REV. DR DICKSON MADOGHWE
Annually, the leadership of the Nigerian Baptist Convention organizes General Workers Conference around the territories of the Nigerian Baptist Convention. It is usually a time to dissect the annual theme of the Convention, with the view to having a common focus for the year. The theme this year is “Moving Forward: Finishing the Race with Joy.” The President of the Convention being the set man is the one that God has been using in the last ten years to receive the theme. As he completes his tenure and equally retires from full time pastoral ministry upon attainment of retirement age in the near future, this year’s theme may be a testimony and a show of gratitude. But beyond that, the theme is drawing the attention of Baptists to the fact that in life, we are running a race. There is the need to run the race of life with diligence, perseverance, focus and aiming at the finishing line.
Our theme scripture is Acts 20:24 which reads, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” In this passage, Apostle Paul expressed his utmost desire to run his race, and pursue his God-given assignment passionately, so as to complete same. For us as individuals, Church, Association, Conference and Convention, we have God-given tasks that we must pursue, and seek to complete. This is our concern for this year.
The topic for my presentation is “Finishing the Race with Joy Through Proper Practice of Local Church Autonomy.” Our Convention is one of the largest in the Baptist World Alliance. Our ministries are quite large, our potentials are great, expectations of other Conventions in Africa are enormous. But one area where our progress is being hindered is in the practice of local church autonomy. If we must accomplish our collective task as a Convention, this area must be addressed so that we may finish our cooperate race with joy.
- The Basis for the Practice of Local Baptist Church Autonomy
Historically, the Baptist church emerged out of the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. When the Church of England broke away from the control of the Church of Rome, much was expected in terms of reforms. But to the disappointment of Baptist progenitors, the Church of England became a state church. Membership of the church was by birth, and the Church was governed by the authority of the state. A pastor may be summoned to appear before the magistrate to defend his sermon.
This situation of the church provoked the burden for reform. Thus, a group called the puritan emerged in the Church of England. When it was not possible for them to purify the church, they separated themselves from the Church of England. Among the separatist were early Baptists who started their church in 1609. In formulating their believes and practices they advocated for a local church autonomy as against the state controlled episcopal Church. By local church autonomy they held that the church should be self-governing, self -financing and self-propagating.
The practice of local church autonomy is hinged on regenerated church membership, priesthood of believers, soul competency and individual liberty. The practice presupposes that church members are fully yielded to the Holy Spirit, and that they would summit to the dictates of the Holy Spirit at all times, with regards to church governance. The practice does not envisage a sense of independence, which has no regard for the overall interest of the body of Christ.
- Abuses in the Practice of Local Church Autonomy
When early Baptists insisted on autonomy of local Baptist churches, the word autonomy was defined in a context. It was meant to protect the church against episcopal excesses, most of which were detrimental to the tenets of the Christian faith. Today, in most Baptist Conventions and unions, local church autonomy has become the major cause of setback(s). More than before, some pastors use autonomy of the local church as a tool to make themselves church founder and/or president. Some local Baptist churches have no regard for the promotion of denominational programs. They do not attend meetings, pay dues, or recognize denominational leaders. These abuses in the practice of local Baptist church autonomy are very detrimental to the progress of our denominational.
- The Proper Way to Practice Local Baptist Church Autonomy
In the New Testament, local churches existed independently, but they were interdependent. You hear of the church in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Macedonia, in Corinth and other places. Whenever there were concerns in a particular church, messages were sent to other churches to raise support. So the churches were united for mission, social welfare, doctrinal coordination, disciplinary concerns etc. This New Testament model is the portrait of the Baptist practice of local church autonomy. This can be summarized in the following points:
- By local church autonomy, the church is self-governing, self-propagating and self-financing. The church is at liberty to call and remunerate pastors. The church appoints various officers without interference from outside. The church designs and executes programs, projects, investments etc. The church can run a school, hospital, and acquire properties.
- The local Baptist church cooperates with other Baptist churches in an Association, Conference and Convention. By this, there is a collective action towards the realization of set goals. Such cooperation has the following benefits:
- It gives us a denominational identity.
- It enhances church growth. When Baptists relocate to new places, they easily identify with another Baptist church.
- It enhances coordination of our beliefs, policies and practices
- It helps in disciplinary matters. There is room for intervention in matters that are beyond the capacity of the local church to handle.
- It promotes fellowship and interactions beyond the local church
- It affords opportunity for joint mission actions beyond the local church.
- Local Baptist churches are expected to honour the decisions of the denominational bodies they belong. While the local Baptist church practices autonomy, decisions of the Baptist Association, Conference and the Convention are to be honoured by the local church. It does not negate the practice of local church autonomy. By so doing, the Association, Conference and Convention will be strong to achieve more of cooperate mission actions.
- Churches are to submit to the intervention of the cooperate bodies when the need arise. As a human-spiritual body, the churches may be faced with conflict. Often, church conflicts lead to factions, which makes it difficult for the autonomous local church to resolve. In such a situation the Association should intervene to resolve it. If the matter is beyond the ability of the Association to resolve, the Conference should be invited. If it cannot be resolved at the Conference level, then the Convention leadership should be invited. The local Baptist church should not insist on their autonomous right once a conflict has gone beyond her ability to resolve internally.
- The practice of local church autonomy should be a responsible one.
- Local Baptist churches should make required financial contribution.
- Local Baptist churches should promote denominational programs
- Local Baptist churches should adhere to principles, policies and practices of the denomination.
- Relationship Between the Kingdom Race and our Practice of Local Church Autonomy.
- Our discipleship – The call to discipleship is, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Peter and other disciples of Jesus yielded to this call and for three years, Jesus made them into “fishers of men.” But sadly, in John 21:3, Peter and other disciples lost focus, and went back to fishing. If not for the intervention of Jesus, they would have been derailed from the race. In the expression of our local church autonomy, we are often challenged to derail from our sense of discipleship, we must remain resolute.
- Our Stewardship – Christians are saved to serve. Baptists hold this sense of stewardship as an important principle. When we abuse local church autonomy in our practice, our sense of stewardship is under question.
- Judgement – The parable of the talents in the Bible, clearly shows that we will be called to account for the way we live our lives. As a denomination, we need to be conscious that the way we practice local Baptist church autonomy, we will give account to God.
- The Great Commission – Our denomination engages in the Great Commission through the Global Mission Board, Youth/Students Ministry, Theological Education, Social Ministry, Christian Education, Medical Ministry, Publication and Ecumenical Ministry. When Baptist members give their tithe and offering in the local church, they are funding the mission work of the local church, Association, Conference and the Convention, West Africa, Africa and the Baptist World Alliance. If your local church autonomy does not allow you to give the dues to the various bodies, you are hindering the great commission one way or the other.
Nigerian Baptists, the year 2021 is a crucial year for our denomination. It is a year of leadership transition. As we look back at the last ten years, we can say that we have not done badly. However, records show that only twenty percent of our churches are carrying eighty percent of the Convention’s load. There are many other viable Baptist churches that are yet to cooperate fully due to the way they practice their local Baptist church autonomy. I urge those churches to renew their commitment, so that our denomination can occupy her rightful place among denominations in Nigeria in terms of Christian ministry impact.
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