small group leaders, but our body was the final arbitor.)

    Our by-laws stated that elders would be nominated, examined, appointed if approved by our elders, and this decision confirmed by the congregation. They also delineated how an elder might be removed by the congregation, but the decision-making, by and large, belonged to the elders, with the exception of the following issues delineated by our by-laws:
    1. acquisition or release (sale) of real property.
    2. calling of a senior pastor
    3. changes to the by-laws.
    4. confirmation of elders.
    5. any other issue the elders felt would be best decided by the congregation.

    All these required congregational decisions.

    Not sure if you would define that elder-led or elder-rule (although I’m not sure I would make that fine a distinction.) I think the “baseline” key to conregationalism is that the “ultimate” authority rests with them, meaning that if elders are “running things” they are doing so with the blessing of God’s people.

    Regarding plural vs. single elder, I too have my own strong opinions. HOwever, as a DOM, I’ve seen them all work and I’ve seen them all fail. The really important issue is whether there are godly, qualified men to fill these roles.

  5. Chris

    First, I love a guy that uses Greek. 🙂

    Second, with the church plant, how does the congregation engage decision making. For example, are all the decisions handled by the eldership? How would the church handle a decision they felt was not the will of God that the elders made?


  6. Robin,

    Excellent point,…. What I have found is that some Baptist churches that have experimented with “Elder Rule”, lack the experience and understanding of the missional aspect of Christ’s church which is found in Acts 6.. Generally….the problem that may arise from Elder rule/Elder led (while understanding these terms are truly synonymous biblically) stem from a lack of theological understanding of the office of leadership. So, a human understanding of “rule” (i.e….my way or the highway) is transferred to the “biblical” understanding of “rule” (proistemi and poimaino) which in reality ruling/leading is diametrically opposed to the concept of “my way or the highway”. When this lack of theological understanding is transferred into the definition for “rule” or even “leading”, then there is a break from the true structure of the church. So, as the leaders understand the aspects of being servants not rulers, pride becomes less of an issue and the body is edified and matures.

    We began a church plant about eleven miles from downtown Nashville in January of 2007 which is organized as elder led (simply, multiple pastors), with the congregation being fully engaged. We have no issue maintaining the “Baptist distinctives”, even without a formalized voting scenario. This is the result of how the leadership understands their responsibilities and gifting within the body. What I have found in our experiences so far….is that it may take longer to get to a final decision, but when we do, it has been done through prayer and the members are pleased and ready to engage.


  7. Joel

    I have been concerned by some of the misrepresentation of Elder led Baptist churches. While I hold to the single pastor type mode. I realize there are differences of opinion concerning this. Churches can be elder led as long as the elders operate under the authority of the church. I also realize that congregations can look at their specific situation and allow elders to make certain decisions.

    For example, the church where I serve leaves the decision to allow a wedding to occur to me. But teaching materials that are outside of the lifeway press, the church votes on with a recommendation from me. Ultimately, both decisions fall under the authority of the church as they submit to the Lordship of Christ.

    We must be careful to acknowledge the differences between elder led and elder rule.

  8. Robin,

    I may be accused of splitting hairs here, but I think our statement on the church could be approached from two simultaneous directions:

    1. With the understanding that this is a confessional statement of what we believe the Scriptures teach, and not the Scriptures themselves, I think we have to allow for those outside our denominational tribe to wrestle with their own ecclesiological understandings. For example, if the universal church is made up of all peoples who have confessed Christ, then I believe a local assembly made up of these same people (regardless of how they were baptized, or how they are governed) would be a local expression of that universal body, and therefore, a church.
    That said, I would say as one with Baptist convictions that they are a deficient church, but a church nonetheless.

    2. Of course, the other side of this is that the BFM2K states clearly what our “base” understanding is for a correctly governed and operating local body. So, while I would not go so far as to deny a group of Presbyterians the title “church,” their (I believe) unbiblical submission to an extra-ecclesial body, and their baptismal mode and candidates would prohibit them from being a part of our association.

    I’ll admit as you did in our last conversation that I don’t have all the answers here, and this is a good subject with which to struggle. I also recognize that what I’ve written above is more functional than philosophical.

    Regarding Chris’ statements (and yours) about the “democratic” phrase, I share your reservations about that term. Probably, this is because I have planted elder-led churches which were congregational at base, but not “democracies” as most Baptist churches are. This of course caused us to be accused of being “unBaptistic,” largely because those making the accusations didn’t recognize that it is possible to be a congregational church that employs elders. You simply make the elders accountable to the congregation, and the congregation in kind, trusts the elders to make the decisions (with the exception of major issues like acquiring property, in our case) as long as that trust is maintained.

    Good discussion

  9. Robin,

    Absolutely!….the priesthood of the believer is automatic, which really is the essence of the Acts 6 passage. The entire church was functioning as expected and designed. Everyone had a voice in the missional activity of the church and were pleased to be a part.

    “Democratic” is a concept that is easily misunderstood in the context of scripture. I do not believe that the word itself is the problem, but the many ways it can be interpreted and lived out becomes a slippery slope and can create a situation that is in direct opposition to Acts 6.


  10. Chris

    Thanks for your comments. In your statement, is congregational polity implied or left out? The reason why I ask is that congregational polity is born out of our understanding of the doctrine of “Priesthood of all Believers.”

    Congregationalism believes the ultimate authority for decisions of the gathered saints rests with the church under the Lordship of Christ. This could include a single pastor model or an eldership that is not a governing board.

    Congregationalism is a Baptist distinctive. Our understanding of church polity (how we make our decisions) should be included in the BF&M. Even with that, I am somewhat in agreement with you in that I think “democratic” is not the best term that could have been used, even though I am in agreement with the basic understanding of it as it has been defined. But, since I don’t have a better word to use, may be I should keep my mouth shut. 🙂

    God Bless

  11. Robin,….kinda hard to keep this concise (sorry)

    Autonomy and Democracy can be viewed as limiting (extra-biblical) factors. And one or the other would, with their inclusion, disqualify certain legitimate churches. For instance, Grace Community Church (John MacArthur) does not follow a democratic construct, so consequently it would not measure up as legitimate church under a strict interpretation of the BF&M.

    It is clear that one purpose or methodological concept of the BF&M is to build autonomy; which is intended to move its affiliated congregations to form an understanding and to defend autonomy through democratic processes. This is fairly obvious by the construct of the leading thought in the first part of the initial sentence.

    The content of the BF&M is not limited biblically, except for the elements of autonomy and the present day meaning of democracy. These two extra-biblical terms do not overly restrict the content, but they do substantially frame the argument, even while existing within the biblical content of the BF&M. Consequently, this section could be more true to scripture by simply omitting those two words; which in no way would cancel out the concept of the missional independence that Christ has designed for His church at the local level.

    To sustain the context of how the church participated at the local level, it is important to understand the context of Acts 6. The Greek terms that were used to mark out able members of the congregation for service; words like “kathistemi”(appoint), “eklegomai” (chose), and aresko (pleased) emanated from prayer and under the already “aresko” direction of the leadership within the body. (Acts 6) If democracy can work in this fashion each and every time in our current church settings, then the current concept and definition of democracy will need to be refocused to sustain and reflect a similar biblical meaning and effect as demonstrated in the book of Acts.

    With that said, a more biblical statement to model as a Baptist message without compromising any Baptist distinctive would read:
    “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local congregation of believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ, in an orderly manner, allowing its leaders to continue in prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:3-7)

    This would allow existing, God honoring churches to exist under the BF&M and would not compromise any “Baptist” distinctive, and would align the BF&M to a more biblical construct as well.



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