Baptist churches are by definition autonomous in their polity. It’s one of the “distinctives” by which they are known. This does not mean, however, that they are obliged to eschew all confessional, conciliar, or associational relationships with other churches. The early Baptists observed a robust variety of such “connections,” some of which have been lost over time. One of these is the practice of “recognition councils.”
Most Baptists are familiar with ordination councils, in which a group of elders and other church leaders gather to examine a candidate for the gospel ministry in order to recommend him (or sometimes, to not recommend him) to a church. “Recognition councils” have historically been called to similarly examine the foundational documents of a new church (e.g., its constitution/bylaws, doctrinal standards, and especially its church covenant). Just as a church leader needed to be examined for doctrinal and moral suitability for ministry, so also a church needed to be examined on similar grounds.
It is a practical reality that new churches (and their new pastors) often lack the foresight bred in the crucible of church ministry to anticipate all the crises and decisions that a church will face during its long existence—crises that often can be resolved and decisions rendered easy by carefully crafted and and thorough church documents. And church planters need help in this crucial matter.
I just had the delight of preaching at the third anniversary of the chartering of Orwell Bible Church in Orwell, Ohio this past weekend—a thriving and very healthy work carved out by God’s grace among the cornfields and dairy farms of Northeast Ohio under the pastoral leadership of Dan Greenfield, a close friend and graduate of DBTS. Of course a great many factors go into the emergence of a healthy new church, but I’d like to suggest that one of these factors was a set of foundational documents crafted with painstaking care by the leadership of the church. I was especially impressed by what I must say is the best modern church covenant I have ever read. It amalgamates many of the New Testament’s appeals for appropriate conduct in the church in a very thoughtful and warm way, promoting a chaste delight and resolve that has united that new church in an extremely effective manner, all the while carefully avoiding the potential Pharisaism of multiplied extra-biblical rules. Pastor Greenfield informed me that the church reviews this document monthly, and it has proved a great galvanizing instrument in the emergence of their church.
The foundational documents of local churches are very important instruments of church purity and unity that often receive too light a treatment in the modern church. While I might be overly optimistic in my hope that the practice of “recognition councils” be revived, I do hope and pray that the import of these documents will not be lost.