With respect to the church, we have seen that Baptists believe that Christ is its head and has given instruction in the NT Scriptures to teach us what to believe and how to act. We have further noted that the Bible teaches that every believer has both the privilege and responsibility to answer directly to God for the choice to obey the Scriptures. When these two principles are joined, we find another distinctive belief of the Baptists emerges – the importance of congregational government.
While some may view average Christians as nothing more than ignorant and unteachable sheep, Baptists have always affirmed that to the individual believer, Christ has become the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and that we have received the Holy Spirit so that we might understand the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:12,16). Even in areas of disagreement between Christian brothers, the matter is to be decided by the saints (i.e. members of the congregation) rather than by the secular courts (1 Cor. 6:1-6). Clearly the Lord expects congregations to be competent to make decisions for themselves rather than simply defer to the “spiritual elite,” whether it comes in the form of a church hierarchy or even the leaders of the local congregation.
The record of decisions which NT churches made are also important examples for us to consider. For instance, when the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem were being neglected, it was the congregation itself which chose men to correct the problem and make decisions regarding how the provision for the poor should be distributed (Acts 6:3-5). When Peter had preached the gospel to the Gentile, Cornelius, he was called to account by a faction of the Jerusalem congregation, and he defended his ministry, not by appealing to his apostolic authority, but to the revelation of Scripture and the evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When the congregation heard this, they glorified God together for his mercy (Acts 11:1-18). After the gospel spread to Antioch and a church was started there, the congregation in Jerusalem chose to send Barnabas to minister to the church (Acts 11:22,23). Later, when Paul and Barnabas returned from their missionary journey they reported to the entire congregation in Antioch all that God had done through them among the Gentiles (Acts 14:27,28). Finally, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church instructing them to exercise discipline over a man who was living in public sin. He said, “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus…purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:4,13). Then, in 2 Cor. 2:6, Paul speaks of a punishment “by the majority” and pleads with the members to forgive and restore the man who has now publicly repented of his sin. The point of all these examples is that the NT church exercises authority as a congregation of Spirit-led individuals rather than an oligarchy or dictatorship by the spiritual elite.
While this is not an exhaustive treatment of church government, it should be sufficient to demonstrate that Baptists believe that the congregation has the authority, competence, and responsibility to make decisions for the church under its head, Jesus Christ.