My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
There is nothing like going back to the sources when there are questions about how things should be done. That being the case, in good Protestant fashion I let out a rallying cry ad fontes (“back to the sources”) and looked at the historical records of my Baptist denomination.
In the minds of some Baptists, the notion of local church autonomy (or congregational government) means that no one has the right to say anything about the inner workings or theological convictions of a local church; a local church, so the story goes, is free to pursue God’s call without any intervention or say from outside authority, association, or denomination.
But is that really the Baptist position? Is it really the case that local church autonomy precludes any form or initiative of discipline from other churches or associations? Does “soul liberty” mean that no one can say anything to another Baptist (or Baptist church) about what he or she believes? And does that also mean that no church can be disfellowshipped for holding to views that are outside the boundaries of an agreed upon statement of faith and/or covenant?
Getting the history right is vital on this matter, for, as George Kalantzis states, “good theology does not come from bad history.” While Kalantzis’ concern is another matter, his point applies here to my concern – to get Baptist history wrong on this matter will skew the theological outcome.
What I quickly found out was that in my own denomination local church autonomy was always in a relationship formed by the expectations of and responsibilities to associations. Consider the following brief examples:
ACT IV. This Association shall recognize the independence of the churches, and in no case exercise any authority or jurisdiction over them; nevertheless, it shall have power to drop from its connexion, any church that in the opinion of the Association may have essentially departed from the faith, either in principle or practice.
ARTICLE VI. In all the proceedings of the Association, no bond of any kind shall be considered as entered into, or acknowledged, by which any one Church is bound to conform to the usages of the rest; but it is a principle distinctly understood and recognized, that every separate Church has, and ought to retain, within itself, the power and authority to exercise all Church discipline, rule, and government, and to put in execution the laws of Christ, necessary to its own edification, according to its own views, independently of any other Church or Churches whatsoever.
ARTICLE VII. Notwithstanding any provision of Article VI this Association deems it its privilege to judge for itself of the propriety of continuing any Church in its fellowship which appears to it to be heterodox in principles, or irregular in practice.
There are a host of other examples of virtually the same statements in the other associations. And the sentiment was echoed in other denominational publications as well.
In sum, the associations may not have always acted in a charitable, wise, or redemptive fashion, but the evidence clearly indicates that there is nothing necessarily unBaptist about associations disfellowshipping churches.
And that, my friends, is why you go “back to the sources”. They do not always solve problems (in fact, primary sources can make things murkier at times), but looking at the actual documents rather than going with popular opinion can often provide clarity on vexing issues.
For a much more detailed presentation of my findings, see my recently published article entitled: “Theological, Historical, and Practical Aspects of Discipline and Disfellowshipping in the CBOQ,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 22 (2020-2021): 90-119.
 Note that I use “disfellowship” instead of “excommunicate.” Among the larger and longer traditions of the church (eg. Catholic, Orthodox) excommunication often implies that the person is lost and its under God’s judgement. Of course, disfellowship may mean that, but not necessarily so for the differences between parties may be serious theological differences that make partnering in ministry not possible (but not necessarily mean the one being disfellowshipped has left the faith).
 George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service (Eugene: Cascade, 2012), 2.