A (real) question for baptists... the local church

I understand that Baptist doctrine on the whole teaches that the one true Church spoke of in scripture is the “local church” meaning a congregation.

I don’t understand how this concept works. Especially in light of there being more than one congregation in a specific geographical locale.

Can someone explain this theory of the church to me? I really want to try to understand it.


There is actually some difference in opinion on this depending on which Baptist organization you’re referring to. Southern Baptists by in large operate on the local level but do have some state and national leadership as well. This leadership is mostly for finances, seminaries, and missions but has at times disciplined wayward congregations or Pastors.

Independent Baptists operate on a purely local level. They broke away from the SBC a few years back during the struggles between liberal and conservative theologies. Their focus on the local autonomy though, had more to do with creating a “doctrinal” reason for leaving during there struggle within their parent denomination.

There are many other Baptist groups all with different spins.

As in most things in the Protestant world the localization concept seems to be reactionary in nature. The Baptist movement began as a sub movement of the the Anglican Church which itself became a major Protestant player when they split from the Catholic Church. Th e Baptists though seem to have developed a real hatred for any leadership. This is likely because they saw the problems of having ecclesiastic leadership beholden to secular authority. Their response was to create autonomous congregations, holding to Baptist “distinctives”, with a local parliamentary style government.

The Baptist governmental doesn’t really have a biblical basis its more of a reaction to the contemporary politics of the age they were born from. This is why that Baptist congregations even within the same national organization can have a very wide range of beliefs. Some congregations are very Calvinist, some are fundamentalists, some are liberal, some favor female ordination, some are very much against. All of these ideas can exist together within a given Baptist fellowship with little interruption, because the local Church is supreme.

This independence does have cause problems for bigger issues though. A few years ago a couple of Churches were excommunicated from the SBC for ordaining gay Pastors (ordination is done locally as well). This sort of discipline is rare but happens on occasion, of course those churches continued without really much effect they simply no longer have to pay dues to the corporative program of the SBC. Which is to say that the national even in its strongest movements has little real impact on the local congregation.

Thanks, rtconstant. I’m really interested in what the theological basis is for the interpretation of “the Church” in scripture to mean the “local congregation.”

This is something that is believed by non-denominational churches, too, because I’ve read it on their websites.

I’m trying to figure out the exegesis, hermeneutics, whatever it is, that gets them to interpret scripture in this way.

I can speak for the Southern Baptist position. Here’s Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message:

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. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Each year, Southern Baptist churches elect messengers to the annual convention. The number of messengers a church can send is based on both total members and the amount of money a church gives to the SBC’s Cooperative Program. There is a maximum number of messengers a church can send to prevent large churches from having undue influence. The SBC annual meetings are for electing a president, major issues, and electing an Executive Committee which functions between annual meetings. The EC and the Committee on Nominations appoint the rest of the boards.

The national organization and the CP money handle pensions and benefits for SBC ministers, missions, seminaries, disaster relief programs, church planting, ecumenical dialogue, Sunday School lesson plans, VBS programs, etc.

Local church autonomy comes into play because the SBC can’t FORCE a church to do something. In some cases they can excommunicate a church. To be in the SBC, there are some things the local church has to agree to in regards to doctrine and giving a certain amount to the CP. My church, for example, gives about 6% of our revenues to the CP and another 2% or so directly to the International Mission Board through the Lottie Moon Christmas offering.


Thanks for posting that. I have some questions about it, because it’s a much different perspective than what I’m used to. I’m just going to assume everything you told me is correct. Hope you have time to help me with this!

  1. I see that the SBC definition of church refers to “a” church, as an “A New Testament Church” instead of “the Church”. In scripture, when Paul writes to “the church at Corinth” or elsewhere, is it the Southern Baptist position that he is writing to one of many congregations that may have been in Corinth? In the SBC view, was it a specifically Baptist congregation?

  2. If “Church” is a local, autonomous congregation, where is the scriptural basis for the Southern Baptist Convention, its committees, having a President, etc.? Forgive me, but it just kinda sounds an awful like SBC setting up its own pope and bishops. Is there a distinction?

  3. If you get votes at the Convention based upon how much money you give to the Convention, isn’t that like buying votes? I understand there’s a max on number of messengers, but why base this on money at all?

  4. Where does the concept of a local church being democratically run come from? If it’s democratic, how come Paul got to tell them what to do in his Epistles in the New Testament?

