12 Baptist Councils
Councils for consultation and advice in ecclesiastical affairs are an established usage among American Baptists, especially at the North, East, and West. With the Southern churches there is a prejudice existing against them lest their action should come to be considered authoritative, and threaten a domination of the churches. For this reason they are seldom resorted to in that section.
Indeed, through the whole extent of our denomination their doings have been watched with jealousy and regarded with not a little of suspicion, for fear they might grow to an interference with the independence of the churches; this doctrine of Church independency being held by them with great tenacity, both because they believe it taught in the New Testament and also because of the wrongs perpetrated on the true people of God during past ages, by acts of Councils and papal decrees in the name of ecclesiastical authority.
Hence Baptists watch with commendable vigilance against every combination of men, and every form of action which by any possibility may threaten an assumption of power over, or interference with, the free and independent action of the local churches. Thus it has come to pass that Associations, when appealed to to decide disputes which vexed the churches, or to settle perplexing questions which disturbed their peace, have either declined to respond altogether, lest they might come to be regarded as a court of appeals, or if they did reply, did it with the distinct avowal that they could not dictate to, nor interfere with their internal order in any wise. It is just and proper jealousy.
It is indisputable that Councils have, at times, done great good both to churches and to individuals, by prudent and well-considered advice in cases of great perplexity. It is equally evident that at times they have been the occasion of much harm, even of manifest injustice, by decisions hastily reached, or based on false assumptions. Whether, on the whole, they have been productive of more good than evil, is still an unsettled question with those who have known them the longest, and watched them the most carefully. The danger lies in a constant tendency to recognize them, in some sense, as a court of appeal and of arbitration—if effect if not in form.
And this danger is the greater, because there will always be among us some who think they see the need of a stronger government for the control of virulent disorders than the independency of the churches furnishes. They desire some more speedy and more effectual method of removing rank offenses than the slow and uncertain process of Church discipline. They would therefore welcome a quasi authority in the action of Councils, which should make an end of all controversy with the contentious and the perverse.
But such tendencies, fortunately, have thus far been counteracted by that innate apprehension with which the Baptist mind regards any possible approach to dictation, and stands guard against the interference of any external authority whatever, beyond the simple act of giving advice, when advice is asked.
I. The Origin of Councils.
It has generally been taken for granted, by both Protestant and Papal authorities, that all Church Councils had their origin and find their sanction in the conference held in Jerusalem (Acts, fifteenth chapter), convened to consider questions which disturbed the Gentile churches, as to the reception of Jewish customs.
That meeting, it is claimed, was a Council somewhat within the accepted meaning of that term. And it is quite notable, not to say remarkable, that all men, and all classes of men, have with an easy liberality of interpretation, explained that primitive conference to meet their own peculiar views of Council need, and of Council action. Whether Papal or Protestant, ultra-Prelatical or moderately Congregational, every man who desires to find some central authority, some Church court to settle disputed questions, and to coerce or control Church action, claims to find a warrant for his particular theory in “the Council held in Jerusalem.” That is declared to have been apostolic; and an appeal to the fifteenth of Acts is assumed to be the end of all controversy.
It has been made the warrant and justification for ages of spiritual tyranny exercised over the churches of Christ and over the freedom of Christian thought and action, by men ambitious to lord it over God’s heritage. By this means Christian liberty and spiritual life almost have been crushed out of Christ’s free churches, and the flock of God has been made a prey to the rapacity of men whose spiritual pride blinded them to the true methods of the Gospel.
The Syrian Christians had been disturbed by certain Jewish teachers who insisted they must observe the law of Moses; especially must they be circumcised. Against this they rebelled, and Paul who had planted these churches, refused to impose on the Gentile converts such a yoke. To settle the matter, therefore, the Church at Antioch sent Paul with certain others to Jerusalem, to ask the opinion and advice of the motlier-Church in reference to the matter. This mother-Church would be more likely to understand the genius of the Gospel, especially in its relation to Judaism; and moreover they had the Apostles with them, whose inspired judgment in such a case could not go amiss. When the messengers from Antioch arrived, the Church at Jerusalem had a meeting to consider the matter.
