As an ordained minister in the American Baptist tradition, I am a Christian who exercises my faith through the lens of Baptist tradition and history.
Baptists are about as diverse as they come. Our theology allows us to be conservative or progressive; Calvinist or Arminian; megachurch or small, rural church; King James Version only or all translations welcome; pro women in ministry or not; social activists or total nonconformists; concerned about creation care or carbon footprint makers; pacifists or warmongers.
The list goes on, as most Baptists don’t fall into any one category and, in many ways, defy the ability to define.
There are a few things most would agree upon: the authority of Scripture, the separation of church and state, the priesthood of the believer, baptism by immersion, and the primacy of the local church.
The one thing that keeps all this together is the most important word of all: local church autonomy. I believe this is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.
Autonomy allows churches to choose their own pastors, theological emphasis, Scripture translation, curriculum, community involvement and so forth, without any outside influence from a larger denominational body.
While this is great, it is also our weakness. Baptists are so fiercely autonomous that when a church is struggling, they don’t have a larger body to lean upon.
Baptists instead choose to freely associate with one another through covenant relationship.
So, should Baptist churches that cooperate for large mission and ministry purposes be considered a denomination or a confederation?
A denomination is a unified, cohesive, monolithic institution. A true denomination should have the same beliefs practices and rituals in every church every week.
They should follow the same calendar, believe the same theological tenants and have an overseer to make sure everyone is acting accordingly.
Many Baptists have attempted this type of control and oversight only to be reminded of the autonomous nature Baptists possess by immediately having churches pull away from such a fellowship.
By contrast, I believe that a true Baptist fellowship can never be a denomination. A friend recently used the term federation to describe Baptist cooperation, but I feel that a federation still has a strong central governing power over individual entities.
Instead of denominations or federations, Baptists should conceive of their choice to covenant together for the sake of mission and ministry in the form of a confederation.
In a confederation, each church continues to remain themselves while uniting for a common purpose. At any point, a church can leave the confederation.
The larger body is reliant upon the voluntary commitment of individual churches. All action at a larger level must be approved by the churches.
To me, this is a more Baptist structure than a denomination. Denominations have their place, but they do not work well in a Baptist setting.
I am constantly reminded of this because my primary ministry is through the confederation rather than the local church.
Our regions are ministers to individual churches. Each region is just as autonomous as our churches in relation to our larger body.
The ABC USA structure in which I work as a regional minister functions more like a confederation than a denomination, yet we call ourselves a denomination because for a while we wanted to be like other mainline groups.
In fact, we use the term “societies” in reference to our various autonomous groups. It has caused some confusion and difficulties over the years.
As we continue to transition our leadership in the next couple years, our future will rely on our ability to continue to navigate the difference between these two concepts.
Greg Mamula is an ordained American Baptist minister and serves as the associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He blogs at Shaped By The Story, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @GregMamula.