Monday, July 21, 2008

baptist polity: form leads to content?

Here's most of my weekly response paper for my Baptist Polity class... It's about whether Baptist Polity lead to any necessary content, or whether it's just a very flexible form...

In reflecting on whether historical Baptist principles point to any content beyond a form, any policies beyond polity, I’ve actually become gradually convinced that they do, especially when functioning as designed and proclaimed.
Consider the right of the individual to join a church, and to act as his or her own Biblical interpreter, his or her own priest. This is a pretty strongly anti-authoritarian polity, and the autonomy of the local church and the seperation of church and state act to reinforce its anti-authoritarian tendencies.
If Baptists have an anti-authoritarian polity, then I would certainly argue that it will (at least usually) lead to other anti-authoritarian policies, practices, and tactics. Hakim Bey, in Temporary Autonomous Zones, argues that once individuals have experienced life beyond the bounds of domination by some ruling authority, even in a small and/or temporary context, they learn about the possibility and desirability of such domination-free living.
This raises an obvious question: if Baptist polity leads to anti-authoritarian policies, why are so many Baptist churches so grotesquely hierarchical and authoritarian? Why do authoritarian governments thrive in the US, under the hearty support of so many so-called Baptists?
I think this contemporary failure of Baptist polity to be actualized in anti-authoritarian policy is partially the victim of the lack of concern for historic Baptist principles in most Baptist churches. Many of these churches have also used a single interpretation of the Bible as an authoritative break on the individual freedoms of their members.
However, I would point out that this polity is very strong, when it functions. It is not necessarily efficient, and it is often not simple. However, it is very difficult to take over, partially as a result of that lack of simplicity and efficiency. As such, once more and more Baptist churches (and others!) start practicing the freedoms that their forebears taught, it will in theory inspire additional Baptists to start similar churches, or to transform existing churches into places that are more averse to authoritarianism. That is to say, the second answer to the “Why are Baptist churches not actually like this?” question is simply, “Give us some time.”

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