It was no Council, no Synod, no Consociation, but a church-meeting simply. Just that, and nothing more. It consisted of the Apostles, and elders, and brethren. That is, the entire Church. And the Church, with just this composition, heard the case, deliberated, and, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, gave a decision. This is the view taken of the matter by Hackett, Alford, Schaff, Waddington, and indeed nearly all Church authorities.
Mosheim, in his Church history, says:
“To call it a Council is a perversion. For that meeting was a conference of only a single Church, collected together for deliberation; and if such meetings may be called ecclesiastical Councils, a multitude of them were held in those primitive times. An ecclesiastical Council is a meeting of delegates from a number of confederate churches.” Eccl. Hist., Vol. I., p. 72, sec. 14, note ii.
Councils are of human, not of divine origin. They cannot therefore take precedence of, nor claim authority over, churches, which are divinely instituted. Nor were Councils known during the first age, and not until Christianity began to be corrupted. And to organize combinations of ecclesiastics to govern and dominate the churches, was one of the early corruptions which afflicted the kingdom of Christ.
Dr. Coleman says
“The apostolic churches were entirely independent of each other.” But in the second century this primitive liberty and independence began to be relinquished, and merged in a confederation of the churches of a province, or country, into a larger association. “They [Councils] were appointed by merely human authority, and were regarded as being instituted neither by Christ nor by His Apostles.” Ancient Christ. Exemp., pp. 475, 476.
Dr. Mosheim further says:
“Nor does there appear in this first century any vestige of that consociation of the churches of the same province which gave rise to ecclesiastical Councils. But rather, as is manifest, it was not till the second century that the custom of holding ecclesiastical Councils first began, in Greece, and thence extended into other provinces.” Eccl. Hist. B.J., Cent. I, part 2, ch. 2, sec. 14.
Dr. Emmons, one of the fathers of New England Congregationalism, says:
“All the present disputes about Councils, mutual or ex parte, in respect to their authority, are vain and useless, because they have no divine authority at all.” The human device of giving power to Associations, Consociations, or Councils, to decide in ecclesiastical causes, has been a fruitful source of ecclesiastical injustice, tyranny and persecution.” Emmons’s Works, Vol.III., pp. 84,86.
There is, however, a sense in which the Church conference at Jerusalem may be said to have contained the germ of subsequent Councils—Councils in their better form. It is the dictate of common sense, and of Christian prudence as well, for those called to deal with grave and difficult matters, especially if such matters be new and unfamiliar, to seek advice from those supposed to be better informed, whose counsel can instruct their minds and guide their action more wisely. In a multitude of counselors, also, there may be safety. A large number of wise and pious men, viewing a question from different points, with unbiased judgments, will be more likely to reach a safe and just conclusion, than a smaller number, less experienced, who are personally interested in it. And therefore it is natural and wise to ask advice in cases of moment and of doubt, in order to be helped by the wisdom and the experience of others. This explains the philosophy of Councils, committees of reference, and Presbyteries, as used by Baptists. The fellowship of individuals, and the fraternity of churches, lead Christian men to desire concurrence in matters of local interest, and so far as may be, to secure uniformity in matters of general concern.
But uniformity would be purchased at too great a cost if the rights or the liberties of the churches should be imperiled. When usage becomes uniform, it is not difficult to have it considered as essential; and when it is conceded to be essential, it has already become authoritative. Councils may be desirable and beneficent, but they are not essential for any purpose for which their advice is usually invoked; nor are they authoritative in any opinion they may express, or in any decisions they may render. Their possible perversions should not wholly condemn them, nor their probable benefits unduly magnify them.
II. General Propositions.
The principles on which, and rules by which—according to common usage and general consent—Baptist Councils are constituted, and their action governed, may be stated in the following propositions:
1. It must be accepted as a rule without exception, that such Councils are advisory only, always and everywhere; they neither have, nor can have, any ecclesiastical authority. They bind individuals and churches so far, only, as they may choose to submit to their judgment and advice. Their province is simply counsel—what the name implies. Never, and in no sense, are they Church courts for authoritative decrees; much less are they legislative bodies for the enactment of laws for the churches.
