WHY CONVENTIONS OF BAPTIST CHURCHES

imgresBy J. B. Gambrel D. D. LL. D.
Corresponding Sec’y Baptist General Convention
Dallas, Texas

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things. – Rom. 10:13-15.

For to their power I bear record, Yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves, praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. – 2 Cor. 8:3-4-

THE New Testament ecclesiastical unit is a local church, and there is no other. Each church is independent of every other, and to each is committed the oracles of God to be preserved, taught and executed. Each church is subject alone to its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

All ecclesiastical power or authority is vested in each separate church, which is an executive of the will of Christ. Church power is all delegated by Christ, and can not be redelegated. The expression ”church sovereignty” is not strictly correct. Christ is the only sovereign, and His churches are His executives, acting under His law and guided by His representative on earth, the Holy Spirit. Even the word independent applied to churches, must be used within narrow limits. The churches are wholly dependent on their Head and subject to His law, but independent of each other and of all other bodies whatsoever. To each separate church the whole commission is given, and it is given to no other kind of body. Nor can churches transfer it to another body.

These propositions have common consent among the advocates of New Testament ecclesiology. But everywhere among the same people are other organizations variously called societies, associations or conventions. Into the nature, functions and purposes of these, we do well to look. With respect to general organizations, their nature and the relation of the local bodies to them, there are two general theories extant. To one or the other all Christendom holds.

By one theory, the local bodies merge into the general body, become a part of it and are subject to it. Whatever of authority or power belongs in the local organization, is transferred with varying degrees of completeness to the larger organization. This is the Romish theory. All hierarchical bodies hold it. So, also, in a more modified form, all Presbyterial bodies. Hence the expressions, ”The Holy Catholic Church;” ”The English Church;” ”The Methodist Church South,” ”North;” ”The Southern Presbyterian Church,” etc. In all these bodies the local congregations have been legally merged.

There is no such phraseology in the New Testament. We read of the ”Churches of Galatia,” ”all the churches,””the church at Corinth,” ”Ephesus,” ”Philippi,” etc., but never of one church taking in the local congregations of a province or of the world. On this apostasy from the New Testament ideal of a church, Rome and all hierarchical and Presbyterial denominations are built. The restoration of the true conception of a church would destroy them all in a day.

The second view is that held by Congregationalists and Baptists. According to this, the church never merges into, nor becomes a part of a general body. It is, indeed, common to hear statements to the effect that a certain church belongs to a certain association or convention, the meaning being, that it is one of a group of churches which affiliate with and work through the body named. As to the body itself, that which meets from time to time for the consideration of questions of common interests, churches do not and can not belong to it. They could only do so by meeting all together, or by delegating and transferring their functions and powers through chosen men into general bodies. Under the first conception, the churches would merge into a great mass meeting and lose their autonomy. Under the second, as under the first, the churches would violate their divine charter and cease to be New Testament churches.

The true conception of a general body is that it is for counsel, with no ecclesiastical functions, and, therefore, having no authority over the churches. No particular kind of organization is ordained for general gatherings, though the Scriptures warrant both counsel and cooperation between New Testament churches. General bodies are variously formed according to the wishes and needs of those forming them. They severally exist under their own constitutions. Connection with them is purely voluntary. Some of them admit messengers from churches only. Some adopt the numerical basis. Others adopt a financial basis. Others still, a mixed basis. The whole matter of organization is with those forming the constitution.

It is of the utmost importance to keep it clear that these general bodies, however great or worthy can add nothing to the churches. The least church in the land is complete by itself. If it cooperates, it is simply a church. If it does not cooperate, it is not any the less a church. A convention adds nothing to a church. Whatever privileges any church may enjoy in cooperation spring from the constitution of the convention, and not out of the constitution of the church. Privileges of membership may be, and constantly are, enlarged or contracted according to the judgment of those forming these general bodies.

Arguments from the nature of churches in support of representation, according to numbers and from churches only, all arise from a misconception of the true idea of conventions. They are not and can not be representative bodies in the common acceptation of the term representative. The churches can not invest messengers with any of the rights, powers, authority, or responsibilities of the churches themselves.

The foregoing being true, why Baptist conventions? If the churches can not transfer to a general body any of their functions or burdens of responsibility; if every ecclesiastical quality must remain at home, even in the weakest of churches, why be at pains and expense to hold conventions?

