Recently my colleague Dr. Darrell Holley sent me a link to an article in First Things by Dale Coulter entitled “Evangelical Apocalypse.” The article is primarily about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It might be easy for our smaller, Free Will Baptist denomination to think we are immune to these concerns. But we need to pay attention.
What Hath Church Polity to Do with Sexual Abuse?
I found particularly interesting Coulter’s tie-in to church polity, or church government. This is of interest to me because of the differences between typical Baptist polity as it developed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and traditional Free Will Baptist polity. Coulter points out that “local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church.”
Now before some readers get nervous, let me affirm local church autonomy as rightly considered historically by Free Will Baptists: the ultimate right of self-governance by a local congregation. This definition of autonomy—self-government—is the way Free Will Baptists have historically used the term rather than the typical way it is used: independence.
I have discussed these issues in my pamphlet, Free Will Baptists and Church Government. Free Will Baptists have typically held that every New Testament congregation is self-governing. Thus it has the absolute right to leave the conference or association of which it is a member and affiliate with another.  However, we have traditionally not viewed associational affiliation as an option for the local congregation, but as a mandate.
The Free Will Baptist Difference
That approach to church government is different from the one that developed in most American Baptist groups. (However, early non-Free Will Baptist associations like the Charleston or Philadelphia associations had a polity much like Free Will Baptists.) What is especially different about traditional Free Will Baptist church polity, which is still practiced in almost all associations today, is this: The examination, ordination, and moral and theological accountability of ministers is delegated by the local congregation to the presbytery (body of ministers) of the conference or association.
Furthermore, traditionally, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were more concerned about the discipline of local churches. They cared about what went on in those churches. Yes, the congregation could disregard the conference’s counsel (which would usually result in the conference removing the church from fellowship). Yet the conference was concerned about local churches and felt free to ask questions and give counsel to local churches.
Passing Errant Ministers from Association to Association
How does all this relate to clergy sexual abuse? Coulter goes on in the article to say, “Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.” Yet Coulter states that the problem is not just in the Southern Baptist Convention, because ministers accused of sexual abuse who are “dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. . . . These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over.”
I have heard many ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church state something similar: Errant ministers often move from one conference to another within the denomination without repercussions. It is amazing to me how that, historically, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were much more vigilant about checking out ministers who applied for ministerial credentials than we are today. This is despite the fact that trains, horses, and wagons were the only transportation rather than planes and automobiles. And the Pony Express, rather than telephone, email, and Facebook, were the only means of communication.
The Means at Our Disposal
We have tremendous means at our disposal today for keeping morally and theologically errant ministers from seamlessly moving from one area to another. What’s more, we have a built-in polity that is part of our tradition—still “on the books” in our denominational documents—that can, if consistently utilized, keep us from having the problem Coulter describes.
What happened traditionally when an errant minister attempted to transfer from one Free Will Baptist association to another? The presbytery or ordaining council would carefully check out his credentials. They would be proactive about it, even if the church he was ministering in did not request it. They knew that if they waited too long, they would lose the church. What if the minister refused to submit to the authority of the conference? The conference would state publicly that it did not recognize the minister as a Free Will Baptist minister. 
This approach would help us today. It would help us not only to deal with ministers whose doctrine is not in keeping with that of the Free Will Baptist Church, but it would also aid us in dealing with sexual predators and other charlatans or criminals. Like all biblical church discipline, it would make a statement to the world that the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to tolerate sexual abuse or any other deviation from Scriptural norms. 
Helping Local Congregations
Another positive mark of a stronger associational polity is that because congregations are more involved in each other’s lives, they know what is going on in each other’s congregations. So if there is a problem in a local church that needs the help of the other churches in the conference, the other churches typically will know about it. This type of polity also provides more organic resources to help local congregations’ lay search committees. With more help and counsel, lay committees are less apt to recommend a minister who falls short of the conference’s ethical and doctrinal standards.
Our wannabeism when it comes to the Independent Baptist movement (on the right) and the non-denominational megachurch movement (on the left) is coming home to roost.  These movements have eroded our commitment to our historic associationalism. This erosion has left us as isolated churches without the resources we need to maintain our theological commitments and the moral leadership of our ordained clergy.
Our traditional Free Will Baptist polity will help us guard against the sort of thing that has been happening with clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, it will help us guard against morally and theologically errant ministers taking churches out of our denomination. Again, because we believe in the self-government of local congregations, nothing we do can ultimately keep a congregation from leaving if it is committed to that decision. Yet our polity will help.
Obviously, a stronger church polity is not in itself a foolproof method for discouraging and dealing with these problems. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has an extremely strong church government, but it has not done so. However, I believe there is a powerful argument that the balanced polity we have guards against the sorts of concentrated church hierarchy that has swept clergy sexual abuse under the rug. Our biblical church polity has just the right balance. This balance allows it to avoid the problems of the power of a church hierarchy vested in a few people, on one hand, and the lack of accountability that plagues the independent-church models on the other hand.
Renewing our Church by Retrieving the Associational Principle
What we must do is to recommit ourselves to the biblical church polity that is already at our disposal. This will mean renewing our churches and conferences through retrieving our tradition of biblical Free Will Baptist church polity. It will mean not yielding to the temptation to mimic the anti-associationalism and anti-denominationalism of the Independent Baptist and non-denominational megachurch movements. Those movements seem to have numerically larger and more successful congregations, and sometimes we are sorely tempted to sell our souls for numerical success. But recovering our internal resources will help us not to give in to that temptation.
I am witnessing the growth of a generation of younger ministers who are solid, conservative Free Will Baptists. These ministers believe in our traditional associational principle and are ready to bring renewal and life and biblical accountability back to our conferences and associations.
I pray that we middle-aged and older Free Will Baptists will not discourage them from doing that. If they succeed, it will strengthen our churches and denomination and our commitment to biblical truth. It will help keep our denomination and its distinctive theological witness from dying. It will also tell the world that we are not willing to tolerate sexual abuse and other immoral conduct that displeases our holy God and brings disgrace on the church and the gospel it proclaims.
Editorial Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Wednesday morning that was different, though only slightly, from the current version. This was done accidently by a site administrator. Our apologies to our readers.
 Today, all local gatherings of Free Will Baptist churches are referred to as conferences or associations. So I am using these terms interchangeably. These have been the majority terms in our tradition for the past two hundred years. Yet historically they were used alongside other, less-used synonyms such as union meeting, connection, general assembly, general council, and district.
 This essay is not meant to suggest that Free Will Baptist polity is the only cure for the problems discussed herein, but an important part of a larger solution.
 The thrust of this paper is not to absolve lay pastoral search committees at local churches of the responsibility to check references and do proper checks on pastoral candidates’ backgrounds but rather to provide aid to local congregations without a pastor, many of whom unfortunately do not engage in extensive research on pastoral candidates.
 Dictionary.com defines a “wannabe” as “a person who tries to be like someone else or to fit in with a particular group of people.”