The primacy of the local church in Baptist understanding… Stephen Holmes

The primacy of the local church in Baptist understanding is best exemplified by the unusual Baptist use of the word ‘church’. There is no ‘Baptist church’ that is not a local congregation: associations, conventions, and unions are just that—associations and conventions and unions of local churches. Baptists acknowledge, of course, the unity of the universal church of Christ, but that universal church is only instantiated in local congregations; for Baptists, language of the “Presbyterian Church of the US” or the “Church of South Indian” or the “Methodist Church” is both meaningless and dangerously distracting: a church is a body that gathers together for worship (including the administration of baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist), mutual edification and discipline, and to discern the mind of Christ for its life; an organization that cannot gather like this cannot be a church. (The church universal is precisely the body that will be gathered by Christ on the last day, when the dead rise, and so is not an exception to this principle.)

Baptists would claim that in this way they represent authentic apostolic practice. In particular, in response to the repeated ecumenical emphasis on the importance for the unito of the church of the ‘sign’ of episcopacy, Baptists would want to point to the origins of this sign: the unity for the church was preserved because in each place there was one bishop, serving one congregation, celebrating one Eucharist (and because the bishops were in fellowship with one another); a church in patristic and Baptist understanding, is a group that meets to break bread in memory of the death of the Lord Jesus, and in expectation of his return; any organization that cannot do this may be useful and appropriate, but it is not a church, and so it is not necessary to God’s purposes, and is of (at best) secondary importance ecclesiologically.

This does not mean that Baptists would deny the creedal claim that the church is marked by unity, apostolicity, sanctity and catholicity (‘I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church’).

While the Nicene Creed has not been a primary point of reference for Baptists over history, their appeal being always to Scripture alone, it is difficult to find any criticism of the text. This is unsurprising: Baptists have, necessarily, been at pains to profess their Christian orthodoxy in the face of suspicious authorities through much of their history, and any attack on the Nicene Creed would have been taken as compelling evidence of heresy.

Generally, Baptists have been more vocal concerning the Reformation marks of the true church (the pure preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline) than in the Nicene marks. The have Nicene marks have become central for ecumenical theology in the twentieth century, however, and so Baptists have found themselves having to negotiate them. Like every other Christian tradition, Baptists have interpreted these marks according to their own ecclesiology.

Baptists believe straightforwardly in the unity of the church: Christ has one church, composed of all believers from all times and places. Baptists would be very suspicious, indeed disdainful, f any attempt to identify this one church with any particular historical organization (including their own). . .

-Stephen Holmes, Baptist Theology pp. 96-98

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