This year marks 400 years since the first Baptist Church was founded on English soil. Thomas Helwys and a small group of Baptist separatist founded the Church around 1612 in Spitalfields in the east-end of London. Since then, Baptists as a Protestant group have survived various religious persecutions. Key elements of Baptist identity such as believers’ baptism, separation of Church and State, the right for every believer to read the Bible and have access to God, are values shared with other separatist groups such as Anabaptist, Mennonites and some puritans. The priesthood of all believers is another identity shared with other dissenters, but the expression of that through the Church members meeting is one of the distinctives of Baptist ecclesiology. The idea of every believer voting or having a say in Church matters, irrespective of their gender or class, was radical when it began. In addition, the Baptist idea of the Church members meeting ensured that it was not only people in ordained ministry that could decide Church affairs, but that every believer has the right by virtue of being a Christian, to discern God’s mind and will. This was counter-cultural in a period when Church governance was dominated by Bishops, synods and clergy in general.
As we celebrate 400 years of our history as a denomination, I cannot help but reflect on one of the distinctive elements of our beloved Church and how it is being reshaped. This is the congregational type of Church governance expressed through the Church members meeting. This is being reshaped or totally abandoned in the many new Baptist Churches in London. The Baptist Churches reshaping this are largely Churches having Christians who have come from South America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. These congregations are vibrant, energetic and dynamic and the majority have members who have come from a Pentecostal background. Sometimes the leaders of these Churches have also come from a Pentecostal background. These Churches have brought fresh energy and cultural diversity into the London Baptist Association (LBA) and have bared fruit in the ministry of the Association.
But as they have brought fresh expressions of Church, they have also brought a Charismatic style of Church and Church governance akin to independent Pentecostal Churches (hence the term, ‘Bapticostal Churches’). This is seen through Church leaders being empowered to take decisions as opposed to the Baptist model of congregational governance. One might think that such congregations would certainly not be happy with that, but the truth is they are happy that the leaders are taking the initiative to lead. This style of leadership is partly influenced by the cultures within the congregation. Take for example, a Baptist Church with Ghanaians or Nigerians as the majority of the congregation. Culturally, many are inclined to respect elders or any person in the place of authority. Some might view this as negative as it can lead to autocratic leaders and this has certainly occurred in some cases, however there are positives of this cultural trait. One of these is strong leadership that is not constantly hindered by members having to vote on everything, including minute details such as what colour the wall of the Church should be. Ecclesiologically, this style of leadership encourages visionary leaders who are empowered to act without being prevented by Church members who might not get along with them. It must be mentioned that this style of Church governance, while pronounced among these Churches, is not limited to them as there are Baptist Churches with white majority congregations who prefer and adhere to this type of Church leadership. They practice this because some of them have been frustrated by lack of progress made under the congregational governance. I am not at all advocating that charismatic style of leadership is better than congregational form of Church governance or vice versa. I am simply articulating that as we celebrate our history this year in London, it is worth considering whether more Baptist Churches, particularly those in London, will change what has been considered as fundamental to Baptist DNA. Whichever way we head, one thing is sure and that is that the Baptist concept of the autonomy of Churches based on the Declaration of Principle can allow for both Church ecclesiologies to exist within our Union.