Issues of church government, especially once you go beyond the confines of the local church, can be quite dicey. The historical forms have ended up in three broad categories—Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. As Reformed Baptists, we fall in the latter category though we would prefer to call ourselves Independents rather than Congregationalists. Sadly, it has been observed that although Baptists ought to be Independent (or Congregational), as they have come into union with other congregations, they have tended towards being Presbyterian or even Episcopalian in various degrees. This has caused Reformed Baptists to be wary of any form of inter-church structures. However, this carefulness has often tended to deny us cooperation in bigger ventures than can normally be handled by a single congregation—even with the help of other sister churches. This has not been the case with us in Zambia.
It has now been slightly over a quarter of a century since the Reformed Baptist movement became fairly visible in this country. Since then, we have come up with a number of inter-church projects that are enabling us to pour our resources into common ventures with measurable success. We run a building trust fund, a few Bible colleges and annual conferences and are now starting a university and a radio station. Thus far, we have not even begun to slide into any form of denominational structure. We still function at purely an associational level, cooperating in jointly owned ventures for the sake of the furtherance of the gospel. How have we managed to do this?
The Zambian situation
At a human level what has helped to keep the Zambian Reformed Baptist movement together without any denominational structures is that those pastors who made up the first leaders of the movement are still around and are still the best of friends—Choolwe Mwetwa, Ronald Kalifungwa and Conrad Mbewe. Although we do not form any “synod”, we continue to provide a sense of unity for the movement.
We have also learnt to distinguish between primary and secondary issues. There are many secondary issues where we do not see eye to eye, but we have deliberately kept them secondary. They do not divide us. They are in the realm of the adiaphora.
We have never been denominational men so we are not reacting against anything. Thus we focus on cooperation rather than being overly careful lest we fall into a denominational structure. We have also never had a bad experience in inter-church relations. It is often the bad experiences in the past that make people fail to enjoy the privileges of the moment. We do not impose pressure on one another. We respect one another.
Lastly, here in Zambia, we are in a communal environment that lends itself to cooperation between equals as a way of life, even where there is no authoritative structure. It is the very air we breathe in the community in which we live. Hence, bringing this atmosphere into the ecclesiastical realm tends to flow naturally.
Usually, the fear that many people have is the starting of extra bodies outside the local church. Are these bodies biblical? Since Christ only left the church on earth, should we not refuse to have anything outside the local church? The simplest answer to this objection, and indeed to most of the other objections below, is to say that as long as we do not see anything unbiblical about Sola 5, then we should not see anything unbiblical with the structures that we come up with outside our individual local churches. Our inter-church elders meetings function the way that the Sola 5 steering committee meetings function. They are purely a coordinating body. All authority still resides within the local churches.
Another question that is often asked is: Who owns the projects? The assumption here is that once the ownership of a project is external to one local church’s perimeter, then we have compromised on local church autonomy. But does common ownership inevitably mean loss of autonomy? We have done this for so many years, and none of our churches has lost autonomy. The working teams function more like diaconal teams with specific terms of reference. If they ever came up with resolutions that compromise autonomy and independency, those resolutions would be shot down.
So, where is the difference between, say, the Baptist Union of South Africa (BUSA) and what we are doing here in Zambia? BUSA ordains, disciplines, etc., and even designs programmes for churches. In terms of the three arms of government, they have been given legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The bodies that we have come up with do not have any such powers. They are like task forces with very clear terms of reference from the churches. Any suggestions they come up with are taken back to the churches for approval. Herein lies the difference.
One final objection is this: You guys may know what you are doing now, but will future leaders understand this? Will they not turn this into denominational structures? Will your projects not take on a life of their own in due season, independent of the churches? The answer is the same answer that one can give about Sola 5. What guarantee do we have that it will not become a denomination? It depends on how good a teaching ministry we exercise and the church polity we continue to teach. Besides, we must do our best today and leave the future in God’s hands.
We have a nation and an entire continent to bring to the foot of the cross through the propagation of biblical Christianity, and it will necessitate big projects. Too much ground has been lost to the Charismatic movement and the Liberals. If we continue to limit ourselves to small local church projects, we will not have the impact that we need to have. Together we can do so much more!
By Ronald Kalifungwa and Conrad Mbewe