The news that a Southern Baptist congregation in North Carolina has blessed a “same gender union” between two homosexual men and that a sister congregation has voted to license a practicing homosexual to the ministry has embroiled America’s largest Protestant denomination in a divisive debate, the latest phase of a Kulturkampf besieging nearly every church body in the nation today. These episodes are embarrassing to all Bible-believing Southern Baptists, moderates and conservatives alike, most of whom never dreamed they would have to face such an issue. Some have questioned, however, whether the denomination should address such an issue, given its historic commitment to congregationalist polity.
Baptists do share with other Christians in the free-church tradition a strong commitment to the autonomy of the local congregation. We hold that every community of covenanted believers is responsible to God—not to a presbytery, bishop, or papal magisterium—for the ordering of its own faith and life. No extra-congregational body, whether association or convention, can or should coerce any local church to act contrary to its own perception of divine truth.
However, from their earliest days, Baptists and other congregationalists bonded together for the purpose of declaring a common faith and sharing a common mission. Independence was balanced by interdependence. As the 1644 London Confession of Faith put it: “Although the particular congregations be distinct and several bodies, every one a compact and knit city in itself; yet are they all to walk by one and the same rule, and by all means convenient to have the counsel and help one of another in all needful affairs of the church, as members of one body in the common faith under Christ ...1
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