The term "Independent Baptists" does not refer to a particular denomination, nor even a particular organization of Baptist churches. In fact, Baptist pastors and churches in a number of fellowships consider themselves independent in nature, as well as those outside of organizations. In an official pamphlet of the American Baptist Association, "What Is the American Baptist Association?" It is stated that they are a "National group of independent Baptist churches voluntarily associating in their efforts to fulfill the New Testament commission to the churches." The Baptist Bible Fellowship consists of a group of churches considering themselves to be independent in nature, as do other fellowships of Baptists. Thus we see that the term refers more to the nature of the church than to any denomination as a group. Any church that is of New Testament origin and character must of necessity be independent in nature, for the early churches of the apostolic period were certainly independent and self-governing in nature.
While the term "Independent Baptists" refers primarily to the nature of the congregations rather than denoting any particular group identity, it is most commonly used by churches and pastors who do not choose to participate in organized associations, conventions or fellowships. They look upon the term as distinguishing them from churches who do work in such groups. While many who fellowship with churches in organized groups feel that they are yet independent and self-governing, those who most loudly proclaim themselves "Independent Baptists" declare that a church cannot so participate without yielding its independence, and therefore use the term to identify themselves. In this sense "Independent Baptists" is a distinguishing term, and though not organized as such, they are identified as a particular group.
There are varied reasons churches do not participate in organized fellowships with other churches of like faith. Some sincerely believe that it is impossible for a church to enter into organized relationship with other churches, even of the same faith and practice, without violating their sovereignty as an autonomous congregation. While we do not accept this as a New Testament premise, we respect their right so to believe and practice. It is our concept of the function of the churches during the apostolic period that they were genuinely independent and sovereign in nature, but to us it seems obvious from the record of their activities that they functioned in close relationship with each other, and, when it was practical in carrying out the will of the Lord, had whatever organization needed without violating New Testament principles.
However, one other important principle is involved here, too. While we may feel that association among churches is a New Testament privilege, nowhere in the New Testament can we find evidence that church association is necessary to quality as a sound New Testament church. If, therefore, our brethren feel that they cannot enter into organized fellowship in good conscience and maintain their New Testament standards, they have every right not to do so. New Testament church association is a privilege, not a command.
Other churches and pastors refuse to enter into organized church fellowships for an entirely different reason. Many of them were formerly in super church organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or the American Baptist Convention. They became convinced that these were unscriptural organizations exercising undue pressures upon the affiliating churches, and withdrew from them. Many left because of the doctrinal deterioriation in the movements, as well as efforts of the leadership to control the churches themselves. These churches often refuse to participate in organized fellowships on the basis that "a burned child is afraid of the fire." Having been involved in one organization that sought to control them, they fear that any other organization would seek to do the same thing. Sometimes these churches have their own local fellowships or even associations, but fear anything of a more general nature such as regional or national fellowships. They seem unable to believe the same principles that prevail on a local level can also prevail on a national level, so they think of themselves as "Independent Baptists."
There are yet others who term themselves as "Independent Baptists" for an entirely different reason. Often churches have domineering pastors who lead their churches to be "independent" because they fear yielding a little influence in their private "empires." The pastor controls the church and doesn't want his control jeopardized, so he teaches his congregation that independence consists of isolating themselves from all fellowships or associations of churches of like precious faith. It is obvious that such cases are more instances of pastoral independence than church independence. Too often such "independents" of this type are motivated more by jealousy or egotism than by genuine Biblical conviction.
"Why should a church boast of being an 'independent church'? What right does it have to show apparent disdain for other churches which are equally good and Scriptural?"
- S. E. Anderson, Real Churches or A Fog, Bogard Press, Texarkana, 1975, page 32.
I think it can be seen from the varied reasons given for their "independence" that it is virtually impossible to give a clear cut set of distinctives for so-called "Independent Baptists." As there is no unifying fellowship or organization to identify them as a group, there is likewise no set of doctrines or principles to which they all agree or subscribe. Their doctrinal beliefs range all the way from the universal church concept to pastoral dictatorship. There are churches and pastors receiving what is commonly called among Baptists "alien baptism" who call themselves "Independent Baptists." There are many such churches that are loosely organized, and whose origin is questionable, yet they call themselves "Independent Baptists." Some of these hold other "Baptist distinctives" in such light esteem that they could scarcely be called Baptists in the true sense of the term, yet they insist on referring to themselves as "Independent Baptists."
There are others who hold to Baptist doctrines very strongly, and whose baptismal authority could not be called in question, yet they have in addition particular beliefs, peculiar to them - a trait not uncommon among Baptists. Sometimes these peculiar beliefs border on asceticism, yet their loyalty to basic principles identifying Baptists through the ages cannot be questioned. In every age the people now called Baptists have had their fringes: groups that stood for "the faith once delivered to the saints," with their own peculiar quirks in addition. As long as these peculiarities do no violence to the Scriptures they can be tolerated. After all, what is often peculiar to one geographical location may be perfectly "normal" in another, and what is peculiar to me may not be peculiar to you at all.
There are also many Baptists, in loosely knit fellowships usually, who hold to the same principles that have guided Baptists down through the centuries, who simply do not choose to become involved in new or larger church fellowships, and refer to themselves as "Independent Baptists." While we feel that churches miss perfectly Scriptural opportunities by not becoming so involved with larger groups of their own kind, we bid them Godspeed as they do business for the Lord in their own way, holding dear the faith for which Baptists have suffered through the ages.
Baptists have a way, often times, of majoring on minors. They let the peculiarities of their particular area become more important to them than the great Baptist principles of our heritage, and thus keep them from fellowship with other Baptists who hold the like faith just as precious. This is regretable, but it has ever been characteristic of human nature.
While there may be no unifying doctrinal position of all who call themselves "Independent Baptists," one thing appears to be common among them - they all believe in missions and are involved in some kind of a mission program. Some stick strictly to the one church idea and support only such missionaries as are sent out by their own congregation; though seldom refusing support from others who want to support their missionaries. Others cooperate with sister "independent" churches in the sending and support of missionaries, while still others have missionary organizations through which they support their "Independent Baptist" missionaries. Yet, most of them do mission work of some kind, after their own fashion and concept; each believing he is doing it according to the New Testament pattern.
If true Baptists do not choose to fish from the same pier we have chosen, as long as they do not interfere with our fishing, let us not disturb the waters where they fish so long as they fish with a Biblical license.
I. K. Cross, Faculty
California Missionary Baptist Institute
[From Who Are The Baptists, Bogard Press, 1976, pp. 41-44. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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