2. Councils have no original authority for action, and, indeed, no antecedent right of existence. Their existence depends on those who call them into being, and their right to act is derived from the same source. No company of persons, not a Church, has the right to convene, organize and take action on ecclesiastical matters which have not been submitted to them.
3. A Council is composed of delegates or messengers—either laic or cleric—appointed by the churches of which they are members, at the request of those calling it. A committee of reference is composed of individuals personally asked to advise, but without any Church action as to their appointment. A Presbytery, in the Baptist sense, is a company of ministers personally invited to assist in ordination, or to advise in any Church matter.
4. Councils may be convened by churches or individuals—more commonly by churches—to consult and advise touching questions to be submitted to them. Individuals in difficulty with their churches, or persons excluded from them, may call a Council, if the Church will not, in circumstances hereafter explained.
5. But individuals in difficulty among themselves in the same Church, could not with propriety call a Council to settle their difficulties. Such difficulties would constitute a case of discipline which the Church would be under obligation to see adjusted. But the Church might feel the need of advice, and call a Council on the ground that it could not effect a settlement of the trouble without such assistance.
6. The usual and proper method for convening a Council, is by sending letters to such churches as may be selected, a majority of which should be those located in the vicinity, asking them to appoint their pastor, and one or more—usually two—brethren, to sit in consultation with them. These letters are called letters missive, and constitute the only authority for the assembling of the body, and the charter under which it must act when assembled.
7. The letters missive should be uniform, their statements identical, distinctively announcing when and where the body is to convene, and what churches and individuals are invited as members.
8. The letters missive should also distinctly state what matters they will be asked to consider, and respecting which they are to advise. It is an admitted rule, sanctioned by common consent, that a Council cannot be convened under a roving commission, to act on any subject that may chance to be presented, but must confine its deliberations to such matters as were specified in the letters by which it was convened.
9. The delegates, or messengers, who compose the Council, are in no proper sense representatives of the churches which appoint them. They cannot therefore act for their churches, to bind them by their action. A Baptist Church cannot be represented in any other body; nor can it transfer its authority or its functions to any persons either within, or external to itself, to act for it. It can send messages by messengers, but cannot delegate its power to act.
10. A Council, when duly organized, is an independent body within its own sphere of action. It cannot be coerced, dictated to, or controlled by the churches from which its members come, nor by those who called it. Its acts are the result of the judgment of a majority of its members, and have the weight and force which such opinions may command—simply that, and nothing more.
11. It is somewhat common for those calling Councils, to invite, in addition to Church messengers, certain individuals whose presence and counsels they may desire. To this custom, though it constitutes a somewhat mixed commission, there seems to be no reasonable objection. They are members by invitation, not by appointment.
12. Parties cannot properly convoke a Council to investigate or pass judgment on the case of persons with whom they hold no ecclesiastical connection—such as a member or pastor of another Church than that of which those convoking the Council are connected. But one Church may call a Council and ask advice as to their duty in respect to some other Church with which they are in fellowship.
13. The messengers, when convened, at the hour named in the call, organize by the election of a chairman and a clerk. These elections are usually on nomination; and any one may call the meeting to order and ask for a nomination. But sometimes, in very important and difficult cases, a temporary chairman and clerk are chosen, and a committee is appointed to recommend permanent officers. After this the credentials of messengers are called for, and the clerk makes an accurate list of members, and of their churches. Then the object for which the Council was called, is stated—usually by reading a copy of the letter missive. By this the body understands what it is desired to do, and what it will be lawful for it to attempt. Further explanations, the presentation of evidence, and a discussion of the subject follow, concluding with such action as the body may agree to take. The usual parliamentary rules govern in order and debate, unless different rules are adopted at the beginning of the session.
14. A Council is composed of all the persons present in response to the invitations sent out. This number of members can neither be increased nor diminished. Its composition is fixed by those who call it, and cannot be changed by its own action, nor by the authority of any other body. It cannot, therefore, admit others to membership, nor exclude those who are members by appointment.
15. But, as an exception to this rule, all deliberative bodies have the primal and inherent right to protect themselves against insult, disgrace, and such interruptions as would frustrate the object of their deliberations. Such conduct, therefore, on the part of any member during the proceedings, would make him liable to censure or expulsion.
