I was speaking with a church planter just the other day at the local Starbucks. He was telling me that they started their ministry with a network in the Chicago area. And now, after 3 1/2 years they were “independent.” In fact, over the next few minutes, he used the words independent, or non-denominational at least six times. I wondered why that was such a badge of honor, but it was for him. Being non-denominational has become a cultural catch phrase. I think it means, “don’t worry, we aren’t part of one of those offensive and dead denominations of yesteryear. We are fresh, we are new, we have the freedom to do whatever the Spirit tells us.”
This independence is nothing new. A form of it is a distinctive that baptists have held dear for centuries. We’ve called it “the autonomy of the local church.” It’s even in our doctrinal statements. It comes from a rejection of state churches and hierarchical denominations that have, in the past, exerted great authority over the life of the local congregation. Here are a few of the underlying convictions of church autonomy:
- Each local congregation is a biblical expression of the church.
- Each local congregation is led, ultimately, by Christ as its head.
- Each local congregation has, by the Spirit and the Word, the responsibility and opportunity to follow the leadership of Christ. Because of this, it should not be under the control of a hierarchical system, which we would call a denomination.
The fact is, while baptists have this hallmark, we’re not so unique anymore. Most, evangelical, non-mainline churches operate this way to one degree or another. Bible Churches, Evangelical Free, and all other non-denominational congregations have this as their practice.
While I still believe in this as a worthy principle of self-governance, we’ve done the body of Christ and the world a disservice in the way we’ve practiced it. By insisting on our autonomy the way we do, we infer that a church has no responsibility to the greater body, and we are denying the corporate application of a key principle of the Christian life.
And that key principle is “mutual submission.” Remember what Paul said? “…understand what the will of the Lord is… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:17,21).” The question is, does this have application beyond individual believers? I think it does and we see it worked out in the pages of the New Testament. We see congregations and leaders working to strengthen the witness of other local congregations. They prayed for one another, supported one another and held one another accountable. They raised up and sent out leaders together. They supported the greater mission of the church together. They dealt with issues of theology and missiology together.
Mutual submission is reasonable because we hold to “one head” of the church, who is Christ. We’ve often told couples, love in marriage is like a triangle. If you each draw nearer to Christ, the one at the top of the triangle, you will be drawn closer to one another. If that principle is true in marriage, it should be true within congregations and it should be true between congregations. If we have one head and we are living in response to his leadership, we should be drawn into a relationship of mutual love and mutual submission.
On a personal and corporate level, mutual submission is demonstrated in the Scriptures. How can we begin developing mutual submission on a congregation to congregation level?
- Mutual submission begins with mutual care. We won’t submit to one another if we don’t care for one another. We must build relational connections between pastors, leaders and people. We can and should pray for one another and our witness of Christ. We should reach out to one another practically with tangible support in times of crisis or need.
- Mutual submission develops from a mutual purpose. We won’t submit to one another until we share Christ’s purpose, to “seek and save that which is lost.” We may be called to express that mission differently in our context, but we must believe that we share one mission, not many, for the glory of Christ.
- Mutual submission expects mutual accountability. We must develop connections of accountability. The truth is, the integrity of the Baptist pastor matters to the Presbyterian church down the street. Why? Because it affects the common mission of the gospel in that community. A downfall damages the work of Christ, which we all share. Leaders of churches need accountability beyond themselves. They need a clear picture that they are part of the larger work of Christ in the world.
- Mutual submission enjoys mutual strength and effectiveness. When we live in mutual submission between congregations, we find support when we are weak. We also find a stronger witness to the world, for the authenticity of our message. The words of Christ become true on a corporate level; “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).”
- Mutual submission gets messy and takes effort. There will be rubs and disagreements. It means at times we will have to put aside personal agendas for the sake of the other. When done well, that too, reminds the local body that it is part of something bigger that God is doing on earth.
God works through the local congregation. And that local congregation is the expression of Christ’s Body on this earth. But that one local body is not the only expression. Each and every congregation is an expression of the one Christ, one mission, and one people belonging to God through faith in Jesus Christ. And if we expect our people to submit to one another, then even our congregations must learn to submit, in love, to the grander purpose of the church.
Every congregation needs to decide how they can enter into this kind of relationship with other congregations, but no church should neglect the decision and try to go it alone. Just as we aren’t called to live as Christians with complete independence, so our congregations need a web of connection with the greater work of the Kingdom of God. And that connection should involve the attitude and practice of mutual submission.
Your connection might be to a local group of churches in your community, or it may be to one of the new networks of churches, or it may be to a denomination or conference. Whoever, or wherever, we should connect and be part of the broader picture. When done well, our churches, the greater work of the Kingdom of God, and our witness to the world will be better for it.
I’m grateful to be part of a conference of churches called the North American Baptist Conference. It is through this kind of voluntary association that local congregations can find new joy and strength available for Kingdom work. In this connection we have opportunity to fully live out the mission of the church, with mutual love and accountability, for the glory of God.
If you’re in our region (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Iowa) and want to explore connecting, check out our website at www.nab-umr.org