Conventions stand, like Sunday schools, newspapers, printing houses and much else, in the order of means, and not in the realm of doctrine and divine order. For lack of a proper discrimination between what stands in the order of means and what stands in the order of doctrine, many minds have been confused. Singing and making melody in the heart to God is doctrine, never to be changed by church choirs or what not. Hymn books and organs are means to be used or not as worshippers choose.

Church independence, like the freedom of the redeemed soul, is a great blessing, full of gracious possibilities. But it may be turned to a very poor account, if there be not sound discretion. It needs to be well considered. Independence is not isolation. Free men and free churches need not adopt a hermit life. Independence ought to and will stand for all that common sense, led by the Spirit, makes possible, if we be worthy of it. The New Testament doctrine of church and individual liberty opens the way for all cooperation gracious hearts and wise heads can think or plan. In the apostolic age blood-bought liberty turned, under the lead of the Spirit and by the persuasion of a common purpose, to cooperation. Antioch and Jerusalem cooperated in counsel and act to uphold sound doctrine. Many churches cooperated in spreading the gospel, as Paul’s letters show.

The purpose of a convention is to promote cooperation in matters of common concern. How is this accomplished? Let us consider the following: A convention should be, and usually is composed of that element among us most interested in the things for which the body was organized. For this reason, a financial basis is wise and right. Those who see the farthest, feel the most and give as they feel, will make the best leadership in thought and plan. While the churches can not delegate anything, nor in any wise project their powers beyond their limits, still, if they choose, they can name brethren to attend a convention. These ”messengers of the churches,” male and female, representing the working and most interested part of the various church memberships will bring with them, not the authority of the churches, but the feelings and wishes of the bodies sending them. Assembled in numbers from over a given field, convenient for cooperation, the general body will represent a consensus of opinion and feeling, and out of that consensus will come plans to submit to the churches for their adoption and use if they so wish. These messengers are the nexus through whom the wishes of the churches are conveyed to the convention, and the common feelings and wishes of the brotherhood, conveyed back to the several churches. The effect is unity in plans, great spiritual stimulation, and, as a result, practical cooperation and increased usefulness in doing the work committed to the several churches. And this is why we have conventions; to unify thought by disseminating information, to perfect plans, to promote active cooperation by opening channels through which the churches may unite their efforts in gospel work. All this is done without the least authority from the churches to the conventions, or back from the convention to the churches. It proceeds on the great New Testament principle of voluntary service. If any dream that this is a weak arrangement, the answer is easy. It is as strong as the piety and common sense of redeemed people, and nothing in religion can be stronger. Whatever is more than this is of men and is weakness. No service to God is good or acceptable that does not proceed on the voluntary principle, guided by an intelligent piety.

It is proper to note and emphasize the fact that conventions in reality do nothing which the churches are organized to do. They do not ordain men to preach. The churches do that. They do not authorize any one to preach, either directly or indirectly. All authority to preach comes from God and is recognized and sanctioned in ordination by the churches. Boards which are creatures of conventions, agree to pay men to preach at certain places on certain terms. But the boards do not actually do mission work. They are channels through which the churches do the work, just as the brethren, ”messengers of the churches” we read of in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians were the channels through which the churches fed the poor saints at Jerusalem. Boards are channels, not fountains. They are means, not forces. The churches use them to convey their contributions as men turn a thousand streams into one channel to carry their united volume of water to arid plains that they may be watered and become fruitful fields. To elicit, combine and direct the energies of willing workers for the carrying out of the will of Christ is the function of a convention, and this it does, not by authority, but by persuasion and the influence of intelligent piety.

The practical use of conventions is demonstrated in the conservation of forces. By a wise organization of forces, more people are reached, more money elicited, and by an intelligent direction, it accomplishes more good. A single great organization, as the Southern Baptist Convention, pursuing several lines of work, will not only conserve the forces that are to cooperate to the accomplishment of one line of work, but bv a sympathetic correlation of forces, help every line of work. For instance, the Home Mission Board, with all of its influence, mightily stimulates the spirit of missions and opens up fountains of missionary supply for the Foreign Mission Board. While it is doing this the Foreign Mission Board exerts a powerful influence on the Home Mission work. The Sunday school Board, disseminating intelligence, becomes a great factor in denominational life by helping both of the Boards. Intelligence in Christian work, and organization for economy, and for the proper conservation of forces, through great denominational councils, becomes a denominational duty. The Scriptures abhor waste, and everywhere teach the lesson of economy. Sporadic, divergent and often antagonistic movements always tend to waste. Unified, sympathetic movements, running, perhaps, on different lines but in harmony, always tend to economy and the highest efficiency.

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