16. If, however, any member be dissatisfied with the presence of any other member or with the proceedings of the body, he can refuse to act, and withdraw. He has no other remedy.
17. Usage has not decided that any specified number of messengers appointed shall be necessary to constitute a quorum, for doing business. Any considerable number, or even a small portion of them, usually proceed to act, especially if the case be one involving no great difficulty. If, however, the matter be important and complicated, action should not be taken without a full attendance of members. In all important cases, it would be a salutary rule, that no action should be had unless a majority of those called to constitute the Council, were present; or unless a majority of the churches invited had responded by messengers present. But so diverse are the views of those who convene Councils, as well as those who act on them, that no rule on this point, fitted to all occasions, has thus far been established.
18. A Council may adjourn from time to time, if necessary, to accomplish the purpose for which it was convened. But it cannot perpetuate a continued existence as a standing court of appeals. When its object is accomplished it expires by limitation; but a formal vote to dissolve or to adjourn, sine die, is usually passed.
19. If a Council adjourns, it must retain the same composition when it subsequently meets as at its first session. It cannot have new members added to it, except by mutual consent of the body and all parties interested in its action. Nor can it be diminished, except that the absence of some members would not vitiate its action.
20. Before the final adjournment, the minutes of the proceedings are read, corrected, and approved, and a certified copy is ordered to be given to the parties by whom it was called, as containing the results of the deliberations, and the Council’s answer to the request for advice.
21. When finally adjourned or dissolved, the Council ceases to exist, and cannot reconvene at its own option, or by the authority of its members. If convened at all, it must be by process similar to that which brought it into being at first. It would, in fact, be a new Council, though composed of the same individuals.
22. It is not proper for one Council to sit in judgment on, or review the action of, a previous Council. But a matter not satisfactorily disposed of by one may be referred to a second. Such a second should so far, only, canvass the proceedings of the first as to ascertain the facts they had before them, and the ground of their decision.
23. When a second is called to consider some matter submitted to a previous one, the second should contain, so far as practicable, all or most of the members of the previous one, with such additions, however, as will be likely to counterbalance any local or personal bias or prejudice, or any want of information or experience, which may have prevented satisfactory results in the former case.
24. In the calling of a Council no packing process should ever be resorted to, seeking to compose it of such persons only as would be likely to favor the object of those who called it. Such a course may be a device of worldly policy, but is unworthy of Christian men, who in all honesty should act on higher principles, and seek not simply the endorsement of a man or a cause, but equity and justice, truth and right. For this, and not for the furtherance of personal or of party ends, should they ask counsel of their brethren.
25. A Council may be called by a single Church, or by several churches united; by a single individual, or by several persons acting in concert. The letters missive should distinctly state by whom the call is issued, as well as the object for which it is issued.
26. Councils called to adjust and settle difficulties are usually designated as either mutual or ex parte. A mutual Council is one in which the several parties to the difficulty unite in the call and reference. An ex parte Council is called by one party to the difficulty.
27. In the calling of a mutual Council, each party uniting in the call—whether an individual, several persons, or a Church—has the selection of one-half the members; otherwise there might be a want of fairness in the composition of the body. While the parties may confer together as to the churches or individuals to be invited, yet neither has the right to object to those selected by the other, provided they be all reputable members, in good and regular standing in Baptist churches.
28. An ex parte Council should not be called until all proper efforts have been made for, and have failed to secure, a mutual Council. The reason is obvious. General harmony and agreement are desirable, and are more likely to be secured in a mutual representation, where all parties can be heard.
29. Parties not uniting in the call can have no rights or standing in the Council when convened. But as a matter of courtesy, or for the sake of obtaining all possible information, other persons who have knowledge of the case may be heard by consent of the body and those who convened it.
30. Parties calling a Council cannot be members of it, and have no vote or right of action in it, except to place before the body all the information they possess, through persons chosen by them for that purpose; otherwise they would sit as judges of their own cause.
31. An ex parte Council cannot, by its own act, transform itself into a mutual Council. Such a change can be effected only by the consent and agreement of the various parties involved in the difficulty.
