No human individual, church, collective, or document speaks for or represents all Baptist Christians authoritatively – only the Lord Jesus Christ can be called the head of the church. Anyone or anything which claims or is invested with such power walks in the spirit of antichrist and not Christ, because Christ alone is worthy of such exaltation. (cf. 2LBCF 26.4). This makes answering the question, “are Baptists balanced?” less than straightforward. What “Baptists” are we talking about? What moments in our theological development and ecclesiological history are in view? Are we thinking with regard to an individual, a church, or varying levels of local, national, and global Baptist affiliation? There are times when we have certainly been imbalanced and have failed to hold multiple biblical truths and applications with appropriate equality, fair distribution, and careful emphasis. Sometimes, it is not that Baptists have been imbalanced, but have been the balance – offering urgent helpful and necessary correctives to malpractice in pursuit of God’s glory in obedient churches. If we go back to our confessional roots however, and examine documents like the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and portions of it such as Chapter 26 on “The Church”, we will find a model of balance that we would do well to emulate.
The balance of Invisible and Visible
Some Baptists – doubtless annoyed by professing Christians who do not value the local gathering – argue that there is no such thing as the invisible, universal church. Others – for a variety of reasons ranging from spiritual irresponsibility and personal sin to confusion, disillusionment, and trauma – may withdraw into an anti-institutional hyper-individualism that does not value the visible, local church but meets encouragements to participate in gathered fellowship with claims of “The Church is anyone who believes in Christ, wherever they are and whoever they are with”. The Second London Confession speaks to both imbalances with an affirmation of both the universal/invisible/general Church and the local/visible/particular church. Chapter 26 is filled with references to both, clearly defined and carefully distinguished. The invisible Church consists of all of Christ’s people throughout history, around the world (26.1). They are those people in all times and all places who were elected by God and given to Christ, are called by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the word to follow Christ, and have obeyed that call (26.1, 2, 5). Though part of the invisible church, they are themselves “visible saints” and are those who ought to constitute “particular congregations” (26.2). Indeed, visible saints, belonging to the invisible church, are commanded by Jesus to visibly “walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world” (26.5). They therefore voluntarily commit to “walk together” in service to Christ and each other as those who have themselves submitted to and practice gospel ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
The balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy
Although adherents to the 1689 confession have not always struck this balance well, we are out of step with the confession - and worse still, with Scripture – if we elevate what a Christian believes to the neglect or denigration of how a Christian should behave with regard to God, the church, and society. Some are “destroying their own profession” by both doctrinal errors and unholiness (26.2). This is not only an individual problem, but a systemic problem: “some [churches] have so denigrated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan” (26.3). Jesus calls us to himself not just to know his forgiveness but to walk in his faithfulness, “in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word” (26.5). Our calling to Christ is manifested and evidenced not just in verbal “profession” but visual “walking” (26.6), and this not only individually but congregationally, as churches pursue generosity (26.10,14), justice (26.12,13,15) and the prosperity of other churches in resources, peace, love, and mutual edification. In other words, faithful churches are not simply places where Christ is preached but also where Christ-likeness is practised. Wise and biblical processes are in place to guide the church’s obedience in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy: God has given visible churches power and authority to locally apply his word to the worship and discipline of the church “with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power” (26.7). This is done under the leadership of spiritually qualified, local church called, and personally competent officers appointed and supported by the church (26.8-10) who are to steward their office not only for the “privileges” of church life but also through the pain of church life. Offensive things, sadly, can and do happen and members should be led to address offences appropriately and then to maintain involvement and good order in the confidence that the further proceedings of the elder-led church will address the offence in obedience to Christ (26.12-13).
The balance of pastors and preachers
In a context where the divide between clergy and laity was vast, the Second London Confession’s authors again maintain biblical balance. These Baptists utterly reject the abusive system of the Roman papacy (26.4) but do not, therefore, reject all spiritual authority or disrespect leadership on the basis of abuses previously suffered. God has given the church elders and deacons (26.8)! Those vocational elders called pastors are particularly regarded for their constant work of serving Christ and the churches and they are not only to be recognised but respected by the churches. Similarly, although the vast riches and financial corruption of the Vatican was no secret, these Baptists did not respond by impoverishing their pastors but urging that the respect of the churches extend to material provision so that the pastors could live and serve comfortably, without the distraction of financial burdens and the need to be employed outside of the church. This would also facilitate greater pastoral hospitality towards others (26.10).
