Baptists are a covenantal people, but it is essential to realize that this covenant is not a legal contract.
The “way” in which covenant partners walk can only be one of mutual trust. This is where Baptists have given an insight to the universal church, which is a true gift.
In the local congregation, covenanted together, all the members “watch over” each other, and this “oversight” happens in the church meeting as they seek to find the mind and purpose of Christ for them.
At the same time, Baptists have always believed that Christ calls some of these members to exercise “oversight” (or a “watching over”) in a spiritual leadership of the congregation.
Among Baptists there is no legal provision, no church law, which regulates the relation between these two forms of “oversight,” the one corporate and other personal.
Congregations must, therefore, learn to live in the bonds of trust between the people and their ministers. Oversight flows to and fro freely between the whole congregation and its spiritual leaders.
In the same way, oversight flows to and fro between the local congregation and the association of churches.
The single congregation lives in a covenant made by Christ, and Christ is present among them to make his purpose known. The congregation is his body, where Christ becomes visible in the world today.
This is why the congregation has “freedom” to make decisions about its life and mission, and cannot be coerced or imposed upon by any church authorities outside it.
The congregation is not “autonomous,” which means “making laws for itself.” Christ makes its laws, and the church has the freedom and responsibility to discern his ways. It is free because it is ruled only by Christ.
But Christ also calls local congregations together into covenant, in association. Where churches are assembled through their representatives, there, too, Christ is present, there he becomes visible to the world in the body of his people, there his mind can be known through the help of the Holy Spirit.
Local congregations are thus “interdependent,” needing each other’s spiritual gifts and understanding if they are to share in God’s mission in the world.
Yet, in the covenant principle there is no legal contract, only the way of trust.
In their search for the mind of Christ, the local church meeting must listen to what the churches say as they seek to listen to Christ together.
It must take with complete seriousness the decisions made at an association level and will need good reason not to adopt them for itself.
But, in the end, it has freedom to order its own life as a covenant community, which stands under the rule of Christ.
It needs the insights of other churches to find the mind of Christ, but then it has the freedom to test whether what is claimed to have been found is truly his mind.
It might feel called to make a prophetic stand on some issue and will stand under the judgment only of Christ as it does so.
Other churches may think that this covenantal approach of mutual trust is hopelessly impracticable, and that it would be better to regulate the relation between people and clergy, between churches and diocese or province.
Baptists have learned over the years to live with the risks of trust and love. Here there is plenty of opportunity for muddles, mistakes and frustrations, but also room for all to flourish.
Quite late on in their history, it seemed to Baptists in the United Kingdom that they were being called to make a larger covenant.
Just as churches were held in the covenant bonds of an association, so churches and associations could be held together in the covenant of a national “Union” of churches.
The driving force behind this conviction was the need for an effective mission in the whole country.
Christ could be embodied and could become visible to others through one Union at a national level as well as through separate associations of churches.
So compelling was this vision that Baptists of different persuasions, especially those who had previously been known as “Particular Baptists” and “General Baptists” came together in mutual trust.
Baptists expressed their commitment to each other and their sense of being called together by Christ in the “Declaration of Principle” (first made in 1904).
This is not a full confession of faith but a covenant document in which Baptists commit themselves to love and work together in obedience to Christ as the supreme authority.
They still seek his mind together through the two instruments of union which are the Council and Assembly of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
The one expresses a covenant between associations, and the other a covenant between all the separate churches and colleges in the Union.
It is the same covenant, though the varying forms it takes in Council and Assembly require trust for union to work.
In all the changing circumstances of life, covenant remains the way of trust, on a path which is yet “to be made known” by the Lord of the covenant.
Paul S. Fiddes is a Baptist minister and professor of systematic theology in the University of Oxford. He was the former principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and has been chair of the Doctrine and Church Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.