This is only a summary, read my review and analysis here.
“What is the Biblical paradigm for inter-church fellowship?” “Does independence and autonomy exclude Baptist churches from association of any kind?” “Is casual fellowship or informal association between churches sufficient to fulfill the Biblical requirements for churches one to another?” Five Reformed Baptist pastors, one of them a widely recognized scholar of the 17th century, tackle these questions and more in “Denominations or Associations?” examining both Biblical and historical example, comparing their combined portrait with our own status quo.
In chapter 1: Independency and Interdependency, Mr. David Kingdom assesses the broader Reformed landscape and notes that though the doctrines of the historic Calvinistic Baptists, namely, their soteriology, have been recovered, it has not been coupled with their ecclesiology this imbalance leading to the preservation of radical independence in modern Reformed Baptist churches at large, that is, anti-associationalism.
Our historical baptist forefathers did not consider formal association between churches to be optional. Membership in an association was as vital to a church’s health as church membership is to an individual. “It flows from and is an expression of our union with Christ, the head of the Church.” Pastor Kingdom writes. (Pg. 15) Since the dawn of voluntary, non-obligatory associationalism in the 19th century the modern church has become (1 bedeviled by individualism (2 fearful of the power of denominationalism and (3 the victims of ‘reaction theology’
The modern church fears denominations–and not without good reason. The abuses of national, hierarchical churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England are numerous, far-reaching and long-lasting. But associations of the 17th century were neither national in their presence nor authoritarian in their structure. Their purpose was to resolve disputes, promote truth and unity and evaluate where financial or spiritual aid was needed.
In Chapter 2: A Biblical Basis for Associations of Churches Mr. Earl Blackburn walks through numerous passages of scripture than demonstrate communication and cooperation between churches such as when the epistles were being circulated, that presupposed an existing association between the churches–how else could these things be accomplished?
“Isolationism”, he writes, “is a dangerous thing. it breeds an elitist mentality, a hyper-censorious spirit toward other confessional churches, a stunting of spiritual growth among its members, a negative and pessimistic attitude, and a distorted view of the kingdom of Christ. Therefore, each church, under its Spirit-directed elders, should earnestly seek out and formally join an association of churches of like faith and practice.” (Pg. 40)
In chapters 3 and 4: “A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Associations of Churches” and “Reformed Baptist Associations: Primitivism, Scripture and the Confession of Faith” Dr. James Renihan demonstrates from numerous historical documents the wide-spread embrace of associations by our Reformed Baptist forefathers, focusing especially on their understanding of the word “holding communion”, arguing from other contemporary history documents that the phrase signaled more than casual fellowship and yet not an episcopacy.
“Just as no man is an island, so also no church is an island.” Dr. Renihan writes, (pg. 94).
Dr. Renihan draws the comparison between informal associations that form of themselves and the kind of intentional, formalized associations our Baptist forefathers participated in. Informal associations are like a bible study group. “When trouble comes into its midst, there is no bond, and the potential for disintegration is all the greater. A knot that is not tight can easily be untied.” (Pg. 110)
“From my perspective”, Dr. Renihan concludes, “the real question is not, ‘Should we have associations?’ Because whether formal or informal, they already exist. The question is simple, what kind of associations shall we have?'” (Pg. 113)
“If you are looking for a proof-text as the warrant for associations, I admit that you will not find one. But if we collate and apply the principles of scripture and our Confession, as we do many other legitimate things, we see that there is more than sufficient warrant in the life of the New Testament churches to authorize our actions.” (Pg. 115)
Dr. Renihan makes several key arguments in his essays and brings the necessary scholarly credentials and historical orthodoxy but as a layperson, I found his 73 pages of proof-texts tedious and overwhelming. Frankly, I was convinced of his points on far less evidence.
In chapter 5: “Inter-church Unity: Presbyterianism, Episcopacy or Associationalism?” Pastor Errol Hulse (1 demonstrates that Christian unity is a major constraining fact in inter-church relationships (2 compares the three systems of church government: Episcopacy, Presbyterianism and Associationalism and (3 comments upon the practical reasons why churches should work together in association
Inter-church unity is based firstly in the unity of the Holy Trinity. As God is one, so is the body of Christ one. Christ does not have “bodies”; He has one body, though this one universal, body is visibly expressed by the existence of numerous local churches.
