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Creative tension 

Anthony Clarke traces Baptist leadership through the centuries

Creative Tension700

Baptists from their very beginning in the 17th century have always insisted that there is a vital role for the whole church together – the many – but also a significant place for some who have particular responsibilities within a congregation – the few. The fundamental issue, to which different answers have been given, is how the few and the many relate together.

Early Baptists: the few and the many

Early Baptists expressed this by suggesting that a church (that is local congregation) consisted of officers and members, the few and the many. The officers had responsibility to ‘feed and govern and serve’, and a 1660 confession talks of the ‘Elders and Pastors which God hath appointed to oversee and feed his Church.’ Yet at the same time they understood the local gathered church also to be involved in governing the church. John Smyth, one of the early Baptist leaders, describes how the whole gathered church shared in the kingly ministry of Christ, as well as his priestly ministry, so that it is the believers together who ‘have all power both of the kingdom and priesthood immediately from Christ’. It was not just the priesthood of all believers but the kingship of all believers as well, who ruled together as the spouse of Christ. In this way early Baptists set themselves apart from the radical puritans who entrusted authority, and the keys of the kingdom, to the church officers alone.

Thus early Baptists set up a creative tension between the few and the many. Both exercised oversight in the church. The officers were appointed by the church to take on particular responsibilities, and to lead, but the whole gathered church retained a responsibility to oversee, to lead, the church as well. The officers were appointed by the local church (and could be dismissed by them) but were also understood to be appointed by Christ as gifts to the church. Through this creative tension early Baptists understood themselves to be directly under the rule of Christ – a rule that was not mediated by those outside of the local church, but was exercised both through the gathered church and through those it set aside as its ‘leaders’.

Through the centuries

The way this creative tension has been played out has varied through the centuries. In the 17th century there are examples of some churches not celebrating communion  because their pastor had been imprisoned and it was thought not possible for anyone else to preside at the table – an idea that would feel quite alien today. In the 18th century debate developed between Daniel Turner and John Gill about whether a minister could preach beyond the local church where they had been called – was a minister responsible to that church alone or were they a minister of the universal church, and in that sense bringing something to the local church from beyond. In the 19th century, with the rising influence of the Brethren movement and in opposition to the priestly stress of the high-church Oxford movement, there was a much stronger emphasis on the oversight of the whole church and a much less significant role for the few, including ministers.

The 20th century and beyond

The beginning of the 20th century saw the development of a clear nationally accredited list of ministers, and from 1948 onwards there were a number of significant reports commissioned and adopted by the Baptist Union Council which explored the nature of the church and the nature of ministry. One of the statements, appearing first in 1948 but then repeated in subsequent documents, continues to express this creative tension: ‘Ministry is exercised by the whole Church as the Body of Christ, which thus ‘preaches the Word, celebrates the sacraments, feeds the flock and ministers to the world’; but some individuals are called to spiritual leadership, exercising forms of ministry in a representative way on behalf of the whole.’ Exploring the tension between the few and the many at this time is focussed very much on ordained ministers as the few.

More recently this balance has been expressed as ‘the ministry of all and the leadership of some’. Influenced by a range of other, especially larger churches, which often do not come from a Baptist background, there has been a desire for some to give the few, the leaders, a much more significant role, because it makes decisions quicker and enables the church to focus on mission. This corresponds with the subtle change in language we use, replacing the seemingly old-fashioned term ‘deacon’ (which means servant) with ‘leadership teams’. There has been, of course, the desire never to lose the emphasis of the priesthood of all believers and the role of all in exercising ministry, but the model in which the few lead and the many follow them misses the early Baptist stress on the kingship as well as priesthood of all believers.

‘Creative tension’

Although there has been an ebb and flow at the heart of a Baptist approach to leadership, there has been this creative tension between the few and the many. Baptists have stood out from both the Brethren approach on the one hand and the presbyterian, episcopal or apostolic approach on the other. Baptists have wanted to appoint leaders but also for the gathered church to share leadership as well, in a way that the language of leaders and followers does not recognise.
Not everyone will, individually be a leader, and some are called to be leaders in a particular way, but alongside this, at the same time and in a creative tension, the whole church is called to exercise leadership too. This creative tension between the few and the many will shape the role of the few, the leaders, in a very particular way.


Further reading:
David Bebbington, ‘An Historical Overview of Leadership in a Scottish Baptist Context’ in Andrew Rollinson (ed.), Transforming Leadership: Essays Exploring Leadership in a Baptist Context (Baptist Union of Scotland)
Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003) chapter 5


The Revd Anthony Clarke is Tutorial Fellow in Pastoral Studies and Community Learning at Regent’s Park College in Oxford

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Baptists Together magazine, which focused on leadership


Baptist Times, 20/02/2017
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