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By William D. Nowlin, 1922

The New Testament Form of Church Government, the Simple, Congregational Form; Each Church a Unit and a Democracy Complete in Itself; Functioning Only in Religious Matters; Separate and Apart from the State.

      It will be accepted by all that the New Testament form of Church Government is the form found in the New Testament, and that this is the only form that fits a New Testament church.


      There are three well recognized forms of church government - The Episcopal, the Presbyterian and the Congregational form.

      The Episcopal form is a graded ministry; the Bishops being the "superior clergy" while those ministers under the Bishops constitute the "inferior clergy." It is claimed by those who accept this form of church government that the ordaining power and the right to rule belong to the Episcopal office. It is hardly necessary to say this form of church government is unknown to the Scriptures.

      The Presbyterian form recognizes two classes of elders - preaching elders and ruling elders. The authority in this form of government is vested in the "Session" which is composed of the pastor and ruling elders of the congregation, who receive, dismiss and exclude members, and transact the business of the church. An appeal can be taken, however, from the "Session" to the Presbytery. This form of church government, while having some advantages over the Episcopal form, is also unscriptural.

      The other form of church government generally recognized is the Congregational form, which is the Baptist form.


      The New Testament knows but one form of church government, and that is the simple congregational form. It is evident that all the New Testament churches were independent, local, self-governing bodies, from the action of which there was no appeal. These churches were small democracies complete in themselves. They were vested with executive powers but not with legislative powers. "We read of "the Churches of Judea," "the Churches of Galatia," "the Churches of Macedonia," "the seven Churches which are in Asia." It is not the Church of Asia," but "the seven Churches of Asia." This shows that these churches were local, independent congregations. Dr. J. M. Peck in the Christian Repository (1853 Vol. II pages 47, 48) very strikingly presents the Baptist position on this point. Speaking of the Baptists, he says: "Their theory of church government embraces two great and apparently opposite principles.

      "First. That the kingdom of Christ, in its visible form on earth, is a pure monarchy. Christ is King and Law-giver. He needs not the aid of man, nor will he endure human legislation in any form. He has not merely given a few vague and general rules, and left his people to work out all the discordant plans of government that prevail at this moment in Christendom. Both by precept and in the inspired records of the primitive churches there are examples for every class of cases that necessity ever requires. The legislation in his kingdom is all divine.

      "Secondly. His kingdom, in its organized state of small communities, each managing its own affairs in its own vicinage, is a pure democracy. THE PEOPLE - THE WHOLE PEOPLE - in each community chose their own officers, receive and expel members, conduct all business as a body politic, decide on all questions of discipline, and observe all the institutions of Christ. Were they to institute a representative or any other form of government, they would depart from the law-book and soon be involved in as many difficulties as their neighbors."

      These separate and independent congregations were vested with the right to receive and exclude members. Paul, to "the church of God which is at Corinth," (1 Corinthians 5:1, 5) says "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.

      "And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.

      "For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that had so done this deed.

      "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."

      The same apostle, to "the churches of Galatia," said (Galatians 5:12), "I would they were cut off which trouble you."

      Paul writing "to the Church of the Thessalonians" said: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly" (2 Thessalonians 3:6). All of these Scriptures show that the right to exclude a member was with the "church." Paul had no power to exclude. Again in speaking of the "incestuous man" who had been excluded by the church he says "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.

      "So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.

      "Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him" (2 Corinthians 2:6, 8).

      Paul advises the church which had excluded the brother to receive him back, as the discipline had produced penitence. These Scriptures show that the churches had the right to receive, exclude and restore members when "gathered together" - not in individual capacity. This shows that the form of government in the New Testament churches was congregational, as it is in Baptist churches. While each church is independent of every other church these churches may cooperate in the work of evangelization. Such cooperation however, in no way surrenders the independence or authority of the churches cooperating.

      No association, or convention, or "super church" has the slightest authority over even the poorest or weakest New Testament church. It is the privilege of the churches to cooperate, and it is wise to do so in their work outside of their own congregations

      The presence, power and guidance of the Holy Spirit in a local church remove all necessity for a "super church." If the members of a church are Spirit filled and Spirit guided then the church composed of such members is equally Spirit filled and Spirit guided. Thus it follows as a logical conclusion, as Dr. Cody says, "If a local church has the Holy Spirit indwelling in it there exists no need to subject it to any other body because no other body can possibly have anything greater or wiser than the Holy Spirit. Equality and in-dependence among local churches follow as in-evitably from the gift of the Holy Spirit as do individual equality and independence."

