Thursday, September 16, 2010

How and when should a church particularize?

Image:  A gathering of the Bethlehem Baptist Church of Crossville, Tennessee which organized on the second Saturday night of August 1872 with sixteen members.

How and when should a church particularize?

By Jeffrey T. Riddle

Christ Reformed Baptist Church

When a group of people come together for the purpose of planting a new church, what process should they follow in order to particularize or officially constitute as a new, distinct, visible congregation?

Here are some guidelines drawn from three distinct Baptist sources, reflecting three different time periods and cultures: (1) James H. Renihan’s study of the constituting of local churches among early English Particular Baptists (c. 1675-1705); (2) Edward T. Hiscox’s influential church manual for Baptist churches in America from 1859; and (3) Malaysian Reformed Baptist Pastor Poh Boon Sing’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1995).

I. Early English Particular Baptists (1675-1705):

James H. Renihan discusses this topic in his study of ecclesiology among early English Particular Baptists (see his book Edification and Beauty [Paternoster, 2008], pp. 48-52).

Renihan notes that there were two camps among these early Calvinistic Baptists. First, there were those who placed emphasis on the necessity of a church covenant. This view was held by John Spilsbery and Benjamin Keach. Others, like Hanserd Knollys, held that such a covenant was not necessary for the forming of a church.

As for the process to be followed in constituting as a church, Renihan makes reference to a detailed description offered by Knollys. According to Knollys, on a solemn day of prayer and fasting, an able minister along with other elders and brethren from particular churches should gather with the new group that desires to become a church. After the minister preaches on the nature of the church and the group expresses agreement to form a congregation, Knollys suggests,

The same Minister ought to declare them to be a Church of Saints, and the Ministers and Brethren of other Churches also present, ought to own and acknowledge them to be a Sister-Church, by giving them the Right hand of Fellowship; and so to commend them by prayer unto God (p. 50).

Renihan makes clear, however, that the constituting of the church was not dependent on the presence or participation of these guests. “The act of constituting the church depends on the engagements made by the founding members…. The presence of visiting ministers was for assistance” (p. 50).

Renihan also describes the February 9, 1693 constitution of the Maze Pond Church in London which came about as the result of a division from Keach’s Horselydown Church: “On a special day of prayer and fasting, and assisted by several elders and observers from other churches, they adopted a covenant as the formal means of constituting themselves into a church” (pp. 51-52). The nineteen members (six men and thirteen women) then signed the membership covenant, and this became a tradition for subsequent new members in the church.

2. Hiscox’s Principles and Practices (1859):

Edward T. Hiscox’s Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Kregel reprint) was first printed in 1859 and played an influential role in guiding Baptist church practice in America in the nineteenth century.

In his discussion of churches constituting (pp. 52-58), Hiscox states, “Churches are constituted by voluntary covenant on the part of those who wish to become members” (p. 52).

The process, he says, is “simple” (p. 52). The necessity, practicality, and organization is to be decided by those who will constitute the church. The church may be made up of those who are already believers and who belong to some other church or churches and of new converts. After “mature deliberation” the group should appoint a committee to form a Church Covenant and Articles of Faith to be considered by the body. Before constituting the participants who have been members of other churches should seek letters from their former churches. Those who “have for any reason lost their membership without special fault of their own, who are living consistently Christian lives, and are acceptable to the others” may be admitted as constituent members (p. 53-54). He adds, “So can others who have been baptized on profession of their faith in Christ, for the purpose of so uniting in the formation” (p. 54).

The “Constituting act” would come, preferably, by unanimous vote, after the body rises and a resolution is read like the following:

Resolved, That guided as we believe by the Holy Spirit, and relying on the blessing of God, we do, here and now, by this act, constitute ourselves a Church of Jesus Christ to perform His service, and to be governed by His will, as revealed in the New Testament. And to this end we do hereby adopt and agree to the following Covenant and Articles of Faith” (p. 54).

The Covenant is then read with agreement expressed “by each one raising his right hand,” and prayer is offered (p. 54). Hiscox concludes, “Such an act makes such a company of disciples, ipso facto, a Church of Christ with all the rights, powers, and privileges of any New Testament Church” (p. 54). He suggests that officers can be selected later as long as a clerk is designated to record the church’s decisions. Hiscox does not suggest the adoption of Constitutions, since “they are never necessary, and often more trouble than help” (p. 55).

The next event that Hiscox suggests after the church’s constitution is its recognition (see pp. 56-58). He states, “It is customary for a new Church to call a Council to recognize it. Occasionally, this precautionary act takes place at the time of the constitution of the body. More frequently at a subsequent period” (p. 56). It is an “optional” and “a prudential measure,” but “it is in no sense essential” (p. 56).

The Council would examine the church’s founding documents and “the apparent need of a Church in that particular field” (p. 57). If approved, “it is customary to hold some public religious service appropriate to the occasion, calculated to give them encouragement in their enterprise, and assure them of the fellowship and sympathy of sister churches” (p. 57). This service would include a sermon, a charge, and the hand of fellowship.

3. Poh Boon Sing’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1995):

We will examine one final source from the modern era and from outside the Western world. Poh Boon Sing founded the first Reformed Baptist church in Malaysia in 1983. He is the pastor of Damansara Reformed Baptist Church in Kuala Lampur, and his views on ecclesiology are presented in the book, The Keys of the Kingdom: A Study on the Biblical Form of Church Government (Good News Enterprise, 1995).

Poh contends that, “A church, when first founded, would need to make an explicit covenant” (p. 275). Those involved would also agree upon “a constitution, a confession of faith, and possibly even a statement of faith” (p. 276).

Poh then describes the constitution service:

At a prearranged time, the group gathers together and conducts an orderly service of worship, at which everyone would raise his right hand above the shoulder and read the covenant aloud together with the others. Then they affix their signatures to a copy of the covenant, which is usually attached to the membership book (p. 276).

What are the minimum number of members needed to constitute? John Gill suggested a minimum of ten based on Matthew 18:15-18 (offending and offended parties; two witnesses; and at least six to hear). John Cotton suggested a minimum of seven based on the same passage (offending and offended parties; two witnesses; four church officers [pastor, teacher, elder, deacon]). Poh concludes that we need not be too scrupulous: “The basic principle is that it should not be too small such that a group cannot function as a visible church. The ideal would be to have a minimum of ten wage-earning members so that together, they may support a fulltime pastor” (p. 278). Better to go ahead and constitute, even if small, and a supporting church can be found to offer pastoral oversight and financial help.

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