  5. How does the SBC get to decide what things a local church has to agree to? Why isn’t the Bible enough? Every Baptist I’ve ever talked to said the Bible was enough for doctrine.

  6. Based upon the definition of a local church being autonomous, would this mean that since Catholic and most mainline protestant churches are subject to bishops or equivalent ecclesiastical oversight, the SBC does not consider them local churches in the proper sense?

Sorry for so many questions! I probably have more, but I am probably overloading you. Thanks for your patience with me.


Son of Monica,

  1. We believe the term “church” is used in 2 different ways. One is that of an autonomous local congregation. At the same time, we agree with the Nicene Creed in affirming “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” with Christ as its head and the communion of saints, which is the spiritual union of all the redeemed.

As far as your question about the church in Corinth, I don’t really have time to research it now, but I’ll get back to you.

  1. As far as the denominational structure being biblical- There really isn’t a specific command about doing that. With that said, each SBC church owns its own property, calls its own pastor, manages its own affairs, etc. The SBC is a voluntary organization to join together for specific purposes that I outlined in my last post. The national organization does not control the local churches, which are free to leave the convention.

  2. I agree with you, for the most part, about the money being used for determining the number of messengers. Here’s an excerpt from the SBC constitution:

Article III. Membership: The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of missionary Baptist churches cooperating with the Convention as follows:

  1. One (1) messenger from each church which: (1) Is in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work. Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. And, (2) Has been a bona fide contributor to the Convention’s work during the fiscal year preceding.
  1. One (1) additional messenger from each such church for every two hundred and fifty (250) members; or for each $250.00 paid to the work of the Convention during the fiscal year preceding the annual meeting.
  1. The messengers shall be appointed and certified by the churches to the Convention, but no church may appoint more than ten (10).
  1. Each messenger shall be a member of the church by which he is appointed.

It’s not too bad because a church only has to come up with $2500 to send the maximum number, but I would like to see this changed.

  1. I’ll admit that congregationalism is not a clear cut case. Could you please refer me to the verses where Paul tells the church what to do?

I do want to make clear that most Baptist churches aren’t pure democracies. The congregation votes on big decisions, electing deacons and trustees, approving ordinations, approving SBC messengers, granting letters of dismissal, and approving the budget, etc. The congregation can vote on other things and even overturn actions of the Trustees and Deacons, but that rarely happens.

In practice, power is shared by the Deacons, Trustees, Pastor, and the congregation. It’s a very “American” form of church government and has a lot of checks and balances.

As an example, at my church new deacons are nominated by a Deacon Nominating Board, then voted on yes or no in a business meeting for a 4 year term. If they are not yet ordained as a deacon, that is then done. After serving for 4 years, they have to wait one year before they are eligible for re-election. (Note that even between terms, they are still deacons by virtue of their ordination, they’re just inactive.) Then the pastor chooses among the deacons and picks the Board of Trustees. Then the Trustee nominees are voted on by the church. The church can approve or reject the slate as a whole. After that, the Trustees choose corporate officers from among themselves.

  1. I should have been more clear than “things the local church has to agree to.” The SBC can’t force a church to do something. But to be in the SBC, a church has to agree to the denominational structure, give to the CP, and there are some things, like ordaining gay pastors, that will get them kicked out.

  2. Yes, Catholic churches are valid local churches even if they’re not set up properly by Baptist standards.

Paul you said that Baptists:" agree with the Nicene Creed in affirming “one holy catholic and apostolic church,” with Christ as its head and the communion of saints, which is the spiritual union of all the redeemed."
I have never heard of a Baptist Church having anything to do with any creed much less the Nicene. How do they define “apostolic church?”. Do they believe the Baptist Church is apostolic? , that it can be traced through every century, directly back to the apostles?

We use the word apostolic in that Christians share the same Gospel that the Apostles did.

We don’t use creeds in the same way Catholics do. We believe that creeds and confessions are not authoritative per se, but can express truth and we can affirm them in that sense. Go to this link:


On his radio show, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Go to the 2 minute mark where he talks about V. Gene Robinson and he talks about the Nicene Creed.

Go here: albertmohler.com/audio_list.php

Scroll down and you’ll find a series of chapel messages he preached on the Apostle’s Creed.

We have recited the Apostle’s Creed before in my church, but it’s not a regular thing.

EDIT: I forgot to add, we do not claim a succession back to the Apostles.

Thanks for sharing, Paul. I am going to let some of that sink in and head to bed. I bet I’ll have more questions soon, though.

God bless. :signofcross:

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