Like the state of Israel during the era of the judges, “it is dangerous for any church to be isolated.” (Pg. 130) Though Baptists reject the Episcopal and Presbyterian models of church government, they must not ignore the Biblical wisdom of associationalism. Mr. Hulse quotes Reformation Today’s outline of the reasons for association as follows:
(1 to show visible unity to the world and churches (Jn. 17:20-22)
(2 to gain greater knowledge, communion, and love with sister churches
(3 to afford counsel and advice in difficult cases
(4 to preserve uniformity of faith and practice within the confines of our confession of faith; especially in dealing with doctrinal and practical questions
(5 to detect and deal with heresies, and in so doing maintain harmony and peace in the churches (1 Cor. 14:33
(6 to curb licentiousness in wanton abuse of church power
(7 to co-operate in the spreading of the gospel both at home and on foreign soil
(8 to provide a place for the education of our children and of men called to the ministry
(9 to supply the pulpits of sister churches in the event that one is without a teaching/ruling elder or pastor
(10 to advance in every way possible the interest of Christ’s saving religion and strengthen and draw closer the bonds of union and fellowship.
The final chapter, chapter 6: “Conflict Resolution” was written by Pastor Dykstra and was in my opinion, the clearest, most concise, beneficial and delightful to read of all the essays. I give his essay Five Stars.
He opens his essay by saying, “Every age of the church has been marked by conflict of one sort or another. Even churches that had apostles as office bearers were not immune to the discouraging reality of strife among the brethren…to think that any church can go long without conflict of one kind or another is to engage in unrealistic idealism.” (Pg. 137)
The writers of our 1689 London Baptist Confession “placed no premium on originality” (pg. 138) but “rather valued unity and well tried paths of doctrine.” They took great pains to ensure their identification with the historic, orthodox doctrines of the church throughout the ages.
When it comes to the issue of conflict resolution, described in 26:15 of the confession, they had three clear concerns:
in the first place, our forefathers were concerned about limiting the authority of the assembly that is envisioned in 26:15
Our forefathers were concerned with preventing problems through retaining the right of assembled messengers to publish their conclusions or advice
Our forefathers were concerned that the doctrine of the local church – as autonomous and independent – would not lead to a neglect of cooperative endeavors.
Pastor Dykstra then walks through the biblical basis for the confession’s paragraph on conflict. “Sometimes a command isn’t found, but Apostolic example is.” (147), then quotes Louis Berkhof as saying: “…in giving man his Word, [God] was not only perfectly aware of all that was said! but also of all that this implied…therefore, not only the express statements of Scripture but its implications as well must be regarded as the Word of God.”
“A Biblical example is sufficient warrant”, Pastor Dykstra concludes then makes a brilliant argument from the lesser to the greater (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10). “If there can be cooperative, collective work in solving problems that are temporary and acute, such as the conditions brought on by a famine, then why should we think that there can not also be cooperative work for that which is more or less a chronic and permanent need?” (Pg. 150)
Neither did our forefathers believe that the decisions of an individual church or eldership were necessarily the end of a particular issue.
“When people are evaluating our churches, a legitimate question to ask is: “Is this church accountable to other churches in its actions?” (Pg. 154)
Furthermore, “knowledge and communication are pre-requisites to love and edification, while lack of knowledge, breeds suspicion and division…When there is a lack of communion between true churches, knowledge as to what the other believes or does is based on hearsay. This leads to incomplete or fallacious knowledge. This in turn leads to suspicion, forming of wrong conclusions, a party spirit, the drawing of boundaries as to who is a “friend” or not, and this feeds back through the cycle.” (pg. 161-162)
Association provides protection and recourse for churches, elders and individuals alike, this is how God designed inter-church fellowship to be, this is how our Baptist forefathers prescribed it and this is how our Baptist forefathers practiced it. To God be the glory, amen.