32. When a mutual Council is to be called, to adjust difficulties between a Church and some of its members, the letters missive should be sent out by, and in the name of, the Church, and not of the individuals. But the fact of its being by mutual agreement of the parties should be stated in the letters.
33. A Council cannot review and pass judgment on the conduct of any other Church than that which has called it and submitted its case; nor can a Council properly be called for such a purpose. No body of men holds the right to try and pass judgment on an independent Church, except by its own request; nor review its acts of internal order and discipline. Such a body would thereby become judicial Church court; which Councils are not.
34. But either churches or individuals may call a Council to advise them what is their duty in relation to a Church deemed heretical in doctrine or irregular in practice; or for other reasons thought important. In such a case matters pertaining to that other Church would necessarily come under review, so far. and so far only, as the facts were concerned regarding which advice had been asked, and so far as might be needful to enable the Council to advise intelligently and discreetly in the case.
35. Members, if aggrieved by the attitude of their own Church, believed by them to be heretical or disorderly, having failed in efforts at adjustment, and in efforts for a mutual Council as well, before proceeding to call an ex parte Council, would do well to lay the case before some neighboring Church or churches, as a matter in which such churches have an equal interest with themselves. Churches thus appealed to could, with propriety, ask a Council to advise them as to their duty in regard to the matter, or to advise the aggrieved members as to their duty in the case. Should such churches decline, as not deeming the occasion sufficient, or not wishing to become involved in controversy, then the individuals may proceed to call one to give them advice. The call should state what efforts had already been made for the adjustment of the difficulty.
36. Councils, when convened to aid in settling difficulties, should take sufficient time to understand the case thoroughly, and then act heroically in expressing their opinions as to where the blame rests, and in giving their advice as to what should be done. Aim to be right, rather than try to please. It is usually a vain thing to attempt a compromise. As a rule, this pleases neither party. Whatever is decided, almost certainly one party, and very likely both, will be dissatisfied. Too much must not be expected from Councils; they can give advice and express opinions; beyond this they cannot vindicate the right or punish the wrong.
37. When persons, excluded, as they believe, unjustly, resolve to call a Council ex parte, they cannot be expected to ask the excluding Church to send delegates to sit in the Council. It would be contrary to a natural sense of justice for those who had prejudged the case, and decided against the plaintiff, unfairly, as he believed, to be asked to sit again on its decision. Such persons could not be regarded as unbiased or impartial judges. But the excluding Church should be asked to send some one to the Council to give any information to the body, and to present their version of the case.
38. If those who are invited to sit with councils do not approve the object of the call, and decline to act, they should at once notify those inviting them to that effect, giving their reasons for non-concurrence. Such communications should be laid before the body when convened. But it is better to respond to the call—unless the circumstances be very remarkable—and by one’s presence and influence, prevent unfortunate action, rather than permit it by their absence.
39. It is a course of questionable propriety for a Council to require the parties to a difficulty to pledge themselves at the beginning to abide by whatever decision the body may reach. This is sometimes done with the commendable purpose of putting an end to the controversy. But it seems hardly consistent with freedom of conscience to pledge agreement beforehand to a course of action at the time unknown, and contingent on future and unforeseen events. As a matter of fact, such pledges when made are seldom kept.
40. Councils for the adjustment of difficulties involving Church action should not be called, unless the need seems imperative. Churches should administer their own affairs, exercising their own prerogatives, and discharging their own responsibilities, without external aid, so far as possible. They may make some mistakes, but that is inevitable in all human affairs, and the aid of Councils will not absolutely obviate that misfortune. But against all tendency to relieve the churches of their appropriate duties, to intrude into the sphere of their just authority, or to undermine their rightful independence against all this Councils should constantly and sacredly guard.
Edward Hiscox (1814-1901) was an American Baptist pastor and theologian. He was converted to Christ in 1834 and began to preach the gospel four years later. He served as the pastor for several congregations, including the Stanton Street Baptist Church, New York (1852). He is best known for authoring the “Standard Manual for Baptist Churches” (1890) and the “New Directory for Baptist Churches” (1894).