Before my Min Rec interview I tried to memorise the various elements that made Baptists distinctive, so that I would not slip up when asked. When I recalled them there was one that always slipped my mind. Believers' baptism, congregational governance, priesthood of all believers and separation of church and state were all there, but the last one would not stay in my brain.
Maybe it was because I grew up in a Baptist church that did not relate well to other Baptists: we did not have The Baptist Times
floating around the church, we never heard of the Association unless it was to do with choosing a new minister, we did not have BMS missionaries that I knew of. The wider Baptist context was lost on me, so the distinctive of Baptists being interdependent seemed a little alien to me.
Like many larger churches we did not need interdependence, we were independent in every single way, and contact with the wider Baptist family was generally unnecessary, certainly for an ordinary member like me.
However, I am now in a small church context and have been for the last eight years or so, and so membership of something bigger is brought much more sharply into focus.
Like many others I use a prayer book each day as part of my daily routine. This year I have been going through Common Prayer which has been put together by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and has an emphasis on new Monasticism. The month of November focuses upon “nurturing a common life” and in their introduction they say “independence is a value of our culture, but it is not a gospel value” and that “the scriptures teach us to value interdependence and community more highly than independence”.
Over the weekend our church was visited by another Baptist minister from Cambridge who happened to be staying in the area. In our discussions (he had read and agreed with my previous articles
on here) he said we have confused autonomy with independence. Independence is not a Baptist value, but autonomy and interdependence are.
So I went back to my copy of Paul Beasley Murray’s Radical Believers
and his chapter on “associating with others” (“Baptists are not Independents”), in which he argues that Koinonia (fellowship) finds its routes in economics. When Paul took up a sign of fellowship in Romans 15:26, this meant he took the collection from the daughter churches in Greece to the mother church in Jerusalem, which was suffering economic hardship. Are we prepared to put this into practice? Is giving to Home Mission enough? If a church down the road is struggling financially what does it matter to us?
Beasley-Murray later argues that when Paul talks of the body in 1 Corinthians 12, he talks not only of how individual Christians relate to each other, but how churches relate to each other, so when one church is in pain the whole church suffers. Or, as he concludes, “Associating with other churches, therefore is no optional extra - it is part of being the church”.
But we live in an independent world where our independence has become an idol. We have to be careful not take this understanding into the context of church. Jonne Donne wrote “no man is an island”. I wonder if we can stretch that analogy to churches too?
The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth