The Baptist Beacon
Like Faith and Order
by Michael T. Adamson
We speak of sister churches, those who are as we are, identifying them as "sister churches of like faith and order." We do this for the purposes of fellowship, transfer of letters, recognition of preaching brethren, association gatherings, and numerous other church related services and activities. I had never given this statement serious thought until recently; however, I now find I cannot sufficiently quantify it, nor can I definitively defend it.
I have taken this common place phrase for granted, honestly believing I completely understood all the implications it so casually implies. It is not the portion "like faith" now causing my confusion. "Like faith," as a stand-alone qualifier, is very clear. However, the qualification for a sister church is not singular; it is plural. We specifically say: "like faith and order." It is this portion that is confusing to me and the more I attempt to qualify it, the more complicated the issue becomes.
Some may claim I am making something out of nothing and I cannot discount the possibility that is the case. Likewise, others may fear by qualifying the statement there is a danger of disrupting the harmony we enjoy with sister churches. Yet, I am troubled by the indistinct nature of the qualification [like] order and the difficulty of assigning a single definition to it. Our application of the phrase requires it; however, if a single definition for [like] order exists, it escapes my feeble attempts to discover it.
The word "order" has many definitions depending on its application. If you search the Scriptures, you find it means a command in some verses, a sequence of occurrences in other places, and in still other verses, an arrangement of items or events. In other applications we find the word "order" means a pattern or a law. (There are other synonyms for the word order, but these four appear to represent the Bible's usage of the word, without violating the context where it is used.)
The question in the essay is easily understood, assuming you accept these synonyms as definitions. Which one, or two, should we apply to adequately convey what we mean by [like] order? Perhaps we should use three, all four, or maybe we should not use any of them.
If we look at the variety of practices currently employed by sister churches, we are likely to find similarities among churches, but not identical matches. Each church has a style of worship and a logical direction they follow, providing a comfortable sequence in their worship service and business meeting. This "order" is likely adapted from the pattern of worship established by the churches where the members first originated, although that is not always true. The pattern may evolve over time, as the influence of new members are felt and as additional needs and wishes are identified, but it seldom strays dramatically from what was originally established. Consequently, the pattern is predominantly self-perpetuating within specific congregations.
Other similarities are found among churches in a specific geographical region that differ from churches in another area. Some of these practices are less obvious to the occasional visitor, but are distinguishable in more indirect ways. Examples might include the practices followed regarding church attendance requirements, the factors used to establish whether a church meets full or half time, or the frequency of the Lord's Supper observance. However, these traits and (Continue on page 4)
requirements more appropriately belong to a church's right and freedom of self-governance and cannot be readily assigned as characteristics of [like] order. Nevertheless, it would not be surprising to find these kinds of regional differences are at the root of the expression, [like] order. There have been numerous incidents of heated debates and bruised feeling throughout history, over issues that, although worthy of discussion, have never represented differences meriting a test of fellowship. Regardless of the similarities we find in practices between
churches, or the obvious differences in practice that are notable between churches, our initial investigative focus is to determine whether we share a common thread running through us, identified by the adherence and promotion of the same doctrine. If that criterion is met, differences in practices are usually tolerated. It is only when doctrine is compromised that the practices of a particular church are likely to be called into question. However, when this happens, the question is really whether the church is still of like faith. Again, the [like] order portion is allusive.
There is one doctrine we hold, possibly fitting the [like] order category. The synonym for the word order in this practice is most appropriately that of a "law" and the doctrinal criterion surrounds our refusal to accept alien immersion. Unfortunately, although I agree with our doctrine, believing it sound in meaning and true to the scriptural authority granted to the church, I must submit it is only addressed by interpretation of scriptural intent, rather than by specific scriptures. Even so, it appears this criterion might rest more appropriately within the section for defining a gospel church, found in Article XIII of our Articles of Faith, than it does as a possible requirement of [like] order.
The only biblical reference I can assign as a possible foundation for our phrase is found in Phillipians 2:2. "One mind" and "one accord" are used separately in other verses, but in this verse the Apostle Paul uses them together in his letter of encouragement to the church at Phillipi. Certainly the meaning of "one mind" could be equally interpreted to our wording of like faith. Could it be that the word "accord" used in this scripture corresponds to our word order? In this verse the word "accord" is used in a manner suggesting peace or harmony. By interpolating "mind" for faith and "harmony" for order, our phrase reads, "...sister church of like mind and harmony."
This interpretation satisfies many difficulties that might otherwise surface through a literal interpretation of the phrase. It preserves our adherence to the same doctrine and implies the sister church being referenced promotes the faith in unity among her members and with her sister churches. As a possible rendition, this is an interesting one; although, there could be others just as viable.
I have asked several preaching brethren what [like] order means and have received several answers of what it may mean and what it means to them, but nothing defining what it does mean. But realistically, private interpretations are dangerous without the original meaning, however honorable our intentions are. It is from this quandary the necessity surfaces to define the phrase using its original usage or, lacking that, through a consensus of interpretation among our churches. This should not be regarded as insignificant, Baptist trivia. We need to know what we say, not to be accountable, but because we are accountable.
Somewhere, in the chronicle or our Baptist history, someone coined the phrase "of like faith and order." Perhaps it meant something totally different for the people of the time, or was used to distinguish Baptist congregations who "wore the same name," but practiced differently. It may have dealt with more subtle differences, or may have simply been used to emphasize the like faith portion of the phrase. Whatever it meant, the specific definition appears to be lost, at least .... momentarily.