One of the key distinctives of a Baptist church, suggested Julio Guarneri during the Annual Meeting of Texas Baptists, is the concept of local church autonomy, rooted in the free access to God granted through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Guarneri, who serves as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen, utilized Thomas Friedman's work, "The World is Flat", as a way to consider the role of hierarchy in the church. Whereas the work of globalization transformed the world from being large and disconnected to being interconnected and small, or as Friedman put it, flat, the work of the cross transformed mankind's access to God through one mediator, Jesus Christ.
"When I think about his idea of a flat world," Guarneri said, "I cannot help but think that from the perspective of the gospel, the world is flat indeed, and the church is flat."
He continued, "The gospel removes all barriers, all obstacles, all other go-betweens and tells us there is one and only one mediator, and His name is Jesus Christ."
Because of this free access, then, there should be within the local church no sense of spiritual superiority of some individuals over another, a Baptist distinctive described as the "priesthood of all believers." Instead of ministers standing as rulers over a congregation, Guarneri emphasized, Jesus Christ should be understood to be the only head of the church, a position he illustrated through various examples of past Baptist confessional statements.
"All churches have one Lord, and one Lord only," he stated. "The implication for me of the one mediator for the local church is that there is to be no go-between Christ and the local church. There is to be no denominational body, no dioceses, no council, no human person between the church and Jesus Christ. All congregations have direct access to God."
"The local church has direct access to God. It has everything that it needs: it has the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it has the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it has the inspired Word of God. If there is to be no hierarchy in salvation and everyone has access to forgiveness through Jesus Christ, then there ought to be no hierarchy among churches."
A second principle of local church autonomy comes from the definition of what constitutes a proper church. Guarneri recalled the triumph of the Reformation and its emphasis on grace and the scriptures, but he said Magisterial Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, stopped short in reforming efforts. Instead, the Radical Reformers, as seen in the work of Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier and the Anabaptists, understood the true implications of the gospel for the church.
Whereas the Magisterial Reformers continued with a state-sponsored church that maintained a sense of hierarchy, the Radical Reformers championed the concept of the church as a community of confessing individuals whose involvement in the church was voluntary.
If the church is to be understood as a community of believers, not an auxiliary of the state, then it brings about a third principle of local church autonomy—freedom of religion. For Guarneri, the church should always be wary of becoming too involved with the state, for when the state involves itself into the affairs of the church, trouble always follows.
"Autonomy means that the local church, under the Lordship of Christ, is free to seek God's direction and make its own decisions, and it is free from the rule of any other body or institution whether it is a church body or governmental body," Guarneri stated.
With a firm basis of the concept of local church autonomy, Guarneri listed several areas of implication, both for what churches should embrace and what churches should avoid.
First, churches practicing local autonomy need to understand that they have the freedom to elect their own leaders, make their own decisions, set their own priorities and steward their own resources. Second, the principle of autonomy indicates that no other denominational body should practice authority over the local church, whether at the local, state, or national level. Third, individuals and churches have the ability to relate directly to each other, without having to work through a mediating body. And finally, because of the local autonomy concept, there is no such thing as the Baptist Church, instead there are Baptist churches.
"The Baptist headquarters is the local church," he said. "It is not the state convention, not national; it is the local church. That is where the work of Christ goes on. The other bodies exist to support it."
From there, he provided a few words of warning to not use autonomy as a means of separation.
"The fact that we answer to the Lord Jesus Christ does not mean that we do not need each other in the body of Christ," he explained.
Stressing the need for churches to work cooperatively and collectively on common causes, he pointed out that cooperation does not require uniformity among churches, but rather it points to unity for the mission. In fact, historically many Baptist churches eschewed the concept of forming larger bodies because of the fear that their autonomy would be harmed. Yet, they found a way to accomplish this through voluntary cooperative efforts for a cause greater than their local needs.
"The reason they decided to cooperate against their preference," Guarneri explained, "is because of the mission of God. We have traditionally talked about having unity in diversity. That is the way God made us. We are diverse people, and our reason for cooperating with each other is the mission."
Blake Killingsworth serves as Vice President for Communications at Dallas Baptist University.