      The only possible form of church government that could be deduced from these facts is the congregational form - the New Testament form.


      Baptists hold tenaciously to the absolute separation of Church and State. They believe that they are separate and distinct in the divine plan. While Baptists believe no man should "put asunder what God has joined together"; they also believe no man should join together what God has put asunder. The church should function only in religious matters, while the state should function only in civic matters. The separation of Church and State involves the glorious doctrine of "Religious Liberty." The union of Church and State is destructive to religious liberty, but where there is absolute separation of these two institutions there is little or no interference with religious liberty. The reason why Baptists through all the ages of the Christian era have contended so stren-uously, and have fought so valiantly, and have died so gloriously for the separation of Church and State is that they value above almost everything in this life the priceless heritage of religious liberty.

      The following paragraph is from the author's book "What Baptists Stand For" (page 47): "While, in a sense, the State and the Church are both divine institutions, they function in different spheres. The State is a secular institution, administering secular affairs, armed with authority to carry out her mandates; while the Church is a spiritual institution, administering spiritual relig-ion, the very essence of which is voluntariness. There can be no compulsory religion, since compulsion destroys the very essence of religion. Whenever the State interposes in matters of religion it substitutes external authority - the essence of government - for internal freedom - the essence of religion - and therefore defeats its own ends. This is esentially the same error from different standpoints. By the absolute separation of Church and State, Baptists mean that the State has no right to administer the affairs of the Church, neither has the Church any right to administer the affairs of the State. This is the glorious doctrine of religious liberty, for which many of our noble brethren have suffered and died. For this doctrine Bunyan languished for twelve long years in Bedford's dismal dungeon; for this doctrine Obadiah Holmes, Ezekiel Holoman and others suffered in our own America." That the world is indebted to the Baptists for religious liberty we hardly think any well-informed person will deny. The great historian Bancroft says: "Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists." It is claimed that the very government under which we live was modeled after the government of a Baptist church. Baptists have not contended for religious liberty for themselves alone, but for all others as well. Liberty does not mean license, however, but the right to obey law.

      Disobedience is not only subversive of order, which is "heaven's first law," but tends to slavery and moral degradation. God is a God of order, and not of confusion. This order is secured by law, the breach of which leads to anarchy and distrust. Nothing is secure where lawlessness reigns. The very liberty which disobedience seeks, by breaking through the restraints of law, is sacrificed and made impossible, for the very meaning of liberty is action in harmony with law.

      Every person has the right to worship God according to his best understanding of the teachings of the Bible. I do not say "according to the dictates of his conscience"; he has this right as against men, but he hasn't this right as against God. Whatever religious right we have, we get from the "Word of God, and we nowhere find in it that we are to worship according to the dictates of our consciences. The Bible is the law by which we are to live and by which we are to be judged. If an infallible guide is given every man, in the way of conscience, then, what is right for one man may be wrong for another, and what is right for one man today may be wrong for that same man tomorrow; this, you see, would destroy the eternal distinction between right and wrong. Paul says, "God will judge men according to my gospel," not their consciences. Religious liberty means that no man has the right to say how we shall worship God, but it does not mean that God hasn't this right. The revealed will of God - not conscience - is the Christian's supreme standard in all matters of religion. And the very fact that God requires us to accept and obey his commands, and that he will reward or punish us according to his Word, is sufficient proof that his Word can be understood. Our duty to "disciple all nations" implies clearly that all are subjects of gospel address and that all have the capacity for discipleship - or the soul's competency for spiritual worship. This is the great doctrine of religious liberty, for which the world is indebted to the Baptists.

      The reply might be made, however, that "other denominations in this country believe and practice the same doctrine." Yes, but that is not because of their convictions, or "faith," but because the very genius of our government is such that they can't have union of Church and State. To prove that this is true it is only necessary to show that these same denominations in countries where the governments are favorable to the union of Church and State accept it. For example the Episcopal Church is the State Church in En-gland, the Presbyterian in Scotland, the Lutheran in Germany, etc. It may be thought by some that the Baptists would have formed such union if they had only had the opportunity. But not so. In Holland the government offered to make the Baptists, or Anabaptists, as they were then called, the State Church which they promptly declined.

      Baptists, with their views of the spirituality and independency of the churches could not, under any form of government, enter into an alliance with the State. Dr. J. W. Porter in his splendid book, "The World's Debt to the Baptists" (page 11) says:

"Probably the earliest recorded plea in behalf of religious liberty was made by Tertullian, who lived in the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era. This Christian hero, in his splendid advocacy of the Baptist principles of religious liberty, said: 'It is easily seen to be unjust to compel free people against their will to offer sacrifice, for in the acts of religious services a willing mind is required. It should be counted quite absurd for one man to compel another to do honor to the gods."

