Practical theology seeks to integrate what have, at times, been perceived to be the separate disciplines of pastoral theology, scriptural studies and systematic theology. This thesis, specifically as a project in practical theology, seeks to bring the resources of these three disciplines to bear upon the nature of community as it is and could be practised within Australian Baptist churches.
This work begins with a descriptive account in cultural and psychosocial terms of the current status of such communities by exploring the Australian cultural context and issues associated with the concept of the Psychological Sense of Community. This exploration indicates that individualism has had a significant and pervasive influence on Australian Baptist churches. This is exemplified by a reliance on a demotic discourse of destructured relationality, ambivalence regarding community boundaries, the decline of influence within such communities, and the loss of shared narratives, particularly concerning the ecclesial nature and practices of those churches. In response to the issues raised by this descriptive theology, both Scripture and Baptist ecclesiology are engaged as the basis for a historical theology concerning church community.
Scripture, as the primary source for Baptist theology, is firstly explored in seeking out the nature of community amongst God’s people. An adaptation of the work of Paul Hanson is used to demonstrate that such community occurs within the context of covenant, and is characterised by worship of God, by the nature of the lives lived together in such communities, and by a commitment to sharing God’s blessing with God’s world. This three dimensional description of community, it is argued, points to a canonical narrative of community as a joint and mutual covenantal priesthood. This narrative is then explored within the context of early Baptist ecclesiology. The wider scriptural concept of covenant was understood by early Baptists to have a particular application within Baptist churches, whereby members made a two-fold commitment to God and to one another. Within this context, the priesthood of believers was practised in both joint and mutual terms. However, from the eighteenth century on, a range of pressures associated with the Enlightenment began to impinge upon such understandings and practices. Under these pressures (primarily of individualism, but also including rationalism, experientialism, pragmatism and evangelicalism), Baptist churches came to understand themselves solely as voluntary associations, within which each believer possessed soul competency, enabling them to stand alone before God. On this basis, worship became an individual act, individual rights of autonomous persons were favoured over the interdependence of community, and evangelism came to be understood in terms of saving souls for their own individual relationship with Christ.
The rise of individualism and the decline of community represented by these developments are shown to provide the context for the issues raised in the descriptive theology of this thesis. The resources of both Scripture and early Baptist ecclesiology are then brought to bear in response to these issues in a systematic practical theology. Covenant with God as the context for church community is reprioritised alongside voluntary association, and priesthood is reinterpreted as a joint and mutual set of practices within this context. On this basis, the worshipping community finds itself primarily grounded in Godself, alongside its practice of human forms of sociality, and from this foundation offers its joint worship to God. The community’s priesthood also comes to expression in the quality of the mutual relationships between those within it; exercising justice, praying for one another and bearing one another’s burdens. Together the church community also seeks to share God’s blessing with God’s world; jointly, both representing God to the world, and the world to God. This priestly work culminates in the sacramental practices and narration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In addressing the three dimensions of church community as joint and mutual covenantal priesthood, in worship, life together and sharing God’s blessing, individualism in general, and as specifically exemplified in the descriptive theology, is addressed and practical responses developed.
In this manner, this thesis provides a coherent and comprehensive narrative of community for Australian Baptist churches. In doing so, it makes a particular contribution to Baptist scholarship by bringing three sources of data into conversation (a psychosocial analysis of the current situation amongst Australian Baptist churches, a canonical narrative of community from Scripture, and the resources of Baptist church history). The narrative of joint and mutual covenantal priesthood also integrates three central dimensions of church community life (worship, life together, and mission) which have often been set in tension against one another, and provides a theocentric basis within the context of priestly community for Baptist sacramentalism.