The Second London Confession responds to the anti-authority individualism of some by maintaining certain biblical boundaries regarding the pastoral office, but also responds to the clericalism of others by not inhibiting church members’ spiritual gifts but rather empowering them to be used appropriately. Throughout chapter 26, authority and power from Christ is located not in the leadership but the membership. Members gather together, serve Christ and one another, recognise and appoint elders and deacons, employ pastors, practice discipline from the individual to the congregational level, and prayerfully support other believers and churches elsewhere. Even more scandalous in the context of the clergy/laity divide, members do not have to be pastors to preach! Though preaching is an important part of the pastor’s office, that does not mean it is solely a pastoral function: “the work of preaching is not so peculiarly confined to them but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.” In fact, there is a very real sense in which every Christian is and must be a preacher of the gospel, under the authority of Jesus Christ.
The balance of interdependent and independent
The universality of the invisible church connects all churches across the barriers of history and the boundaries of geography. For the signatories of the Second London Confession, this was not only a theological idea but a practical reality that produced meaningful association between churches. God’s people are all gathered into one body under Christ, invisibly. Visibly, they are part of particular churches - submitted to the obedience of right belief and righteous behaviour - that exist independently in their own locale, with their own leadership, membership, order, and exercise of spiritual gifts. However, “particular churches” need not be isolated churches. Returning to the practical implications of the invisible church, paragraphs 14 and 15 of chapter 26 emphasise the interdependency of churches. Each church should “pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places” (26.14). Churches should seek the flourishing of other churches by blessing them with “the exercise of their gifts and graces”; seeking other churches’ opportunity and advantage of other churches, they “ought to hold communion among themselves for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.” There is a degree of formality to this interdependency, such that churches can be convened for discussion and dismissed with recommendations. The categories of doctrinal heterodoxy and administrative heteropraxy are identified, and the scenario of church members injured by abusive church practice is offered: churches associated with each other should appoint messengers to gather, consider the problems, give advice, and report to all the churches with regard to their findings. The interdependency of the churches is thus exercised, but the independency of the churches is not violated: the gathered churches do not themselves have power or jurisdiction over independent churches, cannot exercise church discipline as a collective body, and cannot “impose their determination on the churches or officers”. However, it does seem implicit that although such a gathering of such churches cannot interfere with what a local church does or does not do, in its own sphere, such a body may act in such a way that prevents unrepentant individuals or churches from being identified as “holding communion together” with them.
The balance of now and not yet
The Second London Confession’s twenty-sixth chapter offers an eschatological ecclesiology, which is a doctrine of an end-times church. The invisible church will not forever remain so: we are now, and will be in the future, called visible saints (26.2), and will culminate locally and visibly around the throne of the Lamb who was slain. Jesus - not any earthly ecclesiastical pretender - is head of the church now, and antichrists will be destroyed with the brightness of his coming (26.4). Jesus calls us out of the world, but now we must obey him in the world (26.5), in well-ordered local churches “to be continued to the end of the world” (26.8). Whatever the painful difficulties of church life, we can receive help and take hope as we “wait upon Christ” (26.13). “The purest of churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error” now, and some can no longer be called churches. But “Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof.”
Biblical principles are never contradictory but complementary, and in their outworking, should never be treated as competitive but cooperative. The signatories of the Second London Confession demonstrate a warm catholicity toward believers in other church traditions, but not at the expense of distinct Baptist doctrinal convictions or good church order. Their biblical balance radically contradicts the violent imbalance of their historical context and is a challenge to the aggressive sectarianism, prejudices, and abuses of our own. It is a travesty that some have misappropriated “1689” into a parochial identity and have weaponised that identity for partisan agendas that are everything but balanced, resulting in poisonous environments that harm people and hinder gospel advance. Those who desire to be truly “confessional” - and more so to be Christlike - would read chapter 26 and desire not only to “be right”, but to be righteous. Righteousness is displayed in the beauty of a historical, global body, manifested in particular societies called churches, that submit to the preaching of Scripture, and respond to it by practising and pursuing disciplined obedience to Christ in cooperation with other churches while living in the present help and eternal hope of Christ the King.
Saturday 4th December 2021