From the days of Tertullian down to the present there have been independent congregations of Christians holding and practicing Baptist principles who have tenaciously contended for "soul-liberty."

      The Rev. George W. McDaniel, D. D., in his admirable book, "The People Called Baptists" (page 119f) on "Religious Liberty" quotes from several authors as follows:
"1. Thomas Jefferson, to his neighbors, the members of the Baptist Church of Buck Mountain, in Albemarle, Va., April 13, 1809, said: 'We have acted together from the origin to the end of a memorable revolution, and we have contributed, each in the line allotted us, our endeavors to render its issue a permanent blessing to our country. That our social intercourse may, to the evening of our days, be cheered and cemented by witnessing the freedom and happiness for which we have labored, will be my constant prayer. Ac-cept the offering of my affectionate esteem and respect.' He wrote five letters to Baptist Churches and Associations.

"2. George P. Fisher, Professor at Yale, says: 'A Baptist committee laid their complaints before the Massachusetts delegates in the first Continental Congress at Philadelphia. The support which the Baptists lent to the patriotic cause, and the proclamation of human rights which was made on every hand won a hearing for their demands and rendered them, after tedious delays, successful. In Virginia Patrick Henry, Jefferson and Madison enlisted in their favor. In 1785 the statute of religious freedom was adopted, of which Jefferson deemed it a great honor to have been the author, by which intervention in matters of faith and worship was forbidden to the State. All denominations were thus put on a level, and none were taxed for the support of religion.' 'History of the Christian Church,' page 560.

"3. Parton, after mentioning the address from the Baptists to the Virginia Convention, August 16, 1775, petitioning that four Baptist ministers should be allowed to preach to Baptist soldiers, cites the Convention's resolution which both granted the request and conceded the principle: 'Besolved, That it be an instruction to the com-manding officers of regiments or troops to be raised that they permit dissenting clergymen to celebrate divine worship, and to preach to the soldiers, or exhort, from time to time, as the various operations of the military service may permit, for the ease of such scrupulous consciences as may not choose to attend divine worship as celebrated by the chaplain.' He then adds a striking sentence: 'Thus began religious equality in Virginia. 'Life of Thomas Jefferson,' by Parton, page 174.

"4. Leonard Woolsey Bacon, Congregationalist, discussing the establishment of the American principle of the non-interference of the State with religion and the equality of all religious communions before the law, concludes: 'So far as this work was a work of intelligent conviction and religious faith, the chief honor of it must be given to the Baptists. Other sects, notably the Presbyterians, had been energetic and efficient in demanding their own liberties; the Friends and the Baptists agreed in demanding liberty of conscience and worship, and equality before the law, for all alike. But the active labor in this cause was mainly done by the Baptists. It is to their consistency and constancy in the warfare against the privileges of the powerful 'Standing Order' of New England, and of the moribund establishments of the South that we are chiefly indebted for the final triumph in this country of that principle of the separation of Church and State which is one of the largest contributions of the New World to civilization and to the Church universal.' 'A History of American Christianity,' page 221.

"5. In England, from the time of Henry VIII to William III, a full century and a half, the Baptists struggled to gain their footing and to secure liberty of conscience for all. From 1611 they issued appeal after appeal, addressed to the King, the Parliament, and the people, in behalf of 'soul liberty,' written with a breadth of view and force of argument hardly since exceeded. Yet, until the Quakers arose in 1600, the Baptists stood alone in its defense, amid universal opposition. * * * Among the Baptists Christian freedom found its earliest, its staunchest, its most consistent, and its most disinterested champions. * * * Not less powerful has been the influence of the Baptists in the United States. * * * Persecuted themselves, they never persecuted others. * * * The paths of the Baptists are paths of freedom, pleasantness and peace" (Appleton's American Encyclopedia, Volume II, page 293f).


      "Joseph H Crooker, Congregationalist: 'The Baptists are the least sacramental and the most scriptural of the Protestant denominations.' 'Winning of Religious Liberty,' page 204."

      That Baptist whose soul is not stirred and thrilled with admiration at the glorious heritage and noble achievements of the people called Baptists is either ignorant of their brilliant history or is incapable of appreciating the things of greatest value.


[From William D. Nowlin, The Baptist Spirit + Fundamentals of the Faith, 1922, pp. 255-